In Praise of Doing Actual Shit

Sometimes, in my weaker moments, it strikes me as a good idea to avoid doing actual shit.

To clarify, some terminology and context:

By “doing actual shit,” I mean doing something out in the world – splitting wood, playing the banjo, moving my friend’s girlfriend’s mattress and box spring out the window of a third-story garret, trying to build a bobsled run on the heavily wooded, very steep ridgeline we happen to live beneath  – as opposed to doing something in my head or on my computer.

I understand that people will resist this definition; “Inventing names for orphaned orcs is actual shit!” they will shout. And I get it. I’m sympathetic to this argument – after all, I write fantasy – but one of the pleasures of having a blog is in defining your own terms, and I’m sticking with my definition. For the purposes of this post, “actual shit” is not writing, or tweeting, or plotting, or revising, or counting your friends on facebook and trying to figure out how you came to know this one dude who’s wearing the full walrus costume in all his photos.

The reason it’s tempting to avoid doing actual shit is not that I don’t like doing actual shit, but that my job as a writer is to do things in my head or on my computer. The devious thinking runs as follows: for every mile I bike, for every hour I spend learning about edible mushrooms (but not actually eating them because those little fuckers can kill you), for every afternoon I go swimming in the pond with my son, I’ve failed to write a certain number of words. And I’m supposed to be writing words. That’s why the nice people at Tor pay me.

So, given all this, it seemed stupid to bring home a three-year-old rescue dog, a treeing coonhound with a huge scar across his back and a nick out of one ear. In fact, left to my own devices, I would have tallied up the costs – taking him for runs, taking him to the vet, putting out dinner for him, cleaning up the dog hair – converted the accumulated time into words not written (several hundred thousand, by my calculation), and decided to leave him at the shelter. One of the many wonderful things about my wife, however, is that she does not leave me to my own devices. And so we have the hound.

I like the hound for all the normal reasons that people like dogs. More than that, however, the hound has reminded me of something crucial that I’m always in danger of forgetting: Failing to do actual shit can turn a person into a shitty writer. The widest lexicon, most supple syntactical control, and the most inventive imagination can’t save a novelist from a lack of actual shit done.

Take the hound. I grew up with dogs, but I’d forgotten that quiet clicking of claws on the floor that brings movement and life to an otherwise empty house. I’d forgotten the way the soft flesh of a dog’s nose quivers when it half-sniffs, and the clink of a collar against a water bowl. I’d forgotten that pungent smell when you nuzzle close and realize your dog just ate a steaming pile of fox shit. Dogs don’t figure prominently in my books, but when they do appear, those moments will be richer and more nuanced for having a hound in my house.

And the thing is, you never know what you might need when you’re writing a book, or how the actual shit you’ve done on a given day (or month or year) might bring an otherwise generic scene into sharp focus.

Take, for instance, this little bit of description from J.V. Jones’s Cavern of Black Ice:

“Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Panes of ice already lay thick over melt ponds. In the flattened colt grass beneath Raif’s feet hoarfrost grew silently and insidiously as mold on second-day bread.”

Think what these lines might have been:

“Raif looked over the windblown flats of the badlands. Ice already slicked the ponds, and frost grew on the grass beneath Raif’s feet.”

There’s nothing wrong with this modified description, but compared with the original it seems anemic, attenuated. And here’s the thing, while it might be possible to Google your way into something like original (Image search: frost. Oh! Hoarfrost. Ok. Now, what are those little boggy pond things you see on the tundra called? Google “pondy bog”…), the process would be excruciating and the result less than ideal. Clearly, Jones has seen moldy bread, has enough first-hand experience with it that, when it came time to describe the hoarfrost here, her mind reached (a little inside joke, for those who know the book) for the bread image immediately. At the time, however, I suspect she wasn’t thinking, “Thank god I forgot this bread in the way, way back of the cupboard. This is really going to kick my writing up a notch.” I don’t know Jones (though I wish I did), but I suspect she was thinking something like what I would be thinking: “Well, fuck.”

And there’s just no way to know what actual shit might come in handy when writing a book: raking the leaves, sharpening knives, scrubbing out the tub, shooting cans of Budweiser with a pellet gun and then, when they rupture, racing to the cans and drinking the beer as it fountains forth in a frothy spray… (I highly recommend this last activity, a game we have dubbed “Shotgun Shotgun.”) In fact, I’ve found myself writing entire scenes based on experiences I’ve had doing actual shit, experiences that seemed, at the time they were happening, utterly useless, a complete waste of time, a distraction from writing.

Of course, when deadlines are looming, it’s hard to convince yourself that what your book needs is an entire day spent lashing together a raft of wooden logs, then floating said raft down the West River while drinking gin and tonics, trying to keep it from disintegrating beneath you all while preserving the precious gin in a little floating cooler that keeps capsizing every time you hit a tiny rapid. Then again, as I often tell my wife, “What I’m doing may look pointless, but it’s all work, baby. It’s all part of the work.”

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Is That a Mast Between Your Legs?; the Role of the Fantasy Cover

I love judging books by their covers. I will look at a cover and just judge the shit out of it. “Boob armor,” I’ll scoff, and toss the book contemptuously away. “That dragon looks like a lobster.” Gone.

Is this an effective method? Not really, but I count on the internet to keep badgering me about the shittily-covered books that are really great. This is why we invented the internet, right?

When I first saw my own cover (check it out here), however, I started feeling a little less blasé. Fortunately, I love it, but it got me thinking about the role of covers and the messages they carry. Never one to pass up a little side-by-side comparison, I decided to take a look at the old cover (OC) and new cover (NC) of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.

The Original Cover

The Original Cover

First, the stats:

Weaponry

OC: Three swords, one axe, and a helmet. Don’t tell me that helmet’s not a weapon.

NC: A piercing blue stare.

Elements of Vague Menace:

OC: Night, dead trees, agitated horse.

NC: Weather, possibly inclement.

Possible Magical Shit:

The New Cover

The New Cover

OC: One staff, elegantly carved.

NC: Something gleaming yet indeterminate in the middle distance. (I know this is the tower of Genji, rabid Jordan fans, but I wouldn’t if I was looking at the book for the first time.)

Serious and Immediate Threats:

OC: An airborne, malevolent, human-stalking bat creature.

NC: Falling off the mast?

Coed Fellowship of Like-Minded Heroes:

OC: Eight strong.

NC: Conspicuously lacking.

Clothing:

OC: Armor, gown, jerkins, capes.

NC: Lush, billowy shirt. Immaculately laundered.

Phallic Imagery:

OC: Minimal.

NC: To the max.

Based on the new cover, someone unfamiliar with the novel might reasonably expect a coming-of-age tale about a young man with impeccable laundry service, who goes to sea, then secretly pines for the love he left behind, yearning for the day when they will be reunited. Not a lot, in other words, about trollocs slaughtering villagers, or the impending destruction of all creation.

And it doesn’t matter! The new cover doesn’t need to convey anything about the actual substance of the book because The Wheel of Time has been around for decades. The book has been vetted. The role of the cover art now is not to convince the hard-core fantasy fans to read it, because the book, even if you hate it, is already an inevitable part of the fantasy canon.

So what’s this new cover doing? Two things. First, trying to broaden the appeal of the book beyond fantasy’s traditional readership. I know heaps of people who look down on or sideways at fantasy, people who are always starting sentences, “The thing most readers don’t understand about Proust is…”, people who would hesitate to so much as glance at the old cover. Too many swords, too much horseflesh.

The new look, though – Oho! Who’s this strapping young man striking the type of implausible pose usually reserved for models from clothing catalogues? Who does his laundry? Is he pining for his lost love? And that sky! Evocative of someone famous… maybe Turner?

Which brings me to the second goal of the new cover: dressing up the book. This is related to point one, but transcends it. If the old cover says, “Hey, I’m sorta trashy, but I’ll show you a good time,” this new cover is all buttoned up. This is the kind of book you could read in front of your in-laws. Or in church. If you read in church. Which you probably shouldn’t.

That’s my interpretation, anyway. The folks at Tor have their own explanation, which, given that they’re the ones who commissioned the new look, might have a slight edge over mine. The thing I’m curious about, though, is this: If you knew nothing about the book, which cover would prove more enticing?

Useless, Creepy Old Shit

“I hate useless, creepy old shit.”

So says my beloved wife on the subject of ancient relics in fantasy novels. Coming in for particular censure are mysterious old buildings, old roads, old statues, and “that stupid Logoth place where everything is a scary little alleyway.”

For my part, I found the stupid Logoth place (Shadar Logoth of Robert Jordan’s first book) both interesting and terrifying, so this remark set me pondering about the value and proper deployment of hoary antiquity in fantasy.

We can start with a brief taxonomy. A writer can conjure a landscape or city dotted with the ancient structures for several reasons:

First: Scenery. Action takes place in settings, and if you have the choice to set your duel in front of a tree or an ancient statue of the God of Ultimate Suffering and Misery, the statue seems cooler.

Second: History. Often the (ancient) history of an invented world is relevant to the plot. One way to reveal that history is through archaeology. Given the dangers inherent in the long expository passage (“The war began in the third year of the fourth age, when Nab’kul and his hordes had despoiled the country and blah, blah, blah”), the inclusion of an old bridge or ruined castle is sometimes a more elegant way to approach the revelation of history.

Third: Mystery. This can be a cheap trick, but I fall for it every time. Stick a mysterious windowless tower in the middle of a grassland, tell me that no one has ever been seen to enter or leave, and I will wonder about that tower for thousands of pages. I will literally read entire books just to discover who built the tower and why.

These uses of archaeology are both practical and effective, and yet I think that most fantasy readers find something even more satisfying in the discovery of ancient cities, roads, and statues: the suggestion of a golden age, that hint that the characters (and by extension, the reader) live in a diminished age but can still walk in the literal shadows of greatness. We might encapsulate the feeling in a single word: wonder.

It’s not a familiar feeling in our modern world. We have skyscrapers and iPhones, electric cars and planes that, you know, fly. I am often astounded at how jaded I have become, even toward things that do not yet exist. The other day I found myself surprised and slightly irritated that we are still reliant on such a primitive piece of technology as the snowplow. It is an effective, but essentially medieval device. When do we get self-cleaning roads?

This attitude, of course, is the antithesis of wonder, but it is hard to avoid if you live in the first world in the twenty-first century. Odds are good that whatever cool shit people built back in the day – temples, churches, castles – we could built them taller and faster now.

Fantasy, however, gives us a chance to recover that feeling of wonder, the lost sense that those who came before were actually smarter or more skilled, a feeling that would have been familiar to most people throughout human history: an early medieval peasant looking at a Roman aqueduct, for instance, or Alexander the Great considering the pyramids of Egypt. Most people before us had the capacity to be humbled by the creations of the past in a way that we do not. Fantasy affords this capacity.

That said, the subject deserves at least one more post. After all, as my wife insists, “If there’s an ancient statue, it had better do something.”

“Why?” I ask. “Why can’t it just be a cool statue?”

She rolls her eyes. “Because it’s fucking fantasy!

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others on this issue. What sort of archaeological artifacts have proven especially intriguing or important in other works of fantasy? What’s just useless window dressing?