The Past, and Other Things You Can’t Really Trust

Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are many worlds, but only a single nature.

-Final Judgement, The Eye of Kog

You’d think after a decade of chronicling I’d be out of surprises around the actual process.

I’m old, first of all, and how many new tricks would I be inclined to show an interest in? Plus, epic fantasy in many ways isn’t about discovering anything new. We explore the classic truths about ourselves and the joy comes of recognizing old friends despite their outlandish disguises. Lots of reasons. But when I came to the desk with intent to write, I figured I was pretty much doing the same thing. A beloved, well known activity.

And I am. But…

This Time, Different- The Test of Fire

An earlier test of fire.

The current WiP is what I pretentiously call a demi-sequel. When I decided I wanted to chronicle the Lands of Hope, the first thing I drafted, the very first thing, was a ramshackle adventure that turned into The Plane of Dreams. But the thing I called it, the working title when I first wrote it in 2008, was “Prologue to The Test of Fire”. I was working from my instinct of course in those days, and from one other important thing.

Notes.

Tons of them. I have maps, and character descriptions (let’s just call them that), and detailed information about lots of locations where dark secrets of Despair were buried (often literally). I have data, if you will, on what the monsters are like, how magic spells and miracles work, how long travel takes depending on conveyance. I have of course the figurines that I’ve showed you in other columns. And I have primary source material (just go with me here), letters and journal entries and first-hand accounts to draw on about What Really Happened. Some of it not in my own handwriting, let’s just leave it there OK?

When I started to chronicle, in many ways I simply went to the bulls-eye, the place where these notes of mine were the thickest. That produced the tale I eventually rounded off and called The Plane of Dreams in 2011. I really enjoyed the job. There were just two things that I found a bit frustrating about the process.

One was where the tale actually began.

The other was where it ended.

Long story about the first. I’ll eventually write another novel to answer it. For now, this: I’m working on the book that comes after The Plane of Dreams, and I’m working from notes. Got it?

“I Only Know What Happens”

This is the battle-cry of my chronicling: for more than 35 years I’ve known the giant arc of the plot around the Lands of Hope. Notes, no notes, that part makes no difference: it’s always been there, like whatever those programs are that constantly use 4 or 5% of the CPU on your PC . I’ve gone to sleep idly wondering about this character, that event. Years of this, before I even thought about trying to write it out for others.

I think the word for this is ‘insane’. But happily so. This is simply part of my life. I couldn’t forget it with a gun to my head.

But that is all merely plot, so to speak, and of course it’s not terribly detailed. You can TELL your friend about your favorite movie, the one you’ve seen ten or twenty times, sure. But can you write out the screenplay, shot by shot? I blogged once about the three levels of writing: Plot, Character and Theme. I came into The Test of Fire with the plot practically tattooed onto my brain. But writing out the details, revealing character and perhaps even showing (discovering, honestly) the meaning of the tale… that’s where it gets interesting.

Thought I Knew These Guys…

Recently I finished writing the beginning (maybe the first third or so of the tale), and now I’m into the middle-meat of the novel. Here, my notes became very polished, much more detailed, from the main character’s PoV. In essence, a first draft. Or perhaps a kind of Reader’s Digest version of the novel itself.

Except the novel hadn’t yet been written. Is that actually a thing? Did anyone in history write up an abstract of the tale before the tale itself? Without meaning to follow up!

And just look at all the missing details! Mostly about character, of course. So far I’ve gone through about one page of the old draft (from more than 20 years ago, when I thought I was saying goodbye to the marvelous interactions I was having with the Lands). It’s spot-on for plot (one minor exception with an event coming a shade earlier in the non-existent timeline than previously believed). 

But what I’m adding is mainly about character. Who said what, more of that. The way the hero Qerlak feels, of course. Now it’s four and a half pages; it flows, it makes better sense, and I dare to think it will affect the reader.

The More Things (Sort of) Change?

Is it different now? I retreat to the words of Pooh-Bah in The Mikado:

“Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

Of course, Pooh-Bah had very nearly bungled the whole deal with his “corroborative detail”, so this is not entirely a joke.

I simply cannot reel in the words to describe how utterly strange it feels now, to be looking at an absolutely authentic account from two decades ago, and then changing it so dramatically. What was correct? Can both be right? How can I be working so steadily and smoothly, yet adding so much? I mean, remembering LESS over time is how memory usually works…

I do feel I know them better by now. And in the furthest reaches of my delusion–by the way, this IS a delusion, let us have no delusions about that–but sometimes I even start to believe I’m seeing something about the theme of the tale, of what it all means and which informs the action and the characters. That’s a comforting notion.

Look both ways

The main hero Qerlak is learning about the proper code of behavior for his life. As a younger son of the nobility, he never had to worry that he would one day be responsible for leading a foef. He joined an adventuring band, the Tributarians, and was known as the chivalrous one among commoners. He excelled, gained fame and enough fortune (almost) to buy a vacant knighthood (this happens during The Plane of Dreams). He THINKS he’s retiring. He thinks the noble’s code will be the beacon whereby he guides his life.

He’s wrong on both counts. Qerlak, and the other heroes in this story, must learn that there is another code, the adventurer’s code that they have committed to (perhaps unknowingly). And you might be able to guess how well those go together.

The Way Forward

No stopping both ways!

Choices to be made! Consequences to be suffered for those aforementioned choices. Impact to the unsuspecting reader following on from that, and more than likely, a new set of choices to be made. Therein, not to put too fine a point on it, lies a tale.

One that, it turns out, I’m not yet completely familiar with. THAT’s the strangeness, in a nutshell. I’m the Alleged Real World’s foremost authority on what happens during The Test of Fire, and even I’m unsure–a little bit–how this will all turn out. How utterly delightful.

And you thought only readers could enjoy my books.

 

 

Getting to the Third Level of Writing

The writing I love. It’s literature I can’t seem to get along with.

In 10th grade, the final essay question on our test for “Catcher in the Rye” directed our attention to the final passage where Caulfield speaks longingly about his desire to serve as a kind of life-guard for children playing in a meadow- literally, the title of the novel. The question posed to us was “What did Holden REALLY mean?” I wrote a full response arguing simply that he didn’t mean anything- it was a job he had thought of and he really wanted to do that. Because hey, that was a great job! The teacher and I got into a rather furious argument- I know for a fact, she told me exactly what she thought about the true underlying meaning of the speech, but I couldn’t remember one word of it an hour later. Still don’t.

That stuff never meant a thing to me. I still struggle to get there, this third level of writing. Coming up on six years of formally chronicling the Lands of Hope, I begin to see, just dimly, a distant… something. It’s not something I do particularly well, or on purpose. But at least now I think I see it.

One more time, it bears repeating for those who just came in, I’m merely a chronicler. I have less control over what happened in the Lands of Hope than a first-time student driver on an Alpine ski slope with the brakes cut. Make it up? Puhleeze- it happens, I take it down. But no question, I can improve the way I describe it to all of you. You’ve done this yourself, right? The Lands of Hope are like a movie that you’ve seen but your friend hasn’t. There’s a way to describe the thing- concise, evocative, fascinating- you’re working uphill because every picture is worth a thousand of your words. If you get them interested enough to go see it on their own, give yourself a prize.

First level- the Plot

You need to put the events in order, they must lead to something, make sense by the end. Stories with plot weakness simply can’t work; the suspension of disbelief fails and there’s a chance the reader stops, never to start again. When I spot a loose end, or a lovely piece of description that doesn’t point to anything, it’s not fatal but I usually feel disappointed, or a bit impatient. Nowhere is this more of a danger than in epic fantasy- the world-building train so effortlessly becomes a runaway locomotive, taking the reader down a steep siding about magic forces, or the adolescent growth cycle of a gryphacorn, the alignment of the northwestern sky-quadrant… hey, where’d everybody go? Of course, fantasy carries a balancing advantage because you can have the most incredible things happen to sustain the interest level (at least temporarily).

Pretty much everyone does plot- I’ve read a lot of harsh editorials about how all indie pub is garbage, but I couldn’t have been this lucky in the stories I’ve downloaded. Personally, I have a lot of experience with story-telling: I’ve never thought that History was anything else, frankly, and I told those stories to high school students five days a week for thirteen years. I didn’t have any control over what happened in the Alleged Real World either… but I flatter myself that I got pretty good at putting the facts in the right order, having it all make some sense.

Second level- Character

Yeah, we’re going in ascending order here, this is substantially harder than Plot. You have to convey the tale through the vehicle of beings whose lives and choices the reader comes to care about. I bet there is isn’t a bad character on the internet- we authors often don’t introduce or describe them well enough, is all. That’s partly because there’s more wiggle-room: your character doesn’t have to have clear set goals, the conflict can hit them in differing ways, they don’t even have to be protagonists or antagonists in the traditional sense. But in my honest assessment, the biggest problem at this level is that the author assumes too much and shows too little. I’ve read halfway through a book before exclaiming to myself, “oh, really? This guy loves his country? That explains a lot!” or something similar. The patriotism was assumed by the author, but now as a reader I have all the work of thinking back, reconstructing everything that happened from that perspective- and I don’t want to do that, it’s already ruined.

When I try to assess my own craft, I would say again that Character is harder than Plot, but

I believe it’s the part I do best. I love and admire the heroes of the Lands, and I believe I can bring a certain depth-perception to describing them within the plot that helps inform, entertain and move the reader. In The Plane of Dreams, the intrepid stealthic Trekelny has taken it upon himself to open a cage in the enemy camp, freeing a wild tiger to roam in the nearby woods. The rest of the party catches up, and when one of them tries to reproach him for it, Trekelny coolly responds “I happen to like cats.” There is an entire story- Three Minutes to Midnight – from nine years earlier in his career to reinforce this one fact. And that’s just an example I can point to in publication. Time and again, I benefit from being able to back up a preference, or a love of something in my characters like that. I could tell you a whole story about it. Don’t challenge me on this- I will bury you.

This far I’ve been able to go on my own, by chronicling. And it’s made me rather happy, I won’t scruple to deny. Before I was telling these tales, setting my notes and memories to narrative, my brain was tenser, life less settled this past decade. The vocation of teaching gave me such great personal joy I didn’t miss out. But having a new life course, where I teach only as a pinch-hitter, plus the lack of contact with the Lands in other important ways, just made me miss it  more. So the telling has helped me tremendously.

And I think I always knew, I wasn’t getting where the really good, much less great writing went.

My daughter is home-schooled, so I overhear her mother talking to Genna about The Great Gatsby these days. And that’s what really pushed all these thoughts I’m having around the bend: I think to myself, “how could your writing ever be treated like this guy’s?” I say again, I never liked literature. The English teachers in school would gather to one side of the faculty room discussing books, even books I had read, in ways that made me feel stupid. Yet they were so engaged- gushing, really- over the deep meaning of it all. Those books had something I wasn’t noticing, a level of appreciation that maybe I’m not built to “get”, and if so, then I’m a poor guide to describe what it is to you. But a distant, misty glimpse is still something seen.

I call the third level, for now, Theme

It’s another entire strata tying the tale together, like Plot and Character, and I only guess from the clues of others and my inchoate vision, it’s the level that makes everything mean two things at one time. While all the stuff is happening, as the characters are displaying their virtues, vices and quirks, there’s just another THING that it all means. I can joke about it rather easily, even in my ignorance: pull my glasses down my nose, mimic holding a brandy snifter and say, “of course, it’s man’s struggle against himself”. Or nature, or the futility of breathing; or maybe it’s all of those things all the time, I just have no idea. Theme is the word one of my close friends advised me to consider, in the second year of my chronicling (2009). I was drafting my beloved opus, the work closest to my heart- and coincidentally the tale that’s coming out beginning this summer, at long last a trunk novel no longer. Judgement’s Tale means more to me than I can readily say, so it’s fair to describe my state as constantly heightened these days. But my close friend urged me to think of the theme of any longer work like this- what is the one thing it really means, he asked. And I could tell then he was onto something, I knew it. But I also knew that if I made any part of my work beholden to it- if I refused to continue before I answered the question- I would stop altogether, and probably for good.

Looking back, now that the novel is done and I’ve polished it seriously twelve times, I think I have an idea or two about what it means. There are some themes that run through the book. I know it would be better if I had noticed them from the start, worked them in and not settled for just letting things happen or for characters to grow and deepen in (my) ignorance of them.

But not to put too fine a point on it, that’s what writers do. Not me. My tales will either have deeper meaning for you, or they won’t. I pray for the former because I’m vain and because no one wants to do something less well than possible. But trying to describe the themes I see to you, as if some exciting movie I’d just watched, that’s where my train stops and I get off. I shall keep my counsel, for a change- but I am eager to hear your feedback around Theme especially, as you discuss the way you analyze tales.

Do you get to the third level in your writing?