Time-Words in Fiction

Photo by Kris Schulze on Pexels.com

How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?

Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …

I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.

In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.

But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?

But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.

Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.

Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:

  • I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
  • I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
  • It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
  • For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
  • I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
  • Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.

Scary Things: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil

They are distinct and should not all be collapsed into the category of Resistance.

Today, we will be responding to this book: The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.

It’s the one on the left.

I mentioned TWOA in another post on writing-related books. Later, The Orangutan Librarian hilariously dressed the book down in her review. Today, I will get into the book’s flaws (which bothered me but not as much as they bothered her), and that discussion will lead us to talking about some entities that are definitely scary, namely the three baddies of this post’s title.

The War of Art started out swimmingly

Pressfield starts out discussing how, whenever people go to follow their calling, they experience something called Resistance. He mentions endeavors like starting a business, parenting, charitable work, or “taking any principled stand in the face of adversity” as activities that evoke Resistance, but if you read the rest of the book, it’s clear that the main type of calling he has in mind is becoming a writer or an artist. I frankly think this narrow focus is more helpful, because with some activities (such as parenting or fighting evil), the reasons that people run into difficulties are obvious and expected. This is not the case with, say, landscape painting or novel writing. Those look easy until you try to do them, and there is no obvious reason why a person who has talent in these areas should find life grindingly difficult while pursuing them.

Yet, they do.

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work. (p.7)

Resistance is not out to get you personally. It doesn’t know who you are and it doesn’t care. Resistance is a force of nature. It acts objectively. Though it feels malevolent, Resistance in fact operates with the indifference of rain and transits the heavens by the same laws as the stars. (p.11)

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. (p.12)

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. The professional must be alert for this counterattack. Be wary at the end. (p.18)

What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point the vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. (p.31)

Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. (p.42)

quotes from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

All of this is perfectly true and I think it’s a fantastic description. I’ll bet that everyone reading has had these experiences a short way in to a new enterprise. Besides writing, people commonly describe this kind of phenomenon coming midway through a weight-loss regimen, or hitting a few weeks in to their attempt to live in another country. If you haven’t experienced this stuff, I guarantee you’ve read a memoir or watched a documentary about someone who has.

Then it starts to trivialize Resistance … and everything else

It isn’t long, however, before TWOA’s diagnosis of our troubles starts to go a little bit off the rails:

Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. “Peripheral opponents,” as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within. (p.8)

Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and conquer Resistance. (p.16)

Ibid

Well, OK, that is partly true. Resistance as fear, self-sabotage, rationalization and procrastination is a very important part of the picture. That even may be its main characteristic in many cases. (More about this in a sec.) But, for someone who appeared to be taking Resistance so seriously as a real force, I’m a little disappointed that Pressfield is locating it entirely inside ourselves. And this problem is going to get worse, when the book goes way off the rails:

We get ourselves into trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. Ill health is a form of trouble, as are alcoholism and drug addiction, all neurosis including compulsive screwing up, jealousy, chronic lateness … (p.24)

Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record? Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization. If the level of drama drops below a certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets drunk, Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an Oakland Raiders tattoo. It’s more fun than a movie. And it works: nobody gets a damn thing done. (p.25)

Ibid

OK, this is bad enough. Pressfield has just attributed every one of our character flaws, as well as family drama (which, let me note, is other peoples’ behavior) to Resistance. But, surely, this can’t all be the same thing as the psychological phenomenon where we get scared and antsy when we start to succeed in our creative work, can it? Surely, this is too broad?

But then, he really lost me:

Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re self-dramatizing. The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s existence. An illness, a cross to bear … Some people go from condition to condition … The condition becomes a work of art in itself … A victim act is a form of passive aggression.

The War of Art. p.27

OK.

This paragraph was obviously written by someone who has never had a real, serious health problem.

“Doctors” estimate this, do they? First of all … I doubt it. Secondly, “doctors” tend to be fairly healthy themselves (or they wouldn’t have made it through medical school). Yes, they can tend to disbelieve people about their own condition. Many people with rare or hard-to-diagnose conditions, such as Lyme Disease, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, obesity, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic pain, or less-typical forms of any disease, have horror stories of how hard it was to get a diagnosis or even get their complaints taken seriously. I’ll bet you know at least one such person whom you could name right off the top of your head. I’ll bet that with a little thinking, you could come up with more names.

So let’s dispense with this nonsense.

If buckling down to your calling was all it took to cure a host of chronic conditions, I assure you, Mr. Pressfield, people would do it.

So, then, does Resistance mean anything at all?

Pressfield has just completely discredited his own thesis by attributing to Resistance literally every bad thing that happens to anyone, whether or not they caused it. It tempting, at this point, to chuck the book contemptuously over our shoulder and be done with it. That is exactly what The Orangutan Librarian did, and I can’t blame her.

But this created some serious cognitive dissonance in me, because there are passages in this book that I don’t want to chuck out. For the first several pages, it seemed to me that Pressfield was describing a real phenomenon, and describing it better than I’ve heard it described before.

So what’s going on here? How can these two things coexist?

Resistance Means Three Things

The problem, revealed in the second half of the book, is that Pressfield is a Jungian. This means, as far as I can tell, that in his world view, all of the important stuff happens inside the person, in our internal world. In fact, your mind and subconscious might be the location not just of the only important stuff, but of all the stuff. The outside world, basically, doesn’t exist at all.

Any world view that takes this as its postulate is naturally going to lose some explanatory power.

Yes, the mind is real, but it’s not the only real thing. The world exists. Physical stuff exists. Other selves exist. Furthermore, it’s a fallen world, and so, sometimes, bad stuff is going to happen that has its origin in that fallen, hybrid-spiritual-and-physical world, and not on our own almighty psyches.

Christianity, by the way, does a great job of this. Full disclosure, I’m a Christian. One thing that gives the Judeo-Christian world view its awesome explanatory power is that it takes seriously both mind and body. What Pressfield calls Resistance (and is forced, by his world view, to locate entirely inside the sufferer), Christianity breaks out into three things: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil.

The World

You may have noticed that Pressfield starts out by saying that we tend to locate Resistance in our spouses, bosses, etc., but that it’s actually internal. But then later, he mentions that “entire families” will help each other engage in Resistance. Elsewhere he talks about how people will try to sabotage each other’s hard work and success. And he mentions that there are entire industries that make money off distracting people from their duties.

So perhaps other people, and the greater culture, do have some effect on us after all.

Of course they do. This is what theologians call The World. In extreme cases, other people’s sin can stop us in our tracks, completely crushing our ability to focus on anything else, either temporarily or long-term (though not, thankfully, eternally). Examples of this would be an abusive parent, spouse, boss, or (in the ancient world) mistress or master; rape, mobs, warfare, and associated atrocities. All of these things are aspects of the world being fallen. They are not the fault of person they happen to, but they can certainly knock the person off-track from any other calling they might have had, forcing them to deal with the atrocity instead.

Because we live in physical bodies in a physical world, populated by other selves, and because that world is fallen, it is therefore possible (and, indeed, common) that bad things happen to us that do not have their source in us. Go and read the book of Job. It is absolutely not true that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

The Flesh

The phenomenon that Pressfield does such a great job describing, before he gets off-track, is what used to be called The Flesh. This means our own character, with all its temptations, vices, fears, flaws, and weaknesses. Often, we need nothing more than this to cause us to crash after we have started out doing well. I’m not going to spend as much space on this one, because it is described pretty well above and because it’s the challenge that most of us are probably the most familiar with. The Flesh is, indeed, a formidable foe. Conquering it might not be a sufficient condition for success in our calling, but it’s certainly a necessary one.

The Devil

Now we get to the scariest of the troika, and also the most controversial. This post has already turned into a really long rant, so I’m not going to make a bunch of theological arguments that the devil exists. I’ll just explain the relationship that he bears, in my thinking, to Resistance.

Pressfield describes Resistance as a force that is:

  • real
  • malevolent, yet impersonal
  • dedicated to keeping people from “evolving their soul” – i.e. becoming productive, courageous, and virtuous
  • spiritual: invisible, non-physical

Clearly, this is an exact description of Satan as he appears in traditional Christianity.

Unfortunately, Pressfield’s world view doesn’t allow for the existence of an invisible, but real, spiritual entity that is not just the artist’s shadow side or something like that. So, having personified Resistance to such vivid effect, he is then forced to back off and explain that it has no reality outside ourselves, really. Because he’s Jungian, this doesn’t register as a problem, because all of the universe is inside ourselves. But, I find it unsatisfying.

I think Pressfield was describing more than he knew.

Why is Resistance “protean,” deceptive, “always lying and always full of shit”? (p.9) Because the devil is a liar.

Why is Resistance always perfectly timed to interfere with our work? We live in a fallen world, where pipes burst, bacon burns, where people get sick and have family drama. But why do these things seem to happen, not at random, but perfectly timed to interfere with us doing good things (shortly after we begin a new enterprise, or when the finish line is in sight)?

Andrew Klavan says that shortly after he finished the first draft of Another Kingdom, his house suffered an invasion of caterpillars. Every time he hit another milestone with the project, something “dreadful” would happen.

You can’t tell me that caterpillars coming into your house is caused by your subconscious desire to create drama. Neither is your toilet flooding, your car breaking down, your aging parent taking a fall, or, say … a plague hitting the nation.

No, I’m not saying that all of these things are the devil directly trying to sabotage you. At least, I don’t think so. Again, we live in a fallen world and sometimes stuff just happens. But sometimes, I have to say, the timing is extremely suspicious. And I am not just making this stuff up. In the New Testament, Satan is clearly credited with sometimes causing sickness. Ironically, believing that comes out sounding a lot more humane than “70 – 80% of people with symptoms aren’t really sick.”

In the video below, Andrew Klavan talks about Another Kingdom. At 7:03 he tells the caterpillar story.

This, Too, Is the Reader I Write For

People say that food is the good girl’s drug. But now I realize it was just one particularly cheap and sticky strain of my real drug of choice: distraction.

When I was a little kid, it just meant that I was daydreamy, or imaginative, running around performing whole musicals and movie scenes for the cat. When I grew up into a voracious reader, then great! Who would discourage a twelve-year-old from rereading The Catcher in the Rye? In high school, I was a devoted theater student, and in college I was serious about film study.

All that was true. Then there’s the truer version.

I wasn’t just rereading The Catcher in the Rye. I was rereading everything, constantly: in the car on the way to school, at recess, waiting for Karen to pick me up, and then all the way home. … Those teenaged nights I spent alone in my dorm singing along to CDs weren’t just about musical appreciation. They were about not being there, not being me. I was long gone, deep in my head, buried in the drama of “Someone Else’s Story” (from the original Broadway cast recording of Chess).

Kelsey Miller, Big Girl, pp. 210 – 211

So, guys, this was absolutely me when I was a kid as well, minus the musical talent. I can identify with wanting to immerse yourself in someone else’s story … and I don’t think it’s always a bad thing. Especially for kids, it’s a way to quickly learn a lot about the world. And, frankly, I can’t imagine anyone becoming a voracious reader without this hunger. I strive to make my books an immersive experience for the reader. Surely, without that, reading would be boring?

I do understand that reading can be used as form of escapism. In Miller’s case, her distraction addiction was so extreme that she realized it was becoming a major obstacle to her personal growth. After discovering mindful eating, she began to train herself in mindful walking to the subway without a podcast, and in mindful being in her apartment without the TV on every second. I get that.

But I have two things to say about books as a distraction.

One, sometimes we do need to escape from our troubles. This is true especially when we are kids and have few other outlets or coping mechanisms, but also at other times when we need to rest and re-group. I am reminded of a (possibly apocryphal?) Internet quote about how the author has a responsibility to entertain because readers are people sitting on busses and in hospital waiting rooms.

Secondly. The engrossing book that is an escape from reality, can also be a secret tunnel back into reality. You can “escape” into C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, or his Space Trilogy, but you will come out the other side with a renewed desire to face your own fears and responsibilities. And if you don’t actually emerge with the hope that there is an Aslan who could help you in this process, you will certainly, fervently wish there was one … which, as Lewis would say, is the first stage in Joy.

That’s what I hope my books will be. An immersive, entertaining experience that, while you’re not looking, also opens your eyes to aspects of the world that you had not considered before.

What do you guys think? Is it always wrong to use books and other media as escapism? Do kids have more leeway to do this than adults? At what point does voracious reading become pathological? And who gets to say?

Can You Decipher this Quote from a Sci-Fi Novel?

Contemplation occurred with consequences resulting. Meditation existed on a plane remote from the familiar. By virtue of reflection, resolution simply was. No human, equipped with the latest and most relevant tools, would have recognized the process for what it was. And yet — there were fine points of tangency.

Among the incredibly diffuse but nonetheless vast aggregate worldmind of which the verdure on board the Teacher were an inseparable part, what Was became what Is. Call it thought if it aids in comprehension. The plants themselves did not think of it as such. They did not think of it at all. They could not, since what transpired among them was not thought that could in any sense be defined as such.

That did not mean that what came to pass among them was devoid of consequence. It was determined that, for the moment, at least, nothing could be done to affect what had transpired. Patience would have to be exercised. The disturbing situation might yet resolve itself in particulars agreeable to those whose awareness of it was salient. Their perception of the physical state of existence humans defined as time was different from that of those who inhabited the other, more-remarked-upon biological kingdom.

Alan Dean Foster, Reunion, pp. 110 – 111

The “Never Have I Ever” Tag for Writers

How appropriate that just as I am starting to do a bunch of posts about publishing, the orangutan librarian should tag me with this bunch of questions about the writing process! The original idea was created by the Long Voyage- so definitely check out the original here!

This tag asks writers about whether they have ever engaged in a number of (mostly disreputable) behaviors. The headings will say the behavior, and then I’ll comment about whether it applies to me.

Never Have I Ever …

. . . started a novel that I did not finish.

I have started, and not finished, a number of novels. You know that whole idea that an artist can create a complete work in his or her head and then it’s irrelevant whether they ever put it on paper or canvas or whatever? That’s baloney. The actual process of enfleshing the work forces you to include so much more detail than you do in your head when you see the end from the beginning.

. . . written a story completely by hand.

(gets dreamy look)

As teenagers, my BFF and I used to write stories together. We would pass a notebook back and forth. Each of us controlled certain characters. We would write notes to each other and argue with each other in the margins.

My parts of those particular stories were the worst tripe ever written. We all have to write our awful tripe on the way to becoming writers.

. . . changed tenses midway through a story.

What?

. . . not researched anything before starting a story.

It’s never possible to do enough research.

But the experts don’t agree.

Also, if you research too long, you can end up talking yourself out of the premise for your story, at which point you’ve ripped out its heart.

So far, my stories have been inspired by cool theories (“research”) about the ancient world. So, I take the premise from the research. (See the ‘ancient world’ tag on my blog for all the stuff that interests me.) I have, so far, avoided setting my stories in really well-documented periods of ancient history (such as Rome) because of the sheer amount of research that would be required so as not to make glaring errors about the details of daily life.

Anyway, see the Bibliography page of this blog for a constantly slightly outdated, constantly growing tally of my sources.

. . . changed my protagonist’s name halfway through a draft.

I like stories that feature someone assimilating to a foreign culture. A total or partial name change is often part of this. So my protagonist Nimri starts out being called Nimri, which is basically Sumerian, but as they get to know him, the people around him eventually start calling him Nirri and that’s how he finishes the story. This is kind of an inconvenient feature, actually, because it makes it difficult to refer to him in summaries.

As for changing a name completely, just for the heck of it, I haven’t done so yet. But Find & Replace will make it easy to do if someone ever comes to me and says, “This name means [dirty word] in [major world language].”

. . . written a story in a month or less.

Short stories, yes.

. . . fallen asleep while writing.

What?

. . . corrected someone’s grammar irl / online.

Scene: Husband and I have been married less than a year, visiting a friend of his.

Friend: I need to go get some groceries. [Names several cleaning supplies, none of which are edible]

Me: Those things are not normally included in the core definition of ‘groceries.’

Friend: Well, excuuuuse me!

Me: (laughing) You are talking to a linguist.

Friend: That’s not the word that I thought of.

. . . yelled in all caps at myself in the middle of a novel.

No.

. . . used “I’m writing” as an excuse.

More like finding other tasks as an excuse not to write.

. . . killed a character who was based on someone I know in real life.

Mmm sooo …. I used to create characters based on my crushes and then kill them off. Yes, I was a sick puppy. Putting the best possible construction on it, I had figured out that killing off a character was the most poignant thing you can do in a story and I was overusing that tool sort of like a kid constantly dropping a new vocabulary word.

. . . used pop culture references in a story.

I avoid these because I am certain to use them clumsily, plus they will soon become dated. It’s part of the reason that my novels are set in the distant past, and that I may never try a “contemporary” novel.

. . . written between the hours of 1am and 6am.

Only at university, when finishing a paper due the next day. (Fun fact: if I stay up all night, I throw up!)

. . . drank an entire pot of coffee while writing.

While writing papers in college, yes, remembering that my “pot” only made two or three cups at a time. Also, vending machine brownies. Good times!

. . . written down dreams to use in potential novels.

Only once, age eleven.

. . . published an unedited story on the internet / Wattpad / blog.

No, but I have turned in a crummy first draft of a devotional essay to a church magazine. I believe the editor used his discretion and didn’t run it.

. . . procrastinated homework because I wanted to write.

Well, this gets into the whole topic of my work habits, which I’d rather not discuss …

. . . typed so long that my wrists hurt.

Not that I recall. I tend to take pauses for thinking.

. . . spilled a drink on my laptop while writing.

No, but that’s probably just dumb luck. I don’t take care of my equipment nearly as well as I should.

. . . forgotten to save my work / draft.

No, and I have even been known to send copies of Word documents to relatives so that copies exist out there in case my house burns down.

. . . finished a novel.

Two and counting.

. . . laughed like an evil villain while writing a scene.

… Um … I don’t think so? Not aware of the sounds I make while writing. Possibly grunts.

. . . cried while writing a scene.

Even in real life I am more likely to cry when angry, frustrated, or humiliated, rather than when sad. I’m not sure what that says about me. Nothing good, probably.

But I have certainly given myself the sads with my writing.

. . . created maps of my fictional worlds.

. . . researched something shady for a novel.

Giants and chimeras in history

horrible pagan practices of the ancient world

abusive husbands

what happens when a person falls into a super-hot sulpherous pool, as at Yellowstone National Park

All equally terrifying.

Now, Your Turn

In the comments section, tell me all your writerly habits! Or, judge mine!

Writing about the Afterlife

Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.

Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.

Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)

But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.

The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.

For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?

Mid-Year Moment of Preternatural Calm

Photo by Prasanth Inturi on Pexels.com

Many of my fellow book bloggers are doing posts called “mid-year freakout.”

I can definitely relate.

But it happens that at this particular midyear, I am in a pretty good place.

I don’t normally blog about my professional writing life, because up until now I haven’t had much to report. But now I do have something to report. So this post is going to be about my progress getting my novels published as of mid-2020.

If you know me personally, you are probably already familiar with the material in this post. So please feel free to skip it if you’ve heard these stories before or simply don’t like writers writing about themselves. I will be back next week with exciting blog content, though (pantser that I am) I don’t yet know whether it will be about the ancient world, my favorite authors, or perhaps the equally fascinating subject of … grammar.

Birth of a Book Series

I have been telling and writing stories my whole life, but every writer says that, yadda yadda. Lucky for you I won’t start this story in the 1970s. It begins in late 2016.

2016

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Some time in late 2016 or early 2017, I took a story prompt that I had written years before. It was about a man who falls from the Tower of Babel. I only got as far as the fall in the prompt I had written, but I had had it in my mind that this man could be rescued by people who didn’t speak his language (we linguists call this being in a monolingual situation), and being brought with them on a long journey as the peoples scatter throughout the world. So in late 2016 or early 2017, I felt ready to turn this thing into a full novel. I don’t remember why the stars aligned at that time, but they did.

2017

By summer 2017, I thought my paraplegic-man-in-a-monolingual-situation novel was finished. My working title for it was Babel. It was about 50,000 words, which I had been told was a minimum length for a first novel. I excitedly showed it to some family members, and they said nice things, as family members do.

Then I followed the directions for Getting Traditionally Published. The first step was to Find An Agent. (A few publishing houses accept unagented submissions, but most don’t.) The way to find an agent is to look through the acknowledgements section of a book that’s a lot like yours, because sometimes authors thank their agent. I did, and sent my first query.

The agent (and may God bless him for this), replied. “This looks interesting, but it’s too short for the genre. In this genre, anything shorter than 120,000 words is practically a novella.”

For example, The Protector’s War: 483 pages!

I went back to the drawing board. Lo and behold, the agent had been right. There was a lot more potential material in my story, which in haste or laziness I had failed to develop. I figured I would give myself a year to rewrite it, but the story took over and it went much faster. By the end of 2017, I was finished. Turns out the 50,000 word version was barely more than an outline. My finished product was 113,000 words.

2018

In January 2018, I began querying agents for Babel, now called The Long Guest. (I had decided the titles of all the novels in my series would be The + Adjective + Noun. Creative, I know, but I wanted to give them cohesion.)

As I queried, I was also busy learning about the industry, about what agents and publishers want, about how to write a kickass query. (Still not sure I’ve mastered that one.) There was a lot to learn. I bought a book called Writer Mama. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest. In fall 2018, I even attended a writer’s conference. It happened to be about indie publishing, which I was not pursuing at the time, but I went because it was the only conference being held that year for which I would not have to travel.

Meanwhile, I was also working on the sequel to The Long Guest, which would eventually be called The Strange Land (working title Land Bridge). The reason I started it was sort of like having to sneeze: it was an urge. It wasn’t strategy.

Setting for The Strange Land

2019

By July 2019, I had hit my goal of querying 100 agents with The Long Guest. I had also, some time during that year, finished The Strange Land, shown it to some beta readers, and done some minor revisions. I began querying agents (mostly all the same agents, one of whom had actually said “query me with future projects”), with The Strange Land in August of 2019. The process went more quickly this time because I already had experience writing queries and had a list of literary agencies to check. Also, I had finally figured out my books’ genre (epic fantasy that is light on magic). Writing the synopsis was still excruciating though.

In the fall of 2019, my family and I moved across the country.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

2020

Hmmm, well, we all know how 2020 has gone. Or maybe we don’t know exactly. Different ones of us have had different experiences of it. In my case, I continued settling in, home schooling, and querying throughout the winter and early spring months. My husband’s job and our living situation, providentially, were minimally affected by the quarantine.

About April 2020, I had had enough of querying. No agents had shown any interest in either of my novels. It was getting to be an emotional ordeal just to look at an agency’s web site, because when they described what they were looking for and it sounded like a fit with my books, I could no longer get my hopes up. For me, querying agents was like going on 180 blind dates and getting rejected 180 times.

Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

Meanwhile, I had noticed that the shakeup caused by Covid was causing many people to change careers, reconsider their living situations, or start new charity ventures or businesses. I decided I would ride this wave, indie publishing being its own small business. By this time I had been around the industry for a while. I had developed relationships with book bloggers and with other indie authors. I felt ready(ish?). I stopped querying for The Strange Land, even though I hadn’t hit 100. The relief was incredible.

There followed a rest period of a few months while I saved up the money for self-publishing. (But I did start mentioning to other bloggers that my books might be available soon!) Oh, and by the way, during this time I was also drafting the third book in the trilogy, The Great Snake. I had started this back in 2019, not long after I finished The Strange Land. Again, I had planned to take a break, but the story started coming irresistibly, sort of like a sneeze. (The fact that it came that way doesn’t guarantee that it’s good, of course. We’ll see.)

Serpent Mound, Ohio

So that brings us up to the present. Through providential circumstances, I have been able to find a copyeditor who gets my books and gets what I am doing. Next step will be cover design. Then I’ll be ready to indie publish. It is my hope and prayer that I’ll stay on track to publish TLG and TSL in rapid succession, before the end of the year, and start selling them on this web site and elsewhere. Meanwhile, I am learning all about self (indie) publishing, which is just as steep a learning curve as learning about the traditional industry.

You, my bloggy friends, have been just great and I hope you’ll stay with me.

Meanwhile, in the Fallen World …

There is something I should mention, lest this post create in other writers misplaced jealousy or unwarranted despair. We live in a fallen world, in which things go wrong a lot. We have our own flaws: laziness, lack of self-discipline, vanity. These slow our progress as writers. Also, this fallen world does push back, in self-defense, against anyone who tries to do something about it. “No good deed goes unpunished.”

So, though I have written out this summary of the steps I took in a (fairly?) matter-of-fact way, never doubt that like every other person, I am familiar with what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance.

What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. (page 31)

Resistance is fear. But Resistance is too cunning to show itself in this naked form. Why? Because if Resistance lets us see clearly that our own fear is preventing us from doing our work, we may feel shame at this. And shame may drive us to act in the face of fear. Resistance doesn’t want us to do this. So it brings in Rationalization. What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true. (page 55)

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. (page 18)

from The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield

For example, immediately after a phone consultation with a potential editor, within a few hours I was faced with failures in the areas of parenting, cooking, and gardening. Later that same week I found my copyeditor, but that day was kind of hellish. That’s just an example from this year.

Lord, Have Mercy

Resistance will no doubt continue. Who knows whether it will get me. Though I have written confidently about my plans for this series as if they are actually going to happen, let me hasten to add …

“If the Lord wills, we will live and also publish this or that.” (James 4:15)

Kyrie Eleison.

English is Not Latin, People!

Yet some of our fussiest grammatical rules were woodenly borrowed from that language.

Every language has an internal logic of its own. Ideally, rules for formal writing should be in harmony with this internal logic. These rules can be stricter than the rules for casual speech or dialects – every language needs a way to mark formal from informal speech – but they should not actually violate the internal logic of the language.

Let me give you an example of a sentence that is grammatically incorrect but sounds like natural English:

Me and Liam are going to play Minecraft for 12 hours.”

Technically ungrammatical, but still a natural English sentence. Not only can you easily tell what it means, but it sounds like it was uttered by a native speaker, albeit a native speaker who is not trying to sound educated.

Contrast that with this:

Recently I go Vancouver.”

This sentence was spoken by a non-native English speaker, and you can immediately tell because it gives that jarring sense that it violates the language’s internal logic.

Here’s another pair:

“There is a vast right-wing conspiracy trying to destroy my husband and I.”

vs.

Again the same it felt.

The vast right-wing conspiracy sentence commits a grammatical error (an overcorrection), but it’s still a natural English sentence. The second one has perfect subject-verb agreement, but it is jarring and not natural.

The following are three ways that Latin grammar has been imported to English when it probably should not have been.

Noun Case

In Latin, case on nouns is super important. It’s how you can tell who is doing what to whom. So if someone is the subject of the sentence, you would never call them “me.” And you would never call them “I” if they are the direct object.

In Latin, every single noun has an ending that matches its number (singular or plural), grammatical gender, and one of five cases. This ending tells you exactly what is going on. So, if you like, you can scramble the word order in the sentence for effect. Cool trick, and it follows the internal logic of Latin.

English mostly doesn’t have case. (Just on our pronouns.) Instead, we indicate part of speech (subject noun, direct object, etc.) with word order. In fact, this word order rule is so strong that you can even put the wrong case on a pronoun (as in the examples above), and it still sounds natural. The word order rule overrides the case rule. This shows that English as a language doesn’t really care about case.

It also shows how important word order is in every English sentence. “Again the same it felt” sounds weird only because it violates English word order.

Splitting Infinitives

This one is such a simple misunderstanding that it earns a forehead slap.

Latin infinitives can’t be split because they are just one word. “To dance” in Latin is saltare. You cannot say salta-tarde-re (“to slowly dance”) because it violates the internal logic of the language and it wouldn’t even sound like coherent words to a Latin speaker.

Other other hand, English infinitives are two words. This allows us to split them and put an adverb in there, for effect. This is a move that English allows, just as Latin allows scrambled word order.

After all, what could be a more natural-sounding English phrase than,

To boldly go where no man has gone before”?

When you split an infinitive, you are not violating the internal logic of English. You are employing an English superpower that Latin does not have.

On this blog, when I post I try to put adverbs before or after the infinitive so that I sound more educated. Educated people’s ears have been trained that not splitting an infinitive sounds more elegant. But this is a marker of formal versus informal speech, not of native versus non-native grammar.

Ending Sentences with Prepositions

German has this feature called separable verbs. A separable verb has a preposition as a part of it, and when you speak, you are required to move the preposition to the end of the sentence. That is what these verbs do. If the preposition is not put at the end, it will not sound like a natural German sentence.

For example (courtesy of my German-scholar father):

Paul kommt morgen an. “Paul arrives tomorrow.” (From ankommen, to arrive.)

Paul reiste gestern ab. “Paul left yesterday.” (From abreisen, to depart.)

Ruf ihn an! “Call him up!” (From anrufen.)

Du ringst ein Beispiel von mir ab. “You are squeezing an example out of me.” (From abringen.)

Very funny, Dad!

Notice in the last example that you can and should put all kinds of things between the parts of the separable verb, including direct object and any prepositions you happen to need. This used to cause me trouble when I studied German. I’d be tracking a sentence but couldn’t find out until the end what the actual verb was.

Now, English is a Germanic language and it has this feature too. Examples:

“I am going to see this journey to Mordor through.”

“You guys have ten seconds to to start cleaning all this Silly String up.”

“And that one fateful tweet brought her entire career down.”

In English, the only thing you can put between the parts of the verb is the direct object. Some verbs allow you to put it there or after the preposition:

“And that one fateful tweet brought down her entire career.”

“Start cleaning up the Silly String.”

Some English phrasal verbs don’t allow you to put anything between the verb part and the preposition part:

“I like to hang out with Lord of the Rings fans.”

I like to hang Lord of the Rings fans out with.

I like to hang out Lord of the Rings fans with.”

But even with these, the preposition(s) is/are part of the verb. Which means that where the verb goes, they go, even if that is all the way to the end of the sentence:

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people I like to hang out with.” (Yes. Natural English sentence.)

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people out with whom I like to hang.” (No! No! No! This sounds like a person who is so concerned with sounding educated that they’ve wandered off the broad highway of the internal logic of English and proceeded to get themselves all tangled up in the bushes of grammatical work-arounds, producing a sentence that will be as appealing and intelligible to the the hearer as a bad case of poison ivy.)

If you must use these work-arounds in your writing in order to show off your erudition, or even just to earn the respect of your readers, I understand, although I would humbly suggest you avoid trying to formalize phrases like hang out with. But if you train yourself to speak like this, and especially if you look down on people who don’t, you will not only come off sounding snobby, you will also cut yourself off from a good bit of English’s natural range of expression.