Wassail, traveler, and welcome to The Gable Grey -- a place of retreat, of renewal, and of resistance: a tree-shaded refuge in Dark Times. Now pass the threshold, and rest from journeys! For a cold wind is blowing; and here, if you wish, you may hear tidings of the world without...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

How Fantasy Can Be Great Again, Part 3

The third component to successful epic fantasy in our time is, of course, the skill of the writer's craft, aside from his skill as a fantasist. For some, this comes natural; or so I hear. Many of my friends who claim to be writers (and have reams of narrative to proudly show off) also claim some natural proclivity towards the art, without any benefit of or recourse to formal training. I have not actually witnessed any significant examples of this proclivity. These are the same ones who scoff at worrying about such trivial things as grammar and punctuation, and who recoil at the thought of second, third, or even (the horror!) fourth drafts. All those things and more are part and parcel of the art of fiction, at least for me. If it sounds like work, believe me, it is, and don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise. (If they do, they're selling themselves, not their art.) It's mind-numbing, frustrating, sometimes depressing and dreary work. It is also immensely satisfying, just not all the time.
I do not claim to be a great writer. I don't suck at it, but I do have work to do. One can always improve as a writer. At the least, I have written a lot of stuff. Much of it is garbage, especially the stuff I wrote in the years before 2001-2002, my last years in college. (I still write some garbage nowadays, too.) It was then, as a failed graduate student of history, that I went back as an undergraduate, and did one of the wisest things I ever did in my life: I took two semesters of fiction writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, under the instruction of Steven Barthelme.

Classes amounted to routine evisceration. My work was read by the whole class, and mercilessly critiqued by both them and S.B. I had known before I took the class that I needed to improve; I had no idea how much. But I soon found out, and was shown what to read -- much John Gardner, among other things. (On Becoming a Novelist is probably the only "self-help" book for writers one needs to bother with. It's still in print and inexpensive.) Even more than that, the classes changed the way I look at the world. I am more cynical now than before, more wary of the tricks novelists and screenwriters play, so it's sometimes harder for me to be entertained than others. I come across as an insufferable snob sometimes, I know, but I cannot help it and do not worry too much about impressions anymore.

So take a writing class or two. Read Gardner. Read and critique other writers, and let them read and critique for you, if they will. (But don't count on that. Most self-styled writers are too self-centered to return the favor, in my experience.) Then write, write write. The latter, I've found, is the hardest to do on a day to day basis, but it must happen; otherwise, one is not a writer, and will never be an author -- just a daydreamer.

Next post, I want to talk about The Map.

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Whiles carried o'er the iron road,
We hurry by some fair abode;
The garden bright amidst the hay,
The yellow wain upon the way,
The dining men, the wind that sweeps
Light locks from off the sun-sweet heaps --
The gable grey, the hoary roof,
Here now -- and now so far aloof.
How sorely then we long to stay
And midst its sweetness wear the day,
And 'neath its changing shadows sit,
And feel ourselves a part of it.
Such rest, such stay, I strove to win
With these same leaves that lie herein.

-- William Morris, from
"The Roots of the Mountains"