Fantasy in an Age of Ecological Crisis

This paper was written for a short, spoken presentation at Glasgow University’s Symposium on Fantasy and the Fantastic in May 2019. Here’s a link to their excellent blog, The City of Lost Books.

When asked by fellow environmentalists ‘What do you do?’, I proudly say ‘I write fantasy,’ but more than once I’ve been confronted with the argument that fantasy is part of the spell that enshrouds our culture, keeping us from having to worry about what mass extinction and rising sea levels really mean.

But I believe fantasy has an important role to play in helping to bring about a life sustaining culture.

It’s useful to ask what kind of worldview brings a civilisation to severely diminish the health of its home planet? To ask this question is to ask ‘what are the root causes of our ecological crisis’, and there are many roots:

  • When we swapped the hunter’s bow for the farmer’s plough and began to worship different gods
  • When the self-reflective power of alphabetic language drowned out the ancient conversation with a living landscape
  • Or when the view of nature as a machine began to take hold during the scientific revolution.

Whilst many of us today might not consciously view nature as a set of mechanical objects to be dissected and plundered, the ghost of Rene Descartes is still at large in the gene pool of our culture. The mind-body split might be healing, but the rift between mind and matter is reinforced from birth.

Matter is no longer experienced as animate and sacred. Rocks and rivers no longer have a voice. In our culture, only animals with a highly developed central nervous system are allowed to have sentience.

But what if the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was right; that mind and matter are not separate, but are two sides of the same substance?

An oak tree, for example,  has its material attributes: its size, its weight, its water content, but it also possesses immaterial qualities ~ the unique twisting of its branches, the smell of damp moss when you step inside its shadow, the way its leaves shiver in the wind pouring through the valley, and how all of this makes you feel.

In The Spell of the Senusous, David Abram describes how:

‘Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.’

So the way we perceive a moss-covered river rock is completely different to how a trout or a dragonfly perceives the same rock. No one experience of the rock is more correct than the others, and each creature’s experience is rooted in three and a half billion years of co-evolution, and is co-created in the moment by the unique qualities of that specific rock (and it’s rockness) and by the human or the dragonfly’s or unique mode of perception, and the way those meet.

An old alchemy is at work in the place between usand the living landscape.

Where the rockness of a rock meets the breathing body of Brian Froud, a faery a born.

Where the oakness of an oak seeps into the dreams of a pipe-smoking oxford professor, Tree-Beard wakes up from a long sleep.

And where the qualities of a particular river splash through the sense organs of a bespectacled Japanese animator, a dragon hatches ~ the spirit of the Kohaku river.

If we had always experienced material nature as eloquent and intelligent would it even have been possible to have had an ecological crisis? Would we clear cut our ancient forests if we viewed them as sentient and ensouled?

As creators of fantasy we could open ourselves to the wild intelligence of place, allowing the rocks, rivers, winds, and wild others to speak through our stories, helping to restore a sense of the sacred in nature.

And if we invite the animate earth to find a home in our stories, then perhaps the earth will return the favour.

Description Skills

This morning I thought it would be interesting to list all the craft skills I could think of; that doing so might bring more awareness to what I don’t know, and the skills I need to improve on.

As I began writing I realised that it was going to take quite a bit longer than I anticipated, and I have a writing deadline today, so I’ll do it in sections, starting with..

Description

  • Using multiple senses
  • Combining senses
  • The skill of imagining yourself into the scene
  • The skill of being specific – describing small or unique details in a way that ignites the reader’s mind to paint the rest of the scene
  • The skill of describing the world through the character’s eyes – what would they notice?
  • Describing body language
  • Describing things as if they are animate, alive and possessing soul
  • Describing things in a humorous way
  • Describing movement (links to the above – all things move, just some more slowly than others)
  • Bringing splashes of colour in a vivid, specific way

It’s the mental energy and combination of skills that make descriptions so challenging for me. To do it well I have to A) consistently imagine myself into the scene and find the specific details, and B) out of all the many possible things that could be described, knowing which one the character’s attention would be focused on, and how to render it using words that are true to the character’s in the moment experience.

Yes. Description is hard.

Some days, when it isn’t flowing, I’ve spent an hour on just a few sentences. This isn’t really an option if I want to write immersive epic fantasy stories, so I’ve been trying to find a balance between speed and quality. On a first draft, momentum is king. I need to get better at ‘exploding’ words onto the page (as Neil Gaiman talks about in his excellent Masterclass, by the way).

In writing descriptions on a first draft, I feel that using about three quarters of my potential skill is good balance. That way I’m able to keep momentum whilst putting in enough effort that I’m actually practising effectively. Too much and I’ll only write one book every decade, too little and I won’t improve. In the back of mind is often the thought that when it comes too the second draft I might do away with the scene entirely, so it makes no sense to try and make the descriptions as good as I possible can.

Pre-Requisites for Getting Work Done

Over the years I’ve come to realise that there are certain conditions I need to meet in order to write consistently. 

These are:

1. No internet

2. Deadline pressure (ideally with social accountability)

3. Be excited about what I’m working on

No Internet

A very common one. Procrastinating on the internet is probably something the vast majority of us struggle with. How do we deal with such an awesome,bottomless well of fascinating information and tantalising entertainments?

I’ve tried working in wi-fi freeplaces, but they’re hard to find these days.

I’ve also tried various kinds of Internet blocking software. Those are good, but what happens when you’re reliant on the Internet for work, and you write on the same computer you’re using for your day job? Apps like Freedom and Cold Turkey let you set up schedules for when you can and can’t use the Internet, but in my experience, as a freelancer with a shifting schedule, this is only about 75% effective.

In the end I decided to invest in a cheap laptop, used only for writing,from which I’ve extracted the wi-fi chip. A 100% internet free tool. So far it’s working pretty well, especially when I can put some distance between myself and my mobile phone. I’ve heard of some people placing a phone in a cupboard, or under a book with a small figurine on top to act as a guardian. I like this ritual.

Deadline Pressure

Setting deadlines where I’m the only one who knows if I’ve succeeded or not doesn’t work for me. There needs to be some kind of social accountability. Writing groups have been pretty good for this.

Stickk also helped – an app where you pledge to sacrifice a certain amount of money each week unless you meet your chosen deadline. This is good because it leverages loss avoidance. Apparently we humans will work harder to avoid losing something than we will to gain something, even if it’s only a two or three pounds sterling. Another useful thing about Stickk is that you have another human being checking in to see if you’ve accomplishedyour goal. The first time I tried putting the absolute minimum amount of money online, so the stakes were just the loss of a few quid, plus the shame of someone I respect knowing that I didn’t meet my goal. I’m going to try this again with a larger sum and see if it makes a difference to productivity.

Certain writing courses also look like they could be a great way of creating effective deadline pressure, though they can be expensive. Here are a couple which seem pretty decent: 

Faber Academy – Work In Progress Writing Course

Curtis Brown – 6 Month Online Writing Course

Being Excited About What I’m Writing

I once heard a writer redefine writer’s block as a ‘writer’s pause’. I can’t recall where I heard this, but the gist of it is that what’s often going on when you have any kind of writer’s block is that your unconscious is sensing that something isn’t right with the scene or chapter you’re working on, and a good response to this is to take a pause and figure out what it is.

I’m reminding myself here that on a first draft I don’t necessarily need to fix whatever this problem is, but at the least I should become aware of it and make choice whether to solve it immediately, or leave it for a subsequent daft.

A find the most common reason for me taking a writer’s pause isn’t to solve a major story problem, it’s because the scene I’m working on might not excite me, and if I don’t feel excited I struggle to write it. The solution for this is to usually to challenge myself to think about how I could make the scene in question one of the best moments of story. 

There are other things that help me keep writing, but I feel like if I can ensure those three pre-requisites are in place, then the gates will stay open. Things like burn-out, loneliness, and filling the creativity well become important things to pay attention to once the ball is rolling, but those are subjects for another day.

The Black, White and Grey of Premature Rewriting

I’ve been spending too much time polishing the first chapter of my book.

The adage ‘don’t get it right, get it written’ exists for a reason. On the first draft, you don’t need to worry about spelling mistakes, lack of foreshadowing, or a character’s name spontaneously changing half way through a chapter, because the most important things on a first draft are probably (A) momentum, and (B) allowing the story to pour out, raw and unfiltered.

I’m haven’t been doing this.

In fact, I’ve been doing the opposite. Over the course of three, maybe even four years, I’ve re-written the first part of my story an embarrassing amount of times. I’ve thrown away around 90% on each rewrite.

Sometimes there were long gaps between the rewrites. If I didn’t like what I’d written, or if I sensed that something wasn’t quite working properly, I’d figure it out and start again, or stop writing, get depressed, and start having weird dreams about getting chased by tigers.

I feel these loses of momentum are dangerous. The kind of epic fantasy books I like to read (and aspire to write) are anywhere between 150,000 and 400,000 words, so unless I want to spend two decades on a single book, cultivating momentum is an important skill to learn, so I should go easy on myself, and if I’m having an off day, just carry on writing until I get to end. That’s the advice I hear professional authors giving a lot of the time, and it makes sense.

But here’s where it starts to get tricky for me.

What if you feel yourself improving significantly with each premature re-write? What if you feel motivated by writing quality prose? What if you sense that there are problems in the first part of your story that will have rippling affects throughout the entire series of books if you don’t solve them before moving on?

I feel these are good reasons to rewrite before reaching the end of the first draft. Doing so has helped me get better as a writer. If you compare the first draft with the most recent, you’d think they were written by two different people. I’ve proven to myself that I can apply all the craft techniques I’ve learned through prose that meets my internal standards. This gives me confidence. When I feel like the story I’m telling is good, I feel excited to keep writing.

Perfectionism can be the enemy of momentum. I need to be careful not to get carried away with sculpting a beautiful first draft. It’s time inefficient for at least two reasons:

  1. No matter how good your outline, it’s likely that you’re going to cut material on revision. If you’ve spent time and energy writing higher quality prose, you’re more likely to get attached to it, which can make you resistant to cutting scenes that need to be cut.
  2. You can probably achieve high quality prose quicker through a quicker first draft, revisions and line editing than you can by attempting to write a first draft that looks like a finished novel.

What makes sense to me is finding a balance between speed of output and quality of storytelling (I say ‘storytelling’ because it’s not just about writing pretty prose, it’s about effectively applying the craft). There are so many craft techniques that it’s extremely, outrageously difficult to apply them all in the moment (maybe this is why Hemmingway said ‘The first draft of everything is shit’, which perfectionists love to quote).

I reckon a good balance would be to write an average of one thousand words per day which I can be reasonably happy with. This is something I’ll be working toward achieving consistently over the course of this year.

To end with, here’s a recent quote from one of my favourite writers. She writes beautifully, and I think part of the reason why is that she gives herself permission to write a flawed first draft.

 

 

 

Writing Characters Vastly Different From Oneself

What do you do when the character you’re writing has a completely different way of thinking and experiencing the world to you?

I suppose that’s where the ‘write what you know’ adage comes in, but I don’t always want to do that. Part of the fun of writing is being like a method actor on the page, inhabiting the mind of someone different to you.

But this magic only occurs when, sitting at the keyboard in the midst of a chapter, I put the extra effort in to place myself in the character’s skin. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Maybe I’ve got too caught up in trying to dramatise a critical piece of exposition through dialogue. Or maybe I just want to watch some NBA highlights. This is writing from the outside-in, and it results in writing that just doesn’t feel right.

Writing from inside a character’s mind becomes easier or more difficult depending on how similar that character is to me. If they’re an acutely empathetic young woman, brought up amidst a religion that happens to be repressive, then it takes more work to write the truth of what the character is experiencing.

In writing that last sentence, part of me said “What? You mean I’m not acutely empathetic?” The idea of rating my own empathy on a website named after myself is just slightly too self referential not to be considered up it’s own arse. That said, I feel like my ramblings have made it clearer for me why it’s useful to be as frank as possible about your own short comings and the extent of your qualities, because if I trick myself into thinking I’m an extremely empathetic person (which I’d love to do) then I’m setting myself up for a really hard time when it comes to writing. Here’s an example…

Willow, one of the main characters of my story, is just such a highly empathetic person – so empathetic that she has to sneak off to be by herself every few hours because being amongst other humans is so intense, since she feels what they’re feelings so acutely. If a bird flew into a window, Willow would wince as if it was she that just banged her head, because her mirror neurons are so primed for action (bit of a mechanical way of putting it, but screw it, we’re being analytical).

People who know me will recognise I’m a bit like this, but Willow is an extreme example. When writing her chapters, I feel like the most important thing is to keep this aspect of her personality in mind – the peculiar things she notices, and the sensitivity with which way she responds.

Now we throw in the fact that she’s a woman in her early twenties brought up world called Munoria, and I’m a thirty two year old male brought up in the North of England. It’s said that female writers have an easier time writing male characters than the other way around. I think that might be true, but there are a few things that give me confidence:

  1. I was brought up by women, mostly.
  2. I was brought up in a semi-enchanted village tucked away in the South Pennies. Hebden Bridge and Munoria are kindred spirits.
  3. I don’t profess to be an expert in women, but I do know a lot about this specific woman

The biggest difference between us is the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to have not been brought up in an austere religious culture. Willow hasn’t been so fortunate. How to enfold that into the writing?

To make the task more difficult, it’s necessary to create this fictional religion in some depth before, otherwise the part of Willow that feels committed to her gods will come across as thin and brittle to the reader.

There’s a lot to keep in mind, but the more I write, the more the bond between Willow and I is strengthened. If I take a few days off, then the magic bridge between us will start to get eroded. Maybe that’s partly why Heinlein, Hobb, Martin, and a whole load of other writers stress the importance of writing every day.

 

The Blurry Line Between Gardener and Architect

A wise man once said that writers tend to lean more toward being gardeners or architects.

 

‘The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another.’

~ George R.R. Martin

 

I love this way of thinking about it, but recently I’ve been feeling like the distinction might be more foggy than I first thought.

Gardeners tend to improvise more, often relying on their ability to imagine themselves into a scene, into the skin of a particular character, then letting that character lead the way. But what if you do the exact same thing in the blueprinting (or outlining) stage?

After experimenting with the extreme ends of the gardener/architect scale in my younger years, I’ve settled on an approach which combines elements of both, though to be totally honest, I’m still not sure where on the spectrum I am. Hopefully by the end of writing this post I’ll have a better idea.

First, a story emerges gradually out of my subconscious. It takes months and years. After that, one of the first things I like to do is outline the broad strokes – the ending, the key dramatic points, and the small vivid moments which, for some reason, feel important.

After months of broad-stroke outlining, research and worldbuilding, I start to combine writing exploratory chapters with blue-printing the story in more depth, and this is where, for me, the line between gardener and architect starts to blur. The outlining defines the exploratory chapters and those explorations change the outline.

The outlining itself also becomes more gardener like. Often, before starting a chapter, I’ll dream my way into the character and let the reality of their emotions, desires, and surrounding environment guide a different kind of outlining session, which is more like brainstorming different possibilities the chapter or scene could take, sometimes sketching out bits of dialogue, sometimes bullet pointing ideas, but as much as possible trying to do that from the character’s state of mind.

The perfectionist in me wants to find the best possible answer to the question: ‘What should happen next?’ The danger is that I spend too long trying to figure it out, so to get around this I sometimes challenge myself to come up with the answer in ten minutes, which forces an intense burst of concentrated creativity. It’s like my inner realist is trying to make a deal with my inner perfectionist:

Realist: ‘Ok, I know you want this to be a work of stunning brilliance, but if we mess around too much we’ll never get anything finished, so how about we give this scene our best ten minutes, then go with whatever we come up with.’

Perfectionist: ‘Not enough time. No deal.’

Realist: ‘Fine. What do you suggest?’

Perfectionist: ‘Three weeks per scene.’

Realist. ‘But there are hundreds upon hundreds of scenes. Not to mention all the ones you throw away.’

Perfectionist: ‘That’s how you make good work.’

Realist: ‘That’s how you die without ever finishing anything.’

Perfection: ‘Mmm.’

That’s as close to a concession the perfectionist will make, so we give the ten minute thing a try, which turns into twenty five minutes, but at the end of it, more often than not, a solid answer has revealed itself.