Nothing but Pretty Roads

If you’re a writer, you probably know how easy constructing a tale can be. You start in one place, and before you know it you’re flying along, picking up bits of plot and pasting them to the moving storyline. It’s a bit like a scene from this Wallace and Gromit movie I used to watch when I was a kid, “The Wrong Trousers”, where Gromit has to build the tracks of a toy train as he’s riding it to keep from being de-railed. It’s pretty panic-inducing, but it’s easy enough; the pieces fit and you can always turn if you’re going to hit a wall.

I haven’t written in my blog for a long while now, and part of the reason for that was a need for a break from writing. I thought I had completed my novel; I even started sending queries to agents. I realized it needed some tweaking, so I pulled it aside and went back to work. Then came the mutation.

I’ve always gone the “building the train tracks as you go” route as far as plotting is concerned. I never saw the relative ease as a warning sign; I thought it was more muse-inspired and just rolled with it. Recently, however, I decided to write a short story as a birthday present to a dear friend of mine. I’m not used to short stories (barring school assignments), and the brevity of the tale forced me to see something which my full-length novels never have. That story didn’t breathe, it didn’t speak, and it certainly didn’t dance. It nodded blithely to the passerby as it lumbered on its way. It honestly made me want to fall asleep.

So I went back to the plotline, and wherever I came to a spot where it “felt” like something should happen, I mixed it up. More perilous detours in the way of the protaganist’s goal, more unpredictability and more mind-blowing (or at least ear-perking) plot twists. In the end, I had a fantastic story.

After this, I finally understood what had become of the book I actually wish to publish. Because, you see, when I first decided to tweak it, I made a small adjustment to the plot as well. And then everything erupted into madness.

Chapters that had been in the beginning moved to the end; characters’ motives multiplied alarmingly (I swear they were breeding); new twists and dark alleyways disrupted the straight train tracks of the plot; and everybody in the story felt so deeply, and expressed it so uniquely. I thought before that I knew what good characters were about. I had been gravely mistaken.

After recovering from the shock of watching my neat, abstract story multiply and evolve into some surreal, throbbing monstrosity, I felt mostly fatigue. “What, now I have to write all THIS?” And then I sulked.

But after writing the plot for that short story (which, by the way, I never even wrote), I realized I had no reason to despair. My story had simply come alive, broken the confines of its easy plot and grown into a conceivable series of events, happening to conceivable people. Real life is wrought with twists and perils, motives and detours, and no story—perhaps especially fantasy—can feel human without it. I wanted to craft a beautifully smooth plot, something concise and clever. But my life is filled with cracks and rubble. How could a character’s life feel realistic—much less sympathetic—if the path on which they walk’s main feature is aestheticism?

Labyrinthine

It’s been a while since last I wrote and I don’t have any good excuses. While it’s true that I’ve been tied up beating my first chapter into submission, I still could have found time to write other things. I guess I’ve just been so busy worrying about all my different projects and goals that I haven’t accomplished much at all. For that, I apologize.

Now, about that first chapter.

I finally finished the rough draft last night (just of the chapter). I’m ashamed to admit it, but it took me over a month. I’m telling you, books are nasty little buggers, always bent on revenge. Or maybe I just don’t listen well. Or I’m tired. I’ve been writing this novel for five years; I’m bound to lose my motivation sometimes.

However, I have learned a thing or two about beginnings along the way. And I hate them a little less.

One thing I learned was that I’ve been leaning too heavily on a certain character. An extremely important character, but still. This led me to another discovery. I thought I leaned on this character out of favoritism, but the truth was that he was just so much more interesting than the protagonist, and therefore more fun to write. My MC needed more goals and conflict. It took all this to give her what she wanted.

Every time I have to do revisions and rewrites, it drives me crazy. It seems as though I’ll never see the end, but I think I learned something last night. A couple things, perhaps.

First off, I’ve only been writing seriously for about a decade, and I need to be less hard on myself. I want to create something truly spectacular, and for that I need patience.

Also, I’ve gained trust in my artistic instinct. If I hadn’t decided to re-write the story’s beginning, my MC would have retained a lack of intricacy through the entirety of the series. Don’t get me wrong; she was a great character. But now she’s a fantastic one.

So maybe re-writing isn’t so bad after all. Especially for somebody as young as me, who still has a lot to learn.

When Silence Sings

“‘You can listen to silence, Reuven. I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own. It talks to me sometimes. I feel myself alive in it. It talks. And I can hear it.’

“‘You have to want to listen to it, and then you can hear it. It has a strange, beautiful texture. It doesn’t always talk. Sometimes – sometimes it cries, and you can hear the pain of the world in it. It hurts to listen to it then. But you have to.’”

This is a quote from the novel The Chosen by Chaim Potok. The first time I read this dialogue, I ran straight to my sister and shoved the book in her face, gibbering incomprehensibly with excitement. Quite literally, might I add. I just couldn’t believe that somebody else could understand what I had thought all my life, had felt that beautiful yet tragic force and, furthermore, had called it the same thing: Silence.

There is another novel I loved when I was a kid (still do, actually), called How to Be a Dragon Without Burning Your Tongue. In it a character takes the MC to a beautiful valley and asks her if she can feel “forever” in it. I don’t have the book on hand, otherwise I would give you the exact quote. The description that Arlene Williams uses, though, fits the same description as Silence. It crops up in disguised forms in novels and music everywhere.

I grew up searching for Silence. It can be found in any created thing that has been crafted with sincerity. It whispers and it sings; it gives inanimate objects feelings and binds together all art—including and, in fact, especially nature. All my life I have been spellbound by its song. When I was little, it frustrated and perplexed me how so few people seemed to feel it too. At first I thought they couldn’t. The idea astonished me; I felt sorry for them and tried to show them how to listen to the hush of eternity. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that they could hear it just fine. They just didn’t want to.

This knowledge filled my young, prideful, and extremely idealistic self with disdain. Now that I’m older (still quite proud and idealistic, though, I must add), I understand. I didn’t want to admit it back then, but Silence frightens me just as much as it does anybody else. Tranquility is revealing. When I was small, I ignored the mirror of naked honesty that Forever held to my face. I closed my eyes and concentrated on filling myself with the rocking, humming warmth of its song.

Silence is painfully beautiful. In that place, you cannot ignore the hurts the world has suffered and is suffering; nor can you run from a personal call to selfless righteousness. The universe is wonderful, but it’s full of evil. It wasn’t meant to be so dark, and every strand and every atom is crying with the pain of the wrongness. That which is “bent”, as C.S. Lewis might say. When you really listen and really look, the twisted pieces in your own heart show their crooked faces.

If it ended there, Silence would be terrifying. But there’s another layer to the song. Silence opens up essence, Platonic forms, the way things were meant to be. It weeps, but it doesn’t lay its head down in despair. It calls, “This is what I am meant to be. This, right here. Now stand up and do your part. Do what is right; fight the wrongness; restore goodness and wholeness to every corner of life you touch.”

Don’t ignore the whisper of the light. Don’t close your ears to it or—worse yet, like I did, feast on its beauty while ignoring the reason. You don’t have to save the world. You don’t have to do anything spectacular or grandiose. Just keep your ear tuned to that thread of music that courses over the whole world, and don’t ignore its call of truth when it speaks to you.

The Empty Page

I hate beginnings. No, I loathe them. All the things the story has to say, crowding at the bottleneck of Chapter One. How does a person make sense out of such unruly chaos?

Oh, and don’t get me started on the characters. Fledglings, so dear and intricate to me, but blank slates to the readers. With all the complexity of human beings, how to show a character, fit her into her niche? How can she start out feeling like herself if you have to introduce her first?

The only way I can even begin to imagine the undertaking is through careful organization. I am such a plotter. Everything neatly constructed beforehand, to avoid traffic accidents and suchlike. For pantsers I have a sense of awe, edged with jealousy and maybe just a hint of disbelief. How in the name of all things good and green do you do it? Unwritten stories are monstrosities. Pantsing is like tweaking a dragon on the nose and then running for your very life, laughing as you go. They laugh, I swear. They are insane. (That, and a little bit magnificent.)

Anyhow, like I was saying, I need careful organization. I need to lay out exactly what I need the reader to know. And then I need to take my protagonist and throw myself inside her head with reckless abandon.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about characters, it’s that “setting out” to show their personality usually ends in disaster. I think I touched on this in Drowning in Roses and Moonlight. You really have to bury yourself inside a character’s head in order to portray her properly. That’s the only way she can breathe. Too much control and she turns into a puppet.

I remember reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych in highschool, and this was something that struck me about his characters. His descriptions were so beautiful and spot-on, and his studies of human nature truly interesting, but for all that, they were nothing but that to me: studies. I don’t mean to insult such a prominent and well-loved author, but I can’t have been the only person who felt that his characters were being controlled by an outside force. Come to think of it, that may have been what he intended. In which case, he did a brilliant job, but it’s not a writing goal that I share, satirical or otherwise.

In order to form beginnings, I have to craft a delicate balance of absolute control and absolute lack of it. Direct the characters, but let them breathe as freely as any human being. It’s an interesting dance, and part of the execution of it is keeping up with the craziness without showing how much it freaks you out. You have to lose yourself in the rhythm, just like improvising jazz.

The Colored Glass Effect

Writing isn’t so much like drawing a line as it is cutting and then arranging shapes of colored glass into a mosaic. A surreal, abstract mosaic, probably, but there’s the beauty of it. Because the abstract pattern could even be considered a colored shape of glass itself, and and and . . . this excites me probably more than it should. But isn’t it breathtaking?

Every important anything in a story is a piece of colored glass. Each shape takes a single idea and reflects it in fiction form. The mosaic is the medium, the go-between of the surreal and the mind’s eye.

My favorite stories are those in which you can almost feel the crystalline shapes, can hear their song of prism light. Properly exectued fairytales tend to do this very well through their idealism. Dostoevsky created this effect beautifully with his characters. Frances Hodgson Burnett accomplished it with theme, and CLAMP, when they really put their all into it, show their mastery of stained glass symbolism. Have you ever watched The Fall? That movie breathes with the effect.

What if somebody could write a story where everything felt that way, but they still managed to ground the reader in reality?

I’m going to be honest now: that is my ultimate goal. Can you imagine how beautiful that would be? Fantasy world, characters, themes, symbols, atmosphere–just everything–all color and shape and light. Still realistic at the same time, too. Crazy. Can it be done? I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Still, if I’m going to grow in this direction, I’m going to need a lot of help. And so begins my study of stories that strike me with their colored glass. Now and again, I will share my findings. It’ll be like setting out to explore a mysterious, beautiful land, where all the examined colored glass reflects into the design of the world. Hey, that’s actually kind of neat. What would Alyosha Karamazov’s character resemble as fantasy terrain?

Drowning in Roses and Moonlight (I Knew You There)

Four thousand, five hundred words into the re-write of the first chapter and the fat, splaying purposelessness of it all has ground me to a halt. This happens here, then that happens there. So what? At this point, if the sky caved in on the entirety of my world and all its inhabitants, I would shrug and close the door.

It took days of contemplation and blasting In Tenebris on my headphones to realize the issue: my protagonist. I don’t care about her. I don’t care about her because she isn’t who she’s meant to be.

Somehow, I tricked myself. The same outer appearance that my MC, Verity, shows to strangers has misled her own author. How to describe this? She is like a violin. On the one hand, you have the musicians in stiff white collars, playing sonatas at tea parties. And then there are gypsies dancing around the fire at midnight—that is Verity. Reserved, gentle, well-mannered, but deep within her spirit there is a burning love of life and a wildness. She has lost the dangerous edge of her passion.

Not only that, but the depth of the darkness within her sealed itself off from me. I am moving her, directing her, but I do not know her. She is like a porcelain doll.

Maybe I am worrying too much, trying to press it all into perfection. Into the press goes Verity, and she comes out like a teacup. No good. No good at all. It is like there is a glass shell of pride around her and she won’t let anybody in.

So what am I doing wrong here? I am making the reader view her like a stranger would, but why?

I think it is fear. If I let the reader inside Verity’s heart and head, they will know exactly what I mean to say. And if they know exactly what I mean to say, they’ll know exactly when I’m saying it wrong. The way Verity views the world paints my own loves and intentions clearer than I am comfortable with. She understands things too well.

I am afraid to lose myself in the fabric of my own world, to give in to that understanding. What if it isn’t what it’s supposed to be? Wouldn’t it be safer, more sensible, to hold the story at arm’s length and press into it the ideas I know it needs? I can see the entire book from here . . . I just cannot feel its breath.

There is no point in writing a book about overcoming fear and accepting the full exquisiteness of life if I hold back from bravery and beauty myself. I need to take a deep breath, trust myself, plunge into the madness of dreamer’s thoughts that is Verity’s head. Let go of reason, but keep my feet planted on it. There is truth and sense enough woven through the world that I will be able to see it without clinging to a handful of abstract rules for security.

It’s amazing how much better I can understand things when I write them; I know exactly what to do now. Tomorrow, I shall begin weaving my way through Verity’s mind. I would start tonight, but I’m really much too tired. Watching The Lord of the Rings and procrastinating all day can wear a person out.

Writing vs. Conversing

Have you ever had one of those writing days where you know exactly what to say without having to work? Words skate across the page; paragraphs form themselves; your fingers fly across the keyboard and you think to yourself, “This is so easy. I wish every writing day was like this.”

If you have, take that thought and look it long and hard in the eye. Writing is hard. Writing is supposed to be hard. If you’re finding it’s a breeze then you’re cheating yourself.

Every now and again, I find myself forming sentences in “conversation mode”. My brain is in the same place it would be if I were caught up in an intiguing chat with friends. Nowhere near the life’s-essence-beading-on-the-brow concentration that story weaving requires. I use common words, say “what anybody would say” while constructing dialogue, and paper the characters with cheap emotions. The result is predictable, shallow, purposeless.

A writer needs continual challenge, not only for self-reassurance that he’s trying his best, but also to evolve and grow. What if you’re a genius? Progress anyway. This, I think, is the reason some successful writers turn to formulas. It’s not only because it sells, it’s because it’s easy. They’ve given up on growing, exchanged their tired pens for a form of conversing in disguise.

Listen to your gut. That urge to find “the perfect word” is there for a reason, so never sell it short. Envision every scene, down to the last sentence. Delve inside your characters’ emotions and thoughts. Keep a dictionary and a thesaurus by you whenever you sit down to work. I don’t care how good your vocabulary is; even the best of us slips into mirroring the way we talk and starts using just the same, fraying words instead of searching for new ones. Humans are lazy. Keep an eye on yourself.

Phoenix Light and Dragon Fire

Eilai Sabanya: that’s “light” in my phoenix language and “fire” in my dragon language.

I’ve always loved writing, but it wasn’t until I was eight or nine that I decided I wanted to be an auhor. My sister and I had bought identical blank books. She was writing a story in hers, and so I decided that I should write a story in mine, about my favorite, made-up character to roleplay at that time. We had created an intricate fantasy world, my sister and I. We liked to think we had created something very clever, but it was really just a melding of The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek, and Myst, laced with glimmers of originality and fragments of more obscure movies and books.

Anyway, something new found me when I penned the first paragraph in that blank book. Previous tales had been just a medium of bringing to life the world my sister and I had claimed as our own. Writing was no more special than drawing or making stories out of songs.  But this story was different. The picture, the feeling, had to translate exactly on its way from my mind to the page. Words became living, mysterious forms that shifted with synonyms and rhythm. I could hear the tone of the characters’ voices in my head, and I could feel their pleading, silent imploration: “You are the only one who can hear us. Show them. Show them how we think, and what we feel. Show them who we are.”

The first evidence of lunacy? Absolutely. They say that those who have lost their minds do not question their sanity, and I did not question my need to answer the plea that came not only from the characters, but from the very air and magic of the fantasy world itself. I had found my calling, and there could be no turning back.

After that, I wrote almost every day. I began and abandoned more stories than I can remember until finally I paused and said to myself, “What a waste. I need to focus on something. I’m eleven years old now, and I know how to write. The next book that I start, I am going to finish and publish.”

I worked on that rough draft for a year. I did finish it, but by that time I had realized that, in fact, I had no idea what I was doing. I did not know how to write. To try to publish the mutation I had compiled would be a slander against the name of fantasy. I started a revision, but new story inspirations kept whispering in my ear, and it wasn’t long before I abandoned my book to start another.

Things went on like this for two or three years. I began four serious projects, only to abandon each in turn for a new idea. Then, finally, a concept so beautiful that I could never dream of abandoning it came to me. I started at fourteen, and trimmed and hacked and sculpted the idea for five years. Staying up until three or four in the morning, ignoring notes to cultivate ideas during lectures in school, and keeping my room a jungle wreakage of paper all became normal practices. After three re-writes, more revisions than I care to remember, and thousands of cups of tea, it was done. I had turned handfuls of compost into elegant shapes of colored glass, and I was proud.

So I began the process of sending out agent queries. Fortunately, only eleven had passed my inbox before I realized something was wrong. My story was like a table with a short leg: wobbly, distracting, unstable. I resisted the urge to smash my computer against the wall and ruminated.

The first chapter hung from the story like a sad, deflated balloon–that was obvious enough. As I wrote out what I needed to fix, other cracks in my glass sculpture revealed their ugly discoloration until I had woven through the entire story with a Plan of Attack.

And that’s where I am now, re-writing the first chapter. Five years, and it still isn’t finished. I am so sick of revision and re-writing. I can see the finished product somewhere in my head and I WANT it. Now. The only way to get there is to re-vise, and re-write and so, as much as I want to strangle them, that’s just what I’m doing.

Eilai Sabanya: phoenix light and dragon fire. That’s the only way to write. Take no shortcuts (and no prisoners). Never give up, never stop Listening, and always always always find a way to love what you’re creating. This book is going to be beautiful.

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