reading and writing

Life Comes At You Fast

“Life comes at you fast” is a phrase often appearing in commercials for Nationwide Insurance. It comes to my mind when things get hectic and feel out of control. It also happens to explain why sometimes I find it difficult to find the time to post to my blog. The past nine weeks have included, among many other things:

  • formatting and preparing a new book for publication (this does not count as writing!) (more news on this coming soon!)

  • caregiving - getting my mother moved into Memory Care at her assisted living facility

  • illness - two bouts of upper respiratory “crud,” my mother’s hospital stay for norovirus, herniated disc issues, family sharing upper respiratory infections with one another, doctor visits, physical therapy, and an MRI

  • travel - driving to Florida, flying back to Cincinnati and returning to Florida, several days out of the country, multiple trips across Central Florida, seven different airports in one two-week period

  • automobiles - repairs as well as out-and-out replacement

  • home - renovation work

  • income taxes done - assembling and submitting documents to have our taxes done, as well as my mother’s

None of this is excessively worrisome, in and of itself. But when these things are concentrated within a short time period, it leaves my head in a whirl.

Writers are often advised to not let anything interfere with their writing time. To squeeze in writing wherever possible. Sadly (!), writing magazines and websites abound with stories of Super-Writers who can crank out best-selling novels while running a household and holding down a fulltime job outside the home and changing diapers and volunteering at the nearest homeless shelter and teaching Sunday School at their church etc. etc. On the other hand, writers are also advised to not beat themselves up over whether they’re putting in enough time in front of the computer screen cranking out their work.

Today, I pledge not to beat myself up over how much/little time I spend on writing.

Patricia McKillip, Fantasy Author and Prose "Sorceress"

I can always tell when a book speaks to me and I need to hang onto it (and not give it away) by the number of times I highlight passages in the book. The more lines and paragraphs that catch my eye, the more I feel engaged with the writing. This usually occurs when I’m reading non-fiction, but it will sometimes happen with fiction too. I highlight passages that I want to come back to.

Recently I picked up an abused copy of Patricia A. McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorn. She is well-known for her “Riddle-Master” trilogy (The Riddle Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind) as well as many other works. Many years ago I read the Riddle-Master trilogy and enjoyed it very much. I’ve even gone so far as to re-collect these books after letting them go years ago. (I seldom reread books - not because they aren’t worth rereading but because I have a Pile of Unread Books Waiting that grows week by week.) I began reading Alphabet of Thorn and realized very quickly there were examples of beautiful writing that struck me. So much so, in fact, that I purchased a new copy of the book so I could begin highlighting these examples. Here are just a few:

  • (page 2) “He carried a manuscript wrapped in leather that he laid upon the librarian’s desk as gently as a newborn. As he unswaddled the manuscript …”

  • (page 7) “[As a toddler in the library] Nepenthe had drooled on words, talked at them, and tried to eat them until she learned to take them into her eyes instead of her mouth.”

  • (page 9) “The world was so still that it might have vanished, swallowed by its own past or future.”

  • (page 13) “Dawn mists were shredding above the water, tatters and plumes of purple and gray.”

While “plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery,” writers are often advised to study the writing of authors they admire. If I could only do sorcery with prose like Patricia McKillip does, I would be thrilled.

Jenn Lyons' "The Ruin of Kings", and the Challenges of Worldbuilding

The Ruin of Kings, a debut fantasy novel by Jenn Lyons, will be released next month. A free “extended preview” is available through Amazon, and I plunged into it recently. Immediately I was struck by the richness of the fantasy world Lyons has created.

I’ve posted a number of times about the challenges of worldbuilding. The new world an author introduces a reader to can be fantastic, but it must be credible. And to be credible, a certain degree of detail is needed. How people live, dress, eat, speak. Customs, culture, religion, government. Systems of magic, pantheons of gods, hierarchies of evil. But too quick an immersion into worldbuilding details can overwhelm a reader. Too many names, places, relationships may be introduced too quickly. Confusion on the part of the reader is a danger to be avoided.

But one can hardly expect a reader to absorb all the details and keep them straight if the author doesn’t! So authors develop all kinds of systems for structuring the details and managing them, especially as the details morph and evolve as a story is written. Lyons explains in a recent post on the TOR.com website that she uses a personal wiki. People, places, things, they all have an entry.

As I’ve been working on the sequel to my own debut fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, I’ve tried to manage the worldbuilding using Evernote, even going so far as to create an Evernote template that looks like a wiki page. Evernote was an obvious choice for me because I am a heavy user of the software. But I’m going to try out the system Lyons uses, and see if it offers benefits.

The Mystery of Creativity

The world thrives on creativity. From entertainment to the arts to science and business, creativity plays an important role in giving us novel ways of looking at the world and solving problems. Thousands of books have been written on the topic of creativity. Many claim there is no mystery to creativity, and they offer approaches and exercises to make creativity “easier.” But there is no denying that there is no clear explanation for how and when creativity will “hit.” In my own creative endeavors, I’ve noted various approaches I’ve used.

Computer programming. In the early days of microcomputers and personal computers, there was a periodical titled Creative Computing. Computers were opening up entire new ways of looking at problem solving and hobbyists and experts were just beginning to recognize the potential for recreational computing. When I took a course in assembly language programming forty years ago, our homework had to be done on a DEC PDP-8/E minicomputer. Given an assignment to instruct the computer to flash the console lights from one end to the other, I went one step further and wrote a series of instructions that would produce more interesting patterns. A useful exercise? Only in learning how to tell a computer what to do at a very basic level. But mastering this in a creative way was very exciting.

Writing. I have long realized that the creative process in my writing is haphazard and difficult to describe, predict, or direct. For example, the development of the story in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, involved a great deal of the following:

  • work on an idea

  • connect that idea to something else

  • sit on the idea for a while

  • turn the idea upside-down and see what happens

  • throw some new ideas at the work and see what sticks

  • trim away what doesn’t fit

  • go back to other ideas and see if they will connect

It was very much a process of evolution. It was also frequently like the process of accretion in planet formation, where over time bits and pieces glom together and attract more pieces.

Music. There are parallels in the development of music that I’ve written. I’ll toy around with a sound, a series of notes or chords, and jam with myself for a little bit. I’ll then develop something different, then think about how and whether those pieces could be connected. Then I go back in, as the work develops, and trim away excess while fleshing out other parts and laying down parallel tracks to give the music fullness.

Model trains. I’m currently working on a model railroading layout in my basement. It’s based on an N-scale train (one of the smallest size trains available), specifically a model of the Eurostar produced by KATO in Japan. There’s not much room in the basement, so the challenge I set myself was to construct something within a defined space, using as much of the track I have available as possible. I’m not into the highly-realistic scenery and detail that most train enthusiasts are. Instead, I’m trying to create something that looks futuristic. For the components, I’ve been collecting various household odds and ends, as well as leftover parts of various toys and toy systems, much like the found object concept in art.

Contrary to what some people claim, I still believe there is a significant amount of mystery to the creative process. This can be a cause for frustration when creative energy can’t be readily tapped, but it can also make for some real satisfaction in the end.

(For further reading, see Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.)

Honoring One's Craft

To "honor one's craft" is to treat that craft in a respectful manner. To not take it for granted. To spend the time and effort needed to perfect it. To purchase tools to use that say, "This craft is important to me, and I will show it by the quality of my tools." For some writers, that might be an expensive fountain pen. For other writers, honoring one's craft may mean beginning the day with a small ritual, surrounded by inspiring totems.

I am a sucker for handmade leather goods (that look appropriately masculine!). Several years ago I discovered online a company called Oberon Design. Over time, after purchasing -- and appreciating -- leather covers for iPhones and iPads, I finally decided to spring for a leather cover for my composition notebook. In addition to copious notes I capture on my laptop using Evernote (a future blog topic), I also like to jot down notes in a (retro-looking) composition notebook. I figured purchasing a leather cover for that notebook was an appropriate way to honor my craft as a writer. I chose a pattern called "Celtic hounds" because it seemed like a good fit with my fantasy writing.

Whenever I pick up my notebook, the cover says to me, "There is something very special inside here." That, to me, is what is meant by honoring one's craft.

PS: Nothing can beat a Pentel EnerGel pen for smooth writing!

An Interview with Author Mark E. Lacy

Recently I was interviewed by AC Cobble regarding my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri. Here is a transcript of that interview:

AC:The Ban or Irsisri is in many ways a traditional epic fantasy with an epic quest, lots of action, and powerful sorcery. It’s also packed full of dream sequences, tribal rituals, and mysticism. Why did you decide to add those elements, and do they add to the story?
 
MEL: The mix of traditional elements of epic fantasy with elements of tribalism and mysticism was something that developed over time. I knew I didn't want my main characters to come from privileged backgrounds. Nor did I want them to emerge from serfdom. If you take Robert E. Howard's "Conan", for example, you have a hero who has great disdain for the trappings of "civilization" and who takes great pride in being labeled a "barbarian". I think Conan would enjoy sharing a mug of ale with the tribesmen in The Ban of Irsisri. As far as dreams and mysticism are concerned, I think some of the most profound stories in fantasy and science fiction have supernatural mysteries at their core. Forces we cannot fully comprehend, forces that transcend ordinary experience but nevertheless influence our values, our choices, our sense of destiny.
 
ACI love that you mention Howard’s “Conan”. I was thinking about that character when I read your book. You have a great sequence early in the novel where one of the tribesmen, Enkinor, enters a city and – spoiler! – runs into all kinds of trouble. In fantasy books, it’s always the dark forest that is full of threats. But in real life, it’s usually the cities where people get in trouble. What do you think is so appealing about the idea of a primal man from the wilderness facing off against a modern (well, more modern) world?
 
MEL: I’m pretty sure one could trace back Conan’s barbarism to the concept of the “noble savage.” But I also think “primal man from the wilderness” has an appeal because life in the wilderness, on the frontier, was simpler in many ways than the “modern” world. Not easier, but not as complicated. The threats to your survival in the wilderness are often better known. And perhaps the wilderness could be said to be less-populated by immoral distractions and temptations.
 
AC: The Ban of Irsisri stands out because of its vivid prose, and in some ways it reminds me of NK Jemisin – which is about the biggest compliment I can give a fellow fantasy author. Sorry if this is rude, but, how did a former corporate guy learn to write like that!?! Asking for a friend…
 
MEL: Asking for a friend? (laughs) We might stand your question on its head and ask, how did a fantasy writer survive Corporate America for thirty years? Seriously, I think that, to the extent my writing succeeds, it has a lot to do with reading and revision. Many successful writers have counseled new writers to read a lot and read broadly. And, over time, the more I read, the more I learned how good writers produced their work. And the more I learned, the more I went back to revise. And revise. And revise. I would set my work aside for a while and come back to it later with fresh eyes, only to discover, with chagrin, I had more work to do. 
 
AC: Tell us something no one else knows about Mark E Lacy or The Ban of Irsisri?
 
MEL: Only my junior high school English teacher knows that the fantasy story I wrote in ninth grade, which won first place in the school's literary contest, was a seed that would sprout and influence the scene, early in The Ban of Irsisri, when Enkinor and Strigin escape into the hills beyond the city of Kophid, only to face their pursuers and a forest fire of supernatural origin.
 

Landscapes and World-Building

The English language is rich with terms to describe the outdoor world (many of which have been borrowed from other languages), such as coteau and coulee, jaral and jetty, savanna and sawtooth. The worlds of most fantasy novels use natural settings where the features of the landscape may help or hinder the protagonists, or set the mood for the plot. When an author is creating a fantasy world where she needs to construct these settings, how can she find the best descriptors?

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape (2006, Barry Lopez, ed.) is essentially an encyclopedia of terms to describe geographical features. The book includes a number of illustrations. I guarantee, if you browse through Home Ground you will find many things you've never heard of before, as well as accurate descriptions to accompany terms you always believed you knew but might not have quite right. (Note, the focus here is on the American countryside; I recently wanted to look up "moors", but since we don't have moors in America, it wasn't listed.)

J. G. Ballard's "The Crystal World"

I was about eleven years old when my parents signed me up for the Science Fiction Book Club. I had outgrown the Weekly Reader Book Club years before. I had seen subscription postcards for SFBC inserted into many of the paperbacks I was reading, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series published by Ace Books. Yes, I thought, I want scifi! This is what I want to read!

One of the first books I received from SFBC was J. G. Ballard's The Crystal World. Recently I reread this book. I had vague memories of a mysterious space-time-defying crystallization of the jungle, and the dangers of becoming trapped within it. Finishing the book for the second time in over fifty years, the sense of wonder returned, and I quickly finished it.

I also recalled a certain sense of difficulty with reading it at eleven years old. Now, with rereading, I realize why. Ballard's style is much more literary than a lot of science fiction. And there are some adult themes of love and sex, of intimacy and perceived betrayal, that went right over my head when I was in the sixth grade.

I was also reminded of the power of mystery, as I recently described in one of my blog postings. I see now that at an early age I latched onto this power, even hungered for it, though I might have had a hard time explaining what it was I sought. Fortunately over the years I've found many other books to satisfy this need. I can only hope that I've succeeded in introducing mystery into my own writing.

Incomplete Truths

Six weeks ago my father passed away after a long decline. Over the past year I assumed responsibility for my elderly parents' legal, financial, medical, and insurance matters. As a result, stress and worry and frustration have plagued me and I've fought to find the emotional energy to write. Things that would've ordinarily fed my soul, like reading and writing, have tasted bland and provided little nourishment. Many days I've done little more than lose myself in Pinterest, re-pinning art that might inspire my writing. My blog was placed on the back-burner.

When my father died, I felt obliged -- as the eldest child -- to speak at his memorial service. And I was honored to have the opportunity. I received many compliments on what I had to share with people about Ed Lacy. However, on this occasion, as when I spoke at my grandmother's service several years ago, I was reminded there is an unspoken rule -- a societal norm, as it were -- that one only speaks of the good things about the life of the recently deceased. When a family loses a loved one, the last thing they want to hear is anything negative. After all, it is the goodness in people, and their triumphs, that we treasure and want to remember. Asked how you would like to be remembered, no one is likely to suggest their failings.

But by limiting a eulogy the most positive aspects of someone's life, aren't we sharing incomplete truths? Would it really be so bad to explain that the deceased struggled? That they were truly human, like the rest of us, and not perfect? We might mention the obstacles they surmounted (a troubled childhood, a terrible illness, a tragedy), but we aren't allowed to mention what they failed to conquer.

Sometimes we have a story to tell but we can't tell it. I was very much aware of this as I constructed the right story for Dad's eulogy. I wanted to honor my father, so I shared at his memorial service some of his legacy, from food to music to writing and his Christian faith. I could only hint at his social isolation and his spiritual trials. A more complete story of this complex man will have to wait for another occasion.

A big shout-out to thank author Kendra Lacy for sharing Austin Kleon's book, Show Your Work!