Organicity

Hello! This is Alice. She’s happy to announce her wondrous discovery: organicity is a word the dictionary recognises! Isn’t it wonderful? A bit clumsy, yes, but far above its super clunky counterpart, organicalness!

Anyway, this is a companion piece to what I wrote earlier about authenticity. I sought to understand authenticity in terms of truth; organicity, on the other hand, I associate with life. When I try to determine if a text is organic, I ask myself: is it alive?

Like authenticity, organicity is one of my guiding principles. And yes, like authenticity, it’s just as nebulous. So, apologies in advance for any randomly colliding thought trains!

So, what makes a text “organic”? When is a text alive? Here are some guidelines.

A living text doesn’t exhaust itself

Wolfe’s metric for a good book was that he could read it again and again, and it would keep giving him joy. A living text is like that: not a one-trick pony, nor a one-hit wonder, it reinvents itself between readings, so that every time I pick it up, it’s new. It’s a cornucopia, a wondrous Sampo or a cauldron of plenty that keeps nourishing me until the end of my days. Better yet, it gets richer and richer in subsequent readings.

A living text isn’t a slave to structure

The text may follow the hero’s journey, or fit into a three act structure. It may be divided into chapters, and adhere to a grammar. But it is not defined by these things, like humans are not defined by their skeletons. They may give it shape, but the shape merely serves the greater thing, a thing above all shapes, forms, chains, and limitations.

A living text isn’t a slave to story

A text may tell a story, but a living text isn’t a story. It may tell a hundred stories, but it is not one of them, nor even the sum of them. A living text may even contradict or make fun of its own story. Life itself doesn’t have a story. Neither does a living text.

A living text doesn’t end

Books end once you’ve read the last page and closed the back cover. But the text isn’t the book. The book is just the media, a slew of paper and ink designed to deliver the text, which is born in your brain. And if the book delivers you a living text, it keeps on living after the book has been closed. Ink and paper cannot contain it: it lives in larger spheres, where infinity alone is big enough to cradle it.

 

Now, as I’ve written these guidelines, I see that they all say pretty much the same thing. Well, so be it. I guess the root of all life is more or less the same.

How am I to write a text like that, then? How can I catch a spark of that life? Well, my dear Alice, try one of these:

1. Explore unrelated tangents.

I know, I know. You’ve outlined a tight plot in three acts. You’ve pared down your list of scenes to a minimum. But still, why don’t you try that path down there? It probably doesn’t lead anywhere, and maybe the characters won’t really learn anything. But, for heaven’s sake, don’t bind your text up until it chokes.

Unbutton for a while. Let the text breathe. And if the digressions keep bothering you later, you can always cut them out.

2. Be interested in the world, not just the story and the characters.

You can craft the perfect protagonist, then kill her off in the first chapter, and your world won’t care. (Much.) And if you let it, your world can spawn you another protagonist just as good as the first one. Ain’t that a marvellous thing? Won’t you take a look at the world, by itself, and see a bit of what it can offer?

Take my word: the world doesn’t revolve around you, Alice. Neither does the world of your text revolve around your characters. No matter how much you love them.

3. Be ambiguous.

Write clear, write concise. We’ve heard that one before, right? And I’m not telling you to pepper your sentences with some, thing, about and mostly. I am telling you to pick at the contradictory knobs in your characters, and poke at the weird spots in your world. Explore the unexplainable, but don’t try to explain it. Withhold your opinions. Leave room for more than either or.

Ambiguity is lifeblood. If you don’t give your reader any ambiguity, you might as well not give them a text at all.

…and lastly, I suppose, don’t force yourself on your story, Alice. The prettiest gardens grow without human interference. So does your text. You are, at best, just the medium.

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Authenticity

Hello! This is Alice. Today, she wants to talk about one of her guiding principles in writing, namely, authenticity. What follows is a rumination about the topic, hopefully not wholly haphazard. Bear with me, though. It’s the first time I’m putting the concept into words!

What is authenticity, anyway? It smacks too much of a big word! Well, Alice sums it up in one question: Is it true?

If a thing is true, it is authentic. Truth is, of course, a nebulous concept and Alice won’t go into all the gymnastics of philosophy required. Instead, she is shamelessly going to stick with an easy folk definition. Truth is something that conforms to reality.

Alice is aware of the huge gaps in that sentence, but bullishly, she presses on! Let’s take a look at some examples on how truth and authenticity relate to writing.

Example #1: Alice writes a fight scene. (Yuck.) Set in medieval Germany, it has a knight wielding a huge Zweihänder greatsword fighting against a nimble assassin wielding two shortswords. The assassin twirls her swords and toys with her opponent, whose clumsy, lumbering swings simply can’t touch her. She finishes off the greatsword-wielding knight with an elegant throat-cut, and then disappears in the shadows with a backflip.

There are a number of clearly ludicrous things in this scene, starting from how swords are used, to how combat works and how assassinations are carried out. Yet, if Alice knows what she is doing, she may intend this scene as authentic.

Example #2: Alice writes a novel about a young gay rights activist, who enters politics. With her passion and high principles, she wins over the stodgy old conservatives of her representative democracy, and, single-handed, transforms her oppressive society into a liberal, open-minded one where everybody loves each other, and hatred for minorities is unknown.

Again, wholly ludicrous. And again, if Alice wished, she might intend this as authentic. (This time it’s much less likely, but still…)

Example #3: Alice writes a heist thriller, where a daring thief steals a famous diamond, leaving a perfect replica in its place. She gets back home, deposits her loot in a safe box, cracks open a beer, and then opens the TV to follow with pleasure a news report about investigators baffled about how such a closely guarded diamond could have been stolen.

As before.

What is authenticity, then? All the examples have mistakes so big you could blot out the sun with them. What on earth could make them authentic?

Alice always looks at authenticity, or truth, in relation to the text’s own world. Is the text  consistent? Also, are the falsehoods used knowingly? If so, the text may well be authentic. Authenticity is more about the text’s internal integrity rather than what is, so to speak, really real.

(Suspension of disbelief has to do with this, though it’s a term that sees some amount of misuse. I’ll do another post on it some day!)

If Alice has a good grip on a text’s integrity, she can write so much against the grain that it’s not even funny! Like having swords coexist as viable battlefield weapons alongside modern firearms.

(Tone has to do with this. Tone can be tricky. Especially irony. I’ll do another post on this, too.)

The text’s purpose overrules such paltry matters as reality and physics. What we intend to do is crucial. And the text’s authenticity serves that.

However, that’s not a free pass to ignore physics just because we feel like it. The thing is, whenever we break the rules, we must do so knowingly. Breaking the rules always entails the risk of alienating our readers. Honing the text’s integrity to a perfect edge is the best safeguard I know.

Sometimes, we break the rules and don’t even know it. Those are the times when our text’s authenticity takes a nose dive.

Hence, it’s important for a writer to know how everything works. Literally. Everything.

Alice’s candy blog

Hello! This is Alice! Today, she wants to share a recipe for homemade licorice candies.

Are you not into cooking? Maybe not into licorice either? That’s all right. Skip the post. But do read the bit at the end, because that concerns neither cooking nor licorice.

Until recently, Alice didn’t know that mere mortals could cook up actual licorice candies at home! But it can be done, and fairly easily, to boot. The recipe has been borrowed and translated from Jerry’s version. Thanks, Jerry!

Also, apologies in advance, there are no pictures. The licorice was so good, Alice ate it all up. Anyway, onward to the recipe!

Jerry’s Fire Alarm Priority Licorice

1 dl of yummy yummy tap water (or equivalent)

1,5 dl of dark syrup (or maybe molasses, if that’s what you have?)

4 tablespoons of plain old regular sugar

4 tablespoons of licorice root powder

1 teaspoon of finely ground anise

A pinch of salt

Black food colouring

1 dl of wheat flour (approximate!)

Of the ingredients, the licorice root powder might be the trickiest to acquire. Any kind of salty candy powder will not do. What you’re looking for is 100% ground licorice root, nothing else. If you have a shop nearby that sells organic foodstuffs, spices, or kooky health foods, you could try that.

Anyway, what I do first is, I take a medium-sized pot, preferably non-stick. I pour in water, food colouring, and syrup. (Or molasses? I’m sorry, I don’t really know what molasses is, but it seems to be an ingredient in several other licorice candy recipes.) Then I mix in sugar, licorice powder, salt, and anise. The licorice powder forms lumps easily, but that’s no issue now.

Next, I bring the heat! Low to medium is good. I boil the mix for a little while. At this time, the lumpy licorice powder resolves itself into a smooth sludge.

Oops! I made a mistake! What I do first of all, is that I prepare a sheet of baking paper and oil it gently. That’s where we’ll be lumping our licorice dough from the pot.

Now, where was I? The licorice sludge, it’s boiling gently in the pot. Next begins the tricky part with the wheat flour! (Don’t worry, it’s not that tricky. But you need a little bit of hand strength.) What I do is, I sprinkle in a little bit of wheat flour, roughly a tablespoon’s worth at a time. I use a sieve to prevent it from lumping too much. Then I mix it in thoroughly.

This part requires a bit of patience. It’s important to let the flour cook up before you add in another spoonful. Not for long – maybe a minute or so? The thing is, if you add the flour too fast, or just dump it all in, you can end up with runny, uncooked licorice paste. So that’s why you boil the dough carefully, like a witch at her cauldron, adding a spoonful of flour at a time.

After I’ve spooned in a fair amount of flour, the sludge has turned from fluid into a paste. At this time, I may have turned the heat down a bit. Low heat is good. Just enough to make the paste bubble slowly. This is the time when hand strength is required, because the paste gets stiff, and mixing in more and more of the flour requires the muscles of Atlas a spunky girl’s grip.

Once the dough is ready, dump and scrape it onto the oiled baking paper. Fold the paper in two to flatten the dough into a nice licorice sheet. Let it cool, then cut it up into pieces according to your liking. Done!

Note #1: The completed licorice candies are pretty sticky. Commercial candy has some kind of a surface treatment to make it non-sticky. If you know of a domestic way to unstick licorice candies, tell me, oh please tell me!

Note #2: When is the dough ready to leave the pot? Later than you’d think. When the dough is all but impossible to stir – then it’s time to add in just a bit more flour! Seriously. The more flour you can knead into the paste, the better and thicker the resulting texture. (Alternatively, you could stir in less if you want softer candy, but then you risk ending up with licorice gravy instead of candy!)

All right! Done! The best goddam licorice candy in the world! But, um, what if it isn’t? What if you made the same mistake as Alice, and either added too little flour or mixed it in too quickly? You end up with sticky, gooey mass that’s no good for candy. Well, there’s still a chance of recovery!

Can you form the mass into candy-sized drops or lumps? If you can, do so. Then, bake the lumps in the oven. What you get are candies of a much different texture, but regardless, it may be a way to save your batch! Good cooking!

 

So, uh, what does this have to do with writing? Not a bloody thing.

Except…

According to Alice’s philosophy, a writer must know everything about everything. Literally, and no exceptions. From plumbing to population analysis, and from gardening to grand conjuration. This is not a metaphor. This is fact.

I know, I know. It’s an impossible task. But it must be undertaken, even if it shall never be completed! Hence, licorice making. A small step along the way, maybe – but a step nevertheless.

Moodmaking

A short while ago, the illustriously industrious Richie Billing produced a post about mapmaking. Ever the groupie, Alice jumps on the cartography bandwagon!

Maps are a staple of fantasy literature. Alice won’t list all the best-known examples here, nor will she talk about maps in general. Richie and many others have already distinguished themselves on the what and how-to fronts. Instead, Alice is going to go over a couple of maps she made herself, and talk about mood.

First off, here’s our first specimen:

planet of the artists 002

This is a map Alice made for a novel. It’s just bits of coloured cardboard glued together. There’s no text, and no legend, but the red symbols stand for certain cities crucial to the story: the triangle is Kystros, the lozenge is Mastra, and the rectangle is Äbne, the City of Heads. Blue stands for water, green for land, and orange… well, you get to decide what that stands for, since Alice hasn’t made up her mind.

Yes, it’s a crude map that doesn’t provide much information. This map exists only to provide the aforementioned mood.

When Alice creates a map, she wants it to be a physical item that connects to the feel of the story. What is it like out there? How do things look, smell, and sound? What kind of vibrations go through your body when you walk on the streets and the meadows? The map is what connects Alice to those things. Whether it’s cartographically informative or even sane is unimportant. The only thing that matters is a sense of place, feel, and atmosphere.

Usually, Alice can’t get that from sterile computer programs, the ones that mapmakers use these days. She wants to feel the caresses of texture, smell ink and glue, and see the richness of living colour.

Alice wants a tangible objectDon’t misinterpret – CGI maps are just fine! But for Alice, doing stuff by hand, engaging her body, actually helps transport her to the world she’s about to explore in writing.

On to the next specimen:

holylake 002

This is a map with a different feel, for a different world, and just the kind of map that engages Alice’s body. It’s a shoddy kind of map for any kind of navigation, and barely readable because of the crinkles. Here, its making was far more rewarding than the actual finished object.

First, Alice drew some pencil sketches. Then, she drew the basic layer, again with a pencil. Then she inked over it, to produce the final outline, and added the text. Next, she soaked the map in tea overnight. Then she crumpled the whole thing and left it to dry in the sun. The finished product has an eerie leathery quality.

Toilsome? Yes. Functional? No. But does it get Alice in the mood? You bet!

There is something about handicrafts that connects us to the living world. By pretending to be a cartographer of Holylake, and producing this pseudo-leather bit of paper, Alice can partially transport herself into the other world. And by handling the completed map later, she can access some of that moodmaking magic. (Or that’s the theory, at least!)

Also, Alice loves the fact that she can just experiment with materials and techniques. When she disregards the actual functionality of maps, she can get wild! And by adopting a material (or a pseudo-material) characteristic of the world it depicts, she can create a much stronger link to it. World-building through handicrafts. You could apply it to anything: make the pendant your character wears, sew their signature cloak, pimp their ride, etc.

What about the actual function of the maps? You know, knowing where places are in relation to each other? Here, Alice loves the old adage: the map is not the territory.

If Alice needs a functional map, she prefers to make a very simple, sketchy one. Like this:

valenz 002

Why? Because just a rough idea will suffice. “How far is Katreloug from Ürdmar?” Well, about that far. If the map isn’t there to get Alice in the mood, that’s all that’s needed. The actual territory will be in the text – and it’s bound to be something no map could ever replicate.

That’s it for maps! For Alice, they’re all about making the mood.

One last thing, though. These are not the kind of maps Alice would ship with the finished product. These are proto-maps only, meant to rev Alice’s imaginary engine. For the finished products, much more work would be needed!

Loneliness and the writer

Recently, fellow blogger Rebecca Thorne wrote a great post about combating loneliness. After having read Rebecca’s post, Alice got to thinking about loneliness and, in particular, the loneliness of writers.

A lot of work today is done in teams. But, unless you’re a screenwriter, writing still tends to be the effort of a single monkey, tucked away in her lonely cell. But, we writers sorely need that which all monkeys need: other monkeys. Which is not a given these days for anyone, writer or not.

More than that, for a writer, not any monkey will do. A writer monkey will need another writer monkey.

That’s why writers are so eager for writing groups. Or if they’re not, they should be. Writing groups are essential for writers. And not because of the chance to give and get critique, share techniques, create networks, or the like. The main reason is to simply be together.

There’s an ugly, persistent myth that links art with madness. Part of it may stem from the fact that adversity is handy fuel for creativity. But another part could be that many artists have toiled for too long without the support of their peers.

Loneliness will drive anyone mad, like the British fella who went to Antarctica for solitude and was afflicted with depression a few months later.

Shared experiences alleviate the pain of existence. That is why writers need writers, just like fighter pilots need fighter pilots, plumbers need plumbers, and biochemists need biochemists.

So, my fellow writer, if you’re not already part of a writing group, join one! If there isn’t a group nearby, create one. If the prospect of creating such a group feels terrifying, do it anyway. If you can’t bear the nearness of other fleshbags, go virtual. But, for the sake of your sanity, create it.

 

Icelandic sagas and the art of detachment

Previously, Alice talked about how people find patterns in the sparsest of details. But that was about visual perception. What does it have to do with writing?

To begin with, people have a tendency to over-explain and to over-share.

Examples of the former: Alice drinks a glass of water, and in response to her friend’s look, explains, “I was thirsty.” Alice buys a new dress, and tells the cashier, “I’m treating myself. Sometimes it’s nice to treat yourself, you know?” Alice goes for a walk by herself, and later says to her friend, “I just want to be by myself sometimes.”

Examples of the latter: all of social media. Such as this blog.

We have a deep-seated need to let everybody around us know. We’re constantly telling each other what we’re thinking, feeling, or doing.

This bleeds into writing, too. We want to get the whole beautiful cacophony in our heads onto the page, and from there into the head of our reader. So we describe our characters, their thoughts, delve into their motivations, paint out the milieu, include bits of world-building, chart the history of our created world, the history of our characters, their childhood woes, their emotions, what they see, feel, all the sensations, sounds, smells, all the goddamn five senses, words, words, words.

Wait! Why do we do this, when we know that people find patterns in the sparsest of details?

Alice supposes we get too stuck up with our ego. We forget the reader. We just want to get it all out, so that people can see what a wonderfully beautiful inner world we have. However, the reader has a beautiful inner world like that, too. That is the only reason why any text works at all.

So, trust the reader. If you don’t, you’ll suffocate their imagination with verbiage.

Alice thinks the Icelandic family sagas illustrate this point nicely. They may not be everybody’s medicine, but what is? Not my advice, and not anything. But anyway!

The style of the sagas is amazingly detached. We don’t get much in the way of description. The cast of characters is diverse, but the sagas are sparing on character details, outward or inward. In addition, and more importantly, the sagas pass no judgement. Stuff happens. The narration makes few comments on it. What happens is often neither good nor evil, neither foreboding nor common, neither awesome nor humdrum. What happens simply happens.

Njál and his household is burned. Everybody dies. The narration asks for no sympathy. Kári begins his long revenge. The narration neither condemns nor exalts him. Grettir spends eighteen  years as an outlaw, and dies just before he would have been pardoned. For the entirety of the saga, there is no wallowing in misery for him. We just see what goes on.

And it’s magnificent.

The gaps in this kind of storytelling are food for human imagination. Emptiness, not richness, activates the mind.

By biting their tongue, the writer may leave such gaps in their work. By slaughtering their chattering ego, they may write just enough to activate the imagination of their reader. No more.

This is the art of detachment. You, the writer, are not important. So shut up and paint your story with as few brushstrokes as possible. Your reader’s imagination – where the magic really happens – takes care of the rest.

 

The Liebster Award

The ever-friendly Richie Billing nominated Alice for The Liebster Award. Awkward thanks ensue!

So, who is this Richie person? He’s a helpful guy who likes to smoke! And he knows he ought to kick it, so don’t grill him about it. I envision Richie as this kind soul who toils in his humble shed, working with the tenacity of an ant to bring us information about cannons! (Among other things.)

Richie Cares to Share on Thursdays, which I think is the best! Alice would like to do something similar, but she lacks the net-trawling prowess that Richie has. Do pay him a visit. T-t-thanks, Richie!

Now, as part of Liebster’s liebstery rules, Alice proceeds to answer some questions thrown by Richie:

Desert Island: You can pick 3 books to read on your desert island. What would you pick and why?

Alice chooses her trusty pocket-sized SAS Survival Guide by John Wiseman. Alice is a tough nut, but she doesn’t always know what to do. Wiseman’s wise advice will complement Alice’s inner survival instincts nicely!

Next, Alice chooses Meditations by Aurelius. For dear old inspiration!

Lastly, Alice chooses The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. For kindling.

Come Dine With Me: Which three characters from novels/stories would you choose to spend a night of dining with?

I’ll pick Moomintroll, Too-ticky, and Snufkin! We’ll eat fish soup in the bathing hut! In midwinter!

What advice would you give to any new blogger?

Since Alice is a newbie herself, she gives herself this advice: Hang tough, Alice! The ocean is big, but if you keep paddling, you won’t sink!

Naturally, this advice applies to all you other newbies out there, too. And all you oldies. And in-betweenies. Hang tough, all!

Where’s your favourite place to write?

Kitchen. Honestly, it may not be Alice’s favourite, but it’s the only viable place right now. For any serious kind of writing, in any case.

An easy, or maybe a hard one to end with. Describe your current work in progress in three words.

This is a secret work in progress, and Alice is under chivalric oaths not to divulge details about it. Three words will be just this side of permissible! They are: animal knights eat.

 

Now, the questions are done. Next, Alice has lovely-dovely nominations. She thinks the following blogs could use more attention. (If they want it.)

Iain Lindsay

Timothy RJ Eveland

Dorian Graves

North of Andover

Ethereal Seals

For them, I have a handful of questions:

The Casual: What’s going on at the moment? What are you working on, writing-wise?

The Conan: What is best in life? But we’ll make this harder – you’re not allowed to say “writing”, which would be a cheap cop-out, nor are you allowed to mention the lamentation of women!

The Conniving Communist: What is most unjust in life? Again, Alice denies cop-outs! “Not having enough time to write” is not acceptable.

Head on over to the Liebster HQ to review the rules. Till next time, peeps and bunnies!