Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

Eco, from my meager understanding, was an extremely brilliant individual. Speaker of many tongues, student of many histories–i.e., a brainy dude. One can expect that when an intellectual someone wishes to write  a story set in the distant past, that someone will immerse in all aspects of the culture, and come forward with a riveting tale.

For the record, I LIKE The Name of the Rose. I do. But at the same time, I’m not sure how to feel about all of this:

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Just look at all those not-English words! I mean, I figured there would be some Latin. It is a mystery inside a monastery set in fourteenth century, after all. But I have my limits. And there are GOBS of sections like this. Was I warned? Yes. “You can usually get the gist from context, but then you miss out on crucial stuff. Keep a dictionary handy.”

Outwardly I gave an absent assent, but inwardly my mind is groaning as loud as a kid told she can’t lift shirts to poke belly buttons anymore. (Am I the only one who had a daughter go through this phase?) I read from 5-6am if work and/or kids permit. The last thing I want to do at 5am is conjugate a pluperfect verb and decipher which noun is in its ablative case. No. Thank You.

Thankfully I discovered a blog that did all the translations–Rapid Diffusion. This, I always kept handy when I read Eco, and yes, having the translations does make a difference.

So is it wrong to make readers work? No. Granted, the idea of translating all that Latin intimidated, but it did not deter. I still had my Latin books from high school, so I was totally ready…to contact my classmate who could translate Latin as she read it without notes or dictionaries or anything by the flipping brilliant age of 16. (Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.) I wanted to read this book. I knew this book was going to require more of me than other literary fare. I didn’t care. I wanted to read it. If my friend couldn’t help me, then (insert gulping sound) I would give the translating a go.

In an earlier post, I discussed Diana Wynne Jones’ lament over the dumbing-down of fiction for adults, while kids don’t mind working their brains to appreciate a story. When I first cracked open The Name of the Rose and saw all the Latin, I thought of this. Maybe translating several dozen pages’ worth of Latin is a touch extreme, but shouldn’t books written for adults be at least a LITTLE challenging? I like my chocolate muffins of fantasy or mystery, sure, but veg is good for the body AND the brain, and Eco provides a cornucopia of veg with this novel. Yeah, I had help with the Latin, but the history is so complexly woven with the mystery, and the dialogue so dense without action (a topic I very much want to discuss in another post) that my brain had to chew it all, slowly, before fully appreciating what it had just devoured.

904cea2232616.56012d54f1266I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past. Writers fill their worlds with what matters to the story; to pass over a description, a conversation, or a verse in another language is, well, rather akin to ignoring someone in conversation, isn’t it? Just, turning up the nose and continuing on with the person you like because he’s the interesting one.

No.

A writer should not overwhelm their story with innocuous minutia, and a reader should not skip around and still expect to understand the story without a hitch. Both parties must work, and work hard, to truly bring a book to life.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

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#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 3

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Part 3: I Despised You Three Chapters Ago, But NOW…

As I said in my preface post a week or so ago, Deep Secret utilizes a romance arc we often see in stories and films: the terrible first impression (cue the trombone) that ends in happy love (cue the strings).

Thankfully, the story is so, SO much more than this. The romance arc is one of many character/conflict arcs in the novel, all of which weave beneath not one but TWO quest problems for the male protagonist Rupert: to find a new Magid (one who uses magic to keep the multiverse moving in the right direction) for Earth, and to find the heir for a nasty chunk of worlds called the Koryfonic Empire. While Jones tells the story with three different points of view, Rupert’s is the dominant, so readers tend to feel from his angle.

Now, to follow my “traditional” lovey-dovey arc points:

Who-The-Heck-Are-You. The female protagonist Maree is one of five candidates Rupert’s been recommended to interview for a new Magid. He is most eager to find her because a) she’s the only candidate in his country and b) she’s just a touch younger than him. He imagines her to be pretty, smart, and free to attach to him.

The search does not bode well. He first meets Maree’s mother, who sums him up in one look: “You think too well of yourself…. Posh accent, shiny shoes, expensive raincoat, not a hairout of place—oh, I can see well enough why you let her down…Let me tell you, if I’d seen you when she first took up with you, I’d have warned her. Never trust a cravat, I’d have told her. Nor a mac with lots of little straps and buttons. Clothes always tell” (p.22-23). Rupert blows her off, though he does throw the cravat in the fire when he gets home. Rupert continues to build up an amorous vision of Maree from what he learns of her— someone who’s strong and capable with talents she doesn’t know she has. And then he meets her.

After a long car chase he finds her dancing in the middle of a street in deadlocked traffic: “She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose” (p.61). All amorous ideas vanish. He is angry. He refuses to have anything to do with her despite her talents. In fact, he continues to be angry for several days, and in this anger, prepares the fatelines of the other candidates so he can interview them all at once during a fantasy/sci-fi convention.

When we first read from Maree’s perspective, we learn she’s crossed in love—that is, horribly depressed after a bad break-up. She has no money and battles her aunt over everything. When she receives a letter from someone calling himself a lawyer, her hopes lift that good change is coming. And then she meets him.

After a battle with the aunt over Nick (the third perspective in the story), Maree and Nick drive off into town and find themselves in an unlucky situation. To break the bad luck they do their Witchy Dance in the middle of the road. Someone steps out to confront them: Rupert, the supposed lawyer: “Oh he was angry. I looked at him. I looked at his great silver car and then back at him. He was a total prat. He had a long head with smooth, smooth hair, gold-rimmed glasses, a white strappy mac and a suit, for heaven’s sake! And instead of a tie he had one of those fancy silk cravat things” (p.90).

Memorable first impressions, to say the least.

I-Can’t-Stand-You. Rupert is so enraged Maree didn’t fulfill his romantic expectations that he works magic to ensure she can’t be near the convention where he’ll interview other Magid candidates. He is determined not to see her again, or think of her again—except anger has its own magic, too, and his dwelling on Maree causes her fateline to be entwined with the other candidates’. He sees her at the convention, and she sees him, and they are equally horrified: “[his] face was just turning away from me with much the same horror on it that I was feeling, seeing him” (p.130).

And yet, already, feelings begin to shift, just a touch. When we get this horror-face-trade from Rupert’s perspective, we also know he observes a change in Maree: “…she had neatened up considerably from the witchy bag-lady I had encountered in Bristol…She looked almost human. I watched Rick Corrie dart up to her…I got the impression he fancied the woman in his shy way. There is no accounting for taste” (p.140). Why should Rupert care if someone took an interest in a girl he loathed mere days ago? But Rupert does care, and by the following morning his intrigue over Nick’s bizarre morning routine (read the book just for this bit—BRILLIANT) leads to calmer talk between the two, and later in the day Maree and Rupert manage a civil conversation. Each notices things about the other, but none of these are worth discussing when there’s an injured centaur on the loose.

Wow-That-Was-Surprisingly-Impressive. When Maree tells Nick Rupert creates computer games (every Magid needs a cover life), Nick goes bonkers and insists she make introductions. They spot Rupert, try to catch up to Rupert…and end up hiking through worlds instead as they follow him. They are impressed with magic and Rupert’s Magid life, but they don’t get a chance to share this as Rupert’s too livid with them for following him unprotected.

Not long after an injured centaur leaps out of one world and into Earth’s—right in front of a car. Rupert, Nick, and Maree get the centaur out of sight, and Maree, being a vet student, takes it on herself to stitch the centaur up. She is professional, calm, and collected; she even clips her talon-nails (growing since the break-up) in order to do the stitching properly.

“Come along! Barked Maree, disposing of her last fingernail. Snip!

“Yes’m,” I said.

She caught my eye and grinned at me. “Sorry.” In the bathroom, she confided in a whisper, “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this. I’m nervous.”

“You could have fooled me!” I said. She pushed her glasses up and gave me a proper smile at that. It made me as warm as the flush on [the centaur]’s face. I began to feel that it was worth being volunteered, if it meant that Maree was starting to approve of me a little. (p.203)

I’m-Jealous-When-You-Fraternize-With-Others-But-Don’t-Know-Why. Yes, Rupert has officially taken a liking to Maree. He admits as much to readers after their first casual talk ends—“…she disappeared while I was flagging down Kornelius Punt, and I hardly knew whether I was relieved or aggrieved” (p.157). When Punt talks to Rupert about hitting on Maree, Rupert finds himself angry, mortified…and more and more preferring Maree to the other Magid candidates.

 Don’t-Risk-Your-Life-I-Love-You-Shoot-I-Forgot-To-Say-That-Out-Loud. Back in the Koryfonic Empire Rupert discovers more murder and trouble with some potential heirs. He also finds Nick and Maree, who were lured in by the injured centaur. Nick’s mother (who is evil on so many levels) opens an inter-world portal through Maree, stripping her, and leaving her half-dead. Rupert carries Maree to his car to drive back to earth: “It was no trouble to lift her. Her body weight was exactly half what it should have been. I stood up with her easily and was puzzled to discover that holding her like this, light, limp, and frost cold, was one of the most sexual experiences I have ever had. I also had to fight myself not to cry” (p.238).

One thing can save Maree, but it is a Deep Secret: a hidden knowledge so powerful it is broken and divided among the Magids so that no one has too much for him/herself. Rupert knows the Deep Secret of Babylon could save Maree, but how many verses of the knowledge were out there to get? One can’t call up a deep secret without knowing how to use it. All the while Maree’s half-presence lay before him: “Feelings I had been carefully trying not to admit to blocked my throat and tore at my chest. It was a dry, strong, physical ache, as if someone had forced me full of little broken pieces of concrete” (p.251). In the end Nick screams something Rupert now feels, too: “I wasn’t alive until Maree came to live with us! She makes that kind of difference—she’s that kind of person!” (p.252).

Using Babylon takes a long time, and requires other Magids to fight off curses and evil Koryfonic folk while Rupert stands guard to the opened Deep Secret. The Babylon secret involves a road into a world NO one, not even those who control the Magids, can find, and Maree must walk, half-dead as she is, that entire road and back. Rupert desperately wants to go with her, but knows he can’t because he must keep the portal to the road open. Nick goes with her, and gladly. Rupert spends the hours dwelling on everyone and everything, but most of all on Maree. He contemplates how unhappy she was, yet she “thrust her way beyond with angry fingernails…I hoped her life would be better now. I ached to let her have something better. I wanted her to come back more than I have ever wanted anything. Ever” (p.300).

Let’s-Spend-Forever-Together. An excellent twist here on Jones’ part. Maree does return from Babylon, in full health, but more, too—she is back in the same garb and with the same spiked nails as she had when she danced in traffic and infuriated Rupert. These two get a chance so few of us could ever hope to get: a second chance at a first impression.

A small, small measure of the change was that she now looked good in her woeful old garments. She looked astonishingly good.

As I saw all this, Maree looked up and saw me. A look I had not seen before—one of pure delight—filled her face. I don’t think she had ever been truly happy in her life before. Now she was, because she had seen me.

Maree’s face was a glowing heart-shape of pleasure. She looked up at me and said, “Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

At this, she stepped back a bit and pushed at her glasses in her combat-manner. “I’m not a very good investment,” she said, with that sob in her voice. I had missed that sob. “I warn you.”

“Neither am I,” I said. “Wait till I tell you.” (p.316)

There’s still angry Koryfonic people with thorns and lasers to deal with, but this is where the romantic arc ends.

Why did I find this a satisfying love story? More than anything, I think it was because Maree and Rupert were so, well, human. They were not perfect physically, emotionally, or mentally. Their flaws stood out prominently at first, because sometimes what we consider shows of strength (Rupert’s fine garb, Maree’s spiked nails) are really charades to cover the real feeling: loneliness, or bitterness. Like any relationship, we have to see more than just the lion’s mane and fancy raincoat. We have to SEE the strength, the knowledge, the determination. The humor, the selflessness. It’s all there. But it is NOT always tucked inside a Standard Pretty Person hidden beneath a temporary shroud of frumpiness. We love, and that love brings out beauty in the other that no one else will likely ever see. That’s part of what makes love so amazing. Let’s try to remember that as writers, too. Pretty’s nice, Beautiful’s de-wonderful, but Love, True Love, gives any character that deliciously secret view of another that sets readers’ hearts and imaginations alight.

Click here for more on DEEP SECRET.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

#Lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Don’t Sacrifice the Fun for Grown-Ups

51dW4rYg4cL._bL160_Those who write books usually write with a specific age group in mind. Oh sure, we can say, “This is for anyone who loves a good story,” but when the protagonist is 12, there’s a natural inclination in the plot, setting, and conflict to please the prepubescent crowd. Diana Wynne Jones wrote children’s stories for a good twenty years before writing A Sudden Wild Magic, her first adult story for the fantasy genre. It was this experience that also led her to discuss the absurd differences in writing for old vs. young in the article “Two Kinds of Writing?” Though I would love to simply reprint the piece here and let Jones speak for herself, I will confine myself to sharing a few highlights.

For one thing, adults are considered to be far more simple-minded than children. Everything about how the world works and what it looks like must be explained in inane detail. Because children are at the stage when their brains are constantly tested in school and gaming and the like, complex stories mean nothing to them. (She also makes a wry poke at adults: if they can follow a Doctor Who storyline, they can follow ANYTHING.) A Sudden Wild Magic has two major settings and several plotlines that follow groups of characters, characters on their own, characters regrouped—seriously, I lost count. Yet did I get confused about who’s this centaur or why Zillah’s on Leathe? Nope. Because I’m in the story. Jones has always been a master of balancing detail, dialogue, and wit-full exposition. When she puts down one plot thread to pick up another, I know it’s for a reason and am never disappointed. (And I’m not even a Doctor Who fan.)

Speaking of characters, adults are evidently too simple-minded to keep characters straight. Jones noticed that many grown-ups writing for grown-ups would repeat key traits when referencing to a character. How many times does a reader have to be reminded the dude’s got green eyes or came from Ohio? Yet this happens all the time. Jones barely does this in A Sudden Wild Magic; when she does, it is from a character’s point of view, and it is because this character doesn’t know the other’s name. That way, the tactic isn’t so much a reader’s reminder as it is one person using a singular feature (for example, “the woman in boots”) to point someone out in a crowd.

Sex would be the most notable difference in writing for adults, but Jones explains that many kids’ books deal with sex—not always explicitly, but it’s there. Jones alludes to sex a number of times in A Sudden Wild Magic: the book jacket even refers to an attack team of women using “kamikaze sex” to destroy another world’s magical hold on Earth. But while these allusions abound, Jones never goes into graphic detail…and according to her editor, this meant the sex element was all too “nice” and not “tragic,” which is what adult readers of fantasy expect.

Say what?

I admit, I held off on reading Jones’ adult-geared books because I feared there would be some sort of alteration in her humor and/or style to make them, well, “literary.” But no. All the snort-inducing quips, complicated plot twists, and ever-unique worlds are there. Jones may have felt the assumptions of adult writing to be “claustrophobic,” but she didn’t let that hinder the creation of yet another incredibly fun story. In her own closing words: “For, when all is said and done, it is telling a good story, and telling it well, that is the point of both kinds of writing.”

Click here to read “Two Kinds of Writing?” Seriously, stop what you’re doing and read this.

Click here for more on A SUDDEN WILD MAGIC.

#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Exposition Before the #Story

71sst0-sdELMy first exposure to Diana Wynne Jones came through Hayao Miyazaki. I was entranced by Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which remains one of the greatest examples of an organic plot I’ve ever seen, and couldn’t wait to see his next feature film, Howl’s Moving Castle. While the film is beautiful in its own right, I soon learned it does not have the Jones flair I fell in love with by, oh, page 1 of her novel Howl’s Moving Castle.

After reading twenty-some of her books (I still have a long ways to go), my writer’s self gets stuck on one particular aspect of Howl’s Moving Castle: its first several pages are exposition.

Now granted, it’s a different world. She establishes that in the first sentence in a fantastic way: “In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.” Not only does she present the fantasy-aspect, she snags the reader’s attention because you just know she’s going to write about some such eldest of three and that something bad’s bound to happen to that person.

She goes on to describe protagonist Sophie’s life and situation for five pages, then pauses for a mini-scene that seems to establish the character’s fate, and…goes on describing life until page seventeen.

Now as writers, are we not to avoid loads of exposition? We give scenes, conflict, details and information placed in strategic tidbits of dialogue and mini-exposition. Not page after page of talking about things. I may as well dial up my aunt and hand the phone over to you.

How to justify this?

The prose is not first-person; it is third-person limited, with Sophie’s perspective as the focus. Through Jones’ exposition, we receive a clear sense of Sophie’s personality pre-adventure: bored but resigned to a bland future because she is the eldest of three. We get a glimpse of her daily life in the hat shop, as tedious a place as one can imagine, and wonder if this character’s got the spine to actually go out a do something worthy of a story.

Then the other bits of exposition come, inter-mixed with Sophie’s hat shop life, thanks to visiting customers and rumors and other things that float around a small town. We learn about two potential villains and their supposed powers. We get foreshadowing of Sophie’s hidden talents, hidden so well that Sophie has absolutely no clue they exist. We also receive a quick foreshadowing of the curse inflicted on Sophie that forces her out of the hat shop and into the dreaded Waste.

Lengthy exposition has always been considered an audience-killer for any story, especially when placed before the story itself truly begins. Yet Jones took this idea, buried it, and transformed it into a tactic that works. With a careful balance of setting, character, and information dropped from passers-by, Jones whips through several years and at the same time establishes the major aspects of the world necessary for the story to take place.

Would I try this tactic in one of my own stories? Maybe after the twentieth book. Until then I will enjoy meandering about Jones’ writing and worlds, eager to learn from one of the most fantastical children’s writers of the past century.