Tag Archives: writing process

Dissertation Days (55): Where We Are Now

Well, it’s been a hot minute since I posted an update. I guess I got caught up in, you know, actually writing my Dissertation. Imagine that! So, I thought I’d give everyone an update that’s a little longer than usual, in order to tell you how things are going and how they stand now.

Fortunately, the revisions for Chapter 3 are moving along at a brisk pace. I’m actually enjoying slicing out the bits of extraneous material that don’t move my argument forward. For someone who is as word-conscious as I am, that can be quite a liberating experience. Hopefully, by the end of this week (or next week at the latest), the contextualization sections–both historical and theoretical–will be ready for resubmission. Then it’s on to the close readings. Luckily, I think those are in pretty solid condition, though of course a little pruning won’t hurt. That should be done by the end of the month (at the very latest).

Chapter 4 is also coming along surprisingly well, considering this has been the chapter that has given me the most conceptual trouble. Right at the moment I’m sort of toggling between the historical context section and the close reading of the film Cleopatra. I hope to continue making some solid progress on that for the rest of this week. I had to start yet another document that is misleadingly titled “Final Version of Chapter 4,” but hopefully this time it’ll actually turn out to be true (at least until the revisions from the Adviser are handed back).

I had a bit of a panic moment last week, when I sort of forgot what it was that I was saying about Fall of the Roman Empire that set my own interpretation apart from what’s come before, but I think I overcame that little struggle. If I maintain the focus of my chapter on the tensions that I am locating, and on the affect that such tensions seem intended to create, I think I can push the existing discourse in some new and interesting directions.

My Dissertation Days posts may be a bit more sporadic than normal this month, since I’ve basically got my head down trying to finish all of this. Still, I’m going to try to remain at least somewhat consistent, since it does help me keep to my writing schedule if I know that other people are also keeping tabs on me.

So, basically, we’re holding steady. Had some productive conversations with my Adviser about both the Dissertation and the job search, and I feel at least somewhat confident about both of those (as confident as one can be about the job market, anyway). I just have to make sure that I stay disciplined, and that I also learn the necessity (and value!) of pruning my very wordy prose, and I think I might actually have a career ahead of me.

This week is going to be a busy one, but I’m confident that I can meet the goals I’ve set for myself. It just takes a bit of determination.

So, onward we go. Much to be done, but it CAN be done.


Dissertation Days (47): Back to Work I Go

Well, we returned back to work today. The Dissertation is coming along quite nicely, and I am actually confident that I can produce a workable, submittable draft by the middle of September. Not, mind you, that that will be the final version, but I want the Adviser to have seen all of the chapters in some form before I start sending out applications.

And, what’s more, I finally found that missing piece that’s been eluding me for so long. When I wrote this sentence, I knew that, at last, the pieces were sliding into place: “I then turn to each of the films, beginning with Cleopatra, moving to Fall, and ending with The Bible, showing how each can be understood as a form of melancholy utopia, mourning a world that might have been but can never be.”

It’s that last bit that I find to be the most useful, as it helps me to make clear that what I am working toward is an understanding of these films and their affective charge. I have to say, this is the clearest expression yet of the central claim that I’m setting out in this chapter, and that is an amazing feeling.

Tomorrow, I am going to work on setting out some of the important contextual material, particularly the (failed) promise of the United Nations and the increasing disintegration of the old imperial powers and the United States ascendancy. With a 1,000 word goal per day, I think I should be able to knock this section out of the park within the week. What’s more, I might even be able to move into the theory section. We’re picking up steam, folks!

As I’ve said before, I think I’m going to aim for 15K words on this chapter, possibly a bit more. I think that will be enough to do justice to the complexity of the argument. And besides, I really just want to get this thing out of the door as soon as possible.

The Adviser has suggested that I might do a Chapter 5, and…yeah. That’s not happening. Gotta get this shit done!

Also, I’ve been working on job materials, and they are coming along quite well. I am surprisingly excited about being on the job market. It’s a good feeling.

So, tomorrow is definitely going to be a tremendously productive day. I can feel it.

And I can do it.

Character Sketch (1): Antonius

Born into a yeoman family in the western duchy of Aspaña, Antonius was not, at first blush, fated for any sort of prominent position. However, he was from his youth a tremendously ambitious young man, and through sheer ruthlessness and determination he was able to secure himself a position in the local monastery, where he could at last indulge his love of books, knowledge, and the wisdom of the ancients.

It was not long before the abbot recognized his innate potential and began grooming him for a potential career in the highest echelons of the Church. He was sent to the Academy in Aïonis, recognized by everyone as the only sure way for those born into the lower classes to make their way up the ranks. He impressed his teachers, who recognized his intellectual and spiritual gifts and did all that they could to continue cultivating them.

He soon made a name for himself as one of those insufferable types of students who insists on following the rules, despite the fact that this made him tremendously unpopular among his fellow students. He was tormented by those who saw him as doubly a threat, both because of his accomplishments and because of the fact that he was a lower-class person who had risen to a position that they deemed the exclusive purview of the wealthy and the elite.

Though there was much he hated about his time at the Academy, he met the man who would come to be the love of his life, the nobleman Trystane. This youth, who came from the Peninsula, was one of those rare people who, despite their innate privilege, makes a point of befriending those in the lower classes. He was a few years younger than Antonius, but he was also brilliant, though in a different way. Whereas Antonius leans toward philosophy and theology, Trystane is more attuned to science and to the workings of things, including the affairs of nations.

The two began their relationship during their time at the Academy, and they have remained with one another ever since. Given that the Church officially condones same-sex relationships–both among the clergy and the laity–they have been allowed to be joined officially in the sacrament of marriage. This caused no small amount of friction with Trystane’s family in particular, since doing so not only abrogated any of his political ambitions but also sullied the vaunted name. Still, the relationship has persevered through all of that.

Indeed, it has been Trystane’s political acumen that has allowed Antonius to quickly ascend the ranks of the Church. There were, of course, many who opposed him, but Trystane was quite willing to do away with those who stood in the way of his beloved’s interests. Though he may have abandoned his traditional family loyalties, he was still able to use the skills that had been cultivated in him from an early age.

As Prefect, Antonius made it his duty to ensure that the purity of the Church is maintained. He views the stability of the Church as key to the stability of the cosmos, and he is also determined to ensure that the Imperators do not interlope too thoroughly on the interests and prerogatives of the Church. As a result, he has had several tense run-ins with the previous Imperator, and he has also been known to have heated arguments with the current Imperator Talinissia.

At the time of the novel, he has already been serving as a Prefect of the Church for the last twenty years, and in that time he has become one of the most ruthless and relentless persecutors of those who have been found. Unfortunately, he does not enjoy a great deal of support among the population of the Imperium, though the rank and file of the Church find him to be generous. He has made it a particular point to cultivate the talents of those who come from similar backgrounds as himself, including and especially the young Theadra. This girl, the daughter of a butcher, has a bright future ahead of her, though the events of the novel will test her in ways that she would never have imagined.

Further, Antonius has also earned the enmity of several of his fellow Prefects, almost all of whom hail from the nobility and thus view him with no small amount of skepticism and outright hostility. Of particular note in this regard is the Prefect Eulicia, who sees in him a threat to all that she has come to hold dear, particularly the order imposed by the aristocracy and the nobility. The two have spent many years sparring with one another, neither able to gain a definitive advantage over the other. How long that stalemate lasts, and who will emerge the victory in their strife, is one of the major plots of the novel.

Stay tuned for more characters sketches as I learn more about my characters and share that knowledge with you.

Novel Thoughts (2): On Genre

Some time ago, I thought I would write something “literary,” some great family saga of an Appalachian family torn apart by dark family secrets and juicy gossip. It all seemed quite clever to me at the time, a neat little way of transferring the dynastic politics of the ancient world into the incongruous setting of small town America.

The problem was, I couldn’t quite get the story right. Something about the whole effort rang false, and no matter how hard I tried I simply could not get the narrative to cooperate.

Finally, I determined the problem: I wasn’t writing in the genre that I truly loved. In attempting to forge a “literary identity” for myself, I’d abandoned my efforts to write fantasy, the genre that has always had the strongest hold over my heart. That genre is, of course, epic fantasy.

(A close second has always been historical fiction, but I’m afraid that my efforts at that were also not terribly successful).

Indeed, it was only after I started reading the works of Guy Kavriel Kay that I began to see the ways in which one could combine these two seemingly disparate genres, taking history and turning it slightly to reveal the fantastic elements of it, could be done if you really tried. The more I mused on it, the more it seemed to me that here, at last, were the roots of something I could make my own.

Now, I won’t say that my writing talents are anything close to Kay’s (they aren’t), but I will say that I take him as one of my models. His work, along with that of Tad Williams and Terry Brooks, are probably my greatest influences in terms of fantasy and the creation of worlds that seem to live and breathe on the page. While Kay’s work is large in scope, it doesn’t have quite enough of the conventions of the epic for my own saga, and so I’m really trying to attain something of a mixture between these three authors. (And yes, I know how pretentious that sounds, so I hope you’ll forgive me).

Writing in the genre of epic fantasy allows me, I think, to explore some of the great issues and themes of history, while not necessarily being bound to the historical record that we know. Sometimes, I think, you can actually explore the issues of history–such as agency (or the lack thereof), epochal change, the underlying forces that move nations and peoples forward (or backward)–when you add in some element of the strange, the cosmological, or the magical. Rendering visible that which, in our world, remains largely a matter of faith can lead to some truly fascinating constellations.

So, as I move forward with this novel project, I hope to do some more thinking about what it is that I want to do with the genre that I have chosen to write in. There are certain things that are required, of course, but my hope is that my work, limited as it might be, might add a little something to the genre that I have always called home.

Dissertation Days (36): DONE

Well, the biggest news of the day is that Chapter 3 is, at last, finished and submitted. I think that it is a much stronger version of the chapter than earlier, so there is that to be proud of. It might be a while before I hear back about it, but I’m okay with that.

Now, on to Chapter 4. Today was one of those great days where the juices just seemed to be flowing in the right amount. I managed to bang out 1,000 words of the chapter (and most of them good ones!) before the rest of my life interrupted me. I’ve gotten into a bit of a flow with this chapter, and that is definitely a blessing. I’d really rather avoid the rut that kept me bogged down in Chapter 3 far longer than I would have liked.

I’m really hoping to rewatch Cleopatra this weekend, as I need the details that such a re-watch will provide me. But, for those of you who have seen it know all too well, it’s an obscenely long movie, and thus quite an investment in a weekend that’s already quite packed. However, even if I just manage to watch a part of it, that will still provide me enough material to work with for next week’s composition.

I also have a pretty extensive research program lined up for the next week. The broad strokes of the historical context is there, but I need to start filling in the details. The hard part will be making sure that it’s clear how this context fits in with the close readings, but I wrote a couple paragraphs devoted to that today. I’m not sure they’ll survive into the final draft in their present form (they’re a bit ham-handed, tbh), but for the moment they are serving their purpose.

Ugh. It’s getting to that point where I can’ just throw words on the page anymore. Now that I’ve reached the 8,000 word mark (a little over half), I’ve got to really start drilling down into precision. That’s always the hardest part for me, because it means that shit is really getting real. At the same time, it’s also the point at which, if you really squint, you can see the finish line of the chapter (and of the project) in the distance.

That’s a good feeling, but also a terrifying one.

But, I march onward.

Good times ahead.

World Building (2): A Brief Description of the Imperium and the Imperators

At the time in which my novels are set, the continent of Aridikh is divided into three political entities: the Imperium in the west, Korray (a patchwork of tribes) in the mountainous middle, and Haranshar in the east.

Founded roughly 2,000 years before the start of the tale described in the novels, the Imperium has remained surprisingly durable. Though the ruling House has changed several times in its long and venerable history, and while it has maintained a long and tense cold war with its eastern counterpart Haranshar, it has yet to fall or suffer any serious territorial losses.

A great deal of this stability has to do with the structure of the state. Though it is an empire with a strong central government, headed by the Imperator, the actual administration of the various provinces falls to the members of the nobility. At the top of this pyramid are the Dukes, most of whom share a portion of the Blood Imperial, and most can trace with exacting precision their descent from the first Imperators. Then come the Counts who, while most do not have imperial blood, nevertheless possess significant territorial holdings and political power, particularly in the south. Together, the various dukes and counts, along with the leaders of a few independent city-states, represent the Senate of Nobles, who serve as an advisory body on the unlimited power of the monarch.

The territory covered by the Imperium is quite vast, though it is still significantly smaller than the territory occupied by Haranshar. To the north are situated the the kingdoms of Svardö, Varsaïs, and Karthûn, while the far west are the dukedoms of Aspaña, Porçal, and Busqel. The southern parts are comprised of the counties of Ferizi, Eniccio, Melita, Sperezo, and Heleniea. The eastern parts of the Imperium (and the administrative center) are centered around seven duchies: Dūrken, Rhoshk, Maïrin, Colïes, Dérange, Ioliérs, and Aïonis, which contains the capital city of the same name (the Imperator is traditionally also accorded the title of Duke of Aïonis). There are a number of other, smaller city-states that have at various times attempted to assert independence but have so far been unsuccessful.

For a real-world analogue, think of the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian and his immediate predecessors and successors, combined with Europe in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (something akin to the first iteration of the Holy Roman Empire ruled by Charlemagne, though with a far greater geographic extent). The Imperator is acknowledged as the supreme representative of the Name in matters temporal, but s/he is also forced to accept the judgment of the Council of Prefects on all matters spiritual. This has, of course, caused significant strife in the past, but it has also led to a gradual hardening of the ways of doing things, with the Church in particular emphasizing a rigid adherence to orthodoxy and the Imperator maintaining unlimited power in the body of the ruler.

At this point, there is an almost-constant jockeying for position among the nobles for access to the Imperator, as even the weakest noble realizes that the structures of the Imperium have become ossified over the course of two millennia, and some have even begun to scheme for an opportunity to shatter those ways and carve out a new world. In the years preceding the events of the novels, there have been an increased number of heresies springing up, along with other, less religiously-oriented revolts. The common people have grown dissatisfied with their rulers, and it remains to be seen how far they will go to assert their renewed sense of sovereignty.

The same designation is used for the ruler of the Imperium, regardless of sex. Unlike Haranshar, which allows women political agency but not direct rule, the Imperium practices strict primogeniture, so that the diadem (in theory) passes directly to the eldest child of the current monarch. This has not always been true for a variety of reasons–there have been no fewer than five coups, six childless Imperators, and seven changes of House–but it is the one rule that tends to unite even the most fractious and scheming members of the Senate. Everyone recognizes, at some primal level, that the overthrowing of a monarch by someone not of the Blood (and even by someone of the Blood) poses an enormous challenge to the stability of the state and, by extension, the cosmos itself).

In the time since its founding, there have been 213 Imperators of both sexes. Through careful cultivation and tending to the imperial bloodline, each of the Imperators could trace their bloodlines, no matter how faintly, back to Yishadra and Herakleios, the very first two to don the diadem. That being said, there are now over 300 individuals who can claim mainline descent, spread across five of the Great Houses (and there are rumoured to be several hundred more with far more diluted blood spread among the more numerous Lesser Houses). Not all of them are brave enough to attempt to seek the diadem for themselves, but the continuing childlessness of the current Imperator, combined with their inborn penchant for scheming, means that it is only a matter of time before they turn their avaricious gaze on the throne.

At the time of the novels, the reigning Imperator is Talinissia. Behind her back, she is known as Talinissia the Black due to her father’s unlikely (and unapproved) marriage to a daughter from one of the kingdoms in Haranshar. Her accession to the throne was far from uncontested, for her younger half-brother, the product of her father’s second marriage to a distant cousin, one who was officially part of the Blood Imperial, decided to rebel. He even did the unthinkable, going to the Shah to ask for material and spiritual assistance, even going so far as to promise toleration of the Faith of the Flames in the capital city itself. Though the revolt was ultimately put down, the damage to the prestige of Talinissia’s throne remains, and her brother’s allies still scheme for her overthrow.

The world is poised for great changes. A

And perhaps even greater chaos.

Novel Weekends (3): Back At It

This was an eventful weekend for the Novel. I wrote a total of 5,000 words, mostly concentrated on three chapters. I also managed to revise part of the Prologue into what I think will be its final form. What’s more, I did some revision on a short story/novelette that’s set after the first novel but before the second. Not too shabby!

I also (you may have noticed) published a short essay on the history of the Church in this world, and I began another short essay on a history of the Imperium. Further, I have several more planned. So keep looking for those!

Given my own interests in history–and on using my novel to explore questions related to history–I also started reading a new book on the connected nature of the ancient world. A great deal of both the world-building I’ve done and the plot arc I have designed has been heavily influenced by the work of historian Tom Holland (in particular his book In the Shadow of the Sword), but I have a feeling this new book will also have a large impact.

As I wrote this weekend, I found myself oddly drawn to one of my secondary characters, a Korrayin named Ibrahim. I know that he is going to be a founder of a new faith, but I wasn’t aware that he would play such a big role in this novel. But then, that’s one of the most exciting things about writing; frequently, the most interesting things are the ones that you find by accident.

This week, I fear, will be a bit sparse on the novel. I have to submit a dissertation chapter this week, so that will suck up a lot of energy. Rest assured, though, that I’ll be right back at it next weekend.

Until then!

Dissertation Days (26): Labour Day

At long last, I’m settled down for a bit and back into something like a normal working schedule. As a result, today I managed to write 1000 (a grand!) words in Chapter 4, which is quite an accomplishment in my humble opinion.

Chapter 4 has, finally, begun to crystallize and become more focused. As those of you who have been following this account no doubt know, this is no small thing. It’s always frustrating when you feel like you know what you want to argue, but the actual articulation of those ideas in writing ends up eluding your abilities. That has happened quite a lot with this chapter, and it’s only recently, after more research on my part, that I’ve been able to wrangle my ideas. It’s not quite there yet, but I do think that I am on the path that will eventually see this chapter completed.

The hardest part, I think, will be fitting this chapter into the existing structure of the dissertation. That was also a big part of my problem in Chapter 3, but in that case I had a stronger idea of its role in the larger project. Still, I think that by holding onto the glimmers of intelligibility that I’ve managed to produce, I can manage to keep focused throughout the duration of this chapter’s composition.

Now, don’t think that I ignored Chapter 3 today. I went through 15 pages of the draft to check for consistency, coherence, and a bit of proofreading. I hope to make it all the way through that process this week, and next week I’ll make sure that the revised bibliography is compiled and ready for submission. I also managed to tidy up some of the language. Sometimes, I tend to use a very strangled sentence structure. I comfort myself with the thought that I’ve learned to recognize this and, if I can’t prevent it, at least I can fix them.

Tomorrow will be more of the same. If I keep up this 1,000 words a day pace, I should be able to churn out this fourth chapter by the end of the summer (if I’m really lucky, possibly even July). It finally feels like I’m making the progress that I need to keep the inspiration intact.

I have a good feeling about tomorrow. I’ll meet my goals, and I’ll be one step closer to finishing this chapter.

And that, my friends, is a good feeling.

Dissertation Days (25): A New Day, A New Chapter 4

In between the chaos of moving and travel (I’m about ready to set off for another round tomorrow), I managed to squeeze in a little work time today. Since I’d rather hit a wall with Chapter 4 as it was, I started a new version, one which really, consciously sets out to be the version I want to submit at the end of July.

To that end, I only managed to write 500 words today, but I’m pretty happy with them. I managed to bring together everything I wanted to argue in this chapter, in a way that’s more coherent than I’ve managed to attain so far. As I’ve said before, I want to focus on what I’m calling “imperial melancholia,” a yearning for a form of political stability that seems to always exist frustratingly out of reach, perpetually tantalizing with the possibility that it might be brought into fruition.

A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped by recent reading I’ve been doing on the role of spectacle in the way that film works, as well as my most recent reading research, a history of the Cleopatra icon by the British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Spectacle, to me, has always been frustratingly vaguely defined, and one of the things I hope to do in this chapter is to tease out the sort of meanings inherent in this oft-used cinematic expression. It is all part of my redemptive critique of the epic, my attempt to take it seriously as a means of engaging with the larger questions posed by modern (and ancient) history.

Once I return to my normal work schedule, I’m really hoping to get back into my old habit of writing 1,000 words a day, especially since I want to have a really strong draft of this ready for submission to the adviser by the end of July. If I can do that, and if I can get Chapter 3 and 4 approved by the very early Fall by pretty much everyone, I’ll feel like a great deal of pressure has been lifted off me. It’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.

I’ll be hitting the road for yet more traveling tomorrow and throughout the weekend into the early part of next week, so don’t expect any updates from me until then. After that, though, I should be able to get back into the swing of things.


Dissertation Days (23): Is this the End?

At the end of Quo Vadis, the delightfully queer Nero (played by Peter Ustinov) declaims: “Is this the end of Nero?”

I’ve now been led to ask: “Is this the end of Chapter 3?” Fortunately, I think that it just might be, or at the very least that I’m closer than I have been for a long time. I’ve pretty much finished with the third section (the one that discusses Quo Vadis), and now that leaves only the conclusion to really flesh out. Fortunately, I wrote the majority of that some time ago, so that shouldn’t take too long to finish.

Needless to say, I feel really good.

While there is some material that I want to reflect on more–there’s still a little bit of something that continues to elude my attempts to capture and put it on paper–I have come to accept that this isn’t the last version of this chapter that I will ever write. Indeed, it will probably go through several further iterations before that wonderful day when it finally sees the light of day as part of a book.

In Chapter 4 news, I think I have finally found the missing theoretical piece that has so far been eluding me. I’ve been reading an excellent book about spectacle in classic Hollywood (by Tom Brown), and his articulation of the vertical axis of spectacle vs. the horizontal one of narrative that I find really helpful.

It is in his essay on Gone with the Wind for the British film journal Screen, though, that I find to be especially useful, as he shows how the “historical gaze” mobilized by Scarlett enables her command a measure of agency denied many of the other characters.

As I work through Chapter 4, I think I am going to make the argument that the later epics of the midcentury cycle allow some characters a measure of Brown’s historical gaze, even as it denies it to others. It is the power of the spectacle that allows these characters to forge their own political destinies, to allow the film to remain suspended in a moment of profound, utopian potential, even as the inexorability of narrative ultimately brings ruin to these grandiose ambitions.

That’s what I’m thinking for the chapter now, though I hope to continue nuancing it based on historical context.

Time is ticking, and I have to tick with it.

(I don’t know what that means).