The meaning of life in fiction

One of the problems with my new fantasy book is that it doesn’t fit all that neatly into the fantasy genre. I’ve tagged it “magical realism” where appropriate because although it follows the standard boy-stumbles-into-hidden-magical-world trope, it does so with what I hope is as much realism as magic.

For me, magical realism is like urban fantasy with an enhanced appreciation for symbolism and hidden meaning. It borders on or blends into a spiritual worldview.

It was gratifying to find that the spiritual ideas most significant to me at the time could work their way directly or indirectly into the story. Tom’s role in the creation of the magical world let me draw on questions of free-will and fate without getting too heavy or confronting. Likewise the question of “what am I supposed to be doing?” could unfold without messing too much with the narrative.

It was probably inevitable that anything I wrote would draw on the themes and ideas that are important to me. And at present, the most significant of these ideas is that the self that feels it’s in control is an illusion.

In the story this theme approaches near the resolution of the conflict. But Tom shies away from it, relying on magic to protect him from his enemy. But as the story itself tells us, that’s Tom doing what he was meant to do.

“I don’t think you quite understand what I’ve been telling you,” Cornelius replied carefully. “There is no ‘supposed to’. There just is. If your reaction to all this is one of confusion and complication, then you just have to accept it. Or not accept it, I suppose. This is how the maker made you, after all.”

“But how does that help me?” Tom demanded. “I feel like we’re going in circles! No matter what you say it just keeps coming back to me being afraid, and there’s no way out of it!”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying,” the gnome replied calmly.

I won’t be trying to force a moral into each story, or put clumsy platitudes in the mouth of every ‘wise’ character. The beauty of magical realism is that everything becomes a kind of sign or message, whether the author realises it or not.

Tom still has a long way to go and a lot to learn. Whether he as a character understands in the end is less important than the story as a whole embodying these truths. That’s what made writing this book most rewarding to me: the chance to see these ideas, principles, and motifs appearing and reappearing everywhere throughout the story. That’s the author’s privilege, I think. We get to discover the meaning hidden in the work in ways that surprise and astonish even its creator.

If you like the idea of gnomes proclaiming free-will paradoxes, or finding the meaning of life in a children’s novel, you’ll find yourself inevitably drawn to my new book To Create a World:

Writing with the power of panic

I think I’ll need somewhere between five and ten good quality ebooks for sale before I stand a chance of really making a living from it.

Bearing in mind that my idea of “making a living” is pretty frugal. Last time I checked, my family of three was living quite comfortably on what the OECD considers the poverty-line for a single adult in Australia.

But as my son gets bigger I’m starting to feel the need for a bigger place to live. He won’t fit in that cardboard box forever.

So while it was exciting to publish my first ebook recently, it’s really only the start. I’ve arbitrarily set myself a June deadline for the first draft of the sequel to To Create a World. If I write 1,000 words a day that will give me about 75,000 words, but I’m expecting the sequel to be bigger than the original, so I’m counting on passing my word-count more days than not.

That’s a lot to write. I won’t get there without making a major effort, and this realisation has done something to my mind.

With my first book, I took my time. I wanted it to be right at each stage. The first draft felt right, right up until the moment my wife finished reading it and paused a long, long time before giving her opinion.  In the end To Create a World took seven drafts to complete. Some were minor fixes, others were major additions or rewrites.

So this time I’m not waiting to see if it feels right when I write. Instead, I’m using my panic over the looming deadline to keep me focused, and my knowledge that rewrites are inevitable to keep me relaxed.

It’s finally making sense why people say not to edit until you’ve finished. If I stop now, I’ll never get it done.

The literal deadline doesn’t matter too much. It’s just there to give me something to strive towards. If the story stretches the draft out to 100,000 or more I’ll keep going until it’s done. But I can’t afford to slow down or dawdle. Even when the sequel is finished, I won’t be.

While you’re waiting for me to finish, read my debut novel To Create a World. I’ve pitched it at middle-grade readers, but so far the majority of people who’ve read it (and enjoyed it) have been adults. I’m sure that’s something I’ll have to rethink in future.

Fat, non-fiction and the philosophy of losing weight

I’m working on a diet book at the moment, and it’s taking a bit of time to get back into the process of writing non-fiction.

The book is essentially a common-sense philosophical approach to the problem of diet, weight-loss, and overeating. And if “common-sense philosophical approach” sounds like an oxymoron to you, well that just means you’ve been philosophising wrongly.

If you can’t use philosophy to ask “why am I fat?” then what good is it?

The book is based on my own experiences over the last couple of years, wherein I analysed the hell out of my eating habits, motivations, and life itself, and then lost 20kg with relative ease.

How easy was it? Well on the one hand, it involved facing some unpleasant truths about my life that were painful and confronting to admit. On the other hand, I didn’t do any additional exercise and stopped even thinking about losing weight. When I finally thought to weigh myself it was a surprise to see how many kilos I had lost. It felt like I wasn’t even trying to lose weight.

I discovered this approach because I’m too lazy to do huge amounts of exercise, too gluttonous to just set arbitrary limits on my food intake, and too frustrated at the conflicting messages and “solutions” offered by existing diets.

Here’s a great example: today the news is full of new evidence that gluten-free diets might increase the risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Meanwhile we’re in the midst of either a revolution or just-another-fad that says refined sugar is the devil in nutritional form. Should we place bets on how long it is before some other new discovery bursts the no-sugar bubble?

I’m not doubting the scientific evidence, just doubting my ability and motivation to sift through all the conflicting messages to work out the whole complex picture formed out of the various strands of research.

I’d much rather see what I can work out for myself, using principles and facts that are unassailable. And if it turns out that I still lack the necessary information to find a solution, then at least I’ll know for sure that this is the case.

Asking “why am I fat?” is actually a great philosophical question. It led me to some very profound answers that have almost entirely changed my eating habits, and the way I relate to food. That’s why I’m writing a book about it. I’m sure some people will find it too radical and confronting, but for others it will provide the kind of certainty and insight they’ve been craving.

While you’re waiting for me to finish writing it, why not check out my new novel To Create a World? Unlike in Harry Potter the evil characters aren’t overweight!

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.

final4thumb

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.

Show and Tell

Some people say “show don’t tell” but most fiction contains both showing and telling.

It’s really a question of how you impart information to the reader at any given time. Is it better to be descriptive and show the reader what is happening? Or is it better to be direct and tell the reader what is happening?

Depending on the circumstances, your story will call for different techniques at different times.

For example, sometimes it’s important to tell the reader directly:

War was coming.

But to keep it immersive, you would surround it with details:

War was coming. He could see it in the grim frowns of the soldiers at the gate, their weary eyes scanning the horizon for tell-tale signs of the encroaching violence.

If the coming war is an important point, you would go on to add further immersive details that build evidence for the reader.

Children skulked indoors, peering out through windows and doors as the city streets filled with soldiers, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms, boys and old men drafted to man the walls while the real warriors fought hand-to-hand in the open field.

Even though that is somewhat immersive, it’s still a lot of information packed into one sentence. It’s still telling a lot more than it’s showing.

If we want to show more, we’d need to expand it more, and at this point you’d be thinking of the best way to convey the information immersively from whatever perspective you’re using, eg. I’d have to place my point-of-view character somewhere near these events in order to ‘show’ them more effectively through his eyes.

Tom frowned. From a distance they looked sound enough, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms as they stood at ease in the courtyard awaiting orders. But as he approached them Tom spotted the grey hair of old Mr Jones poking out from under his shiny black helm, and the pimply face of a boy scarcely older than Tom, his wide eyes glancing this way and that as if expecting the enemy to jump out at any moment.

Tom’s heart sank.

There were too many of them, faces old and young scattered throughout the garrison. Grandfathers and mere boys called to man the defences against an enemy they barely knew, let alone knew how to defeat.  Where were the soldiers? The real defenders?

As you can see, it’s possible to turn a few words into a few paragraphs if you so choose. The real question is whether you need to for the sake of the story. How much detail is too much? How much is too little? You want the story to be immersive without dragging into pointless details.

Even though that last excerpt shows more than the one before it, it also adds more telling. It tells additional details that didn’t exist before. This is why “show don’t tell” can be confusing, because they will almost always coexist and depending on the style of the text it simply won’t be possible or desirable to eradicate all telling.

Ultimately, what matters is how well the text reads, and how immersive it is. In my experience, excessive telling or insufficient showing suggests that the story has not been plotted or drafted enough. The plot is, in a sense, the ultimate tell. My suspicion is that when people tell too much in a draft, it’s because they haven’t first laid out those very direct details in a plot and instead they intersperse the narrative with character, setting or plot points.

While it’s still early days for me, so far my plot and my drafts have all moved in the direction of greater elaboration and showing. In plot form, the excerpt above might be as brief as “Tom realises that the defenders aren’t professional soldiers, and so he….”

This is enough to further the plot, but obviously not enough to interest or immerse the reader. Hence the first draft is an attempt to convert these plot points into immersive scenes, like story-boarding a screenplay.

That’s how it’s turned out for me, anyway. But you could argue that all these ideas are subordinate to the simple imperative of writing a readable story, using whatever works for you.

Fiction update – so, so tired.

One week ago I gave a brief update of my fiction efforts that showed my progress over the past forever, culminating in a few months of promising work and the first draft of a novel.

The second draft has passed much more quickly. In keeping with the format:

February 22nd 2016 – finished second draft.

30 hours of writing and 44,800 words.

That’s about 8,000 more than the previous draft. Apparently comparing two word documents and showing the percentage changed is just beyond Microsoft Office, but I can say that I made more than 2200 changes between first and second drafts, though that includes both minor corrections like deleting a misplaced comma, and major ones like inserting a whole new chapter.

Still, that’s 30 hours in one week as opposed to 85 hours in one month for the first draft. That’s 4.28 hours per day up from 2.83, a more than 1.5 times increase in productivity.

I think it comes down to having the main character’s story arc fully formed in the first draft. The second draft was largely a matter of filling in details that were too extraneous to include in the first draft, and slowing down the pacing of the text.

I think for the first draft I was just in a hurry to complete the main character’s story, and the feedback I’ve had so far suggests that my next draft will need to include even more non-essential elements to give the story greater breadth and breathing space.

But that will have to wait. I’m going to take the ubiquitous advice to now put it aside for a while and return to it with fresh eyes a little down the track.

 

Fiction update: my writing timeline

So, in 2007-08 I wrote a novel.

We don’t talk about the novel.

In 2010 I had my first article published, and in the six years since have had 101 articles published online, as well as some in hardcopy through my old job in bioethics, where I really got my start in writing.

In December 2012 I revisited fiction, reviewed my old work and started thinking about where I went wrong.

I don’t remember the details, but let’s guess that in early 2014 I started seriously trying to work out how to write fiction. That brings us up to the end of 2015 where I finally found an approach that has worked for me.

Here’s the detailed timeline, derived the various documents I’ve been working on:

November 21st 2015 – started plot

21 hours of writing and 7,000 words

December 21st 2015 – started first draft.

85 hours of writing and 36,000 words

February 18th 2016 – finished first draft.

Eviscerating critique by wife

February 21st 2016 – started second draft.

Still a huge amount of work to do!

It’s been surprisingly difficult, but I have to say that it completely overshadows my nonfiction work in terms of the creative process and personal impact.

I even wrote on this blog some time ago, when I was struggling with fiction, that nonfiction seemed superior because it dealt entirely with reality.

But now it feels like nonfiction has lost its appeal. Whatever I might write at present would feel ineffectual and ultimately pointless. Perhaps it’s just a phase, but I’m glad to have finally discovered the real power of fiction.

More on this later.

 

Fiction update

So, I’ve found it hard to write lately – you may have noticed. Part of the problem is that I’ve been writing so much. I’ve finally discovered a meaningful, motivating, and sustainable approach to writing fiction.

I haven’t wanted to mention it in case talking about it undermined my motivation. But I’m nearly 28,000 words into the first draft, and more importantly, I have a plot!

I’m aiming for 40,000 which should qualify it as a short novel. It’s in the children’s fantasy genre, and I hope to have the first draft finished in the coming month.

I wrote here some time ago of my struggles with fiction. I’ve found non-fiction comparatively easy, but fiction challenged me. I wrote a children’s novel about eight years ago, but there was something fundamentally wrong with it, and I’d since struggled to find the inspiration to have another try at it.

Having found an approach that inspires me, it seems I may have lost my inspiration for non-fiction writing. I think it has something to do with the sense of efficacy.

In the past, fiction seemed nice but pointless. Non-fiction was more meaningful because it dealt with real issues in the real world. But now I see that fiction is, or can be, more meaningful because it frees real issues from real-world constraints. It lets us focus on an issue or a theme in a way that would be a distortion of the real world, but which makes sense in the creative domain.

I touched on this in previous posts on the limits of non-fiction, and the paradox of fiction. So I had some sense of what the answer must be, but had not yet truly arrived at it.Unfortunately, now that I’ve arrived at it, non-fiction seems uninteresting and ineffectual by comparison. It isn’t, of course, but I’ve got a word count to meet over in my other world, so further reflection will have to wait.

Beautiful writing

What makes writing beautiful?

It is not enough to use beautiful-sounding words or avoid crude and ungainly ones. Beautiful writing is more than empty form. Beauty implies a relationship between form and function: beautiful writing is not vain or ostentatious; and since the most noble function of writing is to convey the truth, truly beautiful writing must be true as well.

To write the truth and do it beautifully is a worthy goal. But such writing takes time, effort, and insight. What is it, apart from truth, that makes writing beautiful?

There are evident mistakes: excessive convolutions such as unnecessary adverbs, or an overly confusing structure that includes too many subjects and objects in complex relationship. There is a simplicity to beautiful writing, or rather, simplicity is one aspect of beauty, where simplicity is in proportion to the aim. Beautiful writing should be neither too simple nor too complex for the truth it conveys.

Nothing I have written so far is especially beautiful, and that is because I am not taking the time to fully grasp the truth I wish to convey, and to translate it into its most fitting written form.

I am not taking the time because I do not think it is worth the time, and that in itself reveals assumptions, faults, and errors in my own thinking and attitude. If it is worth doing, is it not worth doing well? If beautiful writing is a skill worth having, should I not take the time to investigate and practice it?

What my investigations tell me is that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

This sentence is not especially beautiful. I can pick its faults, beginning with the word “what”. “What” is redundant. It also subverts the sentence structure, bringing the yet-unknown subject to the forefront.  It would be sufficient to write:

My investigations tell me that beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Another fault: it is not necessary to preface the substance of the text with “my investigations tell me”. This reflexive statement is overly descriptive. It brings me twice into the text. It makes “my investigation” the subject, the matter at hand, and thereby diminishes the authority of the subsequent words:

Beautiful writing should reflect the reality, the truth, behind it.

Parsing for additional faults: “should” and “shall” denote obligation. Obligation implies that beautiful writing ought to, but might not reflect reality. Is this what I mean to say?  Would it not be stronger and more accurate to state that:

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

Is it a fault to follow “the reality” with “the truth”? Is either term redundant, or do they together imply more than either would alone?  In this instance, offering an equivalence of reality and truth implies a realist interpretation of truth: reality is true and truth is real. Far from being redundant, the two terms encompass a whole philosophical outlook between them.

Now that we have removed all the obvious faults, we might consider if the same meaning could be conveyed differently. We have reduced the statement to its essential ingredients; is this their best arrangement?

Writing is beautiful when it reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

This arrangement draws our attention to the inclusion of “is”, which subtly alters our focus. It is as if someone has asked “when is writing beautiful?”  Giving the impression of having answered a question can add value to a phrase under certain circumstances. It may enhance the authority of the statement, by bringing to mind the unspoken question. But as an aphorism the former is superior.

Could we go further?

Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.

I would not change beautiful or writing. I would not change the reality or the truth, since the definite article implies an objective standpoint. What about reflects, or behind?

Here it is useful to consider in greater depth the truth we are trying to describe. In this case, I am trying to describe how beauty relates to the function of language. But the function of language is a controversial subject, and I approach it from a preconceived philosophical perspective. Not only am I a realist, but I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, and a teleological view of language as primarily a truth-telling enterprise. In other words, I believe that:

  1. There is an objective reality.
  2. ‘True’ means ‘corresponding to objective reality’.
  3. The purpose of language is primarily to communicate truth.

The third proposition should be considered broad enough to incorporate or at least be sympathetic to elements of Wittgensteinian “language games”.

In this context, reflects and behind appear to be appropriate metaphors for the relationship between beautiful writing and reality.

People with diverse and divergent philosophies would not agree with my statement that “Beautiful writing reflects the reality, the truth, behind it.”  Perhaps they would argue that the beauty of writing is an entirely subjective phenomenon, or a socialised construct, or that beauty itself is a construct, or God knows what else.

I do not undertake this procedure whenever I write. Clearly I have not applied this level of rigour and parsimony to the whole of today’s post. In practice it seems best to aim first for the deepest truth we wish to communicate and to dwell on that truth until we are confident in expressing it as simply, appropriately, and therefore as beautifully as we might.

The conflicted storyteller

For years I’ve struggled on and off to write fiction.

I once wrote a novel, but it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very good, and I needed it to be so much better if I was to push it, believe in it, take it as far as it could go.

After a few years of consideration and doing other things – mostly discussing fiction with like-minded friends – I’m well aware of some of the faults in my past efforts. But like everything I do, there has to be a deeper reason, a cause or problem that prevents me from achieving what I want to achieve.  I must be missing something profound.

I still haven’t found the answer – I’ve found a dozen answers, and collectively they help, but it’s not enough to break through the malaise I feel when I try to write fiction.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really want to write fiction….

“Il n’y a pas de solution parce qu’il n’y a pas de problème”

There is no solution because there isn’t any problem

– Marcel Duchamp

That is, my motivation is complex. If I wanted to write fiction, I would be writing it. When I think about writing fiction, in fact I feel terrible about it. I think fiction is pointless, indirect, a waste of time, empty escapism. No wonder I don’t want to write it.

Yet I can’t let it go.

So now I think the truth is more like this: I want to write something, but I don’t know what it is. It is different from my current work, writing non-fiction articles. But the moment I look at the alternative of ‘fiction’ in its various guises, I feel that it is not that either. The reality is that I do not know how to write fiction yet, and all I have in mind to guide me are a dull set of limited conventions. I can easily write non-fiction because I know the essential parameter of seeking to understand and to solve a problem.  But when it comes to fiction I don’t know the essence, only the conventions and accidental characteristics.

So what are the essential parameters of fiction?

It turns out that ‘fiction’ is not a very useful word. It simply means something ‘imagined’ or ‘shaped, formed, made’.

‘Story’ is a better word. I do want to write a story, and it turns out that ‘story’ comes from ‘history’: a “relation of incidents”, not distinguished from the modern use of the term ‘history’.

So if I want to write a fictitious story, it means I wish to relate a series of incidents that did not happen. But why would I do this? What is the point or purpose, such that I could make it a good story, rather than a bad one?

Perhaps the essence of a fictitious story is not so different to the essence of an actual history? Indeed, if we go back further, from the Latin historia to the Greek historia, we find that the meaning changes from “narrative of past events, account, tale, story,” to “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative,”, which is in turn derived from histor “wise man, judge,”.

So is a history an account of the inquiries of a wise man?  But surely the real purpose of stories these days is merely to entertain?  And surely the kind of work that goes into creating modern fiction has little at all to do with wisdom and inquiry? Isn’t imagination and creativity the very opposite of inquiry?

This is, for me, the crux of the problem. Non-fiction is inquiry. My articles and even my private writing is aimed at inquiry, understanding, illumination. But my attempts at fiction appear to travel another direction entirely, toward imagination, unbounded elaboration, essentially frivolous fantasy.  And if I look at any one of the stories I’ve enjoyed in my life, can I truly claim to have learned anything from them? Have I gained anything more than entertainment and escapism? Is my desire to write fiction in fact a desire to participate in escapist entertainment more fully?

What do we gain from reading fictitious histories?