Today’s Special Guest: Blake Charlton

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I first met Blake Charlton in San Jose last fall, at the World Fantasy Convention.  Blake is a sibling of a sort:  His editor is also my editor.  And so I looked upon him initially as a younger brother.  An incredibly bright, talented, capable, charming, funny, good-looking younger brother.  In other words I hated his guts.

Not really.

Okay, a little.  But he’s a really, really good guy and, from all accounts, a wonderful writer.  His debut novel, Spellwright, will be released by Tor Books on March 2.  His website can be found at http://www.blakecharlton.com.

So let’s make him welcome.  Ladies and gentlemen, I present Blake Charlton.  [Cue crickets; smattering of applause.]

Imagine that someone asks you to have a long, serious discussion about writing. Imagine you care about this person. Imagine you are not feeling snide. Imagine you are not (very) drunk.

When you respond, you will invariably say “Show, don’t tell,” and “Write about what you know.” Depending on how Romantic (capital R) you’re feeling or how romantic (sans capital R) the other person is making you feel, you might add “Write about what you love.” Solid. You had to say those things. If you didn’t, clowns would eat you in your sleep. For serious. There’s a reason why, when approached by clowns, toddlers go apeshit. They know.

So, you’ve now avoided death by Steven King and given your friend the fundamental pearls of writing wisdom. Strong work. Though I’m scratching my itch-to-be-flip as I write this, I don’t want to dismiss these statements. Showing is more powerful than telling; clear prose results of clear, informed thinking. Of course, these imperatives are not universally true. Some story elements must be ‘told’ for the sake of brevity, plot, characteristic opacity, etc. Likewise, if a story requires the author to write outside of expertise, the story must be humored. Research and consultation can revise such ventures after they’re written. If curious, you can find essays about the shortcomings of canonical writerly wisdom scattered across the internets. So let’s just stop at saying they’re useful up to a point.

The groin of conventional wisdom I’m trying to kick here (and hope you too will kick in the comments) is not that the conventional wisdom is too limited, but that it is incomplete. “Show, don’t tell,” and “Write about what you know and love.” That sounds really pleasant, but screw it. You’re in danger of producing familiar, beloved, saccharine mush. I say we make a third ingredient mandatory: “Write about what you fear.”

No, man, not the clowns. That was only like…metaphorical.

Write about what you fear. Find within your setting, plot, and characters those things which make you squirm. There’s an inherent power to these things. As you explore them, you’ll be forced to explore your discomfort. At first, you’ll write to describe violence or injustice or mortality or whatever. But over time, your writing will discover the nature and cause of your discomfort and provide the thrust of your story.

Oh look! We’ve come to the part of this idea-tour where I feed my crackpot theory an example-book-I’m-sure-you’ve-all-read-and-admired. Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle at all times. And please don’t pet the crackpot theories; they bite.

Consider The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald’s admiration and knowledge of contemporary aristocracy and American ambitions are manifest. Show, don’t tell, what you know and love. But what keeps the story from reading like an anachronistic episode of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous is Fitzgerald’s fear of the materialism and the meaninglessness that surround a lifetime pursuit of material wealth and social status. Our narrator rather cryptically alludes to this fact when he sets up the plot:

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Then we get the compelling story of Nick, Gatsby, and Daisy. Romance and intrigue and materialism are wonderfully conflated: “Her voice is full of money” and all that. Finally, Fitzgerald’s love for and fear of the materialistic American Dream (capital D) is heartbreakingly culminated with the final paragraphs:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

“Oh my God, Charlton,” you say. “You’re a fantasist who writes about wizards and dragons and you didn’t use an example from Science Fiction or Fantasy? I hate you so much right now that if hate were people speaking languages of the Indo-European or Dravidian phyla, I’d be the Indian subcontinent.” To which I would say the word “please” so it has two syllables and argue that drawing a bright line between genres is artificial and snobby. “I still hate you for serious, Charlton,” you reply. “You’ve demeaned SFF. If hate could be a surface with only one side and only one boundary component, I wouldn’t just be a Möbius strip, I’d be a Möbius strip on fire and tattooed on to the heart of a ninja who’s about to assassinate you while he’s on fire.”

Fine! Consider Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books and their lovingly created magic-system that gives magic-users the ability disrupt the natural balance and satisfy their desire for immortality, a desire she clearly finds disturbing if not outright frightening. Consider Robert Jordan’s magic-system that both celebrates the war-of-the-sexes and fears it (practitioners of the male magic go violently doolally). Consider any fracken thing Philip K. Dick wrote. Ever.

Hopefully this is enough to halt your tirade. It might not be. It’s all very unclear. However, now that your grandiloquent rage has perhaps abated, I’m going to write the obligatory description of how my new (and highly purchasable!) novel obeys my own imperatives. Being severely dyslexic, I fear nothing so much as disability. Being a pedant, I love nothing so much as language. Spellwright is an epic fantasy that takes place in a world in which the written word can be peeled off of the page and made physically real. Such magical texts, if written correctly, are called spells. Our protag, Nicodemus Weal, is a young wizard who’s especially good at producing magical language but has a severe disability that causes any magical text he touches to misspell with dangerous results. Everything sucks in a bearable way for Nico until a powerful wizard is murdered by a misspell and suspicion falls on him. Pursued by investigators and a hidden killer, Nico has to race to discover the truth about the nature of magic, the murderer, and himself…while giving his author the chance to write about what he most fears.

Funny how that last bit just hopped right in there, huh?

Anyway, now that I’m done with the shameless self-promo, let’s take a last look at my crackpot theory for the big finish. So, if you write about what you fear, you must put yourself in danger. Your prose is going to cut close to a nerve, maybe through it. Prejudice, betrayal, injustice, whatever, it’s personal now. For that reason, pains must be taken to ensure that the protag isn’t a carbon copy of you. But do that and you’re playing with literary fire. Readers have a fine sense of when authors put something of themselves at stake. If an author doesn’t, the work comes off dry. Critics often fuss about being “unique.” And, that’s a wonderful thing to be. Very intellectually pleasing. But any day of the week, I’ll rather read an author whose prose and characters are heartfelt. And, of course, I believe the best way to be heartfelt is to tell the story at the intersection of what you know, what you love, and what you fear.

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20 comments to Today’s Special Guest: Blake Charlton

  • >>Though I’m scratching my itch-to-be-flip as I write this…

    You did, Blake. And beautifully. It isn’t often that I both laugh and sigh with pleasure over any blog. Thank you for this one.

    I especially like what you said about *writing what you fear*.

    I never considered it that way, but perhaps I did that, all unknowingly. In my own body of work, I started out my writing life with the theme of hating people (characters) who are abusers and wanting to see them punished. Perferably at the protag’s hands. Or eaten alive by alligators. I wasn’t real picky. Though I have changed genres, my protags (and I) have reached the point of hating people (characters) who suck the life out of others. Hate at its roots, is fear.

    What a wonderful post. I’ll be coming back to this one again. Thank you.

  • Hi and welcome, Blake. Enjoyed your post a lot, for both its eloquence and its core idea. Found myself thinking first of Tolkien and industrialization, then of its later manifestations in comic fantasy/sci-fi: Douglas Adams’ and Terry Pratchett’s fear and loathing of institutional bureaucracy and commodificaty culture. Personally, I’m not too keen on rats, but those other things suck too.

  • That was supposed to be “commodity culture.” Serves me right for using ten dollar words.

    Your post’ “write what you fear” mantra has inspired me to write a new sci-fi look at the near future under president Palin. Post apoloalyptic, obviously…

  • Thank you Blake, for the wonderful post! Writing of what one fears is great advice. When I think back to the stories I’ve written, I now see that more often than not, I’ve written of my fears. Sure, at times I was cognizant of it, but for me it seems to come out naturally in my writing. Perhaps if I try to be more aware it in creation mode it will assist me with creating a more vivid and real story–perhaps more emotional.

    Again, thank you for the wonderful post, and I look forward to reading Spellwright!

  • “You’ve demeaned SFF. If hate could be a surface with only one side and only one boundary component, I wouldn’t just be a Möbius strip, I’d be a Möbius strip on fire and tattooed on to the heart of a ninja who’s about to assassinate you while he’s on fire.”

    I think I just fell in crush with you! *grin*

  • You see? This is why I hate him. Funny, eloquent, insightful; what’s not to hate?

    Great post, Blake. (But you knew that.) SPELLWRIGHT sounds like a terrific read; can’t wait to pick up a copy.

    It seems to me, looking back on all that I’ve written over the years, that I do exactly what you suggest, even thought I never realized that I was doing it. And I guess I never fully appreciated how many things I fear….

  • If your books are filled with the rapier sharp wit that your blog is, I’m buyin’. 😀

    Awesome. And I also never really thought about this. Write what you fear. In truth, I think I can look into everything I’ve written and find examples of doing just this. I just never knew to look for it before.

    I’ll also occasionally write what I *want* to know. Of course, that one requires a lot of fun research. 😉

    @ AJ – Everybody has bad days. I tend to get short circuits between my brain and fingers when I first get up and for the first couple hours of the day. 🙂

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    > If you didn’t, clowns would eat you in your sleep.

    Pst! I thought we weren’t supposed to tell people about the clowns!

    Hi, I’m fellow “sibling” L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright). If you have David’s editor, you have mine as well (except that he used to be my boss as well as my editor. 😉

    I was amused by your Gadsby quote. A few years ago, I listed The Great Gadsby as a book I really thought should not be inflicted upon high school students. Fellow Writer Tee Morris responded that it was his favorite book. I love moments like that…they wake us up and make us realize that the world is a wider place than just our personal point of view. (I humbly withdrew my suggestion. 😉

    I haven’t heard ‘write what you fear’ before, but it sounds a bit like my theory “if thinking about the idea makes me cry, stick it in the story.”

    Your article was delightfully amusing. If your novel is even a tenth as amusing, it’ll do great!

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Oh bah! This site turns smiley faces that act as end quotes : – ) into smiley faces 😉

    You’ll have to imagine the end quotes.

  • Well, you had me at “Dravidian phyla”, and “Mobius strips” was less linguistic, but just as funny. If only you could have thrown in a coding crack…

    I’ve noticed “write what you fear” has become almost as common as the other three examples you mentioned. We’re moving out of the Age of Whimsy and into the Age of Trauma, I fear.

  • Holy slept in late on Pacific Standard Time and missed the comment rush, Batman! Hello everyone and thanks so much for the warm welcome. And thank you @David for the big brotherly ire intro, which is probably the best possible intro one can get when attempting to be snotty 🙂

    @Faith, thank you very kindly for letting me know. i think a lot of us instinctively write about such powerful and negative emotions. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not better, from a purely practical writing stand point, to be less than fully aware of such things so that we can discover them. But then again, my parents are both shrinks, so I probably am bias on the side of self examination.

    Hi @AJ, thanks so much for the welcome. Huh, that’s a great one. I should totally have used the the Shire vs. the Orc-industrial-complex. WRT to Palinocracy I think you’re *shudder* on to something powerful there. If her use of English got into the government, the ensuing chaos would make the Tower of Babel look like mild 😉
    (cont)

  • @Alistair Thank you kindly for the welcome. Hope look at things in a new angle helps out. If it doesn’t, perhaps write about annoying bloggers who harp on increasing self awareness to the detriment of the writing of other’s.

    @Misty 🙂 Awww, shucks. It’s just because no one can resist the charm of a Möbius strip 😉

    @Daniel Oh, I like the idea of “write what you want to know…and then warn your significant other about how much time you’re gonna spend with your nose in a book.”

  • @L.Jagi Re: Gatsby, it’s a funny one. People tend to love or hate it. I wonder if it has something to do with how teachers foist it upon students. And, hey, it’s a long lost family reunion! Wish you were at WFC, David, Kate Elliott, and I all got together for a dinner / trouble making session. Next time we’ll have to make sure you’re there.

    @Atsiko I had a few ideas about coding cracks, but I’m so lousy with code I need to run anything by a friend whom I blatantly abuse as a coder-consult. Alas, she’d gone to bed, so I couldn’t tell if what I was hacking was funny inheritably for funny because I had gotten it so wrong 😉

  • Eh, I’m fine with either sort of funny.

    Look at William Gibson. His idea of programming looked like something a hippy hacker might hallucinate while on LSD.

  • And, hey, it’s a long lost family reunion! Wish you were at WFC, David, Kate Elliott, and I all got together for a dinner / trouble making session. Next time we’ll have to make sure you’re there.

    *jumps up and down* I’m a Tor author too – I want to come! Okay, not a blood sibling, since I don’t share your editor, but I’m definitely a wacky first cousin.

  • @Atsiko, wait…programing isn’t like psychedelic love in on acid? well, i guess i’m a little less jealous of software engineers now 😉

    @Misty, oh, the more merrier! once family reunions exceed a certain critical mass, everyone becomes the wacky first cousin, and that’s usually when things get interesting!

  • Beatriz

    So, you’ve now avoided death by Steven King. . .

    I love you. Truly. Madly. Stalker-ishly.

    Misty, I’ll trade you my Sawyer, Elliott and a crush-to-be-named-later for Blake. Pleeeeeease?????

  • oh, beatriz, you really should make a bald white guy blush like that. there’s an unseemly amount of red involved 😉

  • Aren’t there occasions when the best way to handle a situation is telling in an info dump. Like say…

    Bob looked hard at the cop, saying with some asperity, “No, basilisks don’t turn people into stone. Doing that instantly would require the control of more energy than even the best wizard can handle. Basilisks petrify their victim, the type and extent of the petrification depending on the species, the age of the individual, and how rested the animal is.”

    Pointing at the corpse he added, “Besides, that bastard was paralyzed via spell, not by the animal you had to go and shoot. Raven basilisks use muscle paralysis, focusing on the shoulders. The deceased was hit was a systemic paralysis, which a few basilisk species can pull off, but not one of them on an animal as large as a human, and certainly not long enough to result in asphyxiation.”