Fair Upon the Tor Drafting

I have made some small headway with Fair Upon the Tor, enough so that I’m considering posting the first draft as I write it… or perhaps, not quite as I write it, but in thousand-word chunks. I think I’m also going to switch comments on. I don’t expect I’ll see much in the way of feedback, although I guess we shall see.

At this point I will aim for the first-draft-in-progress to go live with regular to semi-regular Monday updates. I might even throw in some related illustration work too.

Sort of related to this, sort of unrelated, I discovered Songgu Kwon’s Elf webcomic over the weekend and read it start-to-finish in a couple sittings. It is quite a bizarre tale (in a good way), and wandering, and beautifully illustrated, and also oddly and powerfully character-driven in a way that stories that claim to be character-driven often are not. Well worth checking out, if you haven’t already.

I suppose reading Elf made me reflect on other people who have posted creative works in progress. Given that my plan is to give it all away free anyway, it doesn’t seem all that terrible an idea to post bits of it as I am going. Yes, it may mean that I post something that is unpolished and will need a second or third pass to get it into shape. But, on the other hand, it will also impose a sense of urgency around actually getting the work done… which I think I now need to place on myself, one way or another. There’s a point where feeling exhausted and bleed-out ceases to be a good reason to remain in a state of slow trudging. Sometimes I think the only way to get back into a good pace, is just to start running again.

Is Beauty

camille_pissarro_the_boulevard_montmartre_at_night

 

The Boulevard Montmartre at Night

Camille Pissarro

There is a quote from Pissarro I like. I read it once on one of those little white placards they have in galleries, the small micro-essays that sit beside the painting. Have you ever noticed how people tend to spend more time reading those little placards than looking at the paintings? Others have noticed this too. Some galleries have been removing the cards entirely in an attempt to remove some of the filter between the visitor and the art. Anyway, the quote: The whole of the world is beauty. The art is in the seeing.

I remember reading that and being quite struck by it. It agrees with my own experience of the world. Everything has a beauty in it. Ugly things are not ugly the whole way through. Look at them from another angle and they become radiant, beautiful, enchanting. There are whole swathes of art based on the search by the artist for the beautiful in the overlooked and the mundane, the grotesque, the weird and the frightening.

I am going to attempt some sort of regular update around the writing hereon. I have returned to Fair Upon the Tor, and done some more detailed outlining. I recently discovered Jim Butcher’s writing advice, and although I don’t necessarily want to write books like Butcher’s, some of the advice was interesting enough for me to decide to give it a shot. I already had a rough outline of the story, but I’ve now returned to it and tried more clearly to add a ‘big middle’, as Jim calls it, as well as character tags (features, whether emotional, moral, physical or mental that only belong to this particular character in this story), and traits (words that are only or almost only used in association with this character in the story). I’ve thought a bit about introducing characters using characteristic action (an action that is highly definitive of the character), and I’ve thought about Butcher’s emotion/reaction/plan sequence.

I have also started, very gently, a novel that I’m aiming to be for sale to a traditional publishing house. I’m not sure how easily I’ll be able to flip from one story to the other. Doing that never used to bother me, but, on the other hand, I used to write every day (and did so for years and years), but then ceased writing entirely about six to eight months ago. The reasons why I simply stopped were mixed. I have been reflecting, for a while now, that I have been writing for a long time, twenty years or more, and I have not really got anywhere with it. Surely, if I were any good, if I were going to succeed, then I would have by now? And yet, I keep writing books, and I keep trunking them… I have over a million words worth of various novels on my hard drive and I’m not at all confidant that any of them are very good. I also had a fairly scathing workshop experience at about the same time, as well as being overwhelmed by real life responsibilities and a feeling that I wasn’t living up to my more general life and work duties. It all added up to make me just stop. I stopped writing. Stopped drawing and painting. Stopped working on games. Stopped everything. It’s going to be a process getting back into the swing of things, but I am resolved to do it.

So, as a part of this I am going to attempt to update this blog regularly. I may not have a lot to say, but, at the very least I can still check in and let people know I’m still working at things.

Rather neglectful update

starry_night

Starry Night
Jean-François Millet

 

It has been quite some time since I posted any updates or writing. I did consider spinning a story about how Auberon sent me off to beguile a bean-feed mooncalf, or similar, but the truth of it is that lecturing this semester has run me off my feet. I have an outline and some of Fair Upon the Tor written (The Winter King 3), although not enough for me to be very certain when it will be ready. My teaching semester has slowed down, and it is time to get back on the writing horse, so to speak. Ironically, I have all of Book 4 and a fairly comprehensive draft of Book 5 written, but Book 3 needs work, which means that I can’t release the down-the-track and complete works without there being quite a substantial jump in narrative.

On a side-note, I recently trawled through my inventory of short stories and have realised that I have about fifty completed short stories sitting in various files. Of these, seven have sold and been published, but I haven’t submitted a short story since 2011. I’ve kept writing them… I just haven’t sent them anywhere. I will try to remedy this within the next few weeks. I’ll also relaunch my other blog, the one I shut down when I split my writing into Hob Goodfellowe (e-book) and Christopher Johnstone (traditional publishing). My short fiction is published under my actual name, and I think it’s about time that I uploaded my previously published short stories to that blog so that the stories don’t vanish utterly into the obscurity of long defunct publications.

Second Drafts & Colours

I’ve finished the on-paper edits now for The House of Snow and Apples, and am slowly transferring them across to the Pages document I write in. It’s now sitting at about 40,000 words, though cutting and adding may change that slightly.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about lately is racial diversity in fantasy. I mean this first at that basic level that there should actually be people present who are not white, blonde and blue-eyed in a fantasy world, and working in a setting that is a riff on Medieval, or Dark Ages Europe does not preclude diversity. In actual historical Europe there was quite a lot of diversity, as invasions, migrations and empires tends to mix people up a bit.

But in fantasy, we can be yet more imaginative. I’ve been thinking about the colouration in our closest relatives, the (other) apes and the monkeys, and looking though images of primate faces. Although I’m not sure that I want to add in human peoples that have red and blue posteriors to match their noses, the diversity of colours is interesting, and if sexual selection or natural selection had run another path, red eyes, bright yellow and black markings, purplish-grey skin, or soft grey skin surrounded by a flair of red hair could all, potentially, be human traits. Of course, there’s a risk that the people no longer come across as ‘human’ in a story if they get a bit too far removed from what we expect to see. The key would be to make sure they are presented as human, and maybe play it subtly for a while before introducing any really unusual colourations? At any rate, I feel this is something I’ve been doing badly so far in The Winter King stories, so it is something I’d like to play around with and address.

Thoughts on Titles

Well, I’m now nearing the end of the first draft on what will now be the second book of The Winter King. The manuscript is sitting at about 25,000 words, so a medium to long novella. In an earlier post I discussed the (somewhat) confusing reasons why the release schedule I had so carefully laid out has gone into a state of turmoil. I think though, that slipping two new stories between what was to be Books 1 and 2 will make for a better overall arc.

I’m now left pondering titles. The working title for Book 2 was The Wolf at Winter’s Door. I like the slight poetical slant of that title, but I think it performs its job badly for two reasons. One, the series is called The Winter King, and mentioning ‘winter’ in a title implies that the Winter King might actually turn up–whereas what I’m actually doing here is playing a very long game. Yes, there are references to the long story in this manuscript, but some of them are subtle enough to be missed entirely on a first read-through. The Winter King certainly doesn’t appear in person for quite some time yet. The other problem is that the title emphasises the wolves in the story (there are wolves in the story), and I don’t really want the emphasis to fall there. This leaves me considering other options. The House of Snow and Apples is my current second favourite, though it has the disadvantage that it might suggest to someone this is a Snow White retelling, which it is not. Titles make promises about the story, and even very short titles can convey a huge amount of information about what a reader can expect. By attempting to make my titles lyrical, for example, I’m implying you’ll find at least a little bit of lyricism in the story itself, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, then probably this isn’t the right book for you.

Toying around with other things, thematically similar… The House on Appletree Spur. WinterfruitThe Snow Orchard. Actually, I sort of like The Snow Orchard. I think the best titles sound like books you feel you ought to have heard of, but for some reason the book must have slipped past you somehow. I should check to see if it is already another book: seems not to be, although there is an art print by that name. But would I personally read a story called The Snow Orchard, and does it give the right feel? Probably not on both counts. There isn’t enough magic in the title to really convey that the book is fantastical, which could mislead readers, so it might need to be nixed also. Winterfruit perhaps isn’t bad, but has the problem of using the word ‘winter’ again.

I’m circling back to The House of Snow and Apples. Though I’m still leery of making some readers angry by tricking some of them into thinking it is a Snow White retelling. Something to think on.

Aspects of the Story

We are returned now to Melbourne, although the combination of exhaustion from the flight and some other major life events on coming home took me away from the journal. I have managed to keep up my writing every day, although to be honest, that has grown into such a woody, bark-swollen habit, that I’m not sure I could shake it off if I wanted to.

In part, I wanted to use this journal as a place to muse on the writing process. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I will call the aspects of stories, for wont of a better term. When you break apart a story, teasing it open like a ripe mandarin, it is not a single, homogenous mass. There are parts hidden within.

I’ll define a story itself as anything in which a something changes. This is Le Guin’s definition: I can’t claim it for my own. As a definition, this works neatly. It requires no characters and no plot. A good example of a story that consists only of change, is the Ray Bradbury short in which an automated house of the future keeps whirring and cleaning itself long after an apocalypse has taken away all the people. Over time, gradually, the house fails, falls apart, decays and is claimed by nature. It is a beautiful, sad, even melancholic story, but it would be quite a stretch to claim that the tale has a plot. Maybe the house is a ‘character’, but as it has no motivations, no thoughts, no intentions. That would make the house a ‘character’ only in the thinnest, most metaphorical sense.

Plot then. What is plot? I’m defining plot as the questions that keep a person reading. These questions are usually either why did it happen? or what happens next?, although sometimes more nuanced variants drive a plot. Plot twists, unexpected turns, foreshadowing and try/fail cycles are all different ways of thinking about plot. I think some of these approaches are a bit didactic. In the end, all a plot needs to be is an intriguing question or set of questions that drags the reader along.

Now we are getting into thornier territory. Now I’m having to make up terms. Let’s call the next aspect the ‘fabric’ of the story. Fabric also keeps a reader reading, but in a more immediate way. Fabric is the short-term payoff of a story. Beautiful prose, humour, erotic or horrific titillation, or the layering into the prose of a thick ‘mood’, such as a mysterious, menacing, wondrous or absurd feelings, are all part of the fabric of a story.

The final aspect I’m going to define is ‘narrative’. Narrative is the more human part of the tale. It is the part of the story that explores human behaviour. At its simplest, narrative consists of motivation, action and consequence. In its more preachy forms, narrative can turn into a self-conscious morality play. But when more refined, more considered, and more thoughtful, narrative is the core of most really good, lasting stories. I suspect also that narrative is the evolutionarily kernel of storytelling too. Narrative is what drives an examination of one’s own empathy for others, it sets up in-group identifications, as well as modelling possible behaviours for the listener to a tale. Narrative is the mental experiment of the tale. If I am motivated in this way, and if I behave in such-and-such a way, what are the likely consequences for me? In the end, a narrative is about behaviour and consequences. It potentially teaches you a hard lesson learned by others, passed along and along. If I am greedy and petty, what will others make of me? What about if I am brave, clever and never give up?

In each case, I think it’s possible to identify stories that consist either primarily or wholly of one aspect or another. There are a good number of literary short stories that are entirely story without plot, along with maybe only a few dashes of fabric and narrative. On the other hand, ongoing superhero comics tend to be all plot and no story. Superhero comics give the illusion of constant change, but it is only an illusion. Nothing ever actually changes in a superhero comic. A character dies? They’ll be back somehow or another. The world is shattered in a catastrophe? It’ll be fixed. Comics, I suppose much like literary novels, make use of fabric and narrative too. Some comic titles are funny, others are moody. In terms of stories that consist largely of fabric, the clearest example is probably Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a dazzle of wordplay and wonderment–other examples might include the unrelenting absurdity of Catch 22, or the ludicrous, overwrought horror of Lovecraft’s work. Finally, tales that are almost entirely narrative tend to be, at one end, stripped-down folktales, fables or fairy tales, and big, deeply imagined character dramas, like Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment, at the other extreme. Narratives don’t need to be realistic… some children’s stories are almost pure narrative… here is a motivation, here is an action, here is a consequence… although, I suppose that narratives perhaps do need to scale to a stage of life. Simpler narratives for simpler times. Complex narratives for more complex times. That might be something to think more on.

Of course, there may well be other aspects of stories I haven’t considered yet. It’s something I’ll come back to in time and think over.