Friday, July 31, 2009

The Anecdotal Life of a Bookshop: I Want a Book

Charming Proprietor: Hi there, how can I help you?

Customer: I want a book.

Charming Proprietor: Um... yes?

Customer: Well, you see... I can't remember the name of it.

Charming Proprietor: Maybe the name of the author?

Customer: I can't remember who wrote it, either. Or what it's about.

Charming Proprietor: ...?

Customer: But I know it has a blue cover. And it's about this big. (Customer holds up hands to indicate the size of the book, which appears to be, oddly, rather book-sized)

Charming Proprietor: ...?

Earnest Customer: Do you have that book? I really want it.

Charming Proprietor: As it so happens, I have 8,000 copies of that book. Come right this way. Will you be paying by cash or by card?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Got a Devil on the Right Shoulder and an Angel on the Left

I'm writing this because Mira told me to. And it's always wise to agree with Mira. Something terrible and hilarious will happen otherwise. And we can't have that.

So... what do you do when you have opposite critical advice from your readers? One critter (devil) says "You have to cut this whole section", and one critter (angel) says "You have to expand this whole section." It's not an entirely uncommon experience if you're in a critique group, and there's a tendency for the writer to react with paralysis. What to do? How to choose? I think the common wisdom (Stephen King, for one, seems to espouse this in On Writing) is that you do nothing. The house (writer) wins. In this little game of critical blackjack, the first option is to do nothing, as opposite views cancel each other out.

This is safe and easy, I guess, but not necessarily correct. Two people have latched on to the same element and commented on it - and not because it was working. Just because their solutions (being contradictory) may not be right, it does not erase the fact that there might be an underlying problem.

I think one of the difficulties is that writers want to group the critiques together. They want a consensus, as simple patterns are easy to interpret. So we group the crit comments together, whether it be two, three or four comments on a particular element. I don't feel this is the best approach, however, as it can be misleading. Each comment is its own and separate thing, and should be considered as such. The crit's not important... it's what you do with it. The best crit in the world is useless if you can't apply it and make your story better.

Each comment deserves to be evaluated separately. You have to take time and think, balancing the comment against your own internal vision of the story, of what you want it to accomplish. Evaluate the comment with your own aims in mind, rather than merely looking for crit consensus.

Even complete agreement within your critters can be misleading. If they all trip on the same thing, yes, there likely is a problem. But if they all suggest a cliched solution? Do you take it because there's consensus? It comes down to understanding. Try to understand the comments... and try to understand your story, what you want from it. Try to understand how you can achieve the effect you want. If A and B offer opposing comments, you may find that you want to take A's view, or maybe B's, or maybe a combination of A and B. Or maybe do as King suggests and do C (nothing). Or maybe the right answer is D, something you thought of all on your own, something that approaches the root problem rather than the surface ones.

The true advantage of getting critiques is not the advice you receive, but the opportunity to see your story in a new way, with new eyes. It allows you to step out of yourself and become the reader for a moment, and this in turn allows you to shape the words of the story to more closely achieve the effect you want. Yeah, we're manipulative. That's the job. To create something that is not there, an illusion that the reader willingly adopts - if you're convincing enough, if your manipulations are deft enough. And critiques can help us perfect that manipulation, each in their own turn.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Writer, reconstructed.

The process of being a struggling writer can be…well…a struggle, and in time one of two things happens: Either we crash and burn, overwhelmed and defeated by rejection and the daunting odds, or we stubbornly continue to wage the good fight and throw our bruised and bloodied egos back into the fray, over and over.

I've noticed that for myself this process takes the shape of a series of slow climbs, during which I learn a lot and believe I'm making progress, followed by a precipitous downward spiral of doubt that ends in an ego implosion/explosion of atomic bomb proportions.

But then, as the mushroom cloud slowly dissipates, a curious thing happens. While I languish in the ashes of my writing dreams, deep within me I feel the mysterious urge to create—the irresistible drive to make something from nothing—quicken to life again. The writer within me is reborn and rises from the old husk, stronger and hopefully wiser from knowledge gained in failure. Each incarnation brings me closer to where I want to be, so there's profit from the pain, but it can be an excruciating process.

I'm in the throes of just such a rebirth now and as I've considered this odd metamorphosis I have been thinking of the way in which we choose names for ourselves on these internet sites, blogs and forums, etc. I call myself Bookworm, a name hastily chosen but which fits nevertheless. I love books. But as I contemplate this crazy thing called writing and how I personally deal with it, I wonder if another name might have been more appropriate. Phoenix, perhaps. A bit too brazen? Maybe, but then I have seen cheesier.

So my question is, if you picked a name for yourself that summed up your writing experience, what would it be?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Found in Translation

In the story of the Tower of Babel a united humanity builds a vast tower to the heavens, but this tower is devised to proclaim the glory of Man rather than God, and so God scatters the people across the lands and waters of the Earth, dividing them with distance and the death of a unified language. Peoples are separated by their fractured voices, their inability to communicate, and so in their isolation they each evolve in their own way, each following their own cultural and linguistic path. A dozen, a hundred, a thousand… small islands of homogenous voices adrift in the vast sea of the world.

And yet those islands are now connected more closely than at any other point in history. Planes wing across the world in hours, and information flies far faster. Perhaps it's not so strange that we have a translation service called Babel Fish, as the deep waters between islands grow ever more shallow, ever more transparent.

Yet we all know things are lost in translation, that differences in culture, language and evolution breed confusion and divergence. A man travels to France and attempts to ask, in broken French, for the address of the Hilton in Paris… and unwittingly asks for personal access to Paris Hilton. Une erreur romantique terrible! Un embarras culturel! This is the difficulty of connection, of communication. We laugh at the hapless man's attempt to converse… yet how does one translate schadenfreude? How does one explain it? What is it we lose in translation?

A better question, though, might be this: what do we gain in translation? Literature, too, is opening to new vistas, new opportunities. Never before has the idea of a true World Literature been so possible, so close… and yet we often look no further than our own islands. Safe harbors, pleasant beaches… so familiar, so comfortable.

But just beyond, just over the last wave… there are whole countries of new voices, whole continents of new stories. There is much to be found, I think, in these stories, in finding something separate and strange. We seek newness, originality… where better to look than beyond our own borders?

Our stories are constructions of two related worlds: the reality of our little island (the world we see around us) and the fictions derived from it. That is, our stories come from the physical reality we face (the land, the city, the people…) and from the fictions others have built upon it. We are shaped by our stories, the stories of our islands. We draw from a common pool of myths and allegories. We draw from common stories and common tropes. Elements repeat, are transformed, and repeat again. The stories change, evolve, become new… a series of minor gradations, of small shifts and jumps.

Yet the babelfish can show us something new. Stories drawn out from other pools. Stories that draw on different myths, different metaphors, different dreams… they arise from a different evolutionary path. Something entirely new… and ripe for cross fertilization.

We have before us the possibility of a vast connected world of literature. We can find a writer like Haruki Murakami through a Russian like Gogol, or from South American magical realists like Marquez or Borges. Maybe we'll see some of ourselves, too, reflected in a line, an image. Yet Murakami comes, too, from his own island, from The Tales of Genji, from Musashi and Mishima, from Tanizaki and Endo and Oe. We can see that newness, that strangeness, in Murakami, and in Kobo Abe, and in…

And here we draw back to our islands. A world literature has started, one voice found in many, a voice that whispers to itself the words of new and strange stories… yet we do not often reach for it. We know a few names… but many great writers still lie undiscovered by us, or at least ignored. The waves look high and turbulent, and the beach so comfortable…

Chinua Achebe offered us the voice of a silent continent, an Africa that had been hidden beyond words. Or, rather, he showed us his Africa… and in so doing opened us to the voices, the possibility, of other Africas. And yet those Africas, those stories uniquely born from their own strange and wonderful evolutionary paths, will disappear if we make no effort to hear them, to listen to them. Those voices will be silenced, will be hidden by distance and a lack of curiosity, by those steep waves gorging themselves on our bright beaches.

Yet such wide opportunity exists beyond those waves… and it is an opportunity we could embrace. A chance to find something new in translation, a chance to transform our own stories. Why not let our own voices be shaped by the voices of Africa, the voices of Japan?

And these voices are out there, sometimes close at hand. If you are interested in such a search, the Dalkey Archive might be a good place to start. It is a press devoted to publishing, and preserving, great works of literature, both in our language (works both out of print and unknown) and in others. They publish interesting masterpieces from a variety of countries and a variety of languages, having faith in the possibilities of translation, in its regenerative and renewing power. In the words of Ezra Pound, "English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translations, every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer."

So what are your experiences with translation? The good, the bad, the ugly? The humorous? What do you think translations can offer readers and writers?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Blogging the Rings: Fellowship, Book 1, Chapter 10

We're off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of... Oops, wrong story.


I think the opening here is a little stronger than many of the other chapters so far. We're a little more in the thick of things. Strider speaks with the hobbits, and again it's a game of hints, of offers and questions. It's nicely played, I think, keeping the tension high. He could have just come in and announced himself, but I think it would have come off a little preachy and dull. And it keeps an air of mystery around Strider, and I think that mystery is one of the pleasurable aspects of the story, particularly as he's slowly transformed from this fey Ranger, Strider, into the King of the West, Aragorn. I think proclaiming himself here would have ruined much of that. I enjoy the fact that he's somewhat sly and shifty here, and it adds a level of tension to a scene that might otherwise be too much talk and too little action (or conflict).

Strider also brings home a little more of the danger of the Black Riders. "They are terrible!... You fear them, but you do not fear them enough, yet." The same, of course, might be said of the reader, on account of some of Tolkien's choices in portraying the Black Riders and their pursuit. Yet for the next section their danger and menace is necessarily important, and so the task now is to build up that sense of menace, and the reaction of Strider, this mysterious and seemingly powerful stranger, helps sway both the hobbits and the reader.

And when Strider is about to share his story... he's interrupted by the arrival of the inkeeper. A simple little trick, but I think it adds a little tension. We're now left with a bit of a cliffhanger, wondering what Strider will tell us... yet the innkeeper has important news, too. I think it keeps both balls in the air at once, allowing them to play off each other and shade meanings.

The innkeeper bears a letter from Gandalf... a letter that was supposed to have been delivered months ago. Another little bit that adds tension, I think, along with the delayed opening of the letter. It could have simply been left for Frodo if he arrived... but the fact that the delivery failed creates a tension that filters through the scene, playing on the already built up mystery of Gandalf's absence.

The letter offers a vague explanation of that absence (more mystery), and also relates that they should have left the Shire long before they did. They are now late... and that lateness has greatly increased the danger. This ties in with that new menace of the Black Riders, setting up the conflicts to come, the increasing danger. It's a careful setting of mood and expectation.

We also see a hint of Aragorn in Strider, the majesty to be revealed: "He stood up, and seemed suddenly to grow taller. In his eyes gleamed a light, keen and commanding. Throwing back his cloak, he laid his hand on the hilt of a sword that had hung concealed by his side. They did not dare to move. Sam sat wide-mouthed staring at him dumbly." This deepens, I think, the mystery set about Strider, and also sets up an image of the tension that runs through the character of Aragorn: the hidden life of a Ranger, and the open life of Isildur's Heir, the open life of a King set to challenge Sauron. We see only a moment of the King, here, for now is still the time of the Ranger, the time of a guide. Aragorn can hold to this, in truth, until the breaking of the Fellowship.

Yet Strider is exceedingly worried about Gandalf's absence. What could keep him away? And there are hints, too, of Gandalf's hidden powers... and some foreshadowing hidden in the words of Strider: "But this business of ours will be his greatest task."

Merry returns, and with sudden news: Black Riders have come. He saw them, and then was overcome by some sort of spell... again falling into a sort of sleep. A bit of a motif growing here... the magical sleep of Old Man Willow, and then in the Barrow Downs, and in the tomb of the wight... and now here with the Black Breath of the Riders. Sleep as... what? Death? Capitulation? Loss of will and choice? The end of seduction (in the sense of sin)? Strider says that the Riders power is in terror... which holds throughout the novel, yet he also says they will not openly attack a house where there are lights and many people. Which seems odd... would they not do so even for the One Ring? What could stop them? Certainly their attitude has changed by the Return of the King, when they attack Minis Tirith. Is that a bit of deus ex machina? Their attributes and characteristics shift a little according to what is most convenient for the story? Or is it merely part of that finding out process, that sense of transformation and discovery that seems to accompany the story as Tolkien passes farther into it, as he delves more deeply into the heart of the story?

The chapter ends with a return to discussion about Frodo's silly song in the tavern... but in the end the humour is undercut by Strider, whose words are a return to reality, a warning of the dangers to come.

It's an interesting chapter... little action in the foreground, and yet a certain tension is carried through. A chapter of dialogue, of talk... and yet a number of techniques help keep the pace moving. Interesting choices... Tolkien does like having a lot happen offstage. Merry's run-in with the Black Riders could easily have been shown... but instead it's relayed to the reader in dialogue, in a chapter already heavy with such dialogue. There's a unity in that, I guess, and this format keeps the focus more tightly on Frodo. Yet it seems a fairly dramatic moment to happen off-stage. Interesting, really... and Tolkien does it a lot in the story to come, too. Anyone have thoughts on that?