The Book of the New Sun

It took me three months, but I finally finished The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was published as four novels, but it is clearly one giant novel. Each one practically ends in the middle of a sentence, and none are standalone. There’s so much to say about this, and yet it basically defies talking about.

The initial critical reception was quite good. It was published throughout 1980-1983. So it fits into a transition time for SF/F. The pulps had died off by this point and a lot experimentation happened in the 60’s and 70’s, but the genre hadn’t fully evolved into the literary phenomenon that it would become by the end of the 90’s.

This book is very much ahead of its time in this sense. The Washington Post said Gene Wolfe is “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” Maybe. But the genre has taken the best of both worlds: fast-paced genre action/adventure/fun and quality literary writing that imparts deeper meaning on subsequent readings.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any sufficient amount of time will know my views on abstract, difficult, or avant-garde art, especially writing and music. I love it. I love having to dig in and listen to a piece of music 10+ times to start to understand what’s going on.

These types of pieces often give the listener the most rewarding artistic experiences. As DFW once said (I paraphrase), art is a relationship between artist and viewer. Relationships can’t be meaningful if all the work is done by one side. The more you put into experiencing a work of art, the more you get out of it.

Anyway, I won’t rehash that argument any further. My views when it comes to long novels have evolved a bit. There’s something of a difference between getting more on repeated readings and requiring multiple readings. It’s a respect thing. I respect an artist who promises more depth on another visit. An artist is disrespecting my time if I spend three months experiencing their art only to be told at the end that I can’t have understood it on the first time and I absolutely must spend another three months rereading it to make that first time around meaningful.

So that’s where The Book of the New Sun ends. The novel intentionally draws the reader out of the story many times. Two of the most difficult points for me were the long play within the novel in Book 2 and the sequence of short stories told by various characters in Book 4. Yes, I get that they are vital pieces to that underlying secret story that couldn’t be understood the first time. But they’re pretty obnoxious if you aren’t on that second read.

Overall, don’t let this dissuade you from reading these. The first read is pretty good outside of those complaints and a few meandering bits. The futuristic society Wolfe creates is shockingly deep and remains fresh and original today despite the number of dystopian/dying earth novels that have come out since then.

The writing is incredible. Wolfe is often too good I’d say. First off, he has created an SF/F series with a bunch of weird terms that sound oddly fitting. It turns out that every strange word in the book is actually a legitimate English word that has fallen to the wayside of history. This is an incredible idea to create both an ancient, strange sound that also feels very familiar. Same thing with the names of characters. They look all fantasy-like, but they are all names that were common at one point in history but have fallen out of fashion.

The dense, precise writing often challenges the reader to stay in the story rather than contemplate what it says:

War is not a new experience; it is a new world. Its inhabitants are more different from human beings than Famulimus and her friends. Its laws are new, and even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.

Many genre writers, to the extent that they think about prose, might want to show the horror of war by having the description be short, choppy, and crude like the thing it is describing. How many times have you read something like: “War is hell—horror everywhere. It changes your world.” This is lazy and cliched writing.

Wolfe’s elegant imagery does so much to bring the terror to the readers mind. War is a new world. This hinges on the cliche, but the followup prose doubles down on the imagery by precisely describing the geography of this new world: insignificant hills are lifted to the importance of cities. I get chills when I’m transported to such a devastating world. And then I’m off thinking about this and pulled out of the story. It’s almost a catch-22: write too well and it might be a distraction to the reader. I’m only half joking about this.

The astute reader is presented with some difficulties early on. The narrator claims to have a perfect memory. Later on, we start to get contradictory information about what happened. So either he lied about his memory or he’s lying to us about parts. This isn’t a logic puzzle. We have 100% confidence that the narrator is unreliable at that point, which puts the reader in an awkward position.

Since I recently read Imajica, I was struck by the similarities. I’m pretty sure Barker was not inspired by New Sun, but the archetypes and structure are the same. Barker has the Reconciliation and Wolfe has the Conciliator. I guess these, or similar terms, are bound to come up in any grand savior plot.

Will I reread this? I’m not sure. It won’t be anytime soon for sure. Do I recommend it? I’ll cautiously say yes. It’s very, very good. As Neil Gaiman said, “The best SF novel of the last century.” I’m not willing to go that far.

My main reservation is that you’ll certainly struggle at points, and you might be disappointed that everything changes at the end, requiring another reading. On the other hand, if you want to sink a few years of your life into discovering the hidden depths of an excellently written book, this is probably your best bet (seriously, peruse urth.net for a half hour to see the truth of this).

 

Thoughts on Barker’s Imajica

I believe I read a Clive Barker novel about fifteen years ago, but I have no idea what it was. A few years ago, I read some of his short stories, and this reinforced the conception I had of Barker as a horror writer, which isn’t really my thing. Still, Imajica came up on my radar for some reason, and I decided to give it a go.

Wow. I’m so glad I did. It’s going to be fairly difficult to describe anything about this book. It’s very weird, but in a wildly inventive and wonderful way. There are some gory images here and there, but I’d most certainly not classify it as horror. It’s more of a surrealist examination of spirituality? So kind of like The Holy Mountain.

I’ll try to set up the premise to give you an idea of the bizarre-ness, though, the whole point of the novel shifts by about 1/10 of the way through it. There’s Five Dominions. Earth, as we humans know it, is the Fifth Dominion. We’ve never seen these other magical places.

There’s a longtime conspiracy of people (I use this term lightly) making up a secret society to keep the Fifth Dominion separate from the other four. There is a way in though.

The novel begins with a man who is so in love with a woman, Judith, that he hires an assassin to kill her after she breaks up with him (obviously so she can’t be with anyone else). He has second thoughts and contacts Judith’s ex, Gentle, to stop the assassin. He succeeds. The assassin, Pie, is a being from one of these other dominions that doesn’t really have a gender. It becomes basically whatever it’s lover wants to see in it.

Pie seduces Gentle by appearing to be Judith. Gentle learns of what it did, and Pie takes Gentle into the other dominions. They gradually fall in love. Also, a billion other things are going on by this point, so don’t think that’s “really” the story. It’s about revelation, separation, unity, isolation, love, sex, power, God, redemption, finding meaning, culture, and on and on.

Don’t panic. It’s not done in a way that tries to be about everything and ends up being about nothing. This novel really tackles the big questions in a focused and metaphorical way. It just so happens that these big questions encompass all those other things.

Here’s some things I think the book does really well. There is a gigantic amount of information hidden to the reader: the conspiracy, how these other dominions run, the cultures there, the background on the conflicts, why the Fifth is separated, and so on.

Barker manages to slip this information to the reader in gradual and subtle doses over 600 pages or more. This means the novel stays story centric and engaging with almost no information dumps. It’s actually kind of brilliant how he does this. Often, you will hear things that make no sense. This causes you to reconcile your view of what’s going on with your existing theory. It’s only after you’ve done this many times that the full picture comes into focus.

Another thing I didn’t expect was how good the prose was. I expected genre horror writing full of stock prose: nothing bad but nothing great either. Instead, I found excellent execution of register shifting (often thought to be the most advanced and subtle techniques of prose style).

Register shifts refer to changing the type of language used to adapt to a situation. For example, if you’re hanging out with some friends, you might say, “‘Sup?” This is an informal register. If you’re at a job interview, you might say, “Hello. How are you doing? It is very good to meet you.” This is a formal register.

The thing that makes this so difficult in prose writing is that the context of scene must determine the proper register. When you first try to do this, it will probably be overdone, and this will change the voice. It must be done with enough subtlety so the voice remains consistent and only the register of the voice changes.

Most people will never notice if a writer has done this well. It is usually obvious when a writer doesn’t do it or overdoes it. We tend to say the writing fell “flat” in an absence of register shifts (a great term because there weren’t any up or down shifts in register).

The register tends to reflect the dominion we’re in. This is because as the dominions get closer to the First, the people get closer to God. The register shifts up to indicate the formality and ritualistic nature of religion. Take an early scene.

Gentle took off his heavy coat and laid it on the chair by the door, knowing when he returned it would be warm and covered with cat hairs. Klein was already in the living room, pouring wine. Always red.

This is quite low. There’s even a sentence fragment. The sentences are simple and to the point. The descriptors are common.

Now take a midway scene in a different dominion.

Like the theater districts of so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter—hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day.

This single sentence is almost double the length of the entire three sentences above. The structure is quite complicated: subordinate clause, appositive, etc. This is an elevated register. The same sentence in a lower register would be “Whores could be found on the streets of the city in which the Ipse stood.” We could lower it even more or raise it to more formal levels than what was written. But it strikes a delicate balance of beautiful description in elevated voice.

I know it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Barker did all this, but I noticed it early and then paid close attention. It is consistent throughout, which makes me think it is not some accident or coincidence.

Lastly, the symbolism is amazing. It draws on and reinterprets many famous Biblical stories. I can’t get into it, because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book. It is some of the best of this type of writing I’ve seen. It isn’t so direct as to be cringe-worthy, and it is all done in an inventive re-imagining.

It’s kind of sad I didn’t read this during my Year of Giant Novels. It possibly would have been the Number 1 book of the year.

Year of Short Fiction Part 3: The Red Pony

The Red Pony is in one sense a novella published by John Steinbeck, but in another sense it is a collection of four short stories, originally published episodically in magazines. This makes it slightly difficult to pin down exactly what date to slap on this. The first story was published in 1933, so it came out before all his most famous works.

I was pretty excited to read this, because Steinbeck is one of the best long-form “family epic” writers. His masterpiece, in my eyes, is East of Eden, which chronicles several generations in great detail. It is true that The Pearl and Of Mice and Men and other of his short works pack a punch, but nothing compares to the deep characterization he pulls of in his longer works.

I’m torn on this one. It’s certainly my least favorite of the short fiction series so far. I can intellectualize it’s strong points, but I didn’t connect with any part of it. And the end is super weird, but we’ll get to that. Obviously there will be “spoilers,” but I haven’t really been saying that considering these stories are a hundred years old and only take an hour or so to read.

All four stories form key moments in Jody’s maturation from childhood to adulthood. Steinbeck does a great job of establishing his innocence in a small amount of space by dropping small details throughout the beginning. One of the most interesting was that Jody had a rifle, but he wasn’t allowed bullets until he demonstrated maturity with it for a full year.

This is Steinbeck establishing family dynamics and rituals. It shows that Jody hasn’t undergone one of the key rituals on the path to adulthood. The first story is about how Jody trusts Billy to take care of a horse that eventually dies. Steinbeck cleverly foreshadows this by mentioning the buzzards at the start that eventually deal the horse’s final blow.

I see the novella as a sequence of four deaths and how Jody matures in reaction to each as he ages. In reaction to the death in the first story, Jody lashes out in anger and can’t understand how the adults in his life didn’t protect him from it.

The second death is stranger. A man comes to the family’s house and wants to live out his last days there because it is where he was born. This brings another perspective to Jody. The man rides off to the mountains with an old, dying horse. Again, the horse and human presumably die, but Jody learns of a more mature way to accept the inevitability of death through this stranger.

The third death is of a pregnant horse. This horse must die to save the pony inside of it. This teaches Jody of the circle of life. Death can bring about new life, which itself will eventually die.

Though Jody doesn’t realize it, this is a redemption story for Billy. Billy had promised not to let the horse die in the first story, and he feels guilt for letting it happen. Here, he promises Jody the colt inside the horse, and he has to kill the horse to deliver it. He succeeds in his promise this time. He gives Jody a horse to make up for the one that died and can let go of his guilt.

The final story doesn’t actually have a death in it, but Jody’s grandfather comes to live with the family. The grandfather participated in traveling west across the country. It was a grand adventure, but the grandfather makes it very clear such adventure is over. This kills Jody’s dreams of doing the same.

This is the final straw in Jody’s maturation. He learned of death, life, violence, the fallibility of adults, and now his boyhood dreams are gone. He must learn to live pragmatically in the real world.

The ending was extremely strange at first.

Jody ran into the kitchen where his mother was wiping the last of the breakfast dishes. “Can I have a lemon to make a lemonade for Grandfather?”

His mother mimicked—“And another lemon to make a lemonade for you.”

“No, ma’am. I don’t want one.”

“Jody! You’re sick!” Then she stopped suddenly. “Take a lemon out of the cooler,” she said softly. “Here, I’ll reach the squeezer down to you.”

Lemonade hadn’t made an appearance for the whole novella. What on Earth could this ending be?

It solidifies the idea that Jody has fully matured. His youthful self merely would have feigned interest in helping his grandfather to get himself a lemonade. The only reason the mother can think of that he wouldn’t want one is that he’s sick. But then she realizes he has matured. He’s acting selflessly, and so she encourages it.

I get what Steinbeck was doing. I just didn’t find it very compelling. I dreaded picking it up when I stopped between stories. There is pretty much no narrative momentum. Part of this comes from the stories being early in Steinbeck’s career, but I think when you look at it broken down in the way I did, it becomes clear that this is first and foremost a carefully constructed exercise. It’s obviously well done. I just didn’t like it much.

A Critique of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I recently got around to playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It’s one of those games I picked up forever ago, and it just sat around. I got it because it has to be one of the most critically acclaimed games I’ve ever seen. Giant Bomb and many, many other gaming sites gave it a 5/5 or very near such a perfect score.

I’m going to take a contrarian view, and I’m going to back up my claims with hard facts. Anyone paying attention and who knows about games should know better. I’m very confused as to how “experts” could have thought this game was good. I’m confused how “experts” could have even liked the game.

First, the game suffered from genre confusion. I’m all for experimenting with new, cross-genre ideas, but there has to be some content there at the end of the day. Was it a puzzle game? No. It fails on this front, because I never once had to “solve” something. From start to finish, the solution of how to progress was immediately obvious. Moreover, many of the puzzles repeated … several times … like, way too many times for a game this short.

Was it a platformer? No. The platforming aspects were too easy, and the stakes were too low. I think I died at one point because I accidentally let go of a trigger. That was my only death, and basically it happened because I itched my face or something. I got to repeat the task immediately with no penalty.

There is no platforming difficulty at all. In fact, many elements were downright bad on this front:

screenshot-brothers-a-tale-of-two-sons-climb-1024x592

brothers

The number of places where you must edge around a cliff or cross a narrow bridge got on my nerves. Not because I had to execute something challenging, but because the game designers clearly have no idea why other games use these elements. There is no risk of falling. The game won’t let you—I tried. So what’s the point other than to slow the player down? It’s more than an annoyance; it’s bad game design.

Basically, the game must be a story-driven walking simulator, because we’ve now determined it isn’t any of the other genres it’s crossed with. So how is the story? Oh, boy. Don’t get me started. It’s terrible.

First, it starts with a MacGuffin. This is already bad, mostly because we don’t even know what we’re setting off on our adventure to find. We only know it will magically save our father. That’s convenient. Where are we going? How do we know this cure will work? Don’t the writer’s know that MacGuffins are considered a cliche trope indicative of bad storytelling?

Then we haven’t even left our town and a kid is trying to stop us. Why? Our father is dying, and this kid doesn’t want to let us through. I get it. They needed an excuse to set up some “platforming puzzles” (that, recall, require no platforming or puzzle-solving skills). But you can’t have such a disgusting character with no motivation. I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” because I’ve never consciously experienced it. But here I did. This conflict between gameplay and story already ruined the mood of the game in the first five minutes.

Another act of ludonarrative dissonance was when I got to this big castle that I couldn’t enter, but it had these perfectly placed pegs to grab on to (not quite the picture I wanted, but you get the point):

638766-brothers-a-tale-of-two-sons-windows-screenshot-brothers-tied

Really? This highly fortified castle has this convenient other way to scale it with perfectly placed pegs, just the right distance so that the rope randomly tied between the two brothers barely reaches. Is this a story game or a puzzle platformer? If it’s a platformer, we could overlook these huge narrative flaws. But it doesn’t work as a game in that genre. It’s a story game, but these scenarios wreck the suspension of disbelief for the story.

More succinctly, in the language of game design, these sections involve “environmental puzzles,” but the puzzles don’t occur naturally in the environment at all. This is bad game design.

And let’s not even go there with the deus ex machinas. Are you stuck and can’t actually progress? Yes? Oh, well, good thing a giant appears out of nowhere and just throws you across the ravine. Did you get to the top of the castle only to be at a dead end? Good thing there is a bird trapped in a cage that will fly you to the next area.

It gets worse. How is that bird still alive? It’s been trapped in a cage for who-knows-how-long, bleeding, without any food, and all the people that could feed it are dead. Are we really supposed to believe the bird is still alive?

Lastly, people claim the ending is really sad. They claim they were moved to tears. I couldn’t get past the shrieking woman singing that shrill song at the climax. It ruined the mood. Ending Spoiler:

On a more serious note, I’ve already mentioned all the reasons I never got into the story: ludonarrative dissonance, tropes/cliches, unmotivated characters, ruined suspension of disbelief, plot holes, etc. I just didn’t feel anything except relief the game was over.

On positive note, the concept could have been amazing. Part of what made the game easy was that the core concept was never executed to its fullest. You have to move one of the brothers with one hand and the other with the other hand.

The potential for some truly interesting and difficult gameplay is there. All they had to do was design parts where you have to move both at the same time in fairly precise and independent ways. Instead, they stuck to having you move both in parallel or one at a time. That was the main downfall of the game: It didn’t even deliver on its core innovative mechanic.

Overall, each element has much better games. For puzzle platforming, there are dozens of examples: Braid, Thomas Was Alone, Teslagrad, Super Meat Boy, Trine, and on and on. For story, there are dozens of examples: Gone Home, Bastion, To the Moon, and on and on. For atmosphere: Limbo, Dear Esther, Kentucky Route Zero, The Long Dark, and on and on. I see no reason why anyone should play this game under any circumstance. There’s just much better games on every front.

I know. The whole is better than the sum of its parts for some games. In this case, that is not true. In fact, many parts messed up other parts. What the critics and people who liked this game were thinking is beyond me.

Two Letters of Wallace Stevens

I’ve been travelling for the holidays, so I don’t have a good place to pop out a nice 1000-word blog post this week. I’ve been reading The Whole Harmonium, a biography of Wallace Stevens. He is one of the greatest American poets, yet most people outside of poetry haven’t heard of him.

Honestly, his life isn’t all that interesting to read about. He basically lived a common life as an insurance salesman and wrote poetry in his spare time. It’s not like he was a Beat roaming the country for adventure.

Since many people return home during the holiday season, I thought I’d share some of my own interpretation of Stevens’ “Two Letters,” which I think is one of his lesser known poems. Stevens was a deeply nostalgic poet, and his poems often become self-reflective of this fact. It’s almost like he understands that nostalgia can distort our memory of the past, and he’s embarrassed that he feels it so much.

The “Two Letters” are addressed “A Letter from” and “A Letter to.” We’ll look at “A Letter from.” The central theme of this poem is a longing for his carefree childhood home again. The opening is breathtaking in its imagery, and once you parse the complicated phrasing, it strikes me as a deep truth about human nature.

Even if there had been a crescent moon
On every cloud-tip over the heavens,
Drenching the evening with crystals’ light,

One would have wanted more-more-more-

Humans can never be satisfied with what they have. We could be given the most stunning piece of heaven as described, but we’d still want “more-more-more-.” I thought this was an appropriate opening sentiment for a time of year that is all about consumerism and wanting more. We rarely step back and appreciate what we have.

Stevens opens this way, not for the consumerism aspect, but the nostalgia aspect. He’s saying he has trouble appreciating what he has now because he longs for the past too much.

Some true interior to which to return
A home against one’s self, a darkness

An ease in which to live a moment’s life,
The moment of life’s love and fortune,
Free from everything else, free above all from thought.

The poem then turns inward and clarifies that it is about his home. There’s comfort in reliving your life, but there’s darkness to it if you do it too much. I’ll try not to focus on interesting wordplay, but this is the type of stuff Stevens is most known for. He has “moment’s life” then “moment of life’s love.”

The first instance still only means a “moment.” You can ease whatever is going on for a moment by returning to those earlier comforts, but he chose this wording to prepare for a transition to contemplating the whole of life. These nostalgic memories let us stop thinking about our current life, if only for a moment.

It would have been like lighting a candle,
Like leaning on the table, shading one’s eyes,
And hearing a tale one wanted intensely to hear,

As if we were all seated together again
And one of us spoke and all of us believed
What we heard and the light, though little, was enough.

Stevens really delivers in the conclusion to the poem. He drops that nostalgic imagery again. This is like those scenes in movies where the music surges, the two main characters are standing in the rain, one declares their love, …

While reading these stanzas, he paints that image of being with family around a table. Everyone is telling stories and laughing. The light from the candle brings warmth to the scene. It’s brilliant how he puts that in to heighten the emotional content of the image.

He then concludes by returning to the opening idea. This is enough. Being with the family, telling stories, a gentle candle light. We can be grateful for that moment. We don’t need more-more-more-.

Thoughts on NaNo and The Story Grid Podcast

Today I want to talk about my thoughts on The Story Grid Podcast. The story grid is a method of developmental editing invented by Shawn Coyne, and can be found in his book of the same name. The book is well worth reading to learn about story structure, genre, pacing, obligatory scenes, and much more. You may think you understand these things, but there’s a big difference between having a vague understanding of structure and identifying specific structural problems and how to fix them.

The Story Grid Podcast is an utterly fascinating case study using the story grid. It comes out once a week and is a conversation between Tim Grahl, a first-time fiction novelist (though he’s written nonfiction and works in the industry), and Shawn Coyne. Tim writes or edits specific parts of the book he is working on and then Shawn does his magic.

I thought I had a good grasp on the story grid before going deep into this podcast (I’ve now heard all the episodes). Tim asks a lot of great questions, and it always turns into interesting conversations. These questions range from general ones every level of writer thinks from time to time to really detailed questions on making subtle value shifts work in a particular chapter.

Among many other topics, they’ve covered: having the expected necessary scenes without being cliche, identifying internal and external genres, narrative devices, beats vs scenes vs sequences and making these flow together, what is a beginning hook and how to make it work, actually performing a full story grid analysis on already written books, theme, good writing habits, what in the world happens while revising a first draft, marketability, inciting incidents.

To me, this is the best writing podcast out there right now. I also listen to Writing Excuses, The Self-Publishing Podcast, The Creative Penn, and many that have to do with books and book reviews. Writing Excuses is also very good on the nuts and bolts of writing, but the advice tends to be quick and generic. What makes The Story Grid so good is that you get to watch an experienced editor talk through his thought process and make a draft better in very specific ways.

They talk about things you’ve probably never thought about even if you have a book or two out there. Shawn will make Tim identify the main value at stake in a scene, then determine if it shifts and in what direction. Then they compare it to nearby scenes to make sure the value shifts are contrasting. This creates a sense of forward motion and interest in the reader.

Maybe a beta reader told you it got boring somewhere. Before learning to think this way, you’d probably be at a loss and write it off as their subjective opinion. After learning to think this way, it will probably be obvious that their was no value at stake, or it had been moving in the same direction too many scenes in a row. This probably sounds abstract, but seeing it in action is amazing.

This brings me to a related topic. I’ve talked about this before. NaNoWriMo is going on right now. It is a great way to get 50,000 words down fast so you have something to work with. I often participate for this reason, but you should not be under any delusions that what you have at the end of this is a novel that can be proofread a few times and will be publication ready.

Now I have a really clear case study and proof of this. Over a year ago, Tim popped out his first draft of the novel he’s working on. Even with an experienced editor helping every single week (look at the website to see there hasn’t been any down time), Tim has barely finished the developmental edits on the Beginning Hook section (about 25% of the novel).

I’m not saying it will take everyone this long, but if you somehow edit significantly faster (let’s say a year for the whole process on your first novel), you might want to consider that you’re doing it wrong. Tim isn’t wasting time tinkering with stuff that doesn’t matter. He has Shawn guiding him to parts that actually need editing.

I’ll also point out that these are merely developmental edits: story structure. I’m not sure if Tim has been warned that after all the developmental edits are done, he’ll have what I usually call a rough draft (as opposed to a “first draft”). The rough draft will then have several passes to edit for prose style, tone, voice, flow, tense, point of view, sense, detail, description, and so on.

I could see this process of getting his first novel in shape to submit taking three or four years. I’ll reiterate that this is all happening under the guidance of an experienced editor, so it is highly efficient compared to a first-time novelist working through these issues on their own.

I’ll end with a thought. If you read this post and you’re saying: what the hell could be taking so long? You might want to start at the beginning of the podcast and listen all the way up to the current episode. May the scales fall from your eyes. Writing is an art and a craft, and many that have a life-long career doing it still feel like novices.

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.

Whiplash and the Externalization of the Resistance

Steven Pressfield wrote a book called The War of Art back in 2002. Since then, it has risen to cult classic status in various art circles. The book spends some time defining something called the Resistance, and then it turns into a drill sergeant to push you through the Resistance. I want to argue that the movie Whiplash is a direct externalization of this concept.

The Resistance is that internal force that tries to prevent you from doing work. If you’re a runner, maybe you tell yourself that those mile repeats you have to get up at 6:00 a.m. to do before work aren’t going to benefit you that much. Sleep would help you be more productive the rest of the day. That’s the Resistance.

If you’re a musician, maybe you tell yourself doing scales with the metronome on one more day in a row won’t be that helpful. You could just play through some etudes to work on your “lyricism.” That’s the Resistance. Maybe you’re a writer, and you want to read one more book on ancient Rome to make sure your setting is completely accurate before you waste words writing something wrong. That’s the Resistance.

Most people that read Pressfield’s book can really identify with this and understand it from personal experience. Where he got some criticism was in how extreme he took this idea. He basically says the better you get and the closer to great art you get, the worse the Resistance will get. How bad is the Resistance? Well, it was easier for Hitler to start WWII than to face the blank canvas.

I get how people took offense to this historical inaccuracy, but the point wasn’t accuracy. It was to emphasize, metaphorically, just how devious and strong the Resistance can be. People will look for any excuse to not work.

This brings me to the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. This movie is so fantastic. It is about a drummer who wants to be the best. He, of course, encounters the Resistance.

The way I interpret the movie is through Pressfield’s book. The movie makes the Resistance external, so that everyone can see exactly what this kid’s excuses could be if he succumbed to them. As he gets better, the Resistance gets worse and worse, until pretty much the most ridiculous thing ever happens to him (I’ll spoil it later with warning).

Here’s an example from early on in the movie:

Oh, you practiced so hard that your hands were bleeding? Guess it’s time to stop and heal up. No! That’s the Resistance. If you really want it bad enough, you won’t let something tiny like that stop you. He comes up with the idea to dunk his hands in ice water to numb them and lessen the bleeding so he can keep going.

I know what you’re thinking. Plenty of people become the best in the world in their art form or athletics without going to these extremes. But I think this misses the point the movie is making. Like the Hitler comment above, the point isn’t to be “literal.” The movie is metaphorically externalizing the Resistance.

Imagine how ineffective it would be for this scene to have the Resistance appear internally. His internal voice-over says, “This is hard. I want to stop.” Boring. Unenlightened. The Resistance will always present itself as legitimate excuses, which is what makes the movie brilliant.

BEGIN SPOILER (highlight it to read)
At the climax, the kid is in a car accident and gets whiplash. He is basically trapped inside an upside-down smashed car, bleeding from tons of wounds. If ever there was a legitimate excuse to stop, this would be it. But no, he claws himself free from the car and runs to the concert where he is supposed to perform and starts playing on stage.
END SPOILER

It would again be a mistake to write this off as totally ridiculous. The point is that the Resistance will keep getting worse as you get closer to being the best. The movie had to up the Resistance to these levels to show just how strong the feeling of having an excuse will get. It’s metaphor; it’s not literal. And I think people’s problem with the movie and Pressfield’s book is they don’t understand that the only way to teach people this lesson is to go over-the-top like this.

Structural Analysis of Bag of Bones: Chapter 1

Last week I was somewhat disparaging about opening hooks of novels. Today I want to do a thorough analysis of the structure of Chapter 1 of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, because I think it is an example of an opening hook done well.

I read enough books on writing and listen to enough podcasts on writing that I might conflate a bunch of terminology. Some of this will be Story Grid or Writing Excuses or classical Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sorry for not sticking to one style of analysis.

The chapter consists of seven scenes or segments (some are quite short, so “scene” might not be quite the appropriate term).

Scene 1:

The first paragraph let’s us know the narrator’s wife went out for routine drugstore supplies and wound up dead. This is the inciting incident for Act I, but also for the chapter and the scene.

King doesn’t tell us how it happens, and this is the hook. What makes this a good hook is that this opening starts at the beginning of the story. This isn’t some artificial action to draw us in. He doesn’t tell us how she dies, and that is the driving force behind keeping the reader interested. It’s the removal of information rather than the giving of information that makes this work.

The scene rounds out by the narrator looking at what his wife purchased. He ends on a cliffhanger. He sees something that indicates she might have been living a double life, but he doesn’t tell us what it is. Now we have removal of information again. We want to know what the item is, and we want to know how she died.

I find it hard to imagine someone reading this first scene (less than 1000 words) and being able to put the book down. This hook is really, really good without being patronizing or condescending.

Scene 2:

It opens with the wife leaving the drugstore. He establishes the narrative voice by indicating the narrator is a writer, and he’s only re-imagining what the scene looked like. He foreshadows the death of the wife being a car accident.

“…there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there’s going to be either an accident or a very close call.”

It shifts to two old women in their own car and a large truck barreling at them. What’s brilliant here is that Scene 1 set a lot of expectation. We know the wife dies, but she doesn’t appear to be in the oncoming accident. This is how King creates tension in the scene. He prolongs telling you what actually happened by describing tangential things. This gives the reader the chance to imagine her own scenarios: truck veers off into wife?

The narrator shifts to the truck driver telling him about the accident. This really ratchets up the narrative drive. If the truck driver kills the wife, would he really be on friendly terms, talking about it to the narrator? Then bam. The truck hits the car with the two elderly women, and both are fine and the wife is fine!

This is a reversal of expectations. The wife watched it happen, but then she falls down when going toward the accident. The tension in the scene increases as no one pays attention to the down wife. This is narrative irony at work, because we, as readers, already know she dies, but we still get mad when people ignore her. It’s as if we think she could be saved if someone attended to her.

The scene, of course, ends with another cliffhanger. We’ve resolved one mystery: how she died (brain aneurysm). As soon as it gets resolved, another is introduced. At the coroner’s, the narrator reminds us of the other unanswered question.

“I told him what she’d purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.”

Now we doubly want to know the item, because it prompted the double life comment and a question for the coroner. Dig that hook in deeper.

Scene 3:

The funeral. Because this is such a departure from the first scenes, there is a new, minor inciting incident for the scene. One of the relatives argues with the funeral director over the price of the casket. The narrator argues with this relative.

It gives conflict, but it is mostly a device to direct our attention away from the earlier question. In that conversation, the narrator tells him the wife was pregnant. This is the turning point of the whole chapter. This reveal is made more shocking by distracting the reader right before giving it.

Our first questions have been resolved. The unknown item was a pregnancy test, and the question to the coroner was to find out if she was actually pregnant. But now we’re left with a new unknown. Is the child the narrator’s? Our guess is no, because of the earlier double life comment he made. We’ve also learned they were trying for eight years with no success.

Scene 4:

We’re still at the funeral. Some standard funeral stuff happens, and we get moments of grieving. Earlier, when King strung the reader along, I called this increasing narrative drive, but because of the resolution of the most pressing issues, this isn’t the case here.

This scene serves as a reprieve to the tension of the first three. It offers character development and empathy for the narrator. The main conflict is the narrator discussing with his siblings what to do about their parents descending into dementia from Alzheimer’s.

The scene ends with the brother of the wife not knowing she was pregnant either, and that the baby was a girl. We end with same questions as the end of the previous scene.

Scene 5:

We get more dialogue as people leave to go back home after the funeral. This is more character development (learn how stubborn the main character is and won’t ask for help etc).

In the middle of the scene, an ominous warning is dropped. “And be careful.” “Careful of what?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know Mikey.” In normal circumstances, we wouldn’t think too much of this, but it’s Stephen King. This serves as the next unknown source of tension. Who got the wife pregnant? And now, what should the narrator be careful of?

The scene closes with more symbolic foreshadowing. There’s a description of dark rumbling thunder in the distance as night falls.

To take stock, we built and built and built the tension and unknowns all the way to the turning point, roughly halfway through the chapter. Then we get two segments where we came back down for a bit. But now he’s starting to turn the tension back up.

Scene 6:

We are again in a totally new segment: the narrator, by himself, after the funeral. So we get another minor inciting incident to get things moving again. The scene opens with the narrator having a crying fit. He calls it his “second crying fit,” which implies there’s going to be more.

The narrator hires a group of people to scrub his house clean. He keeps repeating that he feels like he’s in a dream. Up to this point, it seems the obvious way to describe mourning. But now the words have appeared a few too many times to be without significance. The scene ends by reminding us of the pregnancy test. He wants to rekindle that desire to find out what exactly happened.

Scene 7:

New inciting incident. In pre-cleaning for the cleaners, he comes across an open paperback the wife had been reading: The Moon and Sixpence. Side note: This book is about a man who abandons his wife and children to become an artist. Coincidence? Are we to believe the narrator abandoned his wife to be a writer?

What’s interesting is that every one of these supposed “clues” could be to throw us off. The narrator is grasping for anything to help him figure out what happened. But this doesn’t diminish their role in creating a strong opening chapter hook.

We find ourselves thinking: the book, the crying fits, feeling like in a dream, the pregnancy, the coming storm, what does it all mean? The book takes on much greater significance, because the narrator looks at the page, reads some of it, recalls time with his wife in college when they first read it. So many words are devoted to this that we can’t help but feel this is the strongest clue we’ve gotten so far.

He goes into another crying fit and falls asleep. In his dream, he tries to put the book back where he found it, but his wife is there. She calls the book her dust-catcher. She’s wearing what she was buried in. He wakes up. He checks for her, and she isn’t there in real life.

The chapter ends.

The overall structure is two builds with a turning point in the middle. There is a main hook that takes most of the chapter to develop: what happened for her to become pregnant? But he starts with smaller more immediate hooks to get the reader into the story faster. The main question doesn’t make sense without the context of the characters being developed a little first.

The chapter has an “ending payoff” when he finally links the ideas of being in a dream and the book and the wife in the last scene. Since this is King, we also have one extra cliffhanger for the end of the chapter. Was the last event a dream, or did he actually communicate with the dead wife somehow?

The Difficulty of Invisible Description

I’ve been reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second Dresden Files novel. In the middle of a fight with a werewolf, the narrator uses this simile:

I was flung back through the air like a piece of popcorn in a sudden wind …

I loved this image at first. It conveyed a vivid image of what happened. It did so with a completely original bit of description. In a sense, it seemed to follow all the “rules” for good writing. It shows instead of tells. It avoids cliche. So why did something feel wrong about it? Why did it pull me out of the story?

And that’s when it struck me. In a sense, the description was too good. It wasn’t invisible, which is why it pulled me out of the story. This is one of those things that no one wants to tell you, but sometimes writing can be too creative to serve its purpose.

Eventually, I realized I could pin the problem down even more. The word “popcorn” is the word that jumped out too much. In a fight scene with a werewolf, the word popcorn is too unexpected. I talked a bit about this in the post on tonal consistency. It isn’t the right tone for the moment.

As readers, we have baggage surrounding werewolves, and we have baggage surrounding popcorn. There is no overlap between these two histories. Sometimes this stark contrast can be done purposefully to achieve a desired mental state in the reader (comedy or Lynchian horror to name a few), but this was not the place for such a thing. A fight scene needs to have invisible description, and that’s often harder than the creative thing.

Let’s workshop how my own thought process goes for description. Say I’m writing a fight scene, and the antagonist yells an insult at Bob, our protagonist. My first draft has the sentence:

Bob was angry.

It’s such bad writing, but that’s what first drafts are for.

On revision, I think about the advice “show don’t tell.” I need to come up with some description that shows the anger. I replace the sentence with:

Bob’s cheeks flushed red with anger.

It’s an improvement but not by much. I call this “fake showing,” because I’m still telling the reader “with anger” and I’ve only put in a shallow, cliche idea.

How did this happen? Well, I heard the word anger, and I thought the color red. I also thought the phrase “hot head.” The description came out as something red on the person’s head. It’s dull and uninformative.

Here’s a technique I learned from one of Orson Scott Card’s books on writing. The first few things you think of will always be cliche and ordinary. That’s why you thought of it first. So make a list of 10-20 descriptions, and only start working with ones that fall near the end of the list. This forces you to exhaust all the common tropes. Don’t worry about sentences. Get the idea for the sentence down.

Anger welled in his gut. (cliche)
He shook with anger. (cliche)
Balling of fist. (cliche)
A low growl of anger in his chest. (semi-cliche, but better)
Tightening of muscles: face? neck? chest? (getting somewhere)

We could move to even more ideas, but let’s stick with this last one. I wanted to get away from the head, so let’s not use the face. There’s too much danger for cliche there. I like neck, because it isn’t so inventive as to automatically draw the reader out of the scene. I can’t recall ever reading this description for anger, but it strikes me as something everyone will immediately relate to: the tightening of the neck muscles.

Let’s try it.

The muscles in Bob’s neck coiled into a tense knot.

It’s okay. It’s a bit general and vague. Which muscles? How did it feel? We’ve replaced telling of the anger to telling of the feeling of anger.

Also, I’ve sort of lost that we’re talking about anger, and it’s cheating to tack on “of anger” to the end of that sentence. I even see this in established authors. It makes me cringe, because if it’s needed, you haven’t used he right description. If it isn’t needed, why is it there?

Let’s make it a bit more descriptive in a way that edges us back toward the anger.

The long muscle running down the left side of Bob’s neck snapped to a rigid knot and pulsed with a fiery violence.

I think the anger has come back a bit. It walks up to cliche with “fiery violence,” but I don’t think it crosses the line.

Are we done? No! Now we have to do the hard part. Will it be invisible in the scene? That’s hard to say without the context of the sentences around it. But there is a major danger with the way it is written now (I did this on purpose). It personifies a muscle by giving it an emotion. Like the simile I started with, this is a dangerous thing for invisible description. Any simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, (insert word here)-ification, will draw attention to itself.

There are tons of situations in which description doesn’t have to be invisible, like setting a scene. In those situations, the literary techniques can run wild with creativity. The middle of an action sequence can’t pull the reader out of the story, so invisibility is more important.

Now let’s try to do one more revision where we tone it down without losing the essence. I first notice some excessive wordiness, which I’ll try to contract and simplify.

A fiery pain jolted through the left side of Bob’s neck as the muscle tensed into a knot.

This is close to done. It will probably need some more tweaking in context to make sure it is invisible and conveys the anger in the appropriate amount. Good luck on your own invisible descriptions!

P.S. My parents complain that it takes me too long to write a book. Here’s a 1000-word thought process in an attempt to edit a 3-word sentence. How long does it take to edit a 90,000-word novel? Do the math.