Monday, June 10, 2013


I paint as well as write, and I've read a lot of books about the visual arts. The useful ones come in four varieties: (1) books containing large, faithful reproductions, together with technical information on format, ground, medium, etc.; (2) instructional books by great artists; (3) biographies with accurate portrayals of lifestyle, education, means, methods, etc.; and (4) manuals of materials. Those prolix, pedantic, fluffy art books filled with explanations about how the dog symbolizes fidelity and Christ grew up in Jerusalem and Picasso's wife stepped on his girlfriend's hand, but no information on execution, are useless. The same goes for criticism, unless you need someone to tell you what to like and why to like it, and for instructional books written by hacks.

Anyway, I've discovered much the same about books on writing. Here category (1) is superfluous. Category (4) includes books like Nicholson's Dictionary of American-English Usage Based on Fowler's Modern English Usage, which I often read for pleasure. Category (3) is equally useful and equally rare, because aesthetes and literati would rather read about concepts, controversies, and anecdotes than art. And category (2) is rarer still. I don't understand why someone who's published one novel and teaches college literature would feel qualified to write a book about how to write fiction, but there it is: I've got one on my shelf.

All this is to say, I've been reading How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, an author I greatly respect even if I don't always agree with his views, and I'm pleased to find it a worthy entry under category (2). It's obviously a bit out of date, but the advice is still mostly sound, both encouraging and sobering. I only wish it were longer.

In one memorable passage Card compares the professor-cum-writing-teacher to a wine-making instructor who takes it upon himself to evaluate his students' work based on the half-understood words of famous wine critics. Card also describes in practical terms the process by which great ideas come to maturity, using himself as an example. Here we get down to nuts and bolts, which is the only really useful thing in art how-to books. The idea that formed the basis of Ender's Game apparently came while he was reading the Foundation trilogy as a teenager, but naturally took many years to produce fruit. He also describes the development of Hart's Hope (my favorite of his novels)—how the city began as a sketch of a map, produced its own culture, and ultimately acquired a story. This prompted me to think about the ideas behind the stories I'm writing right now, and whether they're of a like provenance.

I wrote my first science fiction story when I was a college student—thirteen years ago!—and sent it off to the Writers of the Future contest, which, alas, I didn't win. No copies are extant, but its title was "All the Rivers" (from the line in Ecclesiastes), and it opened with a quote from Blaise Pascal: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." The story, which was based on a psychedelic dream I'd had thanks to skipping my meds for a day, involved a mad, self-proclaimed prophet-king wandering with an army in scrap-iron armor through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Like the phenomena described by our sacred philosopher, it was a bit pointless. But that same mad king and wandering army have, amazingly*, resurfaced in my recent writings, as has the proverb: All rivers pour into the Sea of Bitter Tears, but the sea is not filled.

Entropy! That's what I write about. The next year I'd married and moved from the dorm to a tiny apartment. A rain gutter ran down along the outside of our unit, and there was a leak where the siding had rotted, causing a carpet of blue-green mold to creep across the ceiling of our closet. The bedroom was always dark because the blinds were broken, and, when that caused the window AC unit to break down, the maintenance guys fixed it by cutting an AC unit-shaped hole in the blinds. We always had a box fan in the door to the bedroom in an attempt to keep the living room from getting so miserably hot in the summer. There was also a rat infestation, and I actually skewered two with the point of an umbrella. The building was torn down as soon as we moved out; the management tried to make us leave before our lease was up, which we successfully resisted, but we were the last to go, the other residents already having fled likewell, you know.

Why do I mention all these picturesque details? Because they're a picture of my soul at the time. It was a period when I was severing psychological ties to a small but fanatical sect while living an extremely conflicted double life and performing such public mortifications as preaching the end of the world barefoot while dressed in a habit I had sewed myself from burlap. As if this weren't enough, I was, under a math professor's direction, trying to teach myself differential geometry, general relativity, and cosmology. Like Severian the Torturer, I forget nothing, and I vividly recall sitting in my dark bedroom, where the only furniture was a mattress on the floor, listening to the rodents' pitter-patter in kitchen, and studying the Schwarzchild model and Hawking's Theorem. The slowness of my mind so frustrated me that I beat the walls with my fists until my knuckles bled. I still have the scars.

Did I mention that I'm autistic?

But I digress. While all of this was going on, I began producing an elaborate future history of Martian civilization. A prince, a sultan's son who spoke with a woman's voice and never went without a veil to hide his horrific rictus grin, made an appearance in the kingdom of Xanth. This fellow—also inspired by missing my meds—has come into my recent stories as well. In fact, he shows up in both the stories I've sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

The stratospheric, ocean-girt tower that acts as a kind of axis for all my stories originated as a doodle maybe six years ago. The world in which my stories take place came into being a couple years later, but I'd been contemplating the idea of a counter-earth with paleozoic biota for some time before that. The Paleozoic Era has long fascinated me. When I was a boy I had a print of the famous Yale Age of Reptiles mural on the wall of my bedroom, beneath which was the board where I'd draw the genealogical charts of the Greek gods and heroes. I suppose the origins of my novel really go back to that.

Well, so, it seems that "there is nothing new under the sun," at least when it comes to my writing. Ideas percolate for decades without my being aware of it; characters that I'd long forgotten reappear in new guises.

One day, when I'm rich and famous and dead, some pedantic student of early twenty-first-century speculative fiction—the author, perhaps, of the obscure monograph Culture at the Crossroads: The Metaphysical Epic Pulp-Action Fantasy Movement and its Antecedents—will come across this blog post in the dusty archives of the Wayback Machine, and cite it in a chapter devoted to my works; from there it will find its way into the Fantasy Writing Reader, where some aspiring author such as myself will find it and benefit from it.

* I say amazingly because I hadn't realized how far back it went it until I was writing this.

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