About Writers, book reviews, reading, writing technique

The Wonderful World of Susanna Clarke

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I had read a portion of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell very quickly, to get a feel for the work, to see if I was ready to devote myself to eight-hundred pages. I am! I am rereading more carefully, and I have watched a few episodes of the Netflix series, to see how it translates to the screen.

I have to say that the thing that I most enjoy about the story is not the plot itself. I am hooked on the execution. It is fleshed out with wonderfully dense historical tidbits, faux references to this storied magician or that one, notations of their books, publishers, and publishers’ addresses, background on various factions of magic, a ballad even, all set forth in scholarly-looking footnotes. All of this delights me no end.

I enjoy the atmosphere of the piece, the intricate description, stately phrasing of a gravitas wholly in keeping with the theme of Magic Restored To Its Proper Place In England. For me, the true magic of the book is the narrative style. There is a great deal of very impressive telling:

“Excellent reasons which had seemed so substantial a moment ago were turning to mist and nothingness in his mouth, his tongue and teeth could not catch hold of even one of them to frame it into a rational English sentence.” Such a stylish encapsulation cannot be conveyed on film, and what a pity.

“… and as our narrative progresses, I will allow the reader to judge the justice of this portrait.” Clarke intrudes fairly often, another lovely period touch. The enormous footnotes may not range as far afield as mine do in Sly, but they are entertaining and I will eventually read them all.

The Netflix movie is absolutely gorgeous, but it does not capture the spirit of the book. It is the artistry of the narrative that has made it a classic. A world has been created on these pages, that drags us to a time and place in a way that the film does not. Who has read Jonathan Strange? Do you agree? Or does the lyrical phrasing and overload of tangential information (that I eat up) put you off?

The Netflix series lacks distance from the here and now, that all the walking through mirrors doesn’t remedy. It lacks the flavor of the print piece. This (gently) mannered prose is a mesmerizing step back from reality, and it plays a large part in the enormous pleasure I get from the story.

The film is beautifully done. The sets are stunning. The casting is wonderful. The story is faithfully told as far as the bones of it go. But the filmed version lacks the magic of the book. The book is a breathtaking example of total-immersion world-building. I am enthralled. I am taking notes right and left on matters small and large.

You may expect a new bit on Sly practicing (working with his tabby markings) to affect a disdainful raised eyebrow, in my updated chapter one. Thanks for the seed idea, Susanna Clarke. Many phrases have sparked spin-off business of my own. For me, this book is a treasure trove of possibilities, particularly in relation to Sly’s bookishness, which is always fun to contemplate.

What rare world-building can you recommend? I’m into it!

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Research, world-building, writing technique

So You Want To Build A World

“You see, to be quite frank Kevin, the fabric of the universe is far from perfect. It tbpolaroidwas a bit of a botch job you see. We only had seven days to make it. And that’s where this comes in. This is the only map of all the holes. Well, why repair them? Why not use ‘em to get stinking rich?”

–Randall from Time Bandit

 

So you want to build a world, eh? Are you ready to be God? Because that’s what you’re doing. Creating a world, populated with millions of beings. They’re your responsibility now. What happens to them—well, that’s on you, isn’t it? And more than that, you owe it to your readers to create a functional world, an elegant mechanism guided by a clear plan and exquisite craftsmanship, a Swiss watch kind of a world.

Or—maybe not.

I know. A lot of writers LOVE world building. They revel in creating dossiers, elaborate histories, mythologies—even whole languages. It’s part of the fun. And backstory can certainly add depth and richness to a narrative, making it more believable, more real, more engaging.

But how much is really necessary? All fiction writing is world building. You set the stage, you paint the backdrops, you provide the props. You populate that world with living, breathing people, give them history, put flesh on those dry paper bones so that they rise up off the page. And no matter how closely your fictional environs hew to the real, recognizable world, it is new. You built it.

Of course, mostly when writers talk about world building, they mean a different world, and more often than not, they mean speculative fiction. I’m including fantasy under that label, as well as science fiction. Fantasy, of course, is replete with maps and legends. Sci-Fi is lousy with parallel histories (what if the Dutch empire never fell?) and distant planets where the not-quite humans behave in curiously human-like ways.

It’s tempting to want to create full and complex histories for your worlds, those impeccable mechanisms, but how much of that is really necessary? Elaborate backstory may engage you, the author, but how much does the reader really want? Or need?

Generally, it’s the small details that grab our attention and lock us in. When Robert Heinlein, in Beyond This Horizon, wrote the famous sentence “The door dilated,” the intention was to inform the reader—in a casual, unobtrusive way—that we were in a future world. The door opens like the dilating iris of an eye, and no one comments on it or wonders at it, because it is not, in this fictional world, remarkable. It’s rather a joke these days—because honestly, what a ridiculously elaborate way of opening a door—but that tiny sentence accomplishes a lot, and does it with panache.

And that’s admirable. I’m not opposed—at all!—to complex writing, but the ability to draw a reader in with an elegant, concise bit of description (three words!) is something we can all envy.

I’d like to hear about any examples of world building that you found particularly effective and inventive and memorable. I’ll start with a few of mine:

In Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany, the novel’s most prominent alien species doesn’t just enjoy food at mealtimes, they also enjoy licking small rocks. Rocks are served with meals, and the natives savor the taste of different minerals. The novel’s human protagonists also take part in rock licking, because it’s polite. Stars in my Pocket is a big, complex novel with scads of world building—but it’s this one detail in particular that remains with me, even decades later. It wasn’t important to the plot at all, but that single, concise detail locked me in. I knew I was in another world.

(This example also highlights another important point: don’t neglect the mundane things of life. Food is primary to all life as we know it, but all-too-many science fiction writers reduce food-of-the-future to cubes of protein-rich gelatin or synthetic versions of chicken curry and sweet-and-sour shrimp. Dull. Unless your world is a grim dystopia where dull food symbolizes the dreariness of life, have some fun. Eating is too sensual and visceral an experience to be wasted on drab victuals.)

Another example of notable and elegant world building: in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly, characters speak English, of course (it’s American television, after all) but they are always dropping in bits of Mandarin. It’s never explained, never even really commented on. Everybody just knows a lot of  Mandarin, particularly swear words. All of which suggests—simply, elegantly—that the political landscape of the Earth has changed a lot. (There are websites out there dedicated to translating the Mandarin bits of Firefly, much of which is hilariously weird and inappropriate, from “Filthy fornicators of livestock!” to “Stupid inbred stack of meat.”)

If I’m making any kind of an argument here (and that’s certainly arguable), it’s that less really can be more when it comes to world building. You don’t need to provide a treasure trove of details, just a few that sing out to the reader. They’ll fill in the rest with their vivid imaginations. And you don’t need to work out everything to be convincing. We live in a world where we frequently experience confusion and uncertainty. If you really think the world is a rational, well-ordered place, I’d suggest that maybe you aren’t paying enough attention. It’s comforting, I suppose, to believe that some kind of higher order underlies the fabric of creation, but—rules of physics and mathematics and biology aside—there isn’t a whole lot of empirical evidence to support that belief. Your world might be more believable if it mimics this uncertainty, if everything doesn’t fit together just so. The universe, as Time Bandits tells us, is a bit of a botch job. And God (god? who?) is, undeniably, inscrutable. Since you are God now, I invite you to follow his (her?) example. Nobody likes a tight-assed, control freak deity. Let your world breath a little.

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writing technique

These Dancing Feet.

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Sue’s on-topic post makes me a bit ashamed of myself for my fun, but less-than-useful offerings.

While I try to write something serious on serials, (not sure I can manage it), here’s another (already written) Song-and-Dance (my default voice). After this, I’ll try to behave myself.

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In Search of
(Silly) History. 

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Creators of brave new worlds, those folks have an awful lot to figure out, science, geography, physicality, political structure, all that in addition to the main event, the going-somewhere story. In a real-world setting, much can be taken for granted. The surround needs only to be tailored, not assembled from scratch.

You might think that one who situates a well-worn fairy tale in a well-documented age has it easy. Well, sure, if you write Disney-style. I reconfigure history around the antics of a talking cat, which certainly suggests that flavor of fantasy.

In historical fiction, research is a given. I research also, diligently. I play with history, distorting, knotting, shredding. John Dee, a truly crackpot figure, interesting as hell, is ripe for a goof. I had my assassination episode mostly written, then I discovered Dee. That work is out the window, because what I’ve learned of him is too delicious to pass up.

He was Elizabeth’s Royal Astrologer. (Good.) He was a foremost scientist, the inventor of break-through tools for navigation. (Even better.) He believed he could communicate with angels. (Yahoo! If a man thinks he talks to angels, he may not fall apart when confronted by a conversational cat.)

He left notebooks full of coded entries and mysterious symbols – I swear to God, one of them has a cat in it. (My wildest prayers have been answered.) Scholars of the period speculate that Dee was an undercover operative for Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s Spymaster. If I didn’t adore reading history, if I had chosen to conceive a crank for my guy to butt heads with out of thin air, he would be amusing, but I would have missed a boatload of gorgeous possibilities. I do not balk at changing horses in mid-stream.

Dee is a fairly blank slate. Elizabeth is the other side of the coin. Reams are written on her. We think we know her, dignified, decorous, above all, regal. Most descriptions treat her gently. A marvelous few are brutal:

As a young woman, Elizabeth had been striking: slender, pale skinned, with masses of auburn locks, but the years had done their dirty work. Her hair now grew in patches. She wore wigs, caked her wrinkled, pocked face with cosmetics, and seldom laughed. An open mouth revealed broken, blackened teeth. Seemingly oblivious to her decline, she play-acted nubile desirability. 

She demanded constant reassurance that she had not decayed. If one would gain her favor, he must court her as if she were a girl of eighteen and honor her not only as the Queen of England, but as the Queen of Love. Her affectations, the ancient crepe-skinned bared breast, the ridiculous simpering, must be applauded. The sight of a gap-toothed crone, complexion smeared with the lethal white lead-based make-up of the period, must not engender other than an admiring fascination with the strange effect.

It’s the demented details of history that I adore, that I graft onto my critters and my plot. Biographies, in particular, can jumpstart a hundred ideas and most of them will be better than what you pull out of your hat.

I’ll wrap this up. Let others fret and sweat over the from-scratch world building, which I generally find as compelling as the painted backdrop of a stage play. I’ll tip-toe through the tulips of history and gather a sweet armful of easily-harvested grotesqueries, the intimate touches that bring a story to life.

I cannibalize history. It works for me. Give it a whirl.

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I think this is a baptism, and it’s the best image I’ve dug up so far. I certainly don’t want William and Kate, which is what you mostly get when you google ‘Royal Christening’.

I am researching Catholic sects of the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. My Inquisitor, blackmailed to perform a baptism on a cat for a dotty king’s peace of mind, will turn out to be a rebel, holding a heretical belief that animals have souls. He’ll be all for it, if it’s done quietly. He doesn’t want to endanger his cushy life as a high official of the established church. Beyond that, he’s pleased to cater to the king’s whims. It’s never a bad idea to make a firm friend of a monarch, even a minor one.

I could invent a sect, but, as I’ve said, I like my lunacy to have one foot (at least, one toe) in reality, and I’m sure that I’ll find other lovely stuff to sprinkle in.

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It’s late, way after Vespers. Over an ornate font, used for every royal baptism of the past two centuries, a mysterious baby receives his splash in high style, in the traditional royal robe, cuddled in the arms of the king himself, no mother in attendance. Hmmm . . . Prince Bittor is here, a bit aside, looking very uncomfortable.

The few nobodies on hand are kept at a distance, none apprehending that the babe in arms is a cat. You know they’ve got to be muttering to themselves: “This is just as odd as it may be. Who can the child be?”

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What a delightful question. I will most certainly think on it.

 

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