Thursday, January 29, 2009

Suspension of Disbelief

There was a magical quality to the snowfall this morning as the trees in the woods across the road were all decked out in white. (Only somewhat undermined by the cold temperatures. At least it wasn't in the single digits like it was last week.) By the mailbox there is a pair of trees that have grown up to form something of a natural arch. It isn't very big, as the trees are still rather skinny, but they are flanked by evergreen trees which helps add to the effect. I had the thought that it looks a lot like the beginning of all those stories where the protagonist wanders through some magical doorway into another realm. (Narnia is an example, but I would posit the journey through Moria from LOTR fits in there too.)

I wondered briefly what would happen if I did walk through it, and was transported somewhere else. And came to the conclusion I'd be dragon fodder.

Which helped illustrate much of my problem with that whole sub-genre of fantasy in the first place. You take someone from our world, transport them to someplace magical filled with strange creatures - where invariably many are hostile and there is some evil force at work - and they're probably going to end up dead.

I, for one, have no idea how to deal with a dragon. Even if you put a sword in my hand, I don't know how to use it. A semester of fencing in college did not prepare me to swashbuckle (especially not with my grade) and I am all too aware that it is a skill which, like any other, takes years of dedication and hard work. Or very intensive hard work to learn in a short time. Neither of which I'm likely to have the opportunity for once the dragon decides I look like I'd make a good elevenses.

Some argument could be made that children - and it is invariably children who walk through these portals (leading one to wonder, where are their parents? and why are all these portals just left open and lying around for anyone to wander in?) - would be more flexible and adaptable. Adults would have to contend with the burden of being more grounded in the real world, and thus less able to comprehend their new surroundings. Children already exist in a world of make-believe and magic, to have it made real for them would not be such a shock.

On the other hand, holding a sword would be a lot harder. Swords are heavy things.

I, of course, did not walk through the portal. I thought about taking a walk in the woods anyway, and appreciating the cathedral like quality of it all - but the four foot snowdrift intervened.

Though I did wonder how dragons felt about frozen food.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Whether the Weather

Probably one of the more enduring lines in literature has to do with the weather. "It was a dark and stormy night" was, I think, an actual line from a book. Whether it preceded Snoopy typing on his dog house or not I'm not sure, though it could well be argued that without Snoopy the line would have passed largely into obscurity. It has its problems as a written line, not least of which is a clear violation of "show don't tell." (Though that particular rule has struck me as at once over-simplistic and a too oft used club to bludgeon works with which we do not agree... but that's for another day.)

Despite it flaws, it has a simple appeal that sticks with you, and if nothing else it calls up a specific imagery. With apologies to Charles Schultz, if you take Snoopy out of it and just approach it on it's own, it sets an ominous scene. I myself picture lashing rain, flashing lightning, and crashing thunder. Spooky old home or half empty but equally old and spooky old hotel optional, but it works for me. It would also work well for some character out and exposed to the elements, though somehow for me that only seems to work if it's in an open field with tall grass to blowing in waves before the wind.

My point in all this is that, with a line like that, the weather becomes central to the narrative that follows. It's impossible to ignore the weather once you've opened with something like that, and that can be good or bad. I tend to feel the weather plays a vital role in setting the scene, especially if it is stormy or wintry or too hot. ("To build a fire" could be argued as being entirely about the weather and the protagonist's struggle against it.) I also feel it only ought to be mentioned specifically if it's integral to a scene. Otherwise the overall time and setting can do it for you. If it's winter in Duluth you would hope readers will catch on that it's cold and snowy, as opposed to summer in New Orleans.

It isn't always necessary to talk about the weather, and sometimes it's just extra details that bog down the scene. Sometimes it's just cliche, too, because it seems somehow in every Bronte or Bronte-esque story I've ever seen or read, at some point the heroine must battle the elements in some sort of scene that the literary types laud as standing in for her struggles with life or love or some other highbrow hogwash. (Those same literary types tend to then denigrate when pop/pulp authors do the same - as though somehow the rules change. Again, another post.)

And when you do, you also have to bear in mind everything that goes with it. Just because I've grown up with snow and cold and ice in the winter all my life, and so I know what all that entails... but if I achieve even any small amount of success, my works may be read by people who've never experienced. And who may not know that, when the temperature drops into single digits, your hero had better cover his nose if he wants to keep it when he goes outside for any length of time.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Accomplishments of Manual Labor

Despite having a profession that is almost the antithesis of manual labor - sitting in a chair in front of a computer all day does not exact the same physical toil as bricklaying, for example - I find myself with a natural inclination towards the values of doing something physical. Although none of them are yet published, I have completed four novel-sized works, and published smaller works, so there has been a certain sense of accomplishment with those. And yet...

And yet.

Somehow the greater sense of satisfaction comes from work that requires physical effort. Lifting something, cleaning something, shoveling something (in this case snow - and lots of it), anything like that provides a more visceral and more immediate satisfaction. Therein lies some, if not all of it, I am sure. The ability to accomplish something tangible in the space of a few hours provides much of the satisfaction that only seems to come from physical labor. Putting a few thousand words on a page is also a few hours work, but somehow isn't the same as being able to stand back and survey a newly shoveled driveway, or a newly hewn pile of wood.

This also allows me to find a sense of accomplishment from cleaning house, too, which is of great advantage when it comes to doing any and all housework tasks. (This is also aided by my own inclinations toward neatness and order anyway. Few things bug me more than a clutter of unwashed dishes sitting upon the counter.) If I spend a few hours dusting, sweeping, washing, etc, when it's finally accomplished, even if nothing else has been done, it doesn't feel like a wasted day.

If I could find a way to transfer that to all my endeavors, I'd probably be a lot more motivated in all regards.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Characters You Can't Write

I was out to lunch the other day and was joined by an Anonymous Person (hereinafter referred to as AP - and yes, that was a blatant abuse of legalese). Now, to be fair it had been some time since I'd seen then AP, and yes, it was the AP's birthday so the AP had been invited. At first when the AP showed up the rest of us were glad to see her. Unfortunately, that sense of gladness didn't last long. In fact, it was gone pretty much by the time we ordered food.

AP was sullen, moody, arrogant, obnoxious, and grating. Somewhere along the way AP became a self-appointed expert on everything, especially all things medical because she works in a hospital. Not as a nurse or a doctor, mind you, but an aide. Yet still she complained because the ICU nurses wouldn't listen to her. Nor the doctors. She's also become a bit of a hypochondriac, and while clearly she has some issues many if not most of her real problems likely center around her weight. Which she refuses to acknowledge.

So what had promised to be a pleasant brunch amongst five people became an awkward affair amongst six as AP held forth on everything that was wrong at work - that wasn't her fault, everything that was wrong with her - that wasn't her fault, and everything that was wrong with everything else. Which wasn't her fault. And no matter what the topic, she had an opinion, and it was the right one. Because it was hers.

Now they say "write what you know" and speaking for myself at least I have a tendency to populate the locales of my fiction with the people I meet in real life. Not to such a recognizable extent that I have to worry about being sued - I hope - but enough to give shape and form to the characters I write. But some people, despite being real people, are just too something to ever put to page, either because they would be unbelievable or because they would be too unlikeable.

Unless I ever write a disaster story, for example, the AP is simply too obnoxious as is to write into a story. She wasn't even so obnoxious that you kind of start to like them. Let's face it, Scrooge is a miserable person yet we still follow his story. If it had been the AP in "A Christmas Carol" Marley'd probably hang himself with his own chains, despite being dead already. And even if I wrote a disaster story, I'm not sure what sort of grisly demise would be sufficient to make it up to my readers for foisting her upon them for however many pages it takes to kill her off.

Just one of those things where even though it's real, no one would ever believe it.