Lightning and the lightning bug

Hello! This is Alice! I’d hate to be called a book nerd, but I have no problem identifying as a word nerd. Makes sense, right? Anyway, what up all you Twainspotters, let’s take a dip in the unquiet, tortuous sea of diction!

Do you know the paradox of words? They’re both

1) arbitrary, i.e. there’s no reason you couldn’t call your trusty steed faris (although I’d prefer you use her real name)

and

2) absolute, i.e. if you don’t call your steed a horse, how the heck are the sisters of your English langue to know what you are talking about? (Unless you call your mount a gelding, for example.)

The former is what gave birth to deodands, and the latter is why le mot juste is a point of honour to a valorous warrior of verbiage. Yet the latter is also why the former can belong to God under the law. (Look up deodands, you Vancians, you  might be surprised!)

The former of course allows existence to the fantastic phantasms of the New Sun, like jezails or anpiels, which is what happens when we take up old or obscure words and spin new meanings for them. Yet, magically, sometimes even the arbitrariness of a word suggests its essence. Could the anpiel be any old angel, for instance? Alice thinks not! (And indeed, what did the Enochian Anpiel protect?)

Also, take care! The absolute side of the paradox makes people wondrously sensitive to words. The stranger a word, the rarer its use: twice can be too much, like “unquiet” was for Wolfe, and “tortuous” for Peake. For Peake, actually, far more than twice…

If you’re still with me, and haven’t abandoned me to my floundering confabulation, I urge you – if you are a writer, a reader, or even merely a casual cavorter through language – to do two things.

First, always look into the meanings of words. Know that they are not set in stone. It was Moses’s hand that held the chisel, too, not God’s.

Second, always take pains to find the right word. Know that once you place it, your word’s worth may be that of a foundation stone.

Until you go back on it, of course!

(Yes, always have mercy for turncoats and renegers. We wouldn’t be human without them.)

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Not just lies

Every now and then, Alice stumbles on the old idea that fiction is a liar’s craft. That we writers spin careful untruths to create the web of our stories. You know, just making stuff up.

To Alice, this is an absolutely loathsome idea.

She could go on long tirades on the nature of language, memory, imagination, and the narrative essence of history, but that’s all really beside the point. The most damning thing in saying that fiction is lie-spinning is the avoidance of responsibility.

We writers have a goddamn duty in our writing! Our writing affects. That’s what we’re all wishing it does, right? Nobody says, “Doot do doo, I’m just typing away here, hopefully nobody ever reads my work and laughs, or sheds a tear, or has a thought of their own.”

We know – we hope – that our writing will be more than black squiggles on paper. But what about when it is? What about when our fiction hits like a divine hammer, and the world quakes? When Goethe instigated all those copycat suicides, he may have been tempted to defend himself by saying: “Well, it’s just fiction.”

Don’t say that. Own up to what you’ve done.

Fiction has the potential to be truer than reality, just as reality has the potential to be truer than fiction. This is the great, truth-warping paradox of language, and it is what we wield when we unsheathe our pens. Not all of us have the ability or the willingness to pursue the power to its fullest culmination, but in each of us, the trace of that power is present. The least we can do is admit it.

Do not belittle your fiction. Its root is the same force that exhausted God in six days. It can make creation tremble, and calling yourself a crafter of lies is diverting attention from the fact that the blows from your pen might be hurting said creation.

When is my time? On Gene Wolfe

This is for all us young creatures out here. Have you ever looked at your writing career and felt frustration? Have you stared at a blank screen, despairing that nothing comes through your fingers but dross? Have you ever held a rejection letter in your hands and wept, certain that you’ll never be anything?

I have. I am desperate and bursting with hot blood. When will my name gleam in silver letters on the spine of a hard-cover book?

Like all of you, in my hours of wretchedness I turn to my favourite authors for solace and education. Gene Wolfe has long been one of these: my marble pillar, supporting me in the marshes of shoddy prose.

He has always encouraged me to improve my diction, to look into the meanings of words, and further into the meanings of human habits. He has implored me to shroud my deepest messages, to forgo the obvious and withhold explanation, yet never forsaking clarity. Though I have never met him, he is in a very real sense my teacher.

Of course, he has his faults, like all men. The faults, too, inspire, because they humble him and thus place him among mortals, from whom we draw our mentors, who we are one day to surpass. Without faults our objects of adoration should be gods that allow neither doubt nor study, but only worship.

Let’s forget his prose skills and moral weaknesses for a moment, though. What can Wolfe’s career tell us, who despair at never achieving anything?

Certainly, he’s written a cartload of acclaimed works: The Book of the New Sun, The Wizard Knight, the Soldier duology, Pirate Freedom, The Sorcerer’s House, et cetera. Enough accolades to wither anyone’s will to similar fame. But let’s take a closer look!

When was he born, again? 1931. Make no mistake: though he’s still writing, he’s an old guy. And he’s made the bulk of his really good stuff in his later years.

Look at his most famous work, The Book of the New Sun. The dude crossed the threshold of fifty when that came out. Fifty! And his debut novel, of which nobody ever heard of, Operation ARES? He was nearly forty at the time. And, as reviewers point out, Operation ARES kind of sucked.

So how old am I again? As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through my thirties. Why do I despair, when all of time is on my side?

Human mind is impatient, and full of contradictions. We admire writers who have slaved on their works for dozens of years, and want to achieve the same in six months.

Nurture your patience. Writing is a long con. Not just creating a single work, whether a novel or a volume of poetry, but the entire growth of ourselves, as we dig in our roots and develop our shoots, so that we can, at long last, blossom in the full splendour of the sun.

Also, to put things further in perspective: never forget that the mistakes in The Book of the New Sun range from infuriating (Kim Lee Soong) to inexcusable (all the fuckable ladies).

So yeah. Plenty of time to take a lesson or two, and become better than the brightest beacons in the black seas.

Our time is coming. Work toward it.

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.

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!