The story I want to tell

I’ve been writing lately. This is a minor miracle in itself, because years of an anxiety disorder left me with a fear of failure so inhibiting that I’d rather hide under a duvet than even attempt writing a sentence that might go awry. But I had treatment, I wrote a hundred haiku as part of the therapy, and somewhere in the middle I realised that, all those years ago, I didn’t just start telling stories as an escape from things that I found painful. I started telling stories because I just loved imagining things, and I enjoyed bringing things to life inside my head, and I enjoyed finding the right words to describe them.

At the moment, rediscovering that is a delight so simple it’s almost hard to believe. I actually enjoy writing. Long may it last.

The story that I’ve been writing this month is one that’s been with me for quite a long time. I had the idea for it, oh, way back in 2007, 2008? It started flowing from my head to my hands, it had its own momentum. I started writing, wrote twelve pages, and then my computer crashed and I rewrote pretty much the entire damn thing from memory.

The story is almost unrecognisable from what it was then – it’s grown and changed so much, and the direction I thought it was going to go in just isn’t relevant now. I’ve struggled with how to distil these ideas into a book, not just a tour around a fiction landscape with its made-up mythologies and politics. I actively stopped writing it because I knew it wasn’t ready to be written – which is a bloody weird thing to have to say, but hopefully some of you will know what I mean. I couldn’t force a shape onto it, because it would have been the wrong shape. I had to wait for the eureka moment – or line of eureka dominoes, as it were. It’s taken years, it’s taken talking through ideas and concepts, it’s taken getting frustrated with my inability to write it and my inability to make it sound like the really fun story that I want it to be, both to write and to read.

This week, I was talking about it with my boyfriend, and he posed the very pertinent question: “Why do you want to write this one? Of all the stories you have notes for, what is it about this one that you keep going back to?”

He has a very valid point. I have a lot of stories that I could write. I have a lot of ideas I’d love to give time to.

This one has been refined and realigned so many times, which was a frustration in itself. Its working title, “Passion”, is a word that doesn’t fit in the slightest because it’s not a love story. It’s just a word that had the right sounds in it.

But it’s a concept that’s pretty much the point of this missive. This is a story that I love writing. My heroine is a delight to me. And, even though the actual plot has taken years to get right, it’s always been a story that I want to tell. There’s no real logical reason other than that. I want it to happen. That’s why I’m writing it. There are other stories that I want to tell, but this is the one that I want to tell first, that I want to tell now. And that’s what matters, that’s what gives it momentum.

Existentialism is a flawed philosophy in many ways, but its focus on action rather than thought is one that I often take a lot of comfort in. So at the moment I’m celebrating the fact that my actions are making more words – and I’m not worrying whether they’re the right words. I’m writing and I’m not editing as I go, I’m getting it out there and letting it grow. (Ah, poetry.) I’m embracing the feeling because it’s been so rare for me – and I am very much hoping that it will last.

What’s the story that you want to tell? Whatever it is, I hope you find the way to tell it.

100 Haiku Days: Afterwords

100 haiku days 100

I know it was last week sometime, but, in my defence, I was chasing teenagers around Somerset in order to teach them the meaning of fear (on a science-fiction writing course, so they could write accurately about how it felt to be scared by aliens). I’ve only just caught up to myself and managed to post them all here – sorry, everyone, for the pile of haiku that just landed in your inboxes! I published them as I went along on Twitter and Instagram, but somehow they don’t feel “done” until I have them up here too.

Anyway. Last week, the midst of creativity and chaos, I crossed the finish line. Haiku 100. It didn’t feel like much at the time – a scribble in the midst of mixed-up mischief – but now that I have time to reflect, I think: I did it. I did – I did it.

Okay, it’s not the triumph of completing an epic destiny. But I’m pleased and proud to have set myself a challenge and to have risen to it, day after day. When I was ill, when I was travelling, at weddings and wonders, when I didn’t sleep for three weeks – I wrote haiku to deal with things I found painful and to celebrate the things I love. And I enjoyed it!

Of course, there were days when I got into bed at night and went “Oh, crap, I haven’t written one today!” and had to get up again and sit there in my pyjamas until I’d thought of something. But there were also times that they slipped so easily from noggin to nib that it felt unbelievable that other days I should struggle so much with seventeen slippery syllables.

Now that I’m done, though – I miss it. I do. I enjoyed having a sense of purpose, of something to do every day. Now that I’ve finished the creative extravaganza that is helping to shape the minds of young writers, I have a drive that I’ve always struggled with before. But doing a little bit every day – that seems so appealing, now, in a way that didn’t understand before I started this project. So that’s something I’m very pleased to have found, and I need to work to continue.

I haven’t decided what my next project will be, yet. But I’ve realised that I enjoy sharing my ideas in a way I was always far too anxious to do before, so whatever it is I do next, I won’t be afraid to talk about it any more. And, for me, considering this was a project that was born in the depths of my treatment for chronic anxiety, that’s as valuable as having written 100 poems that I actually like.

So this is me, signing off on 100 Haiku Days. It’s been a blast. Thanks for sharing the trip with me.

100 Haiku Days: Three-Quarter Pause

I honestly can’t believe that I’m three-quarters of the way through. I suppose I should feel a sense of achievement. It’ll probably hit me in a minute. But it seems about five minutes since I sat down to do the “I’m halfway” post, and like I picked up a pen to write the first one about an hour ago.

This is possibly because I have a stinking cold, and it’s remarkably hard to wring consistent sense from my brain today. My perception of time is always the second thing to go when I’m tired or unwell. (The first is depth perception, which is one of the many reasons I’m not one of life’s waitresses.)

75 haiku. I mean – I find finishing any creative project difficult, and I find talking about it even harder. I’ve made so many crochet things that I haven’t documented, and have half-written posts on the matter lying around in my Drafts folder.

In the “Writing” folder on my computer at home (backed up to the cloud and also stored on my external hard drive, naturally), I have over 1000 documents, a history of story-thoughts and notetaking started back when I was 13, ranging in size from two-sentence snippets to half-written books hundreds of pages long. My mentor, the incomparable Beth Webb, taught me to write and taught me to teach. If you come on a course run by Beth, or any of my fabulously talented friends and colleagues who were trained by her, you will, with absolute certainty, hear entire groups of people chorusing “Have an idea? WRITE IT DOWN!”

(Seriously. It’s so all-pervasive that my workday productivity as a copywriter / digital marketing bod relies entirely on the mantra of writing everything down. I even have a system of notebooks to make sure I write things down in an organised manner, in the right place. That’s a content management system.)

But outside work, and in life in general, I struggle to control my creativity. Like a feral cat, it does its business wherever the hell it wants, sleeps when I want it to be awake and sometimes goes out for days at a time. And when it’s there, it’ll attack everything in sight.

Some days I wake up and plan entire novels before breakfast. I’m not kidding – I have outlines for twelve or so. But, to date, aside from a few scenes here and there, I haven’t written any of them. The dreaming, the ideas, they come a lot more easily to me than the ability to cope with the mental and emotional burden of sitting down to write a book that may or may not work.

There’s one that I finally found a plot for last week that, I kid you not, I wrote the first draft in 2009. Then abandoned it because I had no idea where it was going. My boyfriend picked me up from choir a couple of weeks ago and I announced as I climbed into the car, “I had an idea halfway through a song about making it a murder mystery!”. This is an enormous change from the sprawling fantasy story of revolution and coming-of-age that it was before, but it’s the only idea I’ve had, in five years, that actually works as a first book.

So that’s one reason I wanted to write haiku. You don’t have much to play with, so you don’t have much to agonise over.

One of the ways of dealing with anxiety is to set achievable goals, and then achieve them. Writing one haiku a day for a hundred days ticks a number of boxes all at once, for me.

Way back in my first post, I wrote that I decided to write a hundred haiku after my first therapy session (this year: not my first therapy session ever. For various reasons, I’ve been in and out of therapy since I was fourteen). The first session is always terrible, because you have to run through all the reasons you need therapy, open up all the wounds you’ve spent years hiding or dealing with or not dealing with (or all three), and then at the end you don’t have any answers and you feel all the things, all at once. It’s like you’re a chest of drawers that gets pushed over, and even though by the end of the session you’re technically upright again, the contents are still an absolute mess.

I started writing haiku after my first session because I needed a way to cope with what I was feeling. Sonnets are too complicated for someone in that much emotional distress, and prose was far too daunting. Haiku had enough structure to focus my thoughts, but were short enough to feel friendly, rather than frightening. They’re also short enough that anything you say feels like it means something.

I don’t know why that’s true. I’m working on it. All I can tell you is that it is.

Many of my therapy sessions have felt like the chest of drawers falling over. But one thing that my therapist keeps saying is that I have to express myself. If you’ve met me, that’ll sound strange. I have no problems talking about what’s on my mind. If I’m not talking about how I feel, I can go for hours. But feelings, well. I get overwhelmed by them when I’m not talking about them, let alone when I am.

So putting how I feel into haiku is hard, and it’s frightening. Which isn’t to say that my haiku are autobiographical. Sure, they’re informed by my lived experience, but very few of them are “about” specific things.

The ones that are have been tricky to write and torture to publish. I panicked so much every time I did. Honestly, I had visions of being inundated with messages from people saying “Is this true? When did it happen? Why didn’t you tell me?” and me having to hide in a hole to get over the anxiety crises that would result. (Especially from my family. Sorry, family. There are some things it’s hard to talk about.)

But they’ve mostly passed without comment. People, unconnected people, have said that they like them. The kind comments I’ve had on my work has been uplifting.. I can’t even tell you how much that means to me, that people think I’m producing poetry of quality and stuff that they want to read, during a project that started in therapy, as a way for me to build on my creative productivity, so I had a positive goal for each day that would also help me work therapy guidance into my everyday life.

Basically: these haiku aren’t just a vanity project, or a creative process. This is me giving myself the space to do several things that I find difficult to do, and having to do it again, once a day, for a long time, until things become normal..

The fact that I’m now 75% of the way through is… astounding. A relief at how relatively painless it’s been. I’ve only had one bad moment based on the fact that I’ve been writing these, and I was expecting so many more.

It was a pretty awful moment for a number of reasons, I’ll grant you, but this isn’t the time or place to discuss it.

I’ve written 75 poems this year. That’s enough on its own. But I’ve also managed to talk about things that are extremely hard to talk about, and do it in such a way that I don’t have to explain myself to people or confront the issues head-on. They’re far too tangled to confront head-on. But at least I know that, for myself, I’m getting my feelings about them out there.

For now, I think, that’s enough. I’ve written 75 poems, and every one was unplanned (which I find hard to do) and shared with the world (which I find even harder). I’m happy to have achieved what I have as I move forward into the final quarter.  I wonder what I’ll write. I think I even look forward to finding out.

Aisling edits ‘Write what you know’

This is me – my other identity, if you will. My writing name, and a different angle on blogging.

Aisling Edits

It’s a phrase that haunts the teaching and practise of writing, and I’m not sure it’s correct. I’ve heard it said so many times, and yet I’m not entirely sure what it means. ‘Write what you know’ suggests that your experience as a person is necessarily going to inform and improve your writing, but it doesn’t seem to suggest it in the right way. It also ties directly into the modern fad* of realism and ‘literary fiction’ somehow being more valuable and meaningful than genre fiction, because to ‘write what you know’ is, actually, not to conduct thought-experiments about alternative futures or to look for meanings in stories about worlds with magic or different systems of government. It undermines the power of imagination and the point of research.

In fact, I would argue that the books I dislike the most are the ones where writers have written ‘what they know’…

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100 Haiku Days: A Rather Odd-yssey

I have so far failed to blog about this on here, but for some time, I’ve been carrying out a haiku challenge that I made up (other people have done it too, of course, but I didn’t know who or what until I started hashtagging mine), based on how many of my friends are doing “100 Happy Days”. As you may have guessed, I imaginatively called it “100 Haiku Days”.

(Of course, I intend to have filled in my back catalogue, so by the time you actually read this, all of my haiku might be recorded in chronological order. Sorry for any temporal confusion.)

Why 100 Haiku, you ask?

Well, I love haiku. They’re lovely little snippets of poems, and if you’re doing them right, you have to really concentrate to make something of worth. Sure, you can just string seventeen syllables together in a five-seven-five pattern and you’ll technically have a haiku, but if you’re just writing “I am writing down / words until they make up the / syllables I need”, that’s not really a poem, is it? Even if it is, technically, a haiku. (Note: I’m speaking, of course, about the general conventions of the haiku in English. I know it has a distinct Japanese history, and also variations in English itself. But I wanted a structure, or it wouldn’t be a challenge, so I picked the generic haiku in English.)

One of the reasons the haiku’s focus on syllables is appealing to me is because so much poetry is written in a meter. Now, I love sonnets, and I love writing unmetered / unstructured poetry, too. But there’s something so appealing about the challenging of expressing something in such a terse way.

So a haiku is more than just syllables. In order to fly, a haiku has to be something (not even ‘about’ something, just be something) more than the sum of its parts. It’s a tiny moment of musing on something, and a good haiku will suggest a lot more than it says outright. This is one of the many reasons that I love haiku: they are poetic ambiguity in a very precise slice of form.

I used to assist on poetry-writing courses for gifted and talented youth (I run fiction-writing courses now, but not poetry), and Colin, the course director, always started with haiku. The focus on language, on producing a piece of poetry at such a small scale, was extremely challenging for many of our students. But invigorating, too.

I’ve always liked writing haiku because one of my main issues, as a writer and as a person, has always been that I have a huge storm of thoughts and feelings in my head, and I struggle to understand them, and I get overwhelmed. (In case you didn’t already know, I have an anxiety disorder, I have done for many, many years, but I was only given medication for it earlier this year.) So I have been drawn to haiku because, when you write them, you have to focus very hard on one thought at a time, and on the best way of expressing it so that it’s a tiny, seventeen-syllable story.

In fact, I really started writing haiku again when I started therapy for my anxiety disorder. The first session was that awful, peeling-away-the-skin session, which – even though my therapist is absolutely lovely – is still really, really hard to do. ‘Hello, I’m going to sit here and recite to you twenty years of reasons why I’m in your chair,’ nobody enjoys saying ever. I left that office feeling like I’d been scrubbed raw, naked and bleeding and so very, very vulnerable. Afterwards, I just sat, and shook, and eventually, without even really realising what I was doing, I picked up my pen and I wrote thirty or so fairly traumatised haiku. They weren’t very good poetically, but they didn’t need to be, because they were for me and I’m not showing them to anyone in a hurry.

I didn’t even realise what I was writing about until I’d written six or seven. And then a real issue started to resolve itself, something that I very rarely talk about, and I wrote about that instead – one haiku at a time, one thought at a time. And by the end, I’d worked my way through it. And I realised that writing about it made me feel a lot better.

So the next day, I decided that I was going to write one a day for a hundred days. It was quite a spur-of-the-moment decision, to be honest. I wrote a haiku, tagged it #100haikudays, and got on with my day. And the next day, I did another. And that’s what I’ve done, every day since. And I really, really enjoy it.

Haiku aren’t very demanding. Okay, you’ve got to say something and it’s got to be more than a brief description in tortured nouns of what you’re doing at the moment (which I see people do a lot, and it makes me wince). I’ve really grown to love my project, and I’m looking forward to the others that I’m going to write. Which is a delightful feeling. And perhaps they’ll touch on things that I feel or that I think, but generally they’re little musings of whatever’s flitting through my mind at the time. I don’t think I’m comfortable publishing deeply personal poetry yet. Maybe I never will be. Who knows? If I get there, I’ll blog about it.

I’ve presented all of my haiku without commentary, on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, so that I have a nice photographic record of what I’ve done. Some of them have stories or ideas behind them, and if they speak loudly enough, I might add some commentary here (when I have time). I’m stuck into the project now (I’m 26% of the way through, but I’m going to backdate this post to May 18th, when I started writing it), and I’ve only just managed to sit down and write this – which, of course, should have been on Day 1. But then I don’t think I was ready to write this on Day 1.

So I’m going to put up and backdate my current collection of haiku here. And then I’m going to write and publish my thoughts about being a quarter of the way through, maybe in a while. In this way, I’m sure I’ll catch up to myself. Which, in all honesty, is how I feel about my therapy, too.

A love note to literature, and a P.S. with kisses for science

Everybody knows that being an artist isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially since the idea is fossilised in romantic layers truisms about starving for one’s art, or semi-cynical mocking of poetic tendencies and how bloody useless and impractical it sounds that, say, Alfred, Lord Tennyson took ten or so years to write a long-ish poem called The Holy Grail. I’ve heard scientists dismiss what sounds to me like fascinating research into medieval literary traditions as ‘pointless’ and ‘adding nothing real to human knowledge’. To the contrary, I argued, understanding medieval literary traditions broadens our knowledge of history, of religion, of the development of culture, the development of human subjectivity, psychology and of science itself. It was as ‘real’ a contribution to human understanding as studying, say, the evolution of star types (I should probably note at this juncture that both the medieval literary traditions, and the star-types astrophsyics, are the subjects of PhD theses written by friends of mine, who both attended Cardiff University). And that idea of ‘real’ knowledge is a weaselly little bastard, suggesting that some kinds of study are more valid than others but actually validating only the speaker’s view. To someone blindfolded, a tour around the Louvre will be less ‘real’ than the view impressed on them when sight is returned, and to wilfully blind yourself by arguing that some types of knowledge are more valid than others seems appallingly arrogant. To me, though any contribution to human knowledge is important, it’s a little less impressive to be looking a balls of gas billions and billions of light-years away than it is to be studying literature, which I view as a delightful blend of crystallised contemporary culture, imagination and language.

Art reflects life. It has to, in order to generate any meanings with its audience. And art requires an audience, is always painted or performed or screened for an audience. Shakespeare’s histories are full of references to Renaissance culture, because he wasn’t writing to an audience of classicists, he was writing to Renaissance people. Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970), a classic of science fiction, is packed full of adventures in phenomenally futuristic technology – but video is recorded on tapes, which must have made perfect sense at the time but are, of course, incongruously dated now. That’s what I mean by moments of culture crystallised in literature. And that’s one of the things that makes literature so crucial to human understanding – and I don’t just mean ‘art’ literature. I mean everything. I mean music, TV, magazines, pulpy crime thrillers, as well as the off-puttingly judgemental label ‘literary fiction’ – but my issues with literary fiction are an issue for another time.

For scientists (my absolutely not comprehensive, but instead dramatically-appropriate, sample of two scientists both had to be convinced of the value of literature) to dismiss literature as ‘unreal’ strikes me as not just frustrating, but frustratingly arrogant. Another scientist I know once asked me why I thought that literature could say anything about human psychology because the characters were made up. The question absolutely bowled me over. As a student of literature and a teacher of creative writing, I’d completely forgotten that something I took for granted was so unintuitive to someone else trained in a completely different discipline. Literature tells us about human psychology because it was written by a human being. On one level, it really is that simple. Literature tells us about history because it was written by people immersed in history; it tells us about culture because it both responds to and creates culture, be it high culture or popular culture; rinse and repeat for philosophy, sociology, even particular knowledge of science. It can be analysed in any way you like, meaning can be read into it in many ways, some of which are of course more useful and yielding than others, but it is always a contribution to human knowledge – even if that knowledge is a little bit meta, and tells you more about the critic than about the text, because it’s knowledge that is unusually reflexive about the human condition.

What bothered me the most about those exchanges, though, was the fact that they reflected a ‘division’ in intellectual pursuits that I had, innocently, assumed that people had grown out of because I’d grown out of it.

I’ve always believed that science and art are completely complimentary because they cover such different areas of human experience and knowledge. Literature generates a form of analysis that operates entirely outside the scientific method, which is one reason it’s so valuable – because the scientific method sometimes turns up in really peculiar places because people think it’s a better form of knowledge (but anybody who reads XKCD will know how untrue that is). At its most basic, empirical analysis of a book reveals: ink, words, pages, paper. The most casual literary analysis of scientific texts probably provides little more than a comment like ‘you haven’t consistently hyphenated jiggle-mapping’ (a sentence I have had the pleasure of uttering – to my friend who did a PhD in astrophysics, in fact). Physics can tell us truly amazing things about music, how it’s made, why things sound the way they do, but not why people like and dislike different things. The divergence in their interests makes sure that everything is covered, but also the comparison between disciplines, in a way, means that they can keep each other grounded.

This is also going up unedited, simply because I’m sleepy and I was just recording some ponderings. I may come back and tweak it later if it turns out I’ve done that thing where my brain was going faster than my fingers and I’ve missed key words out of sentences.

Losing the Plot: A Discovery of Drafting

So I’m trying to write a book. I’ve been, in one way or another, ‘trying to write a book’ since I was about five years old, except for the one I wrote when I was six (which was a Thomas the Tank Engine story) and the one I wrote when I was twelve (which was pretty much a patchwork of the kind of predictable fantasy stories that I liked when I was twelve, but still, I suppose 62 000 words, even if they are largely very silly and predictable words, isn’t bad for a Year 7) and have since disowned and hidden in a drawer, as I have done with pretty much all of my writing before the age of 15 because it was around 15 that I stopped being earnest and started being analytical and also angry.

Anyway. I find the process of writing both very hard and very easy, which is also how I tend to describe playing the violin – it’s something I started to do at a young age pretty much by accident, but it took me a long time to work out my method. I realised recently that playing the violin is, for me, simple and difficult: you put your fingers down in the right place to make the right sound. Easy. What took work was practising how to do it until I was playing music, not just squawking. And then it’s a case of getting better, and learning all of the things that make music lovely, and not just functional.

I’m wondering now why it took me so long to realise that writing is exactly the same. There’s a trick to it, and the trick is that you have to practise.

Also, having the talent doesn’t mean you’re going to be good straight away. You have to learn how to work at it. I took a long time working out how to work at something (if I’m completely honest, I’m still working out how to properly work at writing: I’ll let you know when I work it out). It can be a very slow process.

What’s slowest for me is my plots. They tend to start off with an idea – often a character springs up, or a situation. And then I try formulating it into a story, and it germinates for a little while, and then kaboom! Six billion little wiggly threads that all might go somewhere, or nowhere, but they won’t be going anywhere unless I think about them, and that’s a lot to think about. And it can take such a frustratingly long time to work through it.

If I’m completely honest, I think my plot problems are my biggest barrier in writing: because I don’t know what the story is going to be, I lose all confidence in writing, because I don’t want to write something and for it to feel written if I’m then going to have to go back and change it.

Today, though, I had a realisation. It was this: working on the plot is all very well, but if I’m not writing it, the story’s not going anywhere. It’s still just sitting there in my head, dry ingredients of ideas. When I actually mix them up and put them on the page, they might solve themselves. And they might not. If they do, that’s great – if not, then I will have to do some serious background work.

I’ve been doing a lot of background work for Passion recently – working out a little local history, some family relationships and political ties. And while I was doing it, I realised that what I was doing was essentially building scaffolding around a wall that wasn’t built yet. Now, I personally dislike stories that don’t seem to understand the world they operate in, or that clearly make up or alter the world in order to submit to the tyranny of the plot (see ‘Eddings and editing established reality’ below); I’m not a big fan of making things up as I go along. I like my stories to be coherent, I like worlds that are plausible and interesting. But all of that can have very little to do with the initial writing. As E. M. Forster had it in Aspects of the Novel, ‘a story can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next’. The story doesn’t care about background or what happened to the government of that world twenty years before the plot of the novel unless it’s directly relevant to that plot – and at the initial writing, the rough carving of the sculpture, it’s not necessary to know.

My epiphany, you see, was, very simply, about the power and the point of the first draft. I realised that it was ridiculous to be reluctant to write because my first draft wasn’t going to be good enough. I don’t know where or why I picked up the expectation that a story was going to slip, perfect and pearl-like, from my imagination onto paper, but it’s one that I am seriously having to combat now. I need to learn to lower my expectations and to know that, yes, while coherent details and world-building will probably make the novel very good in the end, they aren’t really what I need to be worrying about right now.

This post didn’t go exactly where I intended it to go, to be honest. It was going to be a consideration of plot problems and how to resolve them. I’m wondering if the answer to plot problems is to write everything down, stick it in a vague order and then go about filling all the holes, rather than spending ages planning it out first and then writing it up. Instead it turned into a rather personal analysis of my writing style, but still, it’s been useful. It seems that I started doing background work in an attempt to make the story better and therefore forgot the point of writing the first draft at all, whereas now I think I need a lot more writing and a little judicious planning on the side. I’ll let you know how the new method works out: now I just need to muster the courage to put it into practise.

Writing Matters: Eddings and editing established reality

So I’ve started re-reading a David Eddings book for winding-down-of-the-brain purposes, and my (possibly over-trained) English Literature brain has been Noting Things. Therefore it seemed perfectly logical to record them here, for Future Reference.

I read David Eddings because it is, for me, the mental equivalent of coming home after a long day and eating beans on toast for dinner (not that I’m knocking beans on toast. I am, in fact, a big fan – particularly when there’s marmite on the toast and cheese on the beans. Perfection). Eddings is safe, predictable medievalist fantasy set in a pseudo-Europe that, and this is perhaps the most interesting point for me, doesn’t allow the reader to quibble. At all. When reading, you are Told What Happens: a lot of information is Just True. Now, forgive me some of my references, because I’ve been enjoying TVTropes‘ company a lot lately (it is one of my favourite sites: funny, interesting and thought-provoking). They have a term, ‘Word of God’, for ‘what the author says about the world that must be true because s/he knows what s/he’s talking about as the author of the world’. I find, reading, that a lot of The Tamuli (that’s the series I picked up) comes across as extremely thinly-veiled Word of God. Eddings is telling what happens – even when it seems utterly out of character, illogical or just plain silly. Interestingly, Eddings is predictable in two ways: in the good old-fashioned way of it being predictable from the tropes he uses, but also because if you’ve read one Eddings, you’ve read them all, because he repeats his own tropes in extremely unsurprising ways.

As a reader, you willingly suspend your disbelief in order to let the story pass through your mind. But willingly suspending disbelief doesn’t mean we also suspend all rational and logical faculties along with it. I want my stories to be plausible, not suddenly have unexplained deus ex machina endings or a plot so clanging it’s ringing its own death knell.

Anyway. To illustrate Eddings’ patchwork reality, I refer to one character with whom I think the reader is supposed to be sympathetic explaining a sudden, unexpected political awareness as ‘I’m not manipulating royalty… I’m manipulating a woman, and I’m an expert at that’. Now, out of context that looks pretty dubious, right? But this is Eddings. Kalten is written a nice guy, so therefore his comments cannot mean anything cruelly underhand: Eddings’ narrative rhetoric has no truck with a questioning reader. So the reader is delivered the story sealed, as fact, with no space to question it. It’s a pretty standard tactic of quest-based or medievalistic fantasy: this happened, reader, deal with it. There’s no jiggling points-of-view, no unreliable narrator, no indication that the world is a mystery to be explored: it’s mapped and known, and, in its most reduced form, it’s a travel guide to a fantasy land (hello, Diana Wynne Jones).

Now, this can be very frustrating, particularly when it seems that established characters, situations, politics and back-stories are simply warped to the author’s will: forced into a different shape in order to facilitate the telling of the story. (This is a big part of my problem with J. K. Rowling, too, but that’s a story for another day. I’ve outlined a few notes below*.) I am going to use the phrase ‘fictional ontology’ to describe all these concepts, an ‘ontology’ being a term to describe the study of what there is: a formal system of knowledge that concerns itself with what exists. Eddings’ rhetorical style delivers a narrative that is, as noted above, ‘sealed’: it’s whole and incontestable by the reader, and therefore constructs what seems a similarly incontestable ontology. The world simply is the way it is: he’s given us the details, we as readers accept them in order to move on with the story. However, he then changes certain things, such as fluxes in the behaviour of established characters, when his plot requires it: someone suddenly swings between intuitive cleverness and comedic stupidity, for example. It drives me bonkers when writers do this, and particularly when Eddings does it, because it comes across as so lazy. He is basically editing his own reality in order to make the story work, but in editing that reality he ends up undermining it. Why can he not come up with something more plausible for the world he has created – the world that includes established characters? Why can he not write the story expanding on the ontology he’s already given us, rather than sticking a temporary patch over part of it until that part’s usefulness is complete? It is frustrating, because in a system where the writer is handing over incontestable pieces of reality, some parts of that reality are terribly inconsistent. You’d think he could pay attention to the details, right? (In fact, that his style seems inconsistent shows that the rest of his narrative does seem solid; the rest of his fictional ontology is not something we argue with (but he’s allowed to).)

This consistent handing over of facts then allows him to do some things that are quite genre savvy. It means that actually he can sneak a few nice twists up on the plot and the reader because the reader is so used to accepting everything the narrative says as a sealed fact. It’s a nice trick: it makes me think that sometimes he’s aware of the reader, and not just the story. In fact, my main criticism of a lot of writers, and particularly fantasy writers, is that they seem to get so focused on the story, on managing their ideas onto the page with words, that they forget that the reader’s there, and will have probably have questions and comments along the way. A reader wants to be fooled sometimes, wants to be teased with drips of information, wants to wonder various possibilities and motives, not just held in place while an infodump of a story is poured in her metaphorical ear.

Anyway. These are some of the thoughts that were flitting through my mind as I was skimming through Domes of Fire last night and this morning. In short, I want to read stories that have plausible ontologies, no ‘Giant Space Fleas from Nowhere‘ (TVTropes again) that appear in the plot and the author instructs me that this makes sense because it’s his story and he says so. I’m willingly suspending disbelief, and I enjoy willingly suspending disbelief, but I don’t like reading stories that don’t let the reader ask why. I don’t think a writer should be allowed to edit an established reality if they’re going to do it clumsily, and I don’t think writer or reader should be the slave of a story to the extent where nothing that the characters say or do seems to make sense with everything that’s gone before.

*J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t have a consistent fictional ontology in Harry Potter, which is part of why I find it so unsatisfying (and also a part of why she often looks very silly in question-and-answer sessions). She makes things up as she goes along in the worst possible way. Obviously, to a certain extent, all writers make things up as they go along, but J. K. doesn’t seem to direct an analytical eye at her work at all, and so all of her plot solutions just appear out of nowhere. The initial Horcruzes are pretty much the only satisfying Chekhov’s gun in the whole thing, and that’s only when you’re re-reading it: everything else just appears ‘like magic’. Things shouldn’t appear like magic: they should appear like something magical that makes sense for the world that’s been created.