Novel Thoughts: Turning History into Fantasy

Some of my favourite fantasy series involve some measure of real history in their inner workings. This is true of such series as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and, of course, the many works of Guy Gavriel Kay (most notably those of his works set in the world of his duology The Sarantine Mosaic). All of these authors make explicit use of real world antecedents in their myth-making, which adds layers and textures that enhance the reading pleasure. Of course, even the great master himself, Tolkien, had a keen eye for the importance of history at all levels of his work. Middle-earth, obviously, has a history as deep and rich as any in all of literature. The actions of those in the distant past of his world, after all, continue to echo down through all the subsequent eras, for good and for ill.

And it’s not just that the best epic fantasy makes allusions to real-world history; it also asks the same sorts of questions as historical fiction and nonfiction history do. These include: How does it feel to live at the end of an age? What ability do individuals–the small and the weak–have to change the world around them? Is there such a thing as historical agency, or are we all merely subject to forces that we cannot name and certainly cannot control? Do those living in epochal change know that they are doing so?

So, when I set out to write my own epic, I knew that I wanted to bring my love of history into my favourite genre of literature. I read widely and voraciously, and as I did I began to realize that many of the periods of the past that interested me most would make a fine fantasy setting. Particularly influential for me was the British historian Tom Holland’s (no, not that Tom Holland’s) fiery history The Shadow of the Sword. Whatever its merits (and flaws) as a book about the origins of Islam in Late Antiquity, it is a rousingly good read, and he offers some great insight into the period. Indeed, it opened up my eyes to an entire way of thinking about what I wanted to do with my work. What if, I wondered, the two of great civilizations of Late Antiquity–the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanid Persians–were instead rulers of a vast continent, with a subaltern group sandwiched between them that was destined for greatness in its own right? What if their perennial squabbling was also part of a vast cosmological drama?

I continued reading, pulling in bits and pieces, creating a nation known as Aïonis that was essentially the Byzantine Empire (with some Holy Roman Empire DNA thrown in). Its opponent is Haranshar, the vast entity that rules about 2/3 of the continent of Aridikhos (name subject to change), a Sassanid analogue. And sandwiched between these two vast superpowers are the Korrayin who, in their mountains, are divided into four confederacies and numerous tribes. They’re basically the Late Antique Arabs, except in the mountains rather than the desert.

With this as the backdrop, a tiny little story I was working on–about a young cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and is forced to flee for her life–suddenly began to take on ever-greater dimensions, until her action became the catalyst for a continent-spanning conflict that could literally remake her world.

The result? Well, at this point there are roughly four strands of the novel as it currently exists. The three, more grounded strands are the brewing conflict between the two superpowers, Aïonis and Haranshar; the rise of the Korrayin as an unstoppable conquering army; and the rediscovery of a banned magical technology that involves the binding, through blood magic, of spirits of fire, air, and aethyr into the body of a human host to create an immensely powerful weapon (an obvious analogue of the development of atomic technology). These all take place against the backdrop of a brewing conflict between two essential forces, the creator god (known as the Creator, Ormazdh, or simply “The God” to its worshipers, Demiurge to its detractors) and the god of transcendence (known as Kagal, the Black Destroyer or Murash, the Great Lie to detractors and as Adonai to worshipers).

Through these continent-spanning narratives, I’ve tried to ask the big questions. What does it feel like to live at the end of an era? What happens when great powers become so ossified that they are destroyed from within and from without? How do the seemingly inconsequential actions of small people bring empires to their knees? I’m not sure how effectively or compellingly I’ve answered these questions, but I like to think that my work combines a good story with deeper musings.

In that sense, I think that it is appropriate that I’ve chosen to write in the genre of the epic which, perhaps more than any other genre of fiction, is equipped to delve into these questions in nuanced and detailed ways. As I continue to write the stories of characters such as Theadra, the cleric who discovers a heretical gospel and must flee for her life; Ishaq, a “barbarian” who sets out to avenge his father and claim the High Kingship of the Korrayin; and Bahram, a vizir who is a mere figurehead but yearns to redeem his family; I hope to do justice both to their individual stories and to the larger issues that they embody.

As such, I view my work as working against the (still-dominant) tendency to view fantasy as a low genre, incapable of asking the same deep questions as more literary genres. To my mind, some of the best, and most enjoyable, fantasy series are those that really make us think, that try to transform how we think about the world, our place in it, and our relationship to what has come before us and what will come after. There is so very much that fantasy fiction can do for us, if we but open up our eyes to the possibilities.

Advertisements

Novel Thoughts: The Savage Joys of Cutting

Since I’ve been struggling a bit with revision today, I figured I’d take a break and write about writing about writing a bit, particularly about cutting.

Unfortunately, I’ve always been one of those people who writes with a mind to length. My daily writing goals are typically focused on achieving a certain amount of words, and I still can’t quite take to hear the idea that concision is more effective than bloat. I’m getting there, but boy is it hard to shake the mind patterns of a lifetime.

So, unsurprisingly, when I compiled all of the separate chapters of my manuscript, I found out that it clocked in at a staggering 280k words. Even for an epic that’s a bit preposterous. In fact, I was convinced that something had gone wrong with Word’s counting mechanism. Nope. I’m just that wordy.

Commence the cutting.

One of the greatest joys of this round of revision has been the excision of superfluous words, phrases, paragraphs, even entire chapters. While the rewriting of entire chapters–and, in one case, an entire story arc–can be somewhat exhausting and dispiriting, cutting brings with it a savage sort of pleasure. I guess you could say that it’s a form of creative destruction, demolishing that which isn’t working so that something more beautiful and effective can emerge. When you absolutely have to cut things, you begin to realize, and sometimes re-evaluate, which parts of your narrative and which parts are a needless distraction.

I tend to be wordy, piling clause upon clause and rumination upon rumination, until I can imagine my reader shouting: Get to the point! So that part of the revision process has been a lot more enjoyable than I anticipated. It’s hard to describe, really, except to say that there’s something liberating about cutting away the dross and fluff to reveal the lean, muscular prose beneath.

This isn’t to say that complex syntax isn’t sometimes a good thing, but instead to say that I’ve learned that excess verbiage isn’t just confusing, it’s boring. It’s actually been very helpful to read through the entire manuscript as if I were a lay reader, trying to identify those places where the prose sagged, or where the plot began to meander in useless directions. Let me tell you, that has really opened my eyes to some serious bloat that I wasn’t even aware of while I was in the midst of writing it. Needless to say, in subsequent weeks a lot of that has ended up on the cutting-room floor.

As i move forward with the revision process (which is going quite well, thank you), I have to constantly remind myself of the value of being concise. Even now, when I’m drafting a new chapter or scene, I find myself slipping back into those troubling habits. The difference now is that I identify those tendencies a lot faster, so at least they’re not making it into the revised chapters.

There’s still a long load of revision ahead, but I’m increasingly confident that, with metaphorical scalpel in hand, I can whip this beast into shape.

Novel Thoughts: On Finishing and Revising a Rough Draft

Well, since it’s been a while since I’ve checked in on the status of the novel, I thought I’d set out some thoughts on how the revision process is going. I have to say, I’m happy with the novel as a whole. I think it’s got good bones, though I do have to totally rewrite one character’s entire story arc. And let me quite honest: it’s just thrilling to have actually finished a rough draft of an epic fantasy novel. The only other creative project of this magnitude that I finished was an historical novel, and that was 8 years ago. So, yeah, I feel accomplished.

However, as I’ve reread the rough draft, I’ve noticed some aspects of my writing that I really want to work on curtailing as I compose more material. It’s always hard to take a good look at your own composition process, but it can also be very healthy.

First of all, I like to pile clause upon clause upon clause. I’m not sure why I do this, other than that it’s the way that my writing processes my complicated thoughts. This definitely hamstrung some parts of my dissertation, but it is even more distracting in fiction.

I also tend to have my characters ask too many questions, either to one another or in their own minds. This is, of course, related to the clause issue, and again I’m not sure why I do it. As I’ve embarked on revision, I’ve tried to take the majority of those interrogatory sentences and convert them into declarative (when I don’t delete them outright).

Speaking of character thoughts…I tend to spend too much time in my character’s heads in third person. To try to correct this I’ve focused more on action. After all, while it’s good to let readers get to know your characters and what motivates them, excessive navel-gazing isn’t very interesting to read. Perhaps my tendency to spend so much time in my characters’ heads reflects my own introspective tendencies. Or maybe my characters just don’t have enough to do yet.

I have to say that working on this revision is both exciting and frustrating. It’s exciting to be able to sculpt and craft the rough clay of a draft into something that really sparkles. But man, it takes so long, and it’s very alienating (and dispiriting) sometimes to see all of the mistakes that you made as you were floundering your way through the plot.

So, I’ve now made it through Chapter 6 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with how they look. There’s still a long way to go, though, given that the rough draft was almost 60 chapters. And then there’s that pesky character who finally decided to reveal his real plotline. Still, I’m going to really, really try to get a revised draft done by the end of March and thus be ready to start querying agents by April.

These goals are definitely ambitious, but I am nothing if not determined to see this book in print, come hell or high water.

So, onward we go!

What Tolkien Taught Me About Writing

As anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows, I am both a fan of Tolkien and an aspiring writer of epic fantasy. In fact, it was first reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings that in part inspired me to try my own hand at not just writing an epic fantasy, but undertaking the work necessary to create an entire world–with its own histories, mythologies, religions, etc.–in which to set that epic. Even now, so many years later, I continue to find much about Tolkien’s process that I find inspiring and motivating. 

Those who have read the History of Middle-earth published by Christopher Tolkien know that he has laboriously and meticulously excavated his father’s voluminous manuscripts no doubt know how much LotR changed as Tolkien fiddled with it, often clinging to names long beyond the point where they didn’t match the characters to which they belonged. Reading these history books, one also sees just how complex Tolkien’s process was, how he allowed the story to grow and develop rather than adhering to some strict vision.

What’s more, you have to admire the profound depth of Tolkien’s legendarium. This is a man, remember, who created a world with its own internal consistency: replete with languages, histories, genealogies, and the like. And, taking a rather meta stance for a moment, it’s also true that his work has a textual history as rich and varied and contradictory (and frustrating) as any real-world mythology. There are still vagaries and inconsistencies that trouble those of us who like things to arrive in neat packages.

For the past two years now I’ve been working on an epic fantasy novel, and you know what that entails. Not only do you have to keep multiple plot-threads straight in your mind–for both the novel you’re working on and for the series as a whole–but you also have to develop your own world and make sure that it is both internally consistent and that it comes out properly in your novel. Neither of those is very easy to do, let me tell you, but the rewards are so satisfying. 

Just as importantly, you have to make sure that your characters have a depth and richness to them that makes them become something more than stand-ins for epic archetypes. While some have criticized Tolkien for not giving his characters a great deal of interiority or self-reflection, I think that grossly underestimates how much we get to see into the minds of the hobbits, particularly Sam and Frodo. 

In the end, I suppose that the greatest lesson I’ve taken from learning about Tolkien’s process is to allow yourself the time to revise what you’ve written. Very rarely does an epic spring fully-formed from its creator’s mind. There are going to be missteps, and that’s okay. At the same time, I’ve also learned that there comes a time when you simply have to let it go, that no matter how much you revise you are not going to reach a state of perfection (trust me, that is much harder than it sounds).

I’m now reaching what I believe to be the end of the first draft of my first novel, and I hope one day be worthy of following in Tolkien’s footsteps. Only time will tell!

Dissertation Days (57): An Overdue Update

Since I realized that it’d been over 2 weeks since I’d written an update on the Dissertation, I thought I’d take a hot second and do so. Things continue apace. I’m getting ready to submit a revised version of parts of Chapter 3 to the adviser, while I continue finishing up the readings themselves.

And, fortunately, I continue to make some really good progress on Chapter 4. The writing has been coming remarkably smoothly these last few weeks, and that is a huge relief. I now actually feel like I can get this whole project done and defended in the next 7 months, and that is also a tremendous relief.

There is something poetic about writing about the lost dreams of a a powerful woman and the feeling of melancholic utopia that that generates in the wake of 2016. It’s not that everything in the world has to line up neatly with the election and its aftermath, but it’s funny how very different it feels to write this dissertation now that an eminently qualified woman and her dreams of a better future were dashed. Not to mention the fact that when I began writing about a period in which an entire country trembled before the possibility of nuclear war I never dreamt I would be living such a reality.

Such, though, are the vagaries of a project that takes a couple of years to complete. Now that I’m almost done, I can take a bit more time to reflect on those larger questions. If nothing else, they’ll make a nice anecdote with which to open or close the book (when I finally get around to changing this beast into a monograph).

Overall, I’m very happy with the way this dissertation has taken shape. I’ve worked long and hard on it, and I feel like I’ve intellectually accomplished something. There are still a few more mile-markers to cross, but I do believe I can see the finish line, over there in the distance somewhere.

I plan to continue these little updates until the very end, but they may be a bit more sporadic. I have a lot of other writing projects going on, both on this blog and in the outside world, and I want to make sure they get the attention they deserve. In the meantime, you can always check my Twitter, since I usually tweet diss updates there.

Well, I’m off.

Keep writing, my beauties!

Dissertation Days (56): Handwriting

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? What can I say, I’ve been enjoying the time to actually write my Dissertation rather than just write about it, and I’m happy to say that I’ve made tremendous progress on both Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. And boy, does that feel good.

One thing that has really helped lately is taking my chapters and writing the introduction out by hand. This really frees my creativity and thinking in a way that typing on the computer just doesn’t do. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s better, but I do find it particularly useful when I’m struggling to get all of my ideas to fit together on paper the way they do in my head.

I have to say that I’ve been making the best progress I’ve made with these chapters since I finished Chapter 2 a year ago. I think I have finally started to see the flaws in my writing, how those flaws affect my intelligibility, and how to correct them (as much as possible). I do tend to use the word “seem” a lot, which I suspect is a way of disowning the ideas that I’m putting on paper. It’s a bad habit that I’ve gotten into, and I’m determined to break it.

As I work through my revision of Chapter 3, I’m also noticing how very, very wordy I am. It’s not just that I like long sentences and complicated syntax (though that’s true); it’s that I tend to bury my ideas so far into the sentence that whatever claim I’m making is almost totally obfuscated. So, a lot of revision has been about chopping bits and pieces here and there, pruning in order to let the ideas show forth in all of their conceptual glory.

Chapter 4 is also coming along quite nicely (FINALLY). I’ve found the core foci of the chapter, the basic structure, and the way I think it’s going to end up coming together. Now that that heavy lifting is done, I think the rest of it should start congealing. In a way, it feels more like Chapter 2 did as I was writing it, so that is (hopefully) a very good sign indeed.

Tomorrow there is a lot to get done, but I’m confident now that I’ve finally found a groove that works. Maybe, just maybe, I can get this beast done and defended by April.

On second thought.

I will.

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.

Novel Weekends (11): Progress

The novel has taken a bit of a backseat this past week, as I’ve geared up to get some hardcore dissertation writing done, but I was bit by the writing bug this weekend and feeling a bit disenchanted with academia (a rejection from a journal will do that), so I wrote quite a lot in my little fictional universe.

I am now in the midst of Chapter 7. The preceding chapters are in various stages of completion, but I hope to get them into shape relatively soon. After that, I’m going to charge full-steam ahead.

So far, I’ve written chapters focused on the POVs of 5 of my principals (Theadra, Eulicia, Arshakh, Talinissia, and Antonius). I have one more major character to introduce and a couple of minor ones, and then the full cast will be there. I’m still not sure if any of them are villains in the typical sense, but I think that’s probably a good thing. There is one character who’s unpleasant, but that’s not quite the same thing.

I also really enjoyed getting to know my character Arhsakh this weekend. He’s a lot more complicated than I had previously thought. He’s a survivor, and a schemer, but he also has weaknesses and foibles, just like anyone, so we’ll see what happens to him. I see a bright future for him, but that could always change.

All in all, I’m happy with both the progress I’ve made and with the general trajectory of the plot. I think I have an interesting story to tell, and I think my story does and says something, so I think that’s a pretty good basis. It’s very easy to write shitty fantasy, but I like to think I’ve at least hit mediocre.

So, with that happy note, I’m off.

Until next week!

World Building (11): The Old Ones

The following is a synopsis of a segment of The Chronicles, a book of history compiled by Varassed, the Chronicler to Shah Yamin IV (compiled around F.D. 2500).* 

In all the legends and lore that surround the origins of Haranshar, none occupy as privileged a place as the Old Ones, according to legends the first humans who were able to build a civilization on the vast continent of Aridikh. Though their origins are in truth unknown, the priests of Ormazdh and the other tenders of knowledge have taken to calling them the Old Ones. The oldest records state that they came from across the Eastern Sea, from the fabled Middle Kingdom.

Regardless of from whence they came, the Old Ones soon conquered the various tribes that had been living on Aridikh, bringing them under the rule of what would become known as the Hegemony. From Hamarkhan in the furthest west of the continent to what would become Aspaña in the west, the Old Ones ruled supreme, their many powerful lords, kings, and princes existing in peace and harmony with one another.

Under the Old Ones, the world was reportedly full of technological achievements the like of which had never been seen before and which have not been matched since. They were able to make the arid lands of the western parts of Haranshar blood, reputedly even forming the great rivers that would nestle the most fertile lands in the world between them. They planted seeds and cities alike, and there were rumours that the greatest among them, the Shahs (of which there were reportedly 30) could communicate with one another across vast distances. Their courts and cities were full of singers and craftsmen, priests and sorcerers, beautiful women and men and others who were neither or both, and all lived in harmony.

Their faith was one based on a celebration of the material world and all of the pleasures that it offered. The world was divinely ordered, so their priest said, and there was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by looking beyond it. There was in this theology no concept of an afterlife or a spiritual realm, which may in part explain the events that would soon bring this halcyon world crumbling into ruin.

For, as with all pinnacles, it was only a matter of time before the Old Ones fell prey to the desires of each other to conquer the others. They started the Great War, in which each mighty house was turned against its neighbour, and each and every one thought that it had been given the sole right to rule unchallenged all over the continent. The Shahs declared war one upon the other, even as their own lords and vassals declared war on them in turn. Rebellions and revolutions erupted in every province and kingdom, and even the common folk rose up, led by a series of wandering priests who declared the ways of the Old Ones to be hopelessly corrupt. The world, they said, needed to be purged by flame, and in this rebellion was sown the seeds of the faith that would eventually become known as Ormazdhism, though at this early stage it was merely part of the fires of chaos.

The conflagration soon spread out of all control, and the great civilization that the Old Ones had built collapsed into utter oblivion. Their wars raged across the entire continent. Civilization began to collapse into barbarism and cruelty, as neighbour was turned against neighbour and even families were torn asunder as their loyalties switched between various sides of the conflict.

There are no accurate records of what happened after the great culture of the Old Ones collapsed into anarchy and barbarism, for the great libraries that they had built to preserve their knowledge for the future were one of the first casualties. There is much that even now, with all that we have managed to achieve, that we do not understand about how they build their world and how they were able to stay in power for so long. All that is known is that there are still great towers and ruins scattered across Haranshar and the Imperium, testaments to their achievements. And we have a few tattered parchments and the legends of the singers that emerged after the Fall, when the world at last began to knit itself back together.

There was no recapturing the past glories of the Old Ones, however, and there were none of the great Shahs left after the collapse of their hegemony. It would be many centuries before the people of Aridikh began to pull themselves back together, and it would take one who claimed to be of the proud blood of the Old Ones (though the veracity of that claim was disputed then and is still questioned) to finally reunite them all. He would be the one who was known as Kharyush, the first of the Shahs whose reign over Haranshar (including the domains that would later become the Imperium) was complete.

Most provocatively for the present, however, there is a belief among the Korrayin, handed down from these dark days, that it was at the Pillar of Creation, the great mountain that stands at the center of Korray, that the Old Ones first came to be enlightened. The Pillar is said to be riddled with caverns and secret parts that no man has fully explored,

Furthermore, it is believed by some among the Alchemists that it was the Old Ones who first perfected the Art of Binding, and that it was through their use of the Bound spirits that they were able to bring about the great culture that was their accomplishment, and there are some among the priests of Ormazdh that believe that through recapturing that technology those who live in the present can regain their past glories. That, however, remains to be seen.

*The Haransharin follow a different dating system from their counterparts in the West. They date everything from F.D., which is short for First Dynasty, after the original dynasty to rise after the fall of the Old Ones.

Dissertation Days (53): A New Day, A New Office

Well, I finally moved into my new office at the Humanities Center here at Syracuse, and I have to say: I LOVE IT. It’s really quite a nice space, and it makes me feel like a genuine academic.

In that spirit, I was able to get quite a lot of work done during the hours I was there today, including 1,000 good words of Chapter 4, some perusal of Chapter 3, and a submitted SCMS proposal. I also started (finally) working on a book chapter that needs revision.

Chapter 4 continues apace. I’m now at the point where my momentum keeps me moving forward. There are still a few gaps that will need filling, but I see no reason why I can’t have a draft of this to the Adviser by the end of September, if not sooner. I have to say, this chapter is coming along much more smoothly than the previous one, ad I’m not sure yet whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Hopefully it just means that I’ve finally hit my stride and the whole project is finally starting to gel.

Sometime soon, I’m going to have to both get down to brass tacks in terms of revising Chapters 1 and 2 and start working on my Introduction and Conclusion. Now that I’ve got a firmer grasp on what Chapter 4 is doing, I think that sounds like a good idea. Some parts of Chapter 4 may get bumped into the Conclusion, but that remains to be seen (as it depends on how the rest of Chapter 4 shapes up).

I may not have a chance to get much done tomorrow, but I am going to come in to the office on Saturday to carve out a bit more writing. I also have a book chapter due Monday, and I have to make sure my job materials are in order. It’s gonna be a bit of a working weekend, but that’s okay. I’ve had enough fun time in the past couple of weeks. It’s time to really buckle down.

Today, in other words, is one of those days where I feel really good about life, about writing, and about my scholarship. I’m sure there will be some rough days ahead, but I have to remember my motivation. I want to finish, get a TT-job, and start building a life with my Beloved Aaron.

I can do this. I know I can.