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The Explorers GuildA few novels in recent days are taking a different approach to storytelling. Perhaps the most high-profile example is S. — a project conceived by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst which takes the form of a library book filled with handwritten notes of two people who pass the book back and forth, talking to each other in the margins. In effect it becomes an artifact from a story rather than the story itself.

The Explorers Guild (subtitled A Passage To Shambhala and teasingly numbered “Volume One”) isn’t quite as experimental, but it does manage to forge its own path. In the process it seems as adventurous and bold as the characters it describes. The story is told in a mixture of prose and comics, with the occasional full-colour plate evocative of the work by famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth.

I went into the book knowing very little about the plot or the people inside, and I feel that maybe this is the best way for anyone to experience it. I could name some of the main characters or at least tell you what they start to get up to and then cut off at the most cliffhanging moment to engage your interest. But even the briefest review summary or premise somewhat takes away the mystery. And there is a strong flavour of mystery throughout the story, so much so that even at the end you wonder if all the questions were really answered. I choose to say no more except what’s evident from the publisher’s blurb. This story is a heavy nostalgia trip for fans of turn of the century Boy’s Own Adventures. The recipe of H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a touch of Jules Verne should give you the general idea. It’s set during World War I and involves a quest to find the city of Shambhala from Buddhist mythology.

I’m firmly in this novel’s target audience. I grew up on a steady diet of Tintin, Tolkien, and Star Trek. Words like “adventure”, “exploration”, and “mystery” stir my imagination like almost nothing else. This means that I’m far from able to give a purely objective analysis. Any book like this starts out with my five-star rating, and that only goes down if it makes serious missteps. If you’re anything like me and you share that love of pulp then I can assure you The Explorers Guild delivers on all it promises in spades.

That being said, not everything was perfect. If the novel has a main flaw it might be in its labyrinthine complexity. There’s a wide cast of characters, most of whom are crucial threads in the tapestry. But it’s a lot to keep track of and once or twice I found my memory of events was a little muddled. Fortunately the writers (and to judge from the Acknowledgments it was a team effort) seem aware of this and do provide a helping hand when necessary. The complexity of character relationships and plot also makes the book feel a tad long at times, but the variety of pace is welcome; without pauses to breathe the action would be wearisome and meaningless. Overall the novel’s strengths — atmosphere, suspense, and rounded characters — outweighed its weaknesses, at least for me.

The unique format was as exciting as the story itself. Switching from prose to comics to prose is done without any apparent effort or loss of momentum. The writing will comment on action in the panels while panels will sometimes illustrate the writing. Each does its part to carry the story forward and they seamlessly feed into one another. This fluidity results in a kind of symbiosis so that if you were to remove either medium the whole would fall apart. To my knowledge nothing like this has been tried before on this scale, so there’s an equal sense of experimentation here as well. On one page the text tells one part of the story, while running along the bottom are four comic panels with a scene from a different plotline. Maybe none of this makes sense to you, and indeed it’s difficult to describe; it has to be experienced to be understood.

The Explorers Guild is a voyage into the unknown, a strange quest to fill in the blank spaces of the map. It charts new territory in the way you tell and read a story. And for that boldness if nothing else it deserves respect. I had a rollicking good time between its covers and by now you’ll know whether or not you will too.

They say you should show instead of tell.

I’m not as fond of the phrase. Words can’t show anything in the literal sense, they can only tell things. But the point is valid. We only want you to tell us interesting things. Let me try to illustrate the point.

I could tell you that Mrs. Bumble was an absent-minded and unfocused woman.

Or I could tell you that Mrs. Bumble once set out to bake a cake. She began by washing her hands thoroughly and walked away from the sink leaving the water running. She got out her recipe book and followed the instructions. First, she turned the oven on to the designated temperature. Then she got a bowl and measured out the flour into it. Leaving the flour on the counter she then took out the sugar to measure. Next came the butter out of the fridge. But when Mrs. Bumble went back to the fridge for eggs, she discovered to her mild annoyance that she’d had the last two for breakfast that morning. The market was only a fifteen-minute drive away so Mrs. Bumble, still in her apron, put on her hat and coat and shoes and went out the door. Only by the time she reached her car she realized she’d left her keys on the front table. So back she went, retrieved the keys, and drove to the market. The oven was still on and the tap was still running.

You see, I could tell you about Mrs. Bumble in a simple and short sentence. But it’s so much more interesting to tell you about something Mrs. Bumble does. If this were a full story instead of a blog post, I could go on and tell you about what Mrs. Bumble did at the market, how she interacted with the people she met, and what state she found the house in when she got back — if she ever got back. Knowing myself, I’d probably want to add more detail like what kind of house she lives in, why she was baking a cake, what the specific oven temperature was (researching different cake recipes if I was after realism), and whether or not Mr. Bumble is still alive.

The point, without that tiresome cliche everyone uses, is this: Don’t bother telling us about the character. Tell us about something the character does. It will certainly be more interesting, and it might possibly create your plot.

There might be a secondary point, which is that writing advice can sometimes be cliched and we need to make it more interesting for ourselves if we’re to benefit from its wisdom.

The Power of Words

Like most people, one of the first things I do after getting home is turn on my computer and log into Facebook. I catch up with what my friends are saying, doing, and thinking. A number of times in the last several weeks, I’ve found myself coming home from work in a good mood; maybe we had a lot of laughs, or people were especially friendly to each other, or perhaps the weather was nice. But often — disturbingly often, in fact — within five minutes of logging into Facebook that good mood ends up with a single bullet to the back of the head, execution style, and left in the alleyway dumpster.

There’s a lot to talk about these days. Most of it painful. Much of it controversial. Politics, social justice, and armed conflict have been lightning rods for heated discussion since humans gained language. And perhaps they should be since they can determine our future as a species. But in the era of the internet what we say, positive and negative, rises to a volume that we rarely seem to comprehend.

Facebook seems filled with argument, mudslinging, and swearing. All of it by people who the website calls my Friends.

Whether we’re arguing about Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, immigration policy, or the latest “Star Wars” movie, we think nothing of calling the person we disagree with an idiot. We have two modes of argument: either we don’t care about being offensive or we try to be as offensive as possible. The more controversial the topic, the bigger the mudballs we sling at each other become. And the bigger they are, the better chance we have of hitting more than just our target.

It amazes me that in an era when our words travel farther, move faster, and shout louder than ever before, we seem to value them less than we ever have. We have no respect for their power. We ignore what their consequences might be.

If I have a prayer for 2016, it’s that we might realize what we’re saying, doing, and thinking when we comment or discuss. That we’d learn the meaning and practice of tolerance. That we’d learn to respect the inherent God-given worth of other human beings — and the inherent God-given power of our words.

 

Yes, summer seems like a very long time ago. But since I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while, there’s a fair amount of accumulation. I keep a reading journal to record notes. Let’s take a look.

 

The Islanders

The Islanders, Christopher Priest

Extremely difficult to classify the genre. Written as a guide to the islands of the Dream Archipelago, it is somehow whole yet also in pieces. Another example of a canon, almost. Occasionally it’s more a traditional short story style, but I liked it best when he was writing description or in the first-person. Mysteries aren’t always resolved and threads aren’t always tied together; even when they are it’s usually obliquely. Worth re-reading at some point.

 

The Stand

The Stand, Stephen King

King’s first doorstopper back in 1978 was revisited in 1990 and became more of a cement-truck-stopper. He goes for the slow burn in this one, gradually building up tension as the world succumbs to a deadly virus that kills almost everyone. The survivors find themselves choosing sides in a battle between God and the Devil. Not to give too much away, but it’s quite a lengthy buildup for a showdown that never really happens. So many plot threads don’t end up anywhere; they just stop abruptly, often with someone’s death. When I reached the last page I was more than ready for the end.

 

Seriously Dangerous Religion

Seriously Dangerous Religion: What The Old Testament Really Says And Why It Matters, Iain Provan

Following his first volume Convenient Myths (see my last review post), Provan now goes on to explain the worldview of the Bible, specifically of the Old Testament. Taking a close look at the opening stories of the book we call Genesis, he constructs a thorough and detailed picture of what the Bible believes about God, the universe, and humans’ place within it. At the end of each chapter he takes what he’s discussed and compares it with other religions and worldviews. The result is a finely honed account of the Bible’s story — and a sober argument that, whatever you believe, this ancient text is still relevant to our modern world, and must be reckoned with seriously.

 

Go Set A WatchmanGo Set A Watchman, Harper Lee

Lee’s first draft version of To Kill A Mockingbird generated some controversy this year, but I was looking forward to it. You can tell it’s a first draft. By a very talented writer, of course, but a first draft. I can see immediately why her editor wanted it rewritten to focus on Scout’s childhood; the extended flashback of Scout, Jem, and Dill playing “stories” is the best part of the book — and hilarious at that. I wish it had stayed in. This is a more adult story than it would later become, about disillusionment with childhood rather than about growing into maturity. Ultimately, I appreciated the opportunity to see this early idea that would be molded into one of the best novels in American literature.

 

The Chinatown Death Cloud PerilThe Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, Paul Malmont

Not only following in the tradition of the pulps, but also about pulp writers. Walter Gibson, creator of The Shadow, and Lester Dent of Doc Savage fame star in this atmospheric and page-turning mystery. The fog creeps in, but without drowning out a sense of humour. A sequel titled The Astounding, The Amazing, And The Unknown is set during World War II and focuses on the rise of science fiction with characters like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard.

 

 

The Man Who Was Thursday

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton

Still not quite sure what to make of it. Starts off being one thing, ends up being quite another. Absurdities abound, including an elephant running down the streets of London. In the end it’s a lot like a Charles Williams novel (and there may have been some influence on those). It’s going to take a re-reading, preferably in a more annotated edition, to fully plumb the depths. And I look forward to reading more from Chesterton. He has something about him unlike anyone else.

Published!

This is the blog post I’ve been waiting years to write. There’s no need to guess why, I suppose, especially when it’s in the title above.

I’m a published author.

Drive In Tales, a new online magazine edited by Alex Soderstrom, is publishing my story “The Whitehawk Agency” in two parts over two issues. The first was released today in the Summer 2015 issue. Click here to start reading!

 

Project Bluebook

Notebooks

I love notebooks. I love having all my thoughts and sketches and jottings about a project in one place, and the sense of focus that brings when I sit down and open one to work in it.

Focus has been a wonderful gift these last couple months. In June I was feeling bottlenecked: too many story ideas vied for my attention and I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to work on. Exactly what happened next is something I can’t quite remember. I suppose some synapses fired off and crashed into others. The next thing I know, I’ve decided that one of my projects would make a great novel to work on and shop around as my first serious effort at publication — and can also be connected to one of my other projects over here, and that this third project could also be a kind of sequel.

The ideas merged, not into a series exactly, but more like different aspects of a shared universe. At least I can’t find a better way to describe it without spoilers. And I’m playing this one close to the chest for now so don’t expect to hear what it’s all about.

The main novel, the hub around which everything else revolves, is being worked on in a blue notebook. Hence the “public” title of Project Bluebook (the actual working title is also something you shouldn’t expect to hear for awhile). There might be a joking reference to the US government program that studied UFOs, but I can tell you I’m not writing about little green men…I think.

It might sound like it would lead to the same problem: multiple projects, multiple notebooks, and the dissipation of energy. But in fact my enthusiasm hasn’t waned a bit since I started two months ago. I’ve been steadily writing, making notes, experimenting in these pages. Moving between stories and notebooks doesn’t seem like a weakness anymore, but a strength.

Focus has been a wonderful gift. So has diversity. In the space where they overlap, my creativity seems to be thriving.

Bottleneck

I have a strange form of writer’s block.

Most people imagine writer’s block as staring at a blank page not knowing what words to put down. That’s not my problem. My problem is that I have about ten different pages in front of me, all of them half-full of words, and I don’t know which one to keep filling.

Coming up with “ideas” isn’t my problem (what exactly are these “ideas” people keep asking writers about?). It’s not very hard to have “ideas” for a premise and work out where it could go. Even working things out isn’t my problem. My problem is that I have ten notebooks, one for each premise, ready to be filled with the working out and the words and the ideas, and I don’t know which one to focus my time and energy on.

It’s like there’s a ten-lane highway and each lane is jammed with cars. There’s a tunnel up ahead and the highway’s about to condense into five lanes. It’s not writer’s block. It’s a bottleneck.

Ultimately, it leads to the same thing: not writing. Even when I think that maybe the cars should start merging – blend that idea into this premise and fold that character into this narrative – there’s resistance. They don’t want to merge. They want to be first through the tunnel.

I’m tired of not writing. But I’m even more tired of not being published. I want to write something that actually gets out there. I want to write a novel.

The only question is…which one?

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