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Mythopoeia

J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius.

I know, I know. It’s not “cool” nowadays to be unequivocally enthusiastic in one’s admiration for anyone or anything. But I can’t help it. I am a total Tolkien fangirl and I unabashedly love everything he wrote. And I’m not just talking about his absolutely brilliant stories. Tolkien was, of course, a tremendous scholar not just of language but of literature.

Tolkien coined a few new terms related to storytelling. The term “sub-creation” refers to the creation of a secondary world with its own rules and laws. The term “eucatrastrophe” is, in Tolkien’s words, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears” (from On Fairy Stories). Tolkien felt this mechanism was the “highest function” of fairy stories. I had read and been familiar with these two terms before. But I finally came upon a third yesterday.

Mythopoeia. Literally, myth-making.

Tolkien used the term to describe what he did, crafting a mythology that draws from and uses the essential elements and truths found in real world mythologies and legends. It is meant to illuminate those fundamentals of our real world mythologies by exploring them in a created setting, a secondary world. The word has now come to be used to describe the genre of writers who attempt this feat.

And I, who have been wandering lost and confused amidst the modern fantasy genre, repulsed by much that I see, and wondering if this modern fantasy is truly what I am writing and if it is truly what I want to write, have seen the light of day. The answer is no, I am not a modern fantasy writer. Tolkien described what I want to do. My goal is mythopoeic sub-creation. I am writing mythopoeia, not fantasy.

Thank you, Tolkien, for having just the right words.

I found and read Tolkien’s poem called Mythopoeia and, as usual, was amazed by Tolkien’s genius with words. Tolkien was apparently responding to C.S. Lewis who felt that myths were lies and therefore useless even though “breathed through silver”. Tolkien’s return argument is indisputably elegant and lovely. Here’s an excerpt from the poem, which I found online here:

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.

I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.

“Blessed are the legend makers”! Yes, sign me up for that! I think there is something fundamentally missing from much modern fantasy and I think it’s tied to the loss of the genre’s roots as myth and fairy tale and legend. I’ll talk more about that in another post, but for now I am heartened and enthusiastic about digging back into those roots myself. And perhaps one day being an influence for bringing the genre back to its vibrant traditions. I love myth and fairy tale and legend and I think most fantasy readers do as well. I think there is a thirst for more offerings that draw from that tradition and that take on the task of mythopoeic sub-creation. I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge, but I’m going to do my best.

New Beginnings

I made the decision recently after much pondering to move my blogging efforts over to blogspot. I like wordpress, but it’s clear that as far as connecting with much of the established community of writing bloggers, blogspot definitely has advantages. At least, it makes it easier to choose the same site that most writers use for people like me who are not very good with computers.

So from now on I will be using subcreator.blogspot.com as my main site. Though for a time I will probably cross post here as well. And I’m totally going to start posting more regularly again. Today. Or tomorrow. Soon. Really.

Does anyone know a reliable way to beat the tendency to procrastinate?

Yesterday I read this post over at the Magical Words blog where author Faith Hunter gave some tips about writing a pitch that identifies your fantasy subgenre and offered give advice on reader’s pitches in the comments. Well, obviously my story is still in the beginning stages but I decided it would be fun to write something on the fly. Of course, as my last post indicates, I don’t actually intend to pitch my story to any agents or editors. But I thought it would be fun to see how well I could succinctly sum up my story’s premise. Here’s what I posted:

Kamose-Ausare is a priest of Re. His duty is to perform the rituals that maintain order in the cosmic drama that plays out every day between god and mortal, heaven, earth and underworld and also to never, ever ask questions. When at the height of Re’s most sacred festival the unthinkable occurs and the sun becomes temporarily darkened in the midst of the day, Kamose is ordered to search the sacred writings to learn the truth about what happened. But no one, not even his closest companion, Setekhpenre, could have anticipated the horrifying actions that Kamose’s new-found knowledge would drive him to or how close Kamose will bring his people to the brink of ultimate destruction as a result. Now only the utmost sacrifice will save their world and nothing will ever be the same again.

I liked how I began it, but I was trying to keep it short and felt that I became too vague at the end. I felt it was important to mention Setekhpenre because he is an important main character but struggled with how to do so while maintaining brevity and not giving away too much.

Here’s Faith’s comment and her edit of my pitch:

As to your blurb, think you tell a bit much in some areas and bit too little in others, so perhaps tighten and cut and clarify? I guessed at some things, like the ultimate sacrifice, so correct me where I am off:

Kamose-Ausare is a priest of the god Re. At the height of Re’s most sacred festival, the sun temporarily darkens and Kamose must search the sacred writings to learn the truth. But Kamose’s new-found knowledge drives him to do the unthinkable, and brings his people to the brink of ultimate destruction. Now it seems only the ultimate sacrifice will save their world.

Wow. That’s a lot shorter and really takes away a lot of the atmosphere I was trying to establish. It seems odd to me that agents would want so much less information in a pitch. How can they possibly tell if they’d be interested when you’re supposed to boil down your novel to a few pithy sentences that can hardly be expected to do your story justice? Perhaps this is part of what’s wrong with the publishing industry nowadays.

However, as I said, I won’t be querying so I don’t have to worry about what agents want. (HA!) What I will end up doing is writing a nice book description when I put up my finished work on Amazon. I’m not sure what the restrictions are for book descriptions, but from what I’ve seen they can be a decent length. And I think readers would appreciate a thorough description rather than just a blatant attempt to hook them in with cunning word play that may or may not end up conveying the style of the work. At least, as a reader, that’s what I want. I want to get a good feel for the style and atmosphere of the story as well as the main goals of the plot and characters. And I think that particularly in fantasy it’s important to try and convey the type of world the reader will find themselves in. After all, isn’t the secondary world aspect one of the big reasons that people read fantasy? Perhaps in no other genre is setting as important as plot and characters.

So I decided to see how I could expand my above pitch into a more effective book description.

Kamose-Ausare is a priest of Re. His duty is to perform the rituals that maintain order in the cosmic drama that plays out every day between god and mortal, heaven, earth and underworld and also to never, ever ask questions. When at the height of Re’s most sacred festival the unthinkable occurs and the sun becomes temporarily darkened in the midst of the day, Kamose is ordered to search the sacred writings to learn the truth about what happened.

No one, not even his closest companion, Setekhpenre, could have anticipated the horrifying actions that Kamose’s new-found knowledge would drive him to or how close Kamose will bring his people to the brink of ultimate destruction as a result. Setekhpenre finds himself caught up in Kamose’s dangerous agenda against his will and must find a way to stop his friend before the entire world is covered in darkness and death. The price will be more than he ever expected.

There. I kind of like that. It would certainly make me interested anyway. What do you think?

Subgenre has been a question in my mind for some time now. As far as I can see, my story can’t fit into any subgenre other than epic/high fantasy, but even that subgenre doesn’t quite fit it. Epic fantasy makes me think of a 7-10 book long series where the story covers a huge map, involves several factions of people and ultimately leads to huge battles. Essentially, Wheel of Time has become synonymous with Epic Fantasy. And my tale certainly isn’t going to be anything like that.

I’m not sure what the term High Fantasy makes me think of. Something more akin to Tolkien’s Faerie, the perilous realm, I think. Something descended more closely from the early more fairy tale-ish writings of the fantasy writers from a century ago perhaps. But most people use it as entirely interchangeable with Epic Fantasy. Perhaps these connotations are all in my mind and no one else sees it that way. But if so, is there a subgenre for what I described? I can’t find one. But then when people refer to “traditional fantasy” they’re usually talking about fantasy with Elves and Dragons and such, which again I don’t have. I don’t know. Fantasy and its subgenres confuse me. I don’t seem to fit anywhere… yet. We’ll see.

One upside of all this trying to boil my story down to a short description is that I’ve come up with a working title. I have trouble with titles and normally wouldn’t want to come up with one until I’m done with a first draft, but it does get tiresome referring to my story all the time as simply “my story”. It makes it sound a little childish.  So I’ve decided to use the working title Light Land.

Light Land is the name of the nation this story is about, translated from their word Akhet. Akhet is an Egyptian word that refers to the place where the sun rises and sets. It is often translated as “horizon” and it is the name of the Egyptian’s season of Inundation. But in a few particular instances Egyptologist Jan Assmann translated the term as “Light Land” and I thought it just sounded so evocative and beautiful and fell in love with it. So Akhet is the name of my fantasy Egypt and I’m translating it as Light Land, which for now is my working title.

What do you think?

I’m Convinced

First, I’ve got Flu B running rampant around my household so this will probably be my only post until my head stops aching. Also, don’t expect me to be witty or insightful or anything. I have two other posts started that are supposed to be witty and insightful and wonderful in every way, but I soon began having trouble putting words together. So they’re on hold until this blows over. Sometimes I really hate winter.

Anyway, on to the subject of this post. If I can think long enough to remember what it is… Oh yes! I’m convinced.

One of the things that has always held me back from devoting myself to becoming an author was my fear of the publishing business, in particular all the trial and error and rejection I would have to suffer just trying to get in. This was NOT something I wanted to go through. I’m not the sort of person who deals well with rejection and failure.

Lately I had decided that it didn’t matter if I never got published, I was going to write the story anyway. Maybe only my husband would read it, but I was going to be ok with that. I just wanted to tell the story, you know? And the amount of readers wouldn’t matter to me.

Well, I’ve been confronted with another option: Self-publishing via ebooks.

I’ve been reading J.A. Konrath’s blog for a while where he has been vehemently defending his assertion that self-pubbing via ebooks is now a much better alternative than traditional publishing.  He’s also been running quest posts by a bunch of people who have been incredibly successful with the self-pub model. They aren’t just reaching readers, they’re making money too. And it’s not just the posts themselves. The comments are full of insights and stories of success. It’s not all wild success. But people who follow a basic formula (good cover, good title, good description, good price, online presence, and most of all quality book) are doing very well for themselves. Some are making thousands of dollars a month. (Yes, please!)

I’m becoming attracted to this self-pub thing for a few reasons.

One is all of the dark truths I’m learning about the traditional publishing industry by those who have been in the trenches. I think that many of us who spend their whole lives reading fanatically and dream tentatively about seeing our own contributions on the Barnes and Noble shelves develop a sort of fantasy image of publishing. We look up to the big publishing houses as sort of Saint Peter type gatekeepers, separating the wheat from the chaff (and obviously they’ll see that my book is wheat), doling out great rewards to those whose names appear in the Book of Life and whatnot. We tend to see traditional publishing, especially the big publishers, as heaven for writers.

But it’s just not like that. Publishing is a business and as such all that matters is profit. There are just as many horror stories out there as there are fairy tale success stories about publishing. And the thing that has finally made its self clear to me is that self publishing may be risky, you may not be a success, but traditional publishing is just as, if not more so, risky. Most traditionally published books are NOT very successful and life as a midlist author (which if you’re lucky to manage getting published and don’t completely bomb, you will most likely be) is anything but a bed of roses.

Another thing is simply control. Once you sign your book over to a publishing house you loose control and you may never get it back. You probably won’t get any say in your cover art. You might not even get to choose your own book’s title. According to Konrath, your book only has about 6 months in book stores to prove itself before it gets sent back (if it doesn’t sell well). There are about a million things stacked against you that you will not have any control over.

Personally, that scares the crap out of me. I’m the type of person who likes to be in control. And I view any story I’ve written as mine, my own, my precious. I don’t like the idea of signing it over to a company who might squander it and never being able to get it back again. I think self-publishing is right up my alley.

True, it means some additional work. There are things to think about like formatting and cover art that I might have to spend some money on. But by all accounts it can be done pretty cheaply. In fact, those are skills you could even learn yourself, if you have a knack for art or… whatever formatting requires. (I’m thinking of making my husband learn how to format for me actually. He’d be good at that technical stuff.) I think I might be able to do a cover, with some practice. I’ve even got some photos I took in Egypt years ago that I might be able to use for my first book.

Yes, I’ve been well and truly convinced and I’m excited. I don’t have to look forward to a long and tedious query process once I finish my book. I don’t have to wait another 18 months, even if I managed to get a publishing deal, for the book to actually be released. I can be in control and do what I need to do to make myself happy as a writer and author and I can do it as soon as I’m ready. It’s a nice, hopeful feeling.

The Tomb of Petosiris

This week’s quote comes from the inscriptions found on the tomb of a priest named Petosiris who lived in the last days of Egypt’s independence before Alexander the Great came. (All quotes taken from The Priests of Ancient Egypt by Serge Sauneron.)

It is useful to tread the path of the god, great are the advantages reserved for those who take care to follow it. It is a monument they raise for themselves on earth, they who set out to follow the way of the god. Those who hold to the path of the god, they will spend all their lives in joy, richer than their peers. They will grow old in their city, venerated in their nome*, all their limbs as young as a child’s. Their children will be numerous in their presence and considered the first of their city, their sons will succeed one another from generation to generation… They will reach the necropolis in joy, embalmed beautifully by the work of Anubis, and the children of their children will live on in their stead…. You have walked on the path of your lord Thoth, and after granting that these blessings be given to you on earth, he will bestow similar favors on you after death.

*nome= region

Petosiris was by all accounts a particularly pious priest. He was know by several impressive titles:

high priest who sees the god in his naos, who carried his lord and follows his lord, who enters into the holy of holies, who performs his functions together with the great prophets, the prophet of the Ogdoad, chief of the priests of Sakhmet, leader of the priests of the third and fourth phyles; the royal scribe who reckons all the property in the temple of Khmun.

And when his tomb was found there was graffiti from Greek tourists found on it that testify to how renowned Petosiris was in his time as a most holy man. One of them says:

I invoke Petosiris whose body is underground, but whose soul is in the abode of the gods: a sage, he is united with the sages.

Now, Sauneron makes it quite clear that Petosiris was one of the bright stars of the Egyptian priest class. Most of them, while perfectly honorable and conscientious in their duties, did not reach the level of spirituality of Petosiris and are only known as a list of names and titles. Others stand out on the other side of the spectrum by their criminal activities. Temples could be very rich places and some priests became corrupted and stole greedily from them or fought among themselves for priestly positions and benefits even to the point of murder. Such is human nature.

 

Angst about Angst

Well, I haven’t been very good about blogging the past couple of weeks. You know how it is. Sometimes there’s so much on one’s mind that it’s hard to know what to talk about. You’d think words would come so much easier to a writer but that’s not really true. At least not for me. But then, I prefer to think of myself more as “storyteller” than “writer”. “Writer” implies that the important thing is the words, but I don’t believe that. I think the most important thing is the story and stories go beyond words.

I think I’ve been less vociferous here lately because I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles and things around the internet that have disturbed me greatly. Or rather, they gave rise to thoughts the logical conclusions of which disturbed me greatly. The crux of my current dilemma is this:

Am I actually writing anything that people today will enjoy and appreciate?

It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that our society today has very different interests and values than my own. I’ve made it quite clear that, as a storyteller, Tolkien is my role model. I think it’s safe to say that Tolkien and I share the the same world view, interests and values. From things I have read lately, I am beginning to think that there is an ever growing number of people who reject these same interests, values and world view. The current trends in literature certainly seem to be moving far and away from the things that Tolkien and I love.

But, you may say, look how popular LOTR remains, how many people still love it. True, however, it seems that growing numbers of Tolkien’s fans love his stories despite their inherent world view and style not because of it. I’m not really sure how that works, but it seems to be the case. They say things like, “Tolkien’s story is brilliant but he’s obviousl racist and misogynistic” or “It’s a fantastic story but the writing is so dry and the characters are two dimensional”. (I disagree with both of those statements strongly, but this isn’t the place to go into it.) I, on the other hand, love pretty much everything about Tolkien’s world and stories and would write stories with a similar style, feel and world view.

But would this kind of thing be welcomed by anyone anymore?

Recently I listened to a bit of a podcast interview with Fantasy superstar Guy Gavriel Kay and he said something that made me realize exactly why I don’t enjoy most modern fantasy books. (I’m going to paraphrase here. This is NOT a direct quote because I’m too lazy to find the podcast again and listen to his exact words.) While reflecting on Tolkien as the standard of fantasy literature he said that one should build on all of the things that Tolkien did right while rejecting the things he did wrong. And he said that one of the things that modern fantasy writers need to leave behind is the old fashioned kind of world view found in Tolkien’s writings. He said that he, Kay, writes with a more modern world view in mind.

Well, for the record, I don’t much like any of Kay’s books (I think Tigana was the only exception) in particular his latest, Under Heaven. (I think I can get away with saying that because I’m still just a nobody aspiring author and my opinion certainly isn’t going to affect his sales.) And hearing him say that made me realize that the reason for this is precisely because of their modern world view. And then I realized that all of the books that I don’t enjoy very clearly contain a modern world view.

To me, that seems to completely defeat the purpose of fantasy. Why would I want to read about a place that is essentially the modern world but with different geography and swords instead of guns? Swords and dresses aren’t enough to do it for me, or I’d read a lot more historical fiction. But historical fiction has the same problem. So much of it is set in a different time, but the way the character think is very modern. What’s the point of that? I’d rather try to understand the way people thought in the times being depicted. That would be expanding my horizons. And I’d rather read fantasy that explores aspects of human nature that I’m not constantly surrounded by on a daily basis.

And that brings me to this: why, Why, WHY is everything nowadays “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic”? I mean, I’m not saying those things don’t have their place, but it seems to be all people want lately. Why must all characters be conflicted and full of angst? Why must everyone have a dark side? Why does everyone seemingly only want to explore the dark and horrific aspects of human nature in their writing lately? I would rather pursue beauty and wonder and truth. I would like to have characters who exhibit goodness and nobility side by side with characters who contrast them. But everyone seems to be fascinated by constant shades of grey. Is there no room for redemption anymore? Are we as a society categorically bored with virtue?

If so, then woe is me.

Anyway, now that I’ve got this off my chest perhaps I can get back to more regular posting and make more progress with actually writing my story.

First Words

So, yesterday morning I began my novel. And I wrote a grand total of… one sentence. Sigh. Pathetic, I know. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I have a terrible time with beginnings. I even have trouble beginning blog posts. And of course, in a novel there’s so much to consider at the start.

How do I begin this story with an exciting hook?

How do I get the conflict in there as soon as possible?

Do I start with description, with dialogue, with action, with exposition?

Which characters should be introduced first?

How do I talk about all the people and places and things unique to my fantasy setting without confusing the reader with lots of name dropping?

What POV should I write in?

Whose POV should I be using?

IS IT INTERESTING ENOUGH YET?

I know a lot of people say it doesn’t matter in your first draft. Just get the words down, go back and hone it on the second pass. I don’t know. I just can’t think like that. It bothers me to just set down any old mediocre words. So instead I end up staring at the blank page or screen and doing nothing. Sigh. I hate beginnings.

Once I can get past the beginning and begin finding my voice I’ll be fine. I don’t know what most people define “voice” as but I think of it as being “in the zone”, finding that place where the words all feel right and begin to really flow. I love that place. I love going back and reading something I’ve written while there and thinking, “Hey! This is some interesting stuff. I’d want to read this book. I’m actually pretty good!”

But it’s probably going to take me a while to find it. Maybe for a while I’ll only be able to put down a sentence or two at a time. I’ve decided to be OK with that. It’ll take time, but I have time. And while I’m struggling along at a few sentences a day I’ll be working on the side at continued world building and such. I think it’s more important not to try and force the words. For me that’s a surefire way to lose my enthusiasm and creative spark. But I am going to do my best to write something everyday. Slowly but surely, my novel will take form. That’s enough for me.

 

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