Taking notes from history

Hello internet!

If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.

So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy  but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.

Honourable Company

The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.

I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.

I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.

Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.

Penguin
A 17th-century sketch of a very sassy penguin

Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.

Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.

Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.

I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.

How well do you know your bookshelf?

Hello internet!

I have missed you. Due to the new schedule, it has been aeons since Tobias allowed me to post anything. But now my patience has paid off, and I have you all to myself for a week!

’tis the Christmas season, and if you’re a writer who goes through the gift-giving traditions of Christmas every year, you’re probably expecting to find at least one book under the tree.

I love acquiring books, and I am hopeful of my chances of acquiring some more on December 25th. But I seem to acquire them at a much faster rate than I can actually read them.

Unlike many writers, I didn’t really discover the joys of reading until I was already in my twenties. In my teenage years I fairly scorned reading (apart from Star Trek apocrypha) and thought, with the arrogance only possible in teenagers, that I didn’t have anything to learn from contemporary authors, even those writing the kind of books that I wanted to write.

Since leaving university I’ve come around to accepting that I am the merest novice, and I’ve learnt to welcome the lessons in the art of writing that can be gleaned from devouring as much fiction as possible. As such, I buy a lot of books. If I see rave reviews of a fantasy novel by an author I haven’t heard of, I’ll usually order it on Amazon (or get my bookseller sister to get it for me half-price 😉 ). I also have a big back-catalogue of classic fantasy to get through. Until a year ago, I hadn’t read anything by Neil Gaiman or George R.R. Martin, and I have a lot of catching up to do to get through all of the excellent fantasy that was published during my arrogant teenage years, or indeed before I was born. And as a history graduate who wants to write fantasy that’s very historically-informed, I also buy a lot academic texts.

All of this tends to pile up.

My Desk
I apologise wholeheartedly to any readers with OCD

Currently, amidst the ever-expanding entropy of discarded chocolate wrappers, scrap paper, unwashed teacups, and loose change on my desk, I have unearthed:

  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Herodotus’s Histories
  • Saladin Ahmed’s wonderful Arabian-inspired fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon (artfully arranged here on top of a novelty flashing Santa hat)
  •  The City Stained Red by Sam Skyes
  • Simon Armitage’s translation of Le Morte d’Arthur
  • Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom
  • Marvel’s 1602 by Neil Gaiman, on long-term loan from my sister’s boyfriend
  • The Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan
  • The Incorruptables by John Hornor Jacobs
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons
  • The Iron Ship by K. M. McKinley
  • Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
  • The 722-page academic behemoth Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James
  • William Shakespeare’s ‘The Empire Striketh Back’ by Ian Doescher

And (inexplicably) the dog-eared manual for Star Trek: Starfleet Command III, a PC game which came out in 2002, and which I haven’t played for at least half as long…

On top of all of those estimable volumes, though, is The Thirteen-Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian, and therein lies the problem.

Thirteen Gun Salute

Out of that entire list of books, I have read only three from cover-to-cover: The Empire Striketh Back, (because it’s hilarious) Throne of the Crescent Moon, (because it’s amazing) and ThIncorruptables (because I read it one sitting and couldn’t put it down). The rest are lying about forlornly under sheafs of paper, in various stages of chronic neglect. Perhaps I can be forgiven for not having finished the meatier academic books on the list, but I feel a certain guilt about seeing The Iron Ship or The Promise of Blood accumulating dust when I’ve only peered inside their covers once or twice before putting them down in favour of another book. And the ‘other book’ is almost invariably by Patrick O’Brian.

I love Patrick O’Brian. The Times called him ‘the greatest historical novelist of all time’, and I’m not inclined to disagree. If you don’t believe me, just listen to award-nominated British YA and adult author Lou Morgan! (who I follow on Twitter!)

Lou Morgan
Heed her words

For those who don’t know (and there can’t be very many of you, given how many times I’ve mentioned him on this blog), Patrick O’Brian was the author of the Aubrey/Maturin books, a series of historical novels starting with Master and Commander and ending with The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. It’s always hard to describe a series without bias (and without going into too much detail) when you think it’s among the greatest works of literature ever conceived by the human mind and committed into prose, but I’ll try.

At their core, the Aubrey/Maturin books are about a Royal Navy captain in the Napoleonic wars, and his friend, a surgeon and scientist who is also a shadowy operative for Britain’s intelligence services. The series is naval military history at it’s very best, but it is also so much more than that. Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin go on voyages around the world, confounding the naval enterprises of Napoleon, but also struggling to overcome the human faults that make them into such interesting characters. Jack struggles with his weight, his finances, and his conceptions of honour, while Maturin suffers the ravages of drug addiction, depression, torn loyalties, and an unstable marriage. Their adventures are a sublime journey through history and through the human condition, with bold forays into naval warfare, but also into romance, philosophy, scientific discovery, and abstract existential musings on every subject under the sun. They’ve become two of my favourite characters in fiction.

Most of the action takes place on ships at sea, which is a setting that O’Brian brought to life in vivid detail, drawing on his amazing reservoir of technical knowledge about the age of sail. His characters navigate the world, crossing oceans, rounding Cape Horn and passing through the freezing southern latitudes in almost every voyage, against a constant backdrop of everyday naval life:

‘the old pattern fell into place again, and the ship’s routine, disrupted by the violent, perilous race eastward through sixty degrees of longitude, soon became the natural way of life once more, with it’s unyaring diet, the cleaning of the decks before full daylight, the frequent call for sweepers throughout the day, the piping of the hands to witness punishment on Wednesdays (reprimand or deprivation of grog; no flogging so far in this ocean), the ritual washing of clothes and the hoisting of clothes-lines on Mondays and Fridays, quarters every weekday with a certain amount of live firing still, mustering by divisions on Sunday, followed sometimes by the reading of the Articles of War

…Day after day they travelled slowly over a vast disk of sea, perpetually renewed; and when, as the Diane was approaching Capricorn at four knots, Captain Aubrey ended church with the words ‘World without end, amen’, he might have been speaking of this present voyage: sea, sea and then more sea, with no more beginning and no more end than the globe itself.’

As a reader, it’s easy to let yourself be lulled into the same comfortable routine as the characters. The books are laced together with masterful character arcs and strands of overarching narrative that draw you gently onwards, making it easy to coast from one book to the next without intending to.

This can become a little bit of a problem, considering the length of the series.

O’Brien wrote twenty Aubrey/Maturin books before he died, leaving another unfinished. Twenty-and-a-half books is a lot of books. I’ve been reading this epic saga since January and I still haven’t got further than the fourteenth installment. It’s been hugely enjoyable, and I’m sure that my own writing has benefited immeasurably, but I’m beginning to wonder if too much exposure to one author’s writing style can start to be a bad thing. 

For writers, reading books is necessarily a case of monkey see, monkey do. You can tell what an author has been reading by looking for clues in their own writing, the same way that forensic scientists can find out what someone’s been eating by analysing their hair. After reading his books for almost a year, all of the clues in my writing point to Patrick O’Brian.

Everybody has a favourite author, but I think it’s important to diversify the books you read, just as it’s important to…diversify the foods you eat…if you want to have strong hair….?  This metaphor is creaking slightly, but I hope you understand what I mean.

The late great Sir Terry Pratchett said that authors should ‘read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees’, and the best way to do that is probably to venture out into the forest and look at as many different trees as possible, rather than admiring the same tree over and over again because you like it’s particular shape or the way that the moss grows on it. As such, I’m going to make a concerted effort to tear myself away from the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, and launch some exploratory forays of my own, into the umplumbed depths of my bookcase, uprooting lost books from the bottom of piles and actually getting around to reading them. I may blog about the results. And I encourage you to do the same!

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.

A New Novel, and that one big break we’ve all been waiting for

If you’re passionate about writing fiction and you’ve been writing for any amount of time, then maybe you’ve dreamed of getting a novel published, or becoming a bestselling author someday. I know I have, and it’s something I still aspire to (you know, in all of that free time I have in between teaching and figuring out adulthood). While I have self-published and gotten gradual bits of publicity here and there, I’m still a long way from “that one big break” that many of us hope for.

Nonetheless, I’m here today to offer hope to all of you aspiring writers, and to tell you that actual, legitimate publication is a completely achievable goal. And what’s more, I can tell you from personal experience of a longtime aspiring writer who has recently achieved that goal–or at least begun to. No, it’s not me. It’s my dad.

Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.
Brace yourself. NaNoWriMo is coming.

In addition to typical Dad activities like telling lame jokes and offering wise insights, my dad, Mark R. Harris, has been an English professor for years and has been a writer on the side. He’s published the occasional poem and has worked on other projects now and again too. I think, after so much time spent reading and teaching great American novels, he’s always kind of wanted to write one himself. And now he has. After I got him involved in National Novel Writing Month a few years ago (hey, I’ll take a little bit of credit where I can), he completed and has been revising a manuscript, and now has a book deal with an actual publisher. His original novel, entitled Fire in the Bones, is now officially in the process of being published.

So what does this mean for you? I’ll tell you, but first I’m going to give a bit of a plug for my dad. After all, as an aspiring writer, you want to stay on top of what other up-and-coming writers are doing, and get tips and ideas from them, right? Dad is in the process of trying to build an audience before the book comes out, and it would be great to have you on board. He has a Facebook page entitled Mark R. Harris and a blog called Inkglish. My dad has been a major source of a lot of good things in my life, including my interests in literature, Christianity, superheroes, and bad puns. If you’ve enjoyed any of my writings on this blog, or are willing to give an up-and-coming author a chance, I’d ask you to go and give Dad’s pages a like and follow. You’re not committing to buying the book, but you’d get updates about when it’s coming out, and maybe pick up a few other cool things along the way.

What else does this mean for you? It means that you are interesting enough to write a novel. Yes, you, in your ordinary, average, and yet beautifully complex life. I haven’t read Dad’s full manuscript yet, but my understanding is that it’s semi-autobiographical, about a guy growing up around the ’70s and searching for some meaningful fulfillment in life. And if an ordinary guy like my dad can turn a series of life episodes into a novel good enough for publication, then I’m betting that you’ve got a story or two somewhere inside you too. Keep searching and writing, and it’ll find its way out sooner or later.

Lastly, this means that there’s hope. If you’ve been trying to get into the writing world for a while without results, don’t give up. Sometimes it takes years of trial and error, or a lot of small steps leading up to big ones, or maybe just the right amount of perseverance and motivation, to make a dream into a reality. Sometimes you may not taste the fruits of your labor for years–but hey, better late than never, right? Don’t get discouraged just because you don’t see immediate results. Keep working and keep doing your best. I can’t promise that every one of you will become big-name bestselling authors–heck, I can’t even promise that for myself. But it will definitely never happen if you don’t keep trying.

Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author
Actual picture of my dad, Mark R. Harris, soon-to-be-published author

So, in short, keep doing what you’re doing. Keep on writing and looking for opportunities, because you never know what might come up. And also, please go like my dad’s page. I’ll leave you with a published poem of his, hoping that you’ll like what you see:

Morning, Sickling

by Mark R. Harris

A black dawn this morning,
but feeling pastoral,
I ventured out
in spite.

The air was gone,
at first–
then became solid,
creeping beads across
my tight forehead.

I tried an apostrophe:
“O wind, rend the heat–“
that didn’t work.

The lifeless air
matched my thoughts,
forging on like a lost soldier.

I flailed,
wielding the sickle blindly,
trying to lay the sharp
bitter grass low.

Thick roots seemed to ooze,
bent, buckled
before my masterful strokes.

But I heaved and sighed,
sweat flowing freely,
coating my hands, neck,
hardening ribs,

and the strokes came slower,
stiffer,
duller…stopped, I cleared my vision
with a swipe of shaking forearm.

No light yet.

O wind, get over here already.

Exposition: How Low Can You Go?

Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Fair use.

This past summer, a phenomenon of cinematic glory crashed onto the big screen and took moviegoers everywhere by storm. Reviving a thirty-year-old franchise with all the action and visual effects of today, Mad Max: Fury Road impressed action movie fans all over the country with its stunning visuals, tough action heroes, and high-speed car chases across a futuristic dystopian landscape. Critics and fans alike lauded the film for providing a solid, compelling, and thoroughly exciting action movie. Among other things, one praise I heard of the film more than once was for how well it told a story and dived right into the action from the start without getting bogged down in too much exposition. In any case, many viewers began holding Fury Road up as the new standard of what action movies should be like.

Once I saw the movie, I liked it too. But I do intentionally say “liked” rather than “loved.” Now, I like fast cars, big fights, and visually appealing women as much as the next guy, so I certainly enjoyed the movie–but it still seemed to me that something was lacking in this film. As an English major (now an English teacher) and a lover of stories, I tend to be a big fan of well-thought-out plots and well-developed characters. So, while some of my friends praised Fury Road for being able to function successfully on so little exposition, I personally could have used a little more in that area. Despite the film’s many good points and overall fun quality, its sparse explanations about the details of the story or the characters kept it, to me, in the range of “good” rather than “great.”

And I thought I was the only one who felt like that, until, in a forum I’m part of, someone else called the film “an insult to dialogue and story craft” and “a 2-hour ADD music video” (and a heated Facebook debate ensued, as must always be the case with internet opinions). While such reviews seemed a little harsh for my tastes, I have to admit that I do see some truth in these criticisms.

Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.
Theatrical poster for Mad Max (1979). Fair use.

Like I said, I’m a story guy by nature, so I may be biased and my standards may be a little higher than most. In fact, I can admittedly be quite the stickler for continuity. So much so that, before I went to the movie theater and watched Fury Road, I spent the summer tracking down the previous three Mad Max films from the ’70s and ’80s and watched those, in order, too. (Also, a friend had recommended them to me, so they were on my to-watch list for a while, even before I knew about the new one.) And the very first one did give me a decent amount of that exposition and character development that I like. It showed Max’s descent from an upright police officer in a corrupt world to a morally ambiguous antihero struggling for his own survival. It showed where he came from and how he got to where he was. Personally, this exposition helps me to appreciate the action more. If I’ve invested in the character a little bit and gotten to know where they come from, then I’ll care more once that character is thrust into a high-speed chase with cars and guns and explosions. Otherwise, if I don’t know the character quite as well, scenes like that tend to feel like mindless, over-the-top action, the sort that would make Michael Bay proud.

But the next three Mad Max movies, including Fury Road, seemed a lot less story-based to me. They usually fling Max into another adventure with some other group of people in this post-apocalyptic world, but they don’t provide much info on the society or the characters other than Max. And even Max’s character doesn’t develop much past where we left him at the end of the first film. Admittedly, Fury Road did have the compelling character of Furiosa, who I’d argue was really the heroine of the story and definitely wins the Strong Female Character of the film award. But, for a movie titled “Mad Max,” we actually got very little information about Max or where he came from. In fact, he didn’t even do much in his own movie; it felt more like he was just along for the ride on Furiosa’s adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder, had I not watched the first film first, would I even know or understand who Max was at all?

Furthermore, we never learned much about the film’s villain, other than that he’s a tough-looking bad guy who rules a dystopian civilization. Personally, I could have used just a few more details to help me care about the characters more and know where the story was going. It wouldn’t have to be much; just some well-placed verbal introductions at the beginning or scattered throughout the film to identify the characters and give me a little more insight into this world and the heroic quest. But Fury Road seemed rather sparse in that area.

If you’ve ever written a story before, then you’ve probably dealt with exposition, even if you didn’t know the official name for it. “Exposition” is what we call the setup of the story, the basic background details–who the characters are, where they come from, what the hero’s main plot or quest will be, and whatever other information will be necessary to understanding the story. Authors often give exposition toward the beginning of a story, but sometimes it can be spaced out or revealed over time to add suspense and dramatic effect. But, like most aspects of writing, exposition can be tricky to do well and there’s definitely a balance to be found.

Almost all stories need at least some exposition to get by and function in such a way that the reader understands them. However, too much exposition all at once can get tedious and boring. That’s why people have begun to complain about so many reboots and origin stories in superhero movies. It can feel like an “infodump” that detracts from the main action of the story, and it can easily lose a reader who isn’t invested already. Still, too little exposition can make it difficult for readers to get to know the characters fully or to learn about the world you’ve placed them in. It can really detract from those details that make your story and your characters unique.

So where should the line be drawn between exposition and action? How little is too little before the story gets lost in all the flashy visuals and the plot becomes largely generic and indiscernible? I admit that the standard is very subjective, and it often depends on the individual work, as well as the individual reader or viewer. But, despite the film’s several enjoyable qualities, I can’t laud Fury Road as being my ultimate standard for action movies, because I think it could have benefited a lot from just a little more exposition.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories with more or less exposition? What kind do you like to read? What kind do you like to write? As a writer, how do you balance the need for exposition with the main action of the story and keep the reader’s attention through it all?

Discuss in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

Anatomy of a writing course

Hello, internet!

Last week I posted a brief, muffled endorsement of the Arvon Foundation and their very fine writing courses, from beneath the proverbial bedclothes under which I’d crawled until I recovered from the substantial hangover that I’d accrued during the week. Now I think I owe it to all of you, and indeed to the Arvon Foundation, to go into some more detail. This post will probably end up being much longer, but I hope it gives you an idea of what it’s like to attend a residential writing course, so that you can decide for yourselves whether it would be a good investment for you.

I decided a fair while ago that if I was going to take this writing malarkey seriously (and give potential employers the impression that I was taking it seriously), I was going to have to do one or both of two things: get a short story published in a fantasy anthology (I’m still working on that one), and/or attend a creative writing course. At the time, I thought about it mostly as CV padding: in my ill-deserved arrogance, I assumed that there wasn’t much that a writing course could teach me about the art of writing which I wouldn’t already know. How wrong I was.

It’s funny how these things come about. A few months ago, I did an internship with an academic publishing company, and I found out that their chief book editor was an aspiring writer, far further down the line than I was in terms of having prepared her manuscript, and gauged interest from a few agents and publishers. I sat down for a short conversation with her where I asked her about her experiences as a writer and hungrily jotted down almost every word she said, not caring about the vague awkwardness of the meeting – a mere intern ruthlessly grilling one of the senior editors of the company – so long as I gleaned a few useful morsels of advice out of it. She said a lot of interesting things about her writing habits and the best day-job to pursue if I wanted to become a full-time writer, but the most useful thing she said was “do a creative writing course.” She’d attended one herself, and she had only the most glowing praise for Arvon, the company who’d orchestrated it. I was initially sceptical, but I was surprised to learn that Arvon had a writing centre only about an hour’s drive from where I live. She’d gone to the same centre herself. And when she told me about how much it had boosted her confidence as a writer, I started to come around to the idea.

It was only recently that I booked the course. I paid the £750, filed the absence form at work, and was called into the manager’s office a day or two later to be told “Well, seeing as you’re off on your holidays soon enough, we thought we’d best give you the bad news now.”  So when I turned up on the doorstep of the Hurst, Arvon’s writing centre in Craven Arms, it was in a slightly more advanced state of unemployment than I’d been anticipating. But the beautiful venue helped me to forget about my redundancy pretty quickly.

House

The Hurst was once the home of the English playwright John Osborne, famous for originating the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement in British literature. I confess to never having read any of his work, but after living in his house for a week I can at least attest that he had good taste in architecture and interior decorating. There was also no WiFi and no mobile phone signal. This came as no surprise to me, having lived in the wilds of the Shropshire countryside for most of my teenaged life, but it did make me think about how a writing course in an isolated mansion would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. I will be logging that idea away for if I ever want to write a quick best-seller.

Fortunately, nobody died (A sentence which I’m sure Arvon will be plastering all over their promotional material if they read this review). The first night consisted solely of getting to know the other writers on the course, along with the authors who’d be tutoring us over the course of the week. Arvon has a colourful carousel of different authors who they bring in for different courses throughout the year, and my tutors were Christopher Wakling and Anjali Joseph, authors of some very fine works of contemporary literature. The other writers on the course were from all walks of life: there were practicing journalists, one or two graduates doing slightly better than me in the world of employment, a few full-time mothers, and a brace of happy retirees looking to polish off their books now that they were free of the trammels of the daily grind.

Upon arrival, I felt a little like I’d misunderstood the brief of the course. It had been advertised to writers with a “work in progress”, and I’d taken this to mean writers past the point of embarkation, still moulding the first drafts of their book and viewing publication as a distant dream rather than an imminent possibility. I turned out to be in the minority. Most of the people on the course had completed their first draft, and many of them had consulted with agents, gaining the accolade of having their manuscripts rejected, or even published, albeit in languages other than English. I was far behind – but this didn’t end up mattering as much as I thought it would.

On the first night we also had to think ahead about when we wanted to schedule one-on-one meetings with the tutors. I booked a tutorial on the first full day of the course, and realised only towards the end of the evening – once I’d already had my fill of complementary wine – that I hadn’t written a synopsis for the tutors to read, or compiled 3,000 words of my first draft into a presentable sample. I retired to my room (well-furnished with an en-suite bathroom and vintage writing desk) and tried to gather my addled wits together and rattle off a short summary of the book I was trying to write. Easy, I thought.

Or perhaps not so easy
Or perhaps not…

I was amazed how difficult I found it to sum up my book in just under a page. Having never submitted a manuscript before, writing a summary was something that I’d never had to do. I stayed up until long past midnight agonising over the synopsis, alternately worrying that the whole concept for my book was completely juvenile, or thinking “these literary snobs aren’t going to appreciate good fantasy when they see it.” In retrospect, having to write a synopsis for my tutors was good practice in of itself for whenever I come around to making submissions, but I didn’t see that at the time. I eventually wrote a fairly apologetic synopsis and went to bed feeling like a sham writer who’d signed up for a course that wasn’t going to be of any help. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I got up early the next morning, printed off the previous night’s desperate efforts, left them on the designated tutor’s shelf on an upstairs bookcase, and went down to breakfast. From there on in, things improved drastically.

The course lasted four days, and each day had roughly the same schedule. We all got up early and helped ourselves to breakfast in the communal kitchen, chatting about whether we’d got any writing done the night before, and hoping to sit near one of the tutors in case they let slip a few esoteric secrets of how to become a successful author whilst it was still early and they hadn’t quite gotten their guard up. Then we went straight into tutorial sessions that lasted until lunch.

The sessions had a different theme every day, progressing chronologically through the writing process – starting with openings and first lines, moving on to characterisation and pacing, and ending up with editing and how to get your work published. If I tried to cram all of the stuff I learned into a single post then you’d be reading for days, but it was all very insightful and practical advice, conveyed by two very talented teachers. It ranged from technical lessons in prose and structure to general discussions about how to maintain the levels of self-confidence that any author needs to see their book through to completion. We did five-minute writing exercises to try and bring extra life and depth to our characters, and then if we wanted to we could read them out to the group, letting everyone get a flavour of the kind of book that everyone else was writing. All in all, the sessions were as fun as they were informative. On one morning we ventured out a little way into the grounds of the Hurst and strolled around looking like we’d escaped from a rehabilitation centre for romantic poets, trying to capture the sublimity of the English countryside in prose. Which proved a little difficult, given the pervading scent of manure.

English countryside
A glimpse of my native Shropshire countryside

The grounds were open to us throughout the week, meaning we could go and stroll through them as much as we liked during the afternoons, which were left free for us to spend time writing or doing whatever we pleased. A few writers made regular pilgrimages to the pub in the nearest village, whilst I personally found it hard to resist rifling through Arvon’s expansive library. Given the huge amount of books on site, the paltry half-shelf devoted to fantasy and science fiction seemed a little bit of an afterthought, but they did have Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, which I’d never had the pleasure of reading before. I can recommend the whole of the Shattered Sea series. Even if Abercrombie did basically steal my world-map, the fiend.

Half a King
Read this! It’s good!

Others took the retreat more seriously and bolted themselves away in their rooms every afternoon, only coming out for meetings with the tutors. We were given twenty-minutes of one-on-one time with each of the tutors, which might not seem like a lot, but it proved to be more than enough. 3,000 words and a synopsis is what any agent or publisher will expect when a new author is submitting their work, and it was enough material for the tutors to get a good sense of my work and give me detailed feedback. I got to guide the discussion as much as they did, and Chris Wakling went out of his way to address my concerns about the characterisation of my narrator, being kind enough to look at several different drafts of the opening page of my book and help me decide which narrative voice was best. Anjali helped me in unexpected ways by giving me a few plot and character ideas from Indian history, which has always been a huge source of inspiration for my writing. One of the things she mentioned gave me the germ of an idea for an entire book, which will hopefully come midway through the series I’m writing. Between nailing down my narrative voice and figuring out the plot for a whole book, I’d say the one-on-ones by themselves were worth the price of the whole course.

One of the other things that made the week truly worthwhile was the atmosphere of communal living, which really came to a head during the evenings. The writers took turns cooking dinner for everyone else in groups of four, under the watchful gaze of the site staff, without whom we probably would have set the place on fire or poured whole jars of chilli powder into the risotto or heaven knows what else. Everyone came together at 19:00 to eat, and then moved to the lounge, where we sat around and heard different readings on each night: first from the tutors, them from a guest speaker (ours was David Whitehouse, author of Bed), and then from the favourite authors of every writer on the course (in my case it was, of course, the late Sir Terry). Finally, on the last night, we read out five minute excerpts of our own work. The sheer variety of good writing in the room was staggering, covering genres all the way from political thrillers to romantic comedy to bold experiments in writing about people with mental illness. And each of the readings was followed by hours of discussion, lasting well past midnight, full of the kind of off-the-cuff inspiration which had me scrabbling for my notebook and underlining things with an urgency that seemed a little excessive when I tried to make sense of my notes the morning after, unhelped by the fact that wine had been flowing by the bottle since before we sat down to dinner.

Carnage
An example of the kind of heady carnage wreaked when writers are given alcohol and left unsupervised

I should probably add a brief disclaimer that the liberal consumption of alcohol was by no means mandatory or even encouraged during the week. I can recommend the course even to the strictest teetotallers. The organisers made us all aware on the first night that there was a local wine merchant who would be taking our orders if we wanted, allowing us to stock up based upon our personal estimates of how much we would be drinking during the course of the week. Naturally, some of us ended up making bigger estimates than others. There was a full spectrum of imbibement from total abstinence to the kind of indulgence that Ernest Hemingway might have been proud of, perpetrated mainly by myself and one of the tutors. (Although being the youngest attendee and thus having the biggest ability to bounce back from hangovers, I was probably the worst). Most of the writers went to bed at a respectable hour every evening and probably benefited from it by being clear-headed and fully awake for the 9 o’clock tutorials. I was not among their number. And indeed, on the last night, I stayed up with a dedicated core of other writers until 05:00 in the morning, meaning I had to be woken up by the site staff at 10:30 AM to be told that all of the other writers had left and my father was waiting in the car park to pick me up.

For me, that by itself is the mark of a very good week. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether a writing course sounds worth your time and money, even without all the drunken revelry, but I can heartily recommend it.


If you want to replicate my experience exactly, spending a week among fellow souls with excellent tuition and facilities in the heart of English countryside, pay a visit to the Arvon website and book yourself in on a course!

Fantasy vs. Literature: Terry Pratchett in the eyes of serious literary criticism.

Hello, internet!

Let me start today’s post by telling you about a man called Dagobert D. Runes.

He had a delightful name, like something out of an urban fantasy novel, but he was every bit as real as you and me.

He was born in a part of Austro-Hungary that is now a part of Ukraine. He was a philosopher, and a writer, and he spent most of his life writing dictionaries of philosophy full of radical opinions about the art of thinking and the history of thought. In 1941 he founded a publishing company called The Philosophical Library, which exists to this day, and has published more than 2,000 titles.

There’s some controversy about Runes. In 1959, he published the first English translation of a text by Karl Marx, entitled “On the Jewish Question”, which was either a defence of the rights of Jews in Prussia or an early piece of anti-Semitism, depending upon which historians you listen to. Runes’ translation was published under the title of “A World without Jews”, and this choice of title did not bode well for him. Although he’d only translated the book, the title sounded distinctly anti-Semitic, and Runes’ reputation suffered extremely. Runes wrote an introduction to the translation that gives historians reason to believe that he was not himself an extreme Marxist, nor an anti-Semite – but this doesn’t seem to have saved his reputation.

I’m a little cynical of Runes and his opinions, but this post isn’t really about him.

I only mention him because, in 1955, he published a book called The Treasury of Thought, a kind of dictionary containing subversive definitions of many common words. One of the entries was for the word CRITIC.

His definition reads:

“A eunuch judging a man’s lovemaking. A skydreaming Eagle without wings. Pygmies with poison darts in the valley of the sleeping giants”

Even if we disregard everything else that Runes ever wrote, these definitions seem to ring true today. And perhaps it proves that people with objectionable opinions can still sometimes give us valuable insights into the human condition.

Let me get to my point. I don’t know how many of you are fans of the late, great, Sir Terry Pratchett, but I certainly count myself among their number.

A week or two ago, shortly after the publication of Pratchett’s posthumous final novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, a literary critic called Jonathan Jones wrote an article that even he himself has now described as “a snort of contempt”, calling Terry Pratchett an “ordinary potboiler”, accusing him of “mental laziness” and “robbing readers of the true delights of ambitious fiction.”

Jones’ logic seems to have been that the kind of people who spend their free time reading Pratchett – and, by implication, all fantasy novels in general – are wasting their time. Jones feels that people should instead be dedicating their time to reading great works of literature by the likes of Jane Austen and Charles Bukowski. Jones openly admitted at the beginning of his derisive review that he’d never condescended to even reading a single Discworld novel before he formed such a negative opinion of their author. In his own words, “life is too short.”

I have to dispute this.

In the week that Mister Pratchett shuffled off his mortal coil, I was cooped up in a little room in Bristol where I was doing a residential internship at a publishing company. I’d bought a couple of books from a stall down by the harbourside and I was reading them in the evenings. One of them was Farewell to Arms by Ernst Hemingway. The other was Post Office by none other than Charles Bukowski, the profane and gutter-mouthed and utterly brilliant American everyman who Jonathan Jones thinks that we ought to be reading instead of Mister Pratchett. I was halfway through Post Office when somebody else in the office looked up from their computer and said, “oh, Terry Pratchett’s dead”, in the kind of tones that one would use to remark upon the death of a minor television personality or a B-List Olympian. I was crushed.  When I returned to my room that evening, I wrote a tearful blog post, then downloaded an e-book of my favourite Discworld book (Guards! Guards!) and read it in one sitting whilst enjoying some Bristol cider apple brandy that I’d bought during one of my excursions.

Guards! Guards!
Guards! Guards!

Then the day afterwards, I went back to reading Bukowski. Then I read Hemingway. And I’d finished all three books by the end of the week.

So the first thing I have to say to Jonathan Jones is this: if he thinks that people don’t have time to read Terry Pratchett and read Charles Bukowski, clearly he isn’t spending enough of his time reading. As a full-time literary critic, I find it a little disturbing that he spends less of his time reading than an overworked, underpaid publishing intern.

I enjoyed Bukowski just as much as I enjoyed Hemingway, and I also enjoy Austen – but enjoyment can take many different forms. And whilst I appreciate Bukowski’s dirty everyman humour, and Hemingway’s frank “no-frills” depiction of war, and Austen’s achievements as the first writer to indulge the reader in letting us know what her characters were thinking at any given time, I can’t say that I enjoy reading their works any more than I enjoy reading a stokingly good Pratchett novel.

Of course, for critics like Jonathan Jones, enjoyment isn’t the end goal of reading. When he published his article a few weeks ago, my initial reaction was incandescent rage. I tweeted a rebuke which included a certain unsavoury four-letter word which is perhaps best kept to heated disputes between differently-opinionated Englishmen, and which perhaps ought not to be repeated on a respectable site like the Art of Writing. If he saw it, he didn’t see fit to reply.

Whatever your opinion of Mr. Pratchett, surely a literary critic is not doing their (blisteringly well-paid) job properly if they don’t even deign to read a book before they publish a condescending criticism of it. A lot of people pointed this out to Jonathan Jones, and he eventually relented, and agreed to read Small Gods, one of Pratchett’s books which has earned acclaim from fans and critics alike.

Small Gods
If you haven’t read it, do!

After reading it, it seems that Jones’ opinion has remained largely unchanged.

He writes “In the real world, as opposed to the Discworld, people have complexities, contradictions. A whole art form has evolved to explore them. It’s called the novel”.  He says:

“…for some reason, the fantasy genre is a graveyard for the English language. Even Tolkien himself – and yes, I have read him thoroughly – wrote an ordinary, flat, Hobbitish prose.”

When I read this, I bristled. This was more than just a condescending invitation to be referred to with unsavoury four-letter words. This was a direct attack on the fantasy genre. It was an insult to everything I held dear. I’m sure a lot of followers of this blog will feel the same way. Insulting Terry Pratchett is bad enough. But insulting Tolkien? Insulting the genre spawned in Tolkien’s wide wake, and all of the authors who write books in that genre? That’s fighting talk.

Rather than picking up my axe, sounding my war horn, summoning my bannermen and marching forthwith upon Jonathan Jones’ house, I decided to take the Hobbit’s approach. I sat back and thought about his reviews for a while, sucking on my proverbial pipe weed and ruminating upon his opinions.

I think it’s interesting to note that when Terry Pratchett was awarded his knighthood in the 2005 New Years Honours list, the official justification was for “services to literature.”  The newly knighted Sir Terry himself commented that ” “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any,”

Even Mr. Pratchett seems to have conceded that he was not actually a writer of literature. He was a writer of amusing stories, of entertaining tales, supposed to be enjoyed with a wry smile, but not to be regarded as fine works of art. Jones agrees. After reading Small Gods, he writes “Why would anyone confuse this with the kind of literary prose it so emphatically does not want to be?”

That made me think. Perhaps fantasy authors should just accept that we’re not writers of great literature – and nor are we obligated to be. Perhaps we should accept that our work exists as entertainment, not as art. That our books are meant to be enjoyed, cherished, read by the kind of people who love a rip-roaring adventure story – not by the kind of people who read books because they want a unique, raw, tragic, multifaceted insight into the deepest unplumbed crevices of the human soul.

But then I remembered the sheer range of fantasy novels that have been written since Tolkien invented the genre. The sheer range of topics, experiences, insights, human emotions that have been explored in the wealth of fantasy writing that exists in the world. Because the very best fantasy and science fiction stories – whether it’s A Song of Ice and Fire or lesser-known novels loved by their small, dedicated audiences – always go beyond their fantasy setting. Their authors always strive to write about the whole broad spectrum of the human experience, whether the humans are fighting in a medieval crusade or sailing across vast oceans or travelling between the stars. There are wary soldiers and disenchanted princesses and unsung heroes struggling through adversity and finding out that their happily-ever-afters aren’t as as shining and golden as they thought they were. There is raw emotion there, and raw humanity, in all of it’s infinite diversity.

Jones concludes his second review by writing “I prefer writing that rubs up against the real world, that describes what it is to be alive in all its unpredictability, wild comedy, longing, grotesqueness, exhilaration – and shame.”

Jones thinks that fantasy readers don’t take the time to read enough ‘serious’ literature. But if Jones thinks that fantasy can’t ‘rub against the real world’, that fantasy can’t present all of the bizarre and wonderful extremes of what it is to be human…then I have to say, I don’t think he’s taking the time to reading enough fantasy.

A Quick Guide to Monomania

You may have heard before someone describe the basic formula for writing fiction. It goes something like this: “desire plus obstacle equals conflict.” In other words, when you take a character, give them a motivation or goal to work toward, and then put challenges in their way, then you’ve got the makings of a story.

Of course there are many more elements that go into fiction, but this formula gets pretty close to the core essentials. Overall, plots are (or should be) driven by characters and their desires or goals. This is true in most stories, but it’s even truer whenever a character has monomania.

“Monomania” is a fancy literary term that refers to an extreme, overarching obsession that a character has. “Mono” means one and “mania” is a craze or obsession, meaning that any character with monomania is crazed or obsessed about just one thing, just one goal. These characters will go to extreme lengths and do whatever it takes to reach this goal–or die trying. While perceptions can differ from one author to another, monomania is often portrayed as a negative thing. The idea is that having such an all-consuming obsession is unhealthy and can lead to disastrous consequences for that character or others.

Moby-DickIn classic literature, the term is often used in reference to Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick. In fact, the book’s narrator frequently and directly refers to Captain Ahab’s unrelenting pursuit of the whale as monomaniacal. Nathaniel Hawthorne, a contemporary of Melville’s, also uses monomania in several of his stories, from Hollingsworth’s well-intentioned but misguided plan for social reform in The Blithedale Romance, to several short stories (“The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and more) featuring obsessed scientists who place their mad experiments above even human life. One of the last papers I wrote in grad school argued that this same monomania also appeared in the lesser-known novel Wieland, where the main character’s twisted religious fervor leads him to commit horrendous acts. In hindsight, I might also be able to argue that one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, reflects monomania in the protagonist’s quest for the woman he loves and perfect life he has always dreamed of (but I’d better not get started on Gatsby now or I could probably go on and on).

Walter WhiteThis theme of unhealthy, unrelenting obsession shows up in pop culture, too. Think of the recent television masterpiece Breaking Bad. Walt’s goal to provide financially for his family is initially a noble one, but over time his obsession and determination in his goal lead him to make a number of moral compromises and horrible choices that end disastrously for both him and the ones he loves.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Marvel comics and superheroes, and I’ve even seen monomania show up in a number of different ways there. With the cyclical, ongoing nature of comics, writers have to shake things up once in a while to keep the characters interesting. Therefore, even among the main heroes or “good guys,” there have been several instances of a driven, obsessed hero taking a good goal too far and becoming (at least temporarily) a morally ambiguous antihero. For example:

  • Civil_War_7In the Civil War story arc (soon to be a major motion picture), Iron Man seeks peace and order through government registration of superhumans, but he has to turn on his allies and make hard decisions in order to carry out his goal.
  • Cyclops has long fought for equal rights for mutants, but in Avengers vs. X-Men and subsequent stories, he becomes an extremist for this goal, much like his former enemy Magneto.
  • In World War Hulk, the Hulk threatened the entire world in misguided revenge on allies who had exiled him into space.
  • Recently in New Avengers, Mr. Fantastic has been leading a covert team whose mission is to save the Earth–by destroying other alternate Earths that threaten our own existence.
  • Daredevil tried to protect his city with force by taking control of a clan of ninja assassins, but he reaped the consequences in the Shadowland story and crossed a line he never had before.
  • In Superior Spider-Man, Spider-Man‘s body was possessed by Doctor Octopus‘s brain (yeah, I know comics are weird. You just have to roll with it sometimes). The result was an ambiguous antihero who also tried to protect New York, but with extreme brutal force and by any means necessary.

Hopefully now you get the idea of monomania and obsession in fiction, the kind that makes ordinary characters into fascinating and compelling (if sometimes misguided and evil) ones who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.

But what does all this mean for us as writers?

It means that you now have an excellent formula for creating an intriguing story! Yes, it’s true that desire plus obstacle equals conflict. But what happens when you increase that desire a hundredfold to make it a driving, all-consuming obsession? You get a monomaniacal character who, despite any deep character flaws they may have, has an unbreakable will that can drive the story forward past any obstacles that you as the writer throw in their way.

So why don’t you try it out? Create a new character and give them a goal. Have them want nothing else in the world more badly than they want that one goal. Now write a story where things get in the way of that goal and see how your character deals with it. What will they do? How will things turn out? What kind of toll will it take on your character? What will be the cost of their obsessive actions? You may be surprised at the developments that come and at the epic conflicts that result.

Why Study Fiction?

Hello, friends of the writing world! Today has been a very exciting day for me. That’s because today was my first official day as a teacher. Not a teaching assistant or a student teacher as I’ve been for the past two and a half years, but an actual teacher, a goal I’ve had to some extent or another for nearly ten years.

I haven’t blogged about it much yet because I’ve been pretty busy for the last few weeks (and because I don’t currently have internet at home), but I’ll say a little bit about how I got to this point. After finishing my Master’s degree in May, I spent most of the summer looking for jobs teaching secondary English and driving to interviews all around. In mid/late July, I got offered a job teaching 9th and 11th grade English at Grace Christian Academy, a small private school in southern Maryland. Of course, mid/late July is a time frame dangerously close to the beginning of the school year, so I’ve spent the last month or so frantically looking for a place to live and trying desperately to prepare. I moved from Lynchburg to Maryland only about a week and a half ago (hence me not having internet set up in my new place yet), started teacher orientation about a week ago, and had my official first day of school today (Wednesday)! It’s been a crazy whirlwind of a ride, but I’m loving it so far.Welcome to English Class

Unfortunately, since I’ve been so frantic with relocating and then lesson planning and a million other things, I haven’t had a whole lot of big creative writing opportunities lately. However, the whole process of preparing to teach literature has been a good reminder to me of why writing is so important. And as a teacher, I’m going to need to find creative ways to convey that importance to my students as well (especially the ones who don’t really like to read or write so far).

Originally, I was asked by my new boss to teach a creative writing elective along with my English classes. Sadly, that class didn’t make it this time around due to low interest and low enrollment (although I did have at least a few students today who said they liked writing, so there’s always hope for next year). Still, I’m probably going to give each class a writing prompt as a warm-up each day. Some days the prompts will be more literature-related and will be used as starting points for class discussions, but I may be able to do some creative prompts at times too (so if you have any good suggestions for creative writing prompts for high school students, please feel free to let me know!).

For the next class, though, I plan to ask my students something along these lines, and hopefully have a good discussion based on their responses:

  • Why is it important to study grammar and writing?
  • Why is it important to study literature?
  • What makes literature good?

I know, I know. These are tough, big questions. I hope they’ll be helpful for establishing a rationale for some of the things we read and do in the class, but I don’t expect 9th and 11th graders to have the perfect, ultimate answers to these questions. Heck, I took a whole graduate class specifically devoted to the question of “what makes literature good?” and I still don’t fully know the answer in every situation. Probably no individual scholar ever will in this lifetime.

But when I was decorating my classroom this past weekend, I tried to find some good literary quotes (amidst lots of memes and cartoons) to stick on bulletin boards. And I came across a couple quotes–from a couple of my favorite authors–that I had probably heard before but that struck me especially this time around. Here are two of the ones I hung up:

  • “That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Image taken from Wikipedia. Public domain.
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Literature adds to reality. It does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” -C.S. Lewis

    C.S. Lewis
    C.S. Lewis

Thankfully, even in my new location, I have a couple of friends nearby who I knew from college–and who were also English majors. Last Friday night, I went to a twenty-somethings fellowship group in the area with one such English-y friend. He warned me that there was typically some good-natured joshing between himself, an English major, and the other group members, who all studied and worked in the maths and sciences. Sure enough, the group leader shook his head in mock-disgust upon learning that I had gotten not one, but two English degrees, and he even said at one point (again, with no intended malice) that he didn’t know why anyone would get a liberal arts degree.

And yet, most of the group members there could also be considered “nerds” just like myself and the friend I went with. They talked long and deeply about their favorite movies and games, and we played a board game that night which required us to roleplay as a specific character while killing zombies. In reference to one movie, I even heard one person there use the phrase “the book was better.” I didn’t say this at the time, but I wanted to ask, “So you’re telling me that you like all these movies and games, and yet you can’t see the value in studying creative works of the human imagination?”

In short, literature matters. Writing matters. If you read, study, or create writing or literature, then that matters. Among other things, fiction adds beauty and creativity to our lives and lets us connect with each other on a profound and poignant level. So if you’re a reader or a creative writer, then keep reading and writing, no matter what you might feel or what others may say. It may be more important than you know.

Drama versus Prose: An Overview and a Challenge

So, you’re a pretty experienced writer by this point, eh? You’ve done prose pieces? Short stories? Maybe even a novel or two? Not bad, not bad at all.

But if that’s you, then I’ve got a new challenge for you. Try writing drama.

Of course, this challenge won’t be too hard for you, because you’ve already mastered general storytelling elements such as plot and character development. The rest of it couldn’t be too hard at all, right?

Wrong!

Drama masksIn my last post I wrote about my recent experiences with writing children’s drama for my church. This time I’d like to talk more about the major differences between drama and prose–because, believe it or not, there are many, and being good at one does not necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, in famous authors and aspiring ones alike, it’s relatively uncommon for one person to be really good at both prose and drama.

And before my challenges to you start to sound like I’m bragging about being such a great writer myself, let me level with you for a minute. I’m not good at both prose and drama, either. I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to narrative prose, but I’m really not so great at writing drama.

“But wait!” you may ask. “If you’re not good at writing drama, then why were you in charge of writing drama for church recently, and even of subjecting innocent children to partaking in puerile performances of your poorly-penned plays?” That’s a good question that I’ll get to a little later.

For now I want to tell you a story, dating back three years or so to my undergrad years. I was an English major with a Writing minor, and I had already taken classes on creative poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As an elective for my minor, I decided to take a class called “Writing for the Stage.” I had written church drama several times before and also had a little prior experience writing a (probably not very good) play for my high school theater senior project. Like I alluded to above, I probably thought that, as a master of prose, I would have an easy time with drama too. But, upon getting a ways into the semester, I realized a couple of things: 1) the class was mostly full of close-knit theater majors, so an English major like me was a little out of place, and 2) drama is an entirely different animal from prose, one which is not particularly my forte.

There may be many elements that differentiate drama from prose, but I’ll tell you about the one that I think tripped me up the most. In drama, you as the author can really only speak through dialogue and action. You have to do everything you normally do in prose–develop characters, flesh out the plot, etc.–but you must do it through only dialogue and action. An outside narrator doesn’t really have much of a voice to describe with words what is happening or what a character’s inner thoughts are like. And, for a wordy author like me who is used to the freedom provided by prose, condensing so much meaning into so few words is hard to do.

For example, my play’s protagonist was a very well-developed character. At least, he was well-developed in my head. I had a pretty specific idea of his backstory, his goals and motivations, his inner thoughts and feelings, etc. And, to me, he was a very sympathetic and relatable character. But, when we peer-reviewed each other’s plays in class, most of what I knew and felt about my character didn’t come through to my readers, because I wasn’t good at conveying it through limited dialogue and action. Everyone else, for the most part, saw my protagonist as distant, flat, and unlikeable, because they didn’t know him like I did and I didn’t do a good job of showing what he was like through this medium. (In hindsight, maybe I also shouldn’t have picked a protagonist whose personality was by nature secretive and guarded. That combined with my inexperience with the medium made it doubly hard for the audience to get to know him. But I digress.)

Hamlet“But wait!” you may ask. “Is all drama always so restricted in what it can show? Aren’t there some plays with narrators and characters who clearly explain themselves to the audience?” And the answer is that yes, there are. Dating back to ancient Greek drama and throughout subsequent centuries, it was very common for plays to have an outside narrator, often called the “Chorus” or some other entity. Later, in Shakespeare’s day, characters often spoke in asides or soliloquies, which was one character onstage speaking directly to the audience, often openly stating his or her own thoughts, feelings, and intentions. To me at least, that kind of direct writing seems relatively easy to do. But it’s no longer in vogue these days. In modern drama (or film, etc.), audiences don’t really take it seriously when narrators or characters explain the action to them so directly. It’s considered tongue-in-cheek or corny at best, and didactic or insulting at worst. No, the stage of today is not the place for long written descriptions of characters’ thoughts and personalities, but rather for quick dialogue and visual actions that should show what they’re like.

So, going back to my recent writings, maybe I should amend an earlier statement. It’s not that I’m horrible at all forms of drama. Like I detailed in my last post, I’m good at writing children’s drama. I’m good at writing the kind where relatively basic stock characters can speak directly to the audience and talk openly about what moral they learned today. I’m able to entertain, amuse, and educate a certain type or demographic of audience. But serious drama, for adults, with passion and pathos, nuance and skill? That’s a bit above my reach for now.

This is not to completely discount the genre or my experiences with it. Although I cringe a little when I think back to the play I wrote in stage-writing class that semester, the experience did help me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And could I get better at drama if I tried? Yes, knowing what I now know about my limitations and the areas where I fell short before, I could probably get at least a little better if I worked at it more and practiced with that genre again. I just haven’t done so in a while, and I’m not nearly as comfortable in the world of drama as I am with prose.

But sometimes it’s good to get a little uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to try something different. So, if you’re used to writing prose, then I challenge you to try some drama as well. Write a short scene where all you can show between a few characters is dialogue and stage directions. Or, if coming up with one from scratch is hard, take a scene from a favorite book, or from a story you’ve written previously, and rewrite it as if for the stage. See if you can still develop the characters fully and make the plot just as clear without being obvious. Warning: you may get frustrated and find that it’s not as easy as you thought! Or you may stretch your creative horizons and learn more about your potential as a writer!