The Road Bare and White

I’ve been meaning to write a post or two about Clearwater Dawn, the experience of e-publishing one’s first book, looking at CreateSpace for a print version in the fall, blah, blah. However, since the book landed a couple of weeks back, i’ve already spent a fair bit of time writing about Clearwater Dawn while putting together the promo material and getting review copies out and all the other stuff that is the lot of the harried indie publisher. And in thinking about what i want to say about the experience of writing Clearwater Dawn and the ideas behind it, i realize that i’d rather talk instead about a different book. A book that, in fact, doesn’t exist but should. A book that you and i can both do our part to bring to life.

I have long been (and shall always be, i suspect) a person who bitches that way too much fantasy fiction falls short of where it should be in terms of literature. Everyone is (or should be) familiar with what’s now known as Sturgeon’s Law — Ninety percent of science fiction is crap; but then again, ninety percent of everything is crap. However, what concerns me more is the larger part of the remaining ten percent in fantasy and speculative fiction that avoids being crap, but at the same time, hovers too comfortably at that 90th percentile with no inclination to push forward and up.

Fantasy and speculative fiction can be anything. Fantasy and speculative fiction can be all things. And so it seems an easy intellectual stretch to embrace the idea that F&SF can be literature. However, because F&SF can be anything, can be all things, such fiction too often seems to fall back on the sense of wonder that is its stock in trade, at the expense of what William Faulkner famously called the human heart in conflict with itself — the experiential core of what it is that defines literature and story.

Here’s a quick exercise that might prove enlightening (or at least amusing). Read the following introduction (600 words or so) from a fantasy novel and see if and how it grabs you. This is from a well-known book, but i suspect that a lot of people aren’t familiar with it. If you are, please read it anyway. Then check back at the end for a bit of discussion.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Knights on horse went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the king’s army marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the foot soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes of spellfire. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.

Sometimes in the dark we heard the foot soldiers marching under the window and great ballistae rumbling past pulled by trumpeting aurochs. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with barrels of alchemists’ fire on each side of their pack-saddles and grey wains that carried men, and other wains with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic. There were trebuchets too that passed in the day drawn by mastodons, the long arms covered with green branches and green leafy branches and vines laid over the great beasts. To the north we could look across a valley and see a forest of chestnut trees and behind it another mountain on this side of the river. There was fighting for that mountain too, but it was not successful, and in the fall when the rains came the leaves all fell from the chestnut trees and the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with the autumn. There were mists over the river and clouds on the mountain and the aurochs churned mud on the road and the troops were muddy and wet in their cloaks; their swords and bows were wet and under their cloaks the two leather quivers on the front of the belts, grey leather cases heavy with the sheaths of clutches of thin, long broadhead arrows, bulged forward under the cloaks so that the men, passing on the road, marched as though they were six months gone with child.

There were small grey chariots that passed going very fast; usually there was a captain at the guard with the drover and marshals and ensigns in the back. They splashed more mud than the greatest wains even and if one of the ensigns in the back was very small and sitting between two marshals, he himself so small that you could not see his face but only the top of his helm and his narrow back, and if the chariot went especially fast it was probably the duke. He lived in Udine and came out in this way nearly every day to see how things were going, and things went very badly.

At the start of the winter came the permanent rain and with the rain came the grey plague. But it was checked by the healers and in the end only seven thousand died of it in the king’s army.

If you did, in fact, recognize the above passage, you presumably did so by recognizing that it’s not from a fantasy novel at all. It’s the first chapter of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, considered one of the finest realist novels of the 20th century. In order to turn it into a faux-fantasy snippet, i added/changed a grand total of sixty-three words. That’s all. Sixty-three words are what separate the Italian front in 1916 from Westeros or Andor or Rhovanion or Faerûn or any other completely mythical realm of the imagination.

Now, i’m not saying that Farewell to Arms would have been better as a fantasy novel than it is in its original form. But i think this bit of fakery makes a damn fine opening for a hypothetical fantasy novel — one that subtly and slowly begins to shape the world of the story even as it creates a tension and a rhythm with the language that threads through the imagery and our nascent understanding of the first-person narrator like a slowly tightening noose.

And here’s my problem. I think there are precious few fantasy and speculative fiction authors willing to open a novel with that passage — even though the vast majority of them are capable of it. The best fantasy writers can go toe to toe with Hemingway in terms of the richness of their description, the focus of their language, the subtle tension they weave into every line. However, most of them don’t. Most of them pull back. Most of them — even the best of them, and even though they don’t do it all the time — fall back on tropes and trickery because the established conventions of fantasy and speculative fiction let them do so.

And that’s a crime in my view, because a genre that can be anything should be everything.

When I was younger, i read a lot of fantasy and speculative fiction. As is the case for many adolescent males of my generation, fantasy and SF became my chosen canon as a reader because the sense of wonder and possibility that i felt was seriously lacking in the real world could be found in Tolkien and Ellison and Niven and Dick and Herbert in spades. (That’s a failing on my part, obviously. There was plenty of wonder and possibility in the real world and its literature at the time; i just wasn’t in a place psychologically or spiritually where i could seek it out, but that’s another story.) But all the time i read fantasy and SF, whenever i ran into one of those annoying people who would dismiss the genres (or all genre writing) with abject contempt, i would respond “Some people read fantasy and speculative fiction instead of literature; i read it as literature.”

It was true then. It’s still true now. But now more so than then, every once in a while, i can feel the sense of something falling short. Too much of the time, i can feel the Hemingway missing.

My still-favorite books of both fantasy and SF — the books that stand the test of time, the books that resonate with social and cultural meaning alongside the sense of wonder that is the genres’ greatest gift — are as good as anything ever produced under the rubric of mainstream literary fiction. I read fantasy and speculative fiction as literature. And drawing from the strength of what i’ve read, drawing from the intellectual and emotional foundations they laid out for me long ago, my goal as a writer is to write fantasy and speculative fiction as literature.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.


Unleash Your Inner Aristotle

Part 1 of “The Language of Story”

I want to talk about story for a bit. And to talk to about story, we pretentious pseudointellectual types like to talk about Aristotle.

Aristotle, as most people know, was a famous bisexual dead Greek guy remembered generally as a philosopher who was the father of scientific thought. However, this reputation comes despite the unfortunate fact that most of the scientific thought Aristotle expounded in his day (the earth is the center of the universe, heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects, women have fewer teeth than men, et al) were all generally shown to be bunk once he’d died and people didn’t have to worry about hurting his feelings.

While moonlighting as a literary critic, though, Aristotle gave us a body of dramatic thought (in a slim volume called Poetics) whose application has resonated through virtually every narrative art form the western world ever produced. Most particularly, Aristotle gave us the vision of drama as being comprised of distinct parts — the beginning, the middle, and the end. And even as that distinction seems a kind of no-brainer after the fact, its somewhat limited use as a tool for creativity before the fact has created healthy careers for people whose names I routinely take in vain if you can catch me in the classroom, but which I’ll refrain from posting here for fear of getting my ass sued. But you’ve seen these people’s books, and you’ve seen their seminar promos, and their software that tells you how for one low, low price, they’ll share with you the great secret of what Aristotle really meant about story, and what he didn’t know about story, and what he left out, and what he didn’t think about, and what he would have added to Poetics with the hindsight of having written for Charles Scribner or signing a three-picture pay-or-play deal with Miramax.

But no more.

Because what all of these self-aggrandizing, cookie-cutter structuralist, follow-these-ten-simple-steps-to-literary-success assholes and their spawn don’t realize is that within the teachings of Aristotle resides the kernel of everything needed to understand — and master — the shape and structure of story in any of its varied forms.

What these people don’t realize is that all their spurious work was pre-made moot by Aristotle two thousand years before they wrote it, because all Aristotle needs in order to wholly define the scope of contemporary writing is the tiniest of teleological updates. And in the series of discussions about to unfold in Scott’s blog, you’ll explore that update — a single structural writing mechanic based on Aristotle (call it a neo-Aristotelian dramatic paradigm; your friends will be impressed). In one deceptively simple structural mechanic, you’ll discover all the tools you need to write the story you want to write, the way you want to write it. You’ll learn to break away from the endless bashing, slashing, and rehashing of ideas, scenes, acts, chapters, arcs, characters, conflicts, A-plots versus C-plots, inciting incidents, controlling ideas, and negated reversals of the protagonist’s ghost’s tangible desire that are the bane of every writer who ever stepped shamefully into the “How To Write” section of a bookstore in search of the secret that would let the ideas and the dreams come to life.

The end results of the endless human fascination with story are a catalog of idea and emotion that has no bounds. Story is everywhere; story is everything. Story is untamable, unpredictable, and wholly unknowable. But just as the most diverse fauna and flora on earth all share a common structure of cellular life at the deepest level of their uniqueness, the nucleus of every unknowable story that’s ever been told and ever will be told can be cracked open to reveal the essence of what Aristotle was all about.

(This is all the setup to something that I’ve been looking for an excuse to do for a while now. Stay tuned.)

NEXT: School’s In


Don’t Panic

Today marks the tenth anniversary of a world bereft of the wit and wisdom of Douglas Adams, so make sure you know where your towel is.

(Technically, i guess the world was bereft of the wit and wisdom of Douglas Adams for most of the period of recorded and unrecorded history that passed before he was born. And i don’t know how funny or insightful he was as a toddler or anything. But you know what i mean.)

Douglas Adams died at 49, which is tragic in the general sense that people all eventually die, and especially tragic in the specific sense of 49 being way too young for most people to die, and particularly tragic from the perspective of how perilously close to that age i am. I don’t want to talk about that, though.

What i want to talk about is how back in the day, i was lucky enough to be able to interview Douglas Adams for a profile piece in an alternative weekly paper i was working for at the time. The profile itself was fairly nondescript in the end (being annoyingly obliged to serve as a kind of combo review/interview slanted toward readers who might never have heard of Douglas Adams). However, the phone interview i did with him remains a memorable conversation. Not just for the content, but for the context — because as obvious as it should be from any of his writings that Adams was a treat to talk to, what doesn’t come across unless you actually had a chance to talk to him is how completely, awkwardly, mundanely normal Douglas Adams seemed to be. Not a bored iconoclast railing aginst mundanity; not a neo-intellectual constantly expressing a general impatience with the world of lesser minds. Just a guy with ideas, and a love of language and absurdism and irony that inspired him to do something no one had ever done before.

There’s a lesson in there that i’m pretty sure i still haven’t learned, but it’s nice to be reminded of it.


Looking Forward

“All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike someone, they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”

— Clarence Darrow

(No, not Mark Twain. Stay the hell away from those quotation clearing-house websites.)

As is so often the case with events whose implications and foundations extend far, far beyond my own little corner of reality, i really don’t know what to say.

I think it’s possible to state truthfully that in the death of any single person, there is always an element of tragedy. In the case of people like Bin Laden and Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, the tragedy from my perspective is that they didn’t die sooner — ideally, so early enough that they never got a chance to do the things they did.

I think that as human beings, we make choices. If the choices we make include a decision to willingly reject the humanity of a specific group in order to allow and encourage the wholesale destruction of other human beings, then i think we deserve to be subject to the same rules we’ve applied to those other human beings. If you believe life has no value, then by definition, your life has no value, karma’s a bitch, et al.

Putting that another way — i’m a humanist and a pacifist by nature, and i am quite peacefully content with the knowledge that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Here’s the problem, though. Nothing changes as a result of this, and I think the expectation that something has changed is going to create a kind of psychic blowback that ultimately hurts a lot of people. I know that for people who are more closely connected to the events of 9/11 than i am, this moment does represent something tangible. Closure. An end to grieving. A chance to stop hating the fact that a mass murderer remains alive and well as an affront to the memory of his victims. And all that’s all well and good.

But all those things are about looking back, and looking back occludes the fact that there’s another Bin Laden out there somewhere, waiting to make the decision to willingly reject the humanity of a specific group in order to allow and encourage the wholesale destruction of other human beings. This is the guy that i want people to worry about. And not in the “Kill ‘em all, let god sort ‘em out” sense. In the sense of saying that on some level, we have a collective power to try to keep these people from happening.

Hitler was elected. Stalin locked in his power as a result of deals done in the dying days of World War II that our leaders signed off on. Pol Pot came to power because the west let him. Bin Laden was a product of a Saudi society that’s been dangerously corrupt and broken for generations, largely as a result of our hunger for Saudi oil. And that’s not a condemnation. No one is responsible for Bin Laden except Bin Laden. It’s just that as a species, we’re sometimes too quick to pretend that things happen in isolation, and that the truly unimaginable things that shock and stupefy and break us on every level can’t possibly be connected to the wide continuum of imaginable things that we’re confronted with every day, and which are within our power to change. But the continuum is all there is. The decisions that we as individuals, as collective cultures, as nations make are the foundations of everything.

Things happen in connection to each other. Things happen forward, not backward. Osama Bin Laden being dead doesn’t erase or undo anything that Osama Bin Laden did. We can’t change what’s done. All we can think about is changing the world in order to prevent the things we don’t want to happen next.