Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Terrible Analogy of the Hook

Your reader?
Let's talk about analogies for a moment. In public school they start teaching analogies pretty early on as part of the English subject. Kids learn them as a formula. This is to this as that is to that. I think this may be at least partially the reason that people in general are terrible at making analogies when they get older. Because analogies aren't just a formula for pointing out similarities. Analogy is a cognitive process by which we transfer information or meaning from one particular subject to another particular subject. We use analogies when there is a particular subject that is difficult to understand and so we find another subject that is easier to understand, then we transfer our understanding of the easy subject to the hard subject. Naturally, they need to be two subjects that can potentially understood in the same way because they have similar meaning.

Now let's talk about a particular analogy that I find... problematic. In advice for writers of stories, the act of crafting the beginning of a story in such a way that the reader feels compelled to continue reading is commonly referred to as "hooking the reader". A common term thrown around is "The Hook", meaning that beginning part of the story that is specially constructed to grab the reader's interest. Now, I have no issue with the idea of writing specifically to capture reader attention and keep them from putting your book down. Here's where my problem is...

The terms "The Hook" and "hooking the reader" and also "reeling them in" clearly are references to the sport of fishing. Now if you spell out this analogy in a bit more detail you end up with enticing the reader in with a delicious worm and once they've taken the bait, entrapping them with a hook piercing their flesh rendering them unable to escape at which point you can just casually reel them in. As a reader first and a writer second I do not like being compared to a fish on a hook. As a writer who is a reader I think it is dangerous for writers to let the meaning of an analogy that compares writers with fishers and readers with fish and books with worms on a hook sink into their creative subconscious. The meaning conveyed by a fishing analogy turns writers into predators and readers into prey. This meaning is inherent to the terminology. It can't be separated out from references to the act of fishing.

Furthermore, I think in many writers it accidentally leads to a subconscious habit of placing all the emphasis on the "hook" at the beginning of the story leading to a more casual approach during the "reel them in" phase in the middle of the book and getting downright lazy with the ending, because the fish is already in the bucket by then. I'm not claiming that all writers who take the "hook the reader" approach do this, but I've encountered enough books that fit this description and that made me feel like the writer did not value the reader beyond getting them interested enough to pay for the book. And when I encounter a book like that I'm going to avoid the rest of that author's work, I'm also not going to recommend their books to anyone else, I may even go out of my way to discourage people from reading their work.

The author/reader relationship is a delicate thing. It doesn't blossom if the author makes the reader feel like a fish on a hook, reeled in for monetary gain.

So I'd like to propose a different analogy for that aspect of writing craft that is concerned with capturing the reader's interest early enough to keep them reading. I'd like to propose looking at the beginning of the book as an appetizer.

An appetizer, as we all know, is a simple yet flavorful dish that comes before the main meal and is meant to stimulate the appetite in preparation for the courses to come. And I believe that's what we should focus on in our story beginnings, presenting the reader with uncomplicated yet intriguing content that stimulates their interest in preparation for the much richer and deeper middle and the more thrilling and emotional payoff at the end. A "hook" leads to a fish in a barrel waiting to be someone's dinner, an appetizer leads to a satisfying meal. We shouldn't be trying to "hook" readers, we should be trying to stimulate their appetite for the exquisite meals we've crafted for them.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Silmarillion Syndrome or Hung up on Structure

I don’t talk a lot about my writing in specific because it’s not an easy thing to talk about. Other writers all seem to have a “WIP” or Work in Progress that they are focused on and can discuss in detail. For me its different. I believe I suffer from what I’m going to call “Silmarillion Syndrome”.

What is it?

Everyone knows Tolkien for his masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but the work that Tolkien devoted his life to was the body of legends that would become The Silmarillion, only published after his death. Tolkien began the stories that comprised The Silmarillion in his youth and some of them went through dozens of permutations. From early on he had the idea of fitting them together into a mythology of the Elves. First there was The Book of Lost Tales, wherein the tales of the Elves were told to a mortal Man who had found his way to the Elves’ island home. Later versions removed the Man and the told story aspect and made them into straightforward mythological accounts collected in a body called the Quenta Silmarillion. Tolkien wrote several versions which he was never quite happy with which is why it later fell to his son to edit together the sometimes fragmented legends into a publishable volume. Tolkien never saw his beloved Elven history in print.

This desire for an overarching structure to the tales and need to have them fit together seamlessly into a single legendarium is all too familiar to me. As is the perfectionism that led to countless versions and revisions. I too want a comprehensive mythology for my world that was full of origin stories and heroic legends. For the past year I have been studying and ruminating and plotting and planning to come up with my own overarching structure for my fantasy stories. I have been obsessed with the Big Picture, trying to create a structure that every idea and every story element I have ever had and will ever have can easily fit into.

Wow, writing it out like that makes it sound stupidly ambitious. Which is, I think, a phrase that perfectly describes me when I start getting creative. Sarah McCabe: Stupidly Ambitious Fantasy Stories. It could work.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to work out this overarching narrative for some time now and I believe I’ve made a real breakthrough. Puzzle pieces are starting to fit together, the Big Picture is almost in view. It’s a dizzying feeling actually because I had begun to doubt whether or not I had the skill to formulate an overarching narrative that created the sort of depth you get from Tolkien’s work. Now I think maybe I can actually plan it out, but it still remains to be seen if I can turn it into a well told story. And whether I can manage to finish such an ambitious project in my lifetime.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Catch-22 of Fantasy Names and Language

So you've decided to create a secondary world for your story. You don't want it to be an alternate version of earth but with magic, you want it to be unique and other and different, a true secondary world. This will be so cool and original.

You quickly become aware that it's very, very difficult to actually imagine things that are truly "other". It begins to dawn on you that is why most aliens and fantasy races are just humans but with exaggerated and stereotyped characteristics. And maybe it's also why people say to write what you know. Trying to imagine something that has no foundation in your mind is quite possibly impossible.
And then there are the technical problems. You have to use words to describe all the strange and alien things you are trying to relate to your audience. The words you have to use are, for the most part, confined to your native language. Unless you're a linguist or someone with a natural knack for making new words, any words and names you come up with yourself are likely to come across to the reader as a random assembly of syllables that are rarely ever memorable. (I can't count the number of times I have felt that way about the words and names used by fantasy authors I have read.) And yet, thanks to Tolkien, fantasy-esque names and words are expected. If you name your epic fantasy hero Bob or Dave or even Steve people just won't take him seriously. (Thanks, Tolkien.)

Aha! You think. I'll borrow names and words from another language that will be unfamiliar to my readers! And thus you join in a tradition as old as the genre. You chuckle at your own cleverness as you take words from an internet vocabulary list for [random language] and incorporate them into your world. You name your characters after obscure figures from various mythologies and smile as you wonder if any of your readers will see the way your choices indicate clues about the characters and their story.

But wait. You suddenly remember something... The internet both connects the entire world and puts all of the world's information at our fingertips. Where, once upon a time, fantasy writers could count on their readers to not be overly familiar with anything that isn't commonly taught in public schools in their own country (and maybe a few more that speak the same language, if they're lucky) we no longer have that luxury. What our readers don't know, they can look up in 5 seconds with google. And with the digital revolution slowly but surely spreading across the globe more people from more countries are likely to be reading your work. How will readers in Japan feel when your characters greet each other in Japanese as if it was an alien language from an alien world? How will readers in Finland feel when they read your work and realize that you've used the Finnish word for "breakfast" as the main character's name because you thought it sounded cool? How will readers react when they know how you've used an element from Mayan mythology in a way that makes no sense whatsoever?
And that brings us back to square one. Using real world mythology, terminology and language makes a lot of sense when your fantasy takes place on some version of our Earth. It starts to make less sense when you're using it to fill in a secondary world and yet anything that you come up with purely on your own isn't likely to resonate with readers as much as material based on real cultures will. Is it a catch 22? Is it a fine line that can be walked delicately and effectively with enough skill? If so, how do you walk it?

Let me give a few real world examples of how I've seen these problems come up in fiction.

1. A new fantasy writer I am acquainted with that published her first book recently with a small press apparently made the decision to have an alien race in her secondary world speak Japanese. Not something she came up with that's based on Japanese. Not Japanese altered a bit to look and feel different. Just straight up Japanese. When two characters greeted each other with "Konnichiwa" it dragged me kicking and screaming right out of the world. They continued to use very common, modern Japanese phrases and honorifics throughout the scene and it just made the whole thing ring false to me. I haven't been able to return to the book yet.

2. I've come across many anime that use seemingly random English words for character names. Notable examples are "Milk" in Legend of the Legendary Heroes and "Jacuzzi" in Baccano! It's another frequent (though not always) immersion breaker for me, particularly if I'm watching in English and wondering to myself how the voice actors are keeping themselves from laughing.

3. Another anime set in 18th century France used the Psalms of the Christian Bible as if they were obscure, powerful spells known only to a few with the power to turn people into zombies among other things. This was such a bizarre way to imagine the Pslams that I found it extremely hard to believe in the narrative and eventually gave up on the show.

4. The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy of fantasy novels by Tad Williams had their worldbuilding heavily dependent on real world counterparts. I could list each of the countries and peoples in that world and point out their counterpart in ours. Furthermore, the main religion of the world was an obvious copy of Christianity, in particular Catholicism. The parallels were so clear and so pervasive and felt so superficial that I had a hard time believing in that world as a real secondary world, it felt more like a pale imitation of our own.

So, what is your take on these issues? Is it something we should avoid? Is it something we can avoid? Have you had similar experiences with fiction you've read or watched or am I just too sensitive to such things? Are there any answers or does each writer have to find the answer that is right for themselves?