Today’s post is another YouTube video, in which you will get to listen to my own reading of a piece of short fiction I wrote for the Mythgard Institute “Almost an Inkling” creative writing contest. The contest is still going on, but now that the current week’s voting is over, I was really enthusiastic to share this piece with the public.
The story is a brief historical fantasy that I originally conceived as a cross between Lord Dunsany’s wonder tales and T.E. Lawrence’s account of the Arab Revolt in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Check it out.
Elizabethan England’s most celebrated poet and playwright, in underground kind of way, was Christopher Marlowe, although he was soon eclipsed by Mr. Will Shakespeare, whose popular plays would define the mainstream for centuries to come. It was the 90s. The 1590s to be precise. Marlowe was at the height of his powers, writing the politically subversive and experimental poetry that would come to define his generation. Doctor Faustus, for instance, would stand the test of centuries as a profound representation of Renaissance humanism.
Many have tried to label Marlowe. Attaining his MA at Cambridge, he was a member of a generation of college wits. The civil service was not large enough to accommodate the young poets of London, so they turned to more edgy professions, like poetry.
Poet, playwright, spy, homosexual, Catholic, atheist: even if the labels didn’t make any sense, they stuck. Marlowe’s response? Haters gonna hate.
Here are five reasons why Marlowe was basically a hipster:
1. He avoided all labels.
Although Edward II depicts the homosexual relationship between a king and his favourite courtier (fun fact: Edward II is Longshanks’ son in Braveheart), Marlowe cannot be outed of the closet based on textual evidence alone. In a similar way, scholars have argued about whether Doctor Faustus celebrates or a condemns Renaissance humanism and the pursuit of scientific knowledge–they have to settle on seeing the play as expressing a paradox. Neither can they determine with absolute certainty whether he was an atheist, or for that matter, a closet Catholic. You can’t pin Marlowe down or place him in any particular intellectual camp–being classified would make him way too mainstream.
2. He was over-educated and underemployed.
Sound familiar? Like a certain generation of young, college- and university-aged people today (such as yours truly), he had no money unless he sought patronage. Furthermore, his education in classical literature went nowhere towards finding him a job. He couldn’t just be a cobbler like his father, Mr. John Marlowe. Way too mainstream. Instead, the only way Marlowe was able to get his MA was by serving in Her Majesty’s Secret Service–such as it existed back then. Marlowe was sent to France to spy on Catholics for Elizabeth I, or at least that’s what scholars have argued. If only that was all you had to do today: become James Bond for a while and then bang! your degree is conferred, your tuition paid. (I’ll stop dreaming about it now.)
3. He was into retro.
Marlowe painstakingly tried to bring back the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Although he was not alone in reviving interest in Ovid’s poetry, most people came to know Ovid only in grammar school textbooks. Marlowe remixed a collection of Ovid’s poems, the Elegies, by translating them into English verse. Then he brought Ovid to popular audiences by writing highly pretentious allusions to Ovid’s Metamorphoses into his plays. I don’t suppose you’d understand the reference, but…
4. He was unappreciated as an artist for centuries.
Marlowe’s art was so ahead of his time that his seventeenth- and eighteenth-century readers devalued him as only a necessary precursor to the Bard–John the Baptist to Shakespeare’s Christ. Well, the Romantics reappraised him after almost 200 years and his works, which explore tyranny and the dark side of politics, had new resonance in the twentieth century. Like Vincent Van Gogh, the archetypical unappreciated artist, the genius in Marlowe only became relevant after his death.
5. He wrote in blank verse before it was cool.
Rhymes were way too fashionable. Not to mention, they were just distasteful. I mean really. His contemporaries were infatuated with couplets, Spenserian stanzas, and rime royal. Marlowe was one of the first to realize that rhymes were overrated. Iambic pentameter blank verse in English, so characteristic of Shakespeare’s great dramatic speeches, was actually pioneered by his more underground predecessor. Unfortunately, Shakespeare is given all the cred for this. What everyone should come to realize is that Marlowe was not some kind of mindless trend follower; he started one of the greatest poetic trends in English literature, thank you very much.
An elimination is a poetic form where you don’t write the words. You erase them.
Take any stanza or paragraph with a rich, evocative vocabulary. I for example chose a few pages from James Frazer’s classic work of anthropology The Golden Bough. Any other kind of text can fit just as well as any other–the crazier or more meaningful, the better. Take something written by your favourite author or poet, or even an ad, if the text is to your liking. Any well-textured bit of literature you can find.
Either mentally or with a writing stylus–pen or pencil–underline individual words and punctuation marks. In order, write each underlined word down on a separate paper or another document file. You may also–if you so wish–take the via negativa: scratch out the words you don’t need.
See, you are now constructing a parallel text that has been buried within the original. You are using the author’s own words to construct your expression. This is called an elimination.
An elimination is a great way to break your inertia if you have writer’s block. It is also a fascinating exercise in how you can wittily reshape what someone else has said to fit your own agenda. Maybe this is as close a poet ever comes to becoming a politician.
Here you can find my own elimination of the first page of The Golden Bough, an epic of classical anthropology. I have reproduced the first two paragraphs of text of Frazer’s work for the purposes of demonstration:
“WHO does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is[in] a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi—“Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Diana herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.
In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy. On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. But the town of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles off, at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from the lake, which lies in a small crater-like hollow on the mountain side. In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried[s] a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at
every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.”
Notice that I occasionally fix the tense of some verbs and make adjustments to minor words like ‘in.’ This is all I’ve allowed myself. Aside from a few added commas, every word and punctuation mark is in the same order as Frazer wrote it:
“Golden Bough Elimination: King of the Wood”
Know the scene. The golden imagination
steeped in a dream-like woodland lake.
Ancients in a green hollow forget characteristic
terraced gardens, break solitariness, linger, still haunt
this sylvan landscape. Tragedy on the lake
under the cliffs, perched. Sacred Diana of the town,
at the foot of the lake. On a certain time of day,
a grim figure carries a sword, and, warily,
a priest and a murderer
hold office till slain.
I have been a bit cowardly in my use of the form; I have transplanted many of Frazer’s original phrases into my own poem. The best eliminations carry the spirit of the primary text to an extent, but spin the author’s own words into entirely new, unlikely directions. The result is an uncanny effect where the author speaks vicariously through you. You can can link words together that the author has thought best to keep apart, in order to find mysterious hidden meanings; manipulate language to make the author’s words disagree with him- or herself; or, take the words of a prophet and spin them into something wild.
A poet may choose to hide their source text from the reader, although in my case, I chose not to, since I wanted readers to feel the significance that The Golden Bough might have for them.
I find that this technique is most visible in its effects when the text itself is well-known, like the first page of Moby-Dick or Hamlet’s soliloquy. Try eliminating a famous text such as these as an exercise.
Eliminations are like the excavation of a hidden message in the sands of language. They’re especially uncanny when you eliminate the words of a well-known historical figure, written during a particular, defining historical moment. What happens when you cut out words from Herodotus? From Martin Luther’s Theses? From Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The past can speak with a new voice to us, even though, paradoxically, it uses the same words as it has always used. In a way, eliminations have the potential to construct strange ‘historical fantasies,’ alternate realities where the words of history and literature stand in the same order but are changed in their very substance into new meanings and forms–with a few simple nicks of a pen.
The semester is just about over and it’s time for some poetry! The Veg, one of McGill’s student literary magazines, is holding a launch later tonight at 8:00pm at Le Cagibi, where I will be reading a selection of poems including my haiku. I will be running a fuller post next week describing the event in detail, along with yesterday’s launch of Scrivener Creative Review’s Fall 2014 online edition.
In the meanwhile, for this week, I leave you with this session of the program Radio is Dead on CKUT 90.3 FM, a Montreal/McGill campus community radio station. I gave a reading on air and was interviewed by Clara Lagacé. Another interviewee, Julia Isler, is in my seminar on Canadian Modernism with Professor Brian Trehearne.
You can click here in order to download the show. Simply click the Monday November 24, 2014 airing of Radio is Dead. You can stream in online, or download it, if you have iTunes.
I counted it a significant turn of good fortune that I had just finished reading Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach when it almost won this year’s Canada Reads competition (Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda took first prize). It took me 5 years to get around to reading it.
Nonetheless, this author—whose book I am reviewing Friday—has had a mythic impact on me, a presence in my life that grew during those 5 years. Allow me to explain.
In 2009, there was an event at Concordia University called “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage.” I was still halfway though the Liberal Arts program at Dawson College and I received a ticket from my mother, who is an alumnus. I had only read DeNiro’s Game, Hage’s electrifying first novel, but I still relished the opportunity to hear him interviewed. It was there I received a signed copy of Cockroach for my mother.
To the editor mom, Hage scrawled on the title page, after I told him she had been reading over my unpublished novel Battles of Rofp. I was there with my dad, and we got the book as a gift of thanks to her, since she couldn’t attend the evening event. I placed DeNiro’s Game, which he also signed, on my bookshelf as a talisman, my hope to aspire to become a better writer.
Hage is a photographer and graduate of Concordia’s Creative Writing program. DeNiro’s Game was his thesis. I have spent 5 years of my life yearning to study in that same program, to write my own thesis, have it published, and then maybe participate in my own little “Up Close and Personal with Matthew Rettino.”
I tried once in 2010, but failed, and entered McGill’s English literature program. After I graduated from the Honours program, I tried again in 2013 and by March 2014, this month, I have received the committee’s response. I was rejected for the second time from this program. Though this rejection makes me bitterly disappointed, it is a sign that my path to success will simply not be identical to Rawi Hage’s route. We are, after all, vastly different writers.
Concordia’s creative writing professors, for one, are in the “literary fiction” stream of writing style, rather than “literary fantasy,” which is what I was aspiring to learn to write. ‘Tis the age-old difference between literary fiction and genre, a distinction that really comes down to why people write what they write.
Literary writers write for themselves, for their characters, in an attempt to learn more about human nature and themselves. Genre writers, while they might explore character and the human condtion, write chiefly because an idea for a plot seizes them, or a situation fascinates them. Naturally, literary fiction tends to be dominated by characters, subjectivism, and interiority, whereas genre tends to rely on plot and story.
I write because a crazy or fascinating idea or situation grabs my attention and compels me to write the story. This tends to set me on the path towards genre fiction. Generally, I do not see a person on a bus and think that this or that character would be fascinating to write about, as some literary fiction writers do.
Partly, I suspect this tendency is related to my high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which sets up a wall in front of my ability to relate to other people easily. Since character is less of a natural thing for me to think about than plot ideas, I have this tendency towards genre, and a weakness in my writing towards character, voice and dialogue. Description and plot remain my strong points.
One way to overcome the negative effects of my Asperger’s is to introduce literary modes into my fantasy writing, to pay more attention to character and personality. Bridging the genre divide can thus be tied to my own attempts to break out socially with others—and therefore the very existence of this blog.
Rawi Hage’s literary fiction would appear at first to be as vastly different from my own, as the moon is from the sun. However, here is where Hage gets interesting.
His novels, Cockroach and DeNiro’s Game, are remarkable precisely because they fuse the plot of a thriller with the wit and reflection of a literary novel. Perhaps it is no mistake that DeNiro’s Game was the first novel of literary fiction I ever read for pleasure outside of school, and a model I looked up to afterwards. Cockroach even has elements of fantasy to smooth it all over!
If literary fiction can get away with a strong plot in a capable writer’s hands, then there is no reason a fantasy writer cannot write a work of “literary fantasy” fiction. Rawi Hage confirms this hypothesis from the literary fiction perspective just as much as a writer like Guy Gavriel Kay or Charles de Lint can.
What, then, is this fantasy that is at work in Cockroach?
Rawi Hage’s Middle-Eastern immigrant protagonist has a complex around women, which causes him to imagine himself becoming a cockroach. The metamorphosis is Kafkasque, but as Hage mentioned during his interview, it would be eurocentric to ignore the symbolism of cockroaches in other sources, such as Arabic fable books.
Cockroach is the radical story of an uncompromising thief who roots out the hypocrisies in Montreal immigrant society. His work is as literary as Dostoyevsky and as suspenseful as the most page-turning thriller—and it bears the occasional resemblance to the movie Taxi Driver staring—of course—Robert DeNiro.
Continuing on Friday, I shall tell you more about this brilliant book.
My most recent poem to be published was printed in Read this Dammit!‘s January edition: “Janus: God of the Gateways.” You can pick up a copy on McGill campus in the news racks in the Leacock Building or at the MacLennan Library. I am quite happy that I was able to read it at the Paper’s Edge Coffee House at Burritoville last Friday. I was also able to read scene 1 of my novel, in which I feel quite confident. For your reading pleasure, here it my poem. Sorry if it’s a bit of a let down. It should speak to everyone who has ever raised his or her hopes too far for nothing, whether for a material pleasure or a relationship.
Remember my previous poem “I See You Too?” This one takes a similar but different angle.
I hope you all had a merry Christmas. Now, while you’re still warm with Christmas feeling (perhaps you are snug by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, or a drink of rum and eggnog, experiencing a similar but not altogether identical feeling of warmth) let me take you down to Memory Lane to see the Ghost of Matthew Rettino Past. I have finished my undergraduate degree now, sporting a valiant BA in Honours English, and have become an expert on Guy Gavriel Kay. Suffice it so say, I have grown as a writer since I finished my first serious novel in Summer 2010. How much you say? Well, lad, let me tell you.
Here are 13 things I learned while writing Battles of Rofp. I’m sure many fantasy authors have a Battles of Rofp somewhere in their past. For me, it was a 470-page secondary-world epic fantasy that took a rough understanding of J.R.R.Tolkien as my starting point, though I borrowed liberally from Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance series, which I devoured in High School, and Christopher Paolini’s InheritanceCycle (you’ll remember Eragon).
I had not written all the short stories that authors advise you should write before tackling a massive-sized novel. I just dove straight in, not knowing where I was going. It was the equivalent of learning wilderness survival without a guide, learning how to hunt the beasts and build shelter helter-skelter, by instinct. I began in Sec 1 when I was 13 and I ended just about three years ago now. My literary influences have diversified since then and I have simply become a better writer. I look back upon these years as an example of the primal literature of angst-ridden adolescence, a somewhat “barbaric” age in my career. Nevertheless, I believe I have derived a series of lessons from the experience, which I believe I can offer my devoted followers.
These are not rules. They are not even guidelines. They are simply lessons learned the hard way. If you find them helpful, do not feel constrained by them.
1. Choose names that people can pronounce.
Yes, include a pronunciation guide as back matter to your self-published novel. But that still won’t help your relatives from mispronouncing the title of your book. Do you think you know how to pronounce “Rofp?” Think again. You wouldn’t be able move your tongue the right way. It’s the “fp” that gets everyone. Somehow, people tend to roll it out into an “l”: “Rolfph.” This is not even the worse example of complicated pronunciation in fantasy. For example, anything that looks Welsh or has apostrophes is bound to be hard to read. But these challenges can be overcome.
2. Keep mechanics simple
I’m talking about your usual fantasy fare: secret keys, prophecies, hidden manuscripts, sacred stones, holy swords and the like–whatever clues or unique talismans your hero needs to defeat the archvillain. I had a prophecy, a clay tablet, four sacred swords, and a curse in my story, which took a rather long time to sort through. Oh yeah, and my villain Volkon, who is an immortal skeleton demon with his rib cage on fire, could only be harmed by one sword, owned by an undead king. This sword could only be used by that king’s present-day heir, and only if he collected the four aforementioned swords in a holy shrine to summon the dead to life. But if I had kept only the one sword, things might have been simpler.
3. A band of companions must have good reasons to stick together.
Three men, two dwarves, and an elf formed my group of companions. Roy is a squire aspiring to the knighthood when Gramrige, saves him from a goblin massacre in his hometown of Ebrook. On the way to Thull, the underground dwarven city, they encounter the homesick stonemason Gourd. The other members were Prince Adrugun, the angst-ridden heir to a great kingdom, Vileros, the Grand Master of the knightly order of the Riders of Rofp, and Guillonius, a dwarven fireball bent on revenge.
How are they connected? Somehow.
It is a hard trick to keep a diverse group motivated to risk their lives fighting dragons. If your characters were friends from an earlier time in the book, however, you have rapport and history between your characters. The companions will care about each other. That can serve as glue.
4. Do not be afraid to rewrite scenes.
We rarely get it right the first time. Are you a writer or not? If so, then you cannot be afraid to rebuild. On the novel I’m working on now, I have a rough draft, but I’m going over each scene, sometimes rewriting whole scenes (though not necessarily re-imagining them entirely). Rewrites let you add depth, to hit all the notes you wanted to hit on your first pass.
5. Do not jump straight into line editing.
NEVER waste time line editing after a first draft. That stuff’s raw and straight out of your unconscious. Chances are the story itself needs work, if not a complete overhaul. Line editing comes at least after draft #2. When the story itself is as it should be and all the scenes are in place, consistencies smoothed out, then you can get out the red pen and go line-by-line. For example, I will aim to cut 10-15% of my word count for my present novel.
Would you jump straight into a fray with a troll on a battlement catwalk? No? Then don’t line edit your initial draft either!
6. Exposition is used best when the hero is in conflict.
I realized this early on. When writing fantasy, it’s probably one of the first things you learn. Roy initially thought goblins and shapeshifters were myths, despite Gramrige’s warning that they were going to attack his city. Then he had to fight through mobs of the creatures during a wholesale massacre of his city’ inhabitants. Between the physical conflict of the attack and the personal conflict between Roy’s disbelief and Gramrige’s urgency, I managed to slip it quite a bit of backstory. Lace all exposition with tension and you can smooth it right over.
7. Ensure your protagonist has a distinct personality.
It’s easy to make protagonists have slight flaws, but be heroic enough to conquer his or her foes. It’s probably because we would like to be our protagonists. But flaws should be harder, sharper. They are really what makes character. I thought Roy had a distinct personality, but it was difficult for me to bring out his own idiosyncratic reactions to events in the book, to see that personality on the page. I always vouched for him to perform the “heroic” feat, if given a moral dilemma. He was not really flesh to me, more like an ideal.
8. Be careful that secondary characters do not steal the show.
Adrugun, the angst-ridden Prince of Theomina, becomes engaged in a romantic partnership with a elven woman named Virida. This happened at that soggy point in the middle of the book, where the plot starts to run out of steam. Brilliant move in one respect: adding interest at the low point of the novel. However, I was leaving Roy abandoned by the reader’s interest. The story became more and more about Virida and Adrugun and less about Roy. If your tale revolves heavily around one character, it is best to keep readers primarily interested in that character, instead of upstaging them. Other characters can have their time in the spotlight, but for Battles of Rofp, I felt as though Roy needed to be more central.
9. Diction may be the most important part of writing “epic fantasy.”
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a wonderful essay called “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which explains this point amply enough. Tolkien’s characters speak nobly, like Shakespeare without the Elizabethan conceits. Bad epic fantasy sounds like CSI:Miami or even The West Wing: whether you believe these are good or bad American TV shows, elves do not talk like twenty-first century Americans! Keep the diction measured and formal–but don’t overdo it, otherwise you have impenetrable over-stylized prose, another whole problem. (Oh, and neither do elves speak like twenty-first century Canadians–eh?)
10. In writing any story, there comes a point where you can’t go back.
If I could go back and rewrite Battles of Rofp, I would not. This is not because I am overconfident in my abilities as a writer–perhaps you can tell from all this self-criticism that I am not–but because I want to move on. At a certain point with every story, you put in a certain number of hours and pass the “never return” point. The story is what it is and all the labour in the world can’t fix it without you having to completely rewrite it. And if you do that, why not just write a new story instead of trying to reformulate a story that’s already failed? Some story ideas are so simple that they cannot sustain even a short story. Battles of Rofp was more complicated, but it was conceived by a thirteen-year-old me, so when I turned 20, I knew it had to end. There were other worlds to explore.
11. You will have a hard time framing a cliched pitch even if, in the book, you take great strides to evade it.
Battles of Rofp‘s plot was the cliche of epic fantasy, although I will maintain it to the death that it was more original than The Sword of Shannara. A squire’s hometown is attacked by goblins. Then he discovers he is the heir to an ancient warrior of a famous knightly order, destined one day to fight the greatest evil of the age. So he goes hunting dragons across the land, collecting the four sacred swords that will be able to summon a power to defeat this evil. It had Legend of Zelda, Eragon, and The Lord of the Rings written all over it.
Yet, on the micro-level, I tried to be unconventional. Dwarves had names inspired by the Russian language. The kingdom of Theomina was divided into names that sounded Roman and names that sounded Semitic. The Phoenix Tribe, lone defenders of Theomina, were the only civilization in Rofp to use gunpowder. The Tongues of Shadow stretched from the sky like darkened tentacles wherever evil strikes, scooping up the souls of the dead in order to devour them.
Wow! Too bad the plot of my story overall still read like THE cliche of all epic fantasy! I should have demonstrated my creativity by coming up with unique plot points first. Then my synopsis would have simply sounded better. Even if you want to rebel against the post-Tolkien epic fantasy genre, you cannot do so while working within a frame that replicates that cliche. At any rate, it is usually best to have one true idea that is yours and build a world around that.
12. Model yourself after authors that you think you can imitate, using them as springboards to pursue the higher laurels.
The poet Petrarch uses the laurel branch, sacred to Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, as a symbol for his poetic aspirations. He was referring with reverence to Ovid, who in his Metamorphoses describes how Apollo chases Daphne his beloved, who the gods turn into the laurel tree. Apollo then appropriates the laurel as his symbol. For centuries, new poets aspire to the laurels of old poets, new writers to the reputation of their forefathers.
One of the reasons I aspired to the laurels of Eragon was that it was imminently accessible: it was written by someone who was my age when he wrote it! I took Paolini as my model. Alas, there are many Paolini-haters on the web. I will defend him this far: he had to finish a series he started when he was quite young, his powers as an author limited by lack of experience. (The ending of Inheritance did not impress me, however.)
I claim it was important to take Paolini as a guide through the first primitive years of my writing career. It was important to have something to aspire to, someone accessible. If he could do this at his age, I thought, then I can do it at mine! I now take Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, and the great poets of the Canadian tradition–all mature, accomplished and duly lauded authors–as my new models.
These new models are sublime, to inspire me to reach the highest boughs of Apollo’s laurel tree. And if I miss, I shall land upon the stars!
13. If you set your mind to something, anything is possible.
At base, I am still proud of Battles of Rofp. Not because it will win me the Giller Prize, or a Hugo. It’s because I wrote a 470-page epic fantasy novel by the time I left high school. Who else can claim to have done that? If you set your mind on something, then it doesn’t matter what, or who, gets in your way. Social life, family time, breathing, sleeping: none of it matters, if you have the heart to pursue your dreams. But seriously folks, balance in life is crucial. If you can play the trick, stick to your dreams while supporting our livelihood, you will have battled a fierce dragon indeed.
Now because balance in life is important and I’m afraid I’ve written another monster post, I must retire. Fare thee well! See thee in the New Year MMXIV!