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.

How Fantasy Can Be Great Again, Part 2

Two things a writer of epic Fantasy must have at his command, precious: a vision of Faerie, and the right language -- the language of Faerie -- to talk about it.
By "vision of Faerie" I mean a fairly clear idea of the fantasy world in which the action takes place. It need not be wholly of the fantasist's creation; indeed, it should not, but should rather be a melding of elements that are already familiar to the reader. It is in the melding that the fantasist should offer something unique. Readers of LOTR may well recognize the Norse names, the Finnish elements of Quenya, Christian themes and symbolism, the quaint Englishness of the Shire. In my case at the first reading, I did not really recognize those things, but their sound and use touched something strangely familiar in my cultural subconscious. As an inheritor of the English literary tradition, I had a connection with the story without fully realizing it, and it took years to figure out why. But it is Tolkien's own vision of all those things, his own "soup" of Faerie, if you will, that really puts his solid, original stamp on otherwise gossamer Faerie itself, and not just pass through as just another imitator.
The "language of Faerie" is difficult to nail down, and even more difficult to use without sounding pompous or even unintelligible. Readers of The Silmarillion know whereof I speak. It is the "grand old style" of epic fantasy, the language of William Morris, a sound that harkens to a time that never really was, but that we feel should have been. One cannot speak effectively of the wars of the Noldor, or of Numenor, without it; and yet it is, unfortunately, beyond the ken of the casual reader of modern literature. How, then, does one speak of Faerie, which by its very nature is ancient and archaic (to us), and yet remain understandable to a modern audience? To use it is perilous. It is ignored to the detriment of the Faerie-story being told. Either course risks alienating the reader.
But of course it must be used. To not use it would be like John Grisham not using "legal-ese" in his novels. How, then, does one learn to write in the language of Faerie, the language of epic fantasy? I am still not sure. Total immersion in the fantasies of William Morris has been my only recourse: reading with my handy-dandy notebook nearby, trying to build a vocabulary of English words and phrases that fell out of everyday use (at the latest) a hundred years ago. I may not be fluent in Faerie, not yet; I do not use it every day, and as anyone who has tried to learn another language knows, if you don't use it, you lose it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How Fantasy Can Be Great Again: Part 1

How many times have you browsed the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of your favorite (or merely convenient) bookstore, and walked away empty-handed? Why is that? I can tell you that that has been my experience, over and over, for years. There is virtually no decent Fantasy on bookstore shelves these days -- nothing new, anyway. Of course you can find diminishing selections of Tolkien, but JRRT did not give us an inexhaustible supply of stuff -- maybe nearly so; but there is only so much one can enjoy of Elven etymologies. One needs swords, and blood, and creatures, well-written. Ah! therein "lies the rub," as my good friend Richard says: well-written. Some may not be well-read enough (or well-written enough themselves, if you take my meaning) to recognize good writing when they see it -- or, more importantly, to recognize bad writing. Even Tolkien was not, how you say, a great writer. He was, more correctly, a good writer, and a stellar fantasist. But nowadays being simply the latter is not enough; but to be both a great writer and a great fantasist may be too much to hope for in any mere mortal... and yet, that is how Fantasy as a genre can continue to not only remain viable, but to show once again how it is the ultimate form of the written art. It is the only way, and it is what I have striven for.
Before I go further, let me clarify something: I am talking about the highest form of fantasy, and the most difficult to write and to achieve that "willing suspension of disbelief" that all fiction writers need in their readers: I mean Epic Fantasy, what you find in LOTR and what other writers like Robert Jordan and R.A. Salvatore and David Eddings strove for, and mostly failed. Once must needs dig deep, rummage around in Fantasy's forgotten attic, to find other great epic fantasy. William Morris pulled it off; others there may have been who were nearly as successful. Their names escape me at present. But there was something in Morris at least that kindled Tolkien's imagination, and stirred a desire in him to take what he found in The Well at the World's End, The Roots of the Mountains, and The House of the Wolfings, and go one better. And now we must go one better than Tolkien; and in the fifty-odd years since readers first followed the wandering path of the Fellowship, no one has figured out how to do that. If they have, they haven't actually done it.
In my next post, I will present what I believe to be the two necessary skills a modern fantasist must have to be successful. In the post after that, I will talk about what I think the fantasist must do to be a good writer as well. But first I will think a bit, and read a bit more.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

When he had gone and passed again into the outer world...

I have passed into the outer world, the Grey World, and have come back alive to the Green! The realm of Babbits wore me down, but I bore it, and now I am back again to my little Naith, my green Angle between rivers of concrete and steel. The foxes still dance in the gloaming, Enea beckons, and my wife and daughter surround me with love. I am a lucky man; too often I forget it.
I think I shall return to the world of the Woodreeve tonight... I have some inkling how I shall proceed. Afterword I shall turn to the Fellowship again, and "The Mirror of Galadriel." I so enjoyed "Lorien"; the last line about Aragron brought a lump in my throat and a tear to my eye yesterday, knowing his fate, and Arwen's:
"...And taking Frodo's hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as a living man."

Sunday, September 9, 2007


I actually did some writing last night... editing, mostly, on the short story/novella The Woodreeve's Tale. It is set in Enea, the same world where my epic fantasy The Quest for Kullervo lingers unfinished. TWT reflects the tremendous influence W. Morris and Dunsany have had on my writing style, and Eddic influences as well, all of which probably render the thing unreadable to most if not all save myself. But it is great fun to write, if nothing else; and having from the beginning written it with little or no consideration for a wider audience, I have humored my Morris muse, and borrowed extensively from his and the Edda's word-hoard. I agree with Tolkien when he says: "Why deliberately ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of styles -- without any possibility of unintelligibility... I can see no more reason for not using the much terser and more vivid ancient style, than for changing the obsolete weapons, helms, shields, hauberks into modern uniforms." Hopefully I will not be completely unintelligible.

Unfortunately, to my great dismay I have found that a sizable part of the story was lost when our laptop crashed earlier this year. I had only recently transferred the files from it to our desktop PC, deeming them intact; but apparently all the work I did in "Safe Mode" on the laptop was not properly saved, which amounted to the bulk of the meager amount of writing I have done this year. So I am pretty much back to where I was in January/February, with Mar and the thanes leaving their ship, the Gnod, beached near the mouth of the dead river. I tire of this re-writing and re-membering rubbish. Not exactly how I wanted to "ease" back into the writing mode of life.

Now I have a two-day long meeting to go to tomorrow and Tuesday, for my regular job, the one that helps pay the bills. Rubbing elbows with Company people. It's like pulling fingernails for me. And it's my birthday. Jeez, I hope I can make it through the meetings without zoning out completely.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

As part of my effort to jump-start my writing engine, I have been rereading The Lord of the Rings for the past couple of weeks. It's the first time since I saw the LOTR films in their entirety, now going on four years ago. I have to say that it is a strange, enjoyable experience. There is much that I had forgotten; and there is much more that I had not noticed before.

I had always been aware of Tolkien's love for the natural world, and for the words used to describe it: words like stone, tree, stream, hills, wind are prominent everywhere. I am coming to the realization that, of all the myriad characters of the epic, one stands above all: Middle-earth itself. More interesting than any Noldo lord, Dwarf-warrior, Ent, Orc, or wavering Man, Middle-earth too dominates the story even more than the permeating malice of the Ring. Black chasms, fiery chasms, great rivers, sweeping forests, festering swamps, gullies and hillocks and mountains named and unnamed, are both the stage and the actors.

The voice that describes these natural places and phenomena is careful, pointed, loving, as near to Tolkien's ideal of sub-creator as is possible, I think. I do not believe in God, but if I did, and he let me in on the secrets of the Beginning, I think I might find his methods of creation strangely familiar as a reader of LOTR.

But Caradhras has just defeated the Fellowship. Ahead, the long dark of Moria...

And the long dark of another birthday. Monday I shall be thirty-seven. I have not yet decided how I feel about that. Best not to think about it too much, probably. I have accomplished much that I desired to this point, yet much remains un-accomplished, and some goals seem as far from fruition as ever. My family and I are still in Mississippi, and not Montana, where I left a good chunk of my spirit eleven years ago. I have not yet been published. And... well, hell, I can't think of anything else at the moment. Not so bad, after all, I guess. But "Time is the fire in which we burn," and it's getting warmer all the time.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Awhile ago...

The storied First Post... it is as difficult to begin this as it is to write the first line of a story. I wonder if I will be able to contribute enough to keep this viable, and who it will benefit. I never was one to keep a journal, as romantic as such a thing is made out to be for writers to do. Keeping a journal is usually merely a distraction for the writer from his art; and I have many distractions these days to keep me from Ramandyra, where so many of my stories and dreams take place. Above, another distraction: my daughter, Belle, and my dogs: Beulah and Earl, our Basset Hounds, and young Misha, our Siberian Husky. They will keep me busy today, lovingly busy, while I am home and my wife Adrienne is at work. I doubt much, if any, writing will be done today. It is difficult to visualize realms of Fantasy and Faerie, or even the wide world beyond the borders of my little land to which I have withdrawn nowadays. But it will happen, it must happen; my writing is all I have left to give the world now. How I will restart my writing life, I am not sure; but I am working on it. Ah, now I am being called away already; little hands tugging at my arm.
Breakfast, and another day. Will it be much different than yesterday, I wonder?
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"