writing

Why Music? Why English?

Months ago, in the long dark quiet of the blog, on a long dark commute to school, I was thinking about my dad and the kinds of questions he’d ask me about music. He loved music. He grew up taking voice lessons and was a mainstay in his church choir for years. He liked drum corps and movie scores and the Beach Boys. He could read music, but never played the piano. He had no formal training in music theory or history, though he had sung most of the 19th-century choral canon.

The combination of love for the subject and academic ignorance meant that he was the person in my life most prone to asking me sweeping philosophical questions about music. He’d ask, in all sincerity, “what is this piece about?” confident that I’d have a right answer. When it came to the dissonant stuff that I studied and composed, he was proud of what I was doing, but didn’t understand it any better than I understood running a restaurant. We had great, meandering conversations about all sorts of music in the too-brief time my adulthood overlapped with his.

It was my mom, though, who habitually asked me whether I went to grad school for music (composition) rather than literature simply because it was harder for me. That March morning, thinking about my dad and my mom’s question, I came to the conclusion that the added challenge was only part of it. Writing words and writing music are both about communication. At their best, they can sweep us up into their worlds—whatever the balance of intellectual and emotional.

That’s why, at Macalester, I had become obsessed with text, music, and the weird spaces of their overlap. That’s why, I think, I went and added music history to my master’s study—there are things that you need words to communicate, that are too specific for music. (I didn’t abandon composition because the converse is also true: there are some things that you can only communicate with music.)

It’s facepalmingly obvious in retrospect, but some of the best realizations are. (“Kick from the knee.”—if you don’t get that reference, go read Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.)  As a writer, as a composer, as a scholar I am interested in how ideas get around, about communication. Sure, my later scholarship became much more concerned with the practicalities of the art music world, but that grew out of my attempts to understand how and why people kept writing music that didn’t communicate much to me. So really, it has always been about how (and why) we Say Things.

Lately, I’ve been dealing more with the question: Why English? I started a new job last week at a new school. Consistently, I’ve been introduced as “Dr. Plocher.” That leads, in the casual conversations afterward, to questions about what my doctorate is in. This has led to great discussions with my new colleagues in the performing arts center. With other faculty, it has sometimes involved a little backtracking, emphasizing that my undergraduate degree is in English as well as music, and that my doctorate featured extensive work in comparative studies.

The shortest answer to “why English?” in this context is “I never wanted to be a band director.” I loved band in high school. It defined my social world. It occupied more hours than just about anything else I did. Yesterday, at district convocation, the marching band played. My heart (metaphorically) swelled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…during a pep band arrangement of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Late Beethoven it was not. So yeah, I still like band. Being at a school with a marching band is right up there with being able to decorate my room with posters for “perks about my new job I never considered.” For all that, though, I have no desire to lead the band. It’s not an impulse I’ve ever had.

The longer answer is “I never really gave up on English.” I’ve mentioned in passing that I was not a tidy fit for musicology; I’ve never been especially into the canonical common practice works people most often think of as “classical music.” I kept writing fiction throughout my doctoral work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had playing with an alumni team with one of my former creative writing classmates, a conversation in which I explained that I kept jotting notes for novels when I was supposed to be working on my dissertation.

Further, most of the classes I taught in my gradjunct years involved teaching writing. It’s one thing to get students to really listen to music, especially music they’ve never thought to hear before. It’s another to get them to collect their thoughts into something coherent. I can’t say whether it’s easier to write for orchestra or to get a 20-year old to write his reflections on Hindustani vocal music.

The thing is? They’re both about saying something. And now, I couldn’t be happier that so much of my life is about teaching teenagers to do the same.

The Cleaver and the Needle

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Revising can be messy. It’s all well and good to kill your darlings, but it’s often the case that the darlings need reshaping rather than killing.

Ghosts of the Old City has required some particularly bloody revising. After going through my alpha draft, I realized that almost a third of the book was in the wrong order. Some scenes—and most of two chapters—featured characters spinning their metaphorical wheels, waiting for the next thing to happen. (Really, it was the author waiting to figure out what happened next.) The disappointing thing is that those scenes were not even good character development. I had glossed over some things that should have been interesting challenges for the characters, and I had zoomed in on some moments that turned out to be insignificant.

Starting to implement the necessary fixes has made me feel like a Civil War era surgeon, operating with butchers’ tools and booze for anaesthetic. There’s little delicacy for me at this stage. I ginned up sixteen new chapter files in Scrivener on a fresh storyboard. Most of those will use some existing text. Some will be new. One will require only moderate changes to reflect the altered flow of the plot. “Cut and paste” feels like chop-and-paste, or chop and throw into a bucket for later reattachment. It is brutal and unsubtle stuff.

I find this a little ironic because one of the things that I appreciate about the revision process is the craftsmanship of it. When I’m drafting, I’m chasing the story. I’m discovering things. I am, when things are working well, a damn wizard, conjuring something out of nothing. The revision process, as I was describing it to somebody a few weeks ago, is more like engineering. My friend (who is a research scientist) nodded sagely and said that it’s an iterative process, where you can try things out and see what works. I like that kind of work as much as I do the wilder stuff of creating. There’s something satisfying about each step getting you closer to the beautiful (or functional, or both) thing that you’re working on. I just tend to imagine it like bonsai or playing with Lego.

This time it has inspired the above analogies to butcher work. It’s my first novel, and I think much of the difficulty in revising has been adjusting to the scale. If you’re writing an essay or a short story, you may have to move a few pages around, rewrite a stretch of paragraphs. Even a third of your work isn’t that much. With a novel, there’s just more of everything. There’s more room for things to go wrong. It’s more important to sustain reader interest. I don’t want Ghosts to be one of those novels that sucks people in through the first three chapters then loses them by the seventh. I particularly want to avoid that because I think the home stretch of the novel includes some of the best writing I’ve ever done. (I’m sure my beta readers will explain to me where it isn’t as good as I think it is.)

I want the first half of the book to be worthy of the second. I also want the first half to build correctly to the second, which is why the hatchet job was necessary. Plot relies on conflict. Usually—and in this way my novel is nothing unusual—that conflict should build gradually. In the first-and-a-half draft of Ghosts, the conflict is just kind of there. Drafting it, I had antagonists in mind, but I hadn’t thought of exactly what they wanted or how they were going about their business. Now I know what needs to happen, and it’s not there.

Yet.

I’ve gotten through the most brutal parts of the corrective surgery. I can put down the cleaver. The next step is to pick up the needle and stitch it all back together with everything in the right place. One of the fun things about being a writer is that if you’re doing your job, your story won’t even show the scars.

Nicking from Novels: Gail Z. Martin’s The Summoner

My last two Nicking from Novels posts have been books that I’ve wanted to read from previous experience. It’s been a while since I’ve just grabbed a book from the library shelf to see what I can learn from it. Monday afternoon, the kids were wound up at the library. Necessity is the mother of arbitrarily grabbing things from the shelves to read, which is how I ended up with this week’s book: Gail Z. Martin’s  The Summoner.

What I knew when I picked the book out: the cover art isn’t bad, I didn’t recognize the publisher, and that the story is about a character who deals with ghosts. That last point was the most telling. My pending Ghosts of the Old City, as you can probably guess from the title, also features ghosts. I was curious how a different author might treat both the ghosts and the dealing with them. (The answer: with a much more “high magic” feel than I do.)

The Summoner is also the longest book I’ve read in a while—600 pages. It reads fast, though, and aspires to be epic through the stakes rather than by addition. It’s reminiscent of Tad Williams and David Eddings, with an ensemble cast surrounding a nominal protagonist who discovers great powers and old secrets. It’s not criticism when I say Martin’s book is unambitious. It knows that it is a perfectly serviceable high fantasy novel. It doesn’t push on genre boundaries, but it works quite well within them. There’s enough novelty to the characters to keep things interesting. The world is well-crafted without being overbuilt. If you like fantasy novels, this one will keep you happily reading for hours.

The Overview
High fantasy, medieval setting. Characters are based on archetypes but nonetheless interesting (I couldn’t help thinking of the mercenary Jonmarc Vahanian as “Han Solo played by Clint Eastwood”). Spirits and divine intervention play prominent roles. Supernatural evil and supernatural good without adding nonhuman species. Monsters have their place. Narrative emphasizes travel and action rather than nefarious skulduggery. It is straightforward to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. (And the bad guys are super evil.)

The Plot
Prince Martris Drayke survives his brother Jared’s murderous coup, escaping with some of his friends/loyal guards. He sees ghosts and discovers that he can do magic related to them, that he is the mage heir of his super-important dead grandmother. Tris and his friends seek sanctuary and enlist a mercenary as a guide. Meanwhile, the princess of another kingdom (who is contractually betrothed to Jared) gets sent on her own mission. Eventually, they come together. Obstacles along the road are overcome. Relative safety is reached by the end of the book, but not where expected, and certainly more pause than completion. (This is the first book of a trilogy.)

The Cool Thing to Consider
Quests, man.

They’re essential to fantasy fiction. Tolkien certainly made them more so and helped give them heft, but even in the lighter (and more interesting to me) pulp stories of swords and sorcery, the quest is the fundamental unit of story. There’s an object to retrieve, a villain to topple, a secret to learn…or some combination of those. (One of my all-time favorite quests is one that ends with the realization that the sought object wasn’t important after all.) They involve going somewhere, passing challenges, sometimes getting better at things…

Martin’s novel has me thinking about quests for two reasons. First, her set-up is rather traditional. Tris joins a long line of exiled princes who must reclaim their birthrights. Second, the other characters have their own personal quests. Those quests align with Tris’s, but it’s more a convergence than an intermingling. The cool thing to consider is the way Martin balances her individual characters within an overarching plot.

Compare this with Lord of the Rings. The Fellowship has one quest: get the ring to Mordor and destroy it. As a fellowship, they fail, but for the time they have together, everybody has the same goal. Protect Frodo. Keep on keeping on. The characters signed on to support Frodo’s quest. In The Summoner, it’s not quite the same. Tris has a kingdom to reclaim from his wicked brother, but also has Serious Magical Obligations. The bard Carroway is Tris’s friend, as is the guard captain Soterius. Like him, they’re fleeing in part because they’re dead if they stay. Harrtuck—another of the royal guards—is loyal to Tris for what he represents as much as anything personal. The mercenary Vahanian is in it for the money, but also because he has a history with some of the bad guys. The healer Carina and her brother Cam are looking for a cure to a curse. The warrior princess Kiara has her Journey assigned to her by the goddess.

The quests of the other characters thus overlap with Tris’s, but they’re not the same. Clearly, they’re all set up to eventually face off against the big bad. Just as clearly, they will have their own reasons for doing so. Martin reveals bits and pieces of those reasons as The Summoner progresses.

For some of the characters, the reasons are pretty explicit: the Goddess tells them to jump and their only option is to ask how high. Kiara was chosen by the Goddess before the events of the novel properly began, and is sent on the path that eventually intersects with Tris’s. Tris, too, gets occasional messages from the Goddess. As calls to adventure go, these are explicit, but in a high fantasy story there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes quests are that important.

The Goddess is also curiously effective as the means of bringing the characters together. Most of the cast has some relationship to the Goddess in one of her aspects. They are fairly quick to identify her divine will in bringing them together and in her influence on their various paths. Done less deftly, this would seem almost like lampshading. Because Martin has written the Goddess so thoroughly into the setting, though, it works. In a high fantasy environment, divine will (and the implicit suggestion of Fate) is perfectly reasonable. The more often the characters (especially the minor supporting characters) mention it, the easier it is to believe.

What We Nick from this Novel
Fellow travelers can have fellowship without being a fellowship.
Whether you’re working with an ensemble cast or not, consider your characters’ motivations carefully. If the world is at stake, yes, brave people will be trying to save it. It can be even more effective, though, to do as Martin does and make the characters interested at first in saving their own parts of the world. Characters can work together without the plot becoming monolithic. Keeping motivations individual helps both to differentiate the characters and to allow for the stakes to be raised organically.

Nicking from Novels: Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon

I was recently talked into giving Jim Butcher and Harry Dresden a second chance. I didn’t much care for Dead Beat—I felt that it was larded with extra characters, and that the hero was getting bailed out constantly. The zombie T-Rex at the end and cries of “Polka will never die!” only got me so far.

Something else happened, though, since I complained about Storm Front: Steve Brust’s Hawk. Brust is one of my favorite authors, but Hawk… Well. Hawk had many of the same problems I described in Dead Beat. Vlad wasn’t necessarily getting bailed out every other chapter, but the book was larded with cameos. It seemed like Kragar got stabbed just so Aliera could show up to save him. We got a Morrolan appearance so he could prepare a spell. We got Sethra and Kiera and (of course) Daymar. We even got Khaavren! He, at least, had a reason to be in the story. Many of the cameos felt gratuitous, and the plot didn’t hold up especially well. Hawk, to me, felt like a book meant to get you from point A to point B in Vlad’s overall saga without much to recommend it as an individual story.

What if Dead Beat was the same way? A lackluster middle segment in an otherwise quality series? Butcher and Dresden deserved another chance.

The Overview
Harry’s a freelance wizard who consults for the “weird stuff” unit of the Chicago PD. Plenty of loving references to noirish detective stories. Dames and slick gangsters (even though Harry never calls them “dames,” they’re clearly dames). Magic that’s pervasive without stealing the spotlight from the detective work. Lots of werewolves of different sorts in this one. First person point of view, contemporary urban setting.

The Plot
Murders are happening in bunches around the full moon. Evidence suggests early on that Dresden’s nemesis Gentleman John Marcone is involved somehow, possibly as a target. The FBI is competing with Murphy and her Chicago Special Investigations unit. Pawprints at the murder scenes and chewed up corpses. Magic circles and street gangs. A protagonist whom the law is not sure whether to adopt or arrest.

The Cool Thing to Consider
Let’s consider pacing and exposition.

Fool Moon is relentless. At nearly every moment of the story, something is happening. Harry is always doing something, even when his narration is feeding us exposition. He makes potions while his skull familiar explains the varietals of werewolf. He reflects on his life choices while in the middle of a gun/wolf/berserker fight in a dark auto shop. An infodump from a demon sizzles because it’s also a confrontation for Harry’s name and/or soul.

All of that (and more) is exposition. If you sift back through Fool Moon after you’ve finished it, you find exposition all over the place. Butcher, via Harry or somebody Harry is conversing with, tells us things all the time. There’s magic to explain. There are oh-so-many types of wolf monster to explain. There are attractive women to explain.

The cool thing is that Butcher manages to do all of this without slowing things down. It’s a much different way to survive the need for exposition than that of, say, Gene Wolfe, who adroitly uses unreliable narrators and incomplete explanations to inform readers indirectly. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, because as I mentioned, it’s mostly telling rather than showing.

I think there are three reasons Butcher gets away with this much telling. First, this is a detective story. Detective stories are about processing information—that information has to come from somewhere. Whether the detective is finding them herself, getting them from others, or some combination of the two, the clues have to eventually add up. We get a little more of that kind of exposition than usual in Fool Moon because it’s told from first person perspective—Harry is telling the readers things as he hears them.

Not all of the exposition is directly related to the werewolf murders, though. We learn things about Harry’s past, about his feelings, about the characters around him. It’s mostly delivered in snippets and asides via a conversational tone that ties the whole novel together. That’s the second element—the strength of Harry’s narrative voice allows Butcher to tell rather than show as often as he does.

The third trick that allows Butcher gets away with all the exposition is that, as I mentioned earlier, there is always something happening. Fool Moon is fast. It’s not for nothing that fully half of the back jacket quotes mention the pacing. The book reads fast because, as Elmore Leonard might say, Butcher has left out the parts people skip. The only time Harry—and the readers—rest is when the wizard is knocked out. Whatever bones I might have to pick about the use and abuse of secondary characters, Butcher spins a hell of a good yarn.

What We Nick from This Novel
Pace and space isn’t just for the NBA.
Sometimes exposition is inescapable. You might have a world to build. You might have mysteries to solve. You might, for plot reasons, need somebody to explain something. One way to deal with that is to spread the exposition out (space) and keep stuff happening during the exposition (pace). This is a variation on “don’t let characters lecture.” Butcher is better than Hoffman at stringing together scenes, though his job is made easier by the fact that Fool Moon covers only a few nights—we get narration for most every moment Harry is conscious from the moment he arrives at the first murder scene to the final confrontation with the baddies. It’s frenetic, though. Even the lulls in the action—those few moments where nobody is actively trying to turn Harry into literal or figurative dogmeat—have something going on. It should feel busy and forced, but it never does. This is what a page-turner looks like.

On Writing and Music Performance

“And yes, [writing]’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.”

Do you read MJ Wright? If not, you should consider it. He’s a New Zealand historian and writer who has a lot of smart things to say about writing, history, and science (among other things). Last week, he published a post called “Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing.” I have no problem with the thesis of that piece: writing requires practice and, to do it well, you must get beyond “rules.” Experience counts. There’s truth in that, but that much is true of any art. I’m less curious about why Wright compared writing to piano performance than I am with the semantic leap from “translating and transferring emotions” to “performance.”  Where does the composer fit into the equation? Where, for that matter, does a reader?

I’m in a rare position regarding this question: I’ve written lots of text, I’ve written lots of music, and I’ve put in my time performing music (and on much rarer occasions, words). A caveat, though: Wright’s post was just a springboard for this one. I’m not trying to “refute” his argument or really even comment on the post’s content. Said post makes a convincing case for the importance of practice in writing, and I wholly agree with Wright on that point. My quibble is with “performance” and just how well that idea applies to writing.

“If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid.”

This is true. It’s also true, though, that Western music notation has always been a kind of shorthand—there’s a whole branch of music scholarship devoted to studying manuscripts and decoding the actions the blobs of ink were meant to prompt. (If you’re interested in some of the uses and abuses of ‘performance practice’ studies, I’d suggest Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act, though I’d also suggesting looking directly at some of the essays he engages with. Taruskin habitually pursues his arguments…aggressively.)

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that “composer” became a job of its own. Prior to that, writing music was a part of other jobs—Kapellmeister, for example. The Kapellmeister managed all the musical activity for a church and wrote more as necessary for performance. As the patronage system broke down and professional music-making moved away from the church and the estates of the aristocracy, composers stopped having house or church ensembles to work with. Simultaneously, music came to be treated more as an art than a craft.

Notation was getting more precise, too, because composers were less likely to be in direct control of performances. Dynamic markings (for loudness) grew in importance. Composers indicated tempi, eventually with metronome markings. Articulation marks and phrasing marks and all sorts of indications telling a performer how to play a particular note became common. The more seriously composition was treated as its own distinct art, the more precisely composers worked to guide (or control) performers.

By the middle 20th Century, this had pushed some composers to abandon performers altogether. Electroacoustic music was driven by new sounds and new technology, but it also allowed the composers to create exactly what they wanted to without the necessary mediation of a performer. Some composers—famously, Igor Stravinsky—railed against performers’ “interpretation” of music, instead preferring “execution.” The ladies and gentlemen with the instruments in hand were, Stravinsky argued, just there to make his artistic vision a reality, without any input on the process.  They had acquired a history’s worth of bad performance habits that needed to be scrubbed away. (See the sixth of his Norton lectures at Harvard, published in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.)

To bring this back around to Wright, of course playing Beethoven as if the blots on the page were the whole piece sounds “plonky and stupid.” The score was never intended to be the music, only a vehicle for transmitting it.[1]

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And here the comparison of music to writing gets fuzzy, because writing is also a vehicle for transmitting ideas. We use the written word to tell stories, to explain scientific research, to philosophize, to do a hundred hundred other tasks. The words, though, are not the stories, are not the ideas, are not the philosophy. (You can make a case for that, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.) Stories live closer to the words than music does to the score, but there’s still a significant degree of difference.

The gap between (Western) music and writing comes in the way that gap between sign and signifier is bridged. With words and ideas, it’s essentially a direct process of semiosis.[2] With traditionally-notated Western music, you need a performer and some kind of semiosis to accomplish Wright’s “translating and transferring emotions;” the semiosis is mediated by the performer. The performer translates the score into reality—that’s performance. Like translating from one language to another, though, there are necessary injections of the performer’s ideas into the final product—the difference between dumping a chunk of text into Google Translate and using a professional translator is much the same as the difference between “plonky and stupid” Beethoven and the performance by Tiffany Poon Wright uses as his counterexample.

You can make the case (as reader-response theory sometimes does) that the “translation” of words into a story or idea—into meaning—is a kind of performance by the reader rather than the writer. It is the reader who controls the pace of consumption, who consciously or unconsciously glides over the boring bits or lingers on a particularly artful turn of phrase. Readers are, at the least, participants in the construction of the meaning of a text. Communication is between the author and the reader.[3]

Musical performance—as with other performance arts—takes place in time. Scores can and do hang around for centuries. What we have on the page of Beethoven’s Op. 27 No. 2 now isn’t much different than what was on the page 200 years ago, but to turn it into music we need a performance now, something to thaw Beethoven’s calcified intentions into flowing sound. By controlling the pace of production (of sound), the performer controls the pace of consumption. The performer, of course, also controls the innumerable nuances that create the music for the audience.

“The trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer.”

As a composer, I have to respect performers—their skills make my ideas reality (and often improve upon them in the process). I don’t agree with Stravinsky’s notion of a hierarchical, unidirectional movement from composer to performer to audience. I believe that the relationships are reciprocal and that the musical work exists somewhere in the vague middle of the performer-audience-composer triangle. Performing is creative work regardless of how much or how little the composer has written down. (Any quibble with “which was always envisaged by the composer” must be saved for a separate post.) It’s the composer, though, who takes the first step of creating something from nothing, of recording some idea or intention to give to a performer and ultimately to the audience. That stage of creation embeds Wright’s “emotions” (I would add “ideas,” too) in an artifact. Only then can the performing artist “transfer and translate” them for the audience.

Writing is creating something from nothing. Performing a score is creating something out of something else. That doesn’t mean that writing and music are wholly discrete: words are sounds. Sentences have rhythm. We can talk about pace and tempo and structure in novels in much the same way we do in symphonies. One of my favorite composers (and subject of my master’s thesis) justified his musical style and the creation of a whole new tuning system on the basis of its presumed relation to human speech and song—to embodied words.

My favorite description of what defines a story is the Kalahari proverb “it comes from a far off place and you feel it.” Music is much the same way. I’ve been thinking about and writing about both for years. They’re arts. They benefit from from practice. Sometimes you create texts or scores or performances that suck. You learn from them and you move on. That doesn’t make writing  performance, and that’s okay. [4] Go practice, go write and, as Neil Gaiman puts it, make good art.

1—It’s tangential but important to note that the majority of the world’s musical traditions lack notation altogether. We have to be careful when we talk about music to remember that there is more to it than Western “classical” music. Many Western music philosophers and music semioticians build their work entirely on the Western canon, sometimes narrowing it further to Western instrumental music. That leads to some conclusions that look truly idiotic the moment you step out of the concert hall.
2—…and semiosis is marvelously complicated even before you get neurocogs involved.
3—As somebody whose dissertation was on the presentation of music and all of the practical levels of execution that go with getting music composed and performed, that sentence was a little painful to write. The communication is never going to be perfect and, as soon as publishing enters the equation, you add all sorts of competing pulls that influence both what is said and how it is said.
4—And, as I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that I don’t believe writing is performance does nothing to discount the other elements of Wright’s analogy. Writing is still art!

Nicking from Novels: Tony DiTerlizzi’s WondLa Trilogy

If Tony DiTerlizzi’s  work had begun and ended with the art for the old Planescape boxed set, he’d still have a special place in my heart. Fortunately for all of us, it didn’t. He’s gone on to create books of his own—art and otherwise. The Spiderwick Chronicles (in collaboration with Holly Black) are probably the best known thanks to a movie that I haven’t seen and haven’t heard anything good about. They’re good. (I only just learned that he and Ms. Black wrote a second set of Spiderwick books, which will be coming home from the library a few at a time for me and the kids.)

Today, though, I want to write about his juvenile sci-fi/fantasy novels, the WondLa trilogy. (They’re now available in paperback!)

The Overview
Stranger in a stranger land. A world full of aliens, exotic wildlife, and strange technology. Color art plates at the beginning of each chapter. A young protagonist who must save the world from itself while learning to understand her own power. Ecology. Third person limited point of view, with some important events happening off camera. Fairy tale elements combined seamlessly with sci-fi.

The Plot
Eva Nine lives underground with Muthr, her robot mother. An invader destroys the sanctuary and sets Eva on a course of discovery and self-discovery. She befriends an alien named Rovender Kitt, hears a prophecy, and finds her WondLa. In the subsequent volumes, she meets her people, tries to prevent a war, and eventually saves the world through bravery and kindness.

The Cool Thing to Consider
First, an aside: if I had tens of millions of dollars to throw at imaginary art projects, I would get Studio Ghibli and DiTerlizzi to make this trilogy into a movie. (It could be compressed into one or two movies without losing too much, I think.) It has the right environmental overtones, a young female protagonist, flying machines… The story sits comfortably in amongst Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, Spirited Away, and Mononoke. It would be awesome. (And WondLa is probably easier to translate to an animated film than Spiderwick, which is both more baroque and somewhat more kid-centric.)

DiTerlizzi’s prose is functional, and comfortable in that functionality. WondLa’s plot is not twisty (though there are some nice reveals). The form and content of these books ground them in the “middle grades” fantasy category; they’re kids books. Like most good children’s books, though, there is substance enough in them for adult readers. (This is another thing WondLa has in common with Miyazaki.) There are, as you might expect from an illustrator, fantastic images. Some of them are literal images—DiTerlizzi’s illustrations are every bit as good as you’d expect. DiTerlizzi also creates some fine images with words. WondLa’s environment is visually and conceptually rich.

It would have been easy, I think, for the environment to overtake the story. It’s a common enough problem with worldbuilders. DiTerlizzi avoids the problem in part through his plotting, but mainly through his characterization. Orbona, the world of WondLa, is built on connections. Eva Nine is, especially at first, a stranger to those connections.

The cool thing is that DiTerlizzi introduces Eva to an environment of connected characters as well as a connected physical environment. All of the primary characters and most of the secondary ones have connections to the world. Some also have connections to each other. Eva is the protagonist. She gets to make the important decisions that resolve the novels’ plot. But! The other characters all clearly have places in the world independent of their relationship to the protagonist.

I mentioned in the overview that some important things happen off camera. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. In adventure stories, we never want to feel like the protagonist is ineffectual. She can be overmatched, but even her failures have to matter. In most stories, the things that matter happen to, for, and near the protagonist. Because DiTerlizzi has created a world of characters who exist independently Eva, that is not so vital. It’s not just Eva who has agency.

Secondary characters’ ability to exist and act independently of the protagonist depends on their full realization as individuals. We have to believe that the secondary characters can do things that influence the story. They must have depth and motivation. They don’t need Stephen Daedalus-level complexity, but they need something that makes them seem real. DiTerlizzi accomplishes that by giving most of the characters in WondLa backstory.  Eva never analyzes her friends, and the characters do not ramble through expositional monologues about their pasts. We get hints and pieces and occasional short explanations. Sometimes, characters who have deep connections talk to each other without involving Eva at all. (This works because…this is how people really interact with each other. Sometimes things are not about everybody sitting at the table.)

The result of all this is that we’re never jarred out of WondLa’s world. Because DiTerlizzi has so gracefully written the characters into their surroundings, it’s effortless for us readers to go through the story with them.

What We Nick from this Novel
You can characterize without psychologizing, especially if you anchor your characters in their worlds.
It’s a truism to say “everybody is the hero of her own story.” There’s no doubt that Eva Nine is the hero of the WondLa trilogy, but there’s a distinct sense that every character has his or her own story. Some, like Rovender Kitt, have stories in which Eva plays a major, personal part. Others, like the Queen, experience Eva as an oddity and force of nature intruding on their personal tales. Because all of the characters are anchored in their world, though, we can get a sense of them without further exposition.

DiTerlizzi shows us who characters are without worrying us overmuch about how they think. This is small but vital part of what gives WondLa the wings that let it soar.

Painted Desert

Making Mountains out of Mountains

Painted Desert

On the way home, and not precisely the mountains, but not far from them.

I grew up surrounded by mountains, in the valley between the Rockies and the Owyhee Mountains. The rain shadow meant that what wasn’t irrigated was dry. Getting sagebrush and crops in the same frame of a photograph wasn’t too hard. Most of all, though, I remember mountains lining most of the horizon, especially on clear days. The thing is that I haven’t lived in Idaho for many years. Central Texas is, thank the FSM, far less flat than Northwest Ohio, but I still hadn’t been around mountains for a long, long time.

That changed on a recently-completed road trip. Along with the family, I did a three-day drive from Texas to California. At the end of the first day, closing in on Albuquerque, we reached the mountains. The sun was drifting down toward them. We rose up from the scrub plains to meet it.

A tangle of emotions followed—the sight of the mountains filled me up. They were a homecoming, but there was also bitterness there. It had been so long not just since I had seen mountains, but since I’d thought about them. It felt like I had betrayed my memories. Added to that was recognition of time’s passage. I had to convince my daughter that we were driving into mountains even though they were not pointy and white-capped like they are in her picture books. All this spun out from and coiled around the more usual beauties of mountain sunsets and the fatigue of a long day on the road.

Travel has always been a time for me to write—or at least to think about my writing. During the trip, I managed to (finally!) finish my read-through of Ghosts of the Old City. There is a lot to improve, especially in the first half of the book. It still has NaNo-wrought passages that don’t do anything. There are—well, I could spend a good chunk of time listing the things that need fixing. Mostly, the things that need to be fixed need to be more themselves, to reflect my understanding of the characters, story, and setting at the end of the process rather than what I was making up as I went along.

You never want to make mountains out of molehills. As a writer, though, you need to be able to make mountains out of mountains. The big things in your story have to feel big. The important things must feel important. Even after thinking about it for a week, I’m not sure I’ve done a good job of describing exactly what I felt when I saw the mountains. If it were important to my story, I’d have to find a way: more words, better words, fewer words…more details and less abstraction.

These are all things I’m doing as I work on my rewrites. Much of it comes back to the fundamental: show, don’t tell. If you can’t do that, your mountains will be flat and pointy against the horizon, capped with white that was never snow. And how is that going to make anybody feel anything?

Finity

Embed from Getty Images

Humans are bad swimmers.

The shape of our bodies lends itself to climbing trees, running long distances, using tools…and creating lots of turbulence when we propel ourselves through the water. Even Michael Phelps expends a fair amount of energy that doesn’t move him forward.

Being a first year teacher is like learning to swim: you splash and flounder and far, far too much of your energy is spent on turbulence rather than propulsion. You’re inefficient—dreadfully inefficient—but you’re in deep water so you don’t really have much choice but to keep swimming. You expend enormous amounts of energy on the little things: keeping track of papers, filing lesson plans, attending meetings. Then, too, there are the more important things that aren’t directly part of teaching content: classroom management, staying on the same page as your administrators, understanding how the standardized tests work. It’s all turbulence and splashing. There is not, as a first year teacher, that much energy left over for propelling yourself and your students toward actual content knowledge.

We do it anyway, though. How could we not? We love our students. Whether we’re fresh out of school or fresh out of an alternative certification program, we’re teachers because we care about the work. We can wear our cynicism about the system for everybody to see, but it hasn’t had time to deepen and become bitter. We give teaching everything we’ve got.

Here’s the thing, though: that extra energy? It has to come from somewhere. Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” First year teachers put most of our internal multitudes to work on teaching. We get a little boring. We do things like eat raw almonds for lunch because we didn’t make it to the grocery store or because we were thinking hard about the day’s lessons and forgot to pack a proper meal. We don’t get enough sleep. We have to remind ourselves that our kids at home are not our students. Sometimes, we have to hunt down that one of our multitude who washes dishes and does laundry. (That one is really good at hiding.)

Our multitudes are finite. Our energy is finite. For me, writing is one of the things that slipped for a while. NaNo was a bit of a train wreck—I didn’t have a plan when I started, spent the first weekend writing some game stuff, and was still at zero words of actual draft two weeks in. By the end of the third, I decided that continuing to gun for 50K was not going to be at all fun, so I stopped. I did write a few thousand words more before November was out, but it was back to writing for fun. There will be Camp NaNo in April and in July, and (shockingly) I don’t require it to be NaNo to write.

I do require time and energy. I have to find space in the finite. I have to decide, day to day, whether I’ll get more out of washing dishes or writing a few paragraphs, whether to spend a spare twenty minutes jotting down ideas for lesson plans or character development (or sleeping). I have to remind myself that I’m more likely to waste time playing games when I’m tired, and that those twenty minutes would almost always be better spent sleeping.

And teaching never really goes away. It’s nearly as bad as grad school for thoughts of “I should be working” lurking always in the back one’s mind. It doesn’t feel as much like being stalked by a monster as the dissertation did, but it still takes a remarkable amount of headspace. There are constantly things to fix, different points to emphasize, procedures to tweak to make things run more smoothly. I think about particular students. I think about particular lessons. I try to figure out different ways to explain things to my ESL and SPED students…and how to give my GT students something that will actually make them think. Teaching, like art, will fill as much space as you give it.

Finity is a bitch. But I’m learning to be a better swimmer.

Nicking from Novels: Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor

This week, we’ve got an arbitrary grab rather than a recommended must-read. I vaguely remembered seeing something about Katherine Addison’The Goblin Emperor before I saw it on the library shelf, but it was not until I got it home that I realized I’d read some of the author’s own thoughts about it on John Scalzi’s “The Big Idea” feature.  (Fun tidbit, “Katherine Addison” is the pen name of Sarah Monette, who in addition to being a novelist holds a Ph.D. in English literature. #postac tie-in!)

The Overview: Court intrigue set in a world populated by elves and goblins (who are biologically similar enough to crossbreed). There are airships and clockwork and gas lamps, but also limited amounts of magic. Intermittent acts of violence, but there’s no war or combat here. Third person limited point of view (protagonist’s only). Rich cultural background and a thoroughly fleshed out system of names, titles, and etiquette. The names and titles, incidentally, are in concocted language that takes some getting used to, but adds to the immersion.

The Plot: Stranger in a strange land. Maia, the forgotten son of a bitter political marriage, becomes the titular emperor after an airship accident kills the sitting emperor and heirs. He is quickly sucked into an imperial court he hardly knows, navigating political and personal challenges while he establishes his power. It’s part Bildungsroman and part political thriller set in a fantasy Versailles.

The Cool Thing to Consider:

There are many, many excellent things in this novel. It’s a damn good book. Before I was “supposed” to be reading it to prepare for this feature, I’d already picked it up and been sucked in. Addison’s Maia is a wonderfully human protagonist, a completely believable blend of naïvete, native cunning, and moral decency. The complicated names and titles begin as a distraction, but quickly become familiar enough to help the reader navigate the hierarchies of the imperial court. The supporting characters are standard tropes (conniving minister, painfully upright soldier, absent-minded mage, super-competent secretary), but you only notice that when you try to describe them. Addison’s characterization clothes those trope-ish skeletons in believability.

I could write about any of those things, but I want instead to dig in to the novel’s first chapter. Beginnings are, generally, hard, but The Goblin Emperor sucks the reader in right away. This will be a little more technical and detail-oriented than my previous Nicking from Novels posts, because it’s worth going into that detail to figure out how a great opening chapter works.

Addison starts with one of the canonical sins of story openings: her protagonist waking up. You’re Not Supposed to Do That. Addison gets away with it because she immediately levers us into action (rather than reflection or description): “Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.” From the first sentence, we know that something is wrong. Maia is confused. His cousin snaps commands and uses exclamation points, giving neither Maia nor the reader time to lay back and figure out what is happening. Despite the “waking up” first sentence, this is really an in media res beginning. The action’s already going, even if the protagonist doesn’t understand what it is.

By the third page, the reader has learned that Maia’s cousin Setheris is a bitter alcoholic who has thoroughly cowed Maia. We learn that Maia is young, a half-goblin. We get glimmers of Maia’s appearance in contrast to the travel-stained but elegant messenger. We get a profound sense of Maia’s confusion and shock. After the messenger has verified Maia’s identity, we get the following passage:

“And then bewilderment compounded bewilderment, as the messenger deliberately and with perfect dignity prostrated himself on the threadbare rug. ‘Your Imperial Serenity,’ he said.”

Look at how much Addison gives us with that pair of sentences. Maia is doubly “bewildered.” The messenger is a disciplined courtier with impeccable manners. The house (of which we have seen little) is run-down, an odd place to stash an archduke. And then we’re hit with the revelation of Maia’s new title. Explanation of the airship crash that killed Maia’s father and half-brothers follows. We need it just as much as Maia does.

The whole book is peppered with these kinds of dense statements. It’s over 400 pages in hardcover, but you don’t notice. Addison wrings impressive amounts of detail out of every statement and interaction. Pure exposition is virtually nonexistent.

Back to the first chapter. Once the messenger has made his announcement, Maia opens the letter that formally invites him to the court (for his father’s funeral). Addison prints that letter for us, something she does intermittently through the rest of the book. This particular letter is from the lord chancellor, who is not, we are shown right away, somebody who holds Maia’s best interests at heart. Bam! We have an adversary, and we’re still in the first chapter. How do we know the chancellor’s an adversary? The bitter cousin explains it, dissecting the letter for function and hidden meaning. (Addison uses this device throughout the novel to good effect.) The cousin mentions in passing that he and the chancellor are old enemies. He all but demands that Maia disrupt the chancellor’s plans by immediately heading to the capital by airship.

In the seven pages of the first chapter, Addison gives us the precipitating event (the airship crash), the biggest challenge of the plot (the unprepared Maia must become emperor), a lingering difficulty from Maia’s vanishing life (the abusive alcoholic cousin), a direct impending threat (the lord chancellor), and foreshadows what comes next (the airship journey to the capital). Seven pages! And one of them is half-eaten by a block-quoted letter. That is some phenomenal density of good stuff, all managed without anybody talking even a little to the camera. Addison takes advantage of the naive protagonist, sure, to explain some of the things her readers need to know. The casual density of meaning in her sentences, though, makes the exposition more like the steady flow of sand through and hourglass than the lumping together of plotbricks. Most importantly, she keeps her characters moving, literally and metaphorically. The first chapter feels like a rush to catch up with a story that’s already running ahead…and I mean that in the best way possible.

What We Nick from this Novel

Get in the car! I’ll explain on the way.

Especially for pantsers, it’s easy for early chapters to be about the story rather than part of the story. It’s okay to write your way into the story, but don’t make your readers follow along. Think about how you can set your characters in motion (even if it’s just metaphorical movement). You do not have to start in media res, but give your readers some mystery or threat or treasure to be interested in right away. Don’t let the readers get it, obviously, but give them that urgent invitation to get in the car. You’ve got the rest of the book to explain what it all means.

Also, go read The Goblin Emperor, because it is excellent even if it lacks for swordfights.

Published and Perished

Yesterday, nearly a year and a half after I decided to leave academia, I had my first piece of academic writing published. It’s just a book review (you can find it here, if you really want to), but it’s my book review. Coming as it did on a rather bleak Monday, the publication stirred up a mess of emotions I had hoped to have left behind. It’s everything I should have been getting out into the world six years ago, while my nascent doctorate still had a smiley-face sticker on it.

There’s not much to say about my publication history, because there’s not much publication history there. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my advisor and I, no matter how cordial our interactions, amplified each other’s weaknesses. He was laissez-faire and I was independent. He never pushed me to publish (nor did any of the professors in my department). It was all about conference presentations—my track record on those was much better. I knew I was supposed to be getting stuff out there, but I had a small child and heaps of reading to do and no guidance on how to go about it. If I’d been on top of my game, I would have asked for that guidance. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and now I’m not in academia anymore.

Right now, I’m not really anywhere. I continue to tread water. The lightly baffled optimism of June has evaporated along with the summer teacher hiring season. I applied, I interviewed, I got a familiar mix of polite rejection e-mails and declarative silence. Next week I’m going back to the substitute mines, only with a longer commute. Oh, I’m still applying for late-breaking openings and the oddities that result from the firing/resignation/tragedy of current teachers, but few of the things that were supposed to happen last month did.

Sometimes things are slow. The book I reviewed was published in 2012, back when I was still officially a graduate student. I drafted my review back in December. I did revisions a month ago (accepting nearly all of the changes proposed by my awesome editor). Now that the review is out, a handful of academics will read it. Some might buy the book and/or consider using it in their courses…next semester or next year. More likely, the book will end up in university libraries and be cited by one or two students each year. Those students will pick it up not because it’s good (though it is), but because it showed up in their keyword search in the library catalog. The author’s research will thus diffuse, slowly, over whatever the half-life is for books on New York jazz.

I got to be a small part of that process. Part of me appreciates that. Part of me looks at the timeline and the number of people the work will ultimately reach and thinks “thank the FSM that I got out of that racket.” I mean, there’s a significant chance that my post comparing NaNoWriMo to writing a dissertation has, thanks to being Freshly Pressed, reached more people than my book review ever will. Writing for academia is not so different from blogging: laboring in obscurity and hoping that somebody gets something worthwhile from your work. I like to think I have done that here for a few people a few times.

But that, too, is slow and uncertain. Occasionally somebody clicks “like.” More rarely, somebody comments. Once in a while a post of mine is reblogged somewhere. (Once or twice,I’ve even been reblogged by actual human persons rather than aggregators.) It’s good to have that evidence that somebody has read and appreciated your work, that there is a distinction between publishing and perishing.

It’s a small distinction, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve done both. I published in an academic review. Sometime in the next year I hope to publish a novel. Yet I am still a failed academic and a teacher who, while hardly a failure, has yet to succeed. I thought I was over the former. Seeing my name in (virtual) print showed me I’m not there yet. I should have been proud, but mostly it just stirred an old ache. I liked more about academia than Friday happy hours and community in-jokes. I liked my work. I liked scholarship. As I continue to hang between my old community and wherever I manage to land, being published reminds me more of what has perished than the potential for what comes next.

-—*—-

That would be the poetic place to end this post. It completes a thought with a tidy bit of wordplay. But I don’t want to leave it there, because as much as what’s up there captures my feelings, it doesn’t wholly capture my thoughts. It is, among other things, too mopey. If I truly believed that publishing and perishing were indistinguishable—even mostly indistinguishable—I wouldn’t be writing this in a public venue. Maybe I’d scribble it in a diary. Maybe I’d compose it as a soliloquy in my head while staring moodily out the window. But I’m putting my words here, where you can see them, because no matter what vagaries I’ve gone through getting through and getting out of academia, saying something matters. A mopey blog post probably doesn’t matter that much. There are better mopers than me, better writers than me, and certainly far more widely-published examples of both. But I keep doing this small bit of publishing.

This is where things get a bit postmodern: publishing is itself the resistance to the suffering publishing prompted. Even when I feel mopey and down and useless, the way I fight perishing is to publish. That’s true of many artists I know. There are days when it feels like Zeno’s paradox, gaining (or losing) half the distance to the goal over and over again without achieving final victory of final defeat. I keep doing it anyway, because the alternative is to stand still.

And when we’re not where we want to be, standing still guarantees unhappiness. That’s why I work to get back to publishing when I’m moping. It keeps me from standing still. It keeps me, to force a second and less poetic final line to this piece, from perishing.