Good Versus Evil

I have spent many hours that might have been more productively spent weeding a garden thinking about the nature of good and evil. Like many of my species, I have questioned why there is evil in the world. (Presumably there is evil in the universe as well, but my experience is limited.)

I was brought up Episcopalian (Catholic Lite). The Judeo-Christian explanation of good and evil makes perfect sense until you start asking questions: “If God is good and all-powerful, why doesn’t He just get rid of the Devil and make everything wonderful?” That’s when Father Cummins would narrow his eyes, purse his lips and croak something like, “The Devil is there to test your faith. Copy this 500 times on the blackboard.” A few more answers like that, and I learned to shut up, which was what Father Cummins wanted in the first place.

I no longer believe in the Devil. Or Santa Claus. Or any number of other things I believed in as a child. But there are things in the world that I can only classify as evil, whether or not there is an actively evil entity behind them. Much of what I perceive as evil is unnatural: murder, kidnapping, cruelty. But there are so many cruelties that occur in nature. What a mother wasp does to nurture her babies is a living hell to the spider she catches. Is it evil if it’s a behavior an animal has naturally evolved to survive? If I were on the receiving end, I don’t think I would have any doubts about it, so maybe it’s all a matter of perspective.

And then there’s deliberate evil, committed with knowledge of the consequences and executed without the excuse of needing to do it to survive. As a child of the 1950s, I believed the brightly illustrated textbooks that told me about the beauty and natural riches of our great nation. Imagine my shock and astonishment when I discovered in my teens there were rivers so polluted that they periodically caught on fire. If you fell into the Potomac, you had to rush to the hospital for treatment because of the sewage in the river.

People were knowingly pouring poisons into the air they and their children breathed and into the water they and their families drank. I found this gobstoppingly unbelievable—and still do. Doesn’t this kind of behavior qualify as evil? Why would anyone in his or her right mind do something like this?

There’s been some progress in curbing various forms of pollution, but there are still those who try to game the rules and get away with it. It seems to be a constant battle to retain clean air and water standards, or to keep endangered animals on the protected species list. (Of course, a lot of them have fallen off the list because they are now extinct.) And don’t get me started on the climate change deniers, or the people who want to build more nuclear power plants. (Chernobyl. Three-Mile Island. Fukushima. Does anyone remember?)

My bemusement over these issues was one reason I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror.” I tried to imagine what would influence people all over the world to deliberately ignore the damage they were causing to the world, the environment, other people, their families, and themselves. It’s a fantasy novel, so the driving evil is the ancient meso-American god Necocyaotl (which means The Obsidian Mirror or The Smoking Mirror in Nahuatl). As the novel is set in present-day Silicon Valley, I devised a modern, technological way that he could disseminate his nefarious influence worldwide. (No spoilers; I’m not going to tell you how he does it.)

In contrast, my heroine Sierra loves nature and likes to hike and camp. She doesn’t want to see the wild places spoiled and destroyed. Not being stupid, Sierra is reluctant to take on an ancient, evil god—but she does.

I tried hard not to get preachy about the environment. There are lots of dramatic clashes between the camps of good and evil and a romantic subplot. And humor. I’m a firm believer that you can’t convince anybody of anything unless you season it well with humor. But the underlying theme of the book is doing the right thing for the world.

Just my little stand against the forces of darkness.

Yes, Virginia, There Is Such a Thing as Writer’s Block

In my first post here, I said that the “… characters mutinied, took over the project, and left me swimming in their wake, trying to catch up.” That sounds like I just leaned back, put up my bunny-slipper-clad feet on the desk and relaxed while the book wrote itself.

Would that it were so.

What actually happened was when I came home from my job writing for Cisco, I spent my free hours writing the novel. Relaxing from writing by writing doesn’t exactly soothe the soul and refresh the spirit, but I finished the novel about six months after I started it. Finished it the FIRST time, I mean.

Then I paid a fantasy writer to review the manuscript and give me feedback. Her feedback was extensive and thoughtful, though I didn’t agree with everything she said. Her premise was that the heroine has to be tough and tearless, not given to feminine weaknesses such as crying, which my heroine does once or twice when thwarted.

Well, in a certain kind of fantasy fiction, a sword-wielding (or laser-cannon-wielding) über-babe is entirely appropriate. But my story centers on an ordinary woman living an ordinary life until her reality is fractured by the supernatural. Ordinary women sometimes cry when frustrated or unhappy. So I didn’t change Sierra’s nature, but I did add characters and plot complications. I also changed some basic premises of the story and created an entirely new ending. In the process, I think I strengthened my heroine’s character arc, bringing her to a new level of self-awareness and personal power.

How long did it take me to finish the novel the second time? Five years. And why did it take me five years to rewrite a novel that I had written in six months?

Well, writing for a living while writing for creative expression issue was undoubtedly a factor. I addressed this by taking a couple of “stay-cations” where, instead of going to Hawaii or some other dreary place, I plopped down in my desk chair every morning and wrote all day (or most of it). I rewrote everything past the end point of the original draft—and then came to a screeching halt. I could not for the life of me figure out how to end the new plot. I knew how I wanted it to end, but I couldn’t think how to get there from where I was.

This was the first time in my life I have ever experienced writer’s block. I have always sneered at writer’s block because I had a foolproof way to avoid it. Whenever faced with uncertainty or lack of inspiration, I just start writing. The first few pages might be garbage and wind up in the virtual trash basket, but the act of writing has always gotten the creative juices flowing.

But now, try as I might, I could not construct an ending. I attempted to spur a flash of insight by writing a précis of the story from the bad guys’ point of view. I reread the novel several times from the beginning. I tried writing a chapter outline, which I thought might inspire some new ideas. Nothing worked.

Finally, I asked a new friend to read the book and give me some ideas. I wanted fresh eyes and an untainted brain. The friend offered a few suggestions, though she was unable to suggest an ending. However, I suddenly felt like I could do this thing, and sat down to try again.

And that’s when I discovered the problem. There is a scene towards the end of the book where some of my characters are about to hike into the woods on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Two highway patrol officers see them and stop to warn them about not hiking off-trail, due to rotten limestone and hidden caves. As the rangers depart, one says to the other that they should notify the park rangers that someone may be hiking in a dangerous area. Later, I thought it would be a great idea to have the rangers discover my heroes in the company of one of the bad guys—which led to the necessity of explaining to the authorities a number of strange circumstances, and resulted in a complete dead end, story-wise.

Once I realized I had painted myself into a plot corner, I removed the interfering rangers and took the plot into newer, richer, greener pastures. And finished the effing story.

I am a reformed character, of course, and will never again curl my lip at the notion of writer’s block.

Photo by Emergency Brake

Writing a !!&*!*$%$? Book Synopsis

I got the blog up. I got the Facebook page up. I got the Twitter feed going (243 Followers after three days! Yeah!)

So now I had to write the book synopsis. I carefully perused several authors’ professional advice on this. They all sounded pretty much the same: write in the present tense, third person. Summarize, but put in the emotion. Try to carry through the “voice” of the novel.

So I sat down and began to write. Five pages later, I had to admit to myself that this wasn’t a synopsis; it was a rehash, and a dull one to boot. How could I leave out the bit about Tzintzimitl stealing the silver feathers? That’s too important because it affects what the characters do later. Or the part about Jumlin kidnapping Sierra and nearly sacrificing her to an evil god?

I noted my frustration on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve read enough from other writers to know that the book synopsis is a knotty problem, and I thought maybe someone, somewhere had the solution. I thought it was a forlorn hope, as all the advice I have read to date has been discouragingly cookie-cutter.

To my astonishment, a young friend, Erica Chase (the beautiful, talented, intelligent and accomplished Erica Chase), posted a URL on FB to a blog post that outlined a simple approach to writing a fictional book synopsis. I tried it—and by the end of the day I had a book synopsis of one-and-a-half pages that I think does the job pretty well. I’ll sit and brood on it, of course, and pester relatives and friends to read and criticize, but what a gift!

If you’re a fiction writer, you’re probably just a wee bit curious at this point (I hope). Maybe you’re thinking that I will jealously guard this secret, like Aunt Maisie guards her recipe for cheesy-bits-with-nummy-things.

But no. Not only do I have an open and unselfish nature, but you could also find it on the Internet, just like the beautiful-and-talented Ms. Chase. Or you could go look at my FB page (http://www.facebook.com/mannegishi). So here it is, and may the Force be with you:

http://www.magicalwords.net/specialgueststars/write-by-number-synopsis-recipe/

 

Talking Coyote? Holy Mannegishi!

Well, I did it. I wrote a novel, titled “The Obsidian Mirror.” And, yes, it WAS on my bucket list. Now I’ve reached the inevitable next stage of writing a book; I’m trying to get it published.

But I get ahead of myself. Maybe I should explain how I came to write a contemporary adult fantasy novel, in the process becoming entangled with a talking coyote and a mannegishi. Bear with me; I will explain.

In January 2007, I finished reading a fantasy novel. I can’t remember which one, but it was a familiar scenario: armored men in cloaks riding horses and fighting each other with swords. There were also elves, dwarves, trolls, wizards—you know what I’m talking about. Not that it was a bad novel; I thoroughly enjoy this kind of story and am a huge “Lord of the Rings” fan. But I found myself wondering why most fantasies seem to be set in a pre-industrial, proto-European world with all the trappings, such as dragons and/or faeries.

Why, I wondered to myself, aren’t more novels based on American archetypes? The rich landscape of Native American tradition, the awfulness and grandeur of the Maya and the Inca, Vodun (you probably call it Voodoo), and folk tales from every region all offer an amazing breadth of ideas and potential for fantasy.

I’m not an expert in these things, but I did pick up an appreciation for Native American culture from my mother, who was an archeologist prior to WWII, specializing in Southwestern Indian cultures. My childhood home included such necessary décor as ancient pots and arrowheads, pre-Columbian art, and a skull named Yorick.

Also—for reasons that I cannot explain—I have always been interested in Vodun and have read several books on the subject, including the amazing non-fiction book “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” by Wade Davis. I had a small adventure in the Voodoo Museum of New Orleans, but that will have to wait for another blog post.

In early 2007, my freelance writing business hit a slow stretch, so I whiled away some of the hours by writing a novel rooted in American archetypes, just to see where it would take me. I went about researching the novel in the most cavalier way possible; I would troll around the Internet until I found something that struck my fancy, and I’d use it. The resulting story contains a mishmash of North American, South American, Caribbean, and Canadian folklore and legend. In some cases, I have attributed supernatural beings to one tribe that rightly belong to another. Well, if C.S. Lewis could do it, so can I.

I set my story in present-day Silicon Valley because this is where I live and work. I made my protagonist, Sierra Carter, a public relations executive because this is what I used to do before I decided I was really more interested in writing than in bugging other writers (journalists) to write about whatever doodad my clients were selling. (Sierra is not me, by the way. She’s much younger and more athletic, and she reads non-fiction more than fiction—so not me.)

In selecting Sierra’s magical companions, I knew I wanted to use Coyotl. The coyote figures in many Native American stories as the Trickster. Like Loki in the Norse myths, or Anansi in West African and Caribbean folklore, Coyote is always playing tricks, and the tricks sometimes turn out quite differently than he intends. Often, he is portrayed as a friend to people, bringing them fire from the gods or solving their problems accidentally when one of his tricks goes wrong.

This, of course, is where the talking coyote comes in. In my story, Coyotl is able to take the form of a ridiculously handsome young man called Chaco. Chaco is sweet, helpful, intelligent, sexy—and a bit unreliable.

The mannegishi is Fred, which is more pronounceable than his real name, Shoemowetochawcawewahcatoe (meaning “High-backed Wolf” in one of the Native American languages). Mannegishis, according to Wikipedia, are “semi-humanoid, being sexdactylous humans with very thin and lanky arms and legs and big heads minus a nose.” A description I read of the Dover Devil, sometimes identified as a mannegishi, mentions greenish skin and large orange eyes. Who could resist? Fred, while lovable, makes Chaco look like the Rock of Gibraltar in the reliability department.

So my characters mutinied, took over the project, and left me swimming in their wake, trying to catch up. Now, five years later, here I am, arms wide, looking for a publisher to love.

Why did it take me five years to finish, you ask? Well, I write for a living. It’s hard to write all day and come home and relax by writing all evening. The other reason is that I have a lot of interests, which is diametrically opposed to being an author like Isaac Asimov, who pretty much hated doing anything but sitting in front of his typewriter. Asimov, undistracted by external interests, wrote 515 books (not counting individual short stories, individual essays, or criticism). I, like Sierra, design and fabricate sterling silver jewelry. I have a close-knit family and circle of friends, and enjoy spending time with them. I like to travel, I sometimes paint in oils, I belong to a cooperative art gallery, I love good wines and food—oh, an endless list of things I enjoy. It’s a miracle I ever finished this book, in fact.

But I did.

Know any good fantasy publishers?