|August 2012||December 2012||Now available!|
Personally I believe that most people are influenced far more than they would care to admit by novels, serial stories, films and so forth, and that from this point of view the worst books are often the most important, because they are usually the ones that are read earliest in life.
—George Orwell, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’
Fantasyland, as the late Diana Wynne Jones showed in her seminal Tough Guide thereto, is an irksome place. It irks me, at any rate, because it is not a world but something more like a film-set; it does not have the working parts to do what it pretends to do. Tolkien was confessedly ignorant of economics, but he at least tried to make sure (for instance) that the Shire was in a naturally fertile clime that could support a large population of hungry hobbits, and that the ‘townlands’ surrounding Minas Tirith were adequate to feed the people of the city. He even threw in a sentence or two about slave plantations in the South of Mordor, around the Sea of Núrnen, to show how Sauron supplied his horde of evil minions. Many fantasy writers don’t even take that much trouble.
Whenever I read about a Glorious Imperial City of Gold™ on top of a high mountain, or a Decadent Palace of the Evil Sultan™ in the midst of a trackless desert, I always find myself asking: ‘But what do these people live on?’ A writer could, by mere fiat, say that they get their food by magic; yet the magic is never there. Not only do we not see it onstage, we also do not see any of the probable consequences and (as fools and mortals say) ‘side-effects’ that such magic would have on all other areas of life. One day I shall probably write a snarky and contumacious tract on the economics of Faërie, but for now I want to leave most of that subject on one side and tackle one particular issue. That is the attitude of almost religious awe that fantasy writers have for societies based on subsistence agriculture — an attitude that, in my wide experience, only occurs among people who know nothing about agriculture and precious little about subsistence.
This attitude is not only prevalent in fantasy; some people hold it in real life as well. Among these we must number the ‘locavores’, the well-meaning fools who think it somehow unethical to eat any food grown more than, say, 100 miles away. This is nonense, and easily proved to be nonsense; but a hundred proofs are not worth as much as one plausible story. That is why it is so dangerous that so many of our storytellers don’t know the facts of the case and do not seem interested in learning them. People, consciously or not, are forming their views of life from stories that are not based on life at all.
I hope you will bear with me, then, while I tell a little story, and if it is not a hundred-proof story, I hope it may be strong enough drink for the occasion. And if it is drink that we want, I had better put wine in the story, since wine is the drink of the storyteller, except in those far Northern climes where the skalds sing in mead-halls. I have simplified the details, but everything I say about the simple diet of Eucharia applies to our own more complex society as well. [Read more...]
I see that I have let my blog lie fallow for more than a month, which is never a good sign. In case my 3.6 Loyal Readers are still alive and wondering what became of me, here is a brief summary:
A meditation on words, slightly late, but suited for Eastertide. Any howling errors herein are wholly my own; though I reserve the right to be an intellectual coward, and blame them on my recent concussion.
There is no such thing as an expert on language. There are experts on individual languages, and experts on different aspects of language as a phenomenon; but the field of language as a whole is, and always has been, far too large for anyone to adequately survey in a human lifetime. Tolkien came as near it as almost anyone: he was intimately familiar with the whole 1,500-year history of English, plus Old Norse, Latin, and classical Greek, and had a firm working knowledge of German, French, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Hebrew, and several other languages, including the latest reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European. Yet he wrote, with perfect sincerity, to Fr. Robert Murray: ‘I am in no ordinary sense a “linguist”’. He understood better than most professional linguists the internal workings of language, but he also had a sound knowledge of his own limitations.
It may be unfair to compare Tolkien with Noam Chomsky, who does unabashedly call himself a linguist, and is often regarded by his younger colleagues in the field as the linguist. Unfair, but for my present purpose, necessary. Chomsky does not show any signs of great familiarity with any language but English. He attempts to lay down ‘universal’ rules of grammar, but his universals, when closely examined, tend to be disturbingly parochial. [Read more...]
Amplifying the signal. Go, and do likewise. Dave Wolverton (a.k.a. David Farland), a fine writer and superb writing teacher, is in trouble, and his family needs your help:
As many of you know, Dave’s son, Ben, was in a serious long-boarding accident last week. He is 16 and suffers from severe brain trauma, a cracked skull, broken pelvis and tail bone, burnt knees, bruised lungs, broken ear drum, road rash, and is currently in a coma. His family has no insurance.
We are having a book bomb this Wednesday on behalf of Ben Wolverton to help his family out. You can view the event’s facebook page here.
For those that don’t know, a book bomb is an event where participants purchase a book on a specific day to support the author, or, in this case, a young person in serious need: Ben Wolverton.
Many of you have expressed sympathy for Dave and Ben and have asked if you could help. Now you can. We need you to help Ben get the most out of this book bomb. Right now we are focused on spreading the word and telling others about it. If you could share this event on facebook, twitter, pinterest, your blog, or through email, please do. This is a way everyone reading this can help, whatever their financial situation.
On Wednesday, we will have the book bomb. If you haven’t yet purchased Nightingale or Million Dollar Outlines, please consider doing so on Wednesday. If you have already purchased them, you can donate money to Ben and his family here.
If you have a blog and would like to do a post about this book bomb, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will send you some information you can use.
Please consider “attending” our event on facebook.
Much of the material in Million Dollar Outlines was covered in the workshop I took with Mr. Wolverton in 2011. I can vouch for its value. However, I haven’t bought the actual book. It looks like I’ll be doing that on Wednesday.
I was going to go out tonight to get a bite at Denny’s and work on the next bit of the Octopus, but a hitch has come up. We’re having freezing fog here, and the back stairs of my building were covered in glare ice. I slipped on the stairs and took a concrete step in the middle of the back. Almost passed out from the pain (and a certain amount of whiplash). I have just been on the phone with Alberta Health Link, which provides 24-hour medical advice, and while they don’t consider it strictly necessary for me to go to hospital, they do warn me that I’ll have bruising and more pain for the next couple of days – and that I should go to the nearest ER if I start having symptoms X, Y, and especially Z.
Halfway up the stairs
There’s a stair
Where I slip.
There isn’t any traction there,
I fell on my bottom,
I hurt at my top,
Because of the stair
Where I had
(With apologies to A. A. Milne)
We sometimes hear it said that Jesus was just a teacher full of punchy aphorisms and turns of phrase: a mystic who wandered around saying nice things about the niceness of being Nice. But his stupid disciples, being 2000 years stupider than Extremely Clever Us, managed to completely misunderstand him and construct an elaborate religion around him that he absolutely never intended. It’s a narrative in which our culture places an extraordinary amount of faith — far more faith, in fact, than the Christian story requires, since the Christian story does not require us to believe in absolutely ridiculous claims about human psychology that nobody would ever advance for one second were it not for the special need to debunk Christianity.
—Mark Shea, ‘Palm Sunday’
Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.
—John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
The fact is that this script feels rushed and not thought out, probably because it was rushed and not thought out.
—‘Harry S. Plinkett’ (Mike Stoklasa)
They’re already building sets. God help me! I’m going to have to start this script pretty soon.
It is not actually true that ‘all good writing is rewriting’. It would be nearer the truth to say that all good ideas are second ideas — or third, fourth, or 157th ideas. Writers are notoriously divisible into two warring camps, ‘outliners’ and ‘pantsers’. One of the most common triggers for a rewrite happens when you come up with a brilliant new idea halfway through a draft — and that idea makes a hash of everything you have already written. This, in the war of the writers, is a powerful weapon against the pantsers.
Jeff Bollow, for instance, in his book Writing FAST, recommends that you get your ideas right first, and write the draft later; but he also tells you never to use the first idea that comes to mind, for that only trains your mind to be lazy. If you do your brainstorming properly, and don’t start actually writing until your ideas are solid, you are much less likely to have to tear up a draft and start over. John Cleese touched on the same point in his 1991 talk on creativity:
Before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution.
And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say: ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’
That creative discomfort can make all the difference between great writing and dreck. One could argue the point endlessly, for there are examples to the contrary — snap decisions that turned out to be brilliant, slowly gestated ideas that still turned out useless. I would maintain that such cases are outliers: so much depends on the talent of the individual writer, and on sheer luck. What we want here is a controlled experiment. We could learn a great deal by taking the same writer and putting him through a series of similar projects. In half of them, he would have all the time he wanted to brainstorm, to throw away ideas when he came up with better ones, to tear up drafts, to indulge his creative discomfort. In the other half, whenever he had to make a decision, he would simply take the first workable idea that came to mind. Unfortunately, we can’t hire a writer to go through such an experiment. Fortunately, the experiment has already been made. The writer’s name was George Lucas. [Read more...]
After long delays, Writing Down the Dragon and Other Essays is now available at Smashwords for the absurdly reasonable price of $2.99. It will be appearing shortly at other ebook retailers, as the files propagate through the distribution system.
‘This book is not for the Wise, but for my fellow beginners in the craft of Fantasy, who are trying to learn some of the master’s techniques and want to compare notes.’ — From the introduction
There are shelves full of books about the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, most written from the perspective of academics and literary critics. Here is one from the point of view of the working fantasy writer. How did Tolkien produce his effects, and what can we learn from his methods? In this collection, Tom Simon investigates topics from the uses of archaic language to the moral philosophy of Orcs.
The book contains eleven essays on Tolkien:
The Riddles of the Wise
The Tolkien Method
The Rhetoric of Middle-earth
The Method and the Morgoth
What Is Elf?
The Terminal Orc
Writing Down the Dragon
Moorcock, Saruman, and the Dragon’s Tail
The Abyss and the Critics
Lost Tales, Unattained Vistas
Some of these pieces have previously appeared on the author’s website in slightly different forms.
In the United States, ISBNs are issued exclusively by R. R. Bowker, a private company that used to be best known for publishing Books in Print. Their prices are heavily skewed in favour of large publishers: a single ISBN costs $125, a block of 10 $250, but if you are buying thousands, you can get them for as little as $1 each. (By way of contrast, in Canada ISBNs are issued by a government agency, and you can get them for free — if you can navigate the website, which is bureaucratic beyond the dreams of Byzantines.)
A certain Mark inquires, in a comment at The Passive Voice, why this private-sector monopoly is allowed to continue:
What’s wrong with letting a governmental agency register these numbers for free? They don’t charge for Social Security Numbers. Why ISBNs?
Because, my dear fellow, it’s 1970. Computers are massively expensive beasts, mostly owned by government agencies, universities, and big businesses. There is no way for a member of the general public to get direct access to a computer — thank goodness! Imagine the damage they might do.
So if we set up a Federal agency to hand out ISBNs, we would need to spend millions on yet another IBM mainframe to handle the data, and then we’d need to hire dozens of technicians to run the mainframe, and scores of clerks to handle paper applications from publishers, and a battalion of bureaucrats to manage the technicians and the clerks. And you know there’s no money for that in the budget — not in this economy, or in this political climate — not to benefit a parcel of big New York publishers who can easily pay the cost themselves.
Instead, it will be far better to let the private sector handle it, and charge the cost to the publishers by selling them the ISBNs. And since this is Washington, and 1970, we’ll make the arrangement permanent. Because after all, everything has already been invented. Hasn’t it?