Quote: C.S. Lewis on Originality

C. S. Lewis, famous as both the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and as a Christian Apologist, is one of the great classic fantasy authors.  Here’s something inspiring he said about originality in writing:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

~C. S. Lewis

It’s often been said that every story that can be told has been told, or that there are only 36 plots or only 7 plots.  Whether any of that is true, though, new stories continue to be told.  Originality and creativity thrives.  What’s original, and meaningful, and gives the force of meaning to our writing is the presence of our own voice, and the conviction to write what you love and what you feel to be the truth.  Smart man, that C. S. Lewis.

Happy writing.

A Novel History

I promised I’d tell the story of the novel I’ve been writing on-and-off for the past twenty years, of where the idea came from and how it came to be.  Today, I begin to tell this tale.  But right there, I’ve already given you the real gist of it: I’ve been writing this book, on-and-off, for twenty years (give or take a couple).  Without disclosing my actual age (though I’m old enough or young enough to be a new father and in Grad School), that does mean I was a child when I started writing it – though my memory is hazy enough that I’m not sure if I was in the single-digits or in the double-digits.

As a kid, I very quickly developed a love of story-telling.  I have an early memory of sitting in a circle with my classmates at school while a man dressed as a knight or a viking or something from the middle ages (complete with sword, a prop that would be a big no-no today) told us fantastic stories of knights and dragons in a traditional oral style.  That was probably one of my earliest encounters with the fantasy and magic of story-telling.

One assignment in elementary school required us to write a few stories.  These would be bound up in a hand-made book, and all of the students’ books would be on display, available for reading and commentary by all of the parents on the big parent-teacher night.  I can’t speak much for the other students’ experience with this activity, but I recall the difficulty I faced with this assignment: I’d written so many stories to include in my book that the manual binding process we were supposed to use wasn’t quite able to handle the thickness of my book.  Though the result looked like a bit of a mess from that, I nonetheless got glowing commentary – from other kids’ parents whom I’d never met! – on stories like “FF – the Fighting Force” (about a crack team of G.I. Joe-like action heroes) and “The Voyage of the Sea-Maiden Queen” (about a golden pirate ship with a crowned mermaid on its prow).  They were about as good as a six-year-old could produce, which is to say, not very good, but it was far more extraordinary that I had produced so many of them.  It was clear to me, even then, that this was my true calling in life (visions of becoming a lunar archeologist, an astronaut who digs up dinosaur bones on the moon, notwithstanding).

In 1985, Disney’s animated adaptation of Lloyd Alexander‘s Prydain Chronicles, entitled “The Black Cauldron“, was released to theaters.  I may have discussed this before, but it bears repeating in the context of my story.  The timing is somewhat significant, because my family had just moved to Germany the year before, where my dad was stationed at a US Air Force Base.  Theaters on military bases at that time were normally on a six-month-to-a-year lag when it came to getting new film releases and, being in Germany, I can only imagine that it must have been at the worse end of that spectrum before “The Black Cauldron” came to our base.  It’s impossible for me to say exactly when it did show there because, though I really wanted to see it, we missed it.  That was because the theater was usually only open on the weekend, and usually only had one showing of each movie.

Whatever happened, I can’t say for sure – time does funny things to your memories – but I do know that my parents got me a copy of a comic-book format version of the film (with drawings in the same style as the movie, though I don’t think they were actual movie stills), which I read with great enthusiasm.  (As a side note, years later I finally did see the movie when Disney at last deigned to release it on VHS and DVD; it was very enjoyable, and I highly recommend it, with the caveats that it is not a particularly faithful adaptation of the books, and the Ghostbusters-style film score – the two movies had the same composer, and it shows – clashes with the the style and tone of the film, in my opinion.)

The surprising discovery for me, though, was in the little copyright notice in small print on the back cover (or wherever it was located, my memory tells me it was the back cover, but could’ve been the inside front cover) which revealed that “The Black Cauldron” was not an original work, but adapted from Lloyd Alexander’s novels.  This was a curious thing to me.  There was a book about this movie; the book came first, and there was bound to be more to the story in the book than was in the movie!  Not only that, but further research revealed that The Black Cauldron wasn’t even the first book in the series, it was the second!  I made short work of discovering all this at my school’s library and promptly set to work at reading them.

It should come as no surprise, at this point, that I loved those books.  For some people, The Hobbit or the books from “The Chronicles of Narnia” are the quintessential classic children’s fantasy books and don’t get me wrong: I’ve read them all and they are all magnificent books that I would not hesitate to recommend.  But for me, the best examples of children’s literary fantasy without doubt are the books of “The Chronicles of Prydain”.

It must have taken me a year or more to read the whole series.  I don’t believe any particular book took me very long to read, but I recall having some trouble tracking down copies of the last two books.  And I’m not sure at what point while reading these books, or after, that I began writing my own novel.  But there is no question that Lloyd Alexander’s books were running through my veins, becoming a part of me, and spilling out into my own stories.  They are very clearly the inspiration for the earliest draft of my book that I started writing (by hand) as a child.  Of course, I knew nothing then about how to write a book, so it was very, very badly written.  But I knew how the story was to begin, and how it would end.

I recently read a wryly critical humor piece, linked off of John Scalzi’s blog, about the evolution of a speculative fiction writer – a writer of sci fi or fantasy.  The process, it suggests, begins when a reader of such fiction suddenly realizes that he or she can write better than what he’s been reading, and sets out do so.  My story doesn’t go that way.  Rather, I was inspired by what I had read.  I felt as though the magic of it was propelling me to great heights, that it was calling me.  I wanted to do what those books had done for me: fill others with a sense of wonder and deep emotion, and to tell a tale that captures and enthralls.  I’ve always struggled to improve my craft, though I’ve no way of knowing whether I’ll ever achieve the heights I seek in my work.  But the need to strive for it are as imbedded in me as my heart is in my chest.

But this is just the first act in the story of my book; and it’s gone on over-long already.  On Monday, I’ll continue the story.  Tomorrow, the second episode of the new series of weekly writers’ quotes.

A Dragon in the East

Yesterday, I started a Genre essay on the topic of Dragons, one of the oldest and most treasured of fantasy genre tropes.  I knew it was a big topic – which is why I put it off for so long (unbeknownst to you, dear reader, I’ve been planning this pair of articles since I started this blog) – and that I would be unable to do it full justice in so short a space.  Even with a second blog post, the topic is pretty big (thus the copious Wikipedia links), so after continuing my discussion of Eastern dragons, I’ll finish this off with a short analysis of the use of dragons in fantasy fiction.

Yesterday, I detailed a mythological image of a powerful force of nature embodied in a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing, snake-tailed creature.  But that frightening image differs markedly from what we see in Eastern and Oriental cultures.

There, the dragon is more serpentine than what we know.  It is four-legged, but rarely if ever depicted with wings (though it can still fly).   It is typically depicted with a mane, and frequently has a jewel or pearl under its chin.  Eastern dragons continue to represent the powers of the weather, rains, floods, waters and rivers.  But the most significant difference from the European conceptualization of dragons is that Eastern dragons completely shed any association with evil or avarice.  In eastern cultures, Dragons are not monsters to be slain, or which terrorize mere mortals.  They are auspicious symbols of good luck, fortune, and Imperial Authority.   At worst dragons are typically as indifferent to humanity as the weather but at best they are benevolent.

But there is still some nuance to this depiction.  Japanese Dragons pull folklore from a variety of sources, both the benevolent Chinese “long” as well as the serpentine, cobra-like Naga of India.  Still considered neither good nor evil, the Naga can bring both rain and fertility or drought and disaster.  One one hand, the line of Japanese emperors is thought to be descended from Dragons, yet on the other the Japanese ancestral god Susanoo is famed for slaying the eight-headed and eight-tailed Yamato-no-Orochi, a dragon to which an elderly couple had been forced to sacrifice seven of their eight children.  Here we see some resonance with the western dragon-slaying tradition. 

But it is particularly interesting that Eastern Dragons share many of the same concepts and ideas as Western Dragons: they are nature spirits and water deities with power over rains, seas, and storms.

In looking at these two dragon traditions, we have a lot to consider in analyzing how dragons are depicted in fantasy fiction.  Historically, in the western literary tradition, Dragons have primarily drawn on the western tradition of the evil, avaricious dragon.  Most famed of these fictional dragons is Tolkien’s Smaug.  Role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons picked up this theme, using dragons as the ultimate adversary for the game’s heroic characters.  The concept was occasionally subverted (especially, as far as I can tell, in children’s literature) in which dragons are merely misunderstood, but the this was the standard way to portray them.

I believe the first major shift in how dragons were portrayed in fiction came with Anne McCaffery‘s “Dragonriders of Pern” series (though I have never read these books), in which dragons become the formidable mounts for heroic characters – a theme picked up in the Eragon books as well as one of my own childhood favorites, the “Dragonlance” series.  In Dragonlance (via Dungeons & Dragons), we were introduced to the idea of  a world with two very different kinds of dragons: some motivated to do good, and some to do evil, and the two distinguishable by their appearance.   The idea seems to borrow heavily from the two different depictions of dragons in real-world mythology.  Today, the ideas spawned by McCaffery and later rebroadcast in Dragonlance and other novels now forms the nucleus of the modern fantasy cliché of the dragon. 

Meanwhile, other stories more directly borrow from the eastern version of the dragon.  The most immediate example I can think of comes not from literature but from film, but Falkor the Luck Dragon, from “The Neverending Story“,  is clearly based on the benevolent Eastern Dragon (I realize my example actually does come from literature but, to be honest, I’ve never read the book; an oversight I’m sure someday to correct).

An interesting trend that I’ve noticed, though this is mostly anecdotal, and I’ve not done a thorough study of the entire fantasy literature repetoire, is that throughout the 80’s and early 90’s dragons were fairly plentiful in fantasy fiction – in worlds like McCaffery’s “Pern” or Weiss & Hickman’s “Dragonlance” and many others.  As I said above, today dragons are not so much in vogue, but they’re not entirely absent from fantasy fiction, either.  Instead, however, they seem to more frequently crop up in stories in which they are remarkable because of their rarity.  My gut tells me that this means something, if it’s true, about the message in current fantasy literature, but I can’t say what this is.

The concepts and themes of the dragon have also been personified in the character of Rand al’Thor in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  Rand is referred to as “the Dragon” in the series, a moniker that suggests both the awesome, destructive power of the western dragon and the benevolent authority of the eastern dragon.  While not an actual dragon, Rand’s title is portrayed by a typical eastern dragon which serves as his sigil.  One of the joys of Jordan’s series is the manner in which it borrows both eastern and western myths and motifs to weave his story at an epic scale, and Rand’s character best exemplifies this dichotomy and duality.  And the best symbol to represent that duality, without question, is a dragon.

The way in which we think about dragons in fiction has changed a lot over the years, particularly as fantasy fiction has opened its doors to take in mythology from sources all across the world, not only from the European traditions and legends, but from Eastern traditions.  The way we view the dragon in fiction will continue to evolve as we borrow ideas and themes from many places, and the potency of this symbol will continue to grow.  These are just a few of the reasons why the image of the dragon is my favorite fantasy trope.  I hope to continue to see dragons take flight in fantasy fiction, written with skill and an eye toward the myriad mythic traditions that give it form.  Happy writing.

Here There Be Dragons

It is no spoiler to reveal that the short story I’ve been working on involves Dragons.  Dragons have been one of the primary mainstays of fantasy literature since the early days – and though not as in vogue today as in the past, they’ve never fully fallen out of favor.  Much of the allure of the dragon comes the deep and rich mythology passed down through the ages to us.  Because of the long association between this mythology and fantasy literature, and because I draw on some of those themes in my short story, I couldn’t help but write about this, my favorite fantasy trope.

The intriguing thing about dragons in mythology is that it is nearly universal.  Though the nature and depiction of dragons varies across cultures, most cultures seem to recognize them in their mythologies.  There have been several theories to try to explain this.  A recent one is detailed in a book by anthropologist David Jones called An Instinct for Dragons.  His theory contends that the depiction of dragons across mythologies stems from a vestigial, evolutionarily inherrited fear of the natural predators of our most primitive ancestors (apparently some kind of squirrel-monkey creature), those predators being snakes, big cats, and predatory birds, and dragons being a conglomeration of those.  This theory, though interesting, lacks scientific rigor.  But another leading theory, that stories of dragons evolved as an explanation for early dinosaur fossil discoveries, also rings as improbable.  It’s difficult to say why images of the dragon are so widespread across many different cultures.  Nevertheless, the mythologies of dragons generally fall into two groups: Western, or European Dragons and Eastern, Oriental, or Chinese Dragons.

The word “dragon” comes to us from Greek “drako”, via Latin “draco”, meaning “serpent” (and originally from a word meaning “to see”).  But the concept of the dragon goes back much farther than that.  Since the earliest of times, there has been a strong association between serpents, snakes, and dragons.  The same association has also extended to sea monsters and sea serpents.  In Ugaritic and Mesopotamian mythology, Lotan (known in Hebrew stories as Leviathan) was a great seven-headed dragon or serpent of the seas and oceans.  Lotan came to be associated with the Babylonian sea goddess Tiamat, who was slain by the god-hero Marduk.   There is more to these stories than I have space to recount, but in these early incarnations, the dragon was associated with the destructive power of the sea, floods, and storms. 

This association continues through Greek mythology with the Hydra, a multi-headed serpentine creature.  The Hydra is considered a water creature, whose lair was in the lake of Lerna, and is the offspring of Typhon, a very dragon-like Greek Titan.  The Hydra had toxic breath, but its most frightening ability was the reduplication of its severed heads.  For each head cut off, two more would spring up.  These ancient accounts also have the roots of the heroic dragon-slayer motif: whether Marduk slaying Tiamat or Hercules slaying the Hydra.

In Hebrew stories, the Leviathan was slain by God.  Some interpretations have this as an analogy of the triumph of the Hebrew religion’s one God over all other gods, which are equated with demons and devils.  Indeed, throughout Hebrew, Jewish and later Christian stories, serpents and dragons both are regularly used to symbolize the forces of evil, and are interchangeable with Satan or the Adversary.  This  may be the root of the evil nature of dragons in Western mythology.

Through the Middle Ages, dragons slowly began to take on a personality and appearance distinct from sea serpents and snakes.  But they never fully lost their mythic meaning as a force of nature.  Dragons, as winged creatures, still serpentine but generally with legs – either two or four – were used as heraldic devices to represent strength and power. 

As these stories evolved, so did the dragons.   For instance, the Wyvern, a type of dragon typically depicted with only two legs, claws on its wings, and a poison-barbed tail, shares etymological roots with the word “viper”.  The more common depiction of dragons today, as four-legged beasts with wings and a snake-like tail, bears a closer resemblance to the Welsh Dragon, Y Draig Goch

Stories of heroic knights and saints slaying dragons that terrorized villages and kidnapped princesses abounded throughout this period.  The most famous of these is the story of Saint George and the Dragon.  The dragon terrorized the town of Silene, and to appease the beast, the people fed it their children, chosen by lottery.  The lot came to fall to the king’s daughter.  But as she was tied up to be fed to the dragon, Saint George happened by.  He slew the dragon, saved the princess, and by his deed the people of Silene were converted to Christianity.  But Saint George’s tale is repeated across Europe in different forms with different heroes and other dragons: whether Dobrynya Nikitich slaying the Slavic dragon Zmey Gorynych, the French Tarasque tamed by Saint Martha, the Norse Fafnir slayed by Sigurd, Thor battling Jormungandr the Midgard Serpent, or a dozen other knights, saints, gods and heros fighting a dozen other dragons.  From Fafnir and Sigurd, and other sources I’m sure, we also see the motif of the Dragon guarding the treasure emerge, and dragons came to symbolize greed and avarice.

Later, on maps, wild and unknown or undiscovered places, it is said came to be marked with the latin phrase “Hic Sunt Dracones”: “Here be Dragons”.  With all of this, dragons in western mythology have come to symbolize power, strength, a force of nature, the unknown, avarice, and evil.  Clearly, just mining this mythology, Dragons make for a potent,  loaded symbol.  But then we can turn to Oriental mythology.  Next time I’ll continue to wax draconic, and conclude this essay on Dragons.

Project (Mis)management

Yesterday I mentioned I’ll probably be spending time talking about my classes and what I learned there, just to have something to talk about.  Today is my first opportunity to do so, and now I’m not sure what to say.

Keep in mind that I wrote yesterday’s entry well in advance of it posting.  In other words: it wasn’t written on Tuesday morning.  In fact, it was written before my class on Monday evening.  Monday’s class was the first opportunity for the Project Management class to meet, due to a few scheduling snafus surrounding the Martin Luther King holiday last week.   Meanwhile, my Thursday night Decision Modeling class has met twice.

It looks like a good chunk of the focus of this class will be (1) learning the Project Management Lingo, (2) learning to argue for the need of project managers and (3) learning how and why projects fail (and ostensibly, how to fix them).

But speaking of project failure… well… my mother always taught me that if I don’t have anything nice to say about someone, then I shouldn’t say anything at all.  But a class isn’t a person.  So… here it goes.  It was  pretty tough because we were in the farthest, smallest classroom that seemed to be  available.  And that classroom was about a half-dozen seats shy of having enough room for the number of students enrolled.  It seems the classroom was picked because it’s a lab with access to laptops that can be checked out – but every regular lecture classroom has laptop power and network access at each seat, and most students have their own laptops (if warned they need to bring them), so that should be a non-issue.  Which brings up another issue.  Most classes in our school have their syllabus posted well in advance of the first class day.  For this class, Monday was the first time we’ve seen the syllabus, so there was little to know what to expect except by the course catalog description.

Further, perhaps because we were all downloading and installing new software, or because how crammed we were, or perhaps due to some other cause, this was one of the most disorganized and, quite frankly, unruly classes I’ve attended in this school.  There was near-constant chattering and side-bar conversations happening throughout the class.  Through all this background noise, the class lost focus a number of times.

Overall, I’m very hopeful that this first session is not indicative of what the class will be like.  I’ve come to expect a pretty high standard for the classes at my school, and expect to learn a lot from them (which is hard to do in a classroom as unfocused as Monday night’s).  I’m really interested in learning more about Project Management, and developing those skills.  I think those skills will be very valuable both in my business career as well as, potentially, my writing career.

That last assertion comes from this definition of “Project Management”: a “temporary effort to produce a unique product, service, or outcome”.  Essentially, each novel or short story is a “unique product”.  The work on each occurs over a finite period of time.  You complete a book or story, then you move on to the next.  There are steps and processes involved in the production and refinement of that product.  All of this looks very much like a “Project” according to that definition.

This is what I like about getting an MBA.  One one hand, I’m working toward making sure I have a career that can support my family.  That’s my first goal, and each class I take gives me new skills and insights, and hopefully points me toward a career path, within business, that is fulfilling and meaningful.  At the same time, though, I’m finding more and more that these business skills should also prove invaluable to me if I am ever able to get my “second career” as a writer off the ground.  Writers are business people, whether they know it or not, and not knowing how to run that business is a good recipe for business failure.  Most writers aren’t in it for that, though.  And that shortsightedness, I believe, is a limiting factor.  So, I’m happy to build and grow those skills, whether I’m only able to use them in a very conventional career or able to take them to another level in a writing career.

Happy writing.

From the Trenches

I’ve talked about how I might find time for writing by putting that time upfront, or finding moments in those five-minute-breaks between things that have to get done.  But with the semester getting under way, I’m finding things aren’t always so easy.

Although, I knew that already.  There’s a reason why I hadn’t been writing anything over the previous year or more since I started work on my MBA.  Frankly, the course work is demanding – especially when around ten hours of the day are absorbed, off the top, by my full-time job.

Other than this blog, I haven’t written much of anything for the past week.  I have found, however, that my notebook has started to come in handy, again.  I’m glad I still have that tool up my sleeve.  I’ve used it a couple times in the past few weeks.  As long as I have it around, I find ideas start simmering in the back of my mind.  For me, though, 90% of those ideas revolve around that long-gestating novel – even though I tell myself I need to think about other things, other potential novel ideas, if I want to be successful (I don’t want to count on the Harry Potter model: write a single series of novels, get incredibly lucky in your timing after a period of financial destitution, then grow fabulously wealthy and not have to write anything else ever again).  I do have other ideas for novels, but most of my ideas seem to impact that other novel.  I guess it’s because it’s the one work that I find most closely mirrors my own heart and soul – it’s tied to my own personal narrative in a way.

In the meantime, I’ve had increasing trouble figuring out what to write about here.  With progress on my short story temporarily stalled, I’m not running across new (and hopefully interesting to read about) lessons to learn from that process.

But I will have class.  And I wonder if I’ll have to write about class, just to have a couple topics to muse on here.  The classes this semester: Decision Modeling for one and Project Management for the other.  Decision Modeling is with our very popular and highly awarded professor.  And, so far, it’s been very interesting.  It has a lot of potential applicability to my current job.  Project Management will hopefully be a good exploration of another possible career-field, post-MBA.

So, I’ll report more on those classes each week, and what I’ve learned there.  In the coming weeks, I’ll also tell a little more about the story behind that novel of mine (not the plot of the novel, but the story of how it came to be).  I’ll talk about my novel-writing-reboot process, and I’ll compare-and-contrast novel writing with short-story writing.  Stay tuned, and happy writing.

A Cliché a Day Makes the Editor Gray

Last week I was looking for something in my e-mail when I happened across an old exchange of e-mails between me and another writer.  We had read and critiqued the first few chapters of each other’s “books” in progress.  This meant the other writer had the “pleasure” of reading the prior version of my novel-in-progress, the first part of which was written while I was in High School (and no where near mature enough nor skilled enough to write a half-decent novel).  Inevitably, the subject of clichés came up.

In my defense, I wrote: “Having been raised and cut my teeth on classic fantasies, I’m virtually immune to clichés.”  My reasoning couldn’t blunt this blow from the other writer: “Cliches: At this point I count five – young male hero, orphan/abandoned child, parents dead in horrible fire/battle/massacre, boy working at a farm/inn, mysterious dream which doubles as a flashback, and father’s sword with or without magical properties.”  Yikes!  It’s like I’d taken every well-trod fantasy trope I could imagine or remember and wrapped them all together into one story.  And all that just in the first chapter!

On the other  hand, any number of fantasy and science-fiction stories can easily be brought to the reader’s mind that follows this exact set-up.  The original Star Wars (Episode IV) has nearly all of those clichés (if you replace “magic sword” with “lightsaber” and drop the dream).  And yet, you don’t hear people complain much about it.  (In fact, in reviewing material for this blog, I find that a lot of post-Star Wars uses of these elements garner comparisons to Star Wars as if they were original ideas at the time; they were not.)  Everyone’s favorite “boy who lived”, Harry Potter, has many of similar elements.  Frodo Baggins of the “Lord of the Rings” has no parents (but does have doting uncle Bilbo).  In my old childhood favorite, “The Chronicles of Prydain”, Taran is a “foundling” of unknown parentage raised by a wizard.  All of these characters are orphans.  All of them eventually inherit a magic sword.  In none of these stories does the use of these clichés pose a problem.

In fact, the only significant criticism I found of this trope was when I looked for details on the “Eragon” series, which also follows this mold.  Even in that case the criticism is tempered by the book’s success among its target audience (children’s fantasy literature).   This causes me to wonder: how bad are clichés, really?

The consensus reached between that other writer and I: they’re not all that bad, if they’re done right.  The characters have to be fully fleshed out and interesting, not merely cardboard manifestations of deeply-mythological archetypes.  Likewise the plot and the setting.  Each has to be layered, detailed, believable and engaging.  But they needn’t be completely and utterly absent of any expression of cliché.

Nobody takes note nor cares that Harry Potter being an orphan is yet another iteration of the orphan hero cliché.  It doesn’t matter because Harry Potter is a well-written and believable character inhabiting an interesting world.  But there’s something else at work here, as well.  Each of these clichés has deep historical and mythological roots that by their very use tell us something about the meaning of the text.  Foundlings and abandoned or orphaned children, raised in circumstances ignorant of their true birth, include such ancient characters as Oedipus and Moses.  The motif of the foundling or orphan instantly communicates several things about the story: the mysterious origins of the character promise future greatness, and the situation of their birth implies innocence.  The heirloom magic sword typically serves as a “birth token” that represents the true nature of the child’s birth, which serves as a plot device and foreshadowing.

Ultimately, the use of clichés are a two-edged sword.  Used without skill and tact, and an acknowledgement of their historical and mythical implications, makes the writing feel trite and juvenile.  But used adroitly, certain clichés can become critical threads in stories that we remember and enjoy over and over again.  Doing so, however, takes a keen eye.  Not every over-used plot element can be reused with expert skill. 

I recall in High School, when writing stories or essays, that the comparisons were often made to the work of great writers.  Great writers, it was often remarked, often broke the rules we were learning about how to write.  However, the teachers always replied, they could only do so successfully because they had learned the rules first.  So it goes with these old clichés.  Great writing can use them: but only when the writer has learned what they mean, why they are being used, which ones add to the story and which detract, and how to flesh out the story and add depth and weight to counterbalance the cliché.

That old version of my novel was just such a learning exercise.  Coming face-to-face with my own clichés forced me to re-examine my work.  What comes after that re-examination will be made all the better for it, whether I  extract all these clichés or find more skillful ways to incorporate them.

Happy writing.

A Quote for you

My wife, some time ago, suggested I simplify my Sunday updates to start offering a weekly quote on the topic of writing.  So, today, via the magic of Google, I offer you the first of the weekly “Writing Quotes” series:

Every author in some way portrays himself in his works, even if it be against his will.”

~Goethe

There is, of course, an elemental truth in what Goethe says: whatever we write, it is an expression of our own mind and will.  Even the realm of fiction is bound by this fact.  We reveal our innermost desires, thoughts, hopes and dreams in what we write.

Happy writing.

Unblock

I was having quite a bit of trouble coming up with a topic for today’s post.  It’s been a normal, if busy, week at work – I have nothing of interest to report from that front.  School is school.  The writing of the short story progresses very slowly now.  It seemed I had nothing to say, until I realized I  have writer’s block!

Which, I thought, might make a great topic for a short post.

But, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t believe in writer’s block.  Over the years, I’ve learned it’s mostly a myth we writers (and especially we wannabe writers) have conjured up to justify our lack of productivity.  It’s convenient, when the words just aren’t coming, to be able to say to yourself: “It’s not my fault, I just have writer’s block.”  That’s a close cousin to: “The muse isn’t working today” or “I’m just not feeling inspired”.

Here’s a clue: a “muse” is an imagined (and presumably non-real) goddess of art and beauty in Greek myth.  It’s probably not good business practice to base our actions and decisions on Greek mythology.

I came to my realization that writer’s block isn’t real in High School.  I had an essay assignment to do, but I just couldn’t figure out how to start.   Nothing was working.  I knew I had writer’s block, but I couldn’t afford writer’s block: the assignment was due in a couple days!

I needed a way out, so I sat down and started writing a story, just to get the creative juices flowing.  The story starred me, fighting a dark and mysterious enemy that looked like a human-shaped black blob of ink.  We fought with pens for our swords.  The enemy, I knew, was the nefarious Writer’s Block trying to destroy me.  But with each slice I cut away at it, the true enemy beneath was revealed.  Suddenly, I was no longer fighting a mysterious black blob, but a creature with my own face!  I was staring into a mirror, and the thought rang out: “Behold, thy enemy is thyself!”  Suddenly angered, I shattered the mirror with my pen-sword.  The true nature of my enemy was exposed to the light of day, and I was victorious.

Once I finished writing the story, I was in awe of what my subconscious had revealed to me.  I hadn’t started out intending to find that writer’s block was inside me – I only wanted to defeat it.  And once defeated, the words for the essay I needed to write came easily.  Since then, whenever I’ve thought I had writer’s block, I always remember this story.

There might be many causes of writer’s block, but they almost always boil down to a single root cause: I don’t want to write.  I suspect much is the same of others.  Why might that be so?  Perhaps because what I must write is boring to me.  Or because I’m mentally exhausted from other things that I’ve had to do.  Or I don’t like the direction I’ve been going.  Or I can’t remember some crucial detail that I think is important to what I need to write.  Whatever the excuse, the problem is entirely internal.  The solution: recognise and accept that this is so, and force myself to write, just the same.

For today’s post, it was much the same.  It’s been a less-than-stellar week at work, and I’ve grown increasingly stressed over how to proceed with my future career planning.  I was allowing these other concerns to crowd out my desire to write.  I just couldn’t think of anything in my humdrum week that was worthy of spending a few words over.  But those excuses were insufficient.  I just needed to sit and write.

It may be true that, before continuing to write, you may need to push away and focus on gathering some data or information that you must use for what you will write.  And that’s okay: doing so (if you are indeed focused on doing so, and not dithering to do other trivial things) is still productive time.  But allowing yourself to ignore writing because you imagine yourself to have “writer’s block” is doing yourself a disservice.

Find the courage to overcome the monster within.  Happy writing.

An Elegant Solution

There’s a lot that goes into a good story – be it short or novel-length.  The most important of these, undoubtedly, are interesting characters.  But a very close second is the plot.

The thing that makes plot important is conflict, which at it’s most basic meaning is that there is a separation between a character’s desired state and his or her actual state.  Plot is what happens as a result – what a characters does to either move closer to or away from his or her desired state.  A good plot, of course, is more complex than this.

I try to do a lot of prep work before writing a story to help me with these two elements of the story, the characters and the plot.  Good character studies will help me understand the motivations and (sometimes competing) desires of the characters.  Good plot development fills in all the other holes, and provides valuable information on everything else that might come into play in the course of the story.

It’s at this prep work stage that I try to start thinking about all the “Chekhov’s Guns” that might be necessary to use in the course of the tale.  The phrase “Chekhov’s Gun” refers to a literary device that is explained in a quote by Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired.”  The idea being that something with dramatic potential that appears early in the story in an innocuous context ought to be used at a later point in the story at a moment of dramatic tension.

The obvious corollary to this rule of Chekhov’s gun would be: “If a gun is fired in the last act, it ought to be shown in the first act.”  In other words, if the gun comes out of nowhere at the end of the story, that’s dramatically unsatisfying.  But if we (the audience) already know about the existence of the gun because it was revealed earlier, we accept, and even expect, that it will be fired in the final act as a natural consequence of its very existence.  In other words, the use of Chekhov’s Gun is a form of foreshadowing.

Often, of course, Chekhov’s gun is not a literal gun at all.  But it is something that is usually extrinsic to the character, which is why I discuss the concept separately.  And they’re important enough to the plot that I think it bears taking time to think about them before commencing with the work of writing. 

I make notes about these sorts of plot devices that I intend to use in a story as new thoughts and ideas occur to me.  Historically, I’ve kept these notes in a notebook, but I’ve also started using a personal wiki platform to re-record all my notes and cross reference them.

When I think about these plot devices, I often think of them in terms of an equation.  The existence and use of the plot device, if thought about logically, implies something about the world, and about the story.  I try to think about the logical implications of each such device, and what it means for the story.  Likewise, if I want a certain effect to be had on the story through the use of a device, I try to think logically about the nature of the device that will be necessary to achieve that effect.

Basically, if I have a value on one side, the equation nature dictates a solution on the other.  I like for these plot devices to make sense, and to be elegant and convincing.  So I keep thinking about them until I get a certain feeling, an “aha!” moment: the sense that this is the perfect solution to the idea.  Basically, I want something that gives me the same feeling I get when I read a good novel or story that has a moment in it that makes me say to myself: “Of course!  That makes perfect sense! I should have seen it all along!”

If I can give myself that feeling, I figure chances are good a reader will have the same reaction.

For instance, I’ve been thinking over the past couple weeks about a plot device I’d thought up for the book I’ve been writing/re-writing since time began.  In this most recent incarnation, in which I’ve been rethinking everything from the ground up before writing anything, I’d decided it makes dramatic sense to make a very powerful tool available to my protagonist very early in the story.  Initially, the protagonist won’t be able to reuse this tool, for reasons that make sense because of the nature of the tool.  But then I thought: those reasons don’t apply to the antagonist of the story.  So, what prevents the antagonist from making repeated use of this powerful tool, giving him an insurmountable advantage?  I’ve had to rethink the nature of the tool, and explore the logical implications of its existence, in order to answer that question.  I’ve had to decide whether there is something more about the tool that might, in fact, prevent the antagonist from making repeated uses of it or instead if the antagonist’s use of the tool is precisely what I need to heighten tension in the story.  Which direction provides the most elegant and balanced solution to the problem?  Asking myself these questions now, before I set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) again to write the book itself will save a lot of potential grief later.

So, when you think about the plot of your stories, and the various devices, foreshadowing, Chekhov’s guns, and other things important to the plot, consider their logical implications.  If the answers you get aren’t the ones you expected, you might need to go back to the drawing board, or adjust your expectations and rethink your plot.  Either way, happy writing.