Tag Archives: classics

From High to Low: the Point of Novels

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It’s been a while… half a year, in fact. Apologies for the radio silence. Uni has been almost entirely focused on writing my book so I’ve had very little non-book related stuff to share and even less time to do it in. But things are starting to move over the summer, so it’s time to get back on the horse. 🙂

The Evolution of the Novel

I was pointed towards the essays on The Dialogic Imagination by Mikhail Bakhtin by my tutor recently. Bakhtin was a Russian philosopher and literary critic writing in the early 1900s, and he had some interesting ideas about the novel as a genre. Until now I’d assumed that the novel was a format, and things like horror, romance, SFF, etc were genres which used that format. Not according to Bakhtin. He classes the novel as its own genre, separate to the epic, the elegy, the lyric poem, and all the rest of the classical literary styles. These styles were rigid, with strict formats and defined subject matter. The novel is much more fluid, defying categorization because there’s always multiple exceptions to any rule you try to impose. It essentially bastardized the subject matter of the older genres, turning it on its head:

The “absolute past” of gods, demigods and heroes… is brought low, represented on a plane with contemporary life, in an everyday environment, in the low language of contemporaneity.   ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

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This did something important. The older styles were very much for the elite – the educated upper classes. Within their stories, the world might change on a cosmic scale (the end of the Age of Heroes in The Iliad, for example) but not on a day-to-day level. This is because the intended audiences were the people in charge, and they had no interest in social change. The novel messed with that. It began the move from elite audiences to everyman audiences, bringing the subjects within reach of the general public. And the general public were very interested in social change, oh yes.

The novel was a way to push boundaries, to discuss the issues of the day in a relatively safe medium. And, because it was so flexible, it could incorporate all the favourite subjects of the old genres – such as love, war, death and heroes – without breaking a sweat. It took over from the old genres, in fact, because it could cover those subjects with greater freedom and exploration.

…the unfettered and fantastic plots and situations all serve one goal – to put to the test and to expose ideas and ideologues.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

The rise of the novel also meant a shift in focus. The epics and elegies were focused on the past; lyrical poetry was, at best, focused on the present. The novel allowed speculation about the future. How things could change. It was the genre of evolution.

Genres Today

The novel is now such a ubiquitous format that we don’t think of it as a genre. We sub-divide it into themes or subject matter or style, and call them genres instead. Some of them still talk about contemporary issues and push boundaries; others are purely for entertainment’s sake, and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

I think, though, that SFF has an important role to play in pushing boundaries. As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, it’s a step back from the world which means we can talk about problematic areas like religion and race without falling foul of prejudices or sensibilities. It’s also a way to discuss social problems in a very bold way, with less risk (I’m going to point you back to the lecture on Chinese SFF from last year). And it is, absolutely, the genre of the everyman audience.

efc698a5b975dc9d9004847b051308ce--ink-express-frankensteins-monsterUrban fantasy, which is what I’m currently writing, straddles the line between reality and fantasy. It makes this balance of open discussion vs removed engagement a little trickier, but it also allows us to make more pointed observations. Urban fantasy isn’t new, incidentally – it has its roots in the gothic novel. Arthur Machen, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, they were all forerunners in the fantastical. And they were all making observations about the society they lived in.

I’ve had to define the issues I’m deliberately trying to tackle in London Under, and to be honest they aren’t what I thought they would be. I thought I was writing about love and duty, and what those forces can do to us when they’re in opposition. It turns out that, rather without meaning to, what I’m actually writing is a story about the threat of terrorism and the fear of loneliness in a big city. The whole ‘love and duty’ thing is still there, but more as an undercurrent. I didn’t plan that, it just seems to have happened. Which shows that your subconscious can sometimes be the better writer.

Our era is characterized by an extraordinary complexity and a deepening in our perception of the world; there is an unusual growth in demands on human discernment, on mature objectivity and the critical faculty.  ~ Epic and Novel, Bakhtin

Nine Worlds: Non-Binary Gender in Myth & Fiction

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Two academic talks: ‘Crossing Fantasy’s Borders: the Fluidity of Gender and Genre’ by Taylor Driggers, and ‘The Age of Athena: Gender Non-Binary’ by Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart

This session was another one of two halves. The first presentation looked at the concept of gender roles in fantasy, using Ursula Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness as an example text, and the second looked at examples of non-binary gender in mythology, history and literature.

I’ll be honest, I was at a slight disadvantage for the first paper as it’s been many years since I read Left Hand, and I couldn’t remember it in enough detail to really contribute much. It has inspired me to go back and read it again, though. If it’s not a book you know, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Gender & Society

I’m actually going to start with some fairly fundamental terms that could easily get mixed up in this discussion:

  • Sex – biological status. The physical equipment you possess.
  • Gender – attributes and behaviours culturally defined as male or female.
  • Identity – someone’s unique sense of self.

Binary genders are a cultural construct, not a natural one. Nature doesn’t dictate that girls like pink and boys like blue – in fact, pink was considered to be a boy’s colour until the Victorians changed things up. Not only is it a cultural construct – it’s a modern cultural construct. There are tons of examples of a far more fluid approach to gender in ancient mythology.

Athena is the prime example. She was the goddess of strategic war, and also a goddess of weaving. She disguised herself as male whenever she pretended to be mortal (even to her favourite, Odysseus), but is a mother figure in her divine form and never denies her sex. She is balanced. Nor is that balance restricted to female figures in the Greek pantheon. Dionysos is her male counterpart, often dressing in women’s clothes when he masquerades as mortal, yet never denying his sex. He is a god of fertility and a god of frenzy. It’s not just okay when you’re divine, either. Herakles – the ultimate mythological Jock – spent a long time dressed as a woman and taking on a female gender.

Even relatively modern history has examples of figures with gender-fluid roles.

But this distinction is something we seem to have lost sight of. Binary gender and identity has become so default that anyone who doesn’t conform is considered to be Other.

Otherness in SF&F

This assumption becomes an active handicap when considering texts like Left Hand of Darkness:

“Binary identities can only engage with this text as an outsider.” – Taylor Driggers

Through the eyes of her protagonist, Le Guin presents this fundamentally blinkered view of gender when confronted with a species that can change sex and therefore has no concept of gender. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell is another superb example of the dangers of assuming binary gender is default. Go read it – it’s an astonishing book.

“Western thought and language are all organised around binary hierarchical concepts which mostly have gender connotations with the masculine as dominant.” – Helene Cixous

The Sun and the Moon, Light and Dark, Culture and Nature, there were a ton more examples given. I’m not sure if I agree with all of them but the fundamental point still stands. These are things which don’t inherently have a gender, yet we attribute one to them and – with that attribution – assign them differing values.

SF&F is transgressive and disruptive. It subverts and pushes at understood norms and boundaries. It is, as Lisa Tuttle said in a different panel, the ‘literature of ideas’. The idea that Left Hand explores is that Otherness is neither inherently bad nor something to be avoided. It is, in fact, essential for survival and growth, for the evolution of society. SF&F lets us respect Otherness as a reality, and as an equally valid approach to living.

Next week: tricking the reader through unreliable narrators.

Sing, O Muse, the Wrath of Achilles: Roll Initiative

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This week is the blog’s fourth anniversary so, to celebrate, I’m going to combine two of my favourite things: ancient epics and roleplaying games. This is because the common thread between them is part of what the blog is all about – collaborative storytelling.

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Roleplaying games happen when a bunch of people get together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, and tell a story together about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re playing World of Darkness.

Ancient epics were told when a bunch of people got together in a room, usually with drinks and snacks, to listen to a story about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters were the heroes, if you’re listening to Beowulf.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Kill Screen wrote a fantastic article about this and you should totally go and read it. What they didn’t talk about is how this is spreading out into a wider culture, thanks to modern technology.

The nature of a public is not one-way. It is not the provision of material to be consumed. The nature of a public is a two-way, three-way, multiple-way conversation that’s reciprocal, that requires listening as well as speaking. ~ Matthew Stadler

Twitter provides fantastic examples of writers who use the online platform to build a dialogue with their readers, as well as changing the content to better suit the medium. Joanne Harris, for example, tells a story on Twitter at least once a month, via multiple tweets, using the hashtag #Storytime and encourages her followers to give her ideas for the next one.

Back in 2014, Neil Gaiman ran a Twitter-based project called A Calendar of Tales, during which he asked his Twitter followers to suggest a single inspiring sentence for each month of the year, selected twelve to write a short story around, and then asked his followers for illustrative artwork. The results were a beautiful anthology, the collaborative work of an author and his readers. Then there’s places like Wattpad, where writers post chapter by chapter and readers can leave comments or feedback. There’s blogs like Andrew Knighton‘s, where people can comment or even request themes for his Friday flash fiction.

And, of course, there’s a rise in mainstream culture of SF&F stories which brings a whole new audience into the conversation. Stories about heroic deeds and terrible monsters. Or sometimes the terrible monsters are the heroes, if you’re watching Deadpool.

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Fantastical stories are ancient. The Epic of Gilgamesh, with monsters and quests for magic items, is over four thousand years old. Communal story telling existed back when (and because) people couldn’t read or write. When people start to panic about the decline of books in the face of advancing technology, this is the thing to remember. Look how far storytelling hasn’t come. We tell the same types of tales in the same types of ways, and have done for a very very long time. It’s how we’re wired to tell stories. The technology we create will inevitably serve to continue that.

It’s just that, sometimes, there’s also dice.

Chiastic Structure: Nice To See You, To See You Nice

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Chiastic structure, or ring structure to give its less formal name, is the prose equivalent of a Petrarchan Sonnet. Which, for those of you less interested in poetic form, is, I grant you, not much of a clarification. Okay, let’s start again.

Rhyming Scheme

The first half (the octave) of a Petrarchan Sonnet has a very simple rhyming scheme: A B B A. Example, courtesy of Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Chiastic structure is usually drawn in a cross like this

Chiastic structure is often drawn like this

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Now, obviously you can’t make your story structure rhyme. In prose, this is about ideas, scene themes (or, if you want to really play it down to the granular level, actual sentences) being repeated in reverse order to bring the audience back to the same point as they started from but with hopefully a new angle or appreciation for that starting point. Think of the heroic journey – that is, in itself, a basic example of chiastic structure. From a plot structure perspective, one of the simplest examples is Milton’s Paradise Lost:

A: Satan’s sinful actions

B: Entry into Paradise

C: War in heaven (destruction)
C: Creation of the world

B: Loss of paradise

A: Humankind’s sinful actions

So, sin – paradise – destruction/creation – paradise – sin. Which, actually, is a point to note: you can go way beyond A B B A. Milton has A B C; the story of Noah’s Ark has A – J:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20 )

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)
J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H: Animals (9:2,3)

G: Food (9:3,4)

F: All living creatures (9:10a)

E: Ark (9:10b)

D: No flood in future (9:11)

C: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Purpose in Prose

Chiastic structure has its origins in oral poetry, with a dual purpose of 1) reminding the poet where he was supposed to be getting back to (no, seriously) and 2) making parts of the poem self-contained so they could be recited as stand-alone sections. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey are riddled with chiastic structured sections, as is the Old Testament, the Qu’ran, the Torah, and pieces like Beowulf.

220px-Heroesjourney.svgIn more modern literature, it’s much more about fulfilling audience expectations. We like symmetry, whether we consciously notice its presence or not. The symmetry of chiastic structure therefore provides a very satisfying sense of closure to a story. The reader remembers this scene or idea from the opening and therefore recognises it as an acceptable ending. Like the hero, the reader has travelled on a circular journey and arrived home with a new understanding of that same old idea. This links very strongly into the causal chains stuff that I talked about last year.

JK Rowling deliberately used chiastic structure in the Harry Potter series. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead. But it’s been, y’know, a while so I figure I’m allowed.) Lupin and Tonks die to mirror the death of James and Lily Potter, as casualties and consequences of war. At the beginning, Hagrid carries Harry away from where Voldemort killed his parents and delivers him to his new home at Privet Drive; at the end, Hagrid carries Harry from the Forbidden Forest where Voldemort ‘killed’ him and delivers him to his friends at Hogwarts.

One potential pitfall (I’m all about the p-based alliteration today, apparently) to be aware of is balancing the demands of chiastic structure against the actual story. If your characters want to do something that breaks the ring cycle, do you let them? Or do you stick to the plan? Rowling is on record as having said that Voldemort should have killed Hagrid, but she needed him alive to carry Harry out of the forest. There isn’t a right or a wrong approach to this, but bear in mind that readers will see and think about character actions. They won’t necessarily even notice your carefully crafted symmetry.

Self vs Community: Where Does Art Come From?

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A friend of mine – code-named Artemis – is currently living in Japan. She recently had a conversation with Dr. Nick about Japanese culture, which he relayed to me and which I found so interesting that I went back to the source. This blog post is from both of us.

The conversation started with the idea that, unlike Western culture, Japanese society is wholly geared towards people behaving as members of a community rather than as individuals. This prompted me to ask the question “where does their art come from?”.

The Tale of Genji - reputedly the world's first 'modern' novel

The Tale of Genji – reputedly the world’s first ‘modern’ novel, dated early 11th Century

THE ARTIST

Everwalker: In the West, it’s a fundamental principle that creativity is an expression of self. Unique experiences of the world, presented from an individual’s need to express. If the very idea of individuality is distanced from a culture, what drives its artists to create and from what perspective can they frame their creations?

Artemis: Japanese art is less an expression of individuality and more an expression of oneself within tradition. The artist acknowledges and uses the traditional forms of style, plus that of the master who taught them, in order to create something new. It’s why there’s the stereotype of the apprentice having to wait years to pick up a paintbrush: this ensures they know exactly what to do and how to execute the style perfectly. The result is part of the whole history of that kind of art, and the artist is accountable to every other practitioner. saying ‘here’s what I belong to’. If the style is poorly executed it doesn`t just reflect badly on the artist, but on the master who taught them too, and the master is the one who will take responsibility for their apprentice`s mistakes.

Everwalker: So rather than saying ‘here’s what I think’, the artist is saying ‘here’s what I belong to’.

Artemis: There are some people credited with producing new things, closer to individuality, but they are almost always greatly respected masters in their traditional style before they can get away with that kind of blatant self-expression. The twist on this is that the Japanese tend to be better at developing variations on a theme, because they have this deep acknowledgement of history and traditional style. That knowledge enables them to give their own spin to old stories, creating a simultaneous feeling of familiarity and freshness – invaluable for drawing in an audience.

THE HERO

Everwalker: So if Japanese stories stem from the importance of community, what about the protagonist? Where does that leave the individual at the heart of it all? Such a difference in cultural approaches means a fundamental change to the heroic figure we recognise in the West.

Artemis: Japanese heroes are never alone. They might be the chosen one but they have supportive relationships with equally strong characters, and these are vital to their success. Heroes who become isolated in Japanese literature tend to fail or become evil. This is because they lack companions to provide advice, help and a conscience. The team succeeds together or fails together, but the hero without a team is only an individual, and thus destined to fail.

Everwalker: There is an element of this in Western storytelling, of course. From the Argonauts to the Fellowship of the Ring, our heroes have had back-up. But it’s not a given, and it’s extremely rare to find a party with no single clear lead. The only one that currently spring to mind is the Avengers (although that’s because they are a party of six protagonists being made to work together, and the tensions that result is a major feature of the first film).

I’m not going to fall into the trap of comparing the political values of the different cultures, but I do want to take a quick look at the philosophical things we could usefully learn. Modern Western society seems, on the whole, to have a real struggle with identity. By placing so much emphasis on the idea of the individual, it has lost a sense of communal identity. From that loss (and I’m theorising wildly here) comes a feeling of loneliness at the individual level. We are cut off from our communities because we no longer know who or what they are.

If we take our lessons from artistic rolemodels, perhaps it’s time to update our Western heroes with some traditional Japanese values.

You heard me, guys. Time to fit into society.

You heard me, guys. Time to fit into society. Good luck.

The Inner Muse: Slave Driver or Slob?

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We blame our muses for an awful lot, when you think about it. We blame them for not coming when we call, for driving us too hard, for not letting us sleep or concentrate or write stuff we’re happy with. We are our muses’ slaves and all we ask in return is for the perfect story channelled at a reasonable rate. Right?

It’s the same deal as unexpected character developments – it’s all in your head. Actually, quite a lot of it is also in your habits. If you make sure you’re writing regularly – with or without the muse’s intervention – then you’ll still get stuff done and you’ll stop relying on lightning strikes of inspiration.

Brief historical note (because I can’t help myself)

The Romans were the ones who solidified the idea of there being nine muses, each with a specific art to patronise. The older Greek tradition only had three: Melete/Practice who was born from the movement of water, Mneme/Memory who is the sound of striking the air, and Aoide/Song who is embodied only in the human voice.

Note the oldest one is Practice? Yeah.

Blog Hopping – I Do It My Way

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I hope you heard the title in Frank Sinatra’s dulcet tones?

Blog hopping is apparently a thing. I hadn’t heard of it until earlier this week, when the inestimable Andrew Knighton invited me to participate on a blog hop about individual writing processes. Given ShortList.com’s recent release of the daily routines of the famously creative, this seems pretty apropos. The idea is that everyone answers the same four questions, and then invites another three people to do the same.

What am I currently working on?

I’ve got three projects on the go at the moment. The first, and biggest, is Corpus. This is the first book in my Trinity Theory series, although the second one I’ve written. My brain’s helpful like that. Currently I’m editing the third draft with the help of the raptor’s input. Once that’s done (hopefully by the beginning of August), I’ll send it out for beta readers to beat up some more.

The second project is Animus, book three of Trinity Theory, which is still very much in its infancy. As in, less than 5,000 words. It’s nice to take a break from editing occasionally, though, and go back to original creation.

The final project is something very different – a second event for my LARP setting London Under. Yes, this is definitely happening although the date isn’t settled yet. Or the plot. Or much, really. Yeah, I should probably do some more work on this.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Mercy Adler, by Andrea Cradduck

Mercy Adler, by Andrea Cradduck

Argh. This is an important but difficult question. We hates it, precious, not least because I find it very hard to assess my own work.

I think that my work differs from the majority in a couple of respects, none of which are unique but which are an unusual combination. The first is that it draws very heavily on classical cultures, due to my own love of the subject. The second is that I have a tendency to make sure it doesn’t all come out okay. I’ve tried writing happy endings and, well, the nearest I’ve got is that not EVERYBODY dies. I appreciate that George RR has made this de rigeur, however, so I can’t really wave that flag too highly.

I think (hope) that my character relationships are slightly out of the ordinary. There’s no traditional romance – the love stories are between siblings, or from worshipper to deity, or from lieutenant to captain. We make the word ‘love’ do an awful lot of work in the English language. The Greeks split it up into five different types and I prefer to play with some of the more ignored versions.

Oh, and my protagonist is a goblin in uniform. I don’t think that’s particularly common.

Why do I write what I write?

Honestly? Because I can’t help it. The stories fill my head and I can’t think straight until I’ve written them down. I feel the passions that drive my protagonists, sometimes very intensely. I see or experience moments whilst LARPing that are too cool not to replicate, and which have the bonus of personal experience (in a slightly odd way). I can write with a bit of authority on what it feels like to be in the middle of a line battle, or the experience of being kidnapped, or of being hunted through a forest. Hopefully that personal reality makes it onto the page.

Plus, on the more cerebral side, there are ideas – such as what faith does to people and societies – which I find interesting and enjoy exploring. But these take a definite back seat to the story arc.

How does my writing process work?

Generally it starts with a sentence, or a character, or a feeling. Then I do a rough chapter outline in Excel, knowing full-well that it will change radically, and a couple of character outlines for the main protagonists. Then I start writing the first draft. I used to just write the scenes that excited me but I’ve made myself behave and write chronologically now. That helps ensure that all the scenes excite me.

I also use a wiki fairly extensively, both as a reminder of details and as somewhere to save my research. All my draft documents are saved in Google Docs so they’re available from any computer provided I have internet access, and because Google Docs automatically saves at very regular intervals. I’ve had bad experiences in the past.

Once the first draft is done, I go through and make all the changes that have already occurred to me. Then I give it to the raptor to critique, which he’s extremely good at. Then to beta readers and then, finally, apply to agents. Gulp.

A recent addition to the process is an informal writing group. Three of us meet in a cafe once every fortnight or so, and write for a couple of hours. It’s great for a couple of reasons – first, because we usually set a goal for each session which focuses the mind; second, because we’re there to write and so can’t be distracted by other things; and third, because we can occasionally sanity-check a sentence or idea with another writer.

Nominate three other writers to blog hop

Charlotte Bond – a friend who moves in far more exalted literary company than I do! She primarily writes horror, with the occasional dip into scifi/fantasy. She’s published by both Dark Horizon and Screaming Dreams Press. Go check out her stuff.

Rachel Knightley – I met Rachel on the writing course I did last year and she’s kept me on the creative straight-and-narrow ever since. She’s responsible for starting and maintaining that informal fortnightly writing club, as well as introducing me to other fantasy writers and making me think. She teaches writing, runs a sponsored writing day for Macmillan every year, and directs a theatre company. She’s awesome.

Victoria Grefer – This is a slightly cheeky one, as I don’t actually know Ms. Grefer personally. I have been following her blog on writing tips for some time, however, and would strongly encourage you to do the same. I’m nominating her here because I’m really interested in her process and it’d be awesome if she blog hopped this. 🙂