Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘literature

Useful guides and useless advice / Follow-up: Useless guides on writing

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Recently, I lamented the quality of guides on writing ([1]). A few remarks based on my later readings and thoughts:

  1. Speaking of “guides on writing” was not ideal. I should have used e.g. “guides on writing fiction”.

    While many guides on writing (in a more general or more mechanics-of-writing sense) are poor too, the chance of finding a good one is fairly large. Strunk’s The Elements of Style, briefly mentioned in [1], is a strong example and gives excellent value for the invested time. I have recently re-read it for the first time in about ten years, and intend to do so again in the near-by future.* Another long ago read that I have in very positive memory, and intend to re-read, is The King’s English, which improved my ability to think** about language considerably.

    *I do not agree with him on all points, but he can stimulate thought even where I disagree. I urge the reader to pick as original an edition as possible, however; ideally, even pre-White. I note e.g. that a much more recent edition that I leafed through in a book store seemed very far from the original in insight and attitude, and e.g. even spoke of the need to replace an original “she” for “America” with “this country” (or similar), and included example texts by e.g. Toni Morrison, who, I strongly suspect, would not have met Strunk’s approval in terms of grammar and style.

    **Something that far outweighs the risk of encountering outdated rules.

  2. I have since found and read a few works on Wikisource more worthy of attention than those criticized in [1]. The most notable is The Craftsmanship of Writing, which is another good source of thought and understanding, as opposed to the canned, pre-chewed, follow-my-instructions-without-thinking advice of many modern guides.

    A lesser, but still positive, example is Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing. Stevenson, of course, was himself a best-selling author (cf. a complaint in [1]).

    I give an honorary mention to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition when juxtaposed with another discussion of “The Raven” (note the skepticism as to whether Poe should be taken at face value).

  3. Outside of Wikisource, I have also read Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics”, which can be quite helpful in understanding the limits of literary criticism, the benefit (or even need?) to see a work from the author’s perspective, and Tolkien’s own approach to writing fiction.

    Indeed, combining Tolkien’s text with earlier thoughts of my own (notably, [2]), as well as some library readings on literature, I am growing skeptical to literary criticism as a field and profession. There are differences in accomplishment between authors;* however, a discussion of an accomplished author might fail through a too limited understanding of the author’s intentions, and disapproval might say more about the critic’s understanding of the work than about the work. A particular complication is failure to understand what results from a deliberate artistic choice and what from lack of ability.

    *As demonstrated e.g. by comparing short-stories by typical school children with short-stories by typical professional authors.

    (But I doubt that this will keep me from writing the odd critical piece of my own.)

  4. Even non-book advice can be quite poor. I recall e.g. the border-line idiotic writing “process” that we were force-fed in school: Write down (by hand) a first draft. Write it down again as a second draft, making whatever changes are wanted. Write it down a third time, making only minor changes (e.g. to correct spelling) and with a main focus of legibility of hand-writing. This is both inefficient and boring, turning writing into mere busy work bordering on taking dictation. For someone who struggled with hand-writing, like yours truly, it was a disaster, killing my interest in writing for many years.
  5. One extremely good piece of advice that I have encountered repeatedly: Read own texts out loud.

    I have so far limited myself to “reading in my head”, but have still seen a considerable improvement in my ability to spot language errors ([3]). This likely for the dual reason that I am forced to read considerably slower than when reading normally, and that differences in “sound alike” words are enhanced, reducing the risk of accidental confusion. (The latter is a particular problem of mine, cf. [3].) A third explanation might be that I have now have two cognitive systems working in parallel, the “reading” and the “hearing” ones.

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 30, 2019 at 8:53 am

The struggling author II

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Fairly soon after my “struggling author” piece, things started to fall into place, and by now, just short of the one-month mark, I have found my way to roughly a 40-hour week.* Moreover, I currently have no motivation problems, and self-discipline is correspondingly a non-issue.

*In terms of work relating directly to my book, ranging from research to actual writing; not including e.g. the reading of works by others or a few blog posts.

On the downside, the amount of actual output is still fairly low* and much of that in the process of being re-re-revised. This because I still am navigating some beginner’s mistakes, still have to think about some things that I expect to be automatic later on,** and have repeatedly found that my character conceptions and plot-outline require considerable changes in light of what I learned about them during writing***. I count on all three issues improving with time as I grow better and as the characters/plot reach a sufficient maturity.

*At roughly 13 thousand words or a little more than a quarter of the expected output for the National Novel Writing Month, including the short-story mentioned in the previous text. (The “raw” output, including the removed and the rewritten, is obviously higher than the “polished” output, but certainly not by anything near a factor of four. Then again, I likely have quality ambitions well above most NNWM participants.)

**Paralleling my experiences from e.g. programming, that every time a similar situation is encountered, the renewed decision will fall faster, be better, and/or require less thought, until it is at some point “internalized” or is made “by instinct”.

***Which, paradoxically, implies that it was a good idea to start writing before planning was finished: Writing has revealed weaknesses and problems that I was too inexperienced to spot just through planning. This might or might not be different for future books.

A problem area is dialogue: With all those movies and TV shows watched, I had assumed that dialogue would be fairly easy. In reality, I find that virtually everything said sounds highly unnatural in the first attempt. Moreover, the “voices” of the main protagonists are too inconsistent: comparing two chapters, I found that they each had different voices from each other (good) in both chapters, but that the voices were not consistent (bad) between the chapters… That the (non-dialogue) prose is easier might be a side-effect of all the past blogging, and that I have hardly written one word of dialogue since leaving school.* To my surprise, and in contrast, I have had no problems leaving the style of writing of my blog behind, in favor of something smoother and more “fictionally sound” (I still need to improve, but I am far closer to where I want to be than with dialogue).

*A semi-recent parody of Plato aside, where even the attempt at sounding natural would have been contrary to the purpose.

This matches a more general topic of previous experiences, readings, whatnot being of less value than expected, because they did not have the purpose to further my own writing: Over my almost four decades as a reader, I much too rarely stopped to think about what made a book good, what could be done differently, what means the author had used to achieve a certain effect, etc. The result is that I gained much less (from an aspiring author’s perspective) from the reading that I would today—and that I have a great many works and authors that I need to re-acquaint myself with.

On the upside, this first month has given me a much better understanding of what is missing in my skill-set, what qualities can make a book great, what means and possibilities there are, and so on—and I am now confident that I can become quite good at writing fiction. (But note that I still suspect that it will take years. The difference between “now” and “a month ago” is the certainty that I can do it, given enough time.)

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August 29, 2019 at 4:39 am

Further thoughts on the City Pentalogy

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I have finally, after thirty-something years, finished* Per Anders Fogelström’s “City Pentalogy” (cf. excursion in [1]). My feelings remain mixed, and I would rate book one considerably above the others. A particular problem with the later books is that the author’s attention is divided over more and more individuals, making it hard to build sympathy, vest interest, develop insight into characters, or even keep track of who is who—reading book five, I had to make use of the included family trees again and again. The average** year might cover a dozen pages. This can work when, as in book one, there is a clear focus on a single character. By book five, the attention is split*** over possibly two dozen characters, who then might average half-a-page per year… In the end, Henning, the protagonist of the first book, is the only character that I truly clicked with, that truly felt “real”, even if a few others came close. (See e.g. [2] for earlier discussions of sympathy and identification.)

*Even now, somewhat incompletely: The second book is still missing, implying that I have not yet gone through the whole series in one sequence, and that I am left with a sense of incompleteness this time too. (Obviously, many claims made here must be taken with a reservation for the contents and quality of the missing book.) To boot, this led to a pause of several weeks between my finishing book one and starting on book three. Still, I have now definitely read all five books at one time or another.

**The division is very uneven. Some years have not a single page or share a chapter with several other years. Others have several chapters on their own.

***However, as with the years, the split is very uneven. The overall page count is likely “won” by Henning’s daughter Emilie, who features in all five books, from birth to death, and is something of a focus character in books three and four, and the parts of five before her death. Some others, e.g. his great-grand-son Henning (“the second”), who inherits the focus in book five, might also rival Henning (“the first”). (Note that I use “focus” quite loosely.)

For my own writings, this is a warning not to introduce too many core characters: Not only might this lead to too little time per head, but it might also make the reader see them as a fungible dime-a-dozen characters, whose fortunes and misfortunes can be shrugged off. (Note the contrast to the ensemble take in [2].)

I also suspect that Fogelström wrote book one with a greater dedication than the later books, later often trying to fill a quota of pages. (In all fairness, the total page count might be around 1500, in my edition.) A contrast with my own writings, after all of three weeks, is that I currently have a number of key scenes that I plan and partially write, with what might amount to filler* between them.** In the “City”, there appears to be few or no key scenes, but still a lot of text that feels like filler.

*Which is not to say that this filler will be boring, pointless, or irrelevant to the story—just that it will not be “key”.

**Whether my own take will be fruitful or continue in that manner, I cannot yet tell. However, I do note that e.g “The Lord of the Rings”, which I have also re-read in parallel, seems to follow a similar pattern of key scenes and filler. (And I suspect that a part of Tolkien’s popularity goes back to the great number of scenes that can be considered “key” or else “highly memorable”.)

Similarly, Fogelström might have been too unfocused in general topic: Is this a family saga, a history of Stockholm*, a description of working-class life, a documentation of Swedish politics, … Trying to do all of these is not necessarily an error, but when we combine it with the above abundance of characters and the low page count per year, it becomes a problem—the more so, because the focus is continually widened, increasingly addressing a global situation.**

*While a prior knowledge of Stockholm is not necessary to understand the books, it will likely increase enjoyment considerably—especially, for those who once could recognize events, buildings, developments, whatnots, from their own experience. (The latter group is far smaller, and covers a smaller portion of the time line, today than when the books were written, in the 1960s. I, e.g., was born in 1975, and only moved to Stockholm in 1994.)

**This is almost certainly a deliberate choice. The fifth book is titled “Stad i världen” (“City in the world”; or, possibly, “City surrounded by the world” or “City as part of the world”, going more by implication.)

As a final negative, much of the language is fragmented in a manner that reduces readability, introduces ambiguity, or becomes outright annoying. This includes both heavy use of the full-stop where e.g. a comma would have been expected and a tendency to drop subjects. For instance, a paragraph of the fifth book reads:*

*With reservations for mistyping. The passage is found close to the end of the chapter “Nära Stillhetens hav”. The page was picked at random. This is the whole paragraph.

Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Inte nu. Kände snarast saknad, smärta. För sent, för gammal för henne.

Translation:

Once* he would have been ashamed** of it. Not now. Felt rather longing***, pain. Too late, too old for her.

*“In the past” would be more literal, but is awkward for the four-letter “Förr”.

**The English “ashamed” might be a little stronger than “skamsen”.

***I cannot think of a truly good English match for “saknad”. Contextually, “absence” might be better. More literally, it indicates a feeling or state of missing something/someone. Cf. e.g. “Jag saknar dig”/“I miss you”. (Note that a re-write to accommodate such language differences would ruin the example.)

This might be acceptable as a single occurrence of deep introspection, but similar formulations are quite common, often in trivial situations. I would argue that e.g. the following is stronger, while grammatically sounder and still somewhat in the same style:

Once he would have been ashamed. Now he felt longing, pain. It was too late; he was too old for her.

Respectively:

Förr skulle han ha varit skamsen över det. Nu kände han saknad, smärta. Det var för sent; han var för gammal för henne.

Among more neutral items, many of which surprise me in the works of a Left-leaning author:*

*However, there are also many clearly pro-Left statements that give the impression of being Fogelström’s own opinions.

  1. Much of the books deal with changes: changes to the city, changes to life, changes to working conditions, changes to technology, …, but also changes to attitudes and maturity. Notably, there are repeated references to attitude differences that more-or-less match what many* say about the “millennials” today, e.g. that they are too soft, have it too easy, are too lazy, are too immature, … Indeed, Henning came to Stockholm, alone, at 15 (give or take) and had to fend for himself and take adult responsibility from day one—and he was a working orphan** even before that. In book five, we have persons in their twenties going to university, teens getting into trouble because of “too much” spare time,*** someone turning 18 and immediately driving a car, …

    *To some degree, I do too. However, I see a wider problem over a hundred or more years that too many of any generation take their current life-style for granted and fail to understand how much harder members of prior generations had it (on average). Ditto in comparisons with less fortunate countries. I see this view validated by the books.

    **Unless I misremember. It is conceivable that he was “just” estranged or otherwise unable to draw on parental support. (This part of his life is only known through later references and have not remained very clearly with me.)

    ***Here and elsewhere, unless the opposite is clear, I relate my impression from/of the books and the author’s attitude, without necessarily agreeing or claiming that the books are realistic.

  2. The issue of too much spare time could also be seen as part of another pattern: the division of the subjects into ambitious hard-workers and “no goods”*. Every generation appeared to have several of these, who tried to get by on crime, begging, borrowed money, and/or prostitution; who felt that having fun was more important than planning ahead; or similar. They invariably (?) fared poorly in life and died young or young-ish.

    *My ad-hoc term. The books have no equivalent term.

    At least one character (almost certainly someone in the Berg family) even had extensive thoughts on how the “no good” life-style was something to be proud of—better to beg or steal than to work. (As opposed to the typical Leftist explanation that those who beg or steal have been driven to the edge of society by need, misfortune, “discrimination”, …)

    On a lesser scale, there is some division between the competent hard-workers and those who are incompetent or lazy (while still actually being employed).

  3. As a special case, there is a large proportion of women who are (too their own detriment) promiscuous or outright prostitutes. There are also several cases, not limited to women, of too calculating marriages that end in unhappiness. Consider e.g. Klara and Annika, who are room-mates with Henning (and several others) early in the first book: Klara prostitutes herself, grows into an alcoholic, ages prematurely, and dies in her late thirties (?). Annika dedicates herself to finding a rich husband. She succeeds, but her marriage is not happy and she remains childless (except for an adoption). Their similarities and differences is one of the stronger points of the first book.

    An interesting variation is the case of Tyra, a later promiscuous woman who dies at forty and spends most of her life in poverty with a considerably older “no good”. She appears to be genuinely dedicated to her husband and (likely, my memory is vague) to her children, while lacking in judgment. A similar dedication is not a given among other spouses and parents, even when hard-working and intelligent.

  4. These areas are over-lapping with the influence on own success (cf. [1]), which is unusual for Leftist material. While it is rare for the poor to become rich, the lowest-of-the-low almost always have themselves to blame: Those who are lazy and irresponsible mostly descend in life; those industrious and responsible mostly, barring the odd stroke of bad luck, ascend.* Similarly, competence plays a role for success. One character, likely Leftist activist/politician Gunnar, even explicitly considers how equality (implied: of outcome) appeared impossible, and how even equal opportunities seemed to lead to differences in outcome.

    *Henning, who arguably worked himself to death, might be seen as strong counter-example, but even he had a broadly upwards tendency before his sickness. I suspect, however, that Fogelström’s goals in the first book were more strongly focused on showing the horrible 19th-century conditions and later drifted, be it because of an own change of priorities or the great societal improvements that did take place. (Note that the books cover roughly twenty years each, implying that the conditions change considerably between every “first page”. With book two missing, I have a forty year gap between two of the first pages…)

  5. Considerable space is spent on conflicts within the Leftist movements, notably Social-Democrats vs. Communists and Communist faction A vs. Communist faction B. This plays in well with a text that I have in long planning (do not hold your breath) concerning the “First they came …” concept with regard to the Left, the great abuse of “Fascist” to include anyone not of the right Leftist sub-sect, and similar. Indeed, these books are just one of many places where I have encountered variations of “Social-Fascist” to refer to Social-Democrats.* Or consider the well-documented condemnation of e.g. Trotskyists as Fascists, this problem area being an important inspiration for “Animal Farm”.

    *Without giving any signs that Fogelström, himself, would see such an equivalence. He merely reports a historical propaganda/defamation use.

As an aside: Many characters have great similarities between generations. I am not certain, e.g., whether this is a result of laziness when creating characters, whether something almost inevitable, or whether the author has deliberately pushed similarities. The latter might be to prove a point about types of humans recurring, to see how the “same” character fares in different times, to illustrate how some characteristics can run in families (if so, because of nature or nurture?), or similar.

Excursion on prior reading:
I can now date my second attempt (cf. [1]) a little more precisely: I found an accompanying note from my mother, dated “100122”, i.e. January 22nd, 2010. The books will have arrived a little later. (This makes the occasion my 35th birthday, on the 19th of the same month, which indeed made me slightly older than Henning at his death.) I found the note somewhere in the first half of the forth book, likely implying that this is where my reading ended. However, I also found an old (unrelated) receipt very early in the fifth book, which could imply that I had actually finished the fourth book, and got held up in the fifth (or, e.g., that I just had put the receipt there temporarily to clear a desk).

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August 21, 2019 at 10:29 pm

Useless guides on writing

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For natural reasons, I have looked into various writing guides lately. Almost all have one thing in common–they are proof that the author is not qualified to write on the topic… (Often reducing my skepticism to the claim, “those who can do, do; those who cannot, teach”, in the process.)

Consider William Zinsser and his “On Writing Well” (specifically, the “30th anniversary edition”): The introduction begins with one of the worst “anti-hooks” (cf. parts of [1]) that I have ever seen—a discussion of an only tangentially relevant photograph. This is followed by a paragraph on how visitors are drawn to the photograph, followed by a paragraph on how writing has gone electronic but the photograph remains relevant (in the opinion of the author). What follows then, I do not know, because I decided to skip the rest of the introduction…

Now, does the story about the photograph have a valid and valuable point? It probably does, but this point could be made much better by actually getting to that point! (Which might be that writing is ultimately about the writer, or ultimately a human activity, or similar.) Even what might be valid about the photograph could be condensed to three sentences instead of three paragraphs.

The first regular chapter does contain a few good points and an interesting contrast between two authors, one who writes as a “vocation” (Zinsser) and one as an “avocation” (a “Dr. Brock”). However, this chapter, too, starts with an anti-hook: irrelevant background on how the two came to form a panel and discuss their writing with a group of students. I almost skipped ahead another chapter then and there. This type of writing might, barely, be acceptable in fiction, but not in a non-fiction work where the reader actually reads with the purpose of learning. (If I had seen these two anti-hooks in fiction, I might instead have complained about the blandness of the writing—the excuse that they would simultaneously serve as good examples of fiction does not hold.*)

*Obviously, the standards for writing fiction and non-fiction are different, and so are the purposes of fiction and non-fiction. It would be conceivable that these writing guides are poor, because an author who is good at fiction does not have the skills to write non-fiction. However, these anti-hooks would only very rarely make good fiction either—be they by Zinsser or someone else.

I persevered, going through such irrelevancies as the color of Dr. Brocks’ jacket…, and found material that a better writer would have condensed into no more than half the space—likely less.

Chapter two, admittedly, begins with a reasonable introduction: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (and an equally reasonable and relevant continued first paragraph).* Even Strunk (“Omit needless words.”) might have approved.

*I might have objected to the common misuse of “America” to refer to the United States of America, the likely unnecessary U.S. restriction, or questioned whether the rest of the paragraph was needed. I definitely have problems with the hypocrisy of his complaint in light of his own writing… (Notwithstanding my own wordiness—this is a point that I am far from mastering.)

But: A few pages later, I encountered the outrageously ignorant PC claim that use of “he” for “the writer” and “the reader” would be sexist… Note: not “outdated”, not “offensive to some groups”, not “contrary to modern norms”—but “sexist”! I am skeptical enough ([2]) to the relevance of the alternative motivations, but the use of “sexist” is inexcusable and entirely out of line, making implications about the intentions and mindset of others that are pure speculation—and usually wrong.

At this point, I could no longer take the author seriously, and threw the book away.

Similar problems appear to be quite common in this type of literature.

A particular annoyance is the “expert” who has his mind set solely on the writing of best-sellers, with no regard for other purposes of writing. True: I would love for my writing to earn me an early retirement (and I am not above writing a “pot-boiler”). However: That is not why I write… I write in the hope to develop myself further, to reach some degree of competence as a writer, and to, possibly, leave something behind that will be considered a strong literary accomplishment.*** In the choice between the success and accomplishment of, respectively, Stephanie Meyer and Kafka, I would take Kafka any day.* And: how many of these “experts” have actually written a best-seller (in fiction) of their own?** Indeed, comparing likely scenarios, my best bet to lead a comfortable life with early retirement would be to continue my career as an IT consultant.

*Where I go by Kafka’s success during his life time. What followed later, was of little use to him… (And it is hard to name worthwhile “serious” authors that have had few readers, and have been read by me, and will be recognized by the typical reader of this text.)

**I have personally read only one book on writing by someone who qualifies—Stephen King’s “On Writing”. While this book is quite weird, it has also, so far, been the most useful.

***Also see some texts on the same attitude from my pre-fiction days, e.g. [3], [4].

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August 15, 2019 at 1:00 am

The struggling author

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Almost ten days ago, I became a professional author, and I soon jokingly referred to myself as a struggling author.

This joke has turned out to be depressingly true, if not in the more common has-trouble-to-make-ends-meet sense: I have really struggled with the transition.

This in several regards, including:

  1. The trouble with switching from my sabbatical and its great freedom to a more structured schedule. True, I likely used to spend about a full work-week per week doing things like studying, reading, writing blog posts, etc., with an eye on personal development, rather than (just) fun. True, my new schedule* is not that straining and still allows much more freedom than a desk-job. Still, the switch has been surprisingly hard, both with the needed extra self-discipline** and the restrictions on choice.

    *Currently, I have four hours a day set aside to plan/research/write, one hour to read specifically about writing, and a handful of hours to read literature that I believe to be helpful for my development (also see excursion). The proportions will likely shift away from reading as I develop my skills.

    **I know from experience that once I start to postpone tasks until tomorrow, things can slide very fast. This might be acceptable for a hobby, but would be disastrous for a professional career. I simply must take a different attitude than during my sabbatical.

  2. I had great early problems using my time productively, to find out what I all needed and wanted to do and how to approach it. For instance, with most of my past (non-fiction) writing, I have just had an idea, mulled it over for a while, started to write, and the let the process take over. This has not worked at all—in part, because the book I have in my mind is has a lot of pieces that do not yet fit together. Indeed, I have so far written very little text, because the planning has taken over. While this is likely a good thing (at this stage), it leads to the next issue.*

    *I know that there is a school of “just sit down and write”. While I do not say that this is a bad idea, it does not fit who I am today and the comparatively complex book I am currently working on. However, I promise not to postpone the actual writing ad eternam and I do realize that planning beyond a certain point will not be productive.

  3. What I had planned in my head during my sabbatical simply does not work: The pieces, again, do not yet fit together. I have too little of a clue what will happen beyond a certain point. The characters are too shallow. The overall rules of the universe are not yet clear. Etc. (Of course, all these are things that could make anything written too early “wrong” as things clarify.)

    On the bright side, I have made great progress and am actually starting to understand what I want to write. (Whereas I just believed that I understood it ten days ago.)

  4. My understanding of writing fiction has altered dramatically. Being specific is hard, but the analogy of having read about cold water and the jumping into it shows the general idea. While it can be safely assumed that my understanding will continue to change over the years, this time has been humbling. In particular, I had not quite understood how much there is going on behind the scenes of a text. I have encountered advice about prose, motivation, character, …, in various forms since I was a teenager, but actually trying to write a non-trivial text contemplating such aspects is something different.

    This in part through writing (a first draft of) a short-story* in parallel to planning the book, which has been a very valuable learning experience. However, it has also shown me how long the distance to mastery still is.

    *While comparatively short, it is much more “intellectually ambitious” than the small exercise and experiment stories I have written in the past.

  5. I have had various annoying and unexpected problems of other kinds, e.g. an unexpected computer crash* when I had really delved into my short-story or in that I have tried to use an external keyboard, which has had weird side-effects. (Specifically, killing the middle-button on my mouse and the Umlaut-generation on the keyboards. I still do not know what has gone wrong, despite hours spent trouble-shooting.)

    *They are very rare with me, but when they do happen, it is always at a particular inconvenient time. Moreover, with various passwords, encryption, user accounts, …, it can take a while before I am up-and-running again, which kills motivation.

Nevertheless, I remain with my decision: I might not have known how cold the water would be (at least not during the early days), but I did know that it would take years to get where I want to be, and I do know the difference between doing something as a hobby and doing it professionally—-the one is fun, the other is work. I also take comfort in sayings like “Aller Anfang ist schwer”* and “Alla är vi barn i början”**.

*German: Every beginning is hard. (More literally, possibly, “Everything’s beginning […]”.)

**Swedish: We are all children in the beginning.

A caveat to others, however: My situation is special. I have the luxury of having a few years worth of living expenses saved up and my decision to go pro was partially motivated by the wish to learn how to write fiction, in that I knew that being a pro would be helpful in a different manner from just dilly-dallying as an amateur with a dozen other interests. Most others should learn how to write well first and go pro later (if at all). Certainly, quitting a job the one week and concluding that writing will not work out the next (understatement of the year) is not a good career move.

Excursion on future updates:
Do not expect overly many. Between fiction and my (other) blogging, I will likely prefer to not burden my fingers with additional blog posts. Moreover, I intend to seek anonymous publishing, implying that sharing book-specific details might be a bad idea.

Excursion on reading:
An incidental, if possibly temporary, change is that I read in a very different manner at the moment. In the past, it was mostly a matter of entertainment; now, I often actively think about various aspects of the text, notably what works well, what does not, and respectively why. (Including formulations, structure, plot, …)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2019 at 2:19 am

Tolkien and applicability vs. allegory / Follow-up: Observations around literary criticism and interpretation

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In preparation for my own writings, I am revisiting a few old favorites. I just started on Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring”, and found this claim in the foreword:

I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

This single sentence concisely covers much of what I try to say in the second half of an earlier text.

More generally, it is interesting how Tolkien rejects suggested hidden meanings, allegories, connections with WWII, … This despite (because?) the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy being highly open to interpretation. Indeed, specifically a WWII influence felt obvious to me as a young* reader, in the repeated rises of Sauron resp. Germany and how both World Wars changed the world sufficiently that it might be warranted to speak of a new era—just like in Tolkien’s history.

*How young I do not know. My first reading might have been at age nine or ten, but I am not certain that I already knew enough about WWII and the overall situation to already have this image, implying that it might have arisen during a later reading.

With age, of course, I have been less likely to make such interpretations, because the analogies hold poorly, e.g. with WWI Germany (or the other “Central Powers”) not being more evil than other countries, and the “Allies” of WWII containing a very comparable evil to Hitler’s Germany in Stalin’s Soviet, or with the dubious identification of WWI Germany (respectively, the “Central Powers”) with WWII Germany (respectively, “Axis Powers”) Indeed, shortly before the above quote, Tolkien discusses how a strong WWII influence on the book would have implied changes that blurred* the difference between good and evil.

*Likely, to him; definitely, to me: I note my repeated claims that “evil is as evil does”, “fascist is as fascist does”, etc. (However, I stress that Hitler, like Sauron, instigated the evils and pushed them further, and that any evil acts by the Allies would have been made unnecessary by his absence.)

As an aside, for a beginning author looking forward, this foreword, by an accomplished author looking backward, is very interesting and educational.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 4, 2019 at 1:14 pm

Paul Carpenter’s further adventures / Follow-up: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As a brief follow-up to an earlier text and its addendum:

I have by now finished re-reading the two* sequels of “The Portable Door”, and find myself a bit disappointed: I read a number of Holt’s books around the time when I encountered “The Portable Door”, and found most of them low quality—funny, imaginative, and good for a one-off read to keep me entertained on a train, yes; Pratchett-level and strong candidates for re-readings, no. (I briefly visited his Wikipedia page, and he appears to be high on quantity, which might explain the quality.) “The Portable Door” was an exception, a level or two above the others. The first sequel, “In Your Dreams” kept quality up reasonably, but was a little too exaggerated in places (a common fault with Holt). The second, “Earth, Air, Fire and Custard”**, was back to his more typical level, including pushing the Paul-dying-and-meeting-Mr-Dao joke too far, having custard*** as a fifth element, having an entire dimension made of custard, and fiddling with time-lines and in-book continuity in a manner that did not make much sense. To boot, the third book appears to close the lid on a series that could otherwise have been continued for another few books, had he been more dedicated to quality—I would have enjoyed seeing Paul’s (now terminated) career at J. W. Wells unfold.

*With reservation for books that I am not yet aware of.

**I am not clear on why “water” was left out of the title (or why the comma after “Fire” is missing”). I could see an angle of wanting to keep the name short, but leaving “water” out makes it very weird, and opting for some other name entirely would have been a better solution. (Going by the contents of the book, “Custardspace” would have been a candidate, but more thought might produce a better suggestion.)

***Strictly speaking, something almost custard, but the difference is barely interesting.

A particular issue was inter-book continuity, where book 1 shows Paul (and girl-friend/colleague Sophie) hired for some set of natural talents, book 2 describes him as a multi-generation breeding project by his Uncle Ernie to combat one of the partners of J. W. Wells for the safety of humanity (resulting in said talents and, consequently, J. W. Wells’ interest), and book 3 suddenly gives co-credit to a God-like being who engineers Paul and Sophie to combat another partner… To boot, it is hinted that this being is Paul’s biological father, which would make half of Uncle Ernie’s project invalid. (You see what I mean about quality—he sometimes reaches a point where a parody of his works would be less absurd than the works themselves.)

An interesting aspect, however, is that Paul’s engineering and education to a considerably degree deliberately included loserdom and ignorance—to the point that he was artificially put to sleep during many school lessons. This book 3 issue explains e.g his ignorance of Chekhov, which I commented upon in my first text. (Because I had only read book 3 once, many years ago, I had no recollection of this. Moreover, this could not affect the identification issue for a first-time reader of book 1.)

As an aside, my addendum claim “[…] giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies […]” lacks in generality, because it only holds one view-point. Fear and danger likely works even better, e.g. when someone has the sword of Damocles hanging over his head for an extended time.* (Also good for creating suspense.) Similarly, I suspect that e.g. despair can be used decently for the same purpose.

*Most or all of these can be rephrased in terms of hope, but doing so usually misses the point. For instance, a fear that Voldemort will rise again is a more natural and stimulating angle than the hope that he will not. (In contrast, the hope that Harry will defeat him, should he rise again, will often be more natural than the fear that Harry will not.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 30, 2019 at 10:41 pm