Thursday, January 31, 2013

Most Challenging Book of 2012: The Black Company

Not a man falls without my telling his tale. How can I do that from twenty miles away? How many details will be lost in the oral histories I will have to collect after the fact? How many men will fall without their deaths being observed at all?

But mostly I spend my time thinking about the Limper and the Lady. And agonizing.

I do not think that I will be writing any more cute, romantic fantasies about our employer. I have been too close to her. I am not in love now.

I am a haunted man. I am haunted by the Limper's screams. I am haunted by the Lady's laughter. I am haunted by my suspicion that we are furthering the cause of something that deserves to be scrubbed from the face of the earth. I am haunted by the conviction that those bent upon on Lady's eradication are little better than she.

I am haunted by the clear knowledge that, in the end, evil always triumphs. 

- excerpt from The Black Company by Glen Cook

I have always admired people who do what they aren't supposed to do, but what they do is so awesome that no one cares. Glen Cook breaks the "rules" of writing on almost every page, but he always follows the only real rule: tell a good story.

Croaker is the historian and medic for an infamous mercenary band. They don't care what side their employer is on. If the pay is right, the Black Company is loyal to the end, and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Their reputation precedes them, and soon they're recruited by the Lady, a powerful sorceress set on world domination. Their job is to kill anyone who gets in her way.

Croaker's moral compass is a bit rusty from lack of use, but he's still got one, darn it, and when word gets out that the prophesied White Rose has been reborn to fight for all that is good, he starts questioning his oath of loyalty to both the Lady and the Company itself. It's every soldier's dilemma, except it's not just one country at stake.

It's easy for me to lapse into excited writer's jibberish whenever I talk about The Black Company, but that would also kind of ruin the point I'm trying to make. So I'm keeping the technical jargon to a minimum.

They say war is months of boredom punctuated by moments of horror. I'll follow Croaker for four pages while he plays card games and shoots the breeze with his buddies on watch, when suddenly the garrison comes under attack. He grabs his sword and his medic's kit and three paragraphs later the rebel riot is squashed. A few simple yet powerful descriptions will cover hours, sometimes days of sustained combat. It's short and to the point, and I don't feel like I was jipped out of an experience by not seeing every move that was made.

Cook also breaks several dialogue "rules". The language that he and his cohorts use often doesn't fit the language of a medieval, or at least pre-industrial society. Sometimes they refer to things that I have no reason to believe have been invented or even conceptualized yet. Doesn't matter. His men are soldiers, and they talk, think, and act like soldiers. In fact, the anachronistic dialogue and characterization is so authentic that Cook's fanbase has a huge military demographic.

Worst and best of all, Croaker straights up tells me things about himself and the people around him that he's supposed show me by artfully hinting at them using various devices of the craft. I don't care, because he tells me in a way that grabs my attention. As an example, after reading this line from book two, Shadows Linger, I had to set the book down and to let the full weight of the words sink in:

"I hadn't had many shots at field command. I hadn't learned to deal with the feelings that come when you know men have been killed trying to carry out your orders."

Pow.

In interviews, Glen Cook doesn't have much to say about the craft of writing. He doesn't get caught up in trends; he was writing dark, gritty fantasy before it was a Big Thing, and if someone told him it was no longer a Big Thing, I doubt that would stop him from writing whatever he wants. He doesn't shroud his work in mysticism; he wrote most of his novels while working a blue-collar job at General Motors. He is no pretentious artiste droning on about his Muse.

Me, I'm something of a pseudo-literati. I read books with an analytic eye that I'm sure would be very helpful if applied to something practical. I admit that I like it when the perfect word to describe something also happens to be a big, smart word. (Seriously, earlier versions of this post put me in debt for all the 2 dollar words I dropped.) I also have a tendency to lose myself in the technical side of writing, reworking the same paragraph over and over, and I miss the forest for the trees.

Glen Cook tells me to cut that crap out. He tells me to focus on my job. Tell the story. Fifty years from now, who cares if university professors find my prose a work of genius or an act of literary vandalism? Who cares if anyone at all remembers me fifty years from now? Did I like what I did?

All of the best writers use what works and throw away everything else. Anything can work if done well. At the same time, I can't please everyone. Even though I think The Black Company is brilliant, it remains mostly under the mainstream radar and is something of a cult classic. Clearly my opinion is not the be-all-end-all, but that's fine, because neither is anyone else's.

The Black Company challenged me to write the story I want to tell, to the best of my ability. The rest will take care of itself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Most Informative Book of 2012: The Book of Five Rings

Do not think dishonestly. The Way is in training. Become acquainted with every art. Know the Ways of all professions. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters. Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything. Perceive those things which cannot be seen. Pay attention even to trifles. Do nothing which is of no use.

....

If there is a Way involving the spirit of not being defeated, to help oneself and gain honor, it is the Way of strategy.

- excerpt from The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi

The divine magic my characters use is as otherworldly and esoteric as it's source. To balance this, I intend for the stabbity parts of the novel to be as visceral and grounded in reality as possible. All of my experience with stabbing things other than Capri Suns has thus far been restricted to the virtual realm, so I've turned to the masters of both Eastern and Western combat traditions to help me get that "grounded in reality" thing down.

Conservative estimates say that Musashi Miyamoto, a Japanese swordsman and ronin, fought over 60 duels in his lifetime, and scholars generally agree that he was never defeated. That amazing KDR (Kill to Death Ratio, for non-gamers) doesn't even take the major battles he fought into account. With this in mind, I feel comfortable trusting Musashi as an authority on what do to in a life or death fight.

One of the greatest swordsmen in history somehow manages to be both ambiguous and practical in this treatise on combat, strategy, and philosophy. If I really wanted to, and I kind of do because he's got a great voice, I could share quote after quote to further demonstrate what I mean. While a small part of the book is dedicated to breaking down specific stances and techniques, most of his advice about finding the Way of the swordsman/strategist is given in broad terms that the student is intended to reflect upon for long periods of time. It gives interesting insights into a culture where being a warrior is not just a profession or a duty but a way of life that affects everything you do - the way you eat, sleep, think, walk, talk. Seriously, everything.

Buddhist philosophy clearly influences his perspective, but as I said, it's not all navel-gazing. The man who says things like "By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist" also says "Whenever you cross swords with an enemy you must not think of cutting him either strongly or weakly; just think of cutting and killing him". He emphasizes multiple times throughout the text that within a fight, any movement that doesn't contribute to the end goal - killing the other guy - is a deadly waste of time and effort.

This attitude jars with many of modern entertainment's portrayals of fights. Everyone's spinning in circles, gritting their teeth as they lock into a prolonged edge-on-edge parry, or discussing the child-rearing methods of the hero's parents in between exchanges.

As an audience, we like all those things because they're clear, easily understood images that add flash and drama. In contrast, unless someone has researched the topic specifically, if they watch a true-to-life sword fight they'll probably go, "Wait! He's dead? What happened?" because it's over so fast and when you don't have a clue what to watch for it looks like a crazy tangle of metal.

I don't interpret this to mean that "real" sword fights are by default less cool than implausible sword fights, though. I do think it means it's difficult to depict a realistic fight well. I'll spare everyone the lecture on craft that will be of interest only to me, but I will say this: after reading detailed step-by-step instructions on how to stand, how to swing, how to block, how to counter...I understand why a fictional villain would opt for insulting my mother instead.

Admittedly, the Book of Five Rings does have a narrower appeal than the books I've recommended thus far. However, to not include it in my Best Of list would be a crying shame. This little book had a big influence on the way I view combat both in fiction and in real life, and it was my first stop on a long trail of literature that was similarly formative. Ideally, my continued research will help my fight scenes become as entertaining, accessible, and realistic as I want them to be. If it doesn't, well, at least I can talk about swords (and other weapons!) without sounding like a complete ignoramus.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

To Not Suck, One Must First Suck

The next segment of my Best of 2012 series is temporarily on hold as I prepare my submission for the "That's A Pretty Good Excuse" Writing Retreat Scholarship. Now that my stomach has ceased its efforts to relocate elsewhere, the last-minute revisions are going well; however, the battle to stay positive goes on.

Writing is writing and unlike anything else, but some of the lessons I learned as a dancer are still applicable to the pursuit of writing. What can I say, like many perfectionists, I find myself drawn to things that are impossible to do perfectly. (They rarely pay well, either.) 

In addition to the solemn chanting of an especially relevant Ira Glass quote, I have some mantras from my dancing days that I've slightly reworked to help get me through the month:

1.) You are a beginner. Do not resent this phase. 

2.) You can only get out of said phase if you embrace your role as a student. Find teachers. Be taught. 

3.) You've only been doing this for a year and a half. Don't look down on yourself for not being an expert already. 

4.) Insecurity is a weakness, and a very childlike one at that. It's also human. Reconcile yourself to the idea that, in many ways, you're acting like someone your age. That's not a bad thing.  

5.) Resenting youth is as counter-productive as resenting beginner-hood. This is essentially a repeat of 2.) and 4.), but you cannot learn something if you think there's nothing left to learn.

6.) At least you aren't as bad as that other guy.

7.) Stop clicking around and get back to work.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Most Beautiful Book of 2012: Body of Work

"By the end of today you'll hold a human heart in your hands. It's amazing!" Goslow says. Until this point I had been diligently taking notes in the first pages of my fresh notebook, but as he conjures this image, I stop and sit quietly, a little slack-jawed. 

     Suddenly we are talking about reaching the cadaver's heart and lungs, and I have barely begun to get used to the idea of the initial cut through a dead body's skin. Friends of mine who finished medical school before me had alluded to the pace of the course when I asked about acclimation. "You don't have much time to process," one friend said. "There's just too much to get done." This class would be a baptism by fire. We would be given driving instructions and a car with no brakes. Twice a week we would spend seven hours a day in the anatomy lab, where we could make right turns or wrong turns, but we would most certainly be moving. Dr. Goslow's tone is encouraging, yet also utterly straightforward: "This will be fascinating, frustrating, and technically and emotionally difficult, but it will also get done. We don't have much time, so get started."

-- excerpt from Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab, by Christine Montross

This summer I watched a bullhead fish get beheaded, skinned, and gutted. I played it cool for about 2 minutes before I had to sit down with my head between my knees while taking deep cleansing breaths. I am, most assuredly, not cut out to be a doctor.  Nevertheless, I look on all forms of life with both academic interest and reverent awe. Words on a page serve as a sort of psychological hazmat suit that lets me educate myself without putting the contents of my stomach at risk.

Part reflective memoir, part intro to gross anatomy, and part history lesson, Body of Work was hard to categorize, both on the bookshelf and on my Best of 2012 list. I knew it was one of my favorite reads this year, but why? It was informative and inspiring, but I felt like naming it either one of those things with a capital "I" wouldn't call enough attention to everything else it did well.

I eventually named it my Most Beautiful because it was so uniquely multi-faceted. Montross was a poet and college writing instructor before she decided to go to medical school, and her varied background gives her the ability to write with intelligence, empathy, and lyricism.

When she spoke of bones, muscles and tendons and how they interact with the brain, my fascination with such things was renewed. How amazing that even in death putting pressure on part X makes part Y react. Her chapters on the controversial history of human dissection sent a horde of plot bunnies scampering through my head. Did you know that in the nineteenth century there was a serial killer duo that sold the bodies of their victims to anatomists? They killed 16 people before they were caught, and it wasn't because the anatomy schools finally thought to question where all the fresh corpses were coming from. Nope, just a bit of carelessness combined with some suspicious visitors. And the best part? Following his execution, one of the body snatchers was dissected as a special event, and this was back in the days when buying tickets to watch a dissection was like getting tickets to the movies.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Body of Work are the personal accounts of the author as she and her classmates deal with the ethical dilemmas that plague every member of the medical field. Before I read this book, when I thought about PTSD my mind conjured up images of soldiers and victims of abuse and other traumatic experiences. Rarely did I think of doctors. That changed when I got inside the head of a medical student as they made their first cut, as they gritted their teeth while sawing through bone, as they made off-color jokes to their peers to disguise the uncertainty roiling inside them, as they went home exhausted from a long day at the lab only to lay awake for fear of the nightmares.

People become doctors so they can heal. People also have some eons old hang-ups about death. It takes a certain strength of character to be willing to face the latter in order to learn how to effectively do the former. But Body of Work does not place doctors on a kind of moral and intellectual pedestal. Rather, it was the humanization of these aspiring professionals that made me respect what they do all the more.

It's interesting that writing about elves has been the catalyst to my increasingly more nuanced perspective on humans. I've discovered that painting humanity with one brush is as tired and uninspiring as making all elves aloof, leaf-munching hippies with a superiority complex. As a writer I need to be able to see any given person as an individual, and I need to be capable of celebrating their virtues while giving equal thought to their flaws. It's Reality 101.

To run away from reality - the most complex, tangible thing I can experience - is to deprive myself of something beautiful.