Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld

Tablet depicting Sumerian Goddess Inanna

He clawed feet is an ancient way to depict the fact she visited the Underworld.

“From the great heaven she set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven the goddess set her mind on the great below. From the great heaven Inanna set her mind on the great below. My mistress abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld. Inanna abandoned heaven, abandoned earth, and descended to the underworld.”

 

Thus begins one of the most famous Sumerian myths of all time, with one of the most famous introductory passages of all time.

The new novel I am working on is a retelling of the Inanna myth. Inanna was a Sumerian goddess of fertility, love, and war. Venus is her star. As she descends to the Underworld, ostensibly to find either power or knowledge (the poem is open to interpretation), she has to divest herself of her garments. This is probably a metaphor for divesting herself of certain earthy illusions, but it can play either way.

Anyway, as you might suspect, descending to the Underworld is a really bad idea on her part, and it doesn’t work out the way she thinks. When she does not return, her loyal servant, Ninshubur, goes in after her.

In ancient times Venus was considered to be the Star of Inanna

Venus is the Star of Inanna

I became aware of the Inanna myth a year or so back. I immediately thought it would be a nice framework for a story. At the time I was thinking about writing a Great Depression novel. I wanted to examine the hobo culture at the time. Personally, I don’t buy into the romanticization of that period. Frank Capra’s idealistic portrayals aside, I don’t think it was a heroic lifestyle at all. I believe it was brutal, hard, dehumanizing, and violent.

That’s the novel I am going to write, anyway. Or attempt to write.

There are many translations of the Inanna poem online and you can find them rather easily. The problem with the translations is the language itself is so ancient you can read many things into it. Which, for a writer, isn’t all that bad.

Thus, Inanna. This is the project I am working on now and will be blogging about, including aspects of the hobo culture and their lifestyle. Stay tuned to see how it all turns out. 🙂

Inanna

Another depiction. Again notice the Star of Inanna (Venus) in the sky.

Another depiction of Inanna

The ordinary people above Inanna are the people of Earth. The creatures below are those of the Underworld.

A Writer’s Reach

Slowly getting my ducks lined in a row and will start the new novel soon. I’m looking forward to it. The original idea has stayed with me for some time now so I think it has merit. I’ve had ideas come and go before, and you come to recognize this as a writer. Not all ideas are equal. Some aren’t worth your time.

But this idea about hobos and Sumerian mythology has me captivated and I am looking forward to exploring the themes and characters more.

I am attending the World Horror Convention in New Orleans next week so I will be busy with that. I hope to start writing the novel when I get back. I do have a propensity to always start a short story when I attend conventions so I may do that in New Orleans. Not a bad thing. I could use another short story under my belt.

Last week I started reading Beowulf again. I haven’t read this since high school. I also did some extra homework and read up on the background, literary criticism and other things surrounding this story. It fascinated me and got me to thinking about a writer’s reach.

The author of Beowulf is completely unknown. But the story has endured all these centuries because it speaks to places deep in our heart and has the capacity to move us and make us relate in ways other stories cannot. How does this happen? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, lately.

It’s funny. No matter what we write we never really know how it will affect someone or what kind of reach, social or historical, it will have. Even if the story disappears it still affected you in some way when you wrote it. I have been thinking about that a lot and it has moved me in some subtle ways.

Over the weeks I’ve heard from friends and gotten support about my writing from them. It means a lot to me. I suppose all writers are looking for validation of some kind, even if it’s nothing more than the personal knowledge of accomplishment. I never got into writing to see my name in print. I got that out of my system when I was working on the school newspaper. When I started writing professionally I used a pseudonym because it didn’t matter to me whether my given name was on the story or not. At the time the story was more important than my name.

Today that is still true. I just use “Kenneth Mark Hoover” out of laziness. I honestly get no gratification at all out of seeing my name in print. I just don’t care about that. For me as a writer it’s the story that matters most.

I suppose that’s kind of an aberration. I won’t deny it.  But for me the reach doesn’t come from the author’s name. It’s what he has to say on the page that resonates.

This is what I try to keep in mind when writing. It’s never about me. I want to be invisible on the written page. Let the story speak. Let it have reach.

The author of Beowulf is unknown. But the story endures. That speaks to me.

3 Writers Who Influenced Me Most

One of the things that interests me is how writers are influenced by other writers. I have thought about this a lot because I see other writers talk  about it. I got to wondering who influenced me the most as I was growing up and learning how to write.

I had a lot of favorites growing up. I marveled at the storytelling capability of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He wasn’t a great writer, but he was a good story teller and a favorite when I was in my teens. I also liked Nabakov a lot, mainly for his command of the English language and ability to push the envelope. I went through a big Ray Bradbury phase and liked his work, and tried to imitate him when I was eleven or twelve years old, but I don’t think he had any lasting impression upon me. In fact, I must admit today his work doesn’t speak to me at all in any understandable way. Which is amazing since he was such a favorite of mine at one time.

So the last couple of days I got to wondering who had really influenced me and why. I came up with three names.

Ian Fleming. This was my first big influence. I was introduced to his novels by my dad when I was around thirteen. By that time I One of the first big influences on my writing.was pretty sure I wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t know how to go about it. Fleming’s descriptive work had a big impact on me. I knew it was escapism, and some people said it was “only” escapism. I knew better. By then I was a much deeper reader than most people around me and I could see the themes he was working on.

Also, I was growing up at the time in an abusive household, so a writer like this who could take me away to a  time and place where violence was happening but you won out in the end…that made a deep philosophical impact on my life.

I often tried to write like Fleming. I like his style and what he can do with dialog. He’s best known for his iconic characters and villains, but his mastery at language, plot, characterization, it was all meat for my table. After reading Fleming I knew for certain I wanted to be a writer. There was no longer any doubt.

I would sit under our trailer during the day, enjoying what shade I could grab, and compose entire Flemingesque novels in my head. It was a heady time for me. I had been given a glimpse of a world where I could write stories that interested me and helped people forget their travails for a time.

What kind of writer would I be? Someone who could tell a story that transported you to another time and place and make you forget the mundane shitstorm that was ordinary life.

All right, fine. But how would I go about doing that? This was the part that worried me and I saw no way around it.

Ernest Hemingway. When I was in high school I read The Old Man and the Sea. I wasn’t captivated by it, nor did I think it was the best thing I had ever read. But I was astonished by the symbolism and the careful attention to detail he brought to the work, along with an economy of words. I talked to the English teacher about it afterward and she said he did those things on purpose. That floored me. I knew then this writing thing was a lot more difficult than putting words on paper. Anyone could do that. They’re called hacks. This was going to be work if I wanted to elevate writing into what I knew it was supposed to be: an art form. Fine, I thought. I’ll do what it takes to learn the things I need to know.

From then on I devoured pretty much everything Hemingway wrote. I have read A Farewell to Arms several times. It’s by far my favorite novel of his and one I plan to read again in the not too distant future. But as I studied and read Hemingway it wasn’t his style that had so much influence on me but his philosophy about life, and about writing itself. I remember one day I found a book that collected his old letters to contemporaries. Something like that was gold to a philosophically starving writer like myself.

As I studied Hemingway I learned about his views on symbolism. Yes, symbols were in his work, but he hadn’t put them there on purpose. If he had done it on purpose they would have lost resonance and power. He wasn’t stupid. He knew they were there and necessary to the story, but he hadn’t done it on purpose.

It took me a while to understand this concept, but I think I have a grasp on it today. It only took me about thirty years to understand. It’s one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s cabinet if he knows how to use it well.

One of the things Hemingway said still resonates with me. I wish it would resonate with more writers to  be quite honest. In an interview with The Paris Review Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

I live by that. I think all good writers should live by that if they want their work to be remembered. I think it speaks to something else I have blogged about and that is writing should not be safe. The safe story is never remembered. Nor should it expect to be.

I am not comparing myself to Hemingway, of course, but I have taken on this particular philosophy as my own. I think it works well both as an artistic tool and a method to maintain your sanity in this profession.

Hemingway

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”

To me Hemingway’s life reads and ends like a Greek tragedy in many respects. As someone who has suffered from depression I can relate to what he went through in many ways. No matter the venue I can never think of Hemingway without remembering the old Viking Death Chant:

Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother,
and my sisters and my brothers
Lo, there do I see the line of my people
back to the beginning.
Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place among them
in the halls of Valhalla
where the brave may live forever.

I don’t know if Hemingway had those words in his thoughts before he died. But it would not surprise me. Either way, he is a definite and chartable influence upon my growth as a writer, lasting even today.

I think Hemingway also said good writers don’t talk about their work all that much. I believe that’s a good rule, more or less. What’s more important, the story you finished yesterday, or the one you will write today?

It’s an easy decision for me, too.

Henry Miller.  Now we come to the writer who, by far, had the biggest influence on me. Tropic of Cancer is without a Henry Miller was the greatest influence ever upon my growth as a writer.doubt my favorite novel. I discovered Miller when I was about nineteen or twenty, I think. I remember sitting in a washateria one Saturday afternoon waiting for my clothes to finish and reading Miller. It was a bright day and the sun streamed through the plate glass window. A guy walked past and saw what I was reading. He stopped and said, “Hey, Miller, cool.”

It was like a code. People who read Miller knew what it meant. We had been given keys into the insight of the human psyche. I loved Miller’s vocabulary and tried, and failed dismally, to use copy it in my own fiction at the time. But it was all a learning process.

What fascinated me most about Miller, and does today, was his unswerving attention to the truth, no matter who it irritated. And if they found his writing obscene and the actions he described grotesque, all the better, for humans were themselves obscene and grotesque, along with being noble. All you had to do was open a history book to be reminded of that fact.

Miller believed if you weren’t pissing someone off somewhere you weren’t trying very hard with your writing. I liked his honesty, his ability to look so deep within himself * and write with passion what he saw residing there without recoiling. That took character and courage and a deep belief in your ability as a writer to successfully pull it off. It is the one concept I take from him and try to live up to. I may fail at it. But I keep trying.

Miller, by far, had the greatest influence upon me, mainly from a philosophical point of view, but also through his fearless writing and his phenomenal ability to use language to make us think, and to move us. For Miller, obscenity was always a cleansing process.

I think he, more than anyone else I ever read, helped develop my current philosophy that stories should never, never be safe. Because if they are, you not only attenuate yourself, but literature as an art form.

*Nietzsche claimed “When you look into the abyss, it looks into you.” Nietzsche had an influence upon my life, perhaps more than any philosopher. But his influence was more philosophical, not from a writing perspective. Although, unlike many philosophers, his writing is easier to grasp and understand and has an accessibility which evades his contemporaries.

Rules are made to be broken, except when they’re not.

As a writer, the only time you should break the rules is when you know the rules beforehand.

Fortunately, in writing, there are no rules. Which is why you must be extra careful before you go around breaking them and drawing attention to yourself.

I know. Sounds screwy and somewhat zen-like. But there’s a lot of truth in it. Many classics have withstood the test of time  because they are stories which, in one form or another, broke rules. These can be rules of grammar, pacing, POV, format, a lot of different elements. You can name just as many as I can off the top of your head, probably more. Novels like Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, Dracula, Blood Meridian, Moby-Dick, 1984 and on and on.

But you have to know what the basic rules are before you go around breaking them. That means you have to learn your craft inside and out. You have to do your homework and you have to keep your mouth shut and listen when professionals are talking about writing. Because you know what? You can tell instead of show…but only if you know how to show instead of tell first. You can mix POV in a scene. But only if you know and understand why it’s normally not done in the first place.

There are lots of others like this. You can break all the rules because writing is not a protocol exercise. It’s an organic creative process. Because it is organic it has the leeway already built in so you can leaven your imagination into it and make something truly memorable, truly artistic.

I am a big believer in breaking rules. You should be, too. But learn what they are first and then when you do break them it won’t be because you’re an amateur, it will be because you are empowered. 🙂

Fishing the Styx: Moby-Dick and Dante’s Inferno, with horror and revenge served cold in Hell….

As a writer I like all my stories. I would not submit them for publication if I felt they had nothing to give readers. But I have to admit there are some stories that are very important to me for one reason or another. “Fishing the Styx” is such a story.

I have always loved reading Dante’s Inferno and Melville’s Moby-Dick. They are my favorite classics ever. But I got to thinking about what might be living in the River Styx…and what would happen if you actuallywent fishing for it….

I don’t want to say much more about this unusual story. I will leave it for you to discover what it’s all about. It scared me when I was writing it, and I hope it make you feel the same way after you read it. It’s being put out by Argo Navis Publishing and is available on Kindle. I do hope you give this story a read and leave a review. I honestly hope you like it a lot.

 

Fishing the Styx: A new short SF story from Argo Navis Publishing!

Product Description: “If you can imagine a mashup of Dante’s Inferno with Melville’s Moby Dick, with a little mathematical horseplay along for the ride, maybe you might come close to imagining “Fishing the River Styx”.

“Kisa, a former Russian mathematician is in Hell because that’s what happens to nearly everyone, ferried there from earth by the great Leviathan that swims the mobius strip that is the river Styx, which borders the infnity that is Hell. Enraged by the blatant injustice of it all, Kisa decides to do something about it, and that something is to hunt and kill the Leviathan itself.

“But as the demon Talon points out, “Hell isn’t about punishment. It’s about learning.” So maybe Kisa has something yet to learn. Or not. You have to decide that for yourself. After all, demons lie.” —Richard Parks, fantasist and SF author

The Saga of Ragnar Greenkirtle and the “graskinna” Loki

One of the things I like about being a writer is how I can do research about topics that interest me and use that information to generate story ideas. I have always been interested in Viking culture and when I read the Sagas I was taken with the voice used to tell their stories.

Being a writer I only steal from the best so I decided to steal from the Sagas. I wrote the story “The Fire Egg” and liked the result. There are a few twists and turns in the story and I’ve had people remark on the ending because it is so stark, and because it shows Man in his one true form.

I also don’t pull any punches about the Viking culture in this story. I now write mostly westerns but I see the same problems in both genres. People would rather depend on cliches and what makes them feel safe than admit what these cultures were really like. Vikings have become romanticized over time but the truth is much more brutal and bloody. When all is said and done the Viking people were not very nice people, even among themselves. Even less when they came across a stranger from an unknown culture.

This is another short story being offered by Argo Navis Publishing on the Kindle. I hope you give it a look and maybe a review if you feel so inclined. Thanks!

A story from the Viking Sagas you might not have heard, or imagined, before.....

Product Description: This, then, is the tale. In the waning days of the Viking age a lost soul falls from the distant stars to the barren shores of Iceland. There Ragnar Greenkirtle, explorer and practitioner of Greek logike, finds and protects the alien called Loki. As cultural forces build, Ragnar is forced to face the true meaning of his existence and question whether a violent and savage culture deserves to survive…or evolve into something beyond the present ken of men.

“Mark Hoover is a writer who never hesitates to go deep, to try to find the core of what it means to be human and take a good hard look. If he has to stare down a nightmare or two along the way, well, that’s just fine.” —Richard Parks, author of the Lord Yamada series

Reading Outside Your Genre Even if it Kills You

There are lots of ways to get better at writing. Sitting down and writing more is one of the more obvious. Another helpful way is to read a lot, and read often. That is also obvious. If you write science fiction you should read a lot of science fiction. If you write romance you should read a lot of romance.

But a step past that is to read outside your genre. It makes sense to read the genre you are working in. That gives you perspective to what is going on, what is being published, and the impact it is having within the genre. But reading outside your genre? Does that mean if I write science fiction I should read Regency romances?

Well, you don’t have to read all Regency romances. I am arguing you need to be familiar with them, what they are about, how they are written, the structure of those novels, etc. That goes for every genre. I firmly believe you need to cross-read into other genres to get a perspective on your own genre. The more you know about other books and writers the more tools and confidence you can bring to the table in your own work.

There are genres I despise. I mean, I absolutely despise them. But I have read a couple of novels and short stories within them to have at least a passing familiarity with them. I also bring that knowledge to my own work. My dark fantasy stories set in the mythological town of Haxan have the benefit of not only being westerns. In that setting I can write romance, fantasy, mystery, suspense. drama, practically anything I want. The setting allows versatility.

Therefore, if I am going to write a romance story  in the Haxan mythos then shouldn’t I at least have a passing familiarity with the genre? I cut my teeth in science fiction. I read it almost exclusively when I was growing up and that’s what I first started writing. But that is a narrow focus. Anytime you look to one genre as your template you are limiting yourself.

As I got older I started branching out and began to read everything. All right, being a voracious reader to begin with I was already reading everything I could get my hands on, but this time I started reading in order to understand what the genre was about. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. I see a lot of that, by the way, from new writers in SF particularly. There’s a lot of “reinventing the wheel” that comes along. I know the SF genre pretty well, I think. I’ve exhausted it completely via my reading. Not difficult to do because while deep, the genre itself is rather narrow. As opposed to fantasy which is extremely broad in nature, but there’s not as much literary depth as one might like. Or westerns, which is both narrow and shallow. (More about that later.)

One good thing that comes from this is you can stumble across great books in other genres you might not necessarily have thought about approaching. I freely admit when I was younger I was an SF snob. I didn’t see any reason why I should have to read classical literarture. What did dead Englishmen know about SF, aside from the scientific romances of H.G. Wells? Shakespeare? Joyce? Shelley? Hell do they know about science fiction?

You can see the fault in my so-called “logic” I am sure. By limiting myself to only one genre I limited my knowledge of the genre I professed to be interested in: Science fiction. Because the more you know about other genres the more you know about your own. Fortunately, I grew out of that ridiculous assumption the classics were unworthy of my time, and now I love the classics. In point of fact they, along with history, are what I mostly read now, with the occasional foray into books I read in my youth for light entertainment: Burroughs, Fleming, Hamilton, Le Carre, and others.

So why don’t I continue to read a ton of science fiction? Because I have exhausted the field. As I said before, while the genre is somewhat narrow, it is deep. Even so you can completely exhaust the field via reading in four or five years. And I’ve been reading that stuff since I was a kid. I’ve seen it all. I know all the plots and I’ve seen all the variations. There is nothing new under the sun in science fiction other than different ways to tell the same story.

All right. That is true for any genre. I get that. But we’re talking about science fiction here because that is the genre I cut my teeth on. So once I realized I was reading the same book again for the umpteenth time I moved on to other genres, other work, other voices. I don’t always like what I see. Actually, unlike when I was a kid, if a book or a story doesn’t grab me right away I move on. I don’t give a book “time” to grow on me. I try not to do that as a writer, and I don’t like coming across it as a reader. Besides, there are lots of other better books out there, so if something doesn’t grab me right off I move on.

Writing is always red in tooth and claw. That’s the way it should be.

Finally, a word about westerns. I am deeply involved in working this genre right now. My attraction to the genre is well documented: I fell in love with the old time radio series Gunsmoke and wanted to write something like that. Meanwhile, I began to read through the genre to get a feel of what was out there.

Hoo boy. A lot of crap, mostly. Even the so-called “classics” of the western genre are achingly bad. It didn’t take me long to realize there wasn’t a whole lot going on here. Very little growth, almost nonexistent literary quality, and an almost obsessive dependence on myth and cliche.

It didn’t take me long to read through the genre at all. There’s simply not that much out there that isn’t a clone of something else, and the times you do run across something new and different like Cormac McCarthy, or Ed Gorman, or Estleman, well, it’s a real pleasure.

But because the genre is so narrow I realized here was a great opportunity. I could write anything I wanted if I created the right setting. I could experiment with all sorts of stories. I am not saying I am the first one to do this in the western genre. I know better. I am not saying I am doing it better than anyone else, either. I am merely stating I love the opportunity to work like this and hopefully, by some small part, bring a fresh look and a reawakening to a genre that, at best, is on life support.

Well, I’ve said a lot in this blog post. You may or may not agree with all of it. But one thing I want you to take to heart, particularly if you are a beginning writer. Read everything. I mean everything you can get your hands on. You don’t have to like it, but be familiar with it. When you start writing your stories and your books and your plays, you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel like the other writers around you.

You will have read outside your genre. You will be well armed and well prepared to meet whatever obstacle comes your way as you write your story because of your breadth of knowledge. Want to be a writer? Then write.

And read. A lot. No. More than that. Read everything.

What I learned from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and why it scared me.

I remember the very first time I came face to face with how much creativity would be needed if I was going to be a writer. I was in a high school English class and we had finished reading The Old Man and the Sea. In one passage the fisherman comes back to his hut and collapses on his bunk, arms thrown out and feet crossed in an attitude of the crucifixion. We were talking about that passage in class and finally my brain started working and I realized my teacher, Mrs. Gohlke, was saying Hemingway did that on purpose. I even asked her that same question. I raised my hand and asked, “Did Heminway write that on purpose?”I remember the day I learned there was more to writing than telling a story....

Yes. Yes, he did.

I was flabbergasted. I had thought it was a happy literary coincidence.  But on purpose? He did that on purpose? I sat there at my desk, stunned. That meant Hemingway thought about his story while he was writing it. That meant he was doing something more than telling a story about a man who lost a big fish. He was using the story to elevate and reveal something deeper about the character and about fiction itself.

And here I was, seventeen years old, dreaming my stupid dreams to be a writer. I knew then there was a lot of work ahead and it intimidated me. Before this point I thought all I had to do was tell a good story. Oh, I don’t mean to say I believed then (or now) that every story must have a message. I don’t mean that at all. But for the first time I came face to face with what a writer must do if he wants to be successful. Here was something about writing I hadn’t considered. This made it concrete for me, I guess you could say.

I thought about that incident the whole day. I went around in sort of a daze. Much more than usual. Hemingway had done that on purpose. Writing was harder than I imagined. Maybe I didn’t have the skills to do this. I was scared. I wanted to be a writer. Now I faced what being a writer was about. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough. Maybe I would never be good enough.

Finally I got hold of myself a little bit. If I was going to be a writer, I was going to work harder and read more. I was going to have to be voracious. I didn’t know if I would be able to elevate my fiction using those tools or think of things like that. He was Hemingway…I was just a dumb kid in South Texas who dreamed of being a writer.

I have never forgotten that lesson. I think back on it often. On that day I realized writing was harder than I possibly imagined. I still feel that way. I believe the best writers are always learning, always adapting, always seeking.

Speaking for myself, I try to keep that in mind. I never want to think I can throw something out there and consider it good enough. I will never settle for good enough. Not when it comes to my writing.

I learned that lesson long ago in high school. I have never forgotten it and it has stood me in good stead.

Ideas are a dime a dozen. But stories are forever.

I remember when I began to get serious about writing. I was in my early twenties. One of the things that really worried me is would I have enough ideas for stories? It worried me. At the time it only seemed I had one or two ideas worth developing. It didn’t look good for the long term prospect, haha.

But I will tell you a little secret only writers know. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Taking those ideas, and shaping them into a story, however, is the harder part.

Ideas are just that. Ideas. They have no story, no characters, no theme, nothing,. You can’t sell an idea as a story to an editor. No editor in his right mind will buy an idea from a writer. They want stories. Here’s an example of a classic idea:

1. Boy meets girl.

2. Boy loses girl.

3. Boy gets girl back.

That is a classic story. It’s been around forever and it will be around forever. It has deep atavistic qualities which gives it staying power, I suspect. But it’s only an idea. It’s not a story. You have to flesh everything out. Do all that, change a few elements here and there, and you come up with:

Old Yeller.

That’s right. Old Yeller is a “boy meets” girl story changed into a “boy meets dog” story. And the real strength of the story? It’s a “boy meets something” story that is a lead-in to an even stronger story theme: A boy grows up to be a man.

That’s the true theme of Old Yeller, how a boy grows up to be a man. But it started with the simple idea of “boy meets girl” changed to “boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog back.”

That’s what we do as writers. Ideas are easy. But when you get your idea how are you going to develop it into a memorable story that says something about human character? Ideas are easy. The writing that comes afterward…that takes a little more doing.

Old Yeller is a story drawn from a classic idea of "boy meets girl."

The Smoke and Mirrors Effect in Writing

Writing, good writing, is all about smoke and mirrors.Don't confuse being truthful to the story with the demands of fiction. They are apples and oranges.

You’ve heard the old saw Truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also unpublishable as fiction. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood notwithstanding, trying to write pure fact as pure fiction is darn near impossible. Even for all of Capote’s talent and genius he knew enough not to write everything in that story as fact.

A perfect example is dialog. Go to a coffee shop or listen to how people talk anywhere you are. You can’t print that jabber. It’s loaded with dialect, ums and ahs and umphs and ers and who knows what else. Now read a story. Pay attention to the dialog. People don’t talk like that in real life. A writer has to keep that in mind. He has to make the dialog sound real enough without interfering with the story.

This is a trap beginning writers sometimes find themselves in. They want to be truthful to the character and the reality of the place, and the story itself, so they load down the dialog with unreadable dialect. When they are called on it they say “But that’s how people really talk.”

I know that’s how people really talk. But that’s not how you want it to read. And believe you me those two are apples and oranges.

I’m going to say something that’s going to shock you, but I want you to take it to heart. When you are writing a story it’s okay to cheat. You don’t have to show everything you know about the character or the time or the place. In fact the less you say the stronger and the more impact the story will have.

It’s all smoke and mirrors. Truth is stranger than fiction. That’s why it’s not fiction. Fiction is just that: it is truth disguised as fiction. That’s what you have to keep separate, and most writers do.

We are told over and over we have to be true to the story. I agree with that statement. But that does not mean you have to disregard the peculiar demands fiction requires.

People read stories to be entertained. They can be taught new things about the human condition or history or life or love or whatever in the process…but first and foremost your readers want to be entertained. Fiction has a power unlike anything else because we can use the smoke and mirrors inherent in the art form to disguise that which needs to be hidden, while at the same time illuminating those points we want to drive home.

That’s a powerful tool, imo, and one that has to be used judiciously.

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies and Counter-Lies in the Old West

My review of the novel Little Big Man by Thomas Berger has been published by The Western Online. Here’s the link, and I hope you enjoy reading what I have to say about this classic work. I tried to approach the review from the orientation of both an armchair historian and a writer working in the western genre. Thanks, guys! 🙂

 

Little Big Man: A Classic Novel of Lies
and Counter-Lies in the Old West

Two Big Decisions on the New Haxan Novel

When you work on a novel, or any story, you always make constant decisions. I think this is normal in the creative process. At least that has been my experience.

One of the decisions I have come to about the new Haxan novel is I will not translate the Spanish dialog when it appears. I will, however, try to give context to what they are saying by showing action between the characters, and reaction. I suppose such a decision firmly puts this novel in the literary category. I’m not adverse to that but I have to be ready to accept whatever criticism it may engender.

I simply am not interested in writing the same-old kind of novel where everything is neatly laid out in perfect squares. Life isn’t like that so why should a story be that way as well? I have no intention of eschewing standard grammar and style choices for formatting the work. It’s not that kind of novel, either. But I have decided I will not translate the Spanish dialog that transpires between characters. It is that kind of novel.

I must admit this was not a difficult decision on my part. I was leaning toward it for quite some time now. In other stories I have always provided a translation if I used non-English dialog. I’m just not going to do it with this novel.

Does this decision make things even harder for me to write? Yes, it does. But the novel was difficult to begin with, given the subject matter and what I want it to accomplish, so moving the goal post a little farther doesn’t dissuade me one bit. This novel was always a challenge for me which is why I wanted to write it in the first place. So that’s what I’m going to do.

The second big decision I made was with the help of my Writing Buddy. I am planning a big trip along the Mexico-U.S. border in the spring because I need to research that area. I was wondering if I should hold off on writing the novel a little, take the trip, then finish the novel. My Writing Buddy said she thought I should go ahead and write as much of the novel as I can before I take the trip because I am in a groove now. To back away from that might be detrimental to the creative process. Also, researching the landscape and area isn’t going to change the basic story of the novel.

I mean, it doesn’t make or break the novel, it’s just an extra mile (literally many miles) I am willing to take for the sake of the story. That being the case, I agree with her. I will go ahead and keep writing the novel and when the trip comes along I can use or not use things I find and see in the story. But it would be foolish for me to put the novel aside now and wait for the trip before I go back to working on it.

I couldn’t see that for myself. Forest for the trees, and so forth. That’s why it is so helpful to have someone you trust and ask for guidance. The worst possible critic of a story is the writer himself. I firmly believe that. We are too close to the story. We do everything we can to see all available avenues and facets, but no matter what there is always something we miss. That’s why a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh perspective are so valuable.

Les Miserables: “Hunger comes with love.”

I finished reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for the second time some years back.  The first time I read it was in high school.  I liked it then, I love it now, even after all this time.

I guess everyone knows about Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread and being pursued by Javert.  But, my God, does this book ever deserve its title. Everyone is wretched, in one way or another. How can we ever forget the grinding poverty and dehumanization of Fantine?  And how Cosette, her little girl, must live as a slave under the monstrous Thenardier family?

There are enduring images which have survived over the centuries.  Fantine selling her front teeth so Cosette has enough to eat,  the fight on the barricade, the flight through the sewers.  This is a huge book in more ways than one.  The writing is fantastic and there are little “Hugoisms” sprinkled throughout that make you put the book down and marvel either at the turn of phrase or the beauty of the writing itself.  Like these:

“Gravediggers die.  By dint of digging graves for others, they open their own.”

“There is a moment when girls bloom out in a twinkling and become roses all at once.  Yesterday we left them children, to-day we find them dangerous.”

“Hunger comes with love.”

“Humanity is identity.  All men are the same clay.”

“Women play with their beauty as children do with their knives.  They wound themselves with it.”

“When we are at the end of life, to die means to go away; when we are at the beginning, to go away means to die.”

“Then he heard his soul, again ba truly stunning and magnificent workecome terrible, give a sullen roar in the darkness.”

“Certain flames can only come from certain souls; the eye, that window of the thought, blazes with it; spectacles hide nothing; you might as well put a glass over hell.”

“Robber, assassin….these words fell upon him like  a shower of ice.”

One of the main ingredients of this novel is the depth of human emotion.  It’s never overdone, which is an easy thing for a writer to do.  We are often moved, such as the scene when Cosette marries and Jean Valjean must disappear from her life to protect her from his past.  He goes home, takes out the little dress she used to wear as a child, and pressing it against his face sobs uncontrollably.  And I challenge anyone to read Valjean’s monologue at the end of the novel and not get a little weepy.  Strong stuff.  Memorable.

This is a great book.  I’m glad I reread it and as I think about it more maybe I will read it a third time.  It might be one of those books I read again every twenty years or so.  But even if I do not I’m a better person for reading it in the first place, that’s for sure.

If you haven’t read this novel, you should.  If you have, do so again.  It’s great.

Alcaeus of Lesbos and War Imagery

My favorite Greek poems by Alcaeus of Lesbos, which I bring you forthwith:

The great hall is aglare with bronze armament and the whole inside
made fit for war
with helms glittering and hung high, crested over with white horse-
manes that nod and wave
and make splendid the heads of men who wear them.  Here are shining
greaves made out of bronze,
hung on hooks, and they cover all the house’s side.  They are strong
to stop arrows and spears.
Here are war-jackets quilted close of new linen, with hollow shields
stacked on the floor,
with broad swords of the Chalkis make, many tunics and many
belts heaped close beside.
These shall not lie neglected, now we have stood to our task and
have this work to do.

…………………..
What imagery!  You can feel yourself inside the hall, waiting for the dogs of war to slip.

Pride and Prejudice: If People Were Ants We Wouldn’t Need Stories

About three years ago I read the first 100 pages of Pride and Prejudice and then I bailed.

I was taking some very heavy damage from several hardened missile silos down below me. I had lost all aileron control and the self-sealing fuel tanks, well, were no longer self-sealing. I had to eject fast or I would auger in from 10,000 feet. I fought my way out of the pilot seat against the compiling G-forces and scrambled with a sob in my throat through the open hatchway.

Tumbling in free fall. Feeling of helplessness. Cold air rushing past my ears. I pulled the rip cord and felt the hard snap I once tried to read Pride and Prejudice. I almost didn't make it out alive.as my parachute opened and the last I ever saw of Pride and Prejudice was the book dwindling against the bright stars overhead, lost to me forever.

I’m telling you I barely made it out of that book alive.

Lots of readers have experiences like this one. We have comfort zones of genres we like and understand and want to wallow in. This is normal, and I would argue healthy. But as for writers, what do we say when we come across readers who say, “Oh, I don’t read that crap” when you tell them what genre you work in?

As a western writer I totally understand and have experienced this genre myopia myself. Sometimes I might explain how some of the Haxan stories actually have dark fantasy elements or romance or mystery or what have you. It never works. The missile silos are too hardened. All they hear is “western” and their immediate reaction is “Oh, I don’t read that crap.”

So what do I do? I have the stories inside me and I have to write them. That’s out of my control. I can’t stop writing even if I tried, and trust me I have tried. Scientists have yet to develop a super-methadone that will allow me to get that monkey off my back.

Do I abandon everything I’ve learned during my years as a professional and start writing for what’s popular on the markets right now? I can’t do that, either. My personal philosophy about writing won’t allow me to jump on bandwagons with their colorful balloons and bright ribbons. Or maybe I can try and fool myself into believing the western genre, even blended western genres, aren’t that bad right now, that they are more popular than I think. But the evidence shows the genre is, at best, on life support and someone is standing next to the sick bed with a loaded gun against the patient’s temple.

Westerns are not in a healthy and popular place right now. They might be again someday, but that day has not yet arrived.

Here’s the rub. You arPeople and writers are not ants. We have different genres for a reason.e never going to be able to write something that satisfies everyone. Everyone is different. We all bring different experiences and backgrounds and expectations and loves to the table when we open a new book. I may not like one genre but that doesn’t mean it has no worth for a majority of other people. I know this from experience because a majority of people sure as hell don’t read westerns.

But I keep writing them anyway because there are some who do and I have what I hope are good stories to tell them.

Read what makes you happy. Forget what anyone else says. But most of all, write what makes you happy. Your readers, and your inner peace, will thank you for it.

The Last Pale Light in the West — Music by Ben Nichols Inspired by Blood Meridian

Ben Nichols, frontman for the Texas country/punk band Lucero, released a solo acoustic album The Last Pale Light in the West in 2009.  It is an incredible work.

It’s a short album of 7 songs based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian. Each song follows a particular character from the book. The last song “The Judge” is an instrumental.

I have reviewed Blood Meridian at The Western Online and consider it one of the Great American Novels. The album by Nichols, with its dark, emotionally-layered acoustic music and pain-filled, stark and evocative lyrics, is a perfect companion piece to the book.

Like the book the album is composed of a strong narrative sense, emotional desolation, and dark imagery painted with nightmarish strokes.  Juxtaposed with this is the fundamental question: What does it mean to be human?

The album is short by modern standards but I think Ben Nichols uses every second of time to paint a portrait of perfect desolation and terrifying beauty.

From the title song:

In my hands I hold the ashes
In my veins black pitch runs
In my chest the fire catches
In my way a setting sun
Dark clouds gather round me
To the West my soul is bound
But I will go on ahead free
There is a light yet to be found
The last pale light in the west

The lyrics have a strong ethereal quality when sung by Nichols’s harsh voice. This is a superb album by any standard. As a work of art inspired by Blood Meridian it rises to a higher synergistic plane. I definitely recommend this album.

Nightmarish beauty in music


Endings Are Hard, Except When They’re Easy

Writing is hard enough. Everything about is is hard. Except thinking up new ideas. That’s actually easy.

People who don’t write sometimes think the idea phase is difficult. Nope. That’s easy. I have way more ideas than I will ever write. The trick is choosing the best idea among them and elaborating on it. Part of that ability comes from confidence, some from experience. But, trust me, if you are balking about getting into writing because you are afraid you won’t have enough ideas…well, you’d be wrong about that, haha. It was a fear of mine, too, in the beginning. I promise you it is unjustified.

Starting stories are tough, too. You have to hook the reader hard and keep him interested. He’s got a million other things impinging upon his time. You are trying to shoehorn yourself into that and keep him interested and entertained long enough to finish your story. So, yeah, beginnings are hard. So are titles, and pacing, and tone, and…well, you get the idea. There are a lot of crystal goblets you have got to keep in the air when writing a story.

But that’s a post for another time.

Endings are really tough, though. I see more good stories collapse from bad endings than anything else. I’m not talking about the lazy “and they woke up” kinds of endings. That’s hackery and that’s not what I’m talking about.

Many times when we start talking about endings we get caught up in the “My genre is better than your genre” argument. I don’t want to get into that thicket, either. This post is about endings. Let’s stick with them.

I’m talking about endings that fail to deliver on the basic contract you make with the reader when she picks up your story. Above everything else the reader wants to be entertained.

What’s that, you say? You only write stories with depressing endings? Fine. Write them with sad endings, thoughtful endings, explosive endings, happy endings…write whatever you want. But no matter what emotional level the story ends on, it has to be entertaining.

Obviously this doesn’t mean “Yay! Let’s have a party!” entertainment. Romeo and Juliet has an ending that’s a bit of a downer. It’s still an entertaining story.  Gone with the Wind is an historical romance and the guy and girl don’t end up together on the last page. It remains  entertaining. Ulysses is damn near impenetrable. It’s entertaining.

All good writers know this. If you are beginning to write, you should keep it in mind, too. There are thousands of other examples. I expect you can pick half a dozen without thinking about it.

So let’s forget the “Oh, by entertaining you mean happy” meme that often confuses writers. No, I mean entertaining in the sense that, when the reader puts down your story he will stop for at least eight seconds and think about how he feels and how the story made him feel. If you accomplish that much the editor might buy your story, or the reader might buy another of your stories.

If you hack ’em off in some way, make ’em mad, don’t deliver the goods, they might turn away and not give you a second look.

The beginning of the story only hooks the reader. That’s important, but it doesn’t sell the story. The ending sells the story.

So. How do we do it.  How do we know when we have an ending that works?

Here’s the good news. That’s the easy part! It’s so easy you probably already know the answer without me telling you, but it’s my blog so I’m going to tell you anway.

Here’s all you have to do:

Make the story as long as it needs to be.

That’s it. What. You thought there were magic beans or something you had to plant by the light of the full moon? No. I told you it was easy.

Make the story as long as it has to be, and then stop. Just like in Monopoly. Don’t pass Go and collect two hundred dollars. You stop when the story is as long as it needs to be. Then you sell it and then you collect two hundred dollars.

That’s the easy part. Doing it well is the hard part. Lots of stories go on and on until we zone out in a red haze of forgetfulness. Remember the movie Avatar? Of course you do. Perfect example. That damn movie goes on forever.

Some stories end too suddenly. He woke up! is the classic example. It’s classic because it cheats the reader. Thee are lots of other endings that cheat the reader. More often than not it’s when you go against character.  Again, I’m sure you have lots of other examples you’ve come across.

Writing is difficult. You have to keep the reader engaged from start to finish. But you still have the reader for that final eight seconds after he finishes your story. How do you want him to feel? Happy? Sad? Thoughtful? Go for it. Just make sure you deliver the goods so he’ll buy the next story you write.

So keep that in mind when you are finishing your story. Make sure it’s only as long as it needs to be, and when you reach the end, don’t write another

Tangled – Animated Hair Fetish by Disney (movie review)

The story of Rapunzel is one of my favorite Grimms’ fairy tale. The original story and many of its variations are quite dark. In the original story the prince calls for Rapunzel to let down her hair and sees her on the sly. One day she lets slip that her dress is getting too tight around her waist. (She’s pregnant.) Gothel, the woman who kidnapped Rapunzel, traps the prince when he returns. He falls from the tower and lands in thorns, either blinding him or killing him outright depending on which cultural interpretation you read.

Now I don’t expect Disney to tell a story like that. It is Disney after all and the lost princess must remain virginal – while at the same time having an unusually close relationship with the animals around her. And, yes, the guy she loves in Tangled undergoes a life-changing (literally!) experience in the end. But for all that, I didn’t like this movie as much. And I wanted to like it because as a writer I see a lot of potential in the basic story of Rapunzel. Rapunzel empowered

First, this movie came apart for me at the level of the story. There were good parts to it, but overall the story didn’t do it for me. I liked many elements but once again I felt as if I was watching another formulaic effort from Disney. Captured/lonely princess. Check. Evil grandmother/stepmother. Check. Funny and helpful animals. Check.  Handsome single man comes into her life. Check. Beautiful background and story boardinng. Check. But there has to be more than that. We’ve seen all this before. There has to be a story that grabs us. We’re not all eleven year old girls, Disney. Come on. Get out of the rut.

Perfect example. In the beginning of the movie Rapunzel’s mother is ill and needs a magic plant to heal her so Rapunzel can be born. But in the original fairy tale the mother needs lettuce (sometimes it’s parsley) and the king makes a deal with Gothel in which he hands over the baby to save the life of the queen. Now that’s pretty dark right there. Even if he is motivated by saving the life of his queen, and must be forced to make that choice, Disney doesn’t tell it that way. In this retelling, Gothel steals the baby from its crib. We lose whole subterranean plots and motivations in this one move. Gothel kidnaps the baby because she’s evil and greedy. It’s Disney. Of course she is evil and greedy.

Finally, for the prince, in which this case it’s a lovable thief, well, he serves the same function as all other love interests in Disney animated films. He’s a plot point. Albeit a funny one in this case, and one in which Disney worked to flesh out — but still a plot point. After all, Rapunzel has to eventually give her virginity to somebody, and it’s not going to be that chameleon that rides her shoulder or Maximus the palace horse. Thus, we have the prince/thief/substitute-male figure who comes into her life in order to round out the story.

As far as the character of Rapunzel herself, I did like her a lot. She went through the motions we expect her to and we’re on her side. The sight gags of her doing things with her hair were funny and the running gag with the frying pan was cute. We like her and we want her to win her freedom and her love in the end. But the story that surrounds her doesn’t click. It’s not the story that allows her to find true happiness, it’s Disney that makes it come true. Just like always. And so the movie loses a lot of its impact right there because we are never frightened for Rapunzel. Come to think of it, we are never frightened by any Disney movies anymore. Which was not always the case. Disney used to have a reputation of showing some fairly dark things on screen. Or at least stories that demanded, and gave, emotional investment and experience.

We don’t get that at all with Tangled.

Part of the problem, I think, is the animation. Sometimes it is absolutely gorgeous…and sometimes we are taken aback by how bad it looks and the jerks and stopRapunzel gets tangled in Tangleds between scenes. To be sure there are many nice scenes (from an artistic perspective) in this film. The scene where the dam bursts, the dance in the market square, the flight of the paper lanterns all stand out. The clothing and texture of trees and stone and water are phenomenal. But the characters themselves…well, sometimes they look kind of rubbery. Like walking dolls made out of wax. I was disappointed in that. If you’re going to go the limit to make clothing have proper texture, and move correctly upon the frame, then why not make the skin and shading on the characters more realistic as well?

The music was another big let down. None of the songs were memorable. Even Rapunzel’s healing song doesn’t stick with you, and that song, more than any other, ties the arc of the film together. Most of the humor works and some falls flat. But that’s Disney and that’s their trademark and they’re not going to let it go no matter how much we groan. At least we see some effort at background and characterization for many of the secondary characters. That helps round out many of the other flaws.

Not surprisingly, the one character that really stands out (and takes the stage away from Rapunzel when they’re together) is Gothel. This is where Disney shines.  If there’s one thing Disney knows it’s “evil stepmother” and how to represent her as a multi-facted and three-dimensional character who is cruel, cunning, and manipulative. As much as I like Rapunzel, and the idea of story potential about Rapunzel, as a professional writer I am here to tell you that a story about Gothel is much more interesting. But, once again, we are limited by Disney and the parameters they set up for every film they make. We will never see a story about Gothel, or Rapunzel for that matter, the way it should be told from Disney. It’s not what they do.

As I said earlier I really wanted to like this film. But there’s too much missing or awkward about it, or worse yet, formulaic. Tangled was billed as the 50th animated film by Disney. In all that time they have made groundbreaking strides in the technical department. But the story of Tangled is like every other Lonely Princess story we’ve seen from Disney and that, more than anything else, is why I can’t recommend it.

Gothel shows off her deep seated hair fetish

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy — a Review

“You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.” –Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West might be one of the top five novels of Modern American literature.

I say “might be” because it is probably too soon to make that judgment even though the novel was published in 1985. Moby-Dick did not gain dominance over American literature until after WWII and it was first published in 1851 to mediocre reviews and multiple head-scratching.

Sometimes it takes decades for an American novel to assume its rightful place in the rarefied pantheon of Great American Novels. I know some critics have placed McCarthy’s work there. Personally, I think it is safe to say Blood Meridian is not deserving of that distinction…not yet. But one day it could be, and probably should be.

Nevertheless, Blood Meridian is, without doubt, a definitive western of lasting power. It is, by any metric, a masterpiece of emotion, raw moment, and language:

“When the dogs announced them the sun was already down and the western land red and smoking and they rode singlefile in cameo detailed by the winey light with their dark sides to the river.”

Blood Meridian tells the story of the Glanton Gang (historically accurate) working the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s who murder Native Americans for their scalps. (This was actually quite a lucrative business.) Already animalistic the gang starts scalping anyone who falls across their path and sells the scalps for gold. The novel deconstructs myths and Hollywood-inspired tropes promulgated upon an unsuspecting public.  I say “unsuspecting” because many readers (and, sadly, some writers of the genre) have been nurtured and pampered through the bubblegum influence of pulp magazines, Saturday morning television, and cartoonish movie serials.

This dangerously simplistic notion the Old West was one thing explicit, when we have solid historical proof it was quite another, has taken deep root throughout our Western Culture. Many western writers toil in the overarching shadow of this awful growth and its pervasive, debilitating influence. This becomes evident in the now-infamous line of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence when a newspaperman sagely opines if the legend becomes fact, one should by necessity be forced to print the legend. Thus, the power of myth, and its ability to sometimes usurp and weaken historical evidence.

Blood Meridian breaks those barriers down with grim remorse. At its core are philosophical elements of Gnosticism and Nihilism. However, the violence on every page is in no way symbolic or meaningful. McCarthy doesn’t use violence for shock effect or to elevate character description. Nor does he use it as a cheap literary device to move his readers. In his novels, and Blood Meridian in particular, violence exists for one reason: because man exists.  Only once in the entire novel does a character allow himself to wonder if there is any other being in the universe more terrible than Man. The answer is quite clear: there is not. We are alone on that red plain.

From the pronouncement “war is god” to the line “If god meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” the terrifying and enigmatic antagonist, Judge Holden, moves with unadulterated power through the entire novel. The Gnostic influences are evident both in his philosophy and his determination to judge not only the men around him but the very world itself. This dovetails with the grim actions of the gang and how they interact and shape the Texas-Mexican border through their own violent actions. It is an amazing novel.

I can’t promise you will like Blood Meridian. One suspects many readers will be turned off by the unremitting (almost uncaring) violence and the cold, enigmatic ending. We have been conditioned to believe violence must mean something, that it must have cause and thereby fit neatly within our dualistic universe. Books, movies and television have conditioned us to believe the world must be righted if canted over, and all will be wrapped in a neat, pretty bow before the credits roll. That simply doesn’t happen in this novel. Because, as Judge Holden argues via his very actions, violence just is.

I definitely recommend this novel. And, if you write westerns of any type, you would do well to read this American masterpiece and perhaps learn something from it about the western genre, and maybe even yourself. It’s that powerful.

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