Tag Archives: writers journey

Re-

{As in, doing it again}

{A column originally published elsewhere in 2013, now brought home to my own site.}

It starts with me up a tree. I was probably eighty feet off the ground in a spire-straight maple bigger than you could hug. I’d been up there for hours, and was going to keep doing it for weeks. I was eight at the time. And then more weeks again at nine, and another month or two at ten, and twelve…

Last week I had no intention of blogging on this. But one of my sisters actually requested that I write about it- and how many of you, fellow authors out there, have actually had a blog request? Since it comes at New Year’s, it’s quite appropriate to the theme of re-solutions (where we essentially try to solve our problems for the second-or-greater time). But I want to be honest with you- I would not have volunteered to write this.

Because this is a confession.

Picture me sheepish, my hands hesitating, trashing the first few drafts (was the first time really an accident!?) and looking furtively both ways before getting down to cases. That’s good news for you of course, because now you can drop any unpleasant impulse you had to think about quitting smoking or laying off the dark chocolate in 2014, and just bathe in the schadenfreude for another few minutes. All for you, dear reader. And here goes-

I repeat.                                                                     

Seriously, I do everything again- all kinds of stuff over and over. I seek the old. You?

How many kids do you know were digging into ancient history by the time they were five? My sister (not the first one, I have a whole set) taught me to read before school started, and I was into books about as soon as I could turn the pages. Ancient history, though? Made perfect sense to me- these people were not different from us, once you understand a bit about their culture, technology, circumstances, you can see right into their problems, the choices they had to make. And I couldn’t get enough. It’s ALL happened before- that idea didn’t bore me, it thrilled me. I wanted to see it in the first times, and then look for it again in later ages. I still do.

“History repeats itself” is not an insult.

It’s a promise.

But beyond thoughts, I was repeating deeds throughout my childhood. I had all the tools, I guess- that distinct scarcity of playmates furnished by life in rural Vermont, parents distracted with six kids and dozens of animals on premises. Most important, I carried an unparalleled ability to focus on the one thing I really wanted. Before I was twelve (geek

bhgs.org

alert), I saved up my precious allowance to buy those wargames (GEEK-GEEK!), the ones with the folded up maps and two or three hundred cardboard counters, and if you’ve never seen one of them you’re probably happy about that. I would get Mom to drive a friend over to the house, and we’d go in the basement, spread out the map and play for HOURS. Each game, two-four-seven hours: thanks for dinner Mom, and back downstairs. And we’d play the SAME game, for months.  I was always the Japanese playing “Solomon’s Campaign” against my  best bud Bill Michaels, and I swear to you I never won, not once: zero and probably a hundred and twelve. But we loved it. Over and over we planned when to launch the invasion, how many supplies we’d need to hold this island, where to hide the subs. Maybe this time…

And so it went: garbage-lid-and-broomstick jousting with my sister (another one, younger than me), setting up a black trash bag’s worth of little green army men on the hillside pasture (with inevitable casualties when it came time to gather them up), using the tree swing to run diagonally up the trunk like Spider-Man, and pose until gravity insisted. Barn-crawling through trap-doors, between stalls and across beams to find the absolute coolest way to get from any door to any other exit, and then timing myself endlessly for speed- parkour before Nikes. Keeping constant watch from the tree house for expected, if mythical enemies.

You can read any number of articles about the value of unstructured play time- here’s one-and I recommend them to you if you had such a childhood (because you’ll feel smugly good), but not if you have kids (because you’ll feel like a louse). We all know today, let your kids run around loose and they’ll crate you off with irons on your legs and a raincoat over your head. But my experience was doused in repetition and ritual. Lord, how I loved it. I re-turned to it passionately, constantly, eagerly. And re-peatedly.

Same Position, New Perspective?

So, the tree. We had a half-dozen super tall maples on the property and the same number of apple trees. But this one, the furthest south of the pair in the sheep pen, was the best for getting high. The limbs started just above my reach, but that was OK because Jason the ram wanted to break the leg of anything that entered his domain, so you had to take a running leap anyway. After that, it was as easy as using your hands and feet to go upstairs (something I still do at times). In seconds I could be so high off the ground it gave me a jolt in the perineum to gaze down. Look it up, I’m on a roll here.

And there were limbs big enough to hold me right at the top, where the leaves thinned even in summer and I could see… well, everything really. All the lands thereabouts, mine and neighbors’ and open fields to the hill beyond the beaver-pond, which as far as I knew nobody owned. Higher than the barn roof, I could think about flying as the superheroes did (I expected I could fly far away and always get back home without help- surely the borders between states and countries would be brightly marked, like on my maps). I was so far up I thought the air was cleaner- and in rural Vermont, that’s quite a thought to have- but the limbs of that maple were utterly secure. I climbed like a monkey, and was safer up there than in many places on the ground- for example, within arm’s reach of anything sharp or flammable.

And up there, safe near flying, I learned so many things. I learned that fear of heights is relative- most of my relatives have it worse than me. I found that birds never get quite used to you, but will eventually come a bit closer, and not fly away as fast. I realized one of the great truths learned by the stealthic Feldspar- that people almost never look up, even when you are speaking to them.

And the next thing I knew Mom was ringing the bell for dinner. She had to- we were all over creation. I went up that tree a million times, honestly- long past the point  there was anything new to see or think about. And if I wasn’t gathering wool up there, it was something else. Something I’d already done, time and again.

And With Books? The Same!

I read books over and over (and I bet some of you do too- but not like me). I read The Count of Monte Cristo about every four or five years. Here I am {Editor’s Note: originally, in 2013} facing more than a half-year with no progress on my WiP: so naturally I went back to re-read the tales I’ve already chronicled (only one of which is unpublished, and took a little polish- for the fifth time). My lovely wife gave me the new fantasy book I requested for Christmas (Mortal Instruments, I wanted to check out the competition- hah, as if). What did I do? I continued to re-read, for maybe the fifth time, the first few of the John Carter, Warlord of Mars series. I stare at the maps I made and think again about the adventures I’ve seen in the Lands. I repeat conversations I’ve had, while doing the dishes, or playing a favorite computer game… again. Wherever I turn in life, I look to wrap myself in what I’ve already enjoyed.

After all, what’s a half a year? The main character of my WiP, the Stargazer preacher W’starrah Altieri, is fairly new to me. I spent thirty years looking at the Lands of Hope before that fateful day in 2008, when I finally started to chronicle what I’d seen. I must get to know this lady better, I think, before I go any further. And no question, there was something about Dejah Thoris (John Carter’s love) that reminded me of W’starrah. Gorgeous woman, sure, but something more… maybe I should read another one in the series. {Editor’s note: the toughest thing I ever wrote is now written- Perilous Embraces is available!}

Or maybe I could climb that tree again, and feel the breeze around me, hear Jason’s impatient snort of outrage below. Doing things repeatedly doesn’t just make you familiar with them (familiarity, by itself, leads- well, to contempt of course). Returning to something you love re-inforces you, and in the end I think it re-news you. Like I said, good for New Year’s. There are people who constantly move from one new thing to the next, and I salute them in all candor. I sometimes think that perhaps those scores of thousands of hours, in the end, will add up to a wasted life. And believe me, I’ve thought that before. But I’m staying here, and I’m doing this.

Again.

Classics You’ve Never Read, Part 4- So Wrong, They’re Right

Classic: a book people praise and never read.

-Mark Twain

This one took me forever. Not to read, but to figure out. How to classify this classic work?- and yeah, no shot you’ve read it, dear reader, none- that question puzzled me until, to steal the words of The Grinch, my puzzler was sore. The movies clearly ranked it science-fiction: of course, because they wanted to play with the special effects. A horror tale? I really thought so, because the main character is such a threat- but I found myself chuckling so loud and often as I read, I knew it wouldn’t be honest to say so. The  author’s opinion on the flyleaf subtitle calls it “A Grotesque Romance”, but being written in 1897, I knew full well that was only going to confuse people. Back then, neither word meant what it does today. The synopsis definitely doesn’t go “ugly-boy-meets-girl, etc.” In fact, for most of the last half of the book. no one meets the main character at all! Hence the chuckling, amidst which a realization fell on me like a bolt. This story is really all about the crowd– the others, the bit characters and how incredibly wrong they get it (while still being right).

That’s the theme that runs throughout The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

I’m not going to pretend there’s a vast trove of unknown lore you need to catch up on by reading this book. The plot would fit on the back of an airmail stamp.

Now you see him...
Now you see him…

Obsessed amoral scientist turns himself invisible, tries to get back to normal, can’t, hurts people and causes chaos, dies. With that title, there’s no whopper of a mystery going on! But that’s where the thread picks up. As with some of his other works, Wells chooses to describe and judge his main character to you through the eyes of everyone else in the story. A mysterious man wrapped from head to toe arrives at a small town inn, and never comes out of his room. So it’s not his thoughts, but those of the tavern-crowd we are treated to. Mrs. Hall the innkeep’s wife is thrilled to have a “gentleman” boarder, but of course insatiably curious, henpecking her indifferent husband to invent excuses for knocking on the door. The regulars at the bar look on, as the guest’s increasingly aberrant behavior comes out onto the landing or is shouted through the walls.

And what do they guess? These sleepy village folk, simple rustics with that classic stolid sense of “what’s right”, do they come close to figuring out what the title character is up to? Not by a country mile: an ‘arful accident, p’raps some nasty disease, that’s what brung him into those wrappings, surely. The story continues- the mystery guest becomes ever more combative and erratic. Windows open and close by themselves, the local prior is robbed, nosy landlords appear to eject themselves from the second-floor guest room. Still no one can make heads or tails of it- you’re screaming “INVISIBLE MAN, IDIOTS!” but it does no good. The crowd continues to bumble and guess wrong- yet somehow, they manage to flush out the IM, brilliant scientist or no. Because

Not this one!
Not this one!

he’s the bad guy- treats people arrogantly, never pays up (“put it on the bill!”), loses his temper. T’isn’t right- and while the full population of the village can’t assemble one clue between them, yet there’s a kind of righteous tide, simple questions pile up and the villain is unmasked, forced from his rooms with some of his criminal intent exposed.

Wells is not faithful to any particular individual in the crowd- your PoV jumps from one stubbornly inane opinion to another, sometimes for the length of one line and never to return. A fair bit of time is spent with an unfortunate hobo, a poor fellow accosted as the IM roamed “naked” through the countryside (what are the odds?) and beaten, petrified into helping him along for a while. In the final third of the story, we settle in the house of IM’s former school-mate, another scientist fortuitously living in the vicinity, to whom he can at last begin to explain his progress.

Here the veil of humor drops away, and I must say the story of his experiments are not appropriate for all audiences. The IM coolly describes how, from his London apartment, he first tried his experimental process on the landlady’s cat- and only later discovered how agonizingly painful it was. “So that was why it meowed so awfully all those hours”- this more than anything coming before or after shows me what a beast he always was. It’s a dreadful scene: perhaps even his fellow scientist is affected by IM’s ruthless, sociopathic attitude. An attempt at betrayal leads to another rampage from the IM, who without clothes always has the advantage (or seems to). The ending is unimportant except for how it reinforces some of the themes I’ve been harping on- the many in the crowd, the entire district roused to action by the threat of an invisible menace who has declared war on mankind, and eventually they get him. In the process, they don’t do much that’s right, and some make horrible mistakes as usual (the laughter is gone from the tale by now- and I STILL don’t know what genre this really should be called). In the end, the IM reappears, which is to say, he dies.

I totally see Kevin Bacon
I totally see Kevin Bacon. You?

Good.

Hollywood seems to have followed the same general idea, both in the 1930s version with Claude Rains and the usual steroid-pumped remake (“The Hollow Man”) with Kevin Bacon. I haven’t seen all of either one, but it seems clear this theme of the common folk is preserved in the first, lost in the second. Without these untrustworthy narrators, without the gaggle of wrong-footed yokels to stare and puzzle and go off on tangents when they theorize, the tale loses a vital something.

This is something you see in epic fantasy all the time- on either side of the village’s only street as the strangers arrive, in battles and at church, and ESPECIALLY of course inside the tavern. They drink, they argue, and most of all they get it comically, horrendously wrong. Through their beloved bigotry and hackneyed catch-phrases I learned a lot about the world, the problems facing the heroes. One tavern scene I chronicled in The Ring and the Flag had so much going on, I visited it again on the same night in Fencing Reputation. {All different material, all still wrong!} And the famous Mark’s Inn of Wanlock sees repeated action in The Plane of Dreams. Some of the greatest heroes the Lands will ever know passed through its door and the regulars hardly noticed, yakking on about adventurers, crime, and the ever popular what’s-wrong-with-the-world-today. They’re totally off about who the heroes and who the villains are, much more often than not. But they get it right in the end. Things ARE going all sideways, and those adventurers (wherever they are), they don’t belong here.InvMan33

More than that; I realized from reading The Invisible Man that Wells was really double-casting the entire process of reading a great adventure. Get this, it’s brilliant. The main character isn’t really there, right? Because he’s YOU. The writer: struggling, trying for genius, losing it- and desperate to keep people from finding out your story until it’s done. And the crowd? The inn-folk, the villagers standing around and apparently too silly to guess what two and two add up to- they’re the readers of your tale. You WANT the reader to be just like them- not catching the whole thread, but very curious and grimly determined to find out more. They press you, they don’t get it, annoying yet persistent. They’re good people. And in the end, both crowds inside and out get it right. That famous saying about how often the customer is not wrong? It applies.

Whenever you hear from the crowd in a fantasy tale, you can see the readers right in their place- it’s a wonderful way to draw them in, make them feel as if they’re standing by the bar, or in the second row. None of them understand your main character, but they’re getting interested in finding out. The Invisible Man teaches a lot about people, the common character of what you might call human nature. And that’s really good news- unless of course you’re a bad person like IM himself, trying to spread chaos and evil with your tale. Then they’ll hunt you down and kill you. But that’s not your problem, unless you’re George R. R. Martin…

Where is the crowd in your story? Are you pulling readers into the book by using the masses?