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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Shitting in the Parking Lot; What Epic is Not

You don’t need to spend much time at the local greasy spoon on a Sunday morning before you hear a conversation like this:

“How was last night?”

“Dude, it was epic!

As a fantasy writer, I always perk up my ears at this sort of remark, eager to hear some tale of a massive struggle, one pitting heroes against gods in a contest on which the fate of humanity (or the nation, or at a bare minimum, the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, population 12,046) depends.

Instead, the account usually goes something likes this:

“Check it out – first we went to Skanky Ted’s, where Jimmy drank, like, fifteen beers in two hours. And there was this dude with, like, a fish tattoo, who kept looking at us, and Jimmy told him to fuck off. Then he hit on this totally drunk chick, but she slapped him across the face, and she told him to fuck off. I was seriously laughing my ass off. Then Jimmy was so wasted that he shat in the parking lot. Epic.”

The Iliad or Mahabharata this is not.

And let’s be clear – I’d never argue that the term “epic” can’t be used in conjunction with a party. Books 20, 21, and 22 of the Odyssey comprise a party. It’s a party in which a king is unveiled, a goddess shows up, one dude gets an arrow through the throat, over a hundred others are killed with swords and spears, and at least half a dozen servants are hung by the neck until dead. Afterward, Odysseus orders the place aired out to clear the stench of human offal, not because, you know, Sally puked on the pong table.

While I’m at it, the term “legend” also seems to have suffered a demotion. Joan of Arc – who single-handedly changed the course of the Hundred Years War, who claimed to speak with angels, and who burned at the stake for her convictions – was a legend. Genghis Khan was a legend. Martin Luther King and Buddha were legends. For better or worse, these folks twisted the fabric of the world, left it fundamentally altered.

Downing a thirty-rack of Busch Light and then hooking up with Jessie and her blond friend from the super-market checkout might be a fun way to spend an evening, but it’s hardly legendary.

Here, though, we come to an interesting point about the convergence of the epic and the legendary with the hum-drum and everyday. In the world of epic fantasy, the old terms retain much of their Homeric heft; we can usually expect gods and goddesses, world-begirdling conflicts, heroines and heroes of exceptional skill, brilliance, and wit wielding magical artifacts capable of turning people into toast, toast into people, and everything in between.

Therein lies a danger.

In the quest to write truly epic material, it’s easy to create characters whose concerns and motivations are so profound, so global in scope, so cosmic in their import, that those characters risk losing all humanity. We want the stakes to be high, but it’s hard to understand a character who thinks, “If I fail, all life on the four lands of Solmianis will perish in a great blaze of unfettered Chaos.” It’s not even clear that people, real people, are capable of considering their own actions in such abstract and universal terms.

The great fantasy writers realize this, of course. The climax of N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is nation-threatening in scope – truly epic – but hinges on a very private, intimate relationship: a student’s love for his teacher. Rob Stark, likewise, has a chance to defeat the Lannisters and unify Westeros, but the legend must bow to the boy when he falls in love. Caetlyn’s actions, too, though global in effect, stem from the utterly personal terrors and convictions of a mother fighting for her children.

And of course, there’s no finer union of the epic and the everyday than the climax of the The Lord of the Rings. By the end of the tale, Gollum has become entirely mired in his own petty greed, in a solipsism at once completely terrifying and utterly banal. There could be no less epic character than the horribly debased Smeagol, but from the basest and most basic of motives, motives with no end beyond his own immediate need, Gollum makes a choice that ramifies through an entire age. The epic springs, not from a noble knight atop a white steed contemplating the fate of humanity and the world, but from the grubby, unremarkable chambers of the private heart.

So, who am I to say? Stealing a golf cart and driving it into the Connecticut River doesn’t sound particularly epic, but then, you never know what cosmic scale hangs in the balance.

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.)

Dating Rand Al’Thor: the Crappy Boyfriends of Epic Fantasy

*** My wife, Johanna, wrote the following post so I could keep cranking away on Book Two of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. I thought she might write something nice about me. Oops. ***

I am so happy to be married to my husband.

But, man, was he bad at dating.

Brian, in case you don’t know, has a degree in poetry. He has seen Love, Actually dozens of times. He cries at weddings. Clearly, he’s the kind of guy who knows all about romance. Except, he doesn’t know anything about romance. It’s like some supernatural force replaced the romance center of his brain with a yawning void of infinite nothingness. “Wait,” he’ll protest after smacking my butt in public or letting me pick what movie to rent. “That wasn’t romantic?” It’s not hard to guess how many candle-lit dinners he planned during our years of courtship…

The staggering thing, though, and my central point here, is that Brian actually looks good at romance compared to some of the central heroes of epic fantasy.

Rand al’Thor: I should admit before we go too far, that I could not make myself read past Book One of the Wheel of Time series. I think in most fantasy circles, that makes me a heretic. But even with my tainted history, I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

(I just read that last paragraph to Brian and he tells me that by the end of the series Rand has three girlfriends! I knew he was a goon, and I didn’t even get past the first book.)

Aragorn: Tromping around the known world like a dirty hobo, constantly brooding on his inferiority complex, and the ring he’s focused on isn’t even for his lady love? She’s giving up immortality for this guy, and he can’t even buy her a proper dinner? Good thing Arwen can see into the future and finds out that even though he’s terrible as a boyfriend, he does pretty well at being a husband. Without that little bit of knowledge, would she have put up with him at all?

FitzChivalry Farseer (spoiler in this paragraph): By the end of Assassin’s Quest, one wonders what Molly ever saw in him in the first place. The amazing thing is that he knows he’s a bad boyfriend, admitting that he is “the man who had lied to her, who had left her with child and never returned, and then caused that child to be stolen from her as well…” Yes, he fulfills some prophecies and saves the world, but why, considering this excellent resume, can’t he muster anything more impressive than a few late-night booty calls and some serious dead-beat dad jackassery? Because he’s an epic fantasy hero, that’s why!

To be fair, there are a few fantasy heroes that I would consider good boyfriend material. Nijiri’s dedication to Ehiru in N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon made me cry. Ingrey’s bond with Ijada in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt was sweet and passionate and contained a minimum of bad boyfriend behavior (once he managed to stop trying to kill her in his sleep). But these guys, despite being heroes, aren’t really epic. They don’t save the whole world from all-encompassing evil, exactly, even though they do their part.

Most epic fantasy heroes would have a hard time getting past the first date with a sane partner. Why? Is the lack of viable romance in fantasy something that writers should be thinking about? Do the epic heroes of past masterpieces have a bad influence on the heroes (and writers) of today’s fantasy, or do they teach valuable lessons in how to juggle effective wooing and saving the world? I’m inventing a new genre: epic fantasy couples counseling. You’re welcome.

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…