Monday, September 16, 2013

How to Write: The Best Stories, Part Two - 'The Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss and Christopher Nolan's 'The Dark Knight'

Listening to: Final Fantasy 7 soundtrack

This is the second installment of my favorite stories series. A glaring gap in my prior entry was of the literary breed. How can an author not have a book on his list of favorite stories? Unbundy your undies and read on.

Cover of "The Name of the Wind," by Patrick Rothfuss. Source.

"I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. You may have heard of me." -From the book jacket of The Name of the Wind

The Name of the Wind is New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss's first novel. And what a novel it is. NotW and its sequel, The Wise Man's Fear, are the only fiction novels I've voluntarily read in the past four years. I put down Wicked. I put down Fellowship of the Ring. I did not put down Kvothe the Bloodless (my favorite of his many monickers). I picked up a copy of the book from an indie book store in downtown St. Louis in November of '09 at the urging of my friend Allie. I was skeptical. As I wrote in my previous post, I'm not interested in dropping inordinate amounts of time over bad stories; the story had better be good, and the storytelling medium had better be used well. To allude to Stephen King, I don't believe writers are short-order cooks, serving up small portions of the literary equivalent of bacon and eggs. All-too often in writers' circles, there is garbage being circulated about how writing must always be concise, story-driven, and character-driven, and these sort of statements are often framed in such a way that they are (apparently) diametrically opposed to masterful, poetic English. This is of course a crock; no one of these things is mutually exclusive, and all writing that bothers to engage the senses well is not by default "purple prose." Patrick Rothfuss dropkicks this crock in the face in the NotW where he expertly weaves beautiful English with strong characters and compelling storytelling. When I was three months into An Autumn Veil, it was reading the NotW that gave me the confidence to write how I want to write and to not sell out to the status quo.

Several years ago, my friend Kristina and I were having a discussion of who I should model my beard after; who should be my "beard hero." I said William Riker. She said Patrick Rothfuss. A few months later, she purchased a copy of NotW at a book signing where Pat was present, told him a bit about my journey as a novelist, and had him sign the book for me. His signature reads,

Dear Danny, DO IT! WRITE! Your Beard Hero, Pat Rothfuss

I rest my case.

The Good: Mature, engaging storytelling. Strong, humorous characters. Pat is not afraid to get emotional with his heroic protagonist, nor is he afraid to take the time and effort to compose truly beautiful English that works in tandem with his excellent characterizations to create an all-around satisfying experience. I love this book.

The Bad and Ugly: After having read the story, I skipped over the part in Tarbean on my next read-through because I wanted to get Kvothe to his Sea of Stars and the University. The book's early chapters aren't tedious the first time through, but on a second go-around, I'm eager to get things really cooking.


Film poster for the Dark Knight. Source.

Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as a compendium of films avoids some of the finagling Tim Burton engaged in in Batman and Batman Returns (Burton's films engaged in artistic license; Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and Batman & Robin engaged in bastardization). While each of Nolan's films are excellent in their own right, the second installment stands above the first and third much how The Empire Strikes Back stands above A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. TDK is not only the greatest superhero film of all time, but it is a first-rate crime drama and an ethical meditation on the implications of suspending civil liberties for the sake of security in the face of a foe who will be stopped by nothing short of force of arms. In the vein of our postmodern era, the film refuses to provide us trite answers to these burning questions that are especially relevant in a post-9/11 America. Batman does provide us answers, though. Batman maintains hope in the people of Gotham and is ultimately vindicated in Gotham Harbor, but the Joker's anarchistic thesis is never neatly answered, and the villainizing of the caped crusader over the death of Harvey Dent, which carries forward into the The Dark Knight Rises, is perhaps the Joker's last laugh. The truth Batman stakes his faith on (namely, the collective will of the Gothamites to do something good) ends up turning him into a hunted criminal, for he himself rightly understands that the people of his beloved city are so fickle that finding out Harvey Dent did something bad may very well turn them into amoral followers of the Joker's philosophy. If Batman himself knew this enough to let himself be martyred, did he really defeat the Joker?

Tangentially, Nolan's Batman series is one of the few series in which the collective effectively functions as a character. There is Batman, Alfred, Fox, Rachel, Gordon, Joker, etc, but there are also the Gothamites. They are a microcosm of us all. "No more dead cops!" they shout at Harvey Dent during the press conference where he falsely reveals himself to be Batman. This outcry is so authentic that it almost seems cut into the film from a real press conference.

At the end of the day, I'm not sure Batman was correct in maintaining hope in humanity. I think the Joker was correct. The Joker tells Batman during the interrogation scene that "When the chips are down," the so-called "civilized" people of modern society would eat each other. History has provided countless examples of altruism, but altruism survives because of hope. This is Batman's retort on top of the skyscraper. The Joker's is this: "You're right...until their spirit breaks completely." Hope motivates so long as it is seen as attainable. Without the promises of hope, can altruism truly exist? The frightful truth of apocalyptic fiction is that deep inside of ourselves, we know it can't.

The Good: The inspired soundtrack of Hans Zimmer; cinematography, acting, daring storytelling that raises philosophical and ethical questions, stellar cast, and it's the freaking Batman. Heathe Ledger's chilling portrayal of the psychopathic Joker rightly earned him a posthumous Oscar; it is hands-down the best portrayal of the iconic character (some may debate Mark Hamill is better; I'll allow it), and arguably one of the greatest film performances of all time.

The Bad and Ugly: Not that I hated Maggie Gyllenhall, but it's always disappointing when an actor doesn't return for their role. And Batman's idealism seems foolhardy across the blue-gray amoral backdrop that underlies the series.

Related to my own storytelling, Patrick Rothfuss's brilliant and daring use of English in proves, gosh darn it, that authors do not have to be short-order literary cooks. On the other hand, it took him ten years to publish after he finished. Scary, yes, but he has in the course of a few years become both a NY Times bestseller and a reigning Duke of Nerdom. I guess it's a fair exchange.

Nolan's series is inspiring on multiple levels. As it relates to my own work, its greatest influence is how it raised questions and provided competing solutions. I think in art, we need that. I have striven to create characters who fundamentally disagree with each other on what is wrong with the world and how to right those wrongs. One of the main conflicts in An Autumn Veil is precisely about this issue: will working within the bounds of law and order really yield desired results? And if we choose to go beyond the rule of law, how far should we go? What are we sacrificing in the process?

How many people have to die before we achieve success?

Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it here.

Thanks for reading.


All the hyperlinks and images in this blog are property of their respective owners. Unless stated or implied otherwise, I am not the author of the linked videos and images in this blog and I take no credit and claim no ownership of linked material.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An Autumn Veil: What it Means to Write 200,000 Words

Current Word Count of Autumnveil: ~207,000

It was within the first year and a half of writing that I realized telling the whole story of Autumnveil would take over 200,000 words. Even at that time I knew this would be a hurdle to publishing for an unpublished novelist. As common knowledge goes, sci-fi/fantasy works for new writers shouldn't exceed 125,000 words.

I wonder sometimes if I should try to divide the story differently in order that my first publishing attempt might go easier Act I, which concludes with a climax and rapid falling action, is about 100,000 words and could probably stand alone if it absolutely had to. But dividing the story there doesn't feel organic to me. There are so many questions left over. Maybe that's good. Maybe those questions will keep readers begging for more, but so much of my maturing as a novelist really started happening in Act II. This is when the fruit of historical and language studies, traveling during my summers, reading how-to books by Stephen King and John Gardner, and critiquing like crazy on really started to blossom. I think Act I is beautiful and tense. It's not like The Name of the Wind (another first novel) that would leave everybody angry and scratching their heads if it stopped suddenly at 100,000 words. Rothfuss's first novel had to end when it ended, and not a moment sooner. Can the same be said for my first work?

It will be a hard truth to swallow, but I'm probably going to get a lot of rejection slips based solely on the fact that my novel is long and I'm not a name in literary circles. Writing is art. Publishing is business. Somewhere in the overlap of those two spheres is something that will get me paid for investing 5,000 hours into the lives of fictional people.

Cresting 200,000 words is a milestone. It means that Autumnveil is longer than The Two Towers and The Return of the King. It's longer than Moby Dick and every Harry Potter book (less Order of the Phoenix). It's longer than Jayne Eyre and Great Expectations and The Grapes of Wrath. It's twice the length of Ender's Game and nearly six times the length of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

But size isn't all that matters in the arts. I've learned to be terse and effectual, to cut excess verbiage (countless occurrences of "that") and make every word count. I've also learned where I want to be verbose. Our critiquing groups and our editors advise us to always cut our writing into bite-sized pieces. Sometimes this is the right path to tread, but not always. I've learned where to let my words draw the reader in with the force of their valency, with the poetry of language, and the arts of irony and parallelism and juxtaposition. Most of all, in spite of criticism and praise, I've learned when and where to stick to my guns.

I've learned that "always" is the most overused word in the world of writing advice. I've learned that when it comes to the arts, and the methods of creating art, I am a staunch relativist.

Creating people is not so much something I learned as it is something I learned to better channel. Creating people is what I do, as natural to me as the daydreaming out of which so many of my stories have been born.

I feel like I could write 50,000 words about what I've learned. For now, though, I'd like my next 50,000 words to bring Autumnveil to its well-deserved conclusion. It is encouraging to be so very close to completing my first novel, but much work lies ahead.

And there will be more.


All the hyperlinks and images in this blog are property of their respective owners. Unless stated or implied otherwise, I am not the author of the linked videos and images in this blog and I take no credit and claim no ownership of linked material.