Perhaps, this was covered in English 101. If so, I missed the class. I thought I’d take a few minutes (or paragraphs, as the case may be) to ruminate about the various types of writing and the reasons for writing. Both for your edification and my own.
Off the top of my head, I count seven different types of writing: literary essays, philosophical essays, scientific papers, novels, short stories, poems, and other non-fiction. I think that covers the whole gamut (And to think that going into this, I was expecting to get away with just listing three—Wow! How my thoughts run away with me!). For the purposes of this discussion, we will ignore literary essays, scientific papers, and other non-fiction. I’ve helped write and publish only one scientific paper, and I don’t think I’ve ever written a literary essay (unless you count my blog—hey, that’s probably a whole new subsection … so there are eight different types of writing, maybe). My experience in poetry is equally limited; it usually only comes to the fore in the context of my other writing. The battle-hardened warrior must solve an ancient riddle to win the prize, and, of course, the riddle is in the form of a poem. Still, I will have a couple thoughts I want to share regarding poetry. I am more experienced in writing philosophical essays, novels, and short stories: I took four of years of philosophy in college, and I have learned the literary ropes, mostly on my own (a few classes here and there, but not many).
Anyway, with respect to these types of writing, I have a couple thoughts. First, there seems to be three ways of looking at any kind of writing. First, one can look at it as a means of self-expression. This is a completely solitary activity. The ultimate goal of the writing need not concern another human being in any way. Such a work can be seen strictly as a piece of art; and what it means is often subject to interpretation. Another way of looking at writing is as a means of communication. The primary purpose here is not as a work made strictly for one’s own enjoyment, but rather, to make a connection with someone else; to bridge that gap between two people and share a thought. Finally, one can look at writing aesthetically, but at this point, I think I’m getting a little out of my depth. Most people claim this last facet is all subjective anyway, except maybe a few philosophers who may not be convinced. I know I can recognize bad writing in a universal sense, and I think most people agree Shakespeare had a way with words. But clearly, it is not cut and dry like a math equation.
Perhaps there is a technical name for these three aspects of writing—self-expression, communication, and aesthetics—but regardless I believe they provide a critical lens through which any writing can be examined, at least, superficially.
Anyway, I’ve reached my self-imposed word limit for the day; next time, I will examine each type of writing (novels, short stories, poetry, and philosophical essays) through each of these lenses. We’ll see which belongs associated most appropriately with which.
Twisted ancient gods, demonic plant men, or wild creatures from the darkest deeps of the earth… where do such things come from? A fantasy writer’s mind, of course; but does that do it justice? Creativity is a strange thing. The muse comes and goes. Sometimes it lies dormant for weeks… months, even years, then you get a surge and the ideas start coming. Professional writers, though, don’t have the luxury of waiting for it. No, they must get inspiration for their work on a regular basis. How is it done?
For myself, I seek inspiration from a number of sources. My short story, “The River’s Eye,” for example started when I was at my uncle’s house and caught sight of an interesting picture on his wall. It showed a house, a small stream, and a young woman with an umbrella by the stream. There was a certain feel to the picture; a certain ambiance. I looked at it for a while, and ideas began to percolate in my mind for a story. I could imagine the young woman looking for stones on the banks of the river. What if one of those stones had mythic powers? What if something strange lived in the water? The ideas kept coming, and before you knew it, I had the idea for the story. I started with the title, “The River’s Eye” and the story grew up around it.
That is one of my more common inspirations for stories: beatific scenes portrayed in paintings. But there are others, from the feeling I get from a song—something I feel can be expressed in greater detail in a story—to the very ambiance of the very real weather on a particular day. Visual arts tend to be the most effective for me: posters, paintings, even the covers of other books. I formed an idea of what the story behind the “Dragonriders of Pern” by Anne McCaffrey would be based on the cover. The actual books were completely different from my idea, but I still have that germ of a notion, that perhaps someday I will expand into a full length story. So art can feed art, and the creative muse can find inspiration almost anywhere.
Another powerful source of inspiration—although, again, it is primarily visual—is dreams. The subconscious is a powerful thing. Not only can dreams provide the kernel (or perhaps even the bulk) of a story, they can help to iron out wrinkles you’ve encountered in the writing process. Sometimes, a night spent in the Sandman’s domain is enough to figure out just how your character is going to escape her predicament, foil the bad guys, and save the day.
Last, but not least, is the process of stream of consciousness writing. Sometimes it helps to just sit down at the computer, open a document, and let your fingers take on a life of their own. I haven’t used this technique often, but it works. Sometimes I don’t even begin writing words; I’m so frustrated I pound letters like “lalskjhar, dljjdtrlckdm.” And on and on… eventually I get bored with that and start typing actual words. Perhaps, I’ll begin with just a phrase or two, but sooner or later, I’ll be pounding out concrete story ideas.
Anyway, those are a few of the places I get inspiration from for my fantasy writing. I’m sure there are other methods. What about you?
This post is kind of a continuation of my Censorship post last week. Let me clear up front, I don’t support legalized censorship of fantasy literature (or any literature, for that matter). What I do support is self-censorship. Keep that in mind as you read this post.
The genre of fantasy reaches out across many different mediums; there are fantasy posters, fantasy-based movies, and classic fantasy novels like “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. My primary interest in the genre, here, is literature, though: we’ll leave discussion of fantasy art and movies and other mediums for another day. And that is an important point to make. There are movies, for example, which require profanity to be used. My favorite example is “Aliens” (although that’s Sci-Fi) with Sigourney Weaver. The movie would be pretty pathetic if Ripley ran around and called all the evil, acid-for-blood aliens such things as “ninnies and panty-wastes.” The movie just would not have the same impact. But I don’t think the same can be said of literature. In my opinion, a book that used profanity to the extent that the movie “Aliens” did would simply become boring. If profanity is to be used at all, I think it should be used sparingly. If every other word in the book is “f” this, or “f” that, it cheapens the emotional impact of the word and renders it virtually impotent. Your masterpiece becomes a pile of trash.
There are situations in normal literature (as opposed to fantasy literature) where profanity might be well-suited for one’s purposes. It could serve you well in dialogue if it is used for character development. But keep in mind, the same rule applies, here: use it sparingly. Dialogue in a novel is not necessarily going to be a verbatim recitation of what it would be in real life. A single swear word in a paragraph may be sufficient to provide the tone of the language and convey the character’s “sailor-mouth.”
With all the above said, there is a distinction between normal literature and fantasy literature. Normal literature is generally geared toward adults. Fantasy literature is generally geared toward adolescents and young adults. There are exceptions, of course—and many adults (I am one of them) enjoy fantasy literature throughout their lifetimes—but the primary audience of fantasy literature is a younger one. And I think it should be written with that in mind. To that end, I think the story should be relatively free of the most abrasive forms of profanity. In my own work (the vampire novel, Drasmyr—see “Publications” on the side bar, if you are interested), the strongest language I use is limited to damn and hell, which, nowadays, barely constitute swear words. Of course, as it is a fantasy world, I also allowed myself to throw in a few of my own inventions, like “By the Scythe-Bearer’s Sickle,” and so on. I know, I know—adolescents are all-too-familiar with any and all swear words I might think of, so why bother “cleaning” my writing for them? Call it a gesture towards hope. The literature we consume does affect us. If they read books with trashy language, I think the young will learn to use the language all the more. If the language of the book is clean, perhaps the dialogue of the young in real life will reflect that… to a certain degree, anyway.
Finally, let us return to “The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien. Would it be the same book if Frodo and Sam kept saying, “Oh, *&#!, the ringwraiths are after us again!” It is a magnificent piece of literature that just about gave birth to the whole fantasy genre. And yet there is virtually no swearing at all throughout the book. There is a fairy-tale-ish feel to “The Lord of the Rings” that would be ruined by crass language. It is about wonder and magic, elves and dwarves, and other fancies of childhood imagination. I guess that is my largest point: a piece of fantasy literature is something of a fairy-tale writ large. As such, there is very little place, if any, for profanity or vulgarity of any sort. At least, that is my opinion on the subject. Yours, of course, may differ.