General Writing

Finishing a Novel

Ever since I was twelve, I wanted to write a novel. Over the years, I tried several times, but I never got very far in my efforts. Usually, I never got past the first chapter. Somewhere, though, I gained the necessary knowledge and persistence, and on July 23, 2021, at 3:20 pm, I wrote the last words of a fantasy called The Bone Ransom. The fact that I noted the time so exactly indicates how important the milestone is to me.

I have written three non-fiction books: a critical study of the fantasy writer Fritz Leiber, and a how-to about LibreOffice and another about making ebooks with open source applications. They are satisfying accomplishments in their own way, but definitely consolation prizes. For me, the first prize has always been a novel.

So how do I feel? I am still struggling to understand, but my first reaction is that I feel like I can rest. I struggled with the last few chapters, seeming to have a block against finishing. Months ago, I settled into the routine of drafting, and part of me wanted to stay in the safety of that familiar territory. One day, my anxiety about moving on became so extremely that I literally was unable to touch-type. Now, I feel that I can take some time off, or maybe try a short story or two that I can finish in a few weeks.

More importantly, I feel justified. Not many people, I suspect, manage to fulfill their lifelong ambitions. I have achieved my self-chosen, existential goals. Fiction, I believe, is what I have chosen to do, and my life has not been wasted. The result is a quiet, but definite satisfaction, accompanied by a paranoid obsession with backups so that I don’t lose the manuscript. Backup glitches were disturbing enough when the work was incomplete. Now, I don’t want to lose any of the 95,000 odds words, except through editing.

Both these reactions, of course, are tempered by the fact that, as satisfying as completion of the manuscript might be, it is only just a start. Ahead of me lie final edits, and after that the process of querying agents and publishers. I may not know for several years whether my novel will be picked up by a traditional publisher, or if I will self-publish. For this reason, as I contemplate my accomplishment, my strongest feeling is simply: Good start.

General Writing, Uncategorized

Story conflict without violence: Victoria Goddard’s The Hands of the Emperor

Writers often talk about conflict, but much of what they say is wrong. Too often, they are likely to see the word “conflict” and assume it means violence, especially in their opening hook. This assumption can quickly become a problem, because –let’s face it — many writers have no experience of violence. Moreover, if you start with a sword fight or a chase, you create the additional problem of making readers care about a character they know nothing about. Even more importantly, if you identify conflict with violence, you risk a crude and unsubtle story.

So what’s the alternative? In The Hands of the Emperor, a long self-published novel that is currently attracting widespread attention, Victoria Goddard offers one alternative: instead of external conflict, try internal conflict instead. Here’s how she does it:

Her main character, Cliopher Mdang, is the only member of his family to seek a career abroad. He has become personal secretary to the Emperor, the manager of the imperial bureaucracy, and a byword for efficiency. He rarely has time to return home, where everybody in his extended family knows him simply as Kip. Cliopher is proud of his accomplishments, but he is unmarried and sees few friends or family as he goes about his work. He needs balance in his life.

At the start of the novel, Cliopher has a distant relationship with the Emperor. The Emperor is ringed with tabus, and Cliopher is not one to presume, and avoids any familiarity. Then, tentatively, alarmed at his own daring, he suggests that the Emperor take a holiday. To his surprise, the Emperor accepts the invitation, taking Cliopher and several other leading members of the court with him. During the holiday, the Emperor learns to relax and Cliopher sees someone as isolated as himself. Slowly, a friendship develops between two lonely men who barely know what friendship even means.

As Cliopher assists the Emperor, he starts to think about his own retirement. The trouble is, home and family irritate him. His friends and family do not realize that he is the second most important person in the empire. They seem him as an amiable mediocrity, and he is too modest to correct them. Just as his pride in his accomplishments is tempered by a wish for a life of his own, so his love of home is tempered by irritation. The story is about he struggles with this ambivalence and —

–And that’s it. The violence is next to non-existent, and the magic is largely ceremonial, or a display at festivals. Yet those who rank their reading by the body counts –the higher the better — may be surprised to learn that result is fascinating. Cliopher is an intelligent, quietly humorous man who is impossible to dislike, and his journey from the stiff and lonely Cliopher back to plain Kip is quietly moving and impossible to put down.

This is not the first time I have heard that conflict does not imply violence. In the early 1990s, Ursula Le Guin discussed “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” championing narrative over conflict. However, Le Guin never altogether managed to make her narratives as interesting as stories of conflict, and, without saying anything, slowly returned to a more conventional, if broader perspective.

By contrast, The Hands of the Emperor shows that at least one successful alternative to our traditional ideas of conflict and story structure actually exists. Based on this example, I am no longer thinking in terms of conflict, let alone violence, in structuring a story. Instead, I am thinking of story structure in terms of a lack of harmony, or perhaps an imbalance that the main characters struggle against. This re-framing, I believe, can only deepen our understanding of story.

Uncategorized, World Building

The Lost Art of Names

The Lost Art of Names

I published poetry before I published fiction. As a result, I focus closely on words –and none more closely than the names of characters and geographical features in my imaginary worlds. All by itself, the choice of a name can create or destroy a tone. Yet it’s a concern that very few writers seem to share.

Oh, many agonize over the names in their stories. The trouble is, they don’t try hard enough. Too often, they fall back on an online name generator. Some name generators contain hundreds of words, but the makers of name generators are no better than anyone else at coining names. More importantly, all names are specific to cultures, and the best any generator can do is create names for generic roleplaying cultures, with separate filters fo elves and dwarves, and so on. These generic cultures are not your cultures, so using a name generator can result in names inappropriate to the cultures of your world, and in making your world-building derivative. Worst of all, they can result in the same name being used by several writers.

Too often, writers seem unprepared for name coining. The need for a name arises, and they panic, not wanting a blank to stand in for the name until they can think of a better one. Instead, they fall back on several inadequate tactics. Some steal randomly, placing names like Mycenae and Illyria in anachronistic circumstances. If they need a character name, they fall back on a 19th Century upper class English name, like Damian or Justin. If they need a geographical name, they will name places as though the discoverers had an aerial view. Under this system, an island that looks like a crocodile becomes Crocodile Island, and a strait between two bodies of land become The Jaws. I have seen maps in every feature is named in this way. With maps, still another alternative is to turn poetic, and populate the blank places with names that would never be used in daily life, like The Mist-Shrouded Sea, and The Islands of Mystery. Such tactics are sure signs that the names are an after-thought, and are borderline effective at best.

So how do you invent names that are really work? Few of us have the knowledge and the patience to invent languages, the way Tolkien did. However, like Tolkien, we can plan ahead, keeping a dictionary of assorted names that we can scan as necssary. At the very least, you can use rearrange the syllables of other languages until you come up with acceptable names.

Often, it is useful to consider how actually coined. For instance, far from falling back on poetry, European explorers usually named geographical features for their ships, their ship’s officers or the members of the royal family of whatever country served them. By contrast, settlers of the American west often named towns for their founders, or sometimes for their ambitions, such as Motherlode or New Jerusalem. Often the position of related names can indicate when a region was settled, so that you see English and French names on the eastern seaboard of North America, and Spanish names on the southwestern seaboard. Just by positioning names on a map, you can create a sense of history.

When it comes to people, popular names are usually generational in the last few centuries. It is relatively uncommon, for instance for a person of twenty to share a name with one of seventy. If they do, the younger person has usually been named for a family member, and may use a different version of the same name — Lizzie, for example, rather than Elizabeth. And in earlier cultures, certain suffixes often indicated a name. For instance, in Germanic cultures, “hild” often ended a woman’s name (such as Brunnhild), while in Old English, “wine” often ended a man’s name (such as Aelfwine). Invent your own snippets, and you can hint at your cultural setting.

When using any of these tactic, you also need to make sure that the name fit the circumstances. Minas Tirith, for example, would not be one quarter as evocative if it was called Smokeville. Nor would Aragorn be so heroic if he was named Hank — a fact that Tolkien was well-aware of, since he includes some discussion of whether the ranger might be crowned as Strider, the name he is known by in the north (Aragorn does eventually use Strider as the name of his dynasty, but in another language in which “it will not sound so ill”). Sometimes, you can fit the name to the circumstances by inventing a name around an association. For example, the Germanic suffix “grim” might be used for a melancholy man, and prefix that with syllables that sound like “skull, and you could have the historic Skallgrim, who sounds like someone you wouldn’t invite to parties.

Some of the old masters of fantasy, like Lord Dunsany or E. R. R. Eddision were skilled at naming. They chose sparkling, evocative names that never failed to be appropriate. Over the decades, however, that skill has been lost. And in doing so, one of the strongest tools of fantasy has been lost.

Language

What would Robert Graves Do?

On a writing forum, a poster proposed to call his novel Maelstrom Burning. I had the lack of sense to ask how a maelstrom could burn, and greatly offended him. If I couldn’t be constructive, he told me, I shouldn’t say anything at all. But I was being constructive, or so I thought. Ever since I was a teen, I have believed that, no matter how poetic a phrase might sound, it must also make literal sense.

I caught this conviction by being exposed to the critical lectures of Robert Graves while still a teen. Graves also debunked Ezra Pound’s pretensions as a translator so thoroughly that, decades later, I still can’t read Pound without laughing – but that’s another story, and a less important one.

To understand Graves’ comments about poetry and literal sense, have a look at Tennyson’s often reprinted fragment “The Eagle.” You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t name the lecture; the collection it appeared in did not make it on to the Internet, and even if a library was open during the pandemic, it’s too dark and cold as I write to brave the outdoors.

Still, I remember the gist well-enough to re-create the important bits,
or at least their spirit.

“The Eagle” begins with the impressive-sounding line, “He clasps the crag with crooked hands.” Graves’ response? To ask if the eagle is doing a handstand. After all, the limbs an eagle stands on is its legs. The verse ends with the eagle standing, so either Tennyson knows this basic bit of biology, or has the eagle doing a back flip, so that it is now standing on its wings.

And the eagle is close to the sun? Sure, give or take 150 million kilometers.

Graves has more to say, mostly about the fact that, while Tennyson preserved the fragment, it says almost nothing. Three times, we are told that the eagle perches, with a different word choice each time. Then the eagle dives, but for what? We are not never told what the bird’s dinner might be. Despite all the times the fragment has been reprinted, it is illogical and trivial.

That’s a cruel, unsympathetic verdict, but Graves was a prominent poet and critic, so he had more of a right than most to offer it. Possibly, too, he was being satirical; Graves did enjoy going against academic orthodoxy. Yet he has a point. It is all too easy for writers and readers alike to forgive triviality because they are seduced by the poetry of a line. A writer should know better.

I am sometimes known to commit poetry myself, or poetic metaphors in my prose . Moreover, just after finishing, I am often besotted by my own cleverness. But in more sober afterthought, I am apt to ask myself what Graves might think of my alleged brilliance – and, at least two thirds of the time, I end by deleting what I wrote and laughing at how I was lost to common sense because of the sound. Then I re-write in plain English, as I should have had the sense do from the first.

Uncategorized

Handwriting vs. Typing

I learned to compose on the computer when I became a full-time journalist. I had no choice; it was the only way I could write fast enough to earn a living. For years, the only time I wrote with a pen was when I woke in the middle of the night to record stray thoughts. In the last month, though, I have returned to regular hand-writing, and I conclude that there really is a difference between how my thoughts come when I write by hand and by the keyboard.

I am not writing on paper. Instead, I am writing on a Remarkable 2, a tablet designed to take the place of a notebook. The Remarkable company boasts that it makes the thinnest tablet on the market, and uses an e-ink screen like the one used by ebook readers, which means characters have a higher resolution than the average screen and a lack of glare. The company claims that the Remarkable 2 is the closest electronic equivalent to handwriting, and, from what I can see, the claim is true without any exaggeration. In addition, it has the advantage of organizing my notes and of transferring them to my workstation without the nuisance of having to write them twice. It is not an all-purpose tablet, but one designed for handling text, a hybrid of the best of handwriting and the computer.

That is fine with me. For years, I have had a notebook on a lectern beneath my monitor, for the simple reason that it is faster to scribble a note by hand than fumbling to open up a text editor on the computer in the hopes of recording a stray thought before I forget it. I replaced my notebook with the Remarkable 2 seamlessly, and immediately enjoyed the improved organization. At night, I carry the tablet into the bedroom, and use it to scribble the thoughts that might come in the night. The next morning, I carry the tablet back to my workstation, and upload any notes that seem worth preserving.

So far, I have only written short passages on the Remarkable 2. However, what I have done is to do a lot of planning and background notes on it. The planning always seems to come more easily than at the keyboard — something I had not expected.

I have been aware, of course, of the arguments in favor of handwriting. Authors like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have long shown a fascination with handwriting, especially, in some cases, when they use a fountain pen. Tentative studies have suggested that handwriting is useful for visual learning, that it helps with memory retension, has an aesthetic quality of it own, and minimizes distractions. But I have listened to these claims — claims I used to make myself, sometimes before I bought my first computer — and thought them nostalgic exaggerations, of the same kind that lead people to buy computers disguised as typewriters.

However, now I take them more seriously. My ideas seem to come more easily on the tablet. Part of the reason may be that when planning seems necessary, I often leave my work station to work at a table or sprawled on a futon or my bed. The change of locale may be enough to relax me, which in turn makes the ideas come more readily.

Yet I think something greater is going on. The motions of the fingers on the keyboard are very much the same. By contrast, when I grasp a pen — or, in the Remarkable 2’s case, a stylus –the muscular movements of my fingers are more numerous and subtle. In other words, handwriting carries more information than typing can. For this reason, I am more easily aware of my mental activity. Possibly, the relation between the muscular movements in my fingers and my brain activity are not one to one, but more channels are open. Just as importantly, because my muscular movements and much of my brain activity happen on a largely unconscious level, when I write by hand, I can more clearly access my mostly unconscious imagination.

By contrast, the muscular motions for typing are fewer, which means they can carry less information. Moreover, because they are regular, I ignore them more easily. It is not impossible to access my imagination when I use the keyboard — I do it all the time — but it takes more practice, and perhaps it is less efficient or at least takes more effort.

Some time soon, I will have to try composing a story or scene on the Remarkable 2. Meanwhile, it remains well-integrated into my work flow.

https://www.gizmochina.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/reMarkable-2.jpg
General Writing

Connotations in Fantasy

For me, nothing kills the mood of a fantasy faster than modern language. I don’t expect writers to use Old or Middle English, still less what used to be called “speaking forsoothl” in the Society for Creative Anachronism — an imaginary dialect cobbled together from swashbuckling books and movies that no one every actually spoke and does ungrammatical things like adding “est” at the end of every word. I understand, too, that just because the culture in a story is medieval, it doesn’t have an exact copy of the actual Middle Ages. However, nothing is more jarring that modern phrases that carry a whole set of associations that are dependent on our culture.

Let me give you some examples I recently found. I won’t mention the title or the author, because it’s a first publication, and my point is not to shame anyone. Still, here are five example from the first fifty pages:

  • “estimated time of arrival:” An obsession with time and time-tables is no more than a couple of centuries old. It began with the regular running of coaches and later of trains and airplanes. A culture at any less advanced technological stage would have no interest in the implied concern with exact time.
  • “maximum potential”: This is the language of self-help, which is no more than a century old at best. Probably the closest most past eras would have to this concept is the idea of living a godly life and being concerned with charity.
  • “a feeling of weightlessness:” This phrase only makes sense if you understand that mass and weight are two different things in certain circumstances. Seventy years of space flight makes that concept familiar to most people today, but people of the past would know nothing of the theory. At most, they might notice that they felt lighter when submerged in water.
  • “toxic”: We talk all the time about people being psychologically toxic. However, that usage is no more than a couple of decades old.
  • “doing the math”: High school blurs the distinction between mathematics and arithmetic. However, that distinction would not have existed more than a century ago. Before that, it is doubtful that the average person would have heard the word “mathematics.”

I could continue, but I think these will give a sense of what I am talking abut

The trouble with these words and phrases is that they are tightly connected to modern culture. Hear “estimated time of arrival,” and visions of an airport arrival and departure board are likely to flash through your mind. Similarly, “maximum potential may bring visions of a room full of people on their yoga match. Nothing is wrong with such connotations in a modern setting, but in a different setting, they can take you out of the story and kill the atmosphere. At the very least, they are a distraction. In extreme cases, they can spoil the story.

A concern for connotation can, of course, take you too far. Technically speaking, for example, a story set in the Renaissance should avoid the word “Mind” because the concept of mind originated in the Enlightenment. But this example is obscure, and is unlikely to ruin the story for more purposes. In addition, some fantasy, like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, uses such connotation for comedy. However, connotation is something fantasy writers need to consider in their editing — perhaps even more so than typos or grammar.

General Writing

Lessons in Pacing

As I make my final revision before I query, one of the last aspects of writing that I am learning is pacing.

I long ago learned the trick of varying sentence length to increase tension. I’ve learned, too, such tricks of spacing dialog at regular intervals in a scene to increase or decrease readers’ attention, and half a dozen other tricks besides. However, I never learned how to pace an entire book until I had a nearly complete manuscript.

Like many writers, in my first draft or two, I had no idea of how long my finished manscript might be. I originally planned on a single book. However, two-thirds of the way through the first draft, I realized that the complete story would need to be divided into two books at a minimum. At the same point in the second draft, I realized that I would need a trilogy – something I swore that I would never write. I could persist in one or two books, but the story would be rushed and poorly told.

However, I didn’t worry much about the pacing until I accepted that I was doing a trilogy. Deciding where to end the first book, I found a natural climax almost immediately. However, in the first two drafts, the climax took a chapter. It was not that important, although I had always felt that the next chapter was a new start. To serve as a climax, the chapter had to be expanded to two or three. So, right away, I had to find a way to draw out the action and keep it interesting.

That was just the start of the change in pace. With the climax’s increased importance, I had to change the pace throughout. If the story were to rise to an exciting climax, I had to replot to have more encounters between the protagonists and the antagonists. That meant three new chapters, and heavy revision of several more. Mindful of the fact that Dracula works largely because the titular character has limited appearances, I also wanted to find ways to limit my antagonists’ appearances.

These changes had a ripple effect, throwing off the pace of the romance between my two main characters. Their personal story also needed to be re-paced, interwoven reasonably seamlessly around the main conflict. I was especially proud when one of the new chapters managed to advance both the main conflict and the romance sub-plot at the same time.

As I write, I am wrapping up the first book. However, already, I can see the ripple of changes continuing, and meeting other currents of revision. Most notably, the name of the second book means that events that originally started towards the end of the second book now occupy the whole of the second, and that another sub-plot has become much more important. As I turn my attention to the second book, I expect still more ripples, some scenes gaining importance and others becoming less important, rearranged, or even deleted altogether.

In the middle of this process, I have also learned that the distinction I once had between outlining and discovery writing has changed. As I think about pace, I have to outline far more than I did in my first drafts. Yet, at the same time, while revision of the whole means that I have to define my goals more clearly that in early drafts, I still need to allow room for innovation as I write. The distinction has far less meaning than I once imagined – both outlining and discovery, I have learned, are necessary to my way of working.
I doubt I would have learned any of these things except for refining my story. For that reason alone, I am glad that I persisted.

Fiction, General Writing

Good Intentions vs. Imagination

“Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
-Philip Pullman

Some years ago, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival would feature one country each — preferably one undergoing social strife. My wife and I used to refer to this habit as the revolution of the month. Reading the frequent discussions online about diversity in writing, I am reminded of those times, and my mixed reaction to them.

You see, the problem wasn’t that I disagreed with the sentiments of each revolution of the month. I was a supporter of the causes, and even donated to them. However, it was a music festival, so I thought it only fitting that musicianship be at least as important as a band’s political opinions. For me, choruses like “US Out of El Salvador” lacked a certain artistry, no matter how loudly they were shouted, or how many of the crowd joined in. The bands meant well, but they were so caught up in their causes that they had forgot that they were supposed to be musicians as well as activists.

Reading recent discussions about diversity in fantasy, I have much the same ambivalence. Posters frequently discuss representation in their stories, and what stories they have the right to discuss. They talk about how to depict people of color (POC) and the LGBTQ+ community. All these topics are major concerns of mine, and I cannot fault the earnestness and sincerity of the posters. Yet, aside from the occasional reminder not to make a checklist of representation among your characters, I rarely see much discussion of technique.

Often, it sounds as though diversity is the aim, not storytelling. When samples of writing are posted, often they are wooden and unconvincing. Some posters are so focused on diversity that they fail to see the unintentional humor of developing stories concerned with the socially aware name for demons. Many more agonize so much about doing representation properly that they nobble themselves and never write out of a fear of doing something wrong.

Part of this lopsided focus is a matter of age. With rare exceptions, few writers in their twenties have developed their social awareness far more than their writing skills. So, for many, it is unsurprising that they dwell on what they are most familiar with.

However, the problem is not just one of age. At least once, I made the same mistake without the excuse of inexperience. In my current work, I wanted to make the ghost of my main character an example of toxic masculinity, and give him his comeuppance. I thought of several creepy things for him to say –some of which, much to my surprise, were later said by Donald Trump, which suggested uncomfortably that I had understanding of such a character. I thought of even creepier ones for the ghost to do. But do you think I could make that ghost interesting? Nor in the least. He refused to become a character. He remained a puppet, with his strings clearly visible, through several drafts. I could hardly write him, because I was bored with the contrivance.

In my desperation I remembered the advice that Carl Gustav Jung was supposed to have given to his students of psychoanalysis. He told them that the first thing they should do to prepare for their careers was to learn everything they could about symbols and metaphors. The second thing, he added, was to forget everything they had learned.

Jung did not mean that his students should totally ignore their study of symbols. Rather, he meant that they should learn it so well that they no longer had to think consciously about their knowledge. They had to let their knowledge become part of their unconscious, freeing their conscious minds for interaction with their patients.

The same advice, I realized, could help me with my writing. I tried and tried until I could hear the ghostly father speak and imagine how he would move. Then, I carefully submerged my knowledge that the ghost was a satire of the ultra-macho. Even more importantly, I did not let myself think how clever and woke I was in making the portrayal. Instead, in the scenes where he appeared, I focused on my main character’s reactions and the drama of the encounter. The scenes were still a struggle, but I inched forward, and completed the scenes at last. In the end, the ghost was stronger, I believe, because the character was not simply a piece of heavy-handed didacticism.

From this experience, I learned something important: My well-meaning political opinions could only take my writing so far. To write even halfway decently, I had to think about storytelling and suspense first, and my political outlook second. Otherwise, I was writing propaganda, not fiction, and wasting my time, as well as that of any future readers. I don’t know why that surprised me — after all, which would most people prefer to read, Ayn Rand who never forgets her purpose for a moment, or George Orwell, who tied his political purposes in Nineteen Eighty-Four to the life of an average man?

Social awareness, I discovered, might be desirable, but it was not nearly enough. To work, it needed to take second place to storytelling. Once the social awareness is fixed in my mind, I need to switch my focus to storytelling if either is to succeed.

General Writing, Queries

How to Improve Your Odds When Querying

Writers who are querying love to drive each other into despair by citing the odds against them finding an agent. The odds of success vary – two or three out sixty, or even a hundred I’ve heard – but they are never in a writer’s favor. However, citing the odds on social media is always an occasion for despair laced with stolid determination to push on through. Yet while the despair is understandable, and I admit to sometimes succumbing to it myself as I prepare to query, I believe that it is based on a fallacy: that each writer is a fallacy. After all, a statistic is not a prediction – just an average.

I first learned this fact from science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Gould was diagnosed as having peritoneal mesothelioma – cancer of the abdomenal lining – and was told that he could only expect to live another eight months. But Gould was a researcher and a trained statistician, and instead of preparing for an early death, he researched his condition. He soon found out that his own odds were much better than average. Even more importantly, by making some changes in his lifestyle, he could improve his odds. He made those changes, and lived another twenty years. Gould’s example showed me that while the statistics are useful to know, they are not all you need to know.

A querying writer can learn a lot from Gould’s example. Sure, the odds are not good. For every writer who finds an agent, there are dozens who never do. But browse the online writer groups, and you soon notice that the average is low. Many writers are working on stale ideas borrowed from anime, and many more struggle with grammar and spelling. Few have any sense of how to develop a story, and react to suggestions for improvement with hostility. Under these conditions, becoming above average is easy enough so long as you are willing to do the work.

However, the struggle to stand out only begins with the quality of writing. Look at blogs like Query Shark, where pitches and queries are criticized and improved, and you soon realize that most writers are not very good at the query process, either. Despite no shortage of blogs where we can learn, most of us have no idea of how to structure a query, or what its structure should be.

So not only can the quality of your writing lift you above average, but so can mastering the query process. As long as you are willing to put in the work, whatever statistics you hear are not a prediction of your failure. Rather, they are a sign of how many people are querying ineptly. Make up your mind that you are not going to be average, and your odds can improve significantly.

Fiction, Uncategorized

Anachronism of Tone

Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey was a revelation to me. Her translation was in plain modern English, and removed some of the traditions of the past, such as calling slaves “handmaidens” or abusing Helen of Troy with dubious authority. It also stuck close to the text, its greatest departure being the reduction of the use of heroic epithets, which are a nuisance on the page. I enjoyed reading Wilson so much that when I heard that Maria Dahvana Headley was supposed to be doing the same for Beowulf, I immediately reserved a copy before its release. Unfortunately, instead of new insights into a classic, what I came away with an appreciation of the importance of tone – not just in translation, but in historical and fantasy fiction as well.

For some reason, Headley became infatuated with the idea that the heroic culture of Beowulf could be compared with the current Bro culture. This idea seems dubious even to my haphazard scholarship, for the simple reason that the heroic culture is all about the social obligations between war leaders and their followers. The leaders set an example, and reward followers with treasure and feasting, and in return follows imitate the leaders and show loyalty. By contrast, so-called Bro culture is about a freedom from obligations. Moreover, as Beowulf‘s text itself shows, the culture it depicts is artistic and sophisticated — traits completely foreign to Bro culture.The only way that Bro culture resembles the heroic culture is in its partying, although in Bro culture, partying is an end in itself, while in the culture of the poem, feasting is a reward for what someone has done.

This difference might not have mattered much, had Headley chosen a consistent tone. But the trouble is, Beowulf only has some passages that might be plausibly be compared to Bro culture. Much of the rest is description and musings on how to live. This variety means that Headley’s translation careens from one tone to another. She hedges, throwing in the language of Bros where it doesn’t belong, but the problem of inconsistency remains.

From the way she talks in her introduction, Headley seems to believe that she has done something clever. Sadly, though, her lines are more often unintentionally humorous, particularly when Headley sacrifices clarity and sense for alliteration. The difficulty begins right in the first line, where the Old English “Hwaet!” – an untranslatable call for attention – is replaced with “Bro!” Almost immediately, the founder of the Danish royal line is described as having “spent his youth fists up /browbeating every barstool-brother” and having “bootstrapped his way into a / kingdom.” With the introduction of barstools and the modern “bootstrapped,” the heroic tone is dissolved in laughter (and, of course, the fighting is not simply browbeating, nor are brothers the one being fought, although the alliteration sounds superficially impressive).

But it gets worse. Using “to daddy” as a synonym of “to rule,” Headley tells us that a “boy can’t daddy until his daddy’s dead.” At another point, readers are told that Beowulf “gave zero shits,” and has him dismiss his accomplishments as “no big whoop.” The last time I saw so many anachronisms in a single work was when I read George MacDonald Fraser’s The Pyrates – and, unlike Headley, Fraser was deliberately being funny. What Headley intended is harder to comprehend, although if she hoped that her choice of language would make Beowulf to teenagers, she is fated to be disappointed. By the time she describes treasure as “bling,” wrestlers as being “on the mat,” or the dead as “goners,” even the most sympathetic reader of any age is likely to be on the floor, doubled over with laughter. As for lines like, “Bros, lemme tell you how fucked they were,” they are positively dangerous to those with heart conditions. But these tone-deaf lines appear throughout, until Headley ends with “He was the man” and the reader flees in relief.

None of this would matter, of course, if Headley work was presented as a riff on the original. After all, the ahistoricity of Hamilton does not stop us from enjoying it as a romp. The trouble is, Headley claims to present a translation, which implies (or ought to imply) an effort at accuracy or at least an impression that bears some relation to the original.

To be fair, though, Headley’s Beowulf is only an extreme example. If you are going to set a story in the Middle Ages, or at least a fantasy version of the Middle Ages, you cannot, of course, write in Old or Middle English, nor even Shakespeare’s Early Modern English. Practically no one will understand you. Nor, if you are writing fantasy, does your imaginary world have to be an exact copy of the historical one. But you do need to settle on a consistent tone and maintain it. For example, Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist,” reads nothing like most fictional versions of Ancient Greece because he uses English translations of all the personal and place names. However, his tone is consistent, and readers soon learn to accept it.

Whatever your choice, a credible tone needs consistency, If you are writing medieval fantasy, you can avoid the mistakes of other writers and avoid avoid anachronisms like “okay” – a word that probably didn’t come into use before 1800 – and obvious mistakes like metaphors about cannons before they existed. You can also steer clear of garderobes graced with porcelain fixtures or nobility that goes clubbing. Otherwise your fragile efforts at drama or suspense will be swept away by laughter at your own expense.