Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

My friends and I have this game called Shotgun-Shotgun. You take a can of beer, put it on a stump, shoot it with a pellet gun, then run forward and drink the beer spurting out of the can. I can tell you with confidence that I’m good at this game, and although we only play it rarely, I’m unlikely to get much better. That is because it’s really quite a simple game.

In this, it is almost exactly unlike chess. Chess, we are told, takes about ten thousand hours to master, ten thousand hours, mind you, for someone who is already pretty fucking good at chess to begin with. This ten-thousand hour rule seems to apply pretty broadly across the spectrum of complex, multivariate activities, things like basketball and the playing of the violin. To achieve a top level in any of these fields, the evidence suggests, you really need to put in about ten thousand hours of sustained, intentional study.

This is a serious problem for writers of fantasy. Or, to put it more precisely, a serious problem for the characters about whom fantasy writers tend to write.

Take, for example, the hoary old trope of the farm boy who becomes a blademaster. Let’s assume the kid has the necessary natural talent. Let’s further spot him a few hundred hours due to his ability to handle a hoe. He’s still about 9,700 hours in the hole when it comes to the mastery of Kvaaana’va, the glowing, bedragoned, unbreakable antique blade of his people.

Consider the curious case of Rand al’Thor.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

As far as we know, the first time Rand’s ever held a sword is in the third or fourth chapter of The Eye of the World. And yet, by the end of the second book (The Great Hunt) he holds his own in single combat against one of the Forsaken, evidently on the strength of a few dozen lessons squeezed in between a lot of wandering, running away from Trollocs,  and playing the flute. Barely half a year has elapsed since he first holds a sword, and yet he’s capable of battling a full blademaster to a standstill. For those of you not near a calculator, half a year is about 4300 hours, and that’s all the hours in all the days.

Given Rand’s piecemeal, ad hoc practice schedule, a schedule not really suitable for a middle school scrabble club, let alone the martial training of the most important person in the world, it’s more than a little surprising that he gets so good so fast.

Of course, there’s something assholish about totaling up hours and insisting on certain tallies for certain activities. This is fiction, this is fantasy, and I’m totally willing to admit a little flex into the calculation. Rand’s case, however, involves more than a little flex. It strains credulity so violently that the whole fabric of the fantasy is in danger of tearing wide open. If this kid can master a sword in a few weeks, it would seem that anyone can do anything – which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth, given the extraordinary abilities mastered by the other characters. Keep in mind that the whole series, all fourteen books, span just two years. The final eight books cover less than twelve months.

Jordan is far from alone when it comes to this issue of implausible mastery. Part of the reason is that fantasy often doubles as a coming of age story, a fact that puts the writer in a bind. Her first choice is to compress the learning process (whether of sword or magic or bow or politics or whatever) into a preposterous time frame. The second is to dilate the space of the novel in order to accommodate the necessary training. We’ve already seen the dangers of the second approach. Expanding the time frame avoids these dangers, but runs the risk of diluting the narrative urgency.

Of course, writers have found a way to tackle this problem. Anthony Ryan, for instance, in his brilliant first novel, Blood Song, makes use of the frame story, a narrative unfolding in a compressed present, to keep his multi-year tale of training, mystery, and self-discovery from coming apart. Without the frame, Blood Song might seem rambling, unfocused. The frame, however, reminds us that the whole thing is aiming at a clear climax. It gives us a particular lens through which to understand the passage of many years. It’s a smart approach, and Ryan handles it masterfully.

Ursula K. Le Guin does something different in her Earthsea novels. Each book covers a relatively short period of time, a few weeks or months (although Wizard is longer). This gives us the intensity and focus that can be lacking in longer, more wandering narratives. The passage of time, the consolidation and mastery of Ged’s skills, takes place primarily between volumes. The years pass, Ged’s abilities grow, and yet we aren’t forced to witness every step along the path. Instead, Le Guin draws us in for the inflection points, the most crucial forks in the road.

A third approach, quite common in the genre, is to start the story with a young character whose training is mostly behind her or him, who is just at the cusp of a major breakthrough. N.K. Jemisin uses this approach quite skillfully in her beautiful, gut-punching novel The Killing Moon, where Nijiri has already mastered the bulk of his training before the book opens. This allows Jemisin to focus on the crucial final steps, the last lessons imparted from master to student (and dredged up from the depths of the student’s own being) in the story itself.

I’m sure there are other ways to handle the dual issues of training and time. I’d be curious to hear from other readers and writers on the subject. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my own ten thousand hour apprenticeship. If only Lan al’Mandragoran could make me a master of writing in half a dozen quick lessons squeezed in between beer drinking and sledding.

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Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

I suspect something horrible may be happening to us; I suspect that someone – the CIA, aliens, maybe that dude who works at the late-night burger place down the alley – is siphoning away our brain power a little bit at a time. My suspicions were first aroused last night, when my wife and I sat down to watch the premiere of The Voice. If you’re not familiar with the show, all you need to know is that the singers get ninety seconds to impress the judges. Not a full song, or, heaven forbid, a set of songs that might showcase different abilities: ninety seconds. And it was awesome. We were never bored. While watching the show I forgot that boredom existed.

Then I remembered a writer’s conference I attended many years back in which I went to a number of pitch sessions entitled “Two Minutes; Two Pages.” Sorta like The Voice, but with literary agents instead of Shakira and Usher, reading instead of singing, and an extra thirty seconds to hawk your shit. Also, I don’t seem to recall a cheering live audience of thousands. At any rate, these sessions made a real impression on me, as the agents, all of the agents, kept saying things like, “I see a million submissions a day. If you haven’t hooked me by the end of the first paragraph, I’m done.”

I really wanted an agent. I rewrote my opening paragraph.

Let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about these agents or their advice. They were passing along what I think is the overwhelming opinion of readers, the people who actually buy the books. It is their job to know what sells and they were excellent at that job. They were just a little ahead of me in the realization that aliens are thieving our attention spans.

These days, it seems that many readers want something good, and by good I mean awesome – a bomb threat, a zombie, someone naked, several naked people, naked people defusing a bomb while fending off zombies –  by the end of the first paragraph if not the end of the first sentence.

Was it always this way?

Well, I didn’t have time for an exhaustive study of opening lines, but I did have time for some half-assed Googling. Half-assed Googling, I realize, runs a distant second to actual statistical analysis, but I was so surprised by the results that I wanted to share them here. I Googled eight fantasy novels, famous novels. The first four were published before 1990, the next four, after. I ignored prologues where they existed, focusing instead on the opening sentences of the first chapters.

Consider:

Old Stuff:

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home.” Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy (1982)

“The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland.” Brooks, The Sword of Shannara (1977)

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage…” Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

New Stuff:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded…” Martin, Game of Thrones (1996)

“The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird. Logan opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry through the leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much?” Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (2006)

“In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive. The Reaper’s task is not to save.” Jemisin, The Killing Moon (2012)

You don’t need to be a literary scholar to see the differences.

Kicking off the old books we have: a birthday party, some geography, the description of a trail, and the sights and smells of a kitchen. Eddings, for his part, seems determined to absolutely destroy any narrative tension right at the outset, giving us love and security instead of mystery or suspense. Of the early works, Le Guin’s opening is probably the most exciting, but even she doesn’t zero in on a particular scene, providing us instead with something that sounds suspiciously like history.

In the new books, by contrast, we have: a beheading, a strangling, the potential death of the POV character, and a soulless Reaper. I can tell you right off the bat who’s going to end up on The Voice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the old books are weaker. In fact, the old books are classics, and deservedly so (whatever you think about Brooks ripping off Lord of the Rings). I do want to suggest that it looks as though the way readers and, therefore, writers approach beginnings is changing. The question is: is this bad? I have no idea. I’ve lost the ability to focus on the question long enough. Maybe one of you, however, someone who has escaped the brain suckers, could tell me what it all means…

Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

Writers of fantasy have been seriously slacking. Here we were, thinking they’d been inventing whole new worlds, imagining undiscovered lands, conjuring up hitherto undreamed of vistas and cultures and religions and vegetables and hats when, as it turns out, they’ve just been ripping shit off. These so-called writers have been taking places and people from the real world, from real history, tossing this stuff in their books, giving it new names, and hoping we would never notice!

And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take much digging to find the real referents here, not when you’re clued in to the trick. Anyone else notice that Khal Drogo’s title sounds a lot like Khan, that the Dothraki are essentially Mongols? Or that Robert Jordan’s Caemlyn looks a lot like England? Or that R. Scott Bakker’s plot (in The Prince of Nothing) draws heavily on the Crusades? Or that N. K. Jemisin’s Gujarreh is modeled on Egypt? Or that Daniel Abraham’s entire map (in The Dragon’s Path) is just Europe scrunched up a little bit? What horseshit!

I’m joking, of course. Not about fantasy writers ripping shit off – we do that all the time – but about the idea that these cultural borrowings are either lazy, secret, or deleterious to the works in question. They are not.

In fact, far from diminishing the effect of these novels, I’d argue that such borrowing and modification, skillfully handled, is a boon for author and reader both. After all, when I sit down to read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, she tells me right up front in the author’s note that the names and geography are essentially Egyptian. This sweeps aside a whole lot of work for both of us. I’m already imagining deserts and the Nile, monumental architecture and loincloths. She describes these things, of course – the world is well and truly fleshed out – but she doesn’t need to start from the ground up. Instead, she can dig more quickly into plot and character, confident that the reader, clued in to the cultural shorthand, will fill in any missing details more or less correctly. I usually enjoy reading fantasy in which the writer modifies a pre-existing culture because I feel I can focus on the important details instead of pausing every few seconds, muttering, “Wait, they live in straw houses and eat what again?”

There are, however, some dangers here. Most obviously, the writer will want to depart from the historical model in places. This is what makes the book fantasy and not historical fiction. However, the momentum of shared cultural assumptions can obscure these points of departure. If the whole book I’m reading draws heavily on the culture of medieval Japan, it’s going to be more difficult for the writer to steer us out of the relevant assumptions when such steering becomes necessary. The familiarity of the known becomes a sort of prison.

Of course, part of the fun has been to establish what seems to be a familiar cultural paradigm only to subvert it. “Look,” the author says. “This place is just like medieval Arabia. Load it up with your assumptions. Keep piling them on! You’re doing great!” And then, because the book is fantasy and not history, she pulls the carpet out, forcing us to realize that a) this place is not medieval Arabia, but something altogether stranger and more wonderful, and that b) maybe our assumptions about medieval Arabia weren’t all that dialed-in to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that all writers employ these methods. The shelves are piled with fantasy novels that eschew any obvious borrowings, geographic, linguistic, cultural, or religious. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is an obvious example, as is Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. I find both worlds fascinating and disorienting at the same time, refreshing for their refusal to draw on any givens, but daunting for the same reason. These are, in a way, the purest fantasies, and I find myself amazed by the ambition and ability of both writers. Still, it’s useful here to remember that the root of “amazed” is “maze,” as in delusion, bewilderment, perhaps drawn from the Norwegian mas, meaning “exhausting labor.” In other words, writers who build their worlds from the bedrock up require a lot more work from their readers. The payoff from Le Guin and Erikson is so great that I don’t hesitate to put in this work, but it’s important to note the costs nonetheless; a lot more people have read The Wheel of Time than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I’m curious to hear from other readers and writers. When does the sort of cultural shorthand I’ve been trying to describe work well, and when does it seem lazy or derivative? Would you rather read books with lands that are vaguely familiar, or plunge into something altogether new?