Writing’s Oddities

For over a year now, I’ve really been wanting to build a secondary fantasy world and/or to write a story set in one.  Or even a science-fantasy.  But, everything I put together in both venues always returns to urban (or contemporary, pick your poison) fantasy.  The frustrating thing is that I’m not sure why.  I’ve alternately blamed laziness (in many ways, urban/contemporary fantasy is easier—most of the history, geography, and such are already done) and what I’ve been reading lately (the last few years have been predominantly urban/contemporary fantasy).

I’m not sure that either of those is the culprit.

That said, I’ve had a hard time getting into secondary world fantasies lately, and not for lack of trying.  In the last couple years, I’ve read Sarah Beth Durst (kid’s recommendation; decent), Robert Jackson Bennett (decent), Gail Z. Martin (meh), Garth Nix (good, but not really clicking), N.K. Jemison (good quality, but not clicking), Scott Lynch (meh), Max Gladstone (good quality, but not clicking), Pearl North (meh), and Peter V. Brett (meh).  The only ones that have completely “clicked” were Naomi Novik (Uprooted) and Steven Brust (new books in the Taltos series), both authors I’ve read for many years.

It’s possible that my tastes, and approach to writing, have changed enough that the secondary world fantasy doesn’t work for my writing anymore.  I certainly haven’t lost interest in the genre, I still love Dragaera, Lankhmar, Middle Earth, and others, have Novik’s follow-up (Spinning Silver) on hold at the library, and all that.  Maybe it’s modern fantasy writers, but that shouldn’t really harm my writing, in that regard, I don’t think.

Maybe it’s age, fatigue from parenting, and time.

Whatever it is, it’s frustrating.

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Authorial Intent (Revisited?)

Thanks to a meme floating around social media sites, I was pulled into a discussion about interpretation of texts and the source(s) of meaning.  As usual in such discussions, the question of authorial intent arose, predominantly in the role of intending to shut down conversation and insist upon the “One Single True Meaning”™ of the text.

As both writer and literary critic/scholar (or so some tell me I am), I’m inherently suspicious of authorial intent.

Why?

Because authorial intent is only one aspect of interpretation and meaning.

It can be a great starting point, perhaps to ask questions and generate discussion.  For instance, asking “Author A says that Text B was intended to be about C, do they succeed in that intent?  Discuss.”  However, more often than not authorial intent is used as a stick to beat others, as a means for someone to say, “Aha!  You’re wrong, I have the One True Meaning, because the author said so!”, e.g. to shut down discussion and “win” in some way.

I always recall a Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA) listserv discussion of exactly this issue.  During the course of things, Michael Levy (University of Wisconsin) stated, “The idea of the Intentional Fallacy grew out of the realization that authors are often not the last word on their own work. Authors often work intuitively and can be blind to things in their writing that are quite obvious to other readers. Thus, the Intentional Fallacy, which should be seen in these terms: the author is a valuable point of entry into her/his text but, again, not the last word. His/her intent can’t necessarily rule out other interpretations.”  That has always stuck with me, as both a literature scholar and a writer.

So, why is the Intentional Fallacy (e.g. appeal to authorial intent/authority) dangerous or problematic?

First, relying solely on authorial intent removes the reader’s agency (reader response theory; Stanley Fish, et al.).  Writing is a two party relationship: writer and reader.  Readers inherently bring meaning to a text through their experiences, history, previous reading, education, and a host of other factors.  This is why a person can read the same book several times at different ages and get very different things out of the book.  The book has not physically changed, the author’s intent has not changed, but the reader has changed and therefore brings different things to the book and sees different things in the book.

Second, it removes the influence of socio-politico-historical context (new historicist theory, Stephen Greenblatt, et al.; any cultural studies), implying that the author wrote in a vacuum.  Simply, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, an author cannot write in a vacuum, at least not for very long.  Every text is, consciously or otherwise, the product of a particular socio-politico-historical moment.  If Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote the “I Have a Dream” speech in 1953 or in 1983, it would be a very different speech than what he wrote in 1963 because the context would be different.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we are the products of our environments and we bring certain assumptions and influences from our environment with us when we write, whether fiction or non-fiction.  Unless we are writing from a point in the vacuum of space (which won’t last more than a couple seconds at best), things are going on around us that influence how we think, our inspiration, and how we approach topics.  And those things are going to have an influence on our writing.  That said, as writers, we’re usually too close to recognize those, often subtle, influences.

Third, it removes the possibility, really probability, of unconscious or subconscious influences and insertions on the part of the author (Jungian archetype theory, Carl Jung, et al.; semiotics, Umberto Eco, et al.).  Similar to context, there are a host of factors that unconsciously influence writers, from half-remembered (or completely consciously forgotten) childhood experiences to subconscious recognition of archetypes.  And that is a good thing.  When we consciously try to incorporate and use archetypes, for instance, they invariably fall flat.  They become non-archetypal, because archetypes are inherently unconscious and hold unconscious signification.  Used consciously, they often become fads.  This sub/unconscious influence is, I think, unavoidable.  I think it is an inherent element of how the brain and mind function.

There are, of course, a whole host of other factors that can come into interpretation of texts that the insistence on authorial intent as the end all and be all of interpretation simply kills.  Ultimately, there is never going to be a “One Single True Meaning”™ to any vital, living text, that is, any text likely to outlive its reader and, in fact, culture.  This openness of interpretation, I know, drives some people crazy because they want the one, correct, true answer.  But, literature, writing, is organic.  Like everything organic, this means writing and literature are messy.  And that messiness is what makes literature, writing, all art really, so interesting and awesome.

Any creation, primary or secondary, with any vitality to it, can ‘really’ be a dozen mutually exclusive things at once, before breakfast.” -Ursula K. Le Guin, Language of the Night, 1982

And Now For Something Completely Different

A couple weeks ago, just before my anniversary, a younger co-worker asked a few relationship related questions.  In effect, she was asking for relationship advice, in a broad, non-specific context.  The incident got me thinking about relationships and relationship advice in general.  Thus, this post.

I don’t like giving relationship advice.  I’m not comfortable being asked for relationship advice.  And I’m not going to give any here.

I’ll explain why.

Ultimately, almost all relationship advice—particularly that found in magazines, advice columns, and relationship sites—is generally useless.

I say this with some caveats, notably the “If you see these signs, then you’re probably in an abusive relationship and should run very fast” advice.

But, I think most relationship advice is useless because all romantic relationships are different.  Regardless of the issue, we like to believe there is one “fix-it” solution, whether we’re talking about romantic relationships, writing papers, or economics.  But, there is no single, perfect solution to any issue, just like there is no one perfect formula for writing an A paper in university.  Every romantic relationship is different, what works for me and my spouse probably won’t work for another couple, or the third couple across the way.  There are so many variables in play in any couple—from personal history to philosophies, education levels to family relations—that affect a romantic relationship that it’s impossible to generalize with any given couple.

In the end, though, I think romantic relationships are built on three things: friendship, attraction, and shared interests.  And the first two of those are great examples of the differences that mark romantic relationships.

Most of us have a variety of friends.  And we don’t interact the same way with all of them.  For instance, I have a couple friends with whom I went to primary school (and later secondary school), who know me in different ways than the friends I first met in secondary school or university (ex. they’ve known me since I was 6 or 7 years old).  I also have friends whom I first met in graduate school (at 24 years old), and we have a different relationship than I do with my friends from secondary school.  Then there are the friends I’ve made in the last ten years, mostly through aikido training.  Because we know each other from a martial arts practice, and generally see each other a couple times a week, often less depending on schedules, we have a rather different relationship.  There are things that we talk about that we wouldn’t, necessarily, with friends we’ve known through other venues, or people who are mutual friends with our spouses.

In the case of attraction, we all find ourselves attracted to a variety of individuals.  And the reasons for attraction are often not the same.  For instance, a person may find Chris Evans, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman attractive, or Julia Roberts, Alyssa Milano, and Jennifer Lawrence.  Different things draw the person to each of those individuals (and, yes, I know I’ve “dated” myself a bit with my choices there, I’m cool with that).  What attracts the individual is not the same in each case, just like no two romantic relationships are the same.

For me, this sense of differences, uniqueness even, is why being asked for relationship advice is a tricky situation.  I find myself thinking: what kind of personality types are involved, what shared interests are there, what attracts these two to each other . . . there are too many factors that differentiate the questioner’s experience and relationship from my own.

In a way,  I suppose this is something for writers and readers to consider as well, for character development, as every character is going to be, or has been, involved in family, friendship, professional, and romantic relationships.

WiP 21 (2018)

Another two days passed without Alaric seeing anyone except for a silent servant before he was confident that he had correctly identified the alarm spells.  More importantly, he had a plan to circumvent them.

He was still lost on the protection, or containment, wards.

Knowing they were abjuration based had proven less useful than he had hoped.  The patterns built on the protection base were utterly unfamiliar.  He used detection spells often enough that he had been able to find a core of familiarity beyond the foundational patterns.  His repertoire of protection spells, and his use of them, was rather smaller and less common.

He had to assume that they would not allow any communication or summoning magics, though.  There was little point to them otherwise.  He could probably try tunneling out, but they had placed priests around him to prevent that.  Going up or down were out.  He had no idea how many feet or yards of ground he’d have to excavate, and no climbing equipment anyway.  His attempts at air magic as a student had been, Alaric freely admitted, pathetic.  If he was being generous.  There was no levitating or flying up or down a shaft.

He could get around the alarm and detection spells, but he would have to think his way past the guard and dragonspawn.

Hours later, after the day’s last meal, Alaric’s palm met his forehead.

He did not know what was above or below his rooms, that was true.  But, he could find out.  Earth sorcery and his detection specialty.  Too obvious.

He slid the dishes back to the door and ambled to his bedroom.

Once out of “sight” of the guards, Alaric became a blur of motion.

In seconds, he had the spartan furniture and rugs shoved aside to create a bare space several feet wide on the floor.  He sat in the center, legs crossed beneath him.

Hands palm down on the floor to enhance the effectiveness, Alaric wove a bit of wizardry that verged on, the more advanced, sorcery.  The spell sent energy down through the stone, to reflect off anything beyond, within a limited range.  The reflection told him there was at least fifty feet of granite, with some bits of limestone and shale, beneath him.

Much too far to dig with his available tools.

Alaric rose, extending his arms over his head.

He was too short to touch the ceiling, by a couple feet.

This time, the magic burst found a foot of sandstone, a narrow gap, then a couple feet of local stone.  Above that, what he sensed was a cavern.

A second pattern of wizardry discovered no life of note above him, only the usual animal cave denizens and creatures of the earth.

A slow grin spread across his lips.

The two spells, he thought as he replaced the furniture, provided a lot of information.

Most importantly, if he could reach the ceiling, he could escape the same way he had before.

Alaric’s eyes roamed the room, assessing the available furnishings.

The priests had stripped the place pretty bare.  The bed was right out, he could not trust anything stacked on that mattress.  It would absorb other furniture and be unstable.  That covered what was still in the bedroom, really.

They had left him a table and chair in the sitting room.

Desperation and, Alaric had to admit, fear won out over good sense and planning.

If he moved the furniture, the guards and priests might try to prevent it.  If he did not move the furniture, the guards would assuredly be activated the moment he cast the digging spell.

The thoughts ran through his head and were discarded as he charged back into the sitting room.

Banishing conscious thought, Alaric threw the chair on top of the table.  He clambered up to stand on the seat, elbows bent to place his palms on the ceiling for balance and the spell.

The moment the energy released, the sorcerer saw the guards begin to move in his peripheral vision.  He instinctively knew he only had a minute at most; fortunately, he could start climbing after seconds.

As sand fell around him, coating his face and body, Alaric hopped and blindly reached for the rim of the temple’s roof.

With a groan, he pulled himself up and groped for another handhold.

A crash from below told him that the guards had tried climbing his table.

Muscles burning from fingertips to shoulders, the sorcerer managed to pull himself through the hole.  It became somewhat easier once the spell broke through so he could see and was not choking so bad.

Collapsed on rough stone, Alaric swore to work out more, especially pull-ups, if he made it home.

Only the sound of voices raised in alarm below drove him to his feet.

Without a conscious thought, he picked a direction, summoned a light ball, and ran, stumbling, away from the hole he had created.

The sorcerer—bruised, damp, bleeding, and completely tapped out—staggered out of a cave days later.  Hand shading his eyes against the daylight, he looked around and tried to get his bearings.  His pursuers had been left behind by the second day.  After a few moments, he started hobbling down the mountain slope toward what he thought might be civilization.


 

As always, this is a pre-revision version.  Any feedback, comments, etc. are very welcome.  Additionally, I’m not entirely pleased with the conclusion (one area I tend to be bad at), so thoughts there are very appreciated.

Also I’ll include a PDF copy here (The Island Stories) for those who’d like to see the whole thing as one document.

WiP 20 (2018)

The interview complete, Alaric found himself quick marched to a different suite, as promised.  As best he could tell, it was far from his former rooms.  Probably in case he had left any other waiting spells.  Which he probably should have done.

Hindsight and all that.

Aside from not having a hole in the bath wall and having two statues flanking the inside of the door, the suite was almost identical to his old one.  Though it looked like his captors not only took the pens and sharp things, but most of the furnishings as well.  Where the other suite was the epitome of understated opulence, this set was the poster child for extreme minimalism.

For the next six meals, which he took to be three days, Alaric tried to appear resigned to his captivity.  Inside, though, he studied the wards and other spells woven around the rooms as best he could.  Most were done in the unfamiliar silver, but a few blue strands of energy wove through the rest.

Magic—whether wizardry, sorcery, or this dragon-priest—was about more than sources of power, though.  It relied heavily on patterns, and while the specific pattern for every spell was unique, they did all hold a base framework depending on the type of spell.  Unraveling, or finding a soft spot in, an unknown spell could be done by beginning with the foundational framework the caster hung it on.  The masters at the Green Tower, the tower of earth sorcerers on the Island, taught that the frameworks were integral to all magic, transcending culture, era, type of sorcery, or ideology.

If that was the case, then Alaric felt he should be able to figure out how many spells, and of what type, were in place around the suite.

By his fourth meal, he believed he had distinguished around a dozen different spells in place.  Most, he tentatively classified as containment wards, meant to prevent his escape or outside communication.  The rest were ones he was more confident to identify as detection and knowledge based.  The frameworks were, at their core, identical to the patterns he had internalized as a student and regularly used without conscious thought.  The details on both sets were tangled and strange, but he felt he could at least begin looking for cracks and mistakes.

Shortly after his sixth incarcerated meal, Alaric thought he had a good handle on what the detection spells were supposed to do.  The details were a bit different, but enough was familiar to get the gist of the spell, like, he thought, knowing Spanish and hearing someone speak Portuguese.  The trick would be to keep from falling for the false cognates, the things that seemed to same but were not.

Exhausted, he collapsed on the expansive mattress that night with a sense of mingled accomplishment, hope, and caution.

He woke the next morning to find a young woman in the ivory priests’ robes sampling his simple breakfast in the sitting room.

Nica.

Her bob of silvery hair shimmered in the room’s ambient light as she turned at the sound of his door.

Alaric felt that he was more concerned than she was by his half-dressed state.  Since he hadn’t seen a servant or priest in days, he had intended to stroll across the sitting room to the bath.  Instead, he made a rapid u-turn and tossed on his, slightly stale, shirt.

Once he returned to the main room, he saw the young priest sitting composed and, apparently fully engrossed in watching a wall.

“Nica, sorry,” he said, “I wasn’t expecting . . . well, anyone.  Uh, to what do I, er, owe the pleasure?”

“The Agrum wished you to know that he has decided to extend your stay indefinitely,” she gave a perfunctory nod, instead of a bow.  “He says you cannot be trusted to be allowed to leave before the Great Ones awaken.  And he has decided not to awaken the Great Ones until the scouts he sent out yesterday return with enough news and information.”

She rose to leave, without looking at him.

“Nica, wait.  Look, I’m sorry things didn’t go as expected.”

“No.  You are not.”

Alaric sighed.

“You’re right.  I’m not, really.  Because if things went to the expectations of Jdal, there’d be another Great War all over again.  My people have millennia of stories, they’d never accept dragon overlords again.  And the dragons you keep, serve, would try to take over again and set humanity back more than six thousand years.”

“You let Agrum Jdal, and me, think you were one of our kin and that the Great Ones left.”

“True enough.  Admittedly, given my current situation . . . it seems like that was a good idea at the time.”

“You do not know that there would be another war.  It could be different.”

“My people have millennia of stories and legends revolving around tyrannical, evil dragon overlords.  They would never trust your dragons.  And if Jdal wakes your dragons, what will they expect?  They’ll expect the world to be just like it was, or they’ll try to make it that way.  Too much has changed for that.  And if anything in our tales of the Great War is true, I doubt they’d accept being equals or second to humans or sorcerers.  I mean, they built temples to their own divinity to control humans before.”

Nica paused, her hand on the door.

As it faded, she shook her head and walked out.

The door rematerialized in her wake mere heartbeats later.