Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Welcome back!

School started, my health went to hell, and I stopped working on my writing project. Go figure.

But I have evened the keel somewhat with respect to my professional work, and now find that I have my Tuesday mostly free to write. This requires much more discipline about my time than I am used to exercising. Now I must get all, or almost all, my work for Wednesday done on Monday. It also means consciously not making work for myself in my classes. Today I am also going to send a story off to a magazine, because I must start thinking of myself as a writer, not just a college professor with a hobby. It is similar to convincing my student teachers to stop thinking of themselves as students, without any real responsibilities) and start thinking of themselves as teachers, with real responsibilities.

I want to write about what I have learned from reading Ken Scholes' Lamentation, and now, Canticle. First, Scholes sticks to the Vonnegut principle of offering only sentences that advance the action or reveal character. In fact, I think he follows nearly all the rules pretty faithfully, except that he keeps a lot of information from the characters and from the readers, which mystery is what gives the story its its impetus. There are a lot of major characters, and you can root for just about all of them, and those who are not attractive are always interesting. There are a few characters, particularly the secondary bad guys who are a bit cartoonish -- their actions are very important but they are not perhaps well-enough developed to squeeze the most out of their involvement. Sethbert, a man without good qualities, could have been made less odious and more complex to the benefit of the story. But there are a whole bunch of other interesting and engaging characters. The book is written in consistent third person, with constant switches between focus on the five or six main characters; occasionally I found myself wishing for a little less back and forth, but the changes from character to character (and place to place) serves as a major way of moving the story forward. The world and its history are very fully imagined -- at heart, this is in the tradition of the post-apocalyptic, though the apocalypse happened a long time from the present action -- and there is a great combination of magic, old-fashioned Medieval world, and technology that does not actually belong to the world. There is also an undercurrent of philosophical/religious speculation that makes it all seem relevant, juxtaposed to action, sex, intrigue, etc. For me, the most interesting characters are the two teenagers, Neb and Winters, who I believe will turn out to be the central characters as I get closer to the end. This brings me to ask who this book is actually for, or what fantasy/sci-fi readers are. The presence of these two young people at the center of the narrative, plus the magic and the steampunk technology, marks the book as interesting for a young adult audience (which includes a lot of grownups who like happy endings), and there is not so much adult material to turn anyone away or to make it inappropriate for a younger reader. In this way, I am reminded of Ursula LeGuin and Philip Pullman.

For me, this serves as a reminder that I can generally think of my project as "young adult" but not write down in any way. The sort of violence, sexuality, and philosophical gravity of some of the science fiction books I've read recently is not what I want to write anyway, though I like reading it well enough. In the end, I'm probably more of a PG-13 kind of guy, doing my best to avoid reality not to make it more intense or unpleasant than it already is. But for my narrative, this means that I do not need to shy away from developing full adult characters, evoking "big ideas," or a creative and expansive use of language. Since I have chosen one very typically young adult tool, the first-person narrative, rather than the third-person which seems dominant in so-called adult fantasy/sci-fi, the scope of my narrative is limited by the identity of my narrator, in this case, adolescents. But adolescents have more vivid ideas and feelings than they are represented as having in most third-person adult narratives, where they tend to be represented as somewhat more innocent and wondrous than the adult characters. I may have to read some more non-fantasy young adult fiction to remind myself of the range of personality and experience I might allow myself. Much wider than maybe I'm imagining.

In any case, today there will be words on the page. And a map too, because every good fantasy book has a map.

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