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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?

 

Fantasy, by the Planets- My Faults are in the Stars

A post first issued in 2013, now brought to my own site for the first time.

With a tip of the broad-brimmed hat to Ciara Ballintyne, whose wonderful post on the subject kicked my dusty brain into gear, I fell to thinking how to classify the various works of fantasy that I love so well. I’ve come to realize from posts at various sites, that my views are quite simplistic- also showing their age, frankly- but perhaps for beginners I can offer the following easy taxonomy. If it helps you to write, then it’s good.

  • I’m following a rule of three, split by Stakes and Mood, for a total of nine sub-Genres. Yeah I know- too tidy, old-fashioned, unconvincing. Sue me. I have simple tastes, and believe that many things folks call genres are better described as flavors.
  • Among those things you won’t see reflected here by name are Urban, High/Low, Historical, Dark and most likely others you’ve come to like. My, I’m being grumpy today. It’s just that I prefer a few categories, and then one can speak of works that split-the-distance, or bend the genre. That strikes me as the greater compliment than to give every great work that comes along a category of its own.
  • My model is a solar system- in fact, ours. The planets represent centers of gravity that define something qualitatively different about the writing, and of course the reading experience. But plenty of room between the heavenly bodies, and most of what we read doesn’t nestle down precisely in one atmosphere or another. Most planets have moons, and there are uncounted millions of asteroids: I know what you’re thinking, the literary genius goes on and on.
  • And here’s another point, before I lay the figure on you. It’s a solar system, which means there’s room outside it as well. Maybe you’ll find the stuff you really like is off beyond Pluto somewhere, and that’s cool. I know that some of my works to date have spicing from other genres such as Horror, Mystery, and Romance: if Fantasy writing was a country trading with its neighbors, I would say imports outweighed exports by about 10 to 1. Might be cool to consider that in a future post.

A Question of Stakes and Mood

So I’ll give the graphic representation here, which I hope is pretty self-explanatory (thousand words and all that). I hope you enjoy it, and then if you like scan as many of my notes as you want. I’m a heroic and epic fantasy chronicler, so believe me, this IS the short version! But stop whenever it’s not helping you anymore. I’m very happy as always to hear your thoughts too. You should be able to click on the picture to make it bigger.

One chronicler's suggestion
One chronicler’s view

I’ve suggested three major genres of fantasy- Epic, Heroic and Sword and Sorcery (down the middle)  with variations of Mood (across the top) from Cinematic to Morbid, and a second spectrum of Stakes (along the side) from Casual to Crucial. At each “planet” I installed a title that pretty closely fits the location: most of my selections reveal my age but I think they will still be familiar to many. One word of warning; these planets are not arranged in the same order as you might expect by the presence of the “sun” in the picture. More explanations than you could ever want follow here!

The Stakes of a Tale

EPIC Fantasy is defined by Crucial Stakes; the main character is called upon to Save the World. Combat is rare, humor limited and every act reeks of consequences. Things happen for a reason, it all ties together.

HEROIC Fantasy involves some kind of quest within more limited boundaries, to Save the Kingdom. Heroes fight more often, there can be humorous moments and even mistakes before the (usually happy) ending.

SWORD & SORCERY sometimes identified with “Low” fantasy, has the smallest, most Casual stakes; for the protagonist, the job  is literally Save Your Skin. Fighting and action ranges from frequent to non-stop, and nearly any vice you can imagine is on the table (sometimes taking its clothes off) while mistakes are common (and mean less). By the end, there has often been little or nothing accomplished. Except you’ve enjoyed a great story.

Getting Into the Mood

But these tales are also qualified by a tone or Mood which puts them in definable categories. The CINEMATIC (or Light) mood generally carries more humor, a higher level of action and suspense, and often brings more misadventures whose purpose either distracts or relieves tension derived from the main plot. Not surprisingly, fantasies with a Cinematic Mood make good movies. The Stakes are the same (a Cinematic Epic Fantasy is still a quest to save the world), but you can laugh along the way, there’s more of a campy flavor. There’s also less doubt that the world/kingdom/skin will, in fact, be saved. You don’t spend sleepless nights wondering how it will turn out. On the opposite side of the spectrum, fantasy tales of all three genres can be Morbid (or perhaps Dark), bearing not just on death but on a much grimmer prospect regarding the Stakes. You can certainly doubt whether “it” will be saved, or you might be uncertain if you want the main character to succeed. Many works hailed as deconstructions of fantasy, in another view, are Morbid.

THE BOOK TITLES: In case you were interested, some notes on the choices I made. I spotted my own works with initials in purple (TMM- Three Minutes to Midnight, and so forth). I think I have them in the right orbits, but let me know!

Epic: Lord of the Rings is the obvious call, hard to see how any work could displace it. I also include SRD’s Thomas Covenant series as a later, but still seminal example of the Stakes involved. Ironic point- Middle Earth is lost unless Frodo refuses to use the Ring, and The Land is done for unless Covenant decides to use it!

Cinematic Epic: I chose the 1980 version of Flash Gordon for two reasons. First, even though it’s about as silly and campy as anything ever put on film, the Stakes are unmistakably Crucial: Ming is moments away from destroying Earth and ruling the entire galaxy. It’s technically science-fiction, but the lasers and mind-probes are pretty soft-pedaled especially in this movie: the best moments like the stump-of-death and the tilting-floor duel are pure fantasy. Secondly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who was at Camp Dudley YMCA in 1983, when five hundred boys trooped to the movie-hall after four days of torrential rains, expecting to see another boring baseball series recap film. Instead, the pulsing drums of Queen preceded Max von Sydow sneering “Foolish Earthlings, who can save you now?” The cheering echoes up in the Adirondacks to this day.

Morbid Epic: I think Stephen King’s Dark Tower series stands well here, because of the grim tone, the gruesome moral choices made and the severe prices paid. I’m not sure who I want to win, nor whether anyone will. And the Stakes once again are the entire world (no matter how small). Should I have yelled “Spoiler Alert” a few paragraphs ago?

Heroic: I personally put Ursula LeGuin’s series on a pedestal just as high as Tolkein’s or anyone else’s, and the first book I think is a splendid example of individual heroic activity for big (but not yet universal) Stakes. There are two kinds of readers on earth- those who need to read Earthsea and those who need to read it again.

Cinematic Heroic: The book is better, yet the movie of The Princess Bride brings out the Cinematic mood just as well. But the book is better.

Morbid Heroic: Here’s where I would stash GRRM, personally, and for emphasis I laid him alongside Elric of Melnibone. I think Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch can also be classified here. The struggles going on in Game of Thrones et al will not bring the world down to darkness (most likely)- and with most characters showing a gleam of virtue already dead I’m not sure anyone would notice if they did. Heroes are saps. Even some of the bad guys are suckers, compared to some of the other bad guys. I count down from the top of my list of characters who are a) somewhat good and b) still alive, and here’s my top 3:

  1. The brave bastard (no really) who’s still alive because he lives at the polar ice-cap so none of his enemies can be sure where he is
  2. The girl who’s hoping to become an assassin
  3. the blonde guy who actually said no to boinking his sister for a change, and who might be getting a tad weary of being so evil all the time

Can you tell I don’t like Morbid fantasy much?

My choices for Sword and Sorcery are all nearly as old as I am and I cannot see into the darkness far enough to make out a Morbid choice. Perhaps you have some suggestions to fill in my star-chart?

Planetary Considerations (is this for real?)

Speaking of that, let me wrap up (this IS the short version) with a run-down of the various planets.

The SUN brings “light” of course, so the three planets closest to it are Cinematic and the furthest are Morbid. But that’s not strictly a distance thing.

Arranged to fit my own fantasy
Arranged to fit my own fantasy

Venus is where you should expect to find her, both the lowest and most light-hearted spot suited to the pursuit of, ahm, venality.

Neptune occupies the Cinematic Heroic spot because like many tales in that sub-genre, it’s turned on its side.

Pluto is Cinematic Epic because its very survival (as a planetary body) is at stake. Despite being so far away it is at least solid, and remarkably bright for its small size. So a nice combination of light and far-out.

Mars is the home of Sword and Sorcery and if Conan wasn’t so cool I’d have put Jon Carter there as a title in a heartbeat.

Earth is the home of heroes. Full stop. Keep looking, they’re there- and my Lands of Hope are the proof.

Epic Fantasy is the King (I know, the planet I used has rings, but it’s a great color). And Jupiter has many moons, lots of tremendous titles we all could name in its orbit.

Morbid S&S needs a planet where things are cold as hell but can move quickly and dangerously. Mercury, remember, doesn’t spin- the dark side temps drop to -350 F or lower. In a Morbid S&S your life could be over in fewer seconds than the days of Mercury’s orbit.

Uranus is appropriate for Morbid Heroic because it’s so large and full of gas. Deadly gas. Fortunately for me, it’s also far away. Did I mention Morbid is not my favorite?

And Saturn wishes it could be Jupiter again but will have to settle for second in size, still slow of speed, lots of material in its orbit too.

Sincere thanks for your patience, I’ve enjoyed the rant. Ar Aralte! (Hope Forever)