Regarding “Taking the Rats to Riga”

So, I find I’m getting a lot of hits today from folks directed here after author Jay Lake picked up my post from yesterday – in which I reviewed The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities – in his daily Link Salad.

Which is making me feel a tad guilty, because my mention of Jay Lake’s story is one not-very-enlightening line, with respect to his specific contribution to that anthology.  I reason that a good number of those who are coming over from Jay’s link are interested in my take on his story, in particular.  So I thought it might be useful for me to say just a few more words on Jay’s story, specifically, since he was kind enough to link me.

In my review of the Cabinet, I called “Taking the Rats to Riga” a “more peculiar specimen” and, more specifically, an “artificial [exegesis] of an imaginary [work]”.  Which is only partially true, since an artistic rendition of the supposed famous painting Jay  was commenting on accompanied his story.

Overall, Jay’s story plays beautifully into the conceit and conception of the book as a whole.  It takes the mythology of Lambshead book at face value, and does an able job exploring the quixotic compulsion of the imaginary doctor to collect quixotic objects of some imperceptible import.  In that way, I feel that Jay’s contribution was a seamless part of the fabric of the book, and goes a long way toward making the book, as a whole, into something more than an anthology of stories and into a work of art.

Although Jay’s story doesn’t do much with character or plot or the traditional trappings of story and narrative, it does something a little more subtle.  I’ve talked on this blog before about my enthusiasm for “Mythopoeia” (the link goes to the first in a series of three articles I wrote on the subject).  I think an understanding of what I mean by “mythopoeia” (as opposed to what might more commonly be meant by the word) is relevant to a discussion of the Cabinet of Curiosities, because I see the Cabinet as a form or type of mythopoeia – or, more specifically, as an artifact of mythopoeia.  It weaves a world and addresses that world not through the lens of a single narrative, but through a broader and more varied historiographic and mythographic sequence.

In the Cabinet of Curiosities, for instance, we don’t see a single overarching story about the good doctor’s mythic exploits and accomplishments and adventures.  Instead, his world is hinted at subtly through the varied stories and perspectives collected in this book.  Some address the doctor’s story directly, some indirectly, and some apparently not-at-all.  And what we’re getting isn’t really just the story of Dr. Lambshead but the story of an alternate history world in which Dr. Lambshead was a luminary figure.

In that respect, what’s delightful about “Taking the Rats to Riga” is that it is a fine specimen of mythopoeic artifact (or perhaps sub-artifact?).  Within the context of the Cabinet of Curiosities, it is one of those that somewhat indirectly hints at the history and character of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead, but it’s a glimpse that feels authentic and textured.

So, if you came here hoping to read more about Jay’s story, hopefully this satisfies your curiosity a little more fully.  And thank you for reading!

Cult of Eschatology

On Sunday I made light of the World That Didn’t End, and the people whom the non-event flummoxed.  But, truth be told, I’ve been thinking a lot more about those folks than my short, flippant blog-post my suggest.  On one hand, I feel very sorry for these folks.  These people really believed that they were going to be taken up into heaven on Saturday, and that the the earth would suffer the ravages of earthquakes and various other disasters, killing most of the rest of us left behind.  I mean, they really believed.  Like, spent-their-life-savings-to-buy-billboards-warning-non-believers believed.  These people had no “Plan B“.

I feel for them.  I really do.  It must be difficult to devote yourself so fully to a belief, to an idea, only to have the rug pulled out from under you.  I understand, in some way, the pain they must be going through.  I’ve had my crises of faith, those moments when I questioned what I believed in.  But this is more than just an emotional let-down for them.  They have no pieces to pick up, no life to go back to, because many of them sold everything, gave up everything, cut bonds, quit jobs to pursue this eschatological fantasy.  They are victims. Continue reading

Patrick Rothfuss on Story

This lastest blog post by Patrick Rothfuss, bestselling author of Name of the Wind, really touched my heart – as a father and as a storyteller.

My little B.T. is only a little ways behind Rothfuss’ Oot.  He’s got some catching-up to do in the vocabulary department, yet.  But we still read to him as often as we can.  Go take a look at Rothfuss’ story about telling stories.

Every Ending is a Beginning

Yesterday was the last day of the Fall semester for me, the day when my final project and exam were handed in.  Yeah, so you’d think with a title like that I’d be talking about writing stories.

But no, the punchline is that today was the first day of a new mini-semester we call an “ACE” class.  These are little one-class-at-a-time deals that occur in the month-long period between semesters where we go for three weeks, two normal class-days a week plus Saturdays.  The topic of this class is one where I am sorely in need of improvement (the course has “networks” in the title, and it’s not a computer science course, if you know what I mean).

So, what did I do with a whole evening’s break?  Why, go with Dear Wife and some other family members to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra in concert, of course.  It’s the Christmas season, so it’s the time of year when you break out that kind of music.  But I’d been so sleep-deprived from some extremely late nights this past week that we ended up not staying for the whole thing; the better to beat the crowd out and get home so I could crash (and Dear Wife was tired, too).  Last night was the first full night of sleep I’ve had in a while.

And now, I’m back in the saddle.

The good news?  I can really and true just make out the light at the end of the tunnel.  Five months.  Just five months.  At the same time… I can’t help but recall it was a year ago when I started work, in earnest, on that short story referenced in the side-bar (“PFTETD”), rewriting vast sections of it, adding new characters, and changing the direction of the story somewhat, in anticipation of sending it out with an eye toward its hopeful publication.  It ended up taking me a little longer than what free time I had during the semester break (I didn’t take an ACE last year), but I did finish it and I did get it out.   It was only shortly before that that I started blogging.   It’s interesting to look back over that year.

Anyway, I’m just relieved.  This past semester has been one of the most challenging and demanding, time-wise, that I’ve had so far.  I’m glad I’ll only be taking one class in the coming Spring Semester.

A Little Linkage – A Creepy Tale

Sometimes, when you’re out there on the internets, doing your lunch-break thing… you encounter a little buried treasure.  Human decency compels you, then, to share the love a little with your fellow man.

This is one such time.  Here’s a site that’s been around since 2001, so some of you may have encountered it before. But this week was my first time. 

As a bit of background from my own experience relating to the story on this page, I’ve been caving once before.  It was a unique experience.  I hope someday to go again.  But there is something inherently creepy about being in a cave.  It’s hard to describe – someday I may do so in a regular blog post.  But that one experience (in a large group, mind you) left me with enough of an impression of what it’s really like deep in the bowels of Mother Earth to get totally creeped out by the events described on the link I’m about to give you.  This isn’t a story like what you’ll see on my page, with the usual trappings to safely transport you into the fictional world… no “Imaginary title here” by: Author’s Name Here.  Instead, you are left to wonder at the truth of the events described (howbeit, I did a little further research, after the fact, to learn more…)  But I was captivated in a most peculiar way.

Therefore, I present to you, a link to the creepy tale of “Ted’s Caving Page“. 

You’re welcome, and Happy October 😉

Writing Quote: In the Air

I don’t often pick writing quotes that I disagree with (okay, I can’t say I’ve ever done it, to date), but this week I thought it was appropriate.  (10 Points and the House Cup to whoever can identify the thematic link between today’s Writing Quote and this week’s posts.  I don’t intentionally pick a theme each week, and many weeks I don’t have a consistent theme, I just blog about what comes up, but a lot of times I’m able to draw out some common threads from most of the week’s posts.  That’s one of my special powers.)  So, here’s today’s quote:

The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air.  All I must do is find it, and copy it.

~Jules Renard

On one hand, I agree that in principle, the story I’m writing “exists” – but not in the way Renard here suggests.

The idea that the stories we are writing already exist and that the characters about whom we write are real people with their own wills is a popular conceit among writers.  And though I mean no offense to writers who subscribe to this way of thinking, I disagree with it pretty strongly.  The characters I creat are just that: my creations.  They exist only in my head.  They have no independent will.  When I create characters, I try to give them the traits and qualities of real people, but ultimately this is to serve the story. Continue reading

Friday Flash: Kathryn’s Child

This week, T.S. Bazelli’s “Author Aerobics” challenge is on internal monologues.  Here it is:

This week’s challenge: Write a piece of fiction (1000 words or less) that includes moments of internal dialogue. The theme: “fireworks”.

Well, after two straight epic-fantasy stories and a contemporary fantasy story, last week I decided I’d put up something a little more sci-fi for my next short story.  And thus, this story.  At first, I didn’t have any particular purpose to this story, but as I wrote it, I decided I wanted to set it in the space opera-themed world I had created several years ago that I called, at the time, “The Alchemist” (and that I don’t currently call anything, yet).  How this story fits in with that setting, I’m unsure.  Several elements in this story didn’t appear in my original write-ups.  Anyway, I’ll get out of the way, now, and let you read.  It’s a tiny bit shorter than what I’ve been doing lately – only 1,066 words – and I’m calling it:

Kathryn’s Child

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

“Time for the fireworks to begin.”  Kathryn gazed through the wide window at the tiny red, yellow and brown orb suspended in a sea of blackness beneath her.   In the distance, a pale red light glimmered, the shell of a dying star.  Doctor Vanwick shuffled his feet on the deck beside her. Continue reading

Friday Flash: Where It All Began

Someday I’ll write a sci-fi or something else like that in response to T.S. Bazelli’s weekly writing prompt.  I thought it would be this week, if I wrote anything, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, as is often the case, fantasy happened.  The challenge this week was to focus on setting:

The Challenge: Write a story (1000 words or less) that is set in a place you have never been. This place can be real or imagined. The theme: “home”

I sort of cheated, though.  I used a place I really had been to (the Dun Beag fort outside Dingle, Ireland) as the source of inspiration for the setting of this tale, even if the place itself is “imagined”.  (Also, of course, it’s just over 1,000 words, but I do that almost every time, so that’s not new.  This one’s 1,306 words long.)  And so, let’s take it back to:

Where It All Began

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

Sea foam sprayed up as waves crashed against the cliffs of Dun Chuain, where Aran was born.  At the very edge of the cliff, as though a stray wind might rip it from the cliffside and send it plunging into the churning waters a hundred feet below, rose the House of Dun Chuain.  It was a small wooden manse – long oak planks, steeply-pitched roof, and a watchtower – growing out of a mortared stone foundation some seven feet in height.  The current House was built seventy-five years ago, and the gray wood showed its age, but the House of Dun Chuain had been inhabited for several centuries.  Around the cliffside manor were the remains of the old village – stone huts and walls built without mortar, stacked with exacting care, by Aran’s ancestors. Continue reading

Writing Quote: Neurosis & Emotion

Touching on the theme of fellow blogger/writer-in-training T.S. Bazelli’s writing prompt for last week, I’ve been thinking on the importance of emotion in what we write.  Perhaps that’s why this quote jumped out at me.

The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

~William Styron

Neurosis, itself, is a bit of a loaded term, implying mental disorder, irrational behavior, and bizarre phobias.  But I think there’s something to be learned from the deeper implications of Styron’s quote, here.  And that’s that a simple, happy, unchallenged life provides little by way of grist for the writer’s mill.

The raw materials of the writer’s craft are, first, words, and second, emotions.  Emotions are the stuff of human beings, and insofar as a writer can capture emotions with words, then a writer has the ability to create characters that are compelling and engaging.  And that’s not a feat easily done.

The point suggested here is simple: it’s easier to write about emotions when you’ve felt emotions.  And a good story – a story with compelling characters and a compelling plot – is a story in which the characters are not always happy.  Characters in such a state of that by implication have no challenge, no urgent need, no impetus with which to drive the story.  The fuel of the story is the character’s dissatisfaction, regret, pain, confusion, uncertainty, fear, love, obsession, passion, hunger.  Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.  Need is the mother of plot – a character has to have an unmet need, and a character with an unmet need is a character with a complex emotional response.

So chew on that for a while, as you contemplate the midbook lull… what need leaves your character unfulfilled?  How does she or he feel about that?

Happy writing.

The Tale Up-to-Date

I’ve been telling the story of how my novel-in-progress, such as it is, came to be: how I was inpsired by first reading the novels of Lloyd Alexander, and how my skills improved over time, and I continued to write.  But into every good story must enter some struggle.

As I recounted last time, I had been writing a new draft of my novel throughout my college years, and into the first years of my post-collegiate career.  The highest numbered chapter I wrote in this draft was the 28th.  It was just about as far into the story as my first version ever got – roughly two-thirds.  At the same time as all this, I’d been working on and developing my background material.  Some time in college, I started keeping my “Idea Journal”, which I titled The Book of Ideas, in a mostly unused notebook.  The first filled up rapidly with ideas – mostly touching on my book – and I quickly started working on a second.  Not long after I started my first job after college, I was looking for ways to transfer this idea book into an easily searchable digital format.  I’ve mentioned this before, but after struggling with typing those notes up in Word, I later tried the program wikidpad (which is open source).  I also began writing a semi-poetic telling of the ancient history of the world the story occupied.

At that point, I experienced a significant one-two punch that put a setback in my work that has lasted a long time.  I kept all of my work on an external, USB hard drive because the hard drive in my desktop was too small for the volume of material I had collected (including music and inspirational art).  It so happened that I also used my hard drive to store a lot of music to use for a Church dance that I was helping to organize – which I took with me to the event.  After the dance was over, I took my hard drive with me and in the parking lot, it slipped out of my hands.  It didn’t shatter, and it wasn’t until a few days later that I experienced the true nature of the problem: the drive heads had physically crashed into the driver plates.  Some of the data was destroyed.  But my work was everything to me.  I took the drive in to a local computer-fix shop, and they retrieved some 80% of the data on the drive.  Sadly, some of the chapters in my book were not included.  My latest chapter, the 28th, was among those – and that chapter was the one chapter that I had not yet printed out in hard copy.

The second setback came about six months later.  I had moved to Atlanta, I had copied most of the information from my idea notebooks into my sister’s laptop (which I was borrowing).  And I had recovered most of the chapters in my book.  I’d been taking the laptop to work with me on certain days of the week (I went straight from work to a Church function on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, I can’t recall which day, and I usually had free time to work once I got there).  On this particular day, I’d left the laptop in the car, along with my completely filled notebook of ideas.

I got a call in mid afternoon – I was told by the parking deck security that some belongings of mine had been found: a bag holding a book of scriptures (and, coincidentally, my name and contact information) and a bag with a change of clothes (so I’d be appropriately dressed for the Church activity).  Horrified, I left work and rushed to the parking deck.  It was indeed my bag of scriptures and my change of clothes.  But my car window had been smashed in, and the laptop – along with my notebook of ideas – were gone.  With it, the majority of the work that had survived the harddrive crash.  I was devastated.

It was a long time before I started writing again.  But the true spirit of a writer  remains undaunted in the face of every challenge.  I still had the disk with the recovered contents from the crashed drive and reams of other handwritten notes, maps, and hard copies of the old draft of my book.  More importantly, I still had my heart and my mind.  At last, I resolved to start again: this time, from scratch.  I questioned everything, rethought everything.  The name of the main character, for instance, was just an anagram for the name of one of Lloyd Alexander’s characters.  What sense was there in that?  Did the geography of the world the story takes place in make sense?  What about the history of the world?  Who are my characters, really?  Are they people readers – other real people – will care about?  And my plot.  Was anything in it unique?  Any part of it new?  Anything that’s not trite and clichéd?

I  started a new book of ideas, and I switched to using ConnectedText to record my notes and create an interlinked encyclopedia of all my knowledge about my story and my world.  And I decided to start writing some short stories again, to refine my craft and keep my edge sharp.  I was almost on a roll.

And then I got accepted into Grad School.  And I got married.  Both very happy events for me.  But they seriously changed the paradigm of my life, and where the focus has had to be.  Those two events, which happened within a fairly short time together, have significantly altered how I spend my time, and what my priorities are.

But that pretty much brings you up to speed.  I’m still working on background details – in those five-minute cracks between things of greater import – and still working on a short story.  But I won’t start writing a new draft until I’m confident I’ve figured out all the details (or enough of them) about the background and characters and the direction of the plot.  Honestly, I have a long way to go.

Happy writing.