“My mother was a potter. All my life I was around that. The first draft, that’s the hard part. That’s going out and digging clay. Revision is where you finally get to chuck that son of a bitch on the wheel and make something.”
Puzzled by endless rejections? Unsure what editors are looking for? Are you still letting yourself be misled by those pernicious and persistent writing myths?
Don’t feel bad. It’s not just newbies who are letting themselves be held back by those myths.
Here’s a great introduction to the unique challenge of writing flash fiction. This FREE (!) course reveals the real reasons editors accept and reject manuscripts. (Hint: It’s not what you think.) It also includes guidance in choosing a POV for your next story, as well as time-tested principles in crafting relatable characters and compelling plots.
My wife and I just caught an advance screening of “The Northman.” I tend to be a homebody these days, so when she told me last week she had passes to a movie, she quickly added, “This is your kind of movie.”
She was right. Mostly.
It stars a totally ripped, berserking Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking prince whose uncle murders his father and takes Amleth’s mother as his wife. If that sounds like the plot of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” you’re right — but in fact, Shakespeare, um, “borrowed” his plot from an old Viking tale and changed the protagonist’s name from Amleth to Hamlet.
Writers refer to such a process as “recycling.” It’s a good thing.
One big difference between Shakespeare’s tragedy and director Robert Eggers’ movie is that there’s nothing indecisive about the main character of “The Northman.” When young Amleth witnesses his father’s murder, he escapes and apprentices himself to Vikings, who teach him the finer points of plundering and fighting dirty as he plots his revenge. His determination is so single-minded that he doesn’t seem to care who gets hurt along the way, including enslaving peaceful villagers and torching their homes. That, I think, makes him an unsympathetic character.
And what a blood-soaked revenge it is! Witches and magical ravens guide Amleth to a mystical sword, which he uses to spill the guts of his uncles’s goons until he’s finally face to face with his uncle. Rather than a retelling of “Hamlet,” the tone of the movie is more reminiscent of “Conan the Barbarian,” “Gladiator,” and “Braveheart.”
“The Northman” is a gory romp, but certainly not for the kiddies.
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.”
Solzhenitsyn knew the human heart well. This insight explains why the bad guy who sees himself as the good guy makes a more believable antagonist. The mustache-twirling villain seeking world domination because that’s what villains do makes boring reading. When both the protagonist and antagonist have to deal with internal and external conflict, the reader feels like a miner panning for gold. We want to discover characters with depth, characters who are capable of surprise and even winning our sympathy.
One of the few writing books I keep on my desk is Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s really two separate works. The second half offers one of the most concise and useful guides to clear, lively writing ever written.
But it begins with a short bio of the author, a life story I was not previously aware of. Despite (because of?) his success, Mr. King grappled with both alcohol and drug addiction. Though he didn’t overcome these problems until a forceful intervention by fed-up friends and family, he did deal with his addictions the best he could. As he puts it, a part of him recognized the problem: “It began to scream for help in the only way it knew how, through my fiction and through my monsters.” (On Writing, p. 96)
The Shining and The Tommyknockers express how that part of his psyche regarded his addiction. But Misery, in my opinion, is a more profound and revealing image of addiction. Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse who both idolizes and tortures the protagonist, symbolizes cocaine, which makes you feel good at first but extracts a heavy toll.
Notice that the protagonists in all three novels are writers. Hmm.
Other authors have imagined monsters as symbols for their deepest wounds. In The Recognition of H.P. Lovecraft, a marvelous account of Lovecraft’s posthumous rise to celebrity, S. T. Joshi observes that Lovecraft’s monsters “were not to be taken literally but as symbols for the philosophical conceptions he sought to convey.” (p. 283) Lovecraft’s gods and demons have no regard for puny humans. A self-described man of “extreme sensitiveness,” Lovecraft long nursed an aching nostalgia for lost innocence and shattered ideals, victims of an impersonal, cold universe. His tales of isolation, despair, and creeping terror reflect his view of the uncaring forces that control human destiny.
A similar dynamic is evident in Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin’s classic. Levin did not believe in devils, but his most famous novel uses Satan as a symbol of the real evil people commit out of greed. Rosemary is not only lied to by people she trusts, but is betrayed by her own husband, who allows her to be raped for his own personal gain. Treachery is the ultimate evil, which Dante believed to merit punishment in the ninth circle of hell. I imagine Levin would have agreed.
“Place in fiction is the named, identified, concrete, exact and exacting, and therefore credible, gathering spot of all that has been felt, is about to be experienced, in the novel’s progress. Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable as art, if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”
Kellerman’s character, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, and Gary Mitchell, the ship’s helmsman, acquire psychic powers when the Enterprise hits a mysterious force field in deep space. Mitchell, Captain Kirk’s close friend, gradually transforms into a god-like being who increasingly shows contempt for his crew mates, whom he now regards as weak creatures who only get in his way. Worse, Dr. Dehner begins a similar transformation.
It’s one of the original series’ best stories. The theme of how power corrupts was explored further in other Star Trek episodes. In “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Kirk & Co. confront humans who have acquired powerful telekinetic abilities. Their powers have turned them into sadistic bullies. At the story’s end, the chastised leader of the superhumans admits, “Uncontrolled, power will turn even saints into savages, and we can all be counted upon to live down to our lowest impulses.”
In “Patterns of Power,” the Enterprise finds a planet that’s transformed into Nazi Germany, complete with SS uniforms and calls for a “final solution” against its enemies. Turns out a Federation observer, determined to speed up progress on the planet, had introduced the population to National Socialism, thinking he could curb the movement’s nastier tendencies. But as Dr. McCoy observes, “A man who holds that much power, even with the best intentions, just can’t resist the urge to play God.”
Sounds like a timely message to me. In a confused and frightening time when both political parties threaten to bypass traditional constraints to get what they want, these old episodes have something to say.
The latest Rebel Wisdom features a thought-provoking interview with writer Damien Walter. Science fiction, says Walter, can replace “society’s central source of meaning,” which has traditionally been religion. As Walter puts it: “Science fiction is essentially the attempt of science… to create a mythos for itself. Because science damaged the previous mythos, the Christian mythos, for most of Western society.”
It’s a fascinating idea, one that every writer can relate to. I believe literature is inherently spiritual, exploring and ruminating on our connections to others and the universe. Anyone who wrestles their thoughts onto paper has a view of the world they yearn to share. Science alone, I realized long ago, is no substitute for a well-rounded world view. However, it can not only inspire great stories, but also deepen and broaden our perspective.
After all, ideas have consequences. A valid philosophy of life must begin with an accurate understanding of human nature. Look at the horrors spawned by the ideologies of the last century, all based on noble-sounding assumptions which turned out in practice to be false. Writers, I think, have a duty to diagnose, advise, and heal while we entertain.
The unspoken component of that duty is to constantly revise and strengthen our world view. As E. O. Wilson tells us, science can give the humanities “more solidly grounded answers” to life’s mysteries. And boy, does this society need grounding. That’s why I’ve long been fascinated by science fiction.
“When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.”