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.

First, the Good News. Then the Bad. And the Importance of a Free Press.

Years ago, when Tylersville Road Christian Church in Mason, Ohio, held it’s annual Live Nativity, our pastor, George Reese, dressed as a shepherd, would begin his monologue with “Have you heard the good news?” The good news, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps George should have asked whether we’d heard the best news. There has never been better news than this!

At the end of a calendar year it is customary to look back and consider what’s happened over that year. The year 2018 was marked by many noteworthy things, many of which could be labeled “bad news.” As news consumers, we have an interesting relationship with news producers. In a 1979 study titled Changing Needs of Changing Readers, author Ruth Clark speaks of a social contract between news consumers and producers. This is an implicit relationship based on what consumers expect from the news and what producers pledge to their viewers and readers. While much is always said about a desire to see more good news on TV, it is important that we not be shielded from bad news. It would be impossible to address the negative things that happen in the world if we were never to learn about them. News producers not only have responsibilities in educating us about events in our communities, our country, and around the world, but also for objectivity and truthfulness and fairness.

I recently watched the movie The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, which is based on the exposure of secret government policies about the war in Vietnam by Daniel Ellsberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. This information, nicknamed The Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the public to inform the country of the true facts of the involvement of the U.S. government in Vietnam. The news, of course, was far from good. But news organizations felt they owed it to the American people to share the news, even if it meant journalists risking incarceration and the collapse of The Washington Post to make it happen.

The controversy over the Pentagon Papers presaged the exposures of government secrets by WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. It is not my intent to dive into the pro’s and con’s in each of these cases. But I do support the concept of a free press. The press comes under attack on a daily basis, it seems, because it presents news that is not always favorable to people in power. Is every news item truthful? Is the press infallible? Of course not. Do we see a subversive infusion of “fake news”? Yes, we do, and because of that, citizens have a responsibility for carefully examining the veracity of news stories, particularly those that are inflammatory in nature. (See Bruce Bartlett’s The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Nothing could be more patriotic than defending this freedom, and all the others spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The Assault on Truth

It is hard for me to think of something that has disturbed me more in the past couple of years than the assault on truth. I commend TIME Magazine for naming, as their annual “Person of the Year,” the courageous journalists and newspeople who have braved ridicule, assault, incarceration, and even death, as exemplified by a selected group that includes the murdered Jamal Khashoggi.

I am only two “degrees of separation” from a photojournalist who was ambushed and assassinated in Venezuela for his portrayal of life under Hugo Chavez. Chavez had the audacity to call the family and extend his sympathies. He asked what he could do for them, and they responded by promptly leaving the country.

Given the magnitude of the assault on truth we witness every day, I struggle to organize a commentary on this assault that fits the format of a blog post. It is simply too big an issue. So for now, I want to leave you with a comment on fighting this assault, and a quote (taken from TIME Magazine) that captures, for me, how very important journalistic truth is.

The greater the assault on truth, the more dire the need for critical thinking. I have started a list of books I have found helpful in pointing out how we, as informed citizens, can distinguish truth from falsehood, and how to hold accountable those who attack the truth.

Kofi Annan, late Secretary-General of the United Nations, had this to say:

“Freedom of the press ensures that the abuse of every other freedom can be known, can be challenged and even defeated.”

There is Such a Thing as a “Weapons Aesthetic"

There is beauty to be found in weapons.

How can that be? Start with a Google search on the two words “weapon” and “aesthetic.” Take a look at what Pinterest users have organized under “weapons aesthetic.” My understanding of a weapons aesthetic is this: weapons obviously vary in their utility, when and how they are used in combat or self-defense. But they also vary in their design and their “eye” appeal.

Of course, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” As a beholder of beauty in certain weapons (both real and fictitious), I offer up the following opinions:

  • The Mauser C96 semi-automatic pistol is “ugly.” I don’t care for either the angular shape of the box magazine or the bulbous round handgrip. The materials don’t match, and the lines (angular and bulbous) don’t match.

  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun, a pistol carbine based on a Walther P38 and used in the TV series, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is a thing of beauty. It is sleek, minimalist, and because it is made from detachable components, it can be customized on-the-fly. The toy version of this gun (which I owned in 1966, lost, and subsequently reassembled component-by-component from parts offered on eBay) is not an exact replica, and its aesthetics are marred by the design of the pistol (not a P38). As a boy I also owned a toy P38 that fit my hand so perfectly it felt like the proverbial extension of my arm.

  • Several of the weapons used in the filming of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings catch my eye because of the smooth curves and lines of the blades and/or hilts. See, for example, the double-bladed Mirkwood pole arm; Orcrist, the sword of Thorin Oakenshield; and the fighting knives of Legolas.

  • Ornamentation of any kind (e.g., jeweled hilts for blade weapons, filigree etching on gun barrels or handgrips, pink coloring for women) I find aesthetically displeasing. It is distracting and non-functional. (Though the fantasy blades mentioned above do have varying degrees of ornamentation, it is not overly distracting.)

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.)

Putting Your Brain on "TheBrain"

If you’re like me, there is too much in life to keep up with, too many things to remember, too many things I’d like to do. I offload tons of information into Evernote (a future topic). Many people use other software tools to create their own personal knowledge base for holding what they know and what they have learned. When you use a personal knowledge base you explore it, using a graphical user interface, to find pieces of knowledge and see what other knowledge is related, and you curate it, meaning, you add new knowledge, remove outdated knowledge, and make connections between related knowledge.

One available tool for creating, exploring, and curating a personal knowledge base is “TheBrain.” The reigning king of TheBrain users is Jerry Michalski. His knowledge base contains hundreds of thousands of bits of knowledge gleaned over a period of 21 years. (See Jerry’s Brain on the web for a look at his knowledge base as well as useful video tutorials.)

Few people will want or need to build a knowledge map as large as Jerry’s. But getting started is easy. Constructing a knowledge map is as simple as adding little bits of information (nodes) and linking them into a network of relationships. Each node in TheBrain is referred to as a “thought.” Thoughts can have “parent” thoughts, “child” thoughts, and “jump” thoughts (related thoughts not fitting a parent or child classification). The resulting network looks hierarchical but does allow connections to loop back around. The user interface shows the current thought in the middle of the screen, its linked parent thoughts above, its linked child thoughts below, and the jump thoughts to each side.

I first used TheBrain many years ago when I transferred into a new job in my company and found I had much to learn and organize. This included everything from new acronyms to new faces to new concepts. I retired from that company and quit using TheBrain, but I recently came back to TheBrain (version 10) and decided to test its usefulness for my personal needs. Below are some of my observations.

Dynamic vs static knowledge. TheBrain is best for knowledge that doesn’t change. Maintaining a knowledge base is more difficult if the knowledge is dynamic instead of static. For example, keeping track of which employee is in which part of a changing organization would constitute managing dynamic knowledge. It is not easy to rearrange knowledge in TheBrain or to make extensive edits to reflect new understanding.

Visualization. While TheBrain provides a visual interface to the knowledge you put into it, you really have very little control over how things are visualized. At any given time, you can only see a very small part of your network of knowledge. You can not, for example, see the parents of the parent thoughts, or see that a series of connections link several thoughts in a cycle.

There are other tools for visualizing knowledge, including CMapTools and Freeplane, and diagramming tools such as yEd from yWorks and Visio from Microsoft, that give the user significant control over the visualization. A flowchart, a common representation of knowledge where the shape of the icons are related to what’s in the icon, can’t be depicted with a tool like TheBrain. With many of the other tools, as a user you can set up a process for using the shape of a node, the color of a node, or the type of line connecting two nodes as a means of encoding information. Other common representations, like organization charts, are more easily built with tools other than TheBrain. It all depends on what you, as the user, are trying to accomplish.

Types and tags. Just as with many photo organization tools you can tag your photos (family, vacation, Christmas 2018), you can tag nodes in TheBrain. You can also assign a “type” to a node (e.g., book, person, organization, country). You can look at a list of nodes that have a given tag or type. A small tag (like a price tag) on a node indicates it has been tagged, and you can see what that tag signifies by hovering the mouse over the tag symbol.

Types of relationships among the thoughts (nodes). While links between nodes in TheBrain can be given a type, TheBrain is not really suited for depicting things like cause-effect relationships in a knowledge map.

Selecting a tool for a personal knowledge base depends on many things, including what you plan to put into the knowledge base and how you expect to use it. I hope to gather more information on these tools and share that information on this website in the future.

Endorsements!

It occurs to me if rock stars can list the manufacturers of their favorite guitars, drums, guitar strings, etc. in the liner notes of a CD, and NASCAR drivers can post who makes their brakes, their engine parts, their tires, etc., maybe I can gather some endorsements if I list who makes my favorite writing tools!

Author Mark E. Lacy uses:

Pentel Energel pens
generic composition notebooks
Oberon Design composition notebook leather tooled cover

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
ViewSonic monitors
Microsoft Office: Word and Excel
Evernote software
Google search engine
Firefox web browser

My wife would tell me … “don’t hold your breath, honey.”
Yeah, I know, it doesn’t work this way.

"Treehouse Living" and Experimental Fiction

Once in a while I decide to be daring and pick up a work of experimental fiction. You’ll know experimental fiction when you see it—it may use multiple fonts, eschew ordinary chapter structure, or perhaps take the form of something unusual for fiction, such as a dictionary. I’ve enjoyed experimental fiction by Italo Calvino, particularly If on a winter’s night a traveler and Invisible Cities. I’ve considered reading but have not yet summoned the courage to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but only because of its structure and length, not because it’s a work of horror.

Many years ago I read the “male” version of Dictionary of the Khazars, by Milorad Pavic. The fact that there are both “male” and “female” versions of this book is a dead giveaway that it is a work of experimental fiction—along with the fact that it is structured like a dictionary. The two versions of the book differ in only sixteen or seventeen different lines. I can no longer remember whether those lines are highlighted or the reader is expected to buy both versions of the book and compare them line-by-line to find what’s different. I see on Amazon there is also an “androgynous” edition of this book, but it’s not clear how it differs from the “gendered” versions.

Like Pavic’s Khazars, Elliot Reed’s A Key to Treehouse Living is arranged as a dictionary. The entries are written by the narrator, an orphaned boy who struggles to make sense of the world. This boy’s tidbits of “wisdom” give us insight into his life. The question with any book like this, of course, is, what is the plot? How do pieces that are not chronologically arranged function when structured in an interconnected alphabetical arrangement? The Kindle version makes it easy to follow hyperlinked cross-references, but the text is not nearly as hyperlinked as it could be.

I found A Key to Treehouse Living mildly interesting but frustrating to follow. One can’t help but finish reading a book like this and wonder what you have missed. Did the author explain everything needing explanation? Why did he cover this topic before this one? Which entries are important and which are whimsical digressions by the narrator? While the narrator’s nuggets of wisdom are arranged alphabetically by their defining concepts, early on the narrator explains to the reader that he couldn’t always adhere to strict alphabetical order.

Experimental fiction can be very hard to understand. We are used to following the course of a story in a linear, time-based fashion. But if the story is nonlinear, jumping between past and future and present, is it still a story? What was the author intending to do by making the reader encounter a story in this way? How does one follow a “character arc” when there is no chronological order? I would suggest experimental fiction to anyone wanting to experience something unique in their reading, but it is not likely to appeal to everyone.

Worldbuilding and Stephen King's "The Dark Tower"

Recently I checked my database on Goodreads.com to see my “most-read authors” list. I was surprised to find that Stephen King was at the top of the list, with 31 books. This was surprising, because I wouldn’t call myself a fan. Sure, I like reading his stories, but there are aspects of his writing that I don’t care for. Many years ago I decided to try his Dark Tower series. I was making progress until he mentioned a body part of one of the Challenger shuttle astronauts washing up on a beach. I thought that was in poor taste, so, in protest, I stopped reading his books. Or, I thought I had.

When I learned they were making a movie of “The Dark Tower” I decided to go back and try the books again. This time I persevered, and read all eight of them. All 5,329 pages. And enjoyed them all.

One thing I decided to do, early on, was to pick up a copy of the “revised and updated” Stephen King’s The Dark Tower: The Complete Concordance, by Robin Furth. Why? Because sai King went a bit beyond worldbuilding in telling the story of the Dark Tower. He did worldbuilding on steroids. And I don’t know how he did it without Robin Furth’s book on hand to keep him honest. In the Dark Tower series there are locations in this world, and places in worlds like ours that have “moved on.” There are characters that appear under one name at one time, and another name at another time. There is time travel, and stories within stories. There is the author writing himself into the story. There are creatures humanoid and otherwise. There are connections to many other works in Stephen King’s canon.

Robin Furth’s Concordance includes information on (from the back cover)

  • Characters and Genealogies

  • Magical Objects and Forces

  • Mid-World and Our World Places

  • Portals and Magical Places

  • Mid-, End-, and Our World Maps

  • Timeline for the Dark Tower Series

  • Mid-World Dialects

  • Mid-World Rhymes, Songs, and Prayers

  • Political and Cultural References

  • References to Stephen King's Own Work

Of course, this only covers what’s been published. How much else regarding the Dark Tower lies sleeping in the author’s files? Will someone come along someday, like Christopher Tolkien did with his father’s writing and notes, and build on what’s already been built?