Writing

Aestivation is serious business!

This blog went into unannounced aestivation and might have slept away a few summer weeks, but me, I was far from lazy.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

The Narrows, Zion National Park

I visited some places that spoke to my storyteller’s heart: I was in the USA for the first time and went to the Southwest and all the canyon National Parks. I have dreamt of seeing them for a long time. I used to imagine all those people leaving Europe and looking for some place new; how they came upon harsh lands and geological wonders that simply didn’t exist over here. And now I did, too.

I came for the sublime landscapes and the vastness, for the stars and the red earth, and I was not disappointed.

I also came for the writing lessons of Taos Toolbox, taught by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress, with guest lectures from George R.R. Martin, Steven Gould and E.M. Tippets, and I wasn’t disappointed either.

I had two incredibly intense weeks of critiquing and being critiqued, with classes focused on some of the problems I always struggle with when plotting or constructing scenes and fleshing out characters. It was all about craft and business, and amidst all this heavy lifting GRRM dashed in upon us in his purple Tesla and told us to be artists.

I felt very welcome even though I was the only ESL writer in the group (although ESL speaker tends to be the real problem for me). The accumulated teaching experience of the Toolboxe’s lecturers really shows, and what you take home is a whole new range of methods and approaches, and precious, precious knowledge. I’ll sure need some time to work through it all and apply it, but I already feel the workshop’s impact in the way I look at stories.

Taos Toolbox 2017I met fabulous new writer friends and didn’t get to know most of them half as well as I’d have liked to, because I was busy writing/critiquing until one or two in the morning nearly every day. We read an insane amount of material during these two weeks, and got tons of advice and guidance.

So I feel I could use a few days off now, but no rest for the wicked. I’ve already dived into the leftovers of my recent translation, and I’m editing a super funny LEGO encyclopaedia for my favourite licensing client.

I can’t wait to write new stories based on what I learned at Taos Toolbox. But first, some rewriting of half-finished stuff is in order. Did anyone mention aestivation? Not for me, obviously.

Trickster Syndrome

Like many creative people I know, I suffer from a severe case of Impostor Syndrome. No matter my achievements or my experience in my field of work, I always feel like I just tricked everyone into believing I’m performing okayish. But deep inside, I know I’m fake, and sooner or later, it will show. If you just look close enough, you’ll see it.

I feel I’m quite lucky to be able to earn my money with things I like more often than not, and sometimes even with things I love. That might be fueling my problem, because as I told earlier, I was raised catholic, and like every good ex-catholic, I constantly ask myself: What have I done to earn anything at all? When will I fall for having been so lucky?

So I’m proceeding with my words, pretending to be a translator and writer and storyteller and linguist and whatnot. I’ve done this for years, so I guess I’m quite good at it. As absurd as it sounds today that someone will jump out and triumphantly announce: We knew it! You were a fraud all along!, occasionally I still have a dream about my university entrance diploma being disallowed. (Almost 20 years later … and it wouldn’t even matter, because I’m my own boss. But my impostor nightmares don’t care.)

Recently, though, I’m observing a shift in my perspective. What if I (and all my creative impostor friends) are drawn to the arts because we are resourceful tricksters? What else is a storyteller, if not a trickster, pretending to be what she is not, shapechanging and dazzling and manipulating? All of these trickster qualities are traits you need to tell good stories: To trick the audience into believing anything. To mold your voice into different shapes and perspectives. To convince people to follow you on a trail of imaginary breadcrumbs. To trap them in your net of entertaining lies.

Tricksters are my favorite protagonists. And my favorite trickster is Coyote, with all his clever, dumb, selfish, and heroic ways. So, my favorite Coyote story is about Coyote stealing the stars*. And isn’t every star a promise of something new, a new world, a new story, a guiding light that shines in the void? It’s a very trickster-like thing to bring story into nothingness, and shaping, even disheveling reality in the act. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde’s ultimate trickster compendium, Michael Chabon (a very talented trickster himself) says so in his foreword, about creating story out of our random endeavors …

[…] as if they mattered, as if they had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They don’t, but there is neither joy nor art nor pleasure to be made from saying so. Coyote wouldn’t waste his time on a paltry truth like that.
– Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World

That’s the kind of trick I’d like to pull off, the kind of lie worth telling. And if it means suffering from insecurity because you’re pretending all the time, losing yourself in changing shapes, and your fragile lies are about to collapse, so be it. Those dark moments will pass when you steal a new set of stars and make them shine.

Impostor Syndrome is lame. It keeps you on your toes, sure, but otherwise it just makes you anxious and overly self-conscious. But I guess I could live with Trickster Syndrome. There are realities to dishevel and purposes to be found!

*Actually, there are more stories about Coyote stealing the sun or the moon, but I made the stars sound convincing, too, don’t you think …?

First person problems

Some of my favorite stories and novels are told from first-person perspective, and I love to employ first person narrators myself. I’m intrigued by the instant narrative situation they create when they come along and say: sit down and listen, I’m going to tell you a story.

But they sure are special snowflakes. I struggled to make a story work with a first person narrator these days, trying to find the voice of an unruly protagonist, and a beginning that didn’t suck. While ditching dozens of approaches, I again learned a lot, so why not put it on record for future reference?

First person narration is so different from third person narration that a certain amount of readers simply doesn’t like it. It is the original, primal storytelling mode (someone experienced something and goes on to tell the tale), but in fiction, third person has become the default mode. For me, third person narration is like hitting play on the media device of your choice, while first person narration is like sitting down with a storyteller. Some people enjoy being steered and sometimes overpowered by a narrator, some people just want to see how the events come to pass without a guide. But don’t be fooled; the storyteller may be hidden behind the ‘camera’ in third person narrations, but she’s there, deciding what you get to see.

As a writer, I feel like entering no-rules-country with a first person narrator, and you don’t even have to install an unreliable narrator for that (although it’s debatable if they aren’t all unreliable per default). While in third person you seem to have a limiting frame, looking through the eyes of one person at one time, you don’t have to tell one thing after the other with a first person narrator who may know the whole story. Tenses become arbitrary, and you have to decide, decide, decide: Why put this element here and not there? Why show it at all and not do a charming summary? Anything goes, except when it doesn’t. Of course you don’t have to do anything at all in third person narration either, because there are no rules if you can pull it off. First person narrators may be a good training ground for your storytelling antennas. You’ll have to make sure to sort out what’s really important and how and when it is best presented.

The distance between first person narrator and reader is anything but zero. No one thinks of himself or herself as the “I” in a story. A story is not a pop song, like a one-size-fits-all representation of your everyday joys and worries. You experience a different perspective, and for me, first person narrators even create a greater distance: while they are undeniably present in shaping the flow of the story, they seem to vanish from the events themselves. The narrator is at the same time inside the story (unless she tells about other people’s adventures) and outside of it. When she stands beside the reader, whispering in his ear, she just can’t be completely in the thick of the things she’s describing, only an aspect of her can. So you close one kind of distance, but open up another. This distance will also show in the places where first person narration appears to be artificial (as in: whoever remembers every single word of a years-old conversation?*).

There is, of course, a trick to avoid this. Well, there’s certainly more than one, but this one is very obvious: why not put the narrator in an ongoing now moment and tell the story in present tense? No distance at all, and you’re breathlessly rushing alongside your protagonist all the time and experience everything in real time. Expect that real time creates bloated abominations of stories. And while breathless rushing is fun in action scenes, it tends to suck when it whips you through a whole novel. At the moment, only two authors who did this with grace come to my mind – remarkably using a very similar plot device: Matthew Stover in Acts of Caine (first person narrator in present tense whenever Caine’s adventures are broadcasted to an audience, but third person when he is offline), and Linda Nagata in The Red (first person and present tense all the time, and there are hints that this is a show broadcasted to an audience).

There are brilliant first person narrations out there. I’m reading one at the moment and will recommend it fervently next week. In my own story, I opted for third person in the end. But I think messing around with various first person approaches helped me find the voice I needed.

*She’s making it up, of course. She’s a storyteller, not an archivist.

It’s the end of the world and we love it

Bang, lights out, and it’s all over and done with? As if! Post-apocalyptic scenarios represent one of the classic, never-grow-old sub-genres of sf, and while the reasons why everything goes down the drain follow certain trends, as well as the kind of (non-)societies emerging afterwards, the end per se remains a solid narrative trope.

So here’s why I think we can’t resist telling stories about the fall of Man and the destruction of Earth.

Some people just like to see the world burn, a wise old butler once said, and he’s right, I guess. I for sure do. The concept is thrilling. A larger than, well, death memento mori moment. Everything we cared for, everything that mattered could be gone in an instant. Our whole style of living withers away, and with it the thin patina of civilization. That’s how those big American road trips through the end times like The Walking Dead or The Road show it.

But for me, to see the world burn is not enough. I found out that I deeply value the “post” part in my apocalyptic endeavors. That’s maybe why the recent revival of dystopias didn’t appeal to my taste. I think they’re a whole different kind of beast: Where post-apocalyptic tales mostly focus on a world remade by the forces that destroyed it, dystopias dwell on the downfall of society (often only of its lower rungs, while the upper classes thrive). If this is the way the world ends, I think I prefer the bang to the whimper. But curiosity gets the better of me more often than not.

It’s in our guts. It’s our survival instinct – devastating disasters shaped the collective consciousness of mankind, from real earthquakes and volcano eruptions to mythical endless winters and deluges. We are no cockroaches who will crawl out of radioactive zombiefied lava downpour just fine, so we better pay attention when disaster hits. The same instinct is still active today; catastrophes fascinate us: when planes crash or plagues strike, we go click.

We are compelled to ask: Who will survive? Me me me, some tiny inner MacGyver cries, and that’s how I’ll do it! And if the scope of time and destruction gets bigger, at least we want to know what will survive of us: Just silly things like the shopping list in Canticle for Leibowitz? Did we leave something eternal, something helpful for those who come after us, and will they still be human enough to appreciate it?

The resilience of Man provides the much needed positive vibes for a lot of post-apocalyptic scenarios. We want to witness that something survived. That people will hold out, some even without reverting to barbarism. By stripping away everything and looking at the remains, these stories also determine what is human … and what is not anymore. But something will emerge from the ruins, and I love to see that despite all adversities, mankind might be as hard to kill as the cockroaches in the end. The survivors will try to cling to some form of live or the other, even if they have to fight off a whole mutant roach society. Or forge peace with them.

Because maybe, we’ll be able to learn. Post-apocalyptic stories are about hubris. Since we found out that we are truly capable of destroying it all, they have served as a warning, as an exploration of the consequences of bringing about our own downfall. Sure, there are meteors, plagues and other natural disasters, but very often, apocalypse is self-induced.

There are even benefits: Nature will take a breathe. When we also realized that we’re not exactly crucial to Earth’s wellbeing, there has been a lot of interest in imagining how fast our footprints will be gone and forgotten (as in The World Without Us) and what might evolve after we’re gone (as in After Man).

It’s a whole new world! The bleakness of Earth destroyed is often set off by the prospect of a different world, a different society, free from the burden of the past. It’s a relaunch, and the world will be decluttered like your apartment after you get one of those throw-away-everything self-help books. This is a deceptively easy path to post-apocalyptic bliss: live the simple life, back to the basics, fight mutants, mildew, and meningitis …

Anyway, post-apocalyptic scenarios provide us with a fresh slate to experiment with, without dumping us on a new world or in a strange, far-off land. The whole thing is ready to be re-imagined, but relatable at the same time (you now, when the mutant roaches dig out this shiny inexplicable, inedible thing with an engraved apple). And from then on, anything can happen, and the big bang that should have been the end of it all is a starting point for something new, or at least for a compelling story, just as it should be.

Storytelling, catholic edition

I’m from Bavaria, one of the hyper-catholic regions of Europe, and I grew up in a small village with a church at its physical and metaphysical center. When I was young, religion was a big part of my life. Nowadays I find myself wondering about its influence on me and my perception of story. Because church and religion were, as a kid, first and foremost story to me.

The church itself with all its paintings, statues and other representations was full of stories, and during mass, you got to hear at least one more, two if you were lucky. My penchant for epic, mythic storytelling must have been surfacing then already, because I preferred Old Testament stories above all others. Nothing much beats the Exodus, even Hollywood agrees.

The only equally big New Testament thing is the Passion of Christ, storytelling highlight of catholicism and nucleus of faith. And considering the Passion of Christ, you can’t deny the inherent grimdark streak of the catholic church. It’s not just that the story of the crucifixion is told in a very detailed and prolonged way, but there is a real inclination towards gruesome detail and dark, gritty depictions. I remember sitting in church every Sunday, above me a statue of the Mater dolorosa (which is basically Mary with a sword through her chest, as a symbol of her suffering), and from where I sat I could study another statue: Saint Sebastian the martyr, mostly naked and pierced by a significant amount of arrows – a whole lot more than Boromir. Bavarian sculptors and painters did not shy away from showing what wounds looked like; there was a fair amount of trickling blood, gaping flesh and agonizing sores to be seen.

When it came to my Communion, the ceremonial initiation into the catholic fold, I got a book about saints. I gobbled it up like I gobbled up every other book I could get my hands on (even math textbooks for school, but that’s another story), and, wow, there was a whole new range of suffering and dying to be discovered. Some of the stories about female martyrs are highly sexualized; they’re often virgins unwillingly claimed by powerful men, and are subsequently shown to their community naked, then publicly tormented and killed. Eight year old me didn’t feel all that comfortable reading those stories.

But the stories also cover power, wonders and the sublime. Religion, like story, strifes to tackle the big themes of mankind. There is, of course, a difference: In a very simplified way, you could say stories make us ask questions, while religion tries to provide answers. I think it is not a coincidence that some of the early defining voices of the epic fantasy genre were catholic, too. The catholic origin story of suffering and sacrifice, of paying a hefty price if you were to truly achieve something, is a powerful motif.

The concept of faith and believing itself invites story: it’s at a person’s core and can (and must) be challenged, and there is a whole string of cultural implementations attached to it, providing even more fodder for story. I always feel drawn to the decorum and grand gestures of catholicism and its compulsion to dominate people’s lives (both storytellingwise). It was all ingrained in my mind as a child and challenged me to reflect on it, the light and the dark, the sins and the saints.

Well, and then there is another thing the stories from church have taught me: They taught me about bad storytelling. Man, it was frustrating at times how bad the stories told in church were, compared to the stories I read at leisure. Sometimes they made no sense at all, had no proper ending, had a lot of “because I say so” going on, pieces didn’t fit, and, as an inherent fault of the genre, there was deus-ex-machina in abundance. But maybe they didn’t care about suspension of disbelief because it was assumed that you already handled this before you sat down in church.

There is, without doubt, also some good storytelling going on there. Some seriously rad imagery has trickled down into our language, and there are quotable lines galore. In German, even a lot of the words for inner processes and emotions stem from christian scholars trying to make up words for concepts that were never needed before. Part of this significance has to do with christianity dominating western culture for centuries. Its lore and legends even managed if not to kill, then at least to discontinue a lot of other powerful mythological traditions. But at its core, there must have been good storytelling (or at least the right stories at the right time), because at some time in the past, people were moved to flock together and listen. It can’t just boil down to a love of grimdark and “come back next Sunday to hear if the pharaoh really shot Moses”, can it?

I wanna be Roy Batty

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

If you are the slightest bit into sf, the odds are pretty high that you not only know, but fiercely love the Tears in the rain monologue from Blade Runner. For me, it blew my mind when I was about 14 years old and watched the movie one night on my tiny TV. I was not only an sf fangirl back then, but was also very occupied with trying to wrap my mind around the concept of death at that time, so it spoke to me on every level.
I’ve heard and seen it quoted hundreds of times since then, up to the point where I’d actively avoid it in the hopes that it would never become trite to me. As the story goes, it was a genius piece of improvisation by Rutger Hauer.

And indeed, when I look at it now, what I see is a damn good storyteller.

So, if you think the magic is lost as soon as you know how a thing works, maybe now is the time to tiptoe out of the room and come back for the next post, because I’m going to look very closely at this quote.

Tears in the rain is not only a brilliant conclusion to an intense action sequence (and to the whole main story arc), but also a fine piece of micro-fiction. With these few lines, the universe of Blade Runner becomes so much bigger, promising things we could see, things out there, things transcending our bleak existence on Earth. That’s how you do evocative imagery and world-building, folks! C-beams? Sea-beams? What the hell are they even? Doesn’t matter, because we make up our own images. Our imagination does most of the heavy lifting here, but Roy’s words are the catalyst for the magic. No explanation needed. He knows. He has seen things. Good enough for our mind, it will gladly hop on the train to the stars now, thank you very much.

Also, with these lines, Roy’s life becomes narration, becomes a story in and on itself – the scenes we saw in the movie are maybe just a footnote (or more of an endnote) to something much larger. There are only hints, but they transform the character into something else altogether.
And Roy is transformed further by telling us the ending of his story, the ending of every story, ultimately, and giving the narration a metaphysical twist, especially considering his background.

Food for thought and food for imagination – philosophical impulse and evocative allusions – are the magic ingredients, and they are put to highly effective use here. I recommend a look at the two versions of the monologue, the one from the script and the improvised one from the movie (for example here at Wikipedia) to see that less is indeed more, and that the right words that glitter in the vast darkness approaching this scene from all sides are so much better than meticulous descriptions.

So, daring to transcend a concrete scene, and letting a strong narrator pull you in and unfold big spaces in your imagination makes for very convincing storytelling. I wouldn’t mind at all to be able to do it like Roy.