Sunday, 28 February 2010

"Better Bale by Breeding Bale"

Halley's comet betokening bale and war, from the Bayeux Tapestry, c.1077 - public domain.It's done. Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland has completed the chapter of the Comet's Tale and thereby its second plot arc, which by guess puts me about 40% of the way through it. It... hasn't left me where I expected.

Oh, in terms of plot, it's been pretty much on target - smoothed out a few creases and illogicalities, even, when I came to them. It doesn't creak so much as the original outline. But I don't entirely like this chapter. I thought I'd be flying when I brought it doom-booming home. Actually, I feel like crap. As for the coming Wassail arc, it's just opening up into big sinister blank spaces, where most of what I thought I knew about it fears to tread.

Why so? Well, in the most general terms, the problems seem to be these:

1) The Comet's Tale has a much longer tail-off than I expected. Not so much as a page, yet somehow that's messing up the rhythm for me quite badly. On the other hand, not only do those things happen, but the poor reader can't possibly guess what's going on without them, and it would be very fancy and tricksy to cut back to them later. I think perhaps I've brought it to a false ending, and ought to have cut off when the metaphorical cavalry arrives - before Luke even speaks to them, or knows for certain what they are. The trouble with that is that I'll need to know the structure of the first Wassail chapter, before I know whether this belongs there instead. Still... that's progress, I guess. Darn!

2) The antagonist can't shut up and quit arsing about. I mean, it's pretty central to the character of the antagonist that they can't ever shut up and quit arsing about while they're ahead; but I reined them in all I could here, and I'm not sure that was enough. The resulting inefficiency still feels a bit plotty.

3) My protagonists. The whole story is in considerable part about them having worn off about half their dumb preconceptions over the last twenty years, and then having their minds serially blown about the rest... over the next twenty days. (They also do some major blowing back, or it wouldn't be any fun at all.) Kate has just had a number of her biggest remaining worldview-props kicked savagely away. Luke has just discovered - not in a good way - that he's never really known her. They're both pretty close to meltdown during the whole Comet's Tale, and a lot of the time they're acting for reasons they don't wholly understand. I think that's true to life, and I think the things they do feel true to their respective characters. The problem is that I can't wholly articulate why they're doing these things, either!

Like them, I really don't know what they think about a lot of things any more. I'm going to have to let this whole arc cool down and re-read, before I can make total sense of this. Self-deception is something they're both scarily good at; author-deception is letting them take that talent a little bit too far. I need to mess with their heads and then have them mess others' right back during the Wassail, and I just don't have as much data for that as I thought.

4) I wrote the outline of the Wassail section over a year ago, before I bogged down in the Disenchanted Woods. To call it 'scrappy' is gross flattery. I know there's a lot of context I've forgotten, especially for the large central family and its weird dynamics. In particular, there's a tension between Mother and Steady Brother that I now only half understand, and I'm almost sure that Luke was supposed to do something helpful there. I have no tangible idea what or why. To reconstruct, or to write the whole scenario from scratch? Gah, gah, gah!

I'm almost tempted to suspect that this is Kate putting the boot into me again for annoying her. Errr... It's pretty much uphill from here, Ma'am. I really don't know as how you want to mess with it!

This has been a public nuisance posting on behalf of the Flipping Heck, I So Need A Party.

The somewhat anti-social proverb quoted in the chapter, and thence the post title, has been stolen from William Morris, who appears to have invented it in the course of his crowning contribution to early fantasy, The Well at the World's End. This very curious book has influenced me in many equally curious directions, and it is definitely a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Anybody who feels like a flutter may sample it here at Project Gutenberg. What Morris would have had to say about e-reading, I positively shudder to think.

Tolkien was familiar with the Well, and appears to have drawn some inspiration from it. I don't think we drew the same draught from it, though. Which is, most aptly, the way the Well works in the world where people can go on quest to drink of it.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

My Other Syllogism Is Also a Trabant

1959 Trabant P50, photographed in 1979 - by Pc_fish at Wikimedia Commons - released under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn - creators of the immortal BBC series Yes, Minister - bestowed upon us many a gift thereby. Perhaps the most abidingly useful is their framing of the Politician's Syllogism, in the light of which many governmental and other management mysteries are laid bare. For those unfamiliar with it, the Politician's Syllogism works as follows:
  • We must do something.
  • This is something.
  • Therefore, we must do this.
It works chiefly by equivocation on the word 'something' - We must take some action about our subjects' unhealthy diet; eating all the pies is some action which comes naturally to mind when talking about our subjects' unhealthy diet; therefore, we must eat all the pies. So much is plain, and either amusing or outrageous according to the state of one's liver.

Any examination of the newspapers, or the state of opinion at the Dog and Duck, will readily indicate that even people who don't get to eat all the pies are regular suckers for such arguments. Is this just everybody but thee and me being crazy again, or is there something subtler at work?

I propose that there is, and that there is a second and similar syllogism at the root of the first's popularity, whose rightness we absorb by osmosis from the moment we begin thinking about things like 'society'. It is also a big nasty lump of mandrake when we drag it out into the sunlight. I like to call it the Royal Syllogism, as thus:
  • We must do this.
  • We are the Bastard King of England.
  • Therefore, the Bastard King of England must do this.
The trick, of course, is that now we are equivocating on 'we' - We, the people of England, must do something about our unhealthy diet; we are delegating our rights and responsibilities to the Bastard King of England, who happens to be me; therefore, the Bastard King of England must do something about our unhealthy diet. Pfui!

Today we are brought up to ridicule this as affectation in kings, and accept it as common sense in elected or appointed representatives. But though representative democracy be ever so much better than monarchy, the problem with the Royal Syllogism is not that the Bastard King of England is a king. The problem is that he is some bastard who is not really us. Which means that inasfar as we buy into it, we will as surely end up being sat upon by some fat bastard who has eaten all the pies.

If we detect the fault, and remember that we are ourselves, then we might just address the problem by eating fewer pies and better ones; snacking on luscious salt-dipped celery; and (in extreme cases) founding Pie-hole-ics Pseudonymous mutual support groups instead. But we cannot even hope to do these things decently for ourselves and for one another, as long as in the small hours of the mind we have let even our we be taken away from us.

There is a carriage, a very famous one, they built once in a land where the difference between the people and their bastard incarnations the People was suppressed. Some real people are still strangely nostalgic over it.

A Trabant is good enough for a king or a commissar. Honest kindly folk deserve to ride in something better!

Friday, 26 February 2010

Talk Like an Egyptian

Ancient Egyptians talking total Tut - image from box found in his tomb, via Tiger cub at Wikimedia Commons - public domainAt the University of Manchester's Faculty of Life Sciences, Professor Rosalie David and her team have been looking into the lifestyle of ancient Egyptian priests, and found the condition of their mummies' arteries nothing to shout Ra! Ra! Ra! about.

Unlike the 'frugal, mostly vegetarian diet' enjoyed by the virtuous peasants and proles of the Nile as they sweated joyfully to raise up massive necropoli for the magnification of the State and the narrowing of the national waistline, these antique gym-dodgers regaled themselves with beef, game, cakes, eggy bread, and worse matter yet off the sacrificial sideboard:

Salt intake was likely to have been high, since it was often used as a preservative, said the researchers writing in The Lancet medical journal.

Consumption of alcohol, known to increase levels of triglyceride blood fats, is thought to have exceeded today's recommendations.

Professor David is not behindhand in pointing out the Lesson To Us All:

"There couldn't be a more evocative message: live like a god and you will pay with your health."

True so far as it goes. For me, the even more evocative message is that today's sanctified classes are still selling us profane peasants the same exact same warnings against hubris all these millennia later. Now, there's dedication to celebrate! More wine with that jugged hare, Professor?

Talk like a goddess, and I must pay with my wealth. Yet will I have my Ambrosia custard in your spite. And when this cult of death-in-life is forsaken, and the peasants rise up and install Pharoah in that pointy house he was so anxious we build him, and your temple is fallen-in and desolate because you cannot get us to subscribe to your roof repairs fund - why, then shall you wander the streets forlorn and amazed at our revels; and you shall prophesy our tribulations, and we shall laugh.

And we shall make a place for you at our board; and there shall be hamhocks, and questionable home-brewed cider, and eggy bread forever and ever.

That we should keep the faith in the mean time - let there be Bangles!

(Update: the break in the previous Bangles has been discovered, and a better set substituted.)

Thursday, 25 February 2010


The work is performing as advertised. Yesterday I slowed down to do planning, and to deal with an uneasy feeling that something was getting away from me and needed to be caught. More of that when I'm done, and know whether I caught the right thing or not.

Consequently, the great sprint has turned into an easy jog, and I have a bit of a breather before the second frenzy I foresee over the weekend horizon, when the Cold Flames and Hot Ashes arc crashes to its rather Wagnerian close.

Somewhat to my surprise, I found this chapter of the Comet's Tale began on a more ironical and detached - even a slightly farcical - note, after the intensity of Cold Flames and before we get onto the doomy boomy arc finale ahead. This was pleasant for me, as the guy who has to write it. However, it raises a curious technical question, concerning writers and readers in general.

A real living tale must breath in and out, building tension and releasing it according to its own natural rhythm. The reader must have excitement and relief in just sequence, and will only grow glazed or go away if there is no let-up for them anywhere. (C J Cherryh, accomplished and subtle as you are, my eyes are straying to your place on my bookshelves for a reason here...) This rhythm is a critical and storytelling commonplace, though it proved a very useful one for me the first time I heard somebody spell it out explicitly.

The writer needs something similar, in order not to burn out or go nuts or - as with the reader - just wander off and lose interest. One would think the two ought to be complementary.

But reader and writer are working on very different timescales, and with correspondingly different levels of engagement. Is there any reason to suppose the natural rhythm for a long telling is the same for both parties?

Could it be that the emotional tides of some stories seem all out of whack, because the breathing which serves the teller's heart has ceased to align with that which serves the reader's?

And if that's so - what's a poor body of a teller to do about it?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

"Every Star in Every Sky"

The cold fires of the Aurora Borealis shine above Bear Lake, Alaska - image by Senior Airman Joshua Strang of the U.S. Air Force - public domain.Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland has now hit pretty much my peak known speed for writing. I've just finished the long and - to me, at least - very beautiful and horrible chapter of the Cold Flames. It is probably becoming redundant by now to note that fierce, bitter, bloody awkward old Kate surpassed all my hazier prior imaginings of her. And as soon as I found how the whole chapter turned, it was so obvious that I half-believed I'd thought of it before, and then forgot it. I'm still not absolutely certain that didn't happen.

The other chapter of the 'Cold Flames and Hot Ashes' sequence is still to write, and I'll have to slow up a bit while I get it clear in my mind just how it plays out. I think I've got the lay of the land, though. It's just as well if the pace abates a little, as the woeful eating and drinking and sleeping habits that always attend these writing furies is beginning to fray me a bit around the edges. A couple of nights with only a few hundred words apiece, and I should be recovered enough to charge into the Wassail - the beating heart of the tale - by the weekend. If I get through that at the same rate, it'll be just this side of a miracle.

Binge writing, eh? Ought to be a law against it, to protect us from ourselves. Never mind, I'm sure there'll be one along in a moment!

By the by, there's a nice post by Jo Walton over on about a very spifferific-sounding panel (Bujold! Kierstein! Er, duh, Walton!) at the recent Boskone SF convention, on the Heroine's Journey in fiction. It occurs to me in the light of this discussion that I am now writing that rare bird, the Crone's Journey - and I've been stirred to one or two thoughts as to why there is so little of it about:

"...she knows too much to make it easy to plot, and it hurts too much to make it easy to write. This, above and beyond whether the tale itself is a joyous or a sorrowful one."

It is perhaps significant how I've settled on Golden Kate as my Crone's Journey hero, given that so much of what she's known for such a large portion of her life has been such breathtaking, monstrous, head-to-desk-inducing crap! The amount she has accidentally learned that is not crap, continues to surprise and delight me in the telling.

There seems to be some strangely unjaundiced view of human nature trying to break through, over there. I wonder what that's about?

Monday, 22 February 2010

Telling True

Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elphame, by Kate Greenaway - via Wikimedia Commons - public domain The new arc of Killer-Kate is catching cold fire now, and chores and sleep are starting to go by the board a bit. The nicer refinements of personal grooming are hanging on by a slender thread of pride.

Of course, this had to happen just exactly as my holiday ends, and the day job comes crowding back. That is not just a bad idea, it is the Law. - Hiya there, Murphy! How're you doing, old mate?

Still, I'm happy right now with whatever my Muse wants to bring me.

Rather than annoy you all with more cryptic hints of what's happening over in Elfland, and how it speaks to my sensitive soul or whatever, I thought I might leave all such speech to a greater maker than myself. This is Kipling speaking of the elvish craft, back in 1894, in an insufficiently-known poem that has always played trills up and down my backbone since I first met it twenty years gone. He sings far clearer than I could of what this telling feels like, now that it's flowing, and why a few days like this are worth many weeks of grubby blocked tedium.

The Last Rhyme of True Thomas
by Rudyard Kipling

The King has called for priest and cup,
The King has taken spur and blade
To dub True Thomas a belted knight,
And all for the sake o' the songs he made.

They have sought him high, they have sought him low,
They have sought him over down and lea;
They have found him by the milk-white thorn
That guards the gates o' Faerie.

'Twas bent beneath and blue above:
Their eyes were held that they might not see
The kine that grazed beneath the knowes,
Oh, they were the Queens of Faerie!

"Now cease your song," the King he said,
"Oh, cease your song and get you dight
To vow your vow and watch your arms,
For I will dub you a belted knight.

"For I will give you a horse o' pride,
Wi' blazon and spur and page and squire;
Wi' keep and tail and seizin and law,
And land to hold at your desire."

True Thomas smiled above his harp,
And turned his face to the naked sky,
Where, blown before the wastrel wind,
The thistle-down she floated by.

"I ha' vowed my vow in another place,
And bitter oath it was on me,
I ha' watched my arms the lee-long night,
Where five-score fighting men would flee.

"My lance is tipped o' the hammered flame,
My shield is beat o' the moonlight cold;
And I won my spurs in the Middle World,
A thousand fathom beneath the mould.

"And what should I make wi' a horse o' pride,
And what should I make wi' a sword so brown,
But spill the rings o' the Gentle Folk
And flyte my kin in the Fairy Town?

"And what should I make wi' blazon and belt,
Wi' keep and tail and seizin and fee,
And what should I do wi' page and squire
That am a king in my own countrie?

"For I send east and I send west,
And I send far as my will may flee,
By dawn and dusk and the drinking rain,
And syne my Sendings return to me.

"They come wi' news of the groanin' earth,
They come wi' news o' the roarin' sea,
Wi' word of Spirit and Ghost and Flesh,
And man, that's mazed among the three."

The King he bit his nether lip,
And smote his hand upon his knee:
"By the faith o' my soul, True Thomas," he said,
"Ye waste no wit in courtesie!

"As I desire, unto my pride,
Can I make Earls by three and three,
To run before and ride behind
And serve the sons o' my body."

"And what care I for your row-foot earls,
Or all the sons o' your body?
Before they win to the Pride o' Name,
I trow they all ask leave o' me.

"For I make Honour wi' muckle mouth,
As I make Shame wi' mincin' feet,
To sing wi' the priests at the market-cross,
Or run wi' the dogs in the naked street.

"And some they give me the good red gold,
And some they give me the white money,
And some they give me a clout o' meal,
For they be people o' low degree.

"And the song I sing for the counted gold
The same I sing for the white money,
But best I sing for the clout o' meal
That simple people given me."

The King cast down a silver groat,
A silver groat o' Scots money,
"If I come wi' a poor man's dole," he said,
"True Thomas, will ye harp to me?"

"Whenas I harp to the children small,
They press me close on either hand.
And who are you," True Thomas said,
"That you should ride while they must stand?

"Light down, light down from your horse o' pride,
I trow ye talk too loud and hie,
And I will make you a triple word,
And syne, if ye dare, ye shall 'noble me."

He has lighted down from his horse o' pride,
And set his back against the stone.
"Now guard you well," True Thomas said,
"Ere I rax your heart from your breast-bone!"

True Thomas played upon his harp,
The fairy harp that couldna lee,
And the first least word the proud King heard,
It harpit the salt tear out o' his e'e.

"Oh, I see the love that I lost long syne,
I touch the hope that I may not see,
And all that I did o' hidden shame,
Like little snakes they hiss at me.

"The sun is lost at noon — at noon!
The dread o' doom has grippit me.
True Thomas, hide me under your cloak,
God wot, I'm little fit to dee!"

'Twas bent beneath and blue above —
Twas open field and running flood —
Where, hot on heath and dike and wall,
The high sun warmed the adder's brood.

"Lie down, lie down," True Thomas said.
"The God shall judge when all is done.
But I will bring you a better word
And lift the cloud that I laid on."

True Thomas played upon his harp,
That birled and brattled to his hand,
And the next least word True Thomas made,
It garred the King take horse and brand.

"Oh, I hear the tread o' the fighting men,
I see the sun on splent and spear.
I mark the arrow outen the fern
That flies so low and sings so clear!

"Advance my standards to that war,
And bid my good knights prick and ride;
The gled shall watch as fierce a fight
As e'er was fought on the Border side!"

'Twas bent beneath and blue above,
Twas nodding grass and naked sky,
Where, ringing up the wastrel wind,
The eyas stooped upon the pie.

True Thomas sighed above his harp,
And turned the song on the midmost string;
And the last least word True Thomas made,
He harpit his dead youth back to the King.

"Now I am prince, and I do well
To love my love withouten fear;
To walk wi' man in fellowship,
And breathe my horse behind the deer.

"My hounds they bay unto the death,
The buck has couched beyond the burn,
My love she waits at her window
To wash my hands when I return.

"For that I live am I content
(Oh! I have seen my true love's eyes)
To stand wi' Adam in Eden-glade,
And run in the woods o' Paradise!"

'Twas naked sky and nodding grass,
Twas running flood and wastrel wind,
Where, checked against the open pass,
The red deer belled to call the hind.

True Thomas laid his harp away,
And louted low at the saddle-side;
He has taken stirrup and hauden rein,
And set the King on his horse o' pride.

"Sleep ye or wake," True Thomas said,
"That sit so still, that muse so long;
Sleep ye or wake? — till the latter sleep
I trow ye'll not forget my song.

"I ha' harpit a shadow out o' the sun
To stand before your face and cry;
I ha' armed the earth beneath your heel,
And over your head I ha' dusked the sky.

"I ha' harpit ye up to the throne o' God,
I ha' harpit your midmost soul in three;
I ha' harpit ye down to the Hinges o' Hell,
And — ye — would — make — a Knight o' me!"

It is half the game to be haunted by such songs myself. When I can wring my keyboard so truly that strangers can hear 'em right, then I'll call myself a maker and not think it bragging, though I never make a clout of meal from it. On such days as these have been, I really think that I can do it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

"And Nearly There Was No Song of It..."

" what hungry wolves will sing for anybody handy."
Blood and tumult in the Debatable Woods, and wolves slunk shivering to bed without their supper. And nearly there was no song of it here either, for this was the chapter of Killer-Kate I'd most dreaded writing: that of the Last Mortal Passage. Albeit my pains with it have been something less than my poor friends' on the other side of the page, in the starving woods where that which came has come. Anyway, I've finished it now.

The next sequence is that of Cold Flames and Hot Ashes, which I can begin tomorrow, and whose course I know and partly understand. I think there are two chapters in it... What I'll have to do before I get very far, though, is to rough out my present understanding of the whole tale up to its pivot-section, which for spoilerific reasons I shall call simply the Wassail. Beyond the Wassail I can speak of the Rising, and then at last of the Bonfire. If I review the Wassail arc all the way up to the eve of the Rising, then on present count I have three more chapters to work through there. I may need to cull some sub-plots and even some characters here: the spine of the story is straightening, and the pace of the Rising has got to be ferocious. I can't afford any drag on it at all.

Bother it! I really hope I can keep all the chief characters from the Wassail. It is as much the broad heart of the tale as its pivot, and I hate the idea of straitening it. Well, time to go and see what I can do.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

"If Unicorns Are Come..."

Consular diptych of Areobindus, photographed by Jastrow at the Louvre Museum, Paris - via Wikimedia Commons.  Released by author into public domain.The first chapter of Killer-Kate and Luke Lackland took me a day or three to write. The second proved harder, both to tell and to get right enough: a matter of so many weeks. This third chapter, of the Disenchanted Woods, has taken me close on a year.

On Monday I finished it at last. It is only six pages, and one of them just now written. But it has seemed as broad and grievous to me as my heroes' generation-long disenchantment. Now hoofbeats sound in the distance, and they have found the last adventure they longed for; and Golden Kate - one of the most chronically humourless characters I've ever really enjoyed writing - has just met the prospect with the worst and weakest joke in her entire world. This is the kind of reason I love her.

The next chapter is very short and is going to hurt a lot. I'm not sure that part of my trouble with this whole story hasn't been the lurking dread of writing it. Finished the easier bit yesterday, need to complete the rest this week. Past this deadly passage... the tale grows very different, and I'm looking forward to it with a keen appetite.

Still looking for a proper title for this whole yarn: the winter's tale that answers and completes Katy Elflocks's song of a summer. Currently leaning towards Red Yule Rising, but not convinced. Red Yule (I think I owe that one to Bill Swears of rasfc)? Northdales Rising? On the one hand, I want the combination of winter shadow with the red of blood, fire, and other lesser levellers. On the other, the double sense of rising, as wreck and revolution and yet also the turning of the year towards spring. I'm not sure how I can get both at once. Ah well, a fair few chapters before I have to decide for good.

Thinking again that the original middle panel of the Three Katherines triptych should not appear explicitly in this sequence at all. The discovery of how Kate and Luke came to fall so low, from their questionably-earned happy endings in the epilogue of Katy, looks like being a more natural force of narrative tension than I'd guessed. If this whole book is simply Katy Elflocks followed by Killer-Kate, then the tension and doubt won't get dissipated in the much longer and more complicated tragicomedy of Kit Fox between - and I see a whole new unity of theme beginning to emerge. Also, the diptych-version ought to be a reasonable length for a novel, and there is some honest prospect of finishing this year. Which would be nice.

It is just as thoroughly Three Katherines of Allingdale as ever, though.

Coming to the hard place tomorrow. Too tired to try now, too wired to sleep. Will go to bed and count dragons for a bit.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Fair Maid and the Unicorn

Virgin and Unicorn, by Domenichino (1605-6) - via Wikimedia Commons - public domain.I'm presently in the throes of going through my various backups and archives, restoring many curious files from strange discs and formats into ready readability. Having finally found a way to bring back the electronic version of the infamous Kitchen Sink novel, I discovered this little ditty filed along with it by mistake.

There is absolutely no excuse for it, so I shan't even bother to attempt one. In the spirit of misery's loving company principled pixel-stained technopeasant solidarity, I hereby make a free present of it to my faithful public, reserving unto myself only the right to be blamed for it wherever it goes. Enjoy!

The Fair Maid and the Unicorn

There was a magic unicorn.
There was a merry maid.
They met up by a mountain-bourne.
"Good morrow, Sir!" she said.
"All Faerie things adore my ways
So cheerful, chaste, and pure!
Is that how I should spend my days?
I'm b*****ed if I'm sure!"

The Unicorn said, "Listen, Sis,
The road you walk is hard.
You'll end on biscuit tins, I wis,
Or on a birthday card,
Forever smiling, winsome, chaste,
And fresh as falling snow.
Is such a future to your taste?
I'm f***ed if I should know!"

The Virgin cried, "Well, starch my socks!
The end of maiden's game is
Forever on a chocolate box?
Nay, call me Semiramis!
Come, shepherds all – aye, sheep! – to bliss:
Lay on and never stint it -
Let's see the card they make of this!"

Aw, nuts! They didn't print it.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Who's on First?

Well, this is annoying. I've reached a point in Lindowe Linn where the telling must flow in one of two channels, and there's no way of knowing which without writing both.

They both lead to about the same place. What happens is that the mother and the younger daughter meet after the Incident separates them. They don't have long together, the circumstances are not comfortable, and they have to decide something urgently. I'm pretty sure I know what they and their respective companions decide - that's a function of their characters and the logic of the story.

What I don't know is how the conversation goes, because there is no one true course for it. The reason is a bit odd.

This is a really important talk. They're coming to it with different things. If the mother speaks first, she's going to ask at once after her overwhelming concern - where the Incident has taken her daughter, and how she is doing. One conversation flows from that.

If the daughter speaks first, she's going to ask what her mother and brother are doing about the Incident. This will be a very different conversation, not least because she's going to be actively steering it away from any self-revelation much beyond, "I'm safe and happy." Her mother is not going to react well to the whole truth, and the daughter lacks both the inclination to lie to her and any serious hope of carrying off the attempt.

There are two ways to look at this dilemma.

One is my default case: they're really both things that could have happened, and the only way to find out which is true in the story is to write both, and see which one turns out better.

The second and more unfortunate is that I don't know who speaks first because the conversation comes too much from my plot, and too little from their need. I hope that's not true, but I wonder. In this case I need to think about them (and their companions) a bit more, and then write what comes and trust to where it goes.

That would be harder, and so it is probably truer. Ouch. I knew there was a reason I had to stop and set down what was happening! I wonder whether the "write both versions" approach is ever going to be useful.

If push comes to shove, I guess I may yet find out.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

My Middle Name Ain't Misery

Solomon's Seal, by Pearson Scott Foresman via Wikimedia Commons - public domain.  This version not licensed for sorcery in Canada, Israel, Liberia, or Vatican City.  Beachball not included. They've made a film about one of Conan-creator Robert E Howard's earlier and lesser-known creations, the savage and gloomy Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I haven't read any of the Kane tales to date, and haven't been in a Howardy humour for a fair old while. I'd expect, though, to be among the movie's natural audience.

Today the advertising campaign passed me by on the side of a London bus. By Crom, I don't think much of it!

The tagline they have chosen is as follows:

"Fight evil with... evil."

Dunno about anybody else, but my gut reaction to that is, "Okay, Solly me lad, you just toddle along and do that now. Since I don't seem to have a dog in this fight, maybe I'll go and take in a show about fighting Puritanism with... chocolate instead!"

Monday, 8 February 2010

We Gotham!

Anatomy of a gooseberry bush.  Image by Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé (1885) via Kurt Stueber and Wikimedia Commons - public domainA short parable to explain why I think mainstream politics is seriously bats, and where I think most people find reason to disagree with me.

A conservative thinks that they are supporting that solid citizen Bruce Wayne for Mayor of Gotham City, against the vicious and anarchic rabble of the Joker.

A liberal thinks that the little guy will be ground under the plutocratic oppression of the Penguin and his mob, unless they can carry incorruptible man-of-the-people Batman to City Hall.

But I think we are marking time to the old nursery rhyme:

There was a man of Gotham Town,
And he was wondrous wise:
He jumped into a gooseberry bush
And scratched out both his eyes...

and that the liberal is really voting for Batman against the plutocratic oppression of Bruce Wayne, while the conservative is voting for Bruce Wayne against the violent populism of the Batman.

In the nursery at least, the sequel is a happy one:

...And when he found his eyes were out,
With all his might and main,
He jumped into another bush
And scratched them in again!

This is my attempt for the day at finding the better bush. SOCK! BIFF! KAPOW!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Door

Bright the hawk's flight on the empty sky.  Image by J R Douglass, U.S. National Park Service - public domain - hat tip: www.weforanimals.comOver on, that crafty wordsmith and tale-tinker Jo Walton is revisiting one of the great fantasy classics, and my personal favourites - Ursula K Le Guin's fables of Earthsea. Yes, all six books, not just the original trilogy. It is really worth going and having a decko, starting with this post.

Those books mean a lot to me. I read the first three between the ages of nine and ten. In addition to scaring the living blue blazes out of me, they taught me the first rudiments of real poetry that touched me as something more than good strong verse. 'Only in silence the word', yes; but also the lavish, immersing colours and textures behind Le Guin's light clean prose. More than this, the way she made the fate of little imperfect people on their little squabbling islands weigh as heavy in the scale as all the cities and thrones and powers of Gondor and Arnor and Narnia. Finest of all, perhaps, the masterfully simple reckoning with the savagery and cosmic unfairness of the world. Here were heroes who would meet its eyes, or salute it as a known foe, or fall under its wheel, without thinking to surrender to it; and all from a maker who did not then feel she had to explain - perhaps even to herself - what she was doing...

And Ged and Tenar themselves, two of my favourite characters in all literature. In the long lovely hurt of reading The Farthest Shore, it was only when I came back to the books in my late teens that I knew why one special scene in the Southern oceans had always driven such a fine spike through my heart. "I should like to see Tenar again..." says Ged, gliding swiftly at once to another thought; and, Gods, I thought, he loves her; he has loved her down these bright years, beyond magic and wisdom and dragons; and always his staff has stood between them. If she is dead when he comes back to Gont, that of all things will break him like a dry twig. And many years later, all the bitter horror of Tehanu was worth reading to know Tenar had grown in her teller's mind too; and to meet her once again, and the old goatherd coming home.

Of all the cosmic unfairnesses in Earthsea, cruellest is the unutterably bleak, mean emptiness of its stone-walled afterlife, where those who died for love pass one another indifferently in the streets, each on their aimless way to an appointment with nothing or a drink of dust from the abominable Dry River. The root of that, Le Guin would not strike for many a year, until the marches of my own middle age. Yet when I was a little boy, in terror once of the Christian hell and twice of the materialist oblivion, I saw Ged defeat their horrid hybrid time and again: first with clear eyes and bold words on Selidor strand, and last with his deed at the mouth of all dying. He could not make things other than they were. But he could do what it fitted a man to do about them.

And there - no less than here - that changed everything.

Some years later, I badly needed to put into words something of what I had come to feel about death. I still mostly hold by it. It is about our world, not Earthsea; and on these shores it is a slant way of looking at things, and not a reality as ragged as the mountains called Pain. But it is precious to me for all that; and if you know your Le Guin, you will see how it is in great part to her that I owe it .


Our hope lies not beyond the door -
Not in the plains where run
All rivers, sands, and lights at last:
It lies beneath the Sun.

The stars that nail the changeless skies
Shine only for the blind:
A land for deathless memories,
Not living humankind.

The shades who walk those dusty streets
Reck not of life nor love.
Immortal mansions are less sweet
Than wind and grass above.

Distrust who urges you to hoard
Therein, undying gold.
No dream of love, no dram of life
That gold will there afford.

For our estate, when life is past,
Is living earth and mind:
We keep no more, then, at the door,
But what we leave behind.

And that is not nothing. It is all the world, and perhaps that can be very nearly enough.

As the great singer sang, when she bore me a-dragonback to The Farthest Shore so long ago:

"His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there - there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive."

Or for those who find such comfort too mystical, too pagan, or merely too uncertain, this word at least remains:

"I have given my love to what is worthy of love. Is that not the kingdom and the unperishing spring?"

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Sure, Father Ted, and the Joke's on Me This Time!

If the Devil cannot abide to be laughed at, can we assume that God by contrast always gets the joke?

And if He does, can we further assume it is the one we hope it is?

One might build a whole typology of religious views on the answers to those two questions.

My instinct: Yes He does, and no we can't - but we can trust that He is laughing at something honestly funnier, and that 'Nur hur!' most certainly does not count.

Some might think these strange musings from a joker whose agnosticism lies so close to atheism that one could scarcely slide an iota between them. But while they are indeed in a spirit of jest, there is in several ways a great deal of Bilbo in me, and like him I am a great believer in joking about serious things. Indeed, that is the only serious way to talk about some things at all.

And since I have long held, in my atheistical and adiabolical way, that the devil cannot abide to be mocked is about as wise and true a saying as anybody could ask for - tonight it occurred to me that it still ought to be wise and true if I turned it over to look at the obverse of it.

At the very least, it is something to bear in mind when I weave worlds more plainly godstouched than our own. Presumably, too, in touching on those things in our world that make me weave them.

...So, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost walk into a joke, and they say, "Let's make this scoffer forget the punchline." Boom, boom!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

A Vote for the Goats

Goats butting heads, by Marius Kallhardt via Wikimedia Commons, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence This blog has now been going for just over nine months, and before its first anniversary I'd like to collect some reader views on its strong points, its failings, and its future.

There will certainly be a future. Both as a pressure valve and as a discipline in writing articles rather than stories, it has done me stout service. Also, it amuses me. The main point on which I'm in doubt is this: from my readers' standpoint, will it be more amusing to keep the blog whole, or to split it?

There are two things I mainly blog about, if we don't count all the singing pickled eggs and musings on whether Steeleye Span could have beaten Steely Dan in a Watney's-hurling contest, and stuff like that. The blithe purveying of much total toot is, after all, a pretty fundamental feature of my style. As to the rest, the major division is between writing and politics.

I know that some people like the one, and would be glad to do wholly without the other. I presume that some of my readers are more like me, and enjoy the combination. But I don't know how the split falls - which means that I don't know whether I'm adding or subtracting value by combining them.

For what it's worth, my chief reason for keeping them together by default is because of the kind of Big Ideas I care most about. The importance of free agency; the reality and proper treatment of abstract creatures; the great labour and romance of carrying through purely personal quests in a gloriously various and unplanned world (or freely leaving them be, and turning aside to join forces with companions who are better than Holy Grails) - all these lie at the root of both my politics and my writing. I am bringing the same things to both tables, and setting the tables by each other is one good way of showing a unity I can't always clearly tell. Often it is a unity that even I don't know until I show it.

But if the nearness of rival tables is annoying my guests and distracting them from their good goat-cheesy dishes, then as a good host I'd do much better to move them apart. Should I, then? I don't know, but I'd like to.

Your sentiments on this matter, or indeed any other aspects of the blog you might specially wish to see kept or changed, would be very much appreciated.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

On Refusing a Mess of Cabbage

Cabbage from Bulgaria, by Biso at Wikimedia Commons - released by author into public domain I used to be right active in Green politics - indeed, that is where I honed a lot of the ideas that were to lead me for the second and decisive time towards libertarianism. Actually, that's where I found several of them. Why is the Green movement so often headed in directions I dislike so deeply now?

The Green worldview has one great virtue - its fundamentally ecological understanding of how important things can work: decentralized, diverse, massively parallel independent agents, fluidly co-operating and competing to evolve an emergent whole that tends towards self-correcting stability and slow enrichment. There are other words for the beautiful, yet highly practical, notion of harnessing these virtues in human affairs - 'free market', 'civil society', and other things like that. We shall come to why so many Greens fail to appreciate their best intellectual treasures presently.

Deep Greenery also has a corresponding defect - its tendency to assume that natural is necessarily good, and that the end-state with the minimum 'artificial' (i.e. human-caused) deviation from the natural state is the best. The concept that art is as natural as any other strategy within Nature cuts no ice here.

Now, the temperamental opposite of nature-enthusiasm is not the orcish case of tree-trashin', whale-nukin' nature-hatred, but rather the passion for progress over conservation, planning over pious hope, reason's light through the forest's shade. It is, in fact, the love of Art itself: the choice of that which we shape over that which shapes us. It is the indomitable, hubristic, forward-facing spirit of the engineer. Where it does fall for trees and flowers in a big way, it would make of the world not a wildwood, but a well-ordered garden.

The Engineer's virtue is to know and trust that the world can be made better, and that it is men and women who must make it so. Is the Lion-God ravaging us for our trespasses? Lion-God, meet big pointy stick. Will the world scourge us with cholera? We will scourge the cholera with bread-mould. Do our lords' shadows shut out the starlight? Listen: Once was a man with three daughters...

The Engineer's vice is to believe that the best way to improve everything is to control it, and important things are best managed top-down according to a good plan. If the plan fails, then either a better - and probably more detailed - plan is required, or else the fools and saboteurs who are trying to substitute their own bad plan need to be eliminated from the equation... Aye, there lies the desperate part of it. All rulers are by nature engineers of a kind, for their function and strength is to control people. Those who are bad at it, don't stay rulers long.

The vice of the social engineer is pretty much the voice of the people, we have lived with it so long and been trained by it so tediously. Try running for office some time, and telling an inquirer that your Obesity Strategy is to do ten push-ups in the evening and stop summoning take-out pizzas. By the time the howls of outrage and ridicule have died down, you'll have lost ten pounds to pure annoyance, and half your votes to Fascists For Fat Fit Camps.

The Greens' problem is this: the vices of both sides are deeper ingrained, and more easily attained, than their virtues. When a lot of people started worrying very hard about the imminent departure of the world from a quasi-natural tolerable state into a doomsday tribulation state brought on by incompetent artificiality, they understandably felt pressed to do something about it. So they turned to the Greens and said, "Well?"

And some of the Greens were consistent, and offered weird hippy ecologic solutions that gave them no particular power even if anybody listened. In particular, all those solutions where the proposed Planetary Obesity Strategy involved the government's doing slimming exercises and stopping summoning extra-beefy regulation manuals - were never going to be natural winners.

And many of the Greens noticed this, and seeing as Doomsday Tribulation is such a uniquely important issue, adopted their opponents' vice of method, whilst keeping their own vice of vision. Of course, since they grew up in this charmingly technocratic society, most of them had never pulled quite free of the central-planning vice in the first place!

That bunch were, at least in the short term, pretty much destined to win out.

But consider how the combination of these two bad tendencies is inherently more vicious, tyrannical, and misanthropic than the sum of each in isolation. To a profound and often superstitious pessimism about general humanity and its arts, we weld an equally profound and thoroughly hubristic faith in the beneficence of just rulers and their wise counsellors. This is just the age-old priestly conservative cat's water in a shiny new green bottle, and it must be poured away as soon as poss. in order to make room for something better.

What would that better thing be?

Why, surely the precise reverse of it: the ecological analysis and methodological humilty of the Deep Green, combined with the humanist temper and glittering invention of the High Engineer. If the vices of the two tendencies can be combined for short-term strategic advantage, why not the virtues for long-term attractiveness and achievement?

Some people might dream such a dream for purely Green reasons, others for purely technophile or libertarian ones. I honestly couldn't care less.

That would be a vision I'd call more Green than it is cabbage-looking!

A Hero in the Frame

Over at the blog of the ever-helpful Patricia Wrede, I've been involved in a small discussion of the pleasures and pitfalls of first-person narration. In the course of this, I had a bit of an epiphany about the problem with one of my best-loved and longest-blocked stories. The insight seems so general that I hasten here to share and develop it.

In first-person narration, the author speaks with the character's voice. This adds a whole new level of fiction - the tale is being implicitly told in the world in which it takes place; and the teller is not in their common character as J Random Scrivener, but is playing Perry Protagonist for the duration. So there are two necessarily two stories involved:

1) The main picture: "Perry Protagonist Meets the Hambridge Horror"; and also

2) The frame story: "Perry Protagonist Tells About the Time He Met the Hambridge Horror".

By default, the frame story is assumed to be uninteresting, and is transparent. The author can play games with it - sometimes to excellent effect - but they don't have to. In cases where the frame story is not expected to be of interest to the reader, the author too can pretty much forget about it.


But what happens if you are one of those authors, like me, whose characters must take on a life of their own or else shamble through the story as dull decaying zombies? This is when you may be forced to remember.

A common problem for me is that a character "won't do what I want them to" at a crucial moment. Let's unpack that slightly hackneyed expression. This means that the character (as I really understand and have drawn them) doesn't react to their situation as the plot demands they do (in order for the things I want to happen).

Then I can manipulate them like a puppet, and say they do it anyway. That bears the great risk of killing them, of turning them into a mere mechanism propelled by plotwork. I won't be able to get into their head after that. Or I can accept the thing they want to do instead, and let the plot go hang. Or I can row back, and change the external circumstances - by having the proverbial stranger with the gun crash into the room, or by deciding that their girlfriend really prefers chocolate to flowers, or whatever - in a way which might really make them want to do what I wanted them to in the first place.

Turning them into a plot zombie is abominable; letting them dictate the plot is risky though potentially rewarding; and if the plot point is really that important, then finding a way it could actually happen via that character is probably the best way to go. All clear enough. But what if you're perfectly okay with the way Perry Protagonist met the Hambridge Horror, yet have serious problems with the way he ends up telling it?

This happened to me at least once. The book my viewpoint character was writing would have flown from his world's shelves about ten times faster than Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama, now does in ours. People have non-literary reasons to read it, even if they think he's the villain. In our own world, my character's opus would have shifted at pretty much the exact same rate as Reminiscences from my Youth, by A Fantasy Hero, with Some Sidelights on the Coming Promise of Water-Power. He's a likeable raconteur, but he doesn't even think like a novelist.

The kind of guy he is - among other things, a heroically and inventively stubborn one - is the whole point of the book. If I'd turned him into my narrative zombie to create the novel I needed, it would have smashed his character, and thus the central reason for either writing or reading the result. If I'd let him go his merry way, I'd also have ended up with nothing I could use. It was a stumper!

And then I got into that conversation on Pat's site, and it occurred to me that there was a frame story. I'd been using a very transparent one: he was writing his memoirs from semi-retirement, because there were a lot of dumb songs floating around about what he was supposed to have done, and he wanted to set the record straight.

I couldn't change what he'd do about that. What if I changed the frame story? Why would a man like him need to write something that was a Darn Good Novel: compact, revealing, funny, persuasive, and above all romantically compelling?

I only had to ask the question to answer it. I know in my head a lot about what happens after the 'end of his story'. If he writes the novel I want... then it has to be written something less than ten years later, just after A dies and B does that thing, and oh my goodness that's why he and his partner end up doing that other!

Suddenly my frame story went as tight as a wound spring. How he manages something that good is easy: he's a tremendously quick learner and hard worker; he's already a wordsmith in his way; and his best friend by then is for all practical purposes Leona Tolstoy. No, he can do the job with-a-little-bit-of-help, if he has reason.

And now maybe I can do my job on it too, after such a long hiatus. When Lindowe Linn and Three Katherines are done, to be sure; when I have a moment's pause to try it in. But at last I think I know how to tackle it.

So that's the lesson I drew. Character won't follow plot - change their external in-story circumstances so that they want to. Character won't tell it right - change their external circumstances in the frame-story, ditto.

I don't know how well or how often this will suit other writers' processes besides my own. But it does seem like a handy trick to remember.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Wind That Shakes the World-Tree

Over the last month, my Three Katherines have been increasingly shunted aside by the tale that's fitfully possessed me since Christmas. This one is not so much a fairy-story, as a dark wild folk-tale from a country two steps sideways from my own. Its working title is The Storming of Lindowe Linn. I won't say much more about it at this stage, for fear of jinxing it. I begin to sense a danger in telling a tale's own story before it is truly told. It is the tale itself I wish to tell, and not the tale of how I dream I told it!

One new departure for me is that the lead character for the first part, which I've now finished, is a likeable scoundrel who descends through crime after crime until my all-tolerant narrator has just flipped him off in passing as 'that bag of all worm-bags'. It has been sinister fun watching him rack up the bill. Now I turn to the collectors - all of whose company I enjoy much more than his.

Such larks! Such winds for them to soar on!