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.”

The Trouble with Orgasm; Unsatisfying Endings

The trouble with orgasm, according to Marie Stopes, is that it’s too obscure. Not the orgasm itself, which seemed to function just about the same a hundred years ago as it does now, but the word. Dr. Stopes, in her 1918 Married Love (a treatise on marriage, sex, and birth control, among other things), used the word climax instead of orgasm. She thought it was more straightforward, more intuitive to her readers, and her use of it helped to promulgate a new, sexual meaning of a very old word.

Climax wasn’t always so sexy. In the 16th century, it was a rhetorical term used to describe a chain of logical reasoning – not surprising, given that the Greek, klimax, from which it descended, meant, literally, ladder. Ladder to rhetoric to orgasm. Not a bad career for the word.

Of course, story-lovers tend to use it in yet another sense. When someone mentions the climax of a book, they’re not usually talking about a massive ejaculation or feat of rhetorical bravado (unless it’s a book about sex or rhetoric). A dramatic climax is one in which the tension building throughout the novel comes to a head. Everyone’s seen the graph – tension on the y-axis, time on the x-axis, and a rising line that looks like the stock market in a good month.

I hate that fucking graph.

The problem is that it makes the climax of a book look pretty straightforward. Just pile on more stuff (the graph seems to say), more tension, more fights, more speed, more volume – make that mountain higher! – and the pile becomes a climax. If you had two people dueling in the first scene of the novel, you should have two thousand at the climax.

Seems straightforward. Trouble is, the sex/stock index approach to literary climax doesn’t work.

I was reminded of this just recently, as I worked through the final chapters to the second book of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. While I’d started writing with a spring in my step and hope in my heart, the ending pretty near killed me. The walls of my house were covered with huge sheets of paper, each of which mapped out an abortive attempt to pull the plot threads together. Then I gave up on the papers and switched to a dry-erase board. Then I gave up on the dry-erase board and started wandering the streets of Brattleboro muttering to myself, my pockets stuffed with color-coded index cards. It wasn’t pretty.

It’s easy enough to have the characters pair off, protagonists and antagonists, like square dancers preparing for a particularly bloody number in which half the group ends up dismembered on the parquet floor. While that can be fun and useful, it’s not enough. We’ve all seen that movie, the one that ends with a long, loud bloodbath. If that’s all there is to it, the climax tends to be somewhat less than orgasmic. We want something more, something better, something deeper…

Sure. Ok. But what?

In an effort to save the ending of my book and my sanity both, I charted out the elements that I need in a satisfying ending. As far as I can figure it, there are five.

Mysteries Resolved: It’s human nature, when we encounter a riddle, a mystery, or a question, to want to know the answer. Most shrewd writers capitalize on this. In N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, we want to know the identity of the Reaper (among other things). In Martin’s Game of Thrones, we want to know who murdered Jon Arryn (among other things). In Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, we want to know the name and nature of the shadow that is chasing Ged all over creation. All of these books eventually give us a degree of satisfaction, but there is a danger in relying too much on mysteries and their resolution: the satisfaction of learning the truth tends to be intellectual rather than emotional, and we want an emotional reward at the end of a story.

The Slaughter of the Bad Guys: As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I will read thousands of pages to see a detested villain get his or her comeuppance. Penthero Iss and Marafice Eye, from J.V. Jones’ wonderfully imagined A Cavern of Black Ice spring to mind. Fifty pages into the first book, I wanted to see these dudes painfully slaughtered, and, as a result, I read on. And on. And on.

Protagonist Reaches Her Potential: The main characters of most stories are not fully formed. We endure chapter after chapter in which they are unable – either through inexperience, confusion, or some outside constraint – to operate at their full potential. This inability frustrates a reader, but that frustration can lead to release, when, at the very end, the protagonist achieves a breakthrough. Think of Katniss’s cold resolve at the end of The Hunger Games.

Separate Threads Converge: A few weeks back, I helped a friend’s four-year-old daughter put together a puzzle. Actually, we put together the puzzle about a dozen times, giving me time to reflect on the pleasures of puzzle-putting-together. The joy, of course, comes from connecting seemingly disparate elements. We like watching order emerge out of chaos. This is why it’s so great at the end of Empire Strikes Back (SPOILER ALERT. ACTUALLY, IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THIS MOVIE, QUIT READING RIGHT NOW AND GO WATCH IT) when we discover that Darth Vader isn’t just some random galactic tyrant, but Luke’s father. And Leia isn’t just a woman with a pluck, grit, and great hair. She’s his sister!

Apocalypse: I’m using the word in its old sense here: unhiding or uncovering, that moment in which the seemingly irrelevant or insignificant reveals its true importance: There is a tiny detail in Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead (I won’t reveal it here) that appears trivial for most of the novel… until, at the very end, we discover that this same detail is, in fact, crucial. It’s an astounding moment, and one that makes the ending of the novel deeply satisfying. We like to feel as though there’s an order in the world, “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (although Hamlet defies this augury) – books can uncover this hidden significance.

What have I missed here? Are there any other structural elements that you look for in a satisfying ending? (Aside, of course, from convulsive multiple orgasms and sweaty naked bodies strewn across the page.)