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DAZ Studio and Storyboarding: A Diversion

Since early March of this year, I’ve been exploring the potential of using DAZ Studio Pro to storyboard the fantasy novel I’ve been planning for about a year and a half.

I had hit a roadblock in planning my novel.  For a year, I had been sitting with a world that seemed to me well developed and a slew of major characters that were deeply conceived—so deeply conceived, that I even found myself having conversations with at least one of those characters on a regular basis.  I would apologize to him for not proceeding with the writing of the novel.  I would say, “Sorry.  I’ll get things going soon enough.  Just be patient, and I’ll get you moving along in your story.”  There was even a real sense that he, my character, was waiting for me somewhere just to begin.

But the problem was:  I had no story.

I had found myself with a world and a roster of interesting characters.  I had four or five directions a potential story could take—everything from the grand-scale epic to a simple tale of love—and I liked the potential each story arc presented.  But I could not settle on a story; and without a story, there’s really no way to begin writing a novel.  To begin writing, I would need a story because hitting those plot points, the “beats,” and creating the three acts, requires both, knowing where you are going and having some idea of the road map that can take you there.  Otherwise, there simply is nothing to write.

Fortunately, during some downtime I found myself wanting to be able to create humorous panel comic strips to illustrate points I wanted to make during internet forum discussions.  This led me to a search for simple methods of doing so, because I am not an artist.  I stumbled upon the site Bitstrips and immediately liked its ease of use.  I also discovered that visualizing character interactions helped me to think through various ideas.

On numerous occasions, I had wondered about the possibility of storyboarding a novel.  But a) I can’t draw characters and settings so they are recognizable, and b) most internet discussions concerning storyboarding and novel writing use the term “storyboarding” to mean outlining:  The “storyboard” is a series of note cards or pages in a journal filled with written notes outlining the beats of a novel.  What I had in mind was something like the process movie directors will utilize, a series of panels showing the action and camera positions for each scene.  I felt the need to visualize—which, yes, may seem incongruous for someone who in theory is planning to write a novel.

DAZ Studio

A little more research led me to DAZ Studio.  DAZ Studio Pro is a free 3D modeling program.  Within DAZ Studio, you can pose characters, fit different outfits to your characters, and place your characters in 3D environments.  You can also choose lighting and various camera angles before you render your creation into a two-dimensional image.  Here’s one of their promotional videos:

 

Most of what’s shown in the video is extremely advanced use of the software; they’re trying to promote DAZ Studio.  I am in no way capable of creating such high quality renders—yet.  The software and individual models, in combination, offer approximately a thousand (or is it ten thousand?) settings, all of which can be used to create differently styled images, in differing quality, from toon-like images to life-like images, depending on what purpose you have in mind for the renders.  Here’s an example of a very quick render I created recently when I wanted to create a new avatar for my Twitter account:

Example 1 Revised

I could have posed him differently:

Example 2 Revised

Or put him in a different outfit and different environment—and change his hair style:

Example 3 Revised2

The characters are fully posable, including facial expressions.  Cameras and lighting can be used for effect as well.  Here’s the character posed as above in the same scene position but with different lighting and the camera moved to capture a different angle:

Example 4

So, with DAZ Studio many things become possible for those of us who can’t draw a recognizable image to save our lives.  And the base program is entirely free—that fact and the utility of the software are great lures.  DAZ, Digital Art Zone, makes most of its money by selling you different models to use within DAZ Studio.  The base program, even though it’s now the “Pro” version that is given free, only comes with a few basic character figures, almost no clothing or hair styles, and few props.  If using the software is something that interests you, be prepared to spend cash to fill up your library of available models.  (If you pay the $70 annual membership fee to become a Platinum Club member, many useful models are extremely cheap, $2-$3, or greatly reduced in price compared to what non-PC members will pay.  Plus, you receive monthly coupons and other perks, including free models.)

Any image you render using the models you’ve bought is entirely yours; you retain the right to use rendered images in any way, including commercially.

But DAZ Studio is useful for creating single still shots.  What about storyboarding a whole novel?  For that, I also bought Manga Studio 5 EX.  I happened to find MS 5 EX on sale through Amazon for about $100, which is about half price.  Manga Studio is one of the premier software options for creating comic books and manga.  If  you are an artist, it’s an excellent way to draw digitally.  But since I’m not an artist, I use it mostly for creating pages with frames and speech bubbles and keeping those pages together in a single comprehensive book; other images, like those rendered in DAZ Studio, can be imported into Manga Studio.  Here’s one page from early in the first chapter of the “storyboarded” novel I’m writing, minus the text:

Example Page 2

You can see that I’ve not worried overmuch about realism or special lighting effects in my rendered images.  That’s a good thing, because the learning curve for using both programs was initially so steep, and the time required to render each individual pane was so great, the going was slow.*  But also, this was just supposed to be a storyboard for a novel I’ve been planning, right?  Right?

Diversion?!

I put “storyboarded” in scare-quotes above because, as I began to create these pages, I discovered that I really wanted them to look good.  I wanted them to be good enough for an actual graphic novel.  I began to pay special attention to each image; I didn’t want any odd graphical errors—like skin poking through clothing (something that happens sometimes in DAZ Studio)—and I wanted the poses to be just right.  I began to wonder if maybe I should just create a graphic novel and not a, you know, real novel that’s only in text.

I have settled on doing one or both:  Yes, I am going to write the actual novel, but I might just create this graphic novel in the process as an early step to that finished novel—or, as a concurrent process.

Planning out each individual pane, even the slow process, and page after page has been much more productive than I thought it would be.  I’ve had to stop and think about many details I would never have considered before or in ways I hadn’t before.  For instance, the example page above shows two characters.  In my first plans for the novel, one of those characters did not show up until late in the first chapter and even then was not much more than a blip.  As I began to actually create the first chapter, I realized that I needed him to show up much earlier and spend a larger portion of his time with the main character.   Some of their interactions here have forced me to consider more fully the religion of their land, the history of both characters and of their land, and so forth; this is information that has greatly influenced the whole novel.  So, it’s been productive.  I’ve even found the story.

Of course, there is the old advice that one should just write.  Just write, and keep on writing.  The revelation about including that secondary character earlier in the first chapter could have been achieved by writing a first draft, then re-writing it, and maybe re-writing it again; or, maybe on the first try as the words began to flow.  Maybe this is the difference between the “pantser” style and the “outliner” style of going about it.  A graphical approach is different than a purely textual approach, also.  I’ve discovered that some things can be handled with less space in a novel than in a frame-by-frame comic; and, vice versa—there is this odd disconnect between the different media that I haven’t quite resolved.  But for now, I’m soldiering on in the process.

 

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* About slow render times:  So much depends on the polygon count, the complexity of the scene, your computer.  Much of my first chapter used a very complex environment set—the forest—and some of the renders required as much as an hour.  So, that’s an hour per frame.  But not all required so long, and I’ve learned my lesson re: polygons and complexity.

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Verse Turns – Part One

Verse, of the poetic kind, has traditionally been defined by various sources as a line or a group of lines in metrical poetry or for describing these things in songs, as can be seen in the first definition given online by The Free Dictionary:

1.

  1. A single metrical line in a poetic composition; one line of poetry.
  2. A division of a metrical composition, such as a stanza of a poem or hymn.
  3. A poem.

The final definition given there, “c”, points at the way the term has come to be used broadly to describe a whole poem—typically, a metrical poem—on the basis of the lines and parts of a poem:   a shortcut description for the whole composition which forgoes a consideration of what is happening in the lines or throughout the composition.  “It is verse.”

But what happens in verse?

Importantly, verse and meter are two different things although both may occur in the same poem.  Verse describes the whole line as a unit or a group of lines as a unit; meter describes how the stresses and/or beats are arranged within individual lines.  This distinction will be important for understanding the composition of metrical poetry—also, for understanding the composition of non-metrical poetry, or free verse.

Free verse may not have a meter—may be “free” from traditional metrical concerns, have no identifiable, regular arrangement of stresses and beats—but it can still be verse.

But what happens in verse?

Verse Turns

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives a good description of what verse does:

verse (n.) c.1050, “line or section of a psalm or canticle,” later “line of poetry” (late 14c.), from Anglo-French and Old French vers, from Latin versus “verse, line of writing,” from PIE root *wer- (3) “to turn, bend” (see versus). The metaphor is of plowing, of “turning” from one line to another (vertere = “to turn”) as a plowman does.

Verse was invented as an aid to memory. Later it was preserved to increase pleasure by the spectacle of difficulty overcome. That it should still survive in dramatic art is a vestige of barbarism. [Stendhal "de l'Amour," 1822]

Old English had fers, an early West Germanic borrowing directly from Latin. Meaning “metrical composition” is recorded from c.1300; sense of “part of a modern pop song” (as distinguished from the chorus) is attested from 1927. The English New Testament first was divided fully into verses in the Geneva version (1550s).

The general meaning of verse, as understood from the etymology, is that it turns.  The metaphor of plowing is very good; also, Stendhal’s thoughts about its use:  “to increase pleasure by the spectacle of difficulty overcome.” (We can safely overlook Stendhal’s opinion of dramatic verse’s barbarism.)

But how, then, describe this turning?  What is turned?

In the same way that whole poems may receive the shortcut nickname “verse” without further consideration of the lines and groups of lines in a poem, some poets and readers of poetry appear to think that lineation creates verse:  If a poem is lineated, it can be called “verse,” whether metrical verse or free verse.  One’s eyes are turned from the end of a line to the beginning of the next line; is this not turning, is this not verse?

Indeed, the concept of verse has been thoroughly blurred with the concept poem, so that lineation has become a signal that a poem exists.  What the lines do, as units, may be beside the point—regardless of what they do (and they may be doing something), lineated text is seen to be a poem.

Maybe a given set of text written in lines is a poem; but is it verse?

My The Oxford Companion to Philosophy includes an entry for poetry, written by Prof. R. W. Hepburn of the University of Edinburgh, which begins:

No satisfactory single-concept theory of poetry has been produced:  a poem is not essentially a representation, or essentially expression, or essentially a formal or “organic” unity.  Not because none of these functions is relevant to poetry, but because no one of them does justice to its complexity and many-levelled nature.

The entry concludes by describing the efforts of poets to contend “against the pressures and seductive power of ordinary language,” and suggests that “Theory of knowledge and philosophy of religion cannot ignore poets’ claims to ‘timeless (visionary) moments’—’epiphanies’,” but the entry concludes with this caveat:

That is easy to say:  but to distinguish veridical from illusory in this area is notoriously hard.

The philosophers throughout history have disagreed on many things while often individually being quite sure of many things—as one might see written large in the whole Companion to Philosophy—but poetry, like many other things, has never been solved.  “What is poetry” is a trap question:  inspiration for debate, no doubt, but ultimately a large question mark.

Is verse similarly impossible to define?

I would answer:  Yes and No.

No.

Verse turns, but what is this turning?

The short-and-easy answer to what is turning:  The argument of the poem, the train of thought, the development of the subject matter or of the expression, etc.

Simply having eyes turned, from the ending of a line to the beginning of a line, although this may indeed explain one type of turning, is not sufficient for describing what happens in those verse turns. One’s eyes turn all day long, even without looking at text; are all those turns verse turns?

But what occurs as one’s eyes turn all day?  One’s attention is trained onto whatever is being viewed.  Following that attention is thought and thought processes:  whether more or less, consciously or unconsciously, momentarily or for an extended time frame, the mind becomes focused on whatever comes into our view, our attention.  As our eyes wander—turn—and as our thoughts turn on the basis of what our eyes see, so our mind turns.

So unlike the concept of poetry, which seems to entirely defy definition, verse may be defined most basically as the way a reader’s attention and mind are turned throughout a poem, with the text being the medium through which the poet guides the reader’s mind.

Yes.

However, how, specifically, verse does this turning remains an open, complex question.  Defining its operation may be impossible even if we can define it generally.

On an opposite end of one scale from poetry, we might look at meter.  Although any given meter might be complex, allowing all sorts of substitutions or variations in the arrangement of stresses or beats, the moment it can no longer be discerned it ceases to exist.  Definitionally, a meter with its possible variations forms a limited set—definition—unlike poetry which is too complex to define (never mind however many definitions for poetry have been given by poetry pundits and literary polemicists.)

Although verse may be defined basically as a method for directing a reader’s attention/mind, no poet can erase the natural human tendency for the mind to wander from item to item, line to line, and so forth:  A reader of a poem is always going to be navigating that poem, quite regardless of what the poet chooses to write.  If meter disappears as soon as it is no longer discerned, verse of a sort will always occur because turns will always be discerned—however unconsciously or consciously.

So for example, the ongoing joke that some formalist poets make of free verse:  The line could be cut anywhere.  What is different between this,

I am not one of those who think
with an inky pen in their hand,
much less one of those who
in front of an open inkwell
abandon themselves to their passions
while they sit in a chair and stare
at the paper.

and this,

I am not one of those who
think with an inky pen
in their hand,
much less one of those who
in front of an open inkwell
abandon themselves
to their passions
while they sit in a chair and
stare at the paper.

That is taken from the Walter Kaufmann translation of Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, section 93.  So it was actually merely prose (or lineated as prose.  Nietzsche could be quite…poetic with his prose; he in fact once observed that the best writers of prose in his lifetime were also very good poets, and that this should be no surprise.  But what is poetry?)

In either example above, a reader’s attention will move from line to line, and any other arrangement would be navigated by the reader.  Turns, of a sort, will always be experienced.  In fact, all the words are the same between the two examples, so the question might be asked whether the mind turns differently between the two examples when reading?  Do the line breaks promote a different path for the mind, depending on where they are broken?

Yes and no and maybe.  I had given earlier the example of one’s eyes turning all day long, with the attention and mind also being turned; but sometimes the mind turns of its own will and the “eyes” are internal eyes.  One may be seeing a cashier ringing up a sale but be “seeing” again something that happened earlier in the day or something read last week in a book.  Or, while at the market, one may see something that reminds of a passage from a book, and the question might arise whether he is focusing on what he has just seen or on that passage he is “seeing” or on both simultaneously.  Similarly, the fact that the second example of lineation above isolates what is said in L1 and L4—

I am not one of those who
think with an inky pen
in their hand,
much less one of those who
in front of an open inkwell
abandon themselves
to their passions
while they sit in a chair and
stare at the paper.

—may mean that, as one finishes reading L4, L1 is chiming again, perhaps taking away a little focus on the surrounding lines.  Maybe the point of the passage is primarily to say:  There are those others, but I am certainly not them.  This would not necessarily happen when reading the first example of lineation, although it might just as well, given what Nietzsche is saying and that all the words are the same.  But the first example of lineation, for comparison, pulls a trick:

I am not one of those who think

Nietzsche’s primary point was to say that there are those who can only think when on the verge of writing or who don’t think at all but let their passions do the writing—and that he is neither.  But for the span of this line, he is saying “I am not one of those who think”—so, irony.  And that irony can stress the overall point of the missive, by the end of the passage.

But do these subtleties matter?  Perhaps different people reading these two example will not experience them quite like I have experienced them—even if they do experience turns. All of this goes to show that defining exact processes for verse may be impossible—in comparison to the relative ease of defining meters.  One cannot quite say, “Do it like this, or this, or this—but not like this” if the point one wants to stress is, “Write verse.”

The Good and the Bad

So what is a poet to do?

That is a trick question.  Just as verse and meter are not synonymous, neither are verse and poetry synonymous:  It is perfectly possible to imagine a poem that is not verse—or let us say, a poem that is not good verse.

We might as well take a poet’s or a reader’s word when he says that any given text is a poem:  What is poetry?  Similarly, although we cannot believe a reader or poet who claims a text is metrical when we see it is not, we have the problem of defining verse, as outlined above, on the basis of the apparent turns from line to line; so let’s take as a given that it is probably verse, if it is lineated, when he says it is verse.  But is it good verse?

Naturally, when assigning judgments of good and bad to artistic endeavors, some subjectivity will be involved.  Even formalists might disagree about whether a poem has good meter—depending upon what set of substitutions and arrangements each accepts as valid or as pleasing.  So too, with verse turns.

Awhile back we left the plowman and Stendhal.

Because the mind naturally turns, depending upon what comes into view, much of the mind’s turning is quite unconscious or becomes lost in the mixture:  so much turning, all day long.  One is always turning; if the world is your field, your plow is often left on autopilot.  When you write a poem, should you depend on the integrity of your autopilot, and wash your hands when you are done in the field, responsibility-free, guilt-free?

Sometimes one’s autopilot is very clever; intuition and “the gut” have been operating since your birth, after all, and your autopilot has learned a lot in that time.  The question may be in whether any potential reader of your poems has an autopilot able to understand what your own autopilot, as writer, does.  Is the plowman plowing, or did these grooves magically appear from nowhere in an arbitrary fashion?

Stendhal’s description of the purpose of verse is interesting and pertinent:  “to increase pleasure by the spectacle of difficulty overcome.”  First must come the spectacle:  One must see those verse turns, or experience them as turns, for them to be pleasurable.  Next comes the impression that something awe-inspiring has occurred in the turns:  a difficulty overcome.  Finally, no difficulty can be thought of as having been overcome without the reader becoming aware of the fact that some other human has overcome that difficulty:  the poet’s steady hand at the plow.

In other words:  One can float free all day long experiencing “turns,” so why bother with reading verse that offers only more of the same?  Good verse, even if we cannot always put a finger on what it does, certainly seems to be doing something out of the ordinary, as if according to a plan.  Pleasurable verse accomplishes something we did not know needed accomplishing until we read it.

An Example

The following example came from an idea for an exercise in detecting good verse turns that I had previously suggested on the poetry workshop site Eratosphere:   Take a poem that is unfamiliar, cover all but the top-most line with a sheet of paper, read that line and consider where the poem seems to be going.  Then, move the sheet of paper down to reveal the next line:  pause, consider where that line has brought you and where the two revealed lines together now seem to be going.  Rinse and repeat until the whole poem is revealed.

The poem I chose for the exercise was Jack Gilbert’s “To See if Something Comes Next.”

 

To See if Something Comes Next

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.

Here, we’re given a setting with a combination of a fairly abstract notion, “nothing,” and a phrase that points to a concrete reality, “top of the valley.” We might expect that the poet will go on to tell us, via the same type of direct statement, how the top of the valley contains nothing.

Taking the line at its face value, we might be picturing a barren wasteland—something like Mordor from the Lord of the Rings—and expect a forthcoming extension of that picture via images of barrenness, emptiness, bleakness:  Our understanding has been trained onto this barren valley-top.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell

But now we know that it’s not absolute nothingness. The juxtaposition of the two lines creates the question, “What is the nothingness?” because images of sky, morning, silence, and the dry smell have filled in the picture of the valley top with richer colors and smells than we would have imagined by the end of L1.

We might even expect (as I expected) that the dry smell is some dead foliage—now that we know the nothingness is not absolute, we begin to picture a more likely valley top and begin to wonder what barrenness the poet intends. Our understanding has been trained not only onto the real valley top, but on the paradox created between these fuller descriptions and the poet’s assertion of a present nothingness.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.

No, there is no foliage, fallen or otherwise. These are the hard elements on the valley top. This might be like Mordor, after all, where life doesn’t grow: stones and sunlight.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.

Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters

But there is life after all, goats and roosters. Though the hard realities of the valley top are becoming clearer, we still don’t know the barrenness the poet intended from the first line. Even this life is thin: goats occasionally, and only the sound of roosters. That sound, however, must be coming from somewhere, so we might imagine that this valley top is not quite so isolated as previously imagined.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead

Now we have a human presence to go with the goats and sound of roosters—”He”—but also death. The barrenness might not be an actual barrenness—the valley top might not be nearly barren, after all—but the nothingness from L1 might be relative to this man’s experience of the valley top, his subjective experience, rather than actual nothingness.

Thus far, the descriptions of valley top are distant-seeming, fairly abstract, as if the things which fill the valley top do not bear greatly on that “nothing” previously mentioned. These things, in fact, might be that “dead” with which he lives, though they are suggestive of life; here is life but to him it is “the dead.”  Even in this line, he is living in “bright heat,” which is not normally associated with death—but for him, and for the length of this line only (not considering the previous lines), the location might seem like hell, and the dead are the many co-occupants.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead

woman and purity. Trying to see if something

No, no, he has only two partners on the valley top: a dead woman and purity.

Ironic, that this nothingness and the memory of the dead woman co-exist with the idea of purity, a normally positive concept.

Finally, we are given a fairly clear picture of the nothing on the valley top. The final phrase of this last line is a bit ambiguous: does it refer to him, or to those goats and the roosters? (“to see if something”)  Probably, to him. He has the dead woman and purity, but the previous lines have, in one strong thread, shown that L1’s “nothing” is anything but pure.

There is a corresponding paradox in this last line, since “[dead] woman and purity” is one absolute assertion which we might easily combine into a harmonious reality, but yet he’s searching, “Trying to see if something,” so we may doubt that “purity.”

This “something” should point at the intended thrust of L1’s “nothing.”  We expect, though, (I expect) that the nothingness turns on the fact of the absence of this woman.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something

comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.

Well, no, now we may have a different idea of the nothingness mentioned early in the poem: not the valley top, not the lack of the woman, not even the lack (or presence?) of some abstract purity, but a sustainable action, motivation: “Wondering whether he has stalled.”

The nothingness isn’t so dependent on the presence or absence of things, but on the flow of time. The “something” from the previous line is not present now; hence, nothingness, now.

Again, the final phrase twists the preceding “[if something /] comes next.” He’s wondering about his future actions/reactions-to-something-of-which-he’s-not-certain. The present lack of this something causes him to question his capacity to move, or to live (active verb; not “to be alive.”)

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever

This turn is quite extraordinary. We have gone from an assumption that the “nothing” is related to a lack of activity, but this line uses a description of activity, “he thinks,” to continue the poem—perhaps harking back to the “trying to see” which was a description of activity.

We are beginning to realize that this man is not fully self-aware; we are given a behind-the-scenes overview which he doesn’t share. (He wonders if he’s stalled, but he’s currently active: thinking, wondering, trying to see.)  Plus, we have leapt from a consideration of the things on the valley top — sunlight, goats, etc., and the man and “dead woman” — to a thing entirely unassociated with any valley top: the Noh.  We are shown by this leap that his mind is far from the valley top. (It is on the Noh, for the duration of this line.  But isn’t there resonance between the far away, missing woman and the Noh?)

We also have the subtle, “Noh: Whenever,” which is suggestive of “no-when/not-ever.”

But we don’t know where this is going.

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever
the script says dances, whatever the actor does next

The introduction of the Noh, by addressing a script and actor, returns the focus onto the man’s understanding that his relationship to the aforementioned valley top is quite distant from his comprehensions. The reality of that location is now a stage, a pseudo-environment. The man is aware of his being an “actor;” and the mention of a scripting of action is a subtle acknowledgement that he’s aware of the “something / comes next” & “whether he has stalled” dialectic.

He is waiting for something in a present nothingness, and he knows it. He also suspects that whatever he does next will be significant, since it may (but may not?) rely on what the script “says.” He has a choice to make?

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever
the script says dances, whatever the actor does next

is a dance. If he stands still, he is dancing.

No, no, he’s not about to make an active choice to do something.  He’s beginning to wonder if he can’t help but be active. The present nothingness is something, maybe: though he feels powerless, lacking motivation, he’s nonetheless dancing—even if he is only following a script he didn’t intend/write.

This line’s combination of “stand[ing] still” and “dancing” mirrors the rest of the poem:

  • the fuller described valley-top w/ the earlier mentioned “nothing”
  • the [memory of the] dead woman w/ a [present] purity.

By the end of the poem, I have a sense that the case isn’t hopeless, that though the man seems simultaneously aware of a nothingness and a somethingness without fully reconciling them, he’s moving toward a Zen acceptance of the unsolicited script:

To See if Something Comes Next

There is nothing there at the top of the valley.
Sky and morning, silence and the dry smell
of heavy sunlight on the stone everywhere.
Goats occasionally and the sound of roosters
in the bright heat where he lives with the dead
woman and purity. Trying to see if something
comes next. Wondering whether he has stalled.
Maybe, he thinks, it is like the Noh: Whenever
the script says dances, whatever the actor does next
is a dance. If he stands still, he is dancing.

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N.F.

Nietzsche, an Origin to Performativity, and the Particular Problem with Consciousness/Language

I have previously addressed what I believe to be a key to understanding performativity as it happens, as it has happened, and why it has happened, through an exploration of Nietzsche’s  Section 354 of The Gay Science, Kaufmann translation:

…it seems to me as if the subtlety and strength of consciousness always were proportionate to a man’s (or animal’s) capacity for communication, and as if this capacity in turn were proportionate to the need for communication.  But that last point is not to be understood as if the individual human being who happens to be a master in communicating and making understandable his needs must also be dependent on others in his needs.  But it does seem to me as if it were that way when we consider whole races and chains of generations:  Where need and distress have forced men for a long time to communicate and to understand each other quickly and subtly, the ultimate result is an excess of this strength and art of communication….

Supposing that this observation is correct, I may now proceed to the surmise that consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication; that from the start it was needed and useful only between human beings….; and that it also developed only in proportion to the degree of this utility.   Consciousness is really only a net of communications between human beings; it is only as such that it had to develop; a solitary human being who lived like a beast of prey would not have needed it.  That our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness—at least a part of them—that is the result of a “must” that for a terribly long time lorded it over a man.  As the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress and to make himself understood; and for all of this he needed “consciousness” first of all, he needed to “know” himself what distressed him, he needed to “know” how  he felt, he needed to “know” what he thought.  For, to say it once more:  Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this—the most superficial and worst part—for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication…..

In brief, the development of language and the development of consciousness (not of reason but merely of the way reason enters consciousness) go hand in hand.  Add to this that not only language serves as a bridge between human beings but also a mien, a pressure, a gesture.  The emergence of our sense impressions into our own consciousness, the ability to fix them and, as it were, exhibit them externally, increased proportionately with the need to communicate them to others by means of signs.  The human being inventing signs is at the same time the human being who becomes ever more keenly conscious of himself.  It was only as a social animal that man acquired self-consciousness—which he is still in the process of doing, more and more.

Take, then, the origin of performativity from this.   The section in red type above describes the pressure, the originating circumstances, and the prerequisite conditions leading to the development of performativity, and the section in blue type describes—in part—how any given human being makes use of performativity within the herd, or within the community of humans, for his own gain.

But then Nietzsche continues and gives us a key for understanding the limitations of language, which I will apply shortly to a consideration of the limitations on a poet:

My idea is, as you see, that consciousness does not really belong to man’s individual existence but rather to his social or herd nature; that, as follows from this, it has developed subtlety only insofar as this is required by social or herd utility.  Consequently, given the best will in the world to understand ourselves as individually as possible, “to know ourselves,” each of us will always succeed in becoming conscious only of what is not individual but “average.”  Our thoughts themselves are continually governed by the character of consciousness—by the “genius of the species” that commands it—and translated back into the perspective of the herd.   Fundamentally, all our actions are altogether incomparably personal, unique, and infinitely individual; there is no doubt of that.  But as soon as we translate them into consciousness they no longer seem to be.

This is the essence of phenomenalism and perspectivism as I understand them:  Owing to the nature of animal consciousness, the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface- and sign-world, a world that is made common and meaner; whatever becomes conscious becomes by the same token shallow, thin, relatively stupid, general, sign, herd signal; all becoming conscious involves a great and thorough corruption, falsification, reduction to superficialities, and generalization.

The whole selection is important; but the section in bold cuts through to the central point. Tie this into what Nietzsche wrote earlier, in the first selection quoted at the head of this blog post, that, “For, to say it once more:  Man, like every living being, thinks continually without knowing it; the thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of all this—the most superficial and worst part—for only this conscious thinking takes the form of words, which is to say signs of communication“—and the limitations on communication via the written or the spoken word should become clear:

  • We have only ever needed the meanest, most average, most common language, in order to communicate effectively within the community, to survive;
  • In fact, strange language or uncommon signs could lead to the failure of performativity, might be dangerous directly (provocation, insofar as the strange may be seen as dangerous to the community, threatening cohesion or, at the very least, may suggest the future failure of the community’s own performative strategies when focused upon the stranger coming from a strange land) or indirectly (failure to secure aid and support through failure to communicate)—or, in terms borrowed from J.L. Austin, strange and uncommon signs may be infelicitous rather than felicitous.
  • Our consciousness and language are inextricably tied together; our conscious thinking, then, is often mean, average, shallow, general, and all the other things Nietzsche says about it.

The blue type in the selection above points a finger toward the troubles a beginning poet will experience when trying to establish himself as a poet, insofar as he is aware of his individuality, his uniqueness, and then begins to write what he believes to be rather lovely or special lines without first understanding the limitations of language and consciousness.

For the new poet straining against all known conventions of  language and of poetry:   The very language that he uses is borrowed, common, average, if it is not complete gibberish — even gibberish may make use of the common alphabet — and, however he strains against convention, whether a convention of language or a convention of poetry, that convention informs his straining.  More importantly for the beginning nonconformist poet seeking an audience:   His audience brings to bear on the poem the most average, common, shallow, general consciousness.

But the straining nonconformists are only half the tale.  The opposite type of beginning poet can be just as bad and ultimately just as sad.  Attempting to write what he thinks is perfectly conventional poetry, he will often receive for his troubles the yawn of boredom or else hostile laughter at the trite, overblown doggerel he has produced.  He may think he is bending the conventions to his unique vision, but he has not yet seen how his thinking is conventionally shallow, merely average, and terribly common.  His audience has come to his poem seeking more than what they are quite accustomed to thinking or having thought themselves and what they have read a hundred times over in similar doggerel.

The “Ineffable”

There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, however, and it has no name.

Nietzsche did not condemn all poets, all people, to a perpetual—even, nihilistic—hell filled with endless, meaningless, shallow prose—endless, meaningless, shallow minds.  He makes a distinction between the consciousness and thinking or experiencing on the whole.  In introducing Section 354, he wrote:

The problem of consciousness (more precisely, of becoming conscious of something) confronts us only when we begin to comprehend how we could dispense with it….For we could think, feel, will, and remember, and we could also “act” in every sense of that word, and yet none of all this would have to “enter our consciousness” (as one says metaphorically).  The whole of life would be possible without, as it were, seeing itself in a mirror.  Even now, for that matter, by far the greatest portion of our life actually takes place without this mirror effect; and this is true even of our thinking, feeling, and willing life, however offensive this may sound to older philosophers.  For what purpose, then, any consciousness at all when it is in the main superfluous?

The selections already quoted above answered his question For what purpose; but this introduction to Section 354 may be helpful for explaining why poets have often succumbed to the use of the word “ineffable.”

I have in the past made it my business to hate the word ineffable—because it is an easy out for poets, an excuse for much of what is bad in bad poetry—of which there is much.  The word is an attempt to dismiss the effect of the commonness, shallowness, superficiality of the written or spoken language, and thus it is often used to justify whatever language the poet has chosen.  “Incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable.”  It is the business of the poet to express, to offer utterances—make no mistake.

But it is also the business of the poet to go beyond mere repetition of the banal, the common, the shallow—and beyond the incomprehensible or merely incidental and frivolous excursions into nonconformity which are, in the final analysis, also mere repetitions of the banal insofar as each straining is informed by the banal.

The criticism of free verse, that it is merely lineated prose, is often correct.  The criticism can also be made of much modern metrical poetry:  that it is merely metrical prose.  One often runs into either variety and finds the precious “charged language” which is meant to turn the prose into poetry—that dreadfully common, superficial, shallow language arranged in an unexpected way or perhaps pulled from a specialized lexicon titled, Words Most People Don’t Often Use (But of Course Will Understand).  Poets may strive to become an Original merely on the basis of having thought of a new way to arrange the dreadfully common.  Or by breaking a line—such power of Originality! so easily available to anyone with an Enter or Return key.  None of these approaches removes from the poem the utterly, entirely effable. Curiously, that portion of our lives which is not bastardized by language or consciousness—the vast portion of our emotional, willing, thinking lives—might be provoked into responding to anything put down on paper—because, after all, that is the most active part of our living.  But this livelier, fuller portion of ourselves does not need to go to a string of words and whitespace for stimulation; Hollywood or the local dance club or the woods and beaches and public parks might suffice, or, if words and white space are wanted, Fifty Shades of Grey or the witty (and often, unconventional) Twitter stream.

One often finds poets engaged in mutual stimulation, however.

I have, through Nietzsche, come to a late détente with the word ineffable.  I am willing to admit openly my own frustrations as a poet—because, yes, I too am filled to overflowing with what, at least for me, cannot easily be reduced to the effable or easily translated through the effable.  Even when (as is my tendency) I attempt to break the effable.  I am not too concerned about being labeled an incompetent, because I think my status is dreadfully common in this world.  And so, dreadfully commonly, I will say:  The poem that engages, that takes up a life of its own and will live beyond its first reading, is not merely incidentally provocative, not merely a reiteration of a hundred other poems with slightly different language, rhymes, line breaks, names and events, but is one which seems to have arrived in a form through which—and only through which—it could have arrived.  This, too, is banal; it has been said before.  Such poems are quite rare productions, even for the best of poets.  I would explain them in more detail but I do not have the words.

In short:  The effable may be all that the poet has in his toolbox—and it is—but his primary business is with the ineffable.  Anything within that toolbox is merely incidental and not worth the effort required to utilize it—until it acquires new worth through evoking the ineffable.  “Poetry must be as new as foam, and as old as the rock.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson.   But the rock is the effable, not the ineffable.

Hamlet’s Silence

A crude synopsis of performativity:

  • Models modeling models modeling models modeling…
  • Even the pretentious or strident and bold Walking Refutation of a model is modeling that model
  • Every model, in modeling, is inexact; errors in the transmission or repetition occur, whether purposely (quite rare) or accidentally/unintentionally (by far, the most common)
  • These errors are largely responsible for all that is chaotic, hateful, confusing, sad and tragic in human interactions—but also introduce the possibility of progress.
  • One cannot escape performativity except through death.
  • Hence, Hamlet’s last line:  “The rest is silence.”  My understanding of the line is informed by the bullet points above.

I hold w/ Nietzsche that Hamlet is not best described as having been beset by great doubt and too many choices; but rather, that Hamlet knew-too-well.  The others in the play had that “veil of illusion” Nietzsche referenced, which allowed them to act; they did not think they were models modeling models modeling, but thought they were Originals—Hamlet knew what they were.  Worse, he knew he himself was, and only could be, a model modeling models modeling….and saw the impossibility of the situation—

In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint.  Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action.  Not reflection, no–true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.

[from The Birth of Tragedy]

—although, I take my interpretation in a slightly different direction, by addressing what Hamlet saw.  Iago saw it also, but became Director — the only Original, or so he believed.

A recent question came to my attention.  Where does poetry reside?  Is it in the author?  The text?  The reader?  Does it emerge when all three converge?  Is it in all three simultaneously?  Are three different poems existing in poet, text, reader, one each?  These are old and tiresome questions.  Plato came into the discussion, when someone crossed the question with Plato’s theory of Ideas.  I think Plato, as with many after him (including Nietzsche) was grasping toward the idea of performativity, but falling somewhat short.  In any case, I thought I’d interject my answer.

Q:  Where does poetry reside?

A:  In Hamlet’s silence.

 

 

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Aside: Telling is Like Hearsay

In my last post, I explored the Show, don’t tell principle of writing.  A distinction was made between telling, which is merely the giving of information, and showing, which Ray Rhamey defined as evoking experience.

The point in effective fiction writing:  Enable your reader to experience the novel through the focal character’s experiences.  Enable the reader to feel as if he himself experiences whatever transpires in the novel.

In the summary to that blog post, I offered a description of the reader’s experience being obstructed by extraneous or excessive detail:  lengthy, vivid, and specific detail may “show” a scene, but if it is inconsequential then it is distracting.  Such detail is little more than the author telling about the environment by drawing things that don’t matter to the story, regardless of how much vivid imagery and action are used.  It is as if the author has offered guideposts that lead nowhere we need or want to go.

Earlier in the blog post, I had given a reason for the insufficiency of the opposite, of giving general and abstract telling statements without specific detail to flesh them out.  These are not even guideposts—because they are not directing us to go anywhere, no, but rather letting us know we have already arrived—even if we have no memory of an experience of having traveled there.

But either type of obstruction—the negative effect of telling—can be summarized as author intrusion.

Example:  “John was angry and afraid.”   Here, the author is offering his own assessment of John’s mental state.  Because we lack specifics, because we are not being shown John’s state of mind, we must take the author’s word for granted.  Our experience of that telling statement:  Some other person behind the novel who is not a character in the novel has spoken to us to tell us what is what.

Similarly, excessive and/or extraneous detail offers us the experience of being told by the writer, “Hey, I’m drawing a vivid picture just for you; enjoy the view!”  If that detail has no bearing on any character in the novel, who is it for?  “Hey!” rebuts Author, indignant.   “I just thought this was something you needed to know!”

Rather than evoking an experience for us, the telling writer cannot resist offering an aside.

In The Fourth Theorem of Curtis, I included a section on hearsay with the following description of what occurs during hearsay:

Hearsay considered alone is a different conglomerate performance than the conglomerate performance being reported.  The person relating events or describing processes and objects that he has witnessed informally as a matter of course or formally through experimentation—describing his facts—saw one performance or multiple performances in the past; the person now listening to him relate his previous experience is witnessing a different performance in his speech, physical behaviors, his art, his writing.

In other words, when our friend Mary narrowly escaped a collision on Interstate 44, her experience of that event was different than our experience now that she is telling it to us.   She saw the swerve of cars; she felt the sudden rise in blood pressure, the fear running through her nerves; she heard the loud clash of metal and glass on metal and glass caused by two vehicles driven by individuals who were not as lucky as herself.   But we, hearing her tale, hear her words, see her gestures, see her face changing expression as she relates whatever few details she must be remembering at just that moment of telling us what happened.  That performance, were we to relate it to a third party, is hearsay:  “Mary said she was almost in a wreck.  She was scared.”  It is also telling.

Most novels, because they are fiction, do not have the benefit of having been written to represent something that has actually occurred in the past.  Even were they based on true-life events, the distinction would not matter.  The writer’s words are a performance we the readers witness—and they are the only performance we witness while reading the novel.   Regardless of the writer’s intentions, his readers can only witness his performance.

We may have memory of direct experience from a multitude of past circumstances in our own lives, memories of events similar to those described in the novel.  If the writer can evoke those, he may be able to fool us into believing that we are experiencing the events in the novel directly rather than witnessing an authorial performance.  He cannot maintain the illusion if he keeps offering us asides.

This authorial dilemma affects everyone, writers and non-writers alike, to the degree that any conscious performance is given in order to lead a listener down a particular path.   To the degree that we may use performative strategies to influence or manipulate another—or, merely entertain—the insertion of an aside breaks the spell and lets our audience know that we have a private agenda.  Our interlocutor may suddenly realize that his reaction to  our performance is not for any purpose beneficial to him so much as a reaction that will benefit us, the performer.  No one likes to feel manipulated, but we are happy to go along if we are living our lives, for our amusement or benefit, and if we can feel that our reactions—our actions—are our own.

In other words, if the performer can evoke experience, we the audience to that performance may lose ourselves in the performance.  This of course may be delightful or quite tragic.  Or first delightful and then quite tragic.

This dilemma also explains the silliness that is telejournalism:

 

The proposed diplomatic solution to the Syrian Crisis is not merely a proposed diplomatic solution.  No, America has been treated “like a rag doll” by Putin.  Putin has “castrated the United States.”  There is even a banjo somewhere in the mix.

These are attempts to show, don’t tell.   To the degree that they evoke a host of previous experiences and previous reactions to those experiences, these phrases might actually evoke an experience for the viewer or lead the viewer down an intended path.  Especially if the viewer was already treading down that path; now, he has a companion.  On the other hand, these might be viewed as authorial asides, signs of a hidden agenda for the performers.  Revealing that agenda might be another performance—this time used for entertainment, comedy.  Rarely do we find in telejournalism the perfect, non-intrusive performance; but they keep trying.

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On Writing: Show & Tell

Recently, I was reading the Wikipedia page covering the principle Show, don’t tell,  and I found a link in the external links section of that page to a web site called Flogging the Quill.  The author, Ray Rhamey, had written a succinct and useful guide for new novelists called, “How to show, when to tell,” including examples.  In particular, his summary is valuable:

Boiled down to essentials:

  • Telling is dispensing information.
  • Showing is evoking experience.

A couple other links from the Wikipedia entry lead to other helpful articles or blog posts; but the essential point remains:  Showing is evoking experience.

As the Wikipedia article states, telling is also useful—

“Show, don’t tell” should not be applied to all incidents in a story.  According to James Scott Bell, “Sometimes a writer tells as a shortcut, to move quickly to the meaty part of the story or scene. Showing is essentially about making scenes vivid. If you try to do it constantly, the parts that are supposed to stand out won’t, and your readers will get exhausted.”  Showing requires more words; telling may cover a greater span of time more concisely.  A novel that contains only showing would be incredibly long; therefore, a narrative can contain some legitimate telling.

Scenes that are important to the story should be dramatized with showing, but sometimes what happens between scenes can be told so the story can make progress.  According to Orson Scott Card and others, “showing” is so terribly time consuming that it is to be used only for dramatic scenes.  The objective is to find the right balance of telling versus showing, summarization versus action. Factors like rhythm, pace, and tone come into play.

—but new writers may have difficulty sorting out when to tell, when to show.  Furthermore, the dictum Show, don’t tell, pounded into the heads of beginning writers as a matter of course, may also lead them to confuse telling and showing.

Being Anna

Rhamey, in his short guide, offers up this example:

Telling: Anna was physically and mentally exhausted.

Sure, you get information. You have an intellectual understanding of her condition. But you have no feeling for what Anna feels like, do you? To show that Anna is physically and mentally exhausted, you could do something like this:

Showing: All Anna wanted to do was crawl into bed and go to sleep. But first she would cry. She didn’t think she could be calm and composed for another minute.

The new writer, filled with ideas about making his writing vivid and showing his characters being active, might be confused by this example.  Rhamey’s version of showing is only “telling” us what Anna wants to do, is planning to do, and thinks she cannot do; wouldn’t he be better off “showing” her walking to the bed, shoulders sagging, halting with tears forming in her eyes, finally standing over the bed in stasis between slipping under the covers and erupting into a full-blown sob-fest, trembling?

Well maybe; maybe not.  Rhamey’s revision may work well if his novel is written in a subjective third-person narrative style, in which the subjective thoughts and feelings of characters help move the story along.  His revision would be quite out of place in an objective narrative style in which the story is told only through a description of events, actions, and objective elements of a scene.   Assuming that Rhamey’s novel is written in the subjective narrative style, how is his revision showing rather than telling?

Because it evokes experience.

Whatever has happened to Anna preceding that line could, in theory, provoke a wide range of responses in her.  In my last blog post, On Writing: Matter, I excerpted a section from Dwight V. Swain’s excellent book on writing,  Techniques of the Selling Writerin which he approaches an explanation of why external events must be connected to a focal character:

External events have no meaning in themselves, no matter how bland or how violent they may be.  Their inclusion or exclusion per se is completely inconsequential.  They aid in story development only as someone has feelings about them and reacts to them.

Whatever has happened to Anna is, considered by itself, inconsequential.  It becomes consequential only to the degree that it moves the story along; and, a part of moving the story along is moving Anna along.  Because the event considered by itself is inconsequential, it becomes consequential only because Anna reacts to it in a specific way—Put another way:  Before Anna’s specific reaction, a wide range of potential reactions exist in theory; and, until she has a specific reaction, the event remains inconsequential.  It needn’t have been written.

The Telling example above, “Anna was physically and mentally exhausted,” is so general, it leaves the provoking event inconsequential because we do not know the degree of her exhaustion and, indeed, we know that people can feel exhausted for a wide variety of reasons and feel it differently per person per event.  Rhamey’s revision, on the other hand, gives us a specific reaction to the preceding event because it shows us how this person, in this circumstance, reacts to her situation.  She does not think of making a relaxing bubble bath but thinks of bed; she does not merely begin to cry, she plans to cry—almost defiantly?; she is even then considering making another decision, a decision she knows is theoretically available to her, of forcing herself to remain calm and composed, while doubting that she can.  Another person may have decided to flop on the sofa, flick on the television, and start digging into a tub of ice cream to lose herself in sensory distraction.

But this specific person reacts in this specific way.  Through such specific reactions—even if they are internal reactions, or in the mind—Rhamey evokes the experience of being Anna.

Being a Ghost

If Rhamey handled the rest of his theoretical novel well, evoking the experience of being Anna would enable the reader to experience being Anna.   After all, in real life a reader might have reacted to the same event by flopping on the sofa or losing himself for a few hours sitting at the bar of a local dive.  Through showing Anna’s story rather than merely telling it, Rhamey can lead a reader down a path that he normally wouldn’t take under the same or similar circumstances in his real life.  Indeed, the reader could experience something that would be impossible for him in the real world.   As Anna experiences, so we experience it.

Many ghost stories describe ghosts as having very specific goals.   They exist to warn, to evict, to threaten, to get revenge, or to find solace in completion of some unfinished business.  Ghosts tend to be monomaniacs.  Sometimes, ghosts are described as being so focused on their goals or visions and memories of their past lives, they are incapable of seeing anything that does not concern these otherworldly obsessions.  For example, a ghost in a haunted house might be seen repeatedly carrying a bucket to a bed and throwing imaginary water onto that bed, making trips back and forth between the bed and the tub in the bathroom, occasionally wailing during the process but entirely ignoring the humans walking about the home and never, ever going to any other rooms of the house.

To a large extent, we readers are like ghosts in the novels we read, focused on the narrative of the novel in a monomaniacal way.  We are almost in possession of the focal character of the novel—experiencing the world through her eyes (or, perhaps, through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, or through the eyes of multiple characters)—and eager to put that fire out before the bed and its occupant end in ash.

But unlike ghosts, we can be distracted from our mission.

Some new writers, taking Show, don’t tell to heart, have spent a great deal of time and effort mastering the art of telling by showing.  They tell us every detail of a scene:  the different plants pushing up through the earth, the five different types of birds—feather colors, warbling song, flight patterns, size and shape—whirling overhead, the exact number of paces away each tree sits on either side of the path through the woods on which the focal character is traveling, the different shades of brown in the churned, rutted path before him…..  “Showing,” these new authors reason, “means vivid description and things being active in the environment.”    And so they tell us everything about every scene.  We who are eager to put out the fire find ourselves burdened with so much detail, wanting to scream at the novel, “Fire!”

Perhaps feeling a guilty impulse—they hear Show, don’t tell! not Fire!—other new writers insert a handful of things about each scene that do not matter much, describe things in the environment that have no bearing upon the story—or, incidentally, upon any of the characters of the novel, much less the focal character.   Drawing the scene, they might call it.  Giving the reader description—vivid description, by adding detail.   This sunset has a particular set of hues; a scene later, that ale mug has cracks in a particular pattern. Because the point is, a writer must show; right?

No, the point is:   The writer must evoke experience.

Now of course, the focal character might be exactly the type of person who notices all the birds, hues, and other details of his environment, unlike most everyone he meets, and the resolution of the plot may require just such a character.   Or this day he notices those things because the headmaster has let him have a day off after a month of brain-numbing study in wizarding school—and perhaps being distracted by all the sights will set up the ambush waiting for him a quarter mile down that path.

Unlike the ghosts in stories who are able to possess humans, we as readers are not capable of taking control of our host, the focal character.   We are also not chained to a familiar environment or automatically injected into an environment that will be important to us.  Instead, we are like ghosts who are whisked away to another dimension without much warning, chained to another being we have never met prior to being whisked away and thrown into his body.  Excessive detail or inconsequential detail is like being caught in a purgatory that offers no escape to either hell or heaven or away from itself.  We have a vague but insistent memory of some fire somewhere else that needs putting out.  But everywhere we turn, we keep seeing a giant guidepost that someone has erected.  Someone has nailed a sign onto the guidepost:  “Enjoy you’re stay!”   Yes, in this case it is misspelled.  They’ve also drawn hearts and happy faces all over it.

Fortunately, unlike ghosts we can close the book after a chapter or two and swear, never again!

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On Writing: Matter

A story is a succession of motivations and reactions.

Was reading Chapter 3 from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain this evening and found a concrete gem that answers the fundamental question a fiction writer might ask.  What should I write?   By this I don’t mean what kind of book, what kind of story; but rather, what words to put down when beginning the process of writing the novel or story.

Presumably, a writer already has some idea of what kind of book or story he wants to write before he begins to write it.  He probably has a very specific idea of what kind of story he wants to write.   But beginning the process of giving that story actual form, of putting it on paper, he might begin to ask himself what is the matter?

This might be a very different kind of question if he finds that his fingers stop on the verge of giving his story form, paralyzed.  Faced with the dread of realizing that his story might exist only within his mind, that now he does not know how to make it material on paper in a way that others will understand and enjoy, he might begin to wonder what is the matter with him.

But resolving this dread requires answering that other question:  What should the matter be of the book; or, what words, sentences, paragraphs should he write, what images or descriptions or exposition or events?

Chapter 3 of Swain’s book contains an observation that, alone, provides an answer to that question because it offers the most important compass.  Speaking of a character in a novel, Swain writes,

Concretely, you want external developments that will lead him to feel—and therefore behave—in a constructive manner where the story problem is concerned….

External events have no meaning in themselves, no matter how bland or how violent they may be.  Their inclusion or exclusion per se is completely inconsequential.  They aid in story development only as someone has feelings about them and reacts to them.

The dread that besets a new writer when he first begins to type out his story arises from the fact that, of all the things he might choose to write, Their inclusion or exclusion per se is completely inconsequential.  At least, to him they seem inconsequential because he does not know what the consequence of including them or excluding them might be.  More likely than not, he is worried about what the reader must be told, what the reader requires for understanding and enjoyment; and he’s afraid that he is going to miss that mark, that the reader will become confused or, what’s much worse, bored.  So he guesses that his choices will be consequential; he just does not know how or for what.  And so he sits, his fingers poised over the keyboard, probably hating himself just a little bit.  If he makes it as far as the keyboard.

Entertaining the reader is no doubt the primary goal, so the question of what will matter to the reader is very important.  Swain addressed this earlier in Chapter 3.  What will matter to the writer is also very important; Swain addressed that issue in his first chapter.  But the compass for determining what matter to write is the focal character:

Whether a setting is colorful or drab . . . whether an incident is important or inconsequential . . . whether another character is good or bad—each point will be judged and interpreted with the focal character’s reactions as guide.

At the same time, your reader judges and interprets the focal character himself.

The reader gains his bearings from the focal character, interprets and judges all that is in the story on this basis.

So, your reader’s feelings about your focal character, plus the focal character’s own feelings as communicated to said reader, unite to bring the story itself to life.  Together, they provide the sense of purpose and direction that a good story needs.

Without a focal character, your reader is in the position of a city boy plunked down in the middle of some mountain fastness in backwoods Colorado or Montana.  He’s completely free to travel, but he doesn’t know which way to go.

The boy is, in a word, disoriented.  Until he finds a landmark, or a tree to climb, or a compass to point him north, or a stream or an Indian guide to follow, he’s in deep trouble.

Double that in spades for your poor reader.  He stands confronted by a story world fully as baffling to him as are the Rockies to the tenderfoot.

People move through this story world.  Events transpire.  Situation and scenery change.

Yet somehow, it remains drab and empty to your reader, without significance or excitement, because he has no home base from which to judge it.  He simply doesn’t know where he stands.

This may seem well and good as a broad guide for what needs to occur as one begins to type out a story.  But, what does one type to make it happen?  What pragmatic guide, or compass, exists for the writer who begins to write?

A good measuring stick is to ask whether what one describes—in setting, in physical characteristics of any character or object, in events—whether this matters to anyone in the novel.

As a pragmatic measuring stick, I would expand the question to any character in the novel, including secondary and minor characters as long as those characters ultimately matter to the focal character.

Perhaps a minor character gives a magic dagger as a gift to a secondary character unbeknownst to the focal or viewpoint character.  The dagger will come into play later for the primary characters; they will be forced to react to its existence or to the consequence of its existence.  That gifting might occur at a time and place that doesn’t include the primary characters.  One could write that scene if necessary by including whatever matters to the gift-giver or to the receiver although they are not primary characters.  Though not primary, they do form a part of the world that will bear upon the primary characters.  One might also include description that would have significance for the primary characters were they present and which they will suffer not knowing.  In this way the web of cause and effect is drawn for the reader, so that when the primary characters eventually have to react to the existence of the magic dagger, the reader a) gains some understanding of why the primary characters are put in that position, and/or b) why they react the way they do, and/or c) will have some feeling, or some way of measuring their own reaction to what happens and to what the primary characters ultimately do in response.

However complicated or complex the web, the focus ultimately lies on the focal character of the novel (however much the viewpoint character, if he is different, also steals the limelight.)    So details of events, locations, objects, and persons are important to the degree that these details bear or will come to bear upon the primary character in determining his reactions and actions, whether through his awareness of these details or through his relative ignorance of them.

Many drab and tedious stories are written by authors who think, first and foremost, “What do I need to tell the reader?  What does the reader need to know?”  Many cringe-inducing stories are written by authors who ask themselves, first and foremost, “What will make the reader squirm, shiver in dread, excited, surprised?”  Of course, one can answer these questions as well; but the primary question when writing should be, “Does this detail matter to anyone in the novel—or will it—especially, to the focal character?”

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Review: Stasis

Stasis
Stasis by Kim Fielding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stasis, by Kim Fielding, is an odd little book. I had just finished reading the sixth book of another fantasy series of novels, reaching that point every fan of good fantasy dreads—waiting for the next in a series to be written and published—and a search for something else to read during my wait landed me on Fielding’s book. At only 99 cents for the Kindle edition, I thought, “Why not?”

With only 224 pages, Stasis barely meets the definition for “novel” when compared to, say, almost any other work of fantasy fiction published in that format.

Most novels in the fantasy genre range from slightly over 300 pages to well over 500 pages, with some very heavy tomes at the higher end. (“Heavy” being metaphoric for the Kindlized versions.) There is a reason for this. Most fantasy trends toward the epic in scope, involving either complex sociological and political themes or a long series of exploits, encounters, discoveries, and so forth through which the main characters come to grips with their situation and overcome whatever obstacles and enemies stand in their way—and usually, both, complex themes and a series of encounters working through those themes. Also, good fantasy often requires a great deal of world-building. Because the worlds in fantasy novels are so different from our own, authors find themselves expending energy building up the world to something we can believe might actually exist somewhere in the universe or multiverse.

Stasis, in its tone and development, forgoes much of what readers of fantasy have come to expect of the genre and in fact seems more like a very long short story rather than a novel. No doubt, Fielding’s writing process for the book contributed to this feel: It was written in one month as part of the NaNoWriMo experience. I cannot say whether that process had any positive influence on the outcome, but negative results are obvious in the final product. That said, it is still a very good short read, surprisingly good given the fact that it was written in only one month.

Giving an adequate summary of the plot of the book without including too many spoilers might be impossible, given its size. I will try.

Ennek, the main protagonist, is “the younger son” of the leader of a city-state ruled through strict enforcement of morality laws and, incidentally, through magic. Ennek’s father, the Chief, does not possess magic, but a shadowy co-ruler or enforcer, the Wizard, does possess magic, and underlying the rule of law is the ever-present threat of Stasis. Common criminals may be forced into temporary slavery as bond-slaves—with exceedingly long sentences for even relatively minor offenses—but those criminals branded as traitors to the ruling elite are sentenced to a kind of physiological imprisonment most readers will recognize from the movie Minority Report: Stasis means being suspended in a kind of webbing in chambers below the home of the elite, alive but not living, a kind of suspended animation that can last anywhere from decades to centuries.

The ruler of the city-state considers Stasis a humane form of punishment. Other city-states may execute traitors, but in Praesidium, the leader explains, these prisoners are allowed to keep their lives in Stasis, awaiting the time unawares until they are released from Stasis after decades and, typically, then forced into bond-slavery to serve out the remainder of their sentence. Bond-slavery, by the way, is no easy sentence; at one point in the book, one bond-slave tells Ennek that he was arrested while young for “joy riding” with a horse and is serving out a 40-year sentence for the crime. Ingeniously, the Wizard explains the difference between simple bond-slavery and Stasis: traitors awake after decades to find that the whole world has moved on, so whatever insurrection or traitorous activity was committed in decades past will no longer have a foothold in Praesidium. As one reads through the book however, it is easy to see that the Chief’s description of Stasis, that it is a humane form of punishment, is simply rhetoric used by him to cast the ruling family in a good light.

Ennek, as “the younger son” of the Chief, is pretty much just flotsam. His brother, the elder by six or so years, will become Chief one day, wielding all power in the city-state, and as heir is several magnitudes of importance above Ennek. There is a kind of inviolable totemic nature to the family structure in which all significance is forced upward, onto the Chief and his first-born son, and Ennek, as “the younger son,” while still recognized as a member of the ruling family is merely a kind of vestigial organ. This insignificance plays a major role in the book, after Ennek becomes aware of a particular prisoner held in Stasis and decides to free him; much that happens as a consequence of his ill-thought-out action could not have occurred if he had had the same spotlight on him that his brother, the heir, has.

For all its short length, the book is rather disquieting. Stasis, as it is described—how it is effected, the things done to some of the bodies in Stasis, some of what at least one character in Stasis experienced during his long Stasis—is far more macabre than what viewers of Minority Report will have witnessed in that sterilized, slick Hollywood treatment of a similar process. But for me, the most disquieting aspect of the book, by far, resulted from the thin veneer placed over the world it occupies. I suspect that Fielding’s writing process for the book, its having been written in only a month, contributed to this approach. At 224 pages, not much room is utilized for world-building. Instead, the setting for the book is quite obviously the western U.S. coast; but it is off-center. The home of the elites has indoor plumbing—their bathrooms seem rather like our own now, with toilets and tubs and hot water available at the turn of a knob; Ennek’s quarters could as easily have been a suite in a Marriott—and they also have indoor lighting; but the lighting is gas lighting, not electric, and they travel via horses, carriages, and ships with sails. Some mention is made of a breakthrough some city-state is about to make, of horseless vehicles, but has not yet made. They use swords; but Ennek briefly mentions guns (which never otherwise make an appearance in the book.) And there is magic, powerful magic.

Readers of fantasy who expect detailed descriptions of the processes of magic, however, will be disappointed. As little time is given to this as is given to the world-building in general. The off-center feel for the setting inhabits the whole book. Aside from Ennek and the prisoner he decides to free, and perhaps the main villain, all the rest of the characters in the book are merely backdrop. The various city-states, the land they occupy, the economy and society-at-large are mere backdrop, hardly developed at all. When you come right down to it, even the prisoner and the main villain are barely developed, at least in comparison to Ennek. The prisoner and the villain, and the principle members of the ruling family, and Ennek’s only friend in the book, do seem real—but in the way that acquaintances and colleagues around us in our everyday lives feel real. We brush against the veneer constantly, we are aware that other complete human beings shape our world, but we have no inside access to them, no connection beyond how we are affected by our constant brushes with them.

Stasis is written in a third-person limited point of view, not third-person omniscient. We are never given a real window into the thoughts, feelings, and so forth of any character but Ennek, but are instead left to experience the world as he experiences it. This approach was rather wise for Fielding, even if it was merely a consequence of the limited time put into writing the book. We know by Ennek’s reactions to his world and the people in it that he has some connection to the interior of others—so, vicariously, they do seem real to us—but frustratingly, our experience of that world is still enigmatic and limited. It seems obvious to me that Fielding’s choice of a title and theme was intended to inject some allegory into the book. Ennek, by the way, is gay in a city-state that abhors immorality; homosexuality is extreme taboo; he is furthermore “the younger son” and so shoved further aside; as such, and given the constraints of his world, at 28-years-old or so he is still a virgin — in sum, his own life is also in stasis. We come to learn that Praesidium itself appears to be in a kind of stasis, although this impression is developed more subtly, almost only barely. Against this, the off-centeredness of the book is almost like that persistent pain that warns of an underlying problem before any doctor has made a diagnosis: here is a small break in stasis which threatens a bigger break. We are as troubled by the book as Ennek is troubled by his life.

I cannot say that Fielding entirely succeeds. There are two very egregious mistakes in the book which could easily be resolved in a revision without much effort; and, one other slight irritation.

Of the two major mistakes, I can only mention one with any sort of directness without giving out a major spoiler. The directness will have to be indirect, even so: Late in the book, Ennek seemingly “forgets” something until someone reminds him of it, but it is such a thing that, really, given the whole rest of the book, it is impossible for us to believe that he did not keep it in mind daily for months. It would have been riding his mind heavily. I suspect that Fielding’s rush to complete the book in a month, her too-stubborn effort to do so, forced her hand into making the major mistake. Had Ennek really had that thing riding his mind for months, the development of the resolution to the book, its completion, would have required more finesse and more time—in all likelihood, quite a few more pages interspersed throughout at least the last third of the book.

Of the second major mistake, I can only mention another work, to avoid too great a spoiler: the movie The Incredibles. There is a lesson there, something that is parodied, but I can’t go into it further. I will however mention the word, monologuing. Suffice to say, Fielding’s rush led her into a particular trap near the end of the book.

The irritation, which is not really a major problem with the book except insofar as it exacerbated the two major mistakes, is in the lost potential of Stasis. I read the book in one sitting. As a long short story (in feel and lack of further development), it was surprisingly good, despite some stumbles—quite surprising, and almost superhuman. But it could have been so much more. I am almost irritated with Fielding directly, feeling as though she determined once and for all that it would be a book written in one month and, by god, that was what is was going to be. A deeper treatment of the world and the many implications of that world, a deeper treatment of the characters, could have led to a major work of fiction; but, alas, then she could not advertise that it was written as a NaNoWriMo enterprise.

I finished this book having enjoyed it, however slight it is. The story of Ennek and his love continues in two sequels, forming a trilogy—but a warning here: Book Two was a major, major let-down, worthy of maybe 2 stars at best. I could not bring myself to read Book 3 after the experience of Book 2. This first book can stand alone however, for what it is.

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[Note:  This is mostly a re-post of a review I wrote previously for this blog, with some minor edits.  I'm moving toward an integration of Goodreads for my book reviews and copied the review over to that site, to be re-blogged here.]

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Lord of the White Hell — A Quick Review

Lord of the White Hell - Book One Lord of the White Hell – Book One by Ginn Hale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First an important note: This “book” should really be considered the first half of a book which concludes in the second of this series, Lord of the White Hell – Book Two. The break between Book One and Book Two is not much more than the type of break you will find within most single novels between one chapter ending on a tension-filled note and the next chapter beginning afterward in the aftermath of that tension. Quite literally, the action that takes up in the beginning of Book Two happens only a few hours after what happens at the end of Book One and could easily have appeared in Book One without seeming in the least bit odd. If you are planning to buy this book, you might as well plan to buy Book Two at the same time. They really can’t be considered separately; that would be like writing a review of only the first 20 chapters of a 40-chapter book; consequently, I feel obliged to review both at the same time.

Although I have read fantasy series involving gay or bisexual characters as main characters in the past, I am relatively new to the “M/M Romance” genre in which this book falls. I have been noticing that, within this genre, romance between the principle characters tends to take the center stage while plot — and action related to the plot — fills an almost incidental, background-noise type of role. Lord of the White Hell is no different.

On the one hand, Ginn Hale’s approach is a little frustrating for me and might be frustrating for others more used to reading straight-up fantasy than m/m romance in a fantasy setting. In typical fantasy, especially epic fantasy or even sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the plot revolves around some conflict between the protagonists and their principle antagonist; much of the action and forward movement is shaped by that conflict. In Lord of the White Hell, the plot revolves around the characters of Kiram and Javier and, importantly, the cultures of the world they inhabit. The antagonist is kept in the shadows for most of the book; he hardly makes any move or causes anything to happen but just lurks in the background like some trap that will eventually spring; and although Kiram and Javier become aware of an antagonist, their actions within the novel hardly address this knowledge. Instead, they are focused on each other, on their classmates, and on the general goings-on of the Sagrada Academy where they meet. Almost all of the action revolves around them and the secondary characters in their environment going about their daily lives.

On the other hand, their daily lives and their relationship to one another are very interesting. The characterization and the world-building in this novel are excellent, fascinating, thrilling even.

Sometimes while reading the novel, I grew frustrated because I wanted to see what would happen if Kiram and Javier even once — just once! — would take the growing threat against them, the existence of that antagonist, seriously enough to discuss it together and make solid plans for fighting it. That is the epic-fantasy-lover in me, wanting to see the plot revolve more around this larger conflict. I began to realize however that the principle reason I wanted to see this sort of development was that I wanted to see both Kiram and Javier more fully. I became so engrossed in their characters and the cultures of their world, I felt a little cheated by Ginn Hale’s refusal to show me this other aspect of Kiram and Javier: their capacity to plan and work together to solve a major conflict.

Another tendency of m/m fantasy romance which I have found frustrating relates to the way some authors present their characters as hapless or helpless reactionaries. Things keep happening to them against which they must react, but they do not themselves cause things to happen or direct the plot.

Compare for instance Lynn Flewelling’s Luck in the Shadows and her whole Nightrunner series of novels. Alec and Seregil in that wonderful series in fact go out of their way to find trouble — that’s part of being a nightrunner/spy — and seem more in control of what happens to them even if they cannot always anticipate an antagonist’s actions. They discuss between them plans, strategies and so forth and appear like a very functional and effective duo.

In Lord of the White Hell, Kiram and Javier eventually do begin to work together to try to stop their foe, but they are primarily reactionary and much of the action they take occurs very late in the story — and the novel suffers for it. The ending to their story feels extremely rushed. For all her excellent characterization and world-building, the effect of this rush at the end of the story gives the impression that Ginn Hale realized that she had to wrap up her story and decided to throw together an ad hoc conclusion. Things seem to “come together” just right, too easily, in order for her to wrap it up.

Fortunately however, so much else in the novel makes this final rush forgivable, at least for me. The two cultures presented in Lord of the White Hell are very developed and fascinating. The romance developed between Kiram and Javier in ways that seemed utterly authentic. Utterly. Despite the weaknesses related to plot development and the rushing of the climax at the end of the book (and incidentally also the rushing of the denouement at the very end), I nonetheless found the book mesmerizing.

I did find some secondary characters to be a little too one-sided, almost caricatures — like the Grunito boys — but others seemed like very full, real individuals even with little focus on them (Kiram’s family, for instance.) Even the caricatures were fun, if not entirely authentic.

Book One contained many editing errors, especially cases where a whole word was missing, but this wasn’t too distracting and Book Two had fewer such errors.

After finishing Book Two, I instantly wished for a Book Three. I hope Ginn Hale considers showing us what happens following the events in these two books. That is a good sign. Because of the weaknesses I’ve described above, I cannot give Lord of the White Hell a 5-star review, but it gets a very solid 4 stars from me.

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Blood Song — A Quick Review (And Deeper Analysis)

Blood Song (Raven's Shadow, #1)Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Blood Song in the Kindle edition. I’d purchased it a couple months before actually reading it, having decided to purchase it on the basis of Amazon reviews alone and because so few books in the fantasy genre receive as overwhelmingly positive a set of reviews as this book had received. Then, after purchasing the book, I let it sit on my Kindle for a couple months before I made the time to read it.

The first thing I noticed about the book when I began to read it was its incredibly long prologue written entirely in italics. On my Kindle, the prologue came to 14 pages. Prologues are always a dicey subject: usually unnecessary and almost always quickly forgotten as one reads, but seemingly pro forma for most authors of fantasy novels, especially those attempting epic sword-and-sorcery tales. (Similar to the pro forma inclusion of a map. This novel also includes a map. The map has few features—frustratingly few—and is probably unnecessary.) I’ve read many fantasy novels over the years, so I’m generally forgiving of the useless prologues in many of them. They are a habit for me as a reader; I’ve read and forgotten so many of them. However, the fact that this prologue was written entirely in italics, for so many pages, was an irritation. One expects italics to be used sparingly; as emphasis, they are used to emphasize something peculiar, making it stand out—and a prologue by its nature already stands out. Also, the fact that by the end of the prologue one learns that it’s actually a framing device rather than a prologue, and that it pretty much reveals at the very outset the protagonist’s final state after the next 600-or-so pages that will follow….Well, I was very suspicious of the remainder of the book after I realized that so much was being revealed so soon.

The author seems to have been slightly confused about what kind of book he wanted.

Normal epic fantasy should leave some doubt about its conclusion, which the framing device almost obliterates. Especially coming-of-age stories in which some abandoned youth gradually works his way up from nothingness to epic greatness: part of the tension is the question of “Will he make it?” and “What will he become?” which the framing device answers within the first 14 pages. The majority of the book, occurring in the past, is one huge flashback to the little bits written in italics and scattered throughout the book. I feel no fear of spoiling things for those who have not yet read the book when I say that, after the first 14 pages, you know this protagonist will live to his late twenties. Yes, the rest of the book occurs in the past, proceeding from the time he is ten years old; but the author will have spoiled the “great reveal” of his survival to his late twenties after the first 14 italicized pages. You will also know almost everything about what that 10-year-old will become. Not everything, however.

On the other hand, the author seems to have taken some pages out of normal movie or television practices by weaving back and forth between the present (the “framed,” extremely lengthy sections all in italics at the beginning of the novel and each “part” of the novel) and that flashback past while also purposely and quite obviously withholding information in either account. Indeed, he leaps about when writing the past events, purposely leaving out some of that narrative in order to have gotcha moments later in which the missing episodes are revealed. In a 2-hour movie or a 1-hour television episode, this is forgivable because so much has to occur within a short time frame; but in a novel of 600+ pages, when one quite naturally reads the narrative as….well, a narrative development, one would be forgiven for feeling that the author has tipped his manipulative hand far too many times. He’s not subtle about it. (I did have the impression while reading the novel, on several occasions, of being in the midst of a marathon of episodes of some television show.)

He seems trapped between the desire to create a semi-mythical character via episodic flashbacks and to create an epic tale. I think he settled on the former, and I think that is unfortunate. He could have had his mythical, great character without sacrificing narrative cohesion with so many jarring chronological moves and none-too-subtle pulling of the rugs from under our feet.

All-in-all however, the above criticisms do not detract much from the entertainment value of the novel. The imaginary lands he describes are intriguing, the cultures intriguing, the histories intriguing. The main protagonist is mostly interesting, although one quickly grows tired of the fact that he incessantly bemoans his own killer nature. The first 3/4 of the novel or thereabout reminded me of a blend of Ender’s Game and the classic movie The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—with perhaps a little of the movie 300 thrown in, particularly when the protagonist undergoes one particular Test in his training. For those who enjoy the martial arts (by which I mean, the art of war and combat, not necessarily only the Eastern variety), this will be an engaging read. I tore through the book once I began reading it.

The worst aspect of the book, by far, is the fact that the author seems to have never learned of the semicolon. I have never in my life read so many run-on sentences. Some are not so bad, but sometimes the grammar is so convoluted by run-on sentences combined with clauses that you have to exit the narrative and try to parse out what he is trying to say. These run-on sentences are not merely oversights or accidents but form a huge portion of the writing throughout the book. It is as if he used his word processor’s find-and-replace function to find all the semicolons and replace them with commas. The rest of the writing is actually very arresting—at least, engaging, non-repetitive, descriptive—and I confess to being mystified that the lesson of the semicolon and sentence construction never made a dent on his psyche or inner critic.

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I also left the above review, originally written for Goodreads, at the Amazon page for Blood Song, where I gave it four stars.

An unnecessarily harsh, negative criticism by another reviewer — from a 1-star review — quoted a troublesome bit of writing from early in the book: “history had seen fit to garner him with titles aplenty.”  He received much useless rebuttal in comments to his review.  He was right; the wording was clunky, florid even, and had also bothered me quite a bit when I first read it.

I mentioned in the above Goodreads review that the author had used many run-on sentences.  I had wanted to highlight some examples but did not have the book handy when I wrote the Goodreads review.  So I’m adding my response to that negative Amazon review here:

 

That exact sentence threw me for a loop and caused a lot of dread for me when I read it. I will say that very little else in the novel was as jarring, thankfully. However, the author seems to have never learned the art of the semicolon or how to separate independent clauses into different sentences; it is as if he used a word processor to find all instances of a semicolon and replace them with commas. I have never read so many run-on sentences in my life. An example from the first chapter:

“The silence and the mist made him uneasy, he didn’t like the gate and the figure which sat atop it.”

These are two separate, independent clauses; either could be a complete sentence alone. He doesn’t use a conjunction. He just uses a comma, no semicolon or colon. The example above is not at all confusing, but many longer sentences in the novel are quite confusing, especially when he adds so many other clauses to a sentence. A more convoluted example from the first chapter:

“The entrance was an arched doorway, portcullis raised to allow them entry, the two spearmen on guard, both senior students of seventeen, bowed in profound respect as the Aspect stepped through.”

This could easily have been two individual sentences; e.g.:

“The entrance was an arched doorway, portcullis raised to allow them entry.  The two spearmen on guard, both senior students of seventeen, bowed in profound respect as the Aspect stepped through.”

However, as written, for just the first pass through it seemed as if “the two spearmen…” was a clause describing the doorway in the way the clause about the portcullis described the doorway-statues then? No, separate individuals who bowed when the Aspect stepped through.

The book is absolutely filled with run-on sentences. Some are much more confusing than either of the two examples above. I will say however that, as I came to expect such clunky sentence constructions, I began to be more careful reading the novel, even editing them in my head as I read along. For the uninitiated: Our language has a long tradition of a LACK of punctuation, before punctuation became formalized. The punctuation we use today is a formalization, only. So I decided to give this author a pass, just tried to move with the flow. I made it through the book and ended up enjoying the book as above-average entertainment; but it is not high art. I don’t think the book would have been hurt one bit if the author had not used so many run-on sentences. I think there was no discernible usefulness or purpose to his use of run-on sentences. I suspect he simply didn’t know the formalities of sentence construction. So they WERE stumbling blocks, unnecessary stumbling blocks.

 

A final note:  The Kindle version that I read was self-published apparently.  Ace has come out with a hardcover edition which will probably be heavily edited.  (Another commenter under that negative review already has a copy, and the florid, weird wording originally highlighted by the 1-star review has been edited in it.)  Hopefully, the editors will have made the many, many edits to remove the run-on sentences from the book as well.  I don’t think these fixes will raise the book above the four stars I gave it, out of five, for other reasons already mentioned above.  Still, it is an enjoyable bit of entertainment.

 

Addendum (spoilers):  When I said above in my review that the author “seems trapped between the desire to create a semi-mythical character via episodic flashbacks and to create an epic tale,” I really should have clarified that statement.  I’m contemplating a new blog post just to focus on the particular issue of deciding what kind of book you are writing—an issue Orson Scott Card touched upon so well in How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy but which probably needs a further expansion even beyond Card’s treatment.  Well, Card’s treatment was focused and to the point and fit the scope of that book rather well:  a case in point.  Expanding on my point about Blood Song’s development would have veered into a more detailed literary analysis—always my temptation when writing what is ostensibly a mere “review”—and that’s why I didn’t go into more detail here.  However, I did not want to leave the review as-is without also pointing out where Blood Song might succeed—might.  As a review, perhaps the above needs a little expansion to include this consideration.

If I were to expand my review to consider not only the development process Anthony Ryan used but my own most solid impression of his book, I would have to say that his focus seems mostly to be the development, for our viewing pleasure, of a particular aspect of “the mythical figure.”  That phrase is slap-dash.  What I meant by it was the type of extraordinary figure experiencing extraordinary experiences.  The particular aspect Anthony Ryan wants us to experience is a kind of sad circumstance that such individuals face.

Let us use as an example Hamlet.  One of the chief strengths of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is the fact that the title character not only seems extremely real, as real as anyone alive now, but he also is quite mysterious.  Hamlet seems bigger than possible.  Yet, Hamlet most certainly exists; we just can’t get into his head, ourselves.  This effect is achieved by Shakespeare by not only putting Hamlet into an extraordinary circumstance—in large part, a circumstance that he himself creates—and not only by giving Hamlet such sparkling actions and words or speeches, but also by withholding much from us.  Centuries have been spent in debate over Hamlet’s true character, his true inner dialogue, his true motivations, and so forth.  We have his outward responses to his circumstances (including his spoken dialogue), but what we see does not match up 100% with what we assume to be his inner self.  At least, much concerning Hamlet does not make sense for us.  We are left with the impression that Hamlet may be even larger on the inside than he appears to us on the outside.

Now, enter Anthony Ryan’s character Vaelin.  Blood Song is in a different genre than Hamlet, not only because it is a novel rather than a play but also because Blood Song falls somewhere in the contemporary niche of epic fantasy, with all its usual devices.   What Ryan seems to have wanted to show is something that Hamlet, the character, shows:  How an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances will forever go unknown, remain misunderstood by all around him.  The interlocutor from the first-person, italicized portions of the book, Vernier, who comes upon “the Hope Killer” at a date much later than most of the rest of the book, certainly misunderstands him throughout this novel.  The populace of Vaelin’s own society, like the populace from Vernier’s society, misunderstands him; as the book opens, we are told:

He had many names.  Although yet to reach his thirtieth year history had seen fit to garner him with titles aplenty:  Sword of the Realm to the mad king who sent him to plague us, the Young Hawk to the men who followed him through the trials of war, Darkblade to his Cumbraelin enemies and, as I was to learn much later, Beral Shak Ur to the enigmatic tribes of the Great Northern Forest — the Shadow of the Raven.

Of course, such names and titles are pretty much common in the contemporary fantasy genre.  This is how one “builds up” a character.  The mention of these names occurs on the first page of this novel, however.  The rest of the novel, the whole non-italicized portions, are flashback:  we are meant to come to some understanding about those titles, about the understanding that the populaces of two societies have of this character Vaelin.  And Vaelin bemoans throughout, particularly as the novel advances, his own killer nature.  I.e., no one understands him; they see him as these things but he’s really a sensitive flower.  So Ryan seems to want to deliver this aspect of a mythical hero:  his loneliness, his isolation from all others.  At the same time, Ryan seems to be offering a critique of society’s tendency to force veneers onto great men who do not ask to have those superficial labels.

I had mentioned in the original review that the author purposely, none-too-subtly, withholds some information, some scenes, only to use those things for gotcha moments later:   Just as we learn that Vaelin lies to the historian Vernier when giving his account of the past, we also learn that the author of Blood Song will lie to us by withholding information to be delivered later for that gotcha.

This manipulative strategy is far too obvious, blunt-trauma, to be successful—in the way it is employed.  Most of the book is not italicized—i.e., it is narrative taking place in the past, as huge segments of flashback—and we read the narrative thinking that we are reading about the “truth” of Vaelin.  And then along comes a new scene in the present in which Vaelin remembers a portion of that past that the author Ryan did not include in the original flashback.    For instance—SPOILER ALERT— at one point we read about Vaelin’s superior in the Order, its leader,  walking with him before the final war, and his superior tells him that the most important thing for Vaelin to do is to come back.  Then for several chapters, Vaelin recalls that warning.  But finally, near the very end of the book, another flashback is used in which his leader actually told him much more during that walk than merely to come back.  Why was this not a part of the original flashback of them walking together?  Why?  Because the author Ryan wanted a gotcha.   In truth Ryan was playing a game common to television and movies of not showing everything but quick-cutting to something else, only to reveal the whole of a scene later.  Surprise, audience!  So we’ve been reading with the understanding that the main protagonist knew very little about events, when he actually knew much more; to have revealed it chronologically in the narrative of the past would have let us know sooner too.  Since this information has a very important, direct bearing on the climax, knowing that the protagonist knew long before that climax what to expect would have spoiled the climactic-y nature of the climax, dontcha know?

All these efforts, the whole processes of the development of the novel, seem focused on the primary goal of drawing for us the image of misunderstood-great-man.

I think this is also the primary reason some readers have given the book such a great rating on Amazon and elsewhere.  Ryan certainly succeeds in giving us that image—really, the image of that aspect, which seems to be the whole point of the book.  But is this enough to sustain the novel?

Returning back to Orson Scott Card’s simple advice, I would say that Ryan seems to have wanted to write a character story:

All stories have characters, and in one sense stories are almost always “about” one or more characters.  In most stories, though, the tale is not about the character’s character; that is, the story is not about who the character is.

The Character Story is a story about the transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to him.  The Indiana Jones movies are Event Stories, not Character Stories.  The story is always about what Indian Jones does, but never who he is.  Jones has many problems and adventures, but at the end of the movie his role in society is exactly what it was before—part-time archaeology professor and full-time knight-errant.

By contrast, Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding is about a young girl’s longing to change her role in the only community she knows—her household, her family.  She determines that she wants to belong to her brother and his new wife; “they are the we of me,” she decides.   In the effort to become part of their marriage she is thwarted—but in the process her role in the family and in the world at large is transformed, and at the end of the story she is not who she was.

Ryan wants to show how Vaelin became “Sword of the Realm…the Young Hawk…Darkblade…Beral Shak Ur” and “the Hope Killer.”  In the flashbacks, Vaelin begins as a boy abandoned by his father to the militaristic Order; he grows up and acquires each of those titles in turn; the whole time he’s hating his own killer nature; and —Spoiler Alert— he ultimately leaves the Order and, although we don’t know for sure (because there is a sequel), he appears to have finally left those other titles as well as his own killer role in these societies, having finally transformed.   But there is some confusion, because Ryan could have been shooting for a Milieu Story (the book is about how these particular societies misunderstand and label exceptional men, all within a milieu of fundamentalist religions) or an Event Story (how the fairly unexplored but constantly reappearing Very Evil Entity is trying to take over the world, and Vaelin must act against It.)

Even if the story was intended as a Character Story, most of the transformations are given to the reader within the first 14 pages.  We are told that Vaelin becomes all these things; then, the rest of the book is intended as an explanation of the how and the development of the fact that he wants to be something else—and that final development, the transformation into something else, is left rather vague, To Be Continued….  While much of the narrative showing Vaelin’s growth is intriguing and quite entertaining in its episodic fashion….he doesn’t actually grow much.  He just becomes the expert killer we already knew about from the first 14 pages.  The scenes in the Order are interesting, in an Ender’s Game/Hogwarts kind of way; but unlike either of those two series, there’s no there there.  I.e., there’s no particular plot, no particular contest between forces, and so forth, to sustain the story, to be the developmental force behind the story.  There’s merely the Great Man, from beginning to end, with some incidental insight to the way this Great Man just wants to be a sensitive flower.

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WordPress Migration

I have just recently migrated to a WordPress installation for the blog from Typepad, on a new hosting account, and consequently not all may be well with the site for the next week or two.

I’m relatively unfamiliar with WordPress, having been a dinosaur of a Movable Type blogger for nearly a decade.  The waters may be choppy.

I blog so infrequently anyway, I don’t expect this to become much of a problem.

Many links to other blog posts within this blog will not work until they have been updated.  Some images previously stored at Typepad will need to be moved or at least have their permalinks altered.  Etc.

I’ll check back in with an update when I can.