Monday, June 30, 2008

Through a glass darkly

Is it possible to write a story from the antagonist's point of view? Open with the bad guys, and all their justifications and delusions, but -- and here's the kicker -- present them as entirely rational and even self-evident.

Maybe that wouldn't be sustainable for a whole story. There's a good chance it wouldn't be palatable for a whole story. But certainly parts of the story could be done like that. Wouldn't it be more chilling to realize that for a time, we as readers agreed with the bad guys? Wouldn't it make them closer to us?

And isn't that the whole point? Anyone can hate two-dimensional antagonists. But things get harder when we recognize ourselves in them.

I'm not sure I can do this but I'm going to try. It will be a fine line to walk, but I want my readers to see through the eyes of the bad guys, if only briefly.

It's too easy to write them off as vaguely "evil" otherwise. No, we don't get off that easily: We have to understand them. Maybe even sympathize with them. Just a bit. Just a very little bit.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Lies I Have Told

One day in college, a friend and I decided to park ourselves on the couch in the dorm lobby and tell nothing but lies to everyone who walked past. Not a single utterance of truth permitted! (Now I work in marketing. Odd.)

The only lie I can remember was this: The Iliad chronicles the adventures of Ileas. It makes sense, we explained to the hapless freshman. The Aenead has Aeneas; the Odyssey has Odysseus; the Iliad has Ileas. O how we laughed later! What cards we were! How clever!

My sordid history of lies neither began nor ended there. I used to tell my younger sister stories that started with "Hundreds of years ago ... this was an ancient Indian burial ground." Usually this was intoned in a hollow whisper.

One evening I capped the story (and my career as a big brother) by tying a Halloween mask to a stick and thumping it on her window after she'd gone to bed. What was even better was that her window was two floors above the ground. It was a long stick. For some reason she now lives 3000 miles away from me. On an ancient Indian burial ground!

More recently I worked hard to convince my wife that every 52 years we have what is known as "Leap Week." This was originally conceived during WWII as a way to conserve energy. But every 52 years the week is 12 hours shorter ... and they set the clocks back ... or forward ... and nobody, uh, ... notices. She was starting to doubt so I pulled out my trump card:

"I read about it in Time Magazine."

She was unconvinced.

When I was very young I convinced my best friend I had been given a lightsaber by aliens, and that I'd stuffed it under my bed. Later I told my brother I'd been selected for a moon landing mission in 1999, a year that seemed unimaginably distant and therefore perfect for my story. I should point out that these were both, sadly, untrue.

My most recent lie was pretending that I came up with this topic on my own. Never! Credit goes to Sarah Rees Breenan's recent post on "Lying Liars Who Lie."

Details are key, I think. After all, everybody may have heard of the Tunguska blast of 1908, but outside of Kazakhstan few people know of a similar blast in 1948. See, most of the scientific records were wiped out when the Soviet Union fell apart in '89, but a doctoral student in Bucharest came across some documents while doing research. Yeah, it turned the sky green for seventeen or eighteen days, I think, but just over the impact site. It's pretty grown over now but you can still see the topography on GoogleEarth. I read about it in Time Magazine.

Plus there's this ancient burial ground there....

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Stop The Press

The French press, that is.

I have just come from the grocery store. Harris Teeter now carries Peet's coffee.

Saying "I like coffee" is like saying, "I enjoy having a spleen." Things just aren't going to work without it. And Peet's has been my west coast vice whenever I'm over there. But I didn't think it was even available east of the Mississippi.

It's difficult to exaggerate the supertremendousness of this news. Once I brew up my first cup tomorrow, I will be unstoppable!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A few more

Came across a few more recent and "on deck" books:

Ian McEwan's Atonement. Picked this up in San Diego. Superb and well worth the hype (I have not seen the movie). He writes from a variety of perspectives so convincingly that it's like looking through a window: the author is transparent. Or rather, invisible. A master.

Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet. A highly regarded series of novellas, bound into a single volume. Like Atonement, I read to learn the craft from a master.

Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and a collection of essays. Ditto the above on learning from a master. Plus I'm interested in a non-Western approach to story and memory.

Daoud Hari's The Translator: A Tribesman's Memoir of Darfur. Saw this reviewed in the NY Times and was intrigued. The voices of the underserved and victimized in print: there can never be too much of that. And Hari's account will, I hope, give me a glimpse of a perspective I could never get on my own. Isn't that one of the beauties of a book? And after reading Dave Eggers's "What is the What" and Uzodinma Iweala's "beasts of no nation" I continue to want to learn more about that troubled region and the very bad things happening there.

Victor Hugo's The Three Musketeers. One of the first adventure novels, and on my re-read list for a look at a masterful portrayal of humor, swordplay, carousing, and honor. Swash swash, buckle buckle.

Carl Sauer's Northern Mists. Picked this up at Maxwell's House of Books in La Mesa, CA -- again -- for research. It's a nonfiction survey of European seafaring during the Middle Ages. Plus it's filled with irresistable maps. Imagine rowing or sailing to the endless horizon in a ship filled with stinking dried fish and skins of water, hoping to find ... what? Cibola? Vinland? Gold? Redemption? The last great mystery? Before the world was mapped, it was all out there, waiting. And in many cases, peopled.

Okay, you loquacious lurkers. I know I'm not the only one with a book habit. What's on your nightstand / kitchen counter / coffee table?

[Updated with this from my brother: his book takes place during World War II. Beyond that I cannot go; tace is Latin for candle.]

What I'm Reading

I've received an overwhelming spate of questions on what I'm currently reading. Honestly, people, turn off the fire hose!*

I typically read whenever possible. La, am I expected to sit there at breakfast and drink coffee but read nothing? Impossible. Sometimes it takes me longer to select what to read than to make the meal. Luckily I'm deep into a few books, with more on deck:

Breakfast reading: War of the World by Niall Ferguson. Thanks to my buddy Ken for recommending (and loaning) this to me. It's a wide-ranging nonfiction survey of twentieth-century warfare, with WWII as the fulcrum of that long century of industrialized violence. Fascinating, though I admit I skim the hard-core economics to get to the real human issues: what makes people hate or kill or forgive or despair or persevere?

Bedtime reading: Post-Captain by Patrick O'Brian. I've blogged about (and read) this series before. Truly superb historical fiction, with on-shore romance and intrigue, spies, great naval battles, deep and poignant sketches of friendships, and behind it all, the rich and complicated world of 19th-century Britain. Truly wonderful, and I'm re-reading it now so the sailing scenes can help inspire my next book.

While-making-dinner reading. There's a lot of down time in cooking -- usually I'm waiting for water to boil or delaying setting the table -- so recently I finished up The Lies of Locke Lamora. I'd seen a reference to it on some blog but then immediately forgot where, so I gamely read through it, unsure of what might have caught my eye. It's grown-up fantasy, with a lot of plot packed into a thick trade paperback. There are more in the series but I doubt I'll pick up the next one.

Evening reading. This is for the time between dinner and bed when I'm wandering around the house avoiding packing my lunch. Often I'll disappear upstairs "on an errand" and get pulled into a story. On deck: Walter Benjamin's essay "On Storytelling," which I saw referenced, and highly recommended, in a book about ... storytelling. (Suddenly They Heard Footsteps, by Dan Yashinksy). Both the essay and the book that mentioned it are on my list as research for my next book, where the idea of storytelling will play an important role.

Vacation reading. Just back from a week in San Diego, it seemed appropriate to try all-new books. Thus: D. M. Cornish's excellent Lamplighter, a middle-grade fantasy about an orphan who finds his way through a world bewildering to him and to us, filled with monsters -- real monsters, that eat people -- ships powered by living muscle, warriors who implant themselves with additional power-giving organs, martial dancers, on and on. The richness of the world Cornish creates would be notable even in a lesser book, but to his credit the author writes a very good story. Highly recommended.

Also while on vacation: A History of Old English Literature by Michael Alexander. I first read The Seafarer in one of Alexander's translations while in college, and its haunting tone has stayed with me ever since. More recently I've begun to wonder if some of the themes -- loneliness by choice, exile, responsibility, cold voyages -- might fit into my own book. They trickle in like melting ice, how they trickle. And thus I set out to learn more. This book was instructive but I was hoping for a full version of The Seafarer (since I've evidently lost the book I had in college; shameful).

Not to be left out: a draft of a book my brother has written about -- but no! I'll wait to hear from him if I should reveal more. I never know how much of pre-publication content to reveal. I will say this: it is the winding core of a very good story.

Just found this today: the Associate Press hired a team of anthropologists to help investigate why people aren't reading newspapers as much, or as well, or in the ways that they once did. That report is now available and should make for interesting reading on media consumption habits. My dad's a journalist and this topic is very close to his heart. As to mine, since I always picture people reading books rather than retinal projections or e-stories or whatever the kids are talking about these days.

And there's more. Oh, there is more. The Little Prince. Irish folktales. The Kalevala. Icelandic sagas. History of ship construction. The sequel to Lamplighter. The Diary of Anne Frank. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. On and on and on....

*Note that while double-checking the exact meaning of "spate," I came across this useful word: suctorian. It does not mean what you might think, though I intend to trot it out into conversation whenever possible.

Also note that
spatterdock also does not mean what you might think. Must ... escape ... dictionary!

Friday, June 13, 2008

There come thoughts now

...knocking at my heart
Of the high waves, clashing salt crests I am to cross.
Mind-lust maddens, moves as I set out, soul to seek a far folk-land flood-beyond.

This is a fragment of an anonymous Old English elegy called The Seafarer, transcribed from my imperfect memory. This is more, much more: showers of frost and biting cold, and the far scream of a sea eagle echoing on dark wave-washed cliffs, the groan and rattle of the sea up the cold shingle.

It is possible to sail from Toronto to the Chesapeake Bay not via the inland canal route, but thus: through the Great Lakes, up the Saint Lawrence Seaway past Ottawa and Quebec City, out to where it widens and the whales come in from the North Atlantic, around into Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island -- Anne of Green Gables country -- around south past Halifax, across the Bay of Fundy with its twenty-foot tides, into the States at Maine, down through the islands and reaches that pepper the New England coast like edge of a curled maple leaf, Bristol, Martha's Vineyard and the boatwrights at Gannnon and Benjamin, Long Island, New Jersey, Delaware Bay, and into the warm soft Chesapeake, quiet with wading herons and the far cry of geese. In my mind it is fall.

That northern route, full of fog and whales and icebergs -- icebergs! -- exerts a powerful polar pull on me. Yes, it's possible. Yes, it's dangerous. But with the right boat...

There come thoughts now, knocking at my heart....

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The compost of ideas

I started out titling this post, "The graveyard of ideas," but that seems a little gloomy. What I meant was that when ideas course into my head - in meetings at work, while driving, sitting on a plane, while hiking -- then I try to scribble them down so later I can work them into a story. Or discard them, as the case may be.

For example, one time my wife came across this note:

"Angry queen; sailing over brick wall. It works!"

Which was intended to describe a dream I'd had; and which she feared was some going-away note I'd left in a huff since I wasn't home at the time. Other ideas, such as my rowable blimp (sky oars: think about it. Why not?) that are often met with derision when I try to explain them, end up in the notebook of ideas, where they ferment and age and change into something rich and strange. Or just wither into husks and turn to powder. It's the cirrrrcle of ideeeeeas.

Point is, I never know when something's going to be good or crap. And since I can never tell at the time it hits me, writing it down is simplest. And thus the rejoinder, "Go ahead and laugh, I'll just put it in the next book. You'll see!"

So if you read a book with rowed blimps (again, why not?) then you'll know. After all. C. S. Lewis said he started with an image: a black iron lamppost in a snowy wood.

p.s. I am writing this from San Diego. La, pity me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Oops, I win. That was easy.

There are lots of wonderful things about Patrick O'Brian's superb Aubrey-Maturin series, and when I try to explain them to someone who hasn't read them it feels like introducing Christmas or the idea of kissing or cookie dough to someone for the first time. O the riches that await you!

Once of the most interesting things about the plotting of the books is that sometimes things just don't work out. People try things and fail, or they guess wrong, or something goes awry and they have to improvise.

Note: These are not O'Brian spoilers; the plot below is made-up.

For example, say the characters are onboard a British ship of War (in 1802 or thereabouts) slanting downwind toward the French coast, on a mission to close with the shore, slip in under the coastal artillery fire, and take, sink, or burn the French ships in the port. The main characters are gathered in the captain's room at the stern of the ship, a low-ceilinged space of curved lines and small windows. A fresh breeze keeps them tearing ahead across the English channel. The captain and his aides are walking dividers across a chart, studying the shape of the harbor, likely tides, the accuracy of French cannon fire.

Everything is ready; everything is progressing, and as readers we are swept ahead of them, inexorably it seems, to France and the waiting battle.

Now, pause. Remember that these are the heroes of the book, the British are the good guys, and we even know that Napoleon was ultimately defeated. So we (or I did, at least) expect a swashbuckling fight scene, certainly some hardship, but ultimately victory. Our heroes must prevail, after all. And so much is at stake: they must defeat the French!

In Star Wars Luke must use all of his training, all of his patience and willpower and ability to bullseye womp rats in his T-16 back home to destroy the Death Star. There is only one way to destroy it, and he is the only person who can do it. And SURPRISE, he's successful.

Was it really that surprising?

Back to our British frigate coursing towards the French coast. The land draws near. The men run out the guns and rig the ship for battle. The smoke of burning slowmatch drifts along the deck. Closer. The captain orders the sails re-set to slow the ship.

They round the point of land and find the harbor empty. They run aground on an uncharted rock. The French ships slip around a distant point and the battle is over without firing a shot. Our heroes are captured and placed into French prison. They escape and face a dangerous overland journey to a port, where they are smuggled back to England in the dead of night.

SURPRISE: the mission to attack the French was a complete failure, and the result of a series of misjudgement so severe that our heroes were lucky to escape with their lives.

To me this seems to be a richer, deeper plot, more reflective of actual life and the choices we make that -- like it or not -- are sometimes wrong. When the characters are forced to live through the consequences of their own occasional bad judgement, the story feels more real.

Now. There are many, many reasons why comparing O'Brian's books to Star Wars is a bad idea. And certainly I'm not suggesting that characters should get to the climax of the story and then fail. But think about it: was Luke really ever going to do anything else than destroy the Death Star?

Flawed characters are more interesting than flatly perfect ones. Flawed ideas are more interesting too. It's not just a matter of avoiding situations that are "too easy" for characters, I think there should be occasional ... let's call them "diversions from immediate success."

Another example. China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, a wonderfully odd book about an "Un-London" that exists below/alongside London. Two girls discover UnLondon and learn that one of them is The Chosen One who must -- you guessed it -- save the world from evil. Sound familiar?

But instead of slipping into the rut of a traditional fantasy story, Mieville throws us a curve. The Chosen One is knocked out in a fight and returns to our world, defeated and, frankly, pretty useless. It's her friend, Deeba, until now the sidekick, who ends up returning to UnLondon and ultimately saving it.

The story doesn't just slide past the issue of The Chosen One, it catapults past it and in doing so, gives us the message that who you are or what a "prophecy" says are less important than what you do. "Forget the prophecy, we have work to do."

[Edited to add:] Sarah Rees Brennan brings up a very similar point on her blog. It as actually her posting that got me to read UnLunDun in the first place.

Monday, June 2, 2008

It begins

A long time ago, but perhaps not so long ago, two young men stood on the edge of a green cliff far above the sea. A cold wind carried the cries of white birds, and the water below was dull grey.
"Then it begins!" one said, thrusting his walking staff against the low clouds.
"We walk from here!" intoned the other.
They were carrying heavy packs and they walked down the gravel road into the treeless green highlands of Scotland.

Ten miles later they crawled into their yellow tent, boots and pants permanently stained with peat mud, shoulders red from pack straps. Ten days later they had already decided not to walk to the southern tip of England. Ten weeks later they were in France. Ten months later they were home again.

But what a beginning! And we knew it too, carefully pronouncing lines from movies picked months before. But I wander, I wander, since I'm trying to talk about beginning the next book.

I mean, querying agents is fun and all -- better than a water slide, better than a kick in the pants, better than mosquito bite -- but what I much prefer is writing. There is an important story to tell, and this is how it begins.

Three notes of a song; strings and bass: a fragment of melody that gives me a vision. In the vision is a character. He is doing something. He is feeling something. He is thinking about something. And a story accretes around him, reaching out twirling vines to connect with other ideas, other stories, and the vines shrink and grow, double back, braid into each other and harden into arches of stone, arcades and balustrades and clerestory branches, twining and turning and twisting into the great structure.

It's not there yet. It never is, even after the first draft. Revision is still building, after all, though sometimes it's more clearing the brush from the structure you know is buried in there.

So I sit in my little room, the ceiling fan whirring above me (it is June, after all), and forget to sip my coffee because I'm in the story, I'm feeling it, I can't type fast enough, I dart down subplot detours, find dead ends, back up and try somewhere else, it's all coming together, it all makes sense, it's working. It's working!

And then 6:30 comes and I have to get in the shower and go to work and I think, well, that was crap. How boring. How superficial. Trite. Shallow. Stale. Derivative. Uninteresting.

Ha ha. To be a writer means rapid-cycling moods and a fragile ego. That's where the "Believe" on my notecard easel comes in. I need to believe in that character, and in that haunting musical turn. Now I just have to turn it into something worthy of the vision.