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.
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.