Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Self Publishing I: After the Manuscript

I get published next week. Or the week after. It’s surreal. It becomes more surreal when you’re told three months after final proof approval you’ll be in print. Then you send in final proof approval and they say you’ll be in print within 5-7 business days. I went to a vanity press, that’s why the dates are a little weird. I also think they’re a little slow and trying to push as much through the pipeline as possible. Being in the restaurant equipment industry, I get this sentiment.

I want to write about my experience with publishing. Despite the dates, with the whirlwind that goes into getting published, it has been surreal. I have been published already two times, but they were short stories and it just feels empty. I don’t know if that’s me or if others get that, but when I see my short story out, I’m a little like Thor.

Another

Publishing a novel feels different. I hope and think. It may also be that I want to build a large literary empire around it. I’m ambitious. I mean, what’s the point otherwise?

Anyway, you don’t care about that. What you care about is what happens after you finish the manuscript. Not after you finish the first draft, the second or third draft, but the draft where you had a friend look at it, your mom loves it, you love it, but it’s time to thrust it into the world.

By the way, did I say this is very subjective and everyone has their own way? I’ve spoken to a lot of published authors and even publishers on how they do this, and everyone has their way. The only thing that matters for success is that you have a way, you stick to it, and you’re hardheaded. Thick-skinned. Heavy-sacked. However you want to say it. Seriously. I just know I was a little side swiped by what all goes into this.

Continuing!

A common trend today in writing is once you’re feeling good about the book, find beta readers. These are often friends, though usually friends with some reading and editing insight. Also preferably friends who are bought off with a signed copy in the future and maybe a hug and a lunch. Or just mutual beta reading. While I still suggest hiring an editor, this is sort of a test group.

Give the manuscript out to a half dozen or so souls you trust for their opinion. Through writing groups I’ve made friends that I trust in different areas, whether it is grammar, plot, etc. They are still friends, but writing groups are also a great way to do strategic networking.

The beta readers can give a lot of information as far as what worked, what didn’t, and where you’ve been so distracted that even though you “edited” the part five times, you missed a period. I’ve had a few correct bad grammar habits I didn’t realize I had. Apparently towards is British and toward is American. Who knew?

After this, give it a run through for the beta readers.

While beta readers were digesting the manuscript, I was also working on some information touches! I give my beta readers a month, and I don’t want to slack off.

Think of a synopsis. I know, 250 words is difficult, but tell your story in 250 words. Keep doing it until it looks succinct and awesome.

Now that that’s over, tell it in 25. I know. Some of you had your eyes bulge. Your gut clenched. You may have even vomited. It’s okay. I’m here to hold your hair back.

The 25 word synopsis is important. This is the keynote, and it’s a brief description so people can get an immediate idea of what they’re about to read. It is not so much about your story, but about what it is like.

For G’desh (though this isn’t the exact one, as it’s on another computer):

An action epic inspired by Arabian Nights, in which two armies declare a holy war. Follow an assassin, prophet, and warrior in this mystical world.

Boom. 25. I rewrote those probably a dozen times. I think this may actually be my best yet, but it’s too late for that nonsense. The more you practice the 25 word keynote/synopsis, the better you get at it. From just those 25 words, a reader knows it’s going to be Arabian, magicky, there will be war and religion, and there are three view points, or at least three central characters. Maybe they’ll read the book based on that alone. Maybe they will at least read the 250 word synopsis which is far more detailed in breaking down the conflicts and characters. At the very least they have a brief idea of the story. This can also be equated to an elevator pitch.

Don’t forget a picture and author biography. Make the biography awesome. There are plenty out there to look at to get an idea. I throw a little mission statement in there about wanting readers to look to the classics, as well as get excited to go on their own adventures. This will help people understand and relate to you. Yes, it’s on a shallow level, but I’m going to tell you now half of it is perception. So figure out the perception you want, and conjure it up in 50 to 100 words.

I also used this time to come up with keywords for Amazon. It helps people search you more easily. I’d suggest doing research on good keywords. Despite the simplicity I probably went a week on and off to figure out exactly what I wanted.

In two days I will go over getting ready for proofs and release date.

As I said, there are a dozen ways to do this, especially self publishing. Everyone’s journey is different, and I’m by no means a master, but I was definitely overwhelmed when I signed the contract for the vanity press. What do you do to get ready for publishing? Leave comments to help educate.

Plot Challenge of the Week

Source
Source

Well, first of all I want to say congratulations to Sam’s father! It’s very exciting, and I know that publication (that is official publication rather than one of the many forms of self- or vanity-publication) is one of the goals both for many of the writers and many of the readers of this blog! If you have a moment please check out his blog! It looks like it’s just getting started, so the attention would certainly be helpful. Anyway, I have an exercise before. You’ve done this one a few times, but it is fairly new. Today I want you to sit down and write out your basic metanarrative. I don’t want you to building any settings or develop any characters, instead use what you already have and come up with an overarching storyline for a 1, 3, or 5 story series. Plan on these stories being between 10,000 and 35,000 words long and try to have a good flow. I want you to consider and decide on the following points:

1) What locations (i.e. cities, ruins, forests, temples, etc) is your story going to center around? What are the major powers (i.e. national or religious) forces involved and how to they currently relate to one another? How are their relations going to have changed by the end of the story?

2) What characters are involved? Who is your main protagonist? You supporting protagonists? Your main antagonist? Your supporting antagonists? How is each major character going to be different by the end of the story? Is anyone going to be dead? If so, who?

3) What is the introduction, the climax, and the epilogue of each story? What are the three pivotal events that the metastory itself focuses around? What are the major events that come in between them? Try to have a clear but general outline of your plot. Consider what has to happen in the story, and then consider what should happen in the story. Then you can start working out how to get from one to the next.

4) What are going to be your major trouble areas? What events or plot points do you just not know enough about, or are you simply bad at writing? Can you work around these trouble points? If not, is there something you can do to get better at handling them?

Dear Xylexyvok

Dear Mr. Critical,
I am Xylexyvok from Zerefyv. I recently killed Xoveck in the battle of Ylexo with Vozet. My issue is no one cares. They can’t get much past the first page of my story. Help!
Sincerely,
Xylexyvok


 

Dear X,
Your issue is your name, the cities you visit, the people you fight, and the weapons you use are all unpronounceable, impossibly complicated, and I can’t understand one in there words in any given sentence.

I read a book like this. It’s one thing to take inspiration from cultures of the past. It’s another to randomly put x, z, and v in just to seem special. It makes it difficult to follow. I put the book down after a paragraph. Everyone else I’ve spoken to tells me I need to finish it, because the story is amazing, but I can’t get past the naming, and honestly there are too many great books out there to keep reading one I struggle with.

So the issue is a simple one. Simplify names, stop being so alien (unless you’re legitimately being alien), and make it so people can say the names. Make it obvious when you’re talking about people and places. Our own cities and villages rarely correlate to names.

That’s it. This is a really simple fix for you and your writer. Keep it simple, keep it pronounceable, or at the very least keep it true to an influence.
Sincerely,
Mr. Critial

As The World Turns (in your novel)

Warning: Spoilers for Game of Thrones, Final Fantasy VII, and Orpheus (White Wolf table top game) all exist in this post.

I was playing Saint’s Row the Third when this idea struck me. I’ve thought it before, but never with such clarity.

Novels should be a point in time of incredible change. It’s that chapter in your history text book instead of a mere two paragraphs. It’s the story grandpa tells you about his grandpa, which you in turn will tell your grand kids. We still hear stories about how my four or five times great grandpa served under General Meade in the Civil War. Something incredible happened, and life would never be the same. While these moments are improbable, most people don’t read for the mundane. They read for the (believably) extraordinary.

I played a table top game called Orpheus. Or more so I read it and prepared a story and my group said it sounds boring. Neither here nor there. Anyway, the game was broken up into six books which were to make a movie set up. The movie set up, though shorter, works fairly well for any form of storytelling. I’m really only hitting the first and second step in this post.

Start your story with a norm. It doesn’t have to be a happy norm. In Orpheus you worked for an organization that fought ghosts. You started off as a human, a human who could do astral projection (naturally or with a drug), or a ghost. In Final Fantasy VII you start out as a mercenary with work to do. In Game of Thrones we get to see the Stark family in their natural habitat, along with a bit of a look at the natural order of the kingdom. Look at one of your favorite books, TV shows, video games, or any other story and try to find out what the norm is. There are obviously degrees of normal, whether it’s for the character or an entire nation, but you can get a pretty good sense of what is setting up the story.

Now change the world. Don’t love tap it. Don’t nudge it. Make us think you will do that. Convince the reader there is a plan and that we will ride that roller coaster. Set up plan after plan on how things should go and make us believe it will remain on those tracks. Then quietly place us in a car and side swipe us with a truck. Make sure we can see the truck out of the corner of our eye the entire time. Force us to realize in that moment that every single hint was there for us, but we were looking forward with such intensity we refused to look at the semi barreling at us ever so obviously.

In Orpheus, the company was destroyed by hired hands and you’re wanted by the feds. Prepared for another chapter of how I worked for this ghost hunter company, my jaw dropped when I read about how it all suddenly and violently changed. The hints were there, I should have seen it coming, but I just assumed nothing would interfere with my beautiful little path. In Final Fantasy VII you fall in love and wish to rescue a poor girl wrapped up with the corrupt government, a government you once worked for. The Starks are separated early on and their luck is never good. You watch a family get temporarily pulled apart to watch an honorable family get cleaved in twain over and over again.

Like free wallpapers? http://freepspwallpapers.wordpress.com/tag/cataclysm/
Like free wallpapers? http://freepspwallpapers.wordpress.com/tag/cataclysm/

Notice the theme of each of these; some form of exile. The world will never be the same either over all or for the main characters. Some decision has happened which completely alters the plans so carefully laid out. The village they lived in was destroyed (Jade Empire), the beloved family is kidnapped and used as blackmail (Red Dead Redemption), Enkidu is brought to fight Gilgamesh (Gilgamesh), Lancelot sleeps with Guinevere (King Arthur), and the list goes on. In a romance, the story might start with a divorce, a break up, a need to leave home for vacation, or some other push out of the nest. An action flick usually starts with a warrior, modern or ancient, realizing something is a lie and having to right that wrong. Obviously by blowing up everything.

The most important part of these alterations is they should bring real change to the world, not just something superficial. Using Saint’s Row to come full circle, this is what struck me about their world. When you start, it’s fairly benign. Sure you were just punched in the face by a rival, but it was local and small. You do lose your home and need to start over, but that change was small compared to how the world advanced. As time goes a paramilitary organization comes in and suddenly the fire power of law enforcement is significantly better. The story continues and martial law is brought down on one of the numerous islands so whenever you’re there, you start at a low wanted level. The bridges are brought up so you need to jump them to go anywhere. What truly kicked me in the teeth, though, was a green smoke which came from a small factory island. The island was suddenly zombie infested. It would always be that way. Each stage had irrevocably altered the landscape. I get in some genres this won’t work as drastically, but aren’t most of us sci-fi and fantasy writers? If we can’t completely alter our world, then what genre can?

Here is my challenge for you! Create a norm. Make up a character and some small setting, and come up with what a normal day is. It should still have some tension, though really all normal parts of life have it. Give them goals and desires. Once you have these goals, start coming up with how your character goes about obtaining it. Get him closer and closer to that end game, even if he only takes one of twenty steps. Now figure out how to make those goals nearly meaningless. Smash the character with some force that makes his goals nearly meaningless, or at least secondary. Remember, the world stops for no one. Keep it moving. Keep it interesting.

Modern Romance

Real romance lasts a lifetime.

I’ve written a few posts on romance and what it should look like (here, here, and here are three examples), and a common theme in these posts has been a criticism of the fact that modern romance has replaced love and virtue with lust as its central defining foundation.  Well, a few days ago a friend of mine posted this on facebook and I thought that it would make a good example of what we should be seeing.  This is something that her uncle said about his parents (and if you read this I’ll let you decide if you want to identify yourself): “Now, I admit I like a good rom-com as much as the next guy…errr, um gal…even like sweeping epochal romances like Pride & Predjudice. However, last night I watched my mom, feet twisted by bunions, failed surgeries and arthritis walk from one side of the room to another to find the salve she had packed. Then watched as she applied it gently to my dad’s lower back, hip, and leg lovingly trying soothe his pain while ignoring her own. Then she curled up next to him with her arms around him tight, gently raised up and kissed him lightly on the cheek or forehead. In her kindness I saw more passion than movies can muster. The care, the respect, the dignity she showed in those minutes to her husband of 56 years…without soft lights, air brushed bodies, or a sweaty soundtrack. Hollywood just doesn’t understand. Thanks to God for parents who have taught, but more importantly shown me a living example of love. May I live/love worthy of this gift.”

Instant gratification seems to be the norm in our pursuit of love.

The vast majority of 20th and 21st century romance (even back to movies like Hello Dolly) has displayed and encouraged an increasingly selfish notion of love.  This version of love is centered around two aspects of a single concept.  This concept is that ‘love is about me’.  Modern romance presents an idea of love that says ‘I want, I need, I deserve’.  It presents these concepts in the focus on passion and need.

Modern romance adds to these the belief that love and romance are based in emotion, a fickle foundation at best.  Thus, what we see is an idea of romance that says, “Love is all about me, my feelings, my needs, and my wants.  You have to fill the hole in my heart, and as soon as you fail, I’m moving on.”  It creates an idea of love that is akin to a match: it blazes bright with momentary passion, and then disappears.  Unfortunately, this idea does represent the concept of romance among much of the American populace.  I am always hesitant to blame cultural norms on media, but in this case media has (at best) created a descending spiral in which media reflects the worst aspects of the culture, and the culture then moves to make those aspects the norm.

But real love takes time, and work, and effort. It ignores pain, and it never gives up.

The kind of love shown in the above quote does not exist in the vast, vast majority of modern media.  It is selfless, focused on what it can give instead of what it can get.  It is passionate, but not the burning, reckless, heedless passion that fills our romance novels and movie screens.  Instead of a match the love shown in the quote above is a gentle fire filled with lasting embers.  It is the kind of love that has been built over a lifetime of mutual respect and devotion.  It is commitment, admiration, and concern not for oneself, but for the other.  It is hard, and it is often painful, but it is lasting, exalted, honorable, and far more intense than any momentary passion could ever be.

I use the example of a match for a reason.  Try this sometime: light a match and run your hand through the flame, even hold your hand in the flame for a while.  There’s instant heat, but it’s minimal and doesn’t last long.  Now try this: build a fire and keep it burning all night long.  Build up a heap of red hot coals, and then try putting your hand into the coals.  This is the difference between the kind of romance that we see in the media, and the kind of romance that we see displayed in the quote above.  One is immediate, but ultimately brief and unsatisfying.  The other is hard, it takes time to build, and it takes commitment through trials, but it will keep you warm through the long, dark night.

So, let’s fill the shelves with books and movies that display real love, not lust and momentary desire.

Another friend of mine pointed out some time ago that true love isn’t blind to a person’s flaws.  True love sees a person clearly, and loves them regardless.  It doesn’t say ‘I love you because of what you can do for me’, or even ‘I love you for who you are’.  Instead it says, ‘I love you. In spite of your flaws, and regardless of what you can do for me, I love you.’  So, I leave you with this, the definition of love: Love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, it is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs.  Love finds no joy in doing what is wrong, but instead it rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Love never ends.

If this sounds frightening to you, it should.  Love, actual love, is a terrifying thing.  It means putting another person before yourself.  It means letting them hurt you, and forgiving them when they do.  It means committing to someone, even when they aren’t committed to you.  So, stop letting fear run your life.  Grow a pair and love someone.  And let’s start writing some real love into our fiction.