Tsundoku

My beloved Mark Forsyth noted last January that he has two tsundoku (“a pile of books you’ve bought and haven’t got round to reading yet”).

I have something like that.

First, I have The Pile of Books I’ve Read, But Want to Review Before Returning to the Library:

unreturned

Then, the Pile of Shavian Poetry (thankfully Luci’s, not George Bernard’s):

luci-shaw

Then, the Pile of Apple Books – i.e., the books I took one bite of, and then put down to take a bite of something else.  If I’m not careful I shall have to make a bucket of applesauce.  So to speak.

unfinished

All that said, since I took these pictures, I’ve managed to remove a couple books from each pile.  Hurrah!

What’s in your tsundoku?

Alphabooks: Z is for Zzz-snatcher

Z: Zzz-Snatcher

I hate to end this series of prompt posts on a weak note.  Perhaps I’ll come up with something splendid and impressive on the morrow, like a new letter beginning a secret word which is relevant to more interesting books that I haven’t talked about yet.

But for today, the question is “What book is so good that you didn’t go to sleep until you’d finished it?”

The thing is, I am rather good at staying awake most of the time, which is to say that lately it’s taken more effort to go to bed than to stay up past 1 or 2 AM.

So the last books I stayed up to finish, more because I was determined to finish reading them than because they were so gripping, were BJ Novak’s One More Thing and CS Lewis’s Spirits in Bondage.  Both are interesting enough; Spirits in Bondage was Jack’s first published book and represents his pre-conversion regard for Nature, red in tooth and claw.  One More Thing is also a first book, though Novak has years of writing for television under his belt.  The “stories and other stories” vary in length and in theme, though they all have something of the same tone: light-hearted, verbally playful, taking things to their logical conclusion, and touched with the same edge of despair that ended up taking Douglas Adams off my “favorite authors everrr!” list.

Taken together, these books could also have been Zzz-snatchers in another sense: they could fill one’s head with the unsettling threat of quiet doubts.  Maybe.  I didn’t quite ruminate on them long enough to let the doubts creep in, though.

What book or books have snatched your sleep?

Authors: Pursue Problems; Avoid Didacticism

As Thalia has noted, she and I have worked with Athanatos Christian Ministries for some years in guiding the semi-finalists of their annual novel contest in polishing their submissions.

When it comes to editing any sort of writing project, my kneejerk inclination, which I may or may not follow, is to read it through and take a red pen to any and all mechanical errors and questionable phrasing. This can get fussy, and honestly it’s all but meaningless with regard to the unfolding of the plot – unless there are some particularly egregious misspellings!

But spelling, grammar, and comma usage are a free-and-easy fix compared to more fundamental aspects of a story. Clearing away the haze of poor mechanics reveals the soundness (or deficiency!) of its underlying elements. So writers, bear in mind a couple of basic principles:

Problems are Plot. This took me a very long while to get my head around – first because I wrote self-insertion stories wherein I could ~magically~ do anything and everything (including fly a magic carpet to Venezuela, own a house full of gemstones the size of my fist, and have my grade-school crush fall in love with me: plain ol’ wish fulfillment, nothing more), and later because I crafted characters who I hated to subject to troublesome things. It seemed unkind, creating someone just to afflict him with grief, or her with financial disaster, or both of them with romantic disappointment that could easily be avoided with a little bit of communication.

But characters exist for story, and stories are fueled by problems. This is the essential Rule of Drama.  Maybe they’re internal problems, which eventually manifest in a strange or sudden action from the protagonist.  Maybe they’re mechanical problems: the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the plane is falling from the sky, the parachute was replaced by a live alligator. Maybe they’re failures of communication or understanding. Maybe they’re the tension between what is right and what is easy. Maybe there are triplets, not twins.  Maybe a man came through the door with a gun in his hand.

Don’t just show me a nondescript fellow carrying on his orderly life in a mediocre fashion.  Don’t just give me a flat sequence of happenstances, don’t spend the whole book describing the landscape or characters, don’t bore me with 12 chapters of exposition.  Start somewhere, add problems, work to solve the problems, add more problems in the meantime, and end up somewhere else – or as someone else.

This is also an important point.  The Catcher in the Rye presents us with a character and adds problems, or something like, but none of them are resolved.  The Holden Caulfield at the end is just like the Holden Caulfield at the beginning, except he’s a little bit older.  Which might be the idea: here, look at this teenager; behold how lame he is; don’t you just want to not be like him in any way?

It’s a long-winded, time-consuming way to teach a single lesson.  But it does follow my other main rule for writers:

Don’t Be Didactic.  What does that mean?  Well, in an earlier post I noted that “didactic” comes from the Greek word for “teaching,” and thus isn’t bad per se.  Teaching is good: but how to do it?  Show your work.  Don’t tell the reader “Well, that business was just evil” or “James suddenly behaved properly, fancy that” or “Communism doesn’t work.”  You have just told the reader about the start of the maze, then dropped him off at the end of the maze, and revealed none of the twists and turns within it.  You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself.  Will it hold together?  How should we know?  Can we take your word for it, since you didn’t take us through the process?

Emily pointed out that some examples or excerpts would be helpful, and indeed, I stand convicted of doing the thing while telling storytellers not to do it.  The difficulty is that I don’t want to quote sections of Athanatos entries I’ve read, since that’s not in keeping with contest rules or a spirit of charity.

So let me take a step back and note that, as I understand Athanatos, their mission is to find and encourage Christian authors.  However, they want stories, first and foremost: well-crafted, well-told, beautiful stories, which will draw in and grip whoever reads them.  They need not be explicitly Christian, if that makes sense; in fact, a latent approach might be preferable.  Though we’ve gotten a fair few novels featuring one or more of the following tropes, it’s not always most effective to feature an altar call, full Bible verses, a conversion prayer, the appearance of angels, a discussion of various points of doctrine, or a bright shining light with a heavenly voice.  There might be occasions where one or another of these, or something like them, can be deployed to good effect; for the most part, such elements only speak to readers already on the inside of the circle.

Stories are journeys, not destinations, so let your characters and your readers travel.  Stick your travelers between a frying pan and a fire.  When difficult questions arise, don’t just answer them, straight off; let them unfurl into tension between characters who want different things, who believe different things – just like real life.  Let there be consequences to choices made, and let those consequences illuminate the nature of the choices instead of baldly stating your estimation of it.  Not that every single choice the characters make must be labored over in a welter of philosophizing – in that case, they might not do anything – but maintain personalities that are real enough to conflict with each other, in such a way that resolution of that conflict means something.

The best books have the power to change their readers.  Fashioning something with that power requires some heavy lifting and a good deal of internal wrestling (and revision, and revision, and revision).  But the end product shines like the sword Zhaligkeer:  “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one.  There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone.  This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air.  No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”

On authors and The Author

Today I was writing my upcoming post on eucatastrophe for the Pages Unbound Tolkien reading event, when I remembered this little piece I wrote back in April, 2007.  Wow, yes, sophomore year of college!  I’m still really pleased with it, and thus bring it back for an encore performance, as it were.  (As an added bit of trivia, this was written before I’d read about eucatastrophe or any of those wonderful essays on stories by Tolkien or Lewis. Clearly I was tending in that direction, though.  A month later, I took the English class that changed my life: it was on “Fairy Stories from Shakespeare to Lewis and Tolkien,” and we did read the essays on the virtues of fairy tales and imaginative literature which have shaped my desire to become a literature professor.)

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Last night, or rather, this morning, I was thinking about how I like to joke about how my characters complain about the various things I put them through.  I noted that the things that seem painful and difficult to them are only temporary,  and that in the end, I always make sure things work out well.  In the midst of the tale, things may not seem to be working out for their good, but that’s because my characters can’t see the entire plot, as I do.

I realized that this is much the same way our own human lives run.  God is our Author, Who has promised to work all things to the good for those who love Him.  Sometimes in the middle of the story, when things are going badly, it seems like there can’t be a happy ending, but that’s because we can’t see where the story is meant to go.  We may not even get what seems a happy ending on this earth, but this is only the prologue to the Real Story.

The thought struck me then that as a human author, I do put my characters in bad situations because strife is necessary make an entertaining story.  How can we be sure that God doesn’t let bad things into our own stories purely for His entertainment?

Well, He wrote Himself into our story, into all the pains and struggles we have to deal with every day.  Not only that, but He allowed Himself to die a horrible death on the cross.  Because He loved us, because he wanted to show us just how much we each mean to Him.

I don’t think I could do that for any of my creations.   I don’t mean merely writing myself as a character within one of my own stories while I stay safe behind my computer screen.  I mean the kind of physical immersion into the written world that is the fanfic writer’s dream.  Oh, I wouldn’t mind at all truly living one of my stories if I got a cushy life with fun perks like magical powers or special recognition.  But I’m not sure I’d be willing to enter my worlds as a common man, unrecognized as the author who knows and cares about each of my characters, to be finally accused of heresy, mocked, and killed.  And if I did, why would I?  Not to make a fun story for me.  No, I could do that just fine without incurring any personal harm, thanks.  If I did choose to enter my world in such a manner, I’d only do so because I wanted to prove to my creations that yes, they are important to me and that I really do love them despite all seeming evidence to the contrary.  And you know, if I were willing to enter their story like that, subjecting myself to everything they experience, I don’t think I’d be likely to mess around with their lives just for fun.

I know I’ve heard God’s love described to me in those terms before, but it never really sunk in until I was considering the scenario of trying to convince my own characters that I do love them and that they don’t exist purely to be tormented for my own entertainment.  Now, from a writers point of view, I can’t say that there isn’t some truth in that.  As I said before, if I didn’t give them troubles, I wouldn’t have much to write about.  But at the same time, I do cherish them all simply because they’re individuals, children I’ve created and love because they’re all special.  Through my relationship to them, I think I’ve caught a glimpse of God’s relationship to me, His child and creation.

And I hope that somehow, through my role as author, I can reflect and honor my Author.