The Hidden Danger of Epic Tales

I read an interesting post on Jane Friedman’s blog, There are No Rules, entitled Telling a Story: One-Sentence Stress Test. It is a post well worth reading, but I want to focus on one thing she wrote.  It is some advice that might have helped me over twenty years ago, but now comes a bit late.  I provide the out-of context quote here because I think it is worth repeating.

For most first-time novelists, however, pursuing a story that resists the one-sentence stress test is perilous. Stephen King didn’t start off with The Stand; his first book was Carrie. Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin only undertook his complex fantasy cycle late in his career when his skills had reached full maturity.

Complex books like these should come with an FDA label: “WARNING! Trained professionals at work. Do not attempt this at home.”

Struggling writers who wave off such warnings often pay for their hubris by producing a novel that simply doesn’t work.

My own work over these many years is a testimony to the wisdom of Jane’s words.  If I could go back to my younger self and give some writing advice it might well be something like her warning above.  “Start with something simple.  A straight forward tale that fits in one novel.  Something easy to tell.  Delay working on the complex epic until you have the skills to tell it properly.”

I had simple stories in my head back when I was in college, but I didn’t feel the urge to write those stories down, to tell them quick and fast.  Instead I was lured by a disjointed series of ideas that felt right together, and so became fascinated by a complex puzzle of a tale that I could only glimpse at out the corner of my mind’s eye. 

Over time I toyed and tweaked with the various ideas I had, arranged and rearranged them next to each other, trying to discover how the fragments fit together to form a greater whole.  I knew I was trying to write something big, something complex, but I had no idea how big or how complex.  I didn’t have the skills needed to tell my epic, nor those needed to find the thread of a story that connected one item to another. 

Over the last several decades I gained the abilities needed to tell the epic I call Gods Among Men.  I know my story now in ways I couldn’t in my youth, and I know what I must do to tell it.  It is a daunting task, and if I had other books under my belt I would feel more confidant in my ability to do my story justice.  To tell it the way it deserves to be told.

I said Jane’s advice comes a bit late.  When I was younger it might have been possible for me to choose another story, a simpler tale that I could have focused on and finished.  Now I cannot turn aside from Gods Among Men.  Day and night I think on it; it fills my daydreams and is the center of every effort I make as a writer.  Call it passion, or obsession, or just plain stubbornness, but the end result is the same.  I cannot tell another story until I have Gods Among Men “finished” in some sense of the word.

I take solace, however, in a different thought: had I been more experienced, had I realized early on how complex and difficult it would be to tell Gods Among Men, I might never have found the nerve to to try writing it down. 

Gods Among Men is the work of a lifetime, my lifetime.  And the truth is I love this tale.  It isn’t effort to work on it, to think on it, to write and edit for hours at a time.  Well, sometimes it is an effort; but often I lose myself in a fantasy world of my own creation.  A brutal world, a beautiful world, a complex realm with characters that defy simple labels such as “good” or “evil”.

Perhaps I shall never finish this tale of mine, that it will be nothing more than a monument to my own hubris.  If so, that will be a shame, but not a tragedy.  A tragedy would be if I had never tried to tell this story, if I had never accepted the challenge of telling one great, truly original, tale.

The Hidden Danger of Epic Tales

I read an interesting post on Jane Friedman’s blog, There are No Rules, entitled Telling a Story: One-Sentence Stress Test. It is a post well worth reading, but I want to focus on one thing she wrote.  It is some advice that might have helped me over twenty years ago, but now comes a bit late.  I provide the out-of context quote here because I think it is worth repeating.

For most first-time novelists, however, pursuing a story that resists the one-sentence stress test is perilous. Stephen King didn’t start off with The Stand; his first book was Carrie. Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin only undertook his complex fantasy cycle late in his career when his skills had reached full maturity.

Complex books like these should come with an FDA label: “WARNING! Trained professionals at work. Do not attempt this at home.”

Struggling writers who wave off such warnings often pay for their hubris by producing a novel that simply doesn’t work.

My own work over these many years is a testimony to the wisdom of Jane’s words.  If I could go back to my younger self and give some writing advice it might well be something like her warning above.  “Start with something simple.  A straight forward tale that fits in one novel.  Something easy to tell.  Delay working on the complex epic until you have the skills to tell it properly.”

I had simple stories in my head back when I was in college, but I didn’t feel the urge to write those stories down, to tell them quick and fast.  Instead I was lured by a disjointed series of ideas that felt right together, and so became fascinated by a complex puzzle of a tale that I could only glimpse at out the corner of my mind’s eye. 

Over time I toyed and tweaked with the various ideas I had, arranged and rearranged them next to each other, trying to discover how the fragments fit together to form a greater whole.  I knew I was trying to write something big, something complex, but I had no idea how big or how complex.  I didn’t have the skills needed to tell my epic, nor those needed to find the thread of a story that connected one item to another. 

Over the last several decades I gained the abilities needed to tell the epic I call Gods Among Men.  I know my story now in ways I couldn’t in my youth, and I know what I must do to tell it.  It is a daunting task, and if I had other books under my belt I would feel more confidant in my ability to do my story justice.  To tell it the way it deserves to be told.

I said Jane’s advice comes a bit late.  When I was younger it might have been possible for me to choose another story, a simpler tale that I could have focused on and finished.  Now I cannot turn aside from Gods Among Men.  Day and night I think on it; it fills my daydreams and is the center of every effort I make as a writer.  Call it passion, or obsession, or just plain stubbornness, but the end result is the same.  I cannot tell another story until I have Gods Among Men “finished” in some sense of the word.

I take solace, however, in a different thought: had I been more experienced, had I realized early on how complex and difficult it would be to tell Gods Among Men, I might never have found the nerve to to try writing it down. 

Gods Among Men is the work of a lifetime, my lifetime.  And the truth is I love this tale.  It isn’t effort to work on it, to think on it, to write and edit for hours at a time.  Well, sometimes it is an effort; but often I lose myself in a fantasy world of my own creation.  A brutal world, a beautiful world, a complex realm with characters that defy simple labels such as “good” or “evil”.

Perhaps I shall never finish this tale of mine, that it will be nothing more than a monument to my own hubris.  If so, that will be a shame, but not a tragedy.  A tragedy would be if I had never tried to tell this story, if I had never accepted the challenge of telling one great, truly original, tale.

A Thought Provoking Critique Of The Phantom Menace

I hadn’t planned to do another post before the end of the year, but then Lovely Lindy sent me a link to the first part of a video critique of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.   I watched it, expecting humorous jokes, sarcasm, and snide remarks, and all that abounds in this review. 

But it also contains carefully thought out, extremely sophisticated, arguments about the difference between strong characters and weak ones, between exciting plots and boring ones.  It openly and honestly lays out the necessary elements for a good story, and argues convincingly that all those elements are missing from The Phantom Menace.

Below is the first part of the series, and here is a link to it on YouTube.  There are seven parts in the whole series, each 10-minutes long. 

Yes, that’s right, this is a 70-minute critique of The Phantom Menace.  Trust me, just watch the first 10-minute segment; if you don’t like it you won’t be interested in the rest. 

But if you are like me, if you care about storytelling and seek to improve your skills, you will find yourself wanting to take notes.  This is the kind of honest, unvarnished criticism that writers always want but rarely receive.   It has given me  insights into my own attempts at writing; has prompted me to ask myself questions that I will be struggling with for some time to come. 

I Must Include The Following Warning

This video series also includes a darkly comic sub-story revolving around the narrator’s fictional private life.  I won’t provide any spoilers here, except to say that the video does contain elements which may offend some people and which are not for young children.  Consider yourself warned.

The maker of this video series also has has a 4-part series critiquing Star Trek: Nemesis.  The comments on his YouTube site indicate the Nemesis review is as funny and insightful as his Phantom Menace review.   If it is, I may well write another post promoting it as well.

A Host of Distractions

Nerve pain is a bitch.

About two months ago I herniated a disc in my back.  The L5-S1 disc to be precise.  I don’t mention this to garner sympathy or complain randomly.  This event has drastically affected, among other things, my ability to write.   It, along with other events, has led me to consider the daily distractions that can pull a writer away from their passion.  And that is a subject relevant to this blog.

The Writer’s Burden

Writing well takes a lot of time and effort.  It requires devoting a significant amount of your free time to a pursuit that may well yield nothing.  It can be a frustrating, even depressing, pursuit. 

The joy writing can bring is often long delayed, and unexpected.  It may be years later when you read something you wrote and think, “That is really good.”  Or when someone compliments you for something that entertained of enlightened them. 

At those moments writing is worth the struggle.  Up till then it is obsession that must drive a writer.   Yes, obsession.  There is no better word to describe what brings someone back to a work that demands so much and offers so little for such a long time. 

But obsessions are rarely all-consuming.  I am obsessed with my story, but I  have also always been prone to letting outside forces dictate the amount of time I spend on my obsession.

The Wasteland of Distractions

The new TV season has always been a dreadful time for me to try and write.  For many years the start of the new season pretty much brought all my writing attempts to a screeching halt.  Fortunately, TV these days is bad enough that relatively little draws me to it.  I suppose I should thank reality shows for the amount of dreck cluttering the airwaves, but they are so god-awful I can’t bear to say anything nice about them. 

For the last year or two I maintained a schedule that let me write fairly regularly.  At least several times a week, about 10-20 hours total.  Not as much as I would like, but enough that I felt good about the progress I was making.   I even managed to keep this schedule when new episodes of my favorite shows were airing.  Quite a feat, if I do say so myself.

Then I hurt my back a couple of months ago and my schedule went to hell.

At first glance, you might think something like this would let me spend more time writing.  After all, I can’t stand for long, nor can I lay down.  I practically live in chairs, and one of the few that doesn’t make me feel worse is the one at my computer.  While there, why not write?

There are a few problems with this chain of reasoning, namely pain, drugs, and treatment. 

Oh the Pain, the Pain

Back at the top I said nerve pain was a bitch.  Back when my pain was at its worse it felt like a wild animal was trying to rip my leg off.  Perhaps there are those able to focus past that kind of agony, but I am not one of them.  Crafting a single sentence became extraordinarily difficult, often require many long minutes just to piece together a few words. 

And then there were the drugs to control the aforementioned pain.  If you are looking for a good way to reduce a groan man to a drooling idiot, I can heartily recommend a cocktail of Neurontin and Percocet.  Together they pretty much destroyed my ability to perform any task taking more than a few seconds to complete.  Granted, I was so high that my imagination took flight and I had great ideas and insights into my story.  But I lost much of my ability to put any of those thoughts on paper.  On top of this, I had a host of bad reactions to the Neurontin which resulted in more time spent with doctors.

Which brings us to treatment.  Treating a hernia goes through several stages, all of which takes time; both for the treatment itself, and in recovering afterwards.

First there was the time it took to see doctors, and the time spent recuperating from the terrible chairs in most waiting rooms. 

This was followed by the (wasted) time in physical therapy that in my case actually made my hernia worse.  

Then I had surgery.  No only was this not pleasant (a significant understatement on my part), it took quite some time to recover from.   The surgery, however, did (eventually) relieve much of my pain. 

With my pain reduced I was able to begin going to a gym where I could do water exercises designed to strengthen my back.   It took long hours to find the right gym, and I now spend many hours each week there. 

When I am done exercising I return home, often so tired and in enough pain that writing is the last thing I want to do.  Instead I take my narcotics and play a game or watch some TV for a couple of hours, then go to sleep in my chair. 

Yes, I still can’t lay down for any significant period of time.  My sleep is still fitful, and I am tired most of the time.  All of which reduces my ability to write fiction.

Is All of This Going Anywhere?

I have not been able to write on my story for many weeks now.  I have been able to write about it in blog posts, but that is not the same.  Writing a blog post is easier than fiction writing where you must worry about characters, plot, descriptions, and so forth.

My desire to write, as always, is still there.  The obsession has not diminished.  But the lost time caused by all these distractions is dramatically increasing the frustrations writing incurs, and further delaying the rewards that normally inspire me to keep pressing forward.

A while back, Nicole and I began a regular exchange of writing and editing.  It was certainly beneficial to me, and surprisingly enjoyable.  This exercise forced me to do something every day, especially on those days when I wanted to set the effort of writing aside.  Unfortunately, events in her chosen career have made it impossible for her to continue this exchange for some time to come.  I mention this to illustrate that while my tale may be singular in its details it is indicative of a broader pattern affecting all writers.  Namely the tendency for outside forces to interfere with the work and joy of writing.

This is not to imply that I intend to stop writing.  My point here is not to throw a pity party, but to illustrate how easy it is for life to disrupt the effort required to produce a work worth reading.  Telling a story in its entirety becomes a quest with hardships that encourage you to turn aside.  Perseverance is required to push through to end.  Perseverance, and obsession.

The Big Picture, Part 3: The World That Never Was

Foreword:

This post is part of an ongoing series laying out essential elements for understanding both the complex plot of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, and the byzantine plans of its protagonist, the wizard Damon Roth.

Here are links to earlier posts in this series.

Starting With the Threat and Working Backwards

In a previous post, I summarized the major plot of Gods Among Men as follows:

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying a civilization to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

I will explain the threat Damon perceives in a later post.  For now, accept that the threat is real and that his solution to it will work.  Implementing his solution, however, requires a concerted effort that must be maintained for eons. 

This fact exposes the fundamental problem I faced in Gods Among Men.  I don’t believe any short-lived species (such as humanity) could implement, on their own, a complex plan requiring constant effort for perhaps millions of years. 

It is unreasonable to expect a reader to suspend more disbelief than the writer can.  For me to “believe” that Damon could create a society capable of confronting an eons long task, I had to include an immortal race, or one so long lived they can be considered immortal.  One whose fate is tied to that of the earth’s. 

A Choice of Races

In fantasy and science fiction literature there are numerous ways to create immortal or nearly immortal races.  For a while I toyed with the idea of using robots or some other kind of automated machines to address my story’s needs.  I opted against this approach because it felt hokey, I disliked the symbolism, and because it led to a dénouement that felt false and boring to me.

I decided I wanted an immortal race that has existed since the earliest periods in earth’s history.  A race that once interacted with man frequently, but then retreated behind some mystic veil.   A race which we today either know nothing of, or believe to be the product of fairy tales.

And thus J.R.R. Tolkien inspired a simple solution: Elves, though Faerie Folk might be a better description. 

In The Lord of The Rings, and Tolkien’s other tales, elves were immortal, powerful creatures that left middle-earth at the dawn of the age of man.  The elves he described, and the manner in which they retreated from the world of men, were not perfect for my situation.  But my thoughts on Tolkien’s ideas combined with my knowledge of other mythological concepts surrounding elves and faerie folk until I arrived at my eventual solution.

The Unrecorded Past

In my mythology, elves (and other faerie folk) exist on more dimensions than we can perceive.   They interact with us by “projecting” part of their essence into the dimensions we inhabit, à la Flatland.  This lets them appear to change shape, sometimes appearing much like beautiful humans, and other times looking like animals such as white stags or black cats. 

It is possible for humans to “crossover” into the elven dimensions and interact with them in their native environment.  But the limitations of human perceptions hamper our ability to understand or clearly remember what happened.  And time does not flow at the same rate in these other dimensions as it does in ours.  A person who spends a few weeks living among the elves may return to our world only to discover decades have passed, while they have not aged.

In our pre-history, men interacted with elves regularly.  The graceful–and at times terrible–elves, with knowledge and powers no human possessed, inspired stories that in later generations became the foundations for mythologies and religions. 

Elves are immortal, but are highly susceptible to metal, especially iron and steel.  Weaker elves can die by touching something made of iron or steel. As mankind learned to make items out of metal, elves retreated from the dimensions they shared with us to protect themselves.  Near the dawn of our written history, elves cut off almost all contact with humanity and became just legendary creatures inhabiting fairy tales

How Elves Fit Into Damon Roth’s Plans

There are other faerie creatures, such as unicorns and the like.  But Elves are the ones important to what Damon Roth is planning.   Being immortal they can provide the stable core for the new society he plans to build.  Elves can guarantee that efforts to thwart the long term threat to the planet do not falter. 

But Elves will not ally themselves to a society dominated by wizards, for reasons I will explain in a later post.  At the start of Gods Among Men, wizards control the upper reaches of a world spanning empire called The Guild.  These wizards do not believe elves exist.  They think elves are just  products of Damon’s madness.  Thus the wizards refuse his demands that they relinquish power.  This results in Damon’s decision to destroy The Guild and create a new society that elves will ally themselves with.

Tolkien wrote about a crisis that ends with elves retreating from the world.  I write about a crisis that ends with elves returning to the world in order to ally themselves with mankind.  This is not the totality of Gods Among Men, or even the primary plot thread, but it is a crucial fact that drives much of Damon’s motivations and machinations.

Summary

The following is a list of key points explaining the founding logic of my world, the importance of elves to Damon Roth’s plans, their relationship to mankind at the beginning of Gods Among Men, and how this relationship must change by the end of the story.

  1. The world is our earth in the distant future
  2. Elves have existed since before humanity evolved.
  3. Elves are effectively immortal.
  4. Elves have a well-developed, highly stable, culture and society.
  5. Elves and other faerie creatures cannot tolerate metal, especially iron and steel.
  6. Elves and other fairy creatures retreated from the “human” dimensions when mankind began using iron and steel.
  7. By the start of Gods Among Men, most people have forgotten even the tales and legends of the faerie folk.
  8. Damon Roth is one of the few who know that elves exist.  (I shall explain how he came by this knowledge in a later post.)
  9. The future threat that Damon is aware of is real.
  10. Elves are aware of this threat, and it endangers them as well.
  11. Damon’s solution to the threat will work, but requires a sustained effort for perhaps millions of years.
  12. Elves are aware of Damon’s proposed solution, and accept that it is the best answer to the future threat.
  13. Elves are incapable of addressing the threat by themselves.
  14. Damon believes, with cause, that the world’s only hope is for mankind and elves to form an alliance dedicated to enacting his solution to the threat.
  15. Elves, for good reasons, will not ally themselves with any society dominated by wizards.
  16. The Guild, the dominate power in the future is largely controlled by wizards who do not believe that elves exist.
  17. These wizards refuse to relinquish power and turn control of the government over to non-wizards.
  18. Damon decides to destroy the current society and create one where wizards play a lesser role in world affairs.
  19. Elves will neither interfere with nor aid Damon.  They shall wait to see the outcome of his actions and, if he succeeds, form an alliance with the society that forms after the fall of The Guild.

The final point is crucial.  The elves in my story feel they must remain neutral.  They want Damon to succeed, but they are afraid of interfering lest some factions of mankind come to see them as enemies and not allies.  In fact, part of Damon’s plan is to identify and eliminate any who might react violently to an alliance with elves.  Therefore, while elves are crucial to the finale of Gods Among Men, and are essential to Damon’s motivations, they are little more than spectators to the major events of the story. 

I would not go so far as to call the elves in Gods Among Men some type of MacGuffin.  Some of the elf characters are very important to the scope of the story.  But none of these characters are the primary focus of any central story arcs.  Rather the elves in my story are structural elements, secondary characters that provide depth and meaning to the main characters.  They fill this role because, to me, elves have much better symbolic value than robots, and the dénouement they provide is far more satisfying.