Monthly Archives: June 2013
The horse wouldn’t stop running. She knew this wasn’t right; horses couldn’t run this fast for long. At such a hard gallop a horse would need to rest every now or then or its heart would burst. This horse didn’t seem to tire, even as it moved at a rate that faster than any horse she had ever seen. She accepted it. What could you except from the horse of a woman who lived miles from anyone and played with golden apples?
The horse did not slow as the sun set. As the stars came out she fell asleep while holding on to its neck. She woke several times during the night, and each time she woke the horse was galloping as fast as it ever was. Her muscles were sore, her bones felt out of joint, and her stomach growled with hunger, but she clung to the horse as hard as she could. The horse seemed to be aiming for a mountain in the distance.
Around noon, as they climbed rocky slopes in the mountain’s foothills, she spotted a cabin. A woman sat on the porch with a bag of wool beside her. She was combing it clean with golden carding comb. The horse brought her to front of the cabin and came to a halt. She practically fell off the side of it. Then, remembering the last woman’s words, she hit the horse as hard as she could behind its left ear. The horse bolted back the way it came as fast as it had come. The old woman gave her a quizzical look.
“Well that was my neighbor’s horse allright, but you don’t look like my neighbor. What are you doing here girl? This is no place for a little thing like you.”
“I’m…I’m looking for a castle that’s east of the sun and west of the moon. I need to find it before the prince there gets married to a horrible troll.”
“How d’you know about that? Oh wait a minute, wait a minute! Are you the one he was supposed to have instead?” She nodded. The old woman clicked her tongue. “Oh it’s a hard blow you done him girl. You were his last hope!”
“What do you mean? How do you know all about this?”
“Settle down there. I can see you’ve come a long way so I’ll get you something to eat. Just wait right there.” The old woman walked inside the cabin, and returned with a cast iron pan full of hot fish. It tasted delicious.
“Well let’s see. It’s a long story child, but I don’t know it all anyway so I think I can make it short. The prince lived with his father, and then his poor mother died, and then his father got entranced with a beautiful woman who he married right away but turned out to be nothing but a mean old troll in disguise, not that he knew it anyway since she kept her bad side hid till’ the “But…why did she—?”
“No time to chat dear. I can see now that you’re not going to give up on your prince there, which I most approve of, lucky for you! Now I’m afraid to say I don’t know where the castle is precisely, but my neighbor knows more of the tale than I do and she might have heard of its whereabouts. Take my horse here, he’ll get you there right quick. When you get there just give a tap behind his left ear and he’ll come back to me.” Before she could react another horse had made its way to her from behind the cabin, and the old woman was helping her onto its back. “Go on, go on, before I think better of it. Oh, and here, you must take my carding comb. It may come in handy! Or not, you never know. Either way you’ll get the castle late or early, I can feel it in my ligaments.”
“Wait, I’m not sure—”
“There you go! Hup hup!” With that the old woman struck the horse’s rump and sent it galloping off towards the horizon.
End of Part 10
Hey everybody! I’m sorry to say that Storytime Friday will have to be delayed to Saturday. If your response to that is “But it’s Saturday right now” my answer is that it’s not yet Saturday in Alaska! Ha! Anyway, check in tomorrow, sorry for the delay.
I had an idea for today’s post, but somewhere along the way I forgot it completely.
Now the question is, what to talk about? And for how long? I honestly haven’t got a thought in my head right now. Nothing worth writing down, anyway. I have a couple of new story ideas I’m working on, but I’m going to try to get those published so I don’t really want to talk about them here. If they go through the ranks without getting published I’ll think about putting them up. Just so you know, it can be extremely frustrating to submit something to a publisher. They often don’t get back to you for weeks, yet each one states firmly that they don’t want you sending your story to multiple places at once. So I have to go down the line, one publisher at a time, until finally it’s either been rejected by all or (and the hope lives eternal that I might see this day) it’s accepted. Right now the story I’m sending through the loop has one rejection and has been locked up by the next guy for about two weeks now. Very frustrating.
I have a set list and a set order that I haven’t had to break yet. Since all I’ve tried to publish so far is science fiction they’re all sci-fi publications. I start with Clarksworld because they’re the best I’m likely to get. They’re well known in the field for providing excellent sci-fi short stories, and they also pay the most per word (something to remember: if you want the best work then pay the most for it). Then I send it over to Daily Science Fiction because they pay the next highest. Finally I send it to Lightspeed Magazine because it pays the least. I don’t have any on the list after that. The way I figure if those three haven’t snapped it up then no one else is likely to.
Soon enough I’ll send my next story down the pipeline to Clarksworld. I’ve got it written up already, I just need to read it again with fresh eyes before sending it off. Hopefully by the time Clarksworld rejects it Daily Science Fiction will have dealt with my last story. They don’t want you sending multiple stories at once.
So, that’s my little non-post for today. Hope it was mildly interesting, I’ll see you Friday for some more Storytime.
Lately, as far as writing goes, I’ve felt like a failure. I want to be a writer, yet I haven’t gotten a single article published. So far out of three stories I’ve sent in to publishers I’ve had two rejected and one trapped in a “maybe” limbo that has been going on for almost a year now. So you can understand why I’m feeling a little down about the whole thing. I guess I don’t have what it takes yet. At my lowest points I start to think I never will.
But then I started reading up on Isaac Asimov.
Isaac Asimov is a literary hero of mine. It all started my freshman year of high school when a venerable old physics teacher inexplicably asked me to speak with me. My school had something called “SSR” which supposedly stood for “Silent Sustained Reading” but actually translated into “Do what you want as long as you don’t make any noise.” For 15 a day everyone was supposed to read a book. As a bookworm I appreciated being able to openly read during school hours (as opposed to my usual practice of hiding a book under my table during the middle of a lecture). I guess my teacher noticed that I read some sci-fi books. Or not. Honestly I don’t know what attracted his attention to me. All I knew was that he wanted to talk to me. He asked me what kind of books I liked to read. Being awkward and afraid of authority I mumbled something respectful and non-committal. He asked if I likes science fiction. When I told him yes, he opened up a rather large drawer under his lab bench. The drawer was filled with worn and somewhat yellowed paperbacks. He grabbed one, handed it to me, and said “Here, you can borrow this. I think you’ll like it.” Out of respect I accepted it, though I was annoyed. I’m one of those types who hates it when others tell me what books to read (even if they’re good books! I don’t know what it is, but if you want me to put off reading a book hand it to me and tell me I just have to read it. I’ll avoid it like a colonoscopy). Still, for some reason, I decided to read it. That book was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and it opened up new doors for me.
I loved (and still loved) Foundation. I read the next two books in the trilogy and felt hungry for more. I checked out every book written by Asimov that I could find in the school library. I ate it up. I still love finding new Asimov stories I’ve never read before in an old bookstore or Goodwill (which are my usual places to look to buy books, considering my budget). Despite my love of Asimov I still haven’t read even half of what he wrote. That’s because he published an incredible amount of work. Despite my best efforts (read: ten minutes of Googling) I can’t find a definite number for the amount of short stories alone that Asimov wrote. I did find a fairly exhaustive list of his short stories, which you can find here. He published at least one short story a year (with the exception of 1963 and 1971), and typically published at least five or six from 1939 to 1991 (he died in 1992). And that’s just his short fiction. Asimov wrote hundreds of books, both fiction and non-fiction. The man was a master of consistently exceptionally writing.
When I decided that I’d like to become a writer I wanted to be just like him. Still, I knew that Asimov was an exceptional talent. Once he went in to deliver one of his stories by hand, and an editor told him that they had an opening they needed to fill up. He sat down and wrote a short story right there on one of their typewriters in about a half hour. They bought it on the spot. He was incredible.
So naturally I felt like a failure compared to him. None of my stories have been published. I can’t rattle off a (good) piece of fiction in only a half hour. I’m just not talented enough.
But then I picked up a little anthology I found called The Early Asimov. It’s an anthology of some of his early and little known published work, and Asimov writes about what was going on in his life and his writing career at the time. It was there that I discovered that the first three short stories Asimov ever submitted to a publisher where rejected. Two more were rejected later that year, after his first success. This didn’t suddenly stop either; Asimov had works rejected regularly in his early career. There were several points where he says that another rejection might have caused him to give up on writing altogether. He had low points where he felt like he might as well give up on the whole writing thing. He certainly didn’t feel like a genius talent.
And that’s because he wasn’t yet.
We have a bad habit of putting too much emphasis on natural talent when it comes to attributing success. We say that someone succeeds because they were just naturally better at it. My experience is a little different though. I think Isaac Asimov became a stellar writer of sci-fi because he kept writing sci-fi. I think he reached the point where he could bang out a good story in a half hour because he had so much experience banging out stories before that. Every story he wrote (even the rejected ones) taught him a little more about writing. In the end, after writing such a massive volume of work, how could he be anything but great? He worked hard. He kept trying. In the end he became one of the greatest writers of science fiction of all time.
I’m just starting out. I don’t think I’ll ever get close to the success of Isaac Asimov. But I do know that I can write. I can write a little better for every story I actually commit to paper. As long as I keep writing I will get somewhere. So what if my stories have all been rejected so far? So were Asimovs. Someday I’ll make a sale. And then I’ll get rejected some more until I make another one.
3 published, 8 rejected.
Here come’s part nine of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” for your reading enjoyment. You may have noticed that this and the last Storytime Friday are a little smaller than usual. Well, that’s on purpose. I don’t want to lose steam again, and I know that you’d rather have short but regular updates over long but sporadic ones. At least, I hope you do. Anyway! Enjoy!
She traveled for many days. She lived off the land, eating what roots, bitter herbs, and berries she could find. When her family was in their lowest poverty she had to learn to forage. There wasn’t much to find in the woods though.
She got used to going to sleep hungry.
The mountain loomed larger and larger before her. As her path became steeper, she wondered whether this had been a wise choice. What was she going to do? Climb the entire mountain and look around for far off castles? Lacking any better option she trudged onward.
As she crested a foothill she spied a cottage sitting by a brook not far away. It was a small building, built of pine that had aged into a dull grey. The roof’s shingles were falling apart in many places, some hanging by only a nail. Still, someone had patched up any leaks in the roof as best they could, and smoke was drifting slowly out of a crooked slate chimney. An old black horse was grazing in a patch of weeds beside the house. Beside the front door was an old wooden chair, carved with images of rabbits and birds and little bearded men. In the chair sat an old women, dressed in plain clothing that had no holes but had been patched and sewn up many times.
As she approached the house she saw that the old woman was holding something in her hands. The woman would polish it, and stare into it, and occasionally throw it up into the air and catch it in her lap. As she got closer she saw that it was a golden apple, gleaming like frozen sunlight. The woman showed no sign of noticing her as she approached. It wasn’t until she was only a few feet away that the old woman spoke.
“Odd thing, you showing up.”
She was taken aback. “I’m sorry. What’s so odd?”
“Nobody shows up, that’s what’s odd. Not out ere’. Specially not someone your age.” The old woman set the apple in her lap and peered up at her with small, cloudy blue eyes. “Where’d you come from that you’d end up on my doorstep?”
“I’m…I’m looking for a place. It’s very far away, I’m told.” She decided she might as well ask for help. What did she have to lose? “It’s a castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon.”
“Why’d you want to go to a place like that?”
“Well, you see, I need to find a prince who lives there with his stepmother. If I don’t get there soon he’ll be forced to marry a…well a troll, who I’m told has a nose as long as his arm!” She felt embarrassed to tell such a wild story, but it was the truth. There was no avoiding it.
“How do you know about that!” the old women cried, to her surprise.
“Well, how do you know about that?” she answered back.
The old women looked at her out of the corner of her eye and said “It’s my business to know things.” She snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it! You’re her! You’re the lady who was supposed to get him! You’re the one that looked, ain’t you?”
She shuddered. “Yes. Yes, I’m the one who looked. But I’m trying to find him now, since he can’t come to me. Can you help me?”
“Huh.” The old woman began sucking on her knuckle. “Hmmm…don’t know about that. Don’t know at all.” She rocked back and forth in her chair. “Well I suppose it would be nicer for him to have a girl like you than that nasty troll. Still, all I know is that the castle is east of the sun and west of the moon, wherever that may be, and you’re sure to get there late or never. But I will lend you my horse. On him you can ride to my neighbor, a very old friend of mine. Perhaps she can tell you; she knows a lot of things that others don’t.” The women got up from the chair, grabbed the apple, and led her over to the horse. “When you get to her house just give my horse here a good whack under his left ear, and he’ll come home again.” The crone helped her get up onto the horse, and then held out the golden apple. “You better take this too. It might help! You never know.” Before she could refuse the old woman gave the horse a sound slap on its rump and the beast was off and running.
End of Part 9
I’ve been off here and there on the internet, as I’m wont to do. Lately I ran across a little mess that I had to poke my nose into. I ended up getting into a discussion with a certain atheist (I almost hesitate to call him that: not that he isn’t an atheist, but that his behavior is so regrettable that I don’t want to insult the many articulate, thoughtful, and reasonable atheists I know by putting him and them in the same category). To make a long story short the discussion came down to me asking him for evidence that naturalism is true. He responded with something along the lines of “300 years of scientific progress.” I kindly asked him to explain what he meant by that, and what exactly scientific progress had to do with philosophical naturalism, and he merely rattled off as many scientific fields as he could think of. “Biology, geology, chemistry, physics” etc. When I asked him, again, for a specific argument he merely replied with “e=mc2”.
I never did get a straight answer out of him, but it reminded me of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s first published novel The Pilgrim’s Regress. The book is purely allegorical, following after the example of The Pilgrim’s Progress by describing the journey of a man named John from his home in the land of Puritania to the wild lands of various human philosophies, customs, and fads before finally returning home again. The particular passage I’m thinking of came soon after John left Puritania when he was picked up by a nice old fat man on a cart by the name of Mr. Enlightenment. John left Puritania in search of a beautiful island that he experienced visions of back home. All his life he’s been taught about the Landlord (who represents God) by Stewards (who are essentially pastors and priests). Mr. Enlightenment soon strikes up a conversation with John.
“‘And where might you come from, my fine lad?’ said Mr. Enlightenment
‘From Puritania, sir,’ said John.
‘A good place to leave, eh?’
‘I am so glad you think that,’ cried John. ‘I was afraid—‘
‘I hope I am a man of the world,’ said Mr. Enlightenment. ‘Any young fellow who is anxious to better himself may depend on finding sympathy and support in me. Puritania! Why, I suppose you have been brought up to be afraid of the Landlord.’
‘Well, I must admit I sometimes do feel rather nervous.’
‘You may make your mind easy, my boy. There is no such person.’
‘There is no Landlord?’
‘There is absolutely no such thing–I might even say no such entity–in existence. There never has been and never will be.’
‘And this is absolutely certain?’ cried John; for a great hope was rising in his heart.
‘Absolutely certain. Look at me, young man. I ask you–do I look as if I was easily taken in?’
‘Oh, no,’ said John hastily. ‘I was just wondering, though. I mean–how did they all come to think there was such a person?’
‘The Landlord is an invention of those Stewards. All made up to keep the rest of us under their thumb: and of course the Stewards are hand in glove with the police. They are a shrewd lot, those Stewards. They know which side their bread is buttered on, all right. Clever fellows. Damn me, I can’t help admiring them.’
‘But do you mean that the Stewards don’t believe it themselves?’
‘I dare say they do. It is just the sort of cock and bull story they would believe. They are simple old souls most of them–just like children. They have no knowledge of modern science and they would believe anything they were told.’
John was silent for a few minutes. Then he began again:
‘But how do you know there is no Landlord?’
‘Christopher Columbus, Galileo, the earth is round, invention of printing, gunpowder!’ exclaimed Mr. Enlightenment in such a loud voice that the pony shied.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said John.
‘Eh?’ said Mr. Enlightenment.
‘I didn’t quite understand,’ said John.”
Mr. Enlightenment’s “answer” to John’s question was something so ridiculous I’d never imagined I’d find an actual human being making it. Rattling off a series of unrelated scientific achievements tells us nothing about the existence of God, or the veracity of philosophical naturalism. Yet here I found it thrown at me in an actual discussion.
As I’ve said before, science and Christianity (theism in general, actually) get along perfectly well philosophically. I will never understand why science is used as an argument against it. It brings to my mind Mr. Enlightenment’s closing words to John on the subject:
“When you have had a scientific training you will find that you can be quite certain about all sorts of things which now seem to you only probable.”
Recently (just this morning, in fact, while taking a shower) I came up with an interesting idea for a short story. Lately I’ve been trying to get one of my little sci-fi short stories published somewhere, and the story I’m currently sending around doesn’t look very promising. One of the big things that reduce its chances is that it’s a longer piece (around 3,700 words). The sci-fi mags I’ve been sending to prefer shorter stories. They have two very good reasons for to: firstly, a shorter piece costs them less money (since they pay by the word) and secondly shorter stories are easier to read, especially on the web. So I’ve been on the lookout for some short story ideas that I can work out in only a few hundred words or so.
The idea I found this morning fit under that description pretty well (at least, I think so; I know myself, and I could probably stretch it out to a couple thousand if I’m not careful). I really like the story, I like how it will flow, I like the message it will send, I like the characters I’ve thought up. I have only one problem: the story isn’t sci-fi. There is nothing about the story that requires any sci-fi elements whatsoever. Now naturally I could put it in a sci-fi setting with no problems; but the story works just as well in the 1800s as it would in the year 3000. So why am I limiting myself to a sci-fi setting?
That got me thinking. I know a good amount about submitting to sci-fi publications, but I hadn’t researched any other genre of fiction. I remembered my creative writing class where my teacher told us that, while he personally really enjoyed “genre fiction” (which means sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, etc) it was “literary fiction” that would really make your career as a writer. I was interested at first, especially when I heard that he’d had a few short stories published himself. I quickly lost interest after I asked him how much literary magazines typically paid, and he told me that he was never actually paid for his work. Instead by being published he had gained greater exposure. It helped his reputation, so that eventually he could be published by the big and prestigious magazines and could generally make a name for himself in the literary world. That was a big turn off for me. I’m open to being wrong, but I have studied (metaphorically) under the school of artists like Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellett, and my big brother Steve Hamilton (whose wonderful works you can find here, among other places), all of whom taught me three things: your art is worth something, people who claim that their “exposure” is better than getting paid are trying to take advantage of you, and you should never sell away all the rights to your work. Now lesson three doesn’t really apply here, but lessons one and two kept me from investigating literary fiction any further. Still, now I had a cool story idea that didn’t by necessity have to be “genre.” Why not give non-genre publications a chance?
So I did some investigating. I’d like to share my findings with you, as small and cursory as they are, in the case that you might find them useful or interesting.
Lets look first at the biggest and the best literary magazines. These are the ones that I know I have no chance of getting into. Still, why not start at the top? I did the same thing when I was researching what was a reasonable price to be paid for sci-fi short stories. In that case I found that the best and most prestigious publications paid more, but not significantly more, than the more middle of the road publications. Figuring out what the big boys pay gives me a good sense of what the ceiling is for literary short stories, regardless of my (non-existent) chance of getting published in them. I looked at five magazines I got from a “Most Prestigious Literary Magazines” list. Number one was The New Yorker, which was surprising to me. I didn’t know that The New Yorker published short stories. As it turns out they only publish one an issue, so it’s not surprising that I was unaware. They take unsolicited submissions online, though they didn’t say how much they would pay on their website. I Googled around and found that nobody (except the people at the New Yorker and the writers who are published) knows precisely how much they pay for a story. However we do know that they pay a LOT. Thousands of dollars per story seems typical. Of course this is The New Yorker we’re talking about, so I didn’t expect anything near that from any publication I could get published in.
Ploughshares gave me a more believable (from my point of view) price point. They pay $25 a page with a minimum payment of $50 and a maximum of $250. That’s compares very reasonable to sci-fi pricing which pays about 5 to 10 cents a word typically, which translates to about $15-$30 dollars a page. The other three magazines on my list (The Atlantic, Harpers, and Tin House) didn’t list any price whatsoever. Still, I had my data point. Now I investigated a few middle of the road publications at random to see what I might be able to get for my story.
I discovered two things: first, there is a huge amount of literary magazines to choose from. There are hundreds. Some are well respected publications with a large readership. Some are sponsored by a university. Some are just glorified WordPress blogs. The second thing is that almost none of them are willing to pay for your work. After slogging through a dozen I only found one that provided compensation, and they paid a flat fee of $25 regardless of length. The rest weren’t willing to put up a dime. One of them in particular really got me riled up. I won’t name names (I don’t want to give them the traffic) but the “magazine” was just a WordPress blog with it’s own domain. In the first paragraph on their submissions page they let people know that “Our only criteria is quality.” Really? So you want quality work, but you’re not willing to pay for it? Cuz hey, for what you’re paying (that is, zilch) I’d gladly let you publish the stories that the paying publications rejected. If you want my quality work then you’ll have to pay for it. What would you think if someone put out an ad saying “WANTED: skilled carpenters to remodel kitchen. Only applicants that do quality work will be accepted. We won’t pay you, but you’ll get some exposure when we show our kitchen off.”
That wouldn’t have been enough to warrant complaining about here on the blog, but what I found next put me over the edge. Apparently they’re in the midst of selling a book collection of the stories they’ve published this year. This was bad enough (the stories were good enough to sell at a profit, but not good enough to pay for?) but what I found next took the cake. They were having a “submission contest” for stories to put into their next book. They charged $11 for the privilege to submit a story to be considered for publication. They are charging writers so that they can, in turn, sell their work to other people at a profit. One story would be chosen as the grand winner. I thought “Alright, maybe they’re not total scumbags. Maybe the cash prize is worth the risk. Then I found out that the grand prize was 100 copies of the final book, to sell on your own or give to your friends.
Let me just spell this out, one more time. They are charging writers for the privilege of having their work sold at a profit without compensation for the hope of winning a prize that consists of advertising their publication for them.
The mind boggles.
Listen, maybe I’m a crazy coot. I haven’t sold a single story, haven’t made a single penny at writing yet. So take my advice with a generous helping of salt. But please, if you’re an aspiring writer out there, listen to me. If your work is good enough to be published (ie, good enough for them to make money off of it) then it is good enough pay for. Do not devalue your own work. Writing is a skill, a skill that takes time and effort to sharpen. Insist on being compensated.
As for me, I’m going to take my short story idea and place it in a sci-fi setting. Because at least they respect that a writer deserves to be paid.
It’s back! After an eight month hiatus (wow, that long? Jeez, guess I really dropped the ball on that one) Storytime Fridays have returned! It’s been so long that I (briefly) thought about starting over with a brand new story. Thankfully I decided not to, especially considering how I left the story off on a cliff hanger. You can find Part 7 here if you want to brush up on what just happened previously. If you want to start from the beginning I suggest going to the Storytime Fridays page and scrolling down a bit.
This section was shorter than I prefer, but I know that it’s better to have a short section than no update at all! Enjoy.
She wasn’t sure what to do. For a while she sat there, in the grass, holding her knees tight against her chest. She stared into the woods. She was cold. The sky was gray with clouds. It might rain soon. She knew that she needed to do something, but she didn’t know what. She thought about going home, but she didn’t know if she could find her way back without the bear. A sudden thought chilled her even more. What if the spell had broken there too? Did her brothers and sisters wake to find their fine farm melted away to nothing? She shook her head, trying to throw off that thought. The bear had never said that their happiness would go away; just ours. They hadn’t made any promises not to look. They were surely fine.
She supposed that it would be possible to find her way back to the farm. It would take a long time, but it seemed her best bet. It would be easier at least than trying to find a castle she had never seen, in a place that was impossible to reach. She could be happy there, with her family around her. She could live there for a long time. Maybe someday she’d find another man, and they’d get properly married in a church and they could be happy together. Or she could just stay on the farm, and live a long life of peace. Either option seemed preferable to wandering through the forest in rags searching for what can’t be found.
But she couldn’t bring herself to move. She sat there so long that birds came down and started hunting for worms and seeds around her. She knew what the smart choice to make was. She just found that she couldn’t take it. She didn’t want to go home. She wanted to find the bear. Find her bear. She’d broken every promise she had ever made to him, but she didn’t want to break her last one. She said she would try to find him.
So she would.
The birds were startled when she stood, and flew off into the woods. She dusted herself off and looked around. Which way should she go? East to the sun? Or west to the moon? Either choice would take her farther away from the other. And how could you catch either one, no matter how far you walked?
She saw a mountain to the north. Perhaps she could see the way to go from there.
I want to attempt to describe a beautiful image to you. It’s an image that I’ve held on to for two years now. It came to me, almost fully formed, two years ago. I’ve been holding on to it ever since. I try to keep it in my mind as best I can.
C.S. Lewis said that his fiction writing almost always started with an image. Story would follow after that. When I read that my heart sunk a little. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I’ve never approached it like that. I’ve always first thought up histories, settings, cultures, etc., and then tried to somehow coax a decent story out of all that. This method is all well and good, but it lacks something. Something really special. Why are the Chronicles of Narnia still considered classics among the sea of fantasy writing? What is that special something that makes good fiction into great fiction, into fiction that can touch people’s lives forever? The stories I come up with are interesting and make for good reading (at least I’d like to think so) but they have a dullness and flatness about them. They remind me of old clockwork wind up toys: they may be excellently crafted, and their inner mechanisms may be very complex and intricate, but they aren’t very beautiful to look at. I’ve read many books that I’ve felt similarly about. They have an abundance of skill but are lacking in soul. And how can you produce soul? You can practice your skills until they’re sharp as a razor, but I know of no practice that can help you in constructing soul. I want to write fantasy. More than anything I’d like to write something like the Chronicles of Narnia, something with even an tiny fraction of it’s power and beauty. The method I was most used to wouldn’t work to get there. Worldbuilding, fun as it is, just won’t cut it alone. I found that confirmed by Lewis himself. As a boy he played at worldbuilding too. He created a whole imaginary country called Animal-Land, complete with a long and detailed history, dozens of characters, culture, trade, wars, adventures, etc. However, this is what he wrote about it later in life:
“…in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist. Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. For readers of my children’s books, the best way of putting this would be to say that Animal-Land had nothing whatever in common with Narnia except the anthropomorphic beasts. Animal-Land, by its whole quality, excluded the least hint of wonder (Surprised by Joy, pg 15).”
My next questions, of course, was how Lewis went from Animal-Land to Narnia: how did he capture that sense of wonder? Then I read that Lewis first came up with Narnia, not as a civilization or an interesting idea, when the image came to him one day of a lamppost in a snowy woods, and a faun walking by. The image came first. Everything else followed. This, I thought to myself, is what I’m missing. This, perhaps, is where soul comes from. The problem is that I could find no way to force images to come to me. I still can’t. The element I believed was missing was something I couldn’t create with hard work.
But then, as if by chance, an image came. It came in the most unlikely of places: my Introduction to Christian Doctrine class. Our teacher was a very kind, and very wise, old scholar who had written so many influential books on early Christianity that he really should have been teaching somewhere far more prestigious. Instead he was with us, lecturing on the development of doctrine in the early church in his own gentle tones. The subject on the day the image came was on different conceptions of Christ. I can’t remember exactly what he said. I only know that, at some point, he mentioned the idea that death, in taking Jesus’s life, inadvertently swallowed the source of all life itself. The idea that life is stronger than death thrilled me; that in the presence of life death flees as darkness flees in the presence of light. Suddenly my mind was flooded with images. A black, inky landscape. A mansion made of charred bones. A captive comes before a throne, and on the throne stirs a skeletal figure draped in tattered grey shroud. He is Death himself, ruler of the world, the final conqueror. All must come before him and submit to his rule. All will be brought to stillness, and dust. This captive is no different. Death rises to consume him as all other have been consumed before. Death feared this man once, but now he is within his own domain, the source of Death’s power. But bringing the captive here was a mistake. Unknowingly Death has invited Life itself into his home. Too late he realizes his error. He tries to throw his prisoner out of the mansion, but already vines are growing on the dusty bone walls. Already green is spreading. Already Death himself finds flowers sprouting from his skull…
The description does the image a great disservice. It does not capture it, not by a half. That’s the trouble. The image is more than just a collection of objects, colors, and shapes. It’s a living thing in my mind. Concepts and visuals intertwined into more than I can adequately express. When I read the description I just wrote I feel embarrassed. It’s just not right! It’s as close as I can come right now, but it’s so far from what I see.
Still, I wanted to share it with you today. I’m going to hang on to this image. Someday I will find a story I can attempt to place it in. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to share with others what I see. But perhaps not. I’ll leave you with one last Lewis quote. I didn’t understand it when I first read it. But I understand it now, and I know that even he struggled mightily to share what was really in his mind. This excerpt is from a letter he wrote to a girl who wanted his advice on a piece of her writing.
“You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”
That’s the problem with my description. I can try to express the images: but the images are only settings for the thing itself.
As I mentioned last week, my blog’s one year anniversary was last Thursday. When I started the blog I had no idea what the blog was going to be about. I only had one goal: to write three posts a week for the purpose of improving my writing ability. Now obviously I did not succeed at that. But I did give it my best shot. The question is, how well did I do overall? If this was a test would I get a D or a B-?
Let’s take a look.
There are 52 weeks in a year. Simple math tells us that means a total target number of 156 posts. However, it’s not that simple. There were also two weeks where I announced that I would be unable to post at all due to inescapable life events, one week where I could only post once due to sickness, and a period of seven weeks where I changed the update schedule to twice a week. Putting all that into account, the target number becomes 141 posts.
To date I have posted 88 times.
A little time and a little help from the calculator tells me that my “grade” for the year is 62.4%. A D-.
Huh. That was worse than I thought.
On the other hand, I didn’t get an F. And those 88 posts are 88 more than I started with.
So, out with the old and in with the new! Let’s see if I can beat a D- this year.