Blog

Don’t Kill the Messenger (Bury Him)

We all know message fiction when we read it. The easy problems and solutions, the just-so moralizing, the strawmen antagonists. Sometimes the message gets delivered almost halfheartedly, as though the author’s under an obligation, and sometimes it’s presented with passion and through action, but in either case it’s obvious that the story’s just there to support a sermon.

Nobody ever said propaganda can’t be pretty. But if there’s one thing that’s sure to turn off a prospective reader, it’s being made to sit through a predictable exhortation when what’s wanted is the mystery and volatility of undomesticated story. If we know where we’re going before we get there, the only ones who’ll make it are those who didn’t need to make the journey.

The problem with message fiction isn’t that it has a message; it’s that the message protrudes from the narrative like a stone haystack erupting from the shallows. There’s no depth to it, no mediating currents to soften the surf, drawing the reader in with a mesmerizing eddy. What you can descry from a distance is all you’ll ever get.

But where context is sufficient to sink the message deep, beyond our direct observation, it becomes discernible only through its effects—like the invisible bedrock that molds the ocean into waves.

And isn’t that more intriguing?

Slush Rush

Late last week I was informed that A Sea Sought in Song had been selected from out of a well-known publisher’s infamously vast slush pile “for closer examination.” This was a pleasant surprise, as it’d been eleven months since I’d deposited my manuscript in that particular quagmire. Who knows if it’ll make the next cut, or how long that might take, but I consider this a big achievement in any event.

SlushPile

Since I always try to pair my news reports with authorial insights, I’ll observe, in a spirit of undaunted uncertainty, that Book Three continues to progress elliptically. I’ll write a scene, think through its ramifications, then go back and rewrite one or two past scenes before circling back around to the front lines. I’m calling due a lot of the open-ended place-markers with which I’ve strewn my path, connecting heretofore-unseen dots, complexifying the narrative matrix. It’s slow going, but quite rewarding. A certain knowledge of future events has proven unnecessary to weave a tightly-plotted tale.

Kinda like in real life.

Cartography À La Carte

I firmly believe that good writing will obviate the need for flyleaf maps. If an author can’t adequately describe his story’s setting without resorting to another medium of communication, he needs to put in more work. However, as value-added accessories, especially to a fantasy novel, maps can perform some important functions.

One of the key effects of classic fantasy is the generation in the reader of a sense that the world is deeper and wider than what is currently known. Whether that takes the form of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, Tolkien’s seemingly-endless ancient histories, or Sanderson’s periodic tables of undiscovered magic, it lifts—if only for an instant—the blinders of familiarity from our eyes and reminds us what it was like to be children filled with wonder and fear at a world bigger and wilder than we could possibly comprehend. But here’s the tricky part: this effect is achieved not primarily through invention, but rather insinuation.

If I as an author simply tell you that a thing exists, then it becomes known. Known things can be classified, quantified, categorized. It might still be weird or dangerous and inspire curiosity, but the mystique stirred up by an activated imagination won’t transform it into something far more.

However, if I hint that something exists, it’s like an invitation, a stimulant. Does the bizarre inscription summon a deity? Do the grass-swallowed ruins have a history? Can the precisely-formulated elixir grant even greater power? This is where maps come in.

Fantasy maps aren’t just bird’s-eye visualizations of the narrative. I’ve seen ill-considered ones from some big-name authors that do nothing but follow the route our heroes take on their quest. They’re just mostly-blank canvases bisected by winding rivers of detail. You can predict the plot progression just by glancing at them. This elicits no wonder, no added value.

I’ve also read books that feature fully-populated flyleaf maps, but which seem to go out of their way—literally—to justify the inclusion of every last hamlet and geological particularity, such that by the time our heroes finish crisscrossing every square mile in the known world, any chance for cartographical wonder is lost as surely as if nothing at all had been shown.

A good fantasy map, on the other hand, behaves like a real-world map. It isn’t partial to those regions you’re planning to traverse in the immediate future, and it encompasses more territory than anyone could or would realistically encounter within a short-term timeframe. By imitating reality, it reinforces our illusion that the fantasy world is real. And the real world, as we well know, contains many places we’ve never been and sights we’ve never seen.

Hey, look at that. What’s that spot on the map? That’s an odd name—what’s it mean? Will we ever go there? Will we ever get to find out?

That’s the kind of value a good map can bring to a story that’s already strong enough to do without. Ideally, fantasy maps should engender more questions than answers. They should expand the world, not shrink it.

Dated Communiqué

Book Three recently passed 60K words, but still needs the equivalent of two more chapters’ worth of content before I can declare its first Part complete. This puts it on track to equal or exceed the length of my first novel.

Speaking of Book One, I’m still waiting around for word from the acquisitions editors currently perusing it. Just this morning I got antsy enough to check my calendar, then took a calming breath. It hasn’t actually been that long yet. I just have to take life as it comes—kinda like the readers of this intermittent blog.

And speaking of taking things as they come, I’ve been mildly amused to find myself twelve years and 278K words into an epic high fantasy saga, with seemingly nothing left to do but write meet-cutes and awkward dates. Le sigh. Such is life, especially when I’ve arranged for the narrative to take a sharp turn into espionage-thriller terrain. I just hope the incessant banter comes across as witty rather than as self-indulgent. It’s certainly a change of pace from Book Two’s dire sobriety.

The second half of this book is shaping up to be a doozy. I keep tossing new locations, items, people, and events into the stew like there’s no tomorrow—kneading and layering the narrative for all I’m worth—all the while cringing at the callback commitments I’m racking up. I aspire to complexity, so I can’t just introduce cool things without making them an integral part of the story, which means they gotta reappear at some point as significant plot elements. My running list of Unexpected Things That Need To Also Be Inevitable continues to expand. Fortunately, my main cast has yet to show up there.

Thoughts on Getting Things Done

As a discovery writer, I’m never entirely sure how I manage to turn chaos into order. “Instinct” is my go-to explanation, but I can’t be certain about a cause whose operation I can’t describe. All I know is that, nine times out of ten, connections will be made if I just keep writing. It takes some amount of skill to recognize and capitalize on those connections, yes, but I couldn’t have foreseen them before they appeared on the page. Maybe I’m just such an editor at heart that I can’t get truly creative until there’s some preexistent material to mold and finesse.

Things don’t play out according to some grand master plan I dreamt up beforehand. Instead I simply put in the work, never quite sure where it’ll lead, and things always seem to work out okay despite my uncertainty.

I feel like there’s a life lesson here.