The thing with elliptical writing is that it makes writing a big fat book as easy as writing a small skinny one. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: it’s just as hard to write a small skinny novel as it is to write a big fat one. Sucks.
Each section is treated discretely. It becomes a kind of mini story in itself. For a novel, just link them all together. Beauty.
I didn’t invent all of this, by the way. I learned it, back when I was writing short stories in the writing program at the University of Victoria. It happened because my mentor at the time, Jack Hodgins, was sly enough to see where I was at in the whole process, and guided me to the books on writing fiction written by John Gardner.
I still recall reading Gardner’s description of what he did with the opening paragraphs of his novel, Grendel. My jaw dropped to the floor and stayed there for about three months. Until then, I really had no idea just what was possible in writing.
Gardner didn’t talk about elliptical writing, and I don’t know if anyone has, apart from me. But what he showed me was how to use language itself, the precise weighting of word-choices, the way messing with rhythm can achieve particular effects. In short, he showed me just how thoroughly a writer can fuck with a reader’s head, mostly without them knowing it.
It’s diabolical and a little frightening. But you can easily look around, say, at the newspaper you daily peruse, to see how that power can be expressed to achieve what can only be called evil. So I don’t use the word ‘diabolical’ lightly.
The language of popular journalism invites intellectual laziness in the reader. The old adage about ‘just the facts’ is a whitewash. I can just state facts and still manipulate emotions — it’s easy, actually. Comes down to which facts one chooses to reveal, and in what order. The rest is all down to the reader.
In popular journalism, the whole process is cynical beyond belief, but it works (Fox news anyone?). Push buttons, trigger hatred, cold-heartedness, and fear. Easy peasy. Of course, what they’re really saying is: we think you’re a fucking idiot and you’ll believe anything, and then they smile sweetly and it’s time for our sponsors hallelujah amen.
I admit to being dismayed at how often it seems to work. I also admit that I hope there’s a special place in hell for those writers who reduced politics to sound bites, and for those on the tube who turn every tragic event into a television production, replete with billboard titles and juicy graphics. These days, we are all potential entertainment to an audience of millions. Who decided that was a good idea?
I’m reminded that I have actually met fans of the film Starship Troopers who didn’t know it was satire. Huh?
For this installment, as you may have noticed, I’m taking a break from deconstructing that excerpt, to see if there will be more commentary on whether I should resume the exercise, or not. So instead, this is mostly your average blog rant. Hey, I’m only human.
As I write this, I am about to head off to a conference in Orlando. The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. I’ve been going for a few years now, but I still feel slightly out of place there. The conference is an academic one, with a few token writers invited to give readings and just sort’ve hang around beside the pool.
Apart from one scholar who happens to be a good friend of mine (and hanging out with him is one of the main reasons I still go, along with Steve Donaldson regularly attending), I’ve yet to see anyone tackle my writing.
It occurs to me that even within fantasy as a genre, there exist internal stigmas. As a writer of ‘epic’ or ‘heroic’ fantasy, well, unless one is a dead Englishman with J’s and R’s in his name, we don’t much rate as serious fare for serious discussion (of course, if I went in the opposite direction and wrote about adolescent virgin seduction fantasies and threw in a few moody vampires, well, I’d be fighting ‘em off!). Sometimes I think about all of that and I sigh. But mostly, I just sit at the pool bar and have a good time not worrying about anything.
So perhaps I have an ulterior motive in analyzing my own writing here, as if to say: ‘Hey you, no really, I know what I’m doing. Honest. I even think about it. And look at this excerpt — not a sword or busty bodice in sight!’ (Good thing I didn’t use that other excerpt.) But if that purpose is there, it’s not the main one. Apart from hoping to inspire beginning writers, I might also be providing a kind of primer to my readers — not that most of them need it, as they’ve already discovered the pay-off in re-reads. Right?
To close, I’ll return briefly to that diabolical matter, to assure my readers that while I am entirely and absolutely engaged in manipulating your emotions through the stories I write, I won’t do it to lie to you. Ever. I am a believer in Aristotle’s argument on the value of catharsis in tragedy. We need to feel to be reminded of what feeling is like. Now more than ever. My novels are an invitation to compassion, for what that’s worth. And finally, I can’t make you feel anything unless I feel it first.
For Malazan fans: ten chapters left…
Read Parts I to IV of Steven Erikson’s “Notes on a Crisis”. Visit his Life As A Human biography page for links.
“Monster in the Sky”sakura_chilhaya+. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Sean Hamity and Karl Rove on FOX!” dutchlad @ flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Puppet or Puppeteer” Jonathan @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
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Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Steven Erikson’s Notes on a Crisis Part XI: Show Don't Tell
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part X: If it Hurts Like Hell
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part IX: Back to the Craft of Writing
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