Overcoming Low Elf-esteem

I grappled with a lot of issues in writing my new ebook To Create a World.

One of the biggest was elves.

The novel is contemporary fantasy rather than high fantasy, but it still needed elves in it and that presented an unforeseen challenge.

Tolkien.

How do you write elves in a post-Tolkien context without becoming painfully, transparently derivative? I defy you to turn your hand to the task without suffering recurring nightmares of J.R.R. sitting smoking a pipe and wryly mocking you in Sindarin. You know, one of the Elvish languages he created before, during, and after writing his epic books.

If you’re not a professor of linguistics and you don’t already speak half a dozen languages, you’re at a disadvantage. I have a pretty good working knowledge of English and a passing familiarity with two other languages…and zero interest in creating new languages.

Not a problem, I decided. Nobody expects anyone to replicate Tolkien’s philological exploits. That’s clearly above and beyond.

And all was well, until the moment came in which an elvish character required a name, and I realised two things:

First, that all Elvish influences in the depths of my mind can be directly or indirectly traced back to Tolkien.

Second, that each and every Elvish name (make that every name) in Tolkien’s universe will undoubtedly have an etymological pedigree backed up by his enormous, unnecessary, unassailable body of fictional languages. I didn’t have to check. I just knew that names like Celeborn, Galadriel, and Glorfindel would have a watertight linguistic provenance.

For some authors this poses no problem. Just shrug your shoulders and come up with something that sounds cool. And if you need to name a second elf, just come up with something else that sounds cool. Bonus points if the two cool-sounding names are phonetically similar.

Which is all fine, until you discover that your idea of what a cool elf name should sound like is also transparently derivative of a certain over-achieving philologist.

If you still don’t see the problem, consider for a moment if someone asked you to come up with a Chinese-sounding name, or an American-sounding name, or a Scottish or Indian or Arabic-sounding name, without actually using existing names from those language groups, or using their languages to create new names.

What would you end up with? You would end up with an unspeakably shameful and racially provocative parody.

In contemporary fiction making human character names consistent with real cultural and linguistic sources is fine.

But try it with elves and dwarves and suddenly you’re writing LOTR fanfiction.

One solution that comes to mind is to have Tolkien’s fictitious peoples recognised as States under the UN, and his linguistic work rendered public domain forthwith, so we can all pretend it’s just part of our shared global culture.

The other solution is to not take it so seriously in the first place. Allow your elves to have whatever names they like, and not stress too much about their etymological integrity.

Incidentally, I think that’s why authors like J.K. Rowling began with overtly silly names for pretty much everything in their magical universe. The names seemed to become more serious as the series continued, matching the tone of the books (and increasing age of its readers). At the same time, names that were there from the beginning like Dumbeldore, and even Hogwarts itself took on different emotional resonance as our experience of them grew throughout the series.

Giving things silly names implicitly lowers expectations and takes the pressure off, as well as offsetting the shock of Harry’s entry into a parallel magical world. And if even a silly name like Hogwarts can become infused with meaning and gravitas, there’s no need to stress unduly about the quality and internal coherence of naming schemes for mythical races in the first place.

Just in case that’s what you were doing…

Now go buy my book. It has elves with linguistically arbitrary naming conventions!

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To Create a World – and an ebook!

So I’ve finally published my first ebook!

It’s been, in all honesty, one of the most exciting and enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

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To Create a World is a middle-grade fantasy novel about a boy named Tom who enters a hidden magical world in search of a magician who can heal his sick sister. When he arrives, he finds that the hidden world is all but empty and the magician is long gone. It’s up to Tom to rebuild the world, and fill it with all the magic and adventure a hidden world ought to have.

…and it turns out that writing fiction is awesome. Or, to be precise, finishing writing fiction is awesome. It’s so incredibly satisfying to have reached this point after about fifteen months of working on the manuscript, on top of two or so years of trying to figure out how to write fiction in the first place.

Along the way I’ve been astounded and full of barely-contained glee at all the things that have come together in my life, in my mind, and in my writing as this book took shape.

It’s as though everything has become a metaphor for everything else. Even my experiments with making things like cheese and bacon and beer have flowed back into this creative process, until writing and publishing an ebook became a natural extension of the DIY ethos.

In other words, I’m stoked.

But as with all my other creations, the keyword is experimental. There’s still so much to learn about writing, publishing, and marketing. Expectations are realistic. I have another four books to write in the medium-term along with blog posts and articles to support and publicise this one.

I’m really looking forward to sharing some of my insights and observations along the way!

A big thank you to everyone who reads this blog, and especially to the people who supported me directly and indirectly in writing To Create a World.

The links will take you to my ebook page which lists all the available digital stores. You can purchase it from Amazon if you use a kindle, or the kindle-for-pc app, and it’s available on the iTunes iBook store if you have an iPad or iPhone. Other digital stores can be found on this page.

Metaphysics, creativity, and the tyranny of conventions

Does metaphysics undermine creativity?

I’ve noticed that I can easily get engrossed in a novel which, if I had to write it, would bore me to tears. Even LotR, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about hobbits, elves, magic rings etc., with the degree of interest required to motivate actual writing.

Nonetheless I gave fiction another go last night, and decided to focus on a positive motive – a kind of “write something that interests or excites you”. Translating this into: what is something that I would find truly awe-some?

What came to mind was the idea of contingency/emptiness, the ontological shallowness of creation. Ok cool, I’ll just write a story about that…

In principle, it’s hard or perhaps impossible to write about things we don’t care about or think important. On the level of metaphysics, the significance of the ontological gap between necessity and contingency kinda dampens down the significance of everything on the ‘contingent’ side. It’s just hard to get excited about imaginary objects when you know we are all already, in a sense, imaginary objects.

So what I tried instead was to put contingency into a story, by having a character who finds an object that allows him to pass “backstage” so to speak, and enters a kind of happy void he can sit in for as long as he likes.  This is appealing in a “ring of invisibility” kind of way because it feeds my melancholic desire to be able to just disappear and relax whenever I want to. It offers a sense of ideal freedom, but it also combines it with the ontological significance of contingency/emptiness.  I don’t know where it’s going to go, but at face value I can say “yeah that would be pretty cool”.

Forget about conventions, for now.

Last night I also spent some time thinking about the stylistic obstacles to writing fiction. Basically, whenever I try to write down an idea in narrative form, my brain kicks into “narrative fiction 101” mode and tries to force me to follow what I assume is a fairly basic and cliche stylistic model. Yet I know from writing non-fiction that the supposed conventions of the genre fill me with unspeakable dismay and that the quickest way to kill my motivation is to approach it with a formulaic mindset.

The vague and semi-conscious conventions of fiction turn writing into a clumsy, awkward chore.  So why bother with them? In my non-fiction I have no trouble side-stepping these “rules”. I’ve learned to follow the winding path of my inspiration wherever it leads. Why not do the same with fiction, and just write the parts I’m inspired to write, even if it seems incomplete along the way?

Besides, I’ve often found in non-fiction that after producing fifteen hundred words of inspired ideas and enthused analysis, it’s easy to tack on a brief introduction or explanatory notes to help the unfamiliar reader find his or her bearings. But if I had to start with the introduction or explanation, I would never start at all.

If you’re the kind of writer who feels his way along, then you have to start with the parts that feel interesting, exciting, or awe-some, and leave the drudgery to later – often much later when you know what is really going on.

I’m hoping this approach will also work for fiction if I combine it with the awe-some element described above – homing in on truly motivating ideas while side-stepping the major sources of friction and drudgery.