Monthly Archives: June 2008

A Short-Short: the Soup-Kitchen Witch

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Soup Kitchen Witch by Rick MobbsI wrote the following to Rick Mobbs‘ painting and find myself pretty well diverted and amused; I am pleased by the half-hour spent and I have to credit Mr Mobbs for offering his work to lax blahgers with wayward mornings.

Hers was a charitable smile that was shaped like the moon –  and she had eyes like no man. She was rune-etched by wrinkles but not by hard time, but hypnotic and brushstroked and mad, and when she laughed her witch-cackle and she threw back her head you could read fortunes in the crick of her neck. She smelled like the attic; her hair was steel wool and her fingers gnarled like root. Her spine was an old husk that was shaped like the letter “c” and she looked like she were searching for pennies. She once drowned in the well when she nickled her wish to never, never die, so she climbed up just soaked-through and sopped and her body was gray bloat and plump, and kindly even – if she happened to wear the right dress.

She grew-up in Casner and she believed in rusted iron and she caught the cholera seven or eight times and she left a mess wherever she went.

She came to Chicago in 1933 and she worked in a soup-kitchen that was owned by the mob and she ladled-out kindness denied many men, for the water was whiskey she found in a bucket and it seemed it would never go dry. She washed out her pot in the gutter under a bridge and it killed all the homeless in time.

She lived in a trailer. She had just three pairs of shoes and a trinket she bought from a gypsy. She pawned all her teeth for gin and an old deck of cards, and she poisoned herself when she blackjacked the dust-queen of Hearts.

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A Bit Diverting, This One

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I wanted to write briefly just to exercise the right. For a liberating week and a half, I went – (was forced to go) – without internet. While I fully intend to continue my pseudo-series on [predominately] Writing [fantasy], I thought I might declare proudly and without shame that I am throwing “As I Read Them” to the wind. First – tediom: reading a chapter then writing my thoughts on it got pretty old; second – losing the race: I was writing about The Gunslinger, and in the week and a half since I’ve killed it, returned it to the library, and moved on three times. However, I am on Book 3 of The Dark Tower series now, so I very much plan to write a little about Book 2 – but just not chapter by chapter by chapter.

Also, I thought I’d record some progress since we last met. I have written a fifteen-pager loosely-but-comically titled “The Thirty Minute Dangle-Dance” about a Hangman in a surreal Wild West. I wrote a couple short-shorts about the haunted and overgrown places in small (small) towns called “Ol’ John Grim” and “Jody Kelly,” and I am excessively diverted – which I think I will categorize this entry. I have gotten through Part One of my Doranchorn scratch-draft, which is about thirty handwritten pages smothered in sticky-notes and gloss and character bubbles – the first draft tends to be double or triple that, so I am pleased; but, more on what I call “Scratch-Drafts” later. And The Goblin Market is just sitting there making me feel guilty. 

Writing Fiction – and not a Travelogue

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Eliza Wyatt, in her blog Tales of a Fantasy Scribbler, brought-up an incredibly worthwhile concern to science-fiction or fantasy writers – or, well, of any sort honestly – inherent to the nature of questing and epics: traveling-in-writing. More than anything I have considered J.R.R. Tolkien an historian – or in the same vein: he is a linguist and a scholar, and in his dreaming-up of Middle-Earth his story was given breath through detail; languages and landscapes and a wealth of appendices made the series bigger than the story, real-ish. This is the feather-in-the-cap that C.S. Lewis lacks, although I think Lewis the better writer. Tolkien’s application to detail made, personally, many of the passages from The Hobbit through The Return of the King insufferable, or as Miss Wyatt says, “Tolkien could take three pages just to describe the wind.”

In my comment to her I chalked it up to Tolkien’s admiration of oral narrative and the Old English world, where travelling minutiae and landscapery played the very important role of memorializing landmarks and regions important to cultural history. But unless your striving for Orature Ngugi wa Thiong’o‘s The River Between comes to mind, written in something of a pseudo-mythic creation-story discourse – then I am not completely convinced that a travelogue is in your best interest.

Up until recently, there has been a lot of emphasis in Science Fiction and Fantasy to “suspend disbelief,” which of course was necessary and easy for the dragon-chaser Coleridge, because I think there is this misconception that people are primarily interested in the Real World (or the familar and comfortable). From what I gather from the likes of Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and David Shan, …, etc., the realism of the story is insignificant, looked over; I am sure neurons fire when Magic glitters by, but the fact that these characters occupy a world that, more than likely, will never be ours is shrugged and doffed . So what.

This is the stuff behind Myth and Story that rationlizes the liklihood that while you may have never seen Herculean strength, it doesn’t make the character any less relatable; in fact, the extra dose of symbology speaks volumes not only of the perception of your self-relevant universe, but transcends the mundane and gives you the power to Dream.

Oh gosh, I digress – traveling-in-fiction: the Quest is awfully common in any Science Fiction or Fantasy (or Fiction-in-General!) scenario, and that entails plenty of trudging about (in Miss Wyatt’s words), but unless the literal motion or scenery is pertinent to the advancement of the plot, I’m sure nobody cares one way or another about an eventless stroll through the enchanted wood. Ay me. I happen to be in reach of a stack of books, so let’s see how these authors deal with travel:

Under these unpromising auspices, the parting took place and the journey began. It was performed with suitable quietness and uneventful safety. Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear, on Mrs. Allen’s side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.

They arrived at Bath. (Northanger Abbey, ch. 2 pg. 8, by Jane Austen)

Jane’s passage is remarkably appropriate, particularly because Northanger Abbey is in part about the event of non-event, about an overpowering imagination, and a hullabaloo over nothing. And, I suspect, that because you are not Miss Austen, you probably shouldn’t attempt to pull this off. Remember that for Tolkien, traveling uneventfully served the purpose (let’s say) of preserving a detailed memory of an old world; Miss Austen nevertheless cuts the fat down to a paragraph: Catherine Morland leaves home and arrives at Bath as quickly as you can read the above. The inbetween stews with a disappointment on the heroine’s end that nothing particularly interesting happened en route, and we glean this as readers because such is the awesome power of free indirect discourse – but I digress again.

When Miss Wyatt brought this up, my mind immediately went to Stephen King’s The Gunslinger (which I am picking a part as I read it elsewhere), precisely because The Gunslinger is the first part in a series of quests for the Dark Tower, and so far it is travel travel travel through desert desert desert; there is something about the writing that makes walking in sand palatable. Let’s find out why:

All his water was gone, and he knew he was very likely a dead man. He had never expected it to come to this, and he was sorry. Since noon he had been watching his feet rather than the way ahead. Out here even the devil-grass had grown stunted and yellow. The hardpan had disintegrated in places to mere rubble. The mountains were not noticeably clearer, although sixteen days had passed since he had left the hut of the last homesteader, a loony-sane young man on the edge of the desert.  He had had a bird, the gunslinger remembered, but he couldn’t remember the bird’s name.

He watched his feet move up and down like the neddles of a loom, listened to the nonsense rhyme sing itself into a pitiful garble in his mind, and wondered when he would fall down for the first time. He didn’t want to fall, even though there was no one to see him. It was a matter of pride. A gunslinger knows pride, that invisible bone that keeps the neck stiff. (The Gunslinger, ch. 2 pt. 1, pg 94, by Stephen King)

This passage is riddled with colorful metaphor and language, the gnawing replay of an old song in his head, the affront to pride and the will to walk on, as well as relevant history (how long had time passed inbetween chapters one and two?, and where did we leave off?). Most importantly, the narrative overall is only punctuated with desert-strolling, much of it is dialogue or lapses back into memory. Mentioning the heat and the hardpan shows that the gunslinger is on the edge of stamina, the realization that in the course of current events he will probably die an inglorious death.

I reiterate my point above that the best idea for any writer is to focus on the traveling and the logistics only when the aspects of either are important to the advancement of the plot; and if, like King or Austen, you can interweave the raw oomph between-the-lines, there is no better opportunity to show your skill. If you fail, you will bore.

There is something of a quest in my own novella Doranchorn, or rather a very prolonged escape, navigating through the march and through the desert and through the gruff of the Wild en route to civilization, but in it I employ a technique I picked-up when I was roleplaying as a teen: playing-up Downtime. In both the Austen and King passages this is precisely what they are doing. They establish that a period of time has passed traveling in which nothing particularly relevant happens (Downtime), they mention a few things worth noting, then move on. Furthermore, King break chapters up into parts which cuts Downtime dramatically, returning to “uptime” at story-significant points. This also allows for a writer to cut at a particulary good string of dialogue and start fresh, free from the bane of Transition, much like dramtic camera-angle in cinema.

— I have been sidetracked by two phonecalls, it seems, and my mind’s gotten all wanderlusty; so, I think I will cut it there and sink into the Down.

A Problem with Tone & an Obstacle in Writing Fantasy

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While I am relieved that I have finally drafted the first chapter-in-five-parts of Doranchorn, I worry about its place in the story. While this is the jurisdiction of the Second Draft, I can’t help but wonder how chapters two through however-many will develop if the first veered so far from the outline. What I am telling is a story of the beginning of the end for an imaginary world I began developing years and years ago; it is ultimately grim, disheartening, and moving on.

The three primary characters introduced in chapter one ultimately became, with an indirect narrative soaked-up through too much Jane Austen, ironic; the tone was light-hearted, and the world seemed almost idyllic. This is not what I intended: I intended a poor and just getting-by town. But, except for a smidgen of the fantasy cliche, I don’t completely mind the result. Again, this is all the province of the rewrite, as I tend – if I once turn back – to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite ad nauseum without pushing forward.

The coming chapter is full of wonder and magic – and it is very sad. I am a little afraid my foppish protagonist has too much Bilbo Baggins in his Mr Willoughby. You see, there is hidden a sandpit in the way of any fictioner: writing someone else’s Fantasy – and I write this with a capital ‘F’. Writing a collective fantasy is a wonderful achievement; writing another’s Fantasy is fuckin’ plagiarism, and if it isn’t plagiarism it is certainly, irreparably dry. How many Tolkien knock-offs are there out there? What has Dungeons & Dragons done to a generation of potentially free-thinking X’ers and Y’ers?

In many genres, the goal is less about writing something Original rather than writing something Authentic – I think Hemingway said this, or Faulkner, or Stevens (I think it was Stevens); regardless, because Fantasy (let’s throw SciFi and YA into the mix) is so tribute-oriented, written by those who grew up on Tolkien, Lewis, Lovecraft, or by writers who grew up on writers like that like Gaiman, Barker, Pratchett, just about everything you do is in six-degrees connected, and so it is very hard to achieve Authentic let alone Original.

The recent boom in Young Adult fantasyish fiction (and what I chalk up to “Young-Adult Style”) is an avenue to some form of middle ground. Philip Pullman, Lemony Snicket, and JK Rowling occupy a space that appears not to take itself too seriously (but it does, as that is the space I am trying establish myself!), so not only is it a little more removed from the thick shadow of papa Tolkien or papa Card, it’s a little more akin to grandpappy Andersen where comedy and tragedy can intermingle a little more freely under the supervision of a superimposed ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ and the Young Adult misnomer.

The stigma of children’s works and, by loose association, Young Adult, is they can’t possibly be as poignant as canonized literature. But that’s for another time.

The Drought-Drowner

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We used to be afraid of the rain, it used to be unwelcome: it would put end to all plan and get-together and reception. Today, the plainslands split open the underbelly bloat of the sky and wetted in the spill-out, drank-up the gush. The stuff of the heavens just broke and splattered us and scattered our drought. And instead of retreating into our houses, we stood collective – looking skyward with our tongues out.

An Abrasive Hour-Write and Humility before Novelists

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I try every morning regardless of my mood to write for just an hour; one hour, that’s all I ask; an hour’s point of inner-argument to smooth out any wrinkles of guilt I suffer about being unproductive: watching the Ghost Hunters marathon, the extra downloaded episode of Dr Who – at least I wrote for an hour. And today’s hour-write was just abrasive, like walking barefoot on salt-rock. The result was three pages affixed to a part-two of a chapter of Doranchorn in which there is a debate as to the virtues of putting a baby to sleep with alcohol and a sudden rainstorm.

For me, this is an important and humbling practice that engenders respect not for the craft of writing, but for the discipline of it. I admire and am in awe of the prolific authors: story is the most invaluable, and I presume the ability to tell it is less-so ‘learned’ than absorbed through reading and experience, although there is certainly some rhetoric-skill to be had; but the capability of writing two-hundred or three-hundred pages – especially if in a short time frame – says plenty about work ethic and drive, and makes Giants of writerly folk.

The Grim Sour Wind was Howling (The Gunslinger, Ch. 1)

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The apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, and death.

I met the Gunslinger in the desert, and the grim sour wind was howling, the switchgrass afire, the weathervane cricking to the west. SK paints us the bleak portrait of a sparse world, bright and cold, where bleaker men are holy men: superstitious, adaptable, and alone.

There is a oneness with the desert, a mystical bond between thirst and drought; drinking water for comfort’s sake alone is sacreligious – it must be bound-up tight in a bloating watersack.

The gunslinger had been struck by a momentary dizziness, a kind of yawing sensation that made the entire world seem ephemeral, almost a thing that could be looked through.

The opening chapter is nestled in the memory triggered by vertigo and the smell of the switchgrass burning and the cold clear night. His yet explained hunt of the man in black is contextualized by dying friends, a smaller and lighter father (a gunslinger, too, mayhap, for it’s a pair of pistols he’s remembered by), and a lost trinket.

And it is all so very cryptic, so Good, Bad, and Ugly, and oral. This is the antrhopomorphic American myth that ought be read aloud with an abrated voice and sand-grit in the parchlines of your mouth.

An occasional tombstone sign pointed the way, for once the drifted track that cut its wy through the thick crust of alkali had been a highway. Coaches and buckas had followed it. the world had moved on since then. The world had emptied.