One More Hobbit/Desolation Post: Closure

After my post yesterday, Dave asked me what I thought about the ending of the movie. He was a bit vague with the wording of the question, possibly to keep from spoiling people reading the conversation on G+, but as I’ve read his thoughts on the subject, I had a pretty good idea what he was specifically referring to, and (huge surprise) I had some thoughts about it.

So, far more than yesterday, this post will contain spoilers. You’ve been cautioned.

Now then.

Disclaimer: I love Dwarves

This will come as a surprise to precisely no one, nor will the fact that it all started with The Hobbit. Character-building moments in the story are few and far between for anyone who doesn’t have furry feet, but there are a few; many involving Balin, who remains my favorite among the company as they are portrayed in the book. (I really like the movie version of Bofur.)

I think my preference for Balin grew out of the fact that he seemed the closest with Bilbo – he did things the other dwarves didn’t, and they were kind things. He was first dwarf to actually reenter the Mountain after 170 years. And he could speak to birds, which is pretty cool.

Balin put dwarves on my horizon. I kept my eyes out for them when I got to the Lord of the Rings, and I was rewarded with Gimli’s bluff and bluster and hidden heart of gold. He felt young to me – full of surety and ignorance, but not so calcified in his ways that he couldn’t change. He learned to see the wonder in things he once feared. Loved something he knew he could never have. Pledged himself to goals he believed utterly lost.

And he taught an elf something about beauty, which is a hell of a thing.

After four or five trips through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I picked up The Silmarillion. References to dwarves in this decidedly elf-heavy book are pretty thin on the ground, but the parts where they are mentioned, I remembered.

Since they were to come in the days of the power of Melkor, Aulë made the dwarves strong to endure. Therefor they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hunger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples; and they live long, far beyond the span of Men, yet not forever.

So, in Tolkien’s creation, Dwarves aren’t like elves or men; they weren’t originally part of “the Plan.” They weren’t created so much as crafted by the smith of the gods. They’re the adopted children, the outsiders, the ones made according to a different set of rules; created to be strong and resistant to the evils in the world (one reason the Seven Rings didn’t bring any dwarves into Sauron’s service). They’re secretive, proud, tougher than any other people, and equally unable to forget a wrong or debt. They long for beautiful things, but at the same time don’t seem to know what to do with them once they have them, and this absolutely extends to matters of affection and love.

They’re noble and doomed, even more so than elves, at least in part because dwarves are far more visibly flawed. They never seem to get anything just exactly right; even when they get what they want, they push for more and ruin what they have. They do the wrong things for the right reasons, or the right things for the wrong reasons, and not only pay the price, but inflict that price on those they love and hold dear.

They’re pretty much the easiest thing in the world for a boy in his teens to identify with.

So let’s talk about Thorin’s company and The Hobbit.

An Unexpected Pity Party

From the very beginning of the book, we get the story of Thorin, his family, and everything the dwarves lost when the dragon came to Erebor. Did they make a place for themselves in the Blue Mountain and Ered Luin? Yes, yes, but that doesn’t matter, because there’s this Lonely Mountain, see, and the dragon took that from us, and we want it back.

Thorin &co. go on like this for the next 250 pages or so. Especially Thorin. I think it’s fair to say that the idea of some kind of showdown between these wronged dwarves and Smaug the Tremendous is pretty clearly telegraphed.

And then Tolkien lets us down.

The problem is, Tolkien functioned both as storyteller and historian for this amazing world he created. That’s fine, most of the time, but every so often he’d mess things up whilst sitting down at his desk and pull on one hat when he really should have been wearing the other.

In this case, Smaug hit the pages and Tolkien found himself in historian mode, instead of storyteller.

See, a storyteller knows that if you set up the Dragon and What The Dragon Did To Us for a couple hundred pages, you owe it both to those characters and the reader to give those dwarves some closure. A showdown. Something.

You know what happens between the dwarves and Smaug?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not one word is exchanged. No barbs are traded. No blows given or received.

Bilbo bandies words and steals a cup. The dragon flies around a bit and smites the mountainside, then heads off to Laketown for a some desultory wrack and ruin.

Bard kills him.

The dwarves cower in a dark tunnel for two days, send Bilbo down to see what’s going on, then spend the next week or so dumpster diving in Smaug’s horde.


And why did it shake out this way? Because Historian Tolkien knows who Bard is, who he’s descended from, and the fact that because of all that, he has some of the same claim to vengeance as Thorin.

Tolkien knows that. The reader doesn’t really know any of it, but Historian Tolkien has assumed direct control of this section of the book, closure be damned, and he’s going to tie a bow (see what I did there?) on the virtually unknown epic cycle of the Men of Dale. So there.

Jackson Gives Us (Action-Packed!) Closure

Now, please don’t get me wrong: I agree that the last action scene in The Desolation of Smaug owes a bit more to the Temple of Doom than Tolkien. It’s a little over the top. Yes. Conceded.


Just for fun, let’s ignore the crazy bits and look at what actually happens, because I believe Jackson managed to hide some really amazing story chocolate in the action peanut butter.

Thorin Needs Your Help

That’s what Jackson’s thinking as he squares off with this section of the story. The whole thing where Thorin never ever actually sees the dragon, or confronts him, or anything? That has got. to. go. That’s shit. Acknowledged.

But now you have a problem, and it’s the same problem Storyteller Tolkien had when he was writing it (which may be why he let the historian take the lead).

Thorin has no play to make.

He’s got no army and, let’s be serious: he needs one. Smaug is force of nature – an armored, hurricane-spawning volcano. What can Thorin possibly do?

He can use the mountain.

Yes, Smaug is the Chiefest and Greatest Calamity of the Age, but in this place – within Erebor – he is first and foremost a usurper. He might have slept on a golden bed in the bowels of the mountain for the last 150 years, but it is not his home. He doesn’t – can’t – know it the way he would if it were.

But Thorin does.

(“Home” is a big theme, have you noticed? There and Back Again, for both the dwarves and the hobbit.)

Over a hundred years of wandering. Losses suffered. Grandfather dead. Father mad and then dead. But still Thorin knows these halls, these stones, as if he never left. You can hear – feel – the love of the place in his voice when he steps inside the Door.

And he’s not alone. All the dwarves with Thorin (the ones old enough to have been here in the first place, I’ll note) remember it all, as if they had just shut the lights off and stepped out yesterday.

But so what?

It doesn’t matter how well you know the nooks and crannies – you still can’t fight Smaug. Dwarves are great fighters, but they are outmatched and utterly under-equipped – it’s impossible to fight.

But… here’s the thing.

Dwarves can fight, but that’s not who and what they are. Not really.

What they are is tough. Secretive. Cunning craftsman who never forget a wrong.

The first thing they do when they realize they need to face Smaug? They light the forges.

Dwarves make things – amazing, horrible, wonderful, terrible things.

So let’s just skip past all the action stuff. That’s movies – that’s just what you need to do at the end of a fantasy action movie. Deal with it. What’s happening throughout all that, hidden from us a bit, because they’re secretive, these dwarves, is that they’re making something.

Let’s get to that Grand Hall.

The forges have fired. The gold is flowing, molten and deadly and handled by the dwarves with such a native aplomb that you’d think they were carrying a glass of water to a sleepy toddler.

It’s all poured into this great mold, atop which stands Thorin, and here comes Smaug.

This is a moment. This is important. Thorin is back in his home, and it is his home, over which he has immediately and completely asserted his will and mastery. All the elements therein, that he knows so well, come together to allow him to face Smaug face to face; not just face to face but at eye level. To call him out and then, because this is Thorin and he still mourns his dead King, pull the cord and confront the dragon with Thrór – the true king under the mountain and, at that moment, the one thing within Erebor as mighty and majestic as Smaug himself, standing for all the dwarves who lost their home.

And then the thing comes apart and douses the Dragon in molten gold, because it’s dwarves who have done this, and a Dragon they are punishing, using their forges to drown him in the greed (theirs and his) that first brought him to to the mountain.

They are dwarves. They set out to do a thing, and they did it.

But, they are dwarves, which means they achieve exactly what they wanted – Smaug driven from their home – at terrible cost. An awakened scourge, set upon the land. A victory, bought with unavoidable tragedy.

They cheer, and Bilbo (who is not a dwarf and never will be) looks on in horror.

Is it an upbeat ending? No. There’s a victory there, though, and great and amazing symbol-heavy closure for Thorin, from my point of view. It’s so dwarvish my beard grew three inches just watching it.

It’s terrible, what’s about to happen, and an unexpected place to end, but for the story it was set to tell, it was (by my lights) exactly right.

“What have we done?” whispers Bilbo, and we have a year to think on all the answers to that question.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is Better than the Book It’s Based On

In the very first printing of The Hobbit, there are a few tiny errors. Inconsistencies in map labels. Misspellings of a few words.

And a little thing Tolkien charmingly referred to as “the issue with Chapter Five.”

What he’s referring to is that, in the first published version of the story, the Riddle Game ends with Gollum giving Bilbo his magic ring as a prize.

Just… gives it to him.

“Here you go, then. Nice job with all those riddles. Last one was a real head-scratcher. Well-played and all that, now off you go to the back door. Good luck and godspeed, you adorable scamp.” tousles hair

Obviously, with the perfect hindsight afforded us by seventy-seven years worth of analysis (academic, obsessive fan, or both), we can see that this version of the story… raises a few questions – most of which begin “But if it’s the One Ring, why would…”

Or, in the words of my daughter (who hasn’t given it quite as much thought), “That would be really dumb.”

Her assessment of the original version of the scene (which I told her about the second time we read through the book together, and without her knowing anything about The Lord of the Rings) went something like this: “Why would Gollum give Bilbo anything like that for winning the contest? The ring is the only thing he has – he’s not going to give it away.”

I like having my daughter around to assess the relevant merit of various parts of The Hobbit because, like the story itself, Kaylee doesn’t know anything about Middle Earth.

Let me reiterate that: The Hobbit doesn’t know anything about Middle Earth.

Now, I’m not saying that the larger backdrop of the setting was completely unknown to Tolkien when he wrote The Hobbit – the first thing that directly tied into the larger story of the Ages of Middle Earth was something the man wrote when he was 22 years old – twenty-three years before Bilbo hosted his first Unexpected Party.

But, the author’s vague notions about First Age history aside, The Hobbit is essentially its own thing – undeniably a Tolkien thing, yes, with inspiration drawn from the Kalevala and Beowulf, but also (owing to his desire to write something that would entertain his children) something far closer to his kids’ copy of The Marvelous Land of the Snergs or The Princess and the Goblins. You don’t have to squint very hard to see those kinds of stories in this one: the adventures and misadventures are largely the same in tone and structure as any fairy story: Grumbling trolls that want to eat whatever they catch. Magic rings won with a riddle contest. Shapechanging, bee-keeping bears. Talking eagles. Sleep-inducing rivers. Talking-yet-fairly-stupid spiders. Fairy dinners at which mundane party-crashers instantly fall asleep. Dragons slain with a single arrow shot by a flat and altogether characterless Hero Guy.

It’s a fairy story… that just happens to be (almost retroactively) set in Middle Earth.

But ultimately even more challenging for the author, it’s set up as the slow-burning point of ignition for the grand conflict of the Third Age, as told in The Lord of the Rings.

Which is why you end up with “the issue in Chapter Five.”

The fact of the matter is, in terms of continuity, there are many more problems introduced within The Hobbit because it doesn’t know about Middle Earth – the riddle game in Chapter Five is only the most obvious – and it isn’t hard to find evidence of the effort Tolkien went to throughout the next seventeen years (and after) to patch the major gaps between it and the latter work well enough to let the whole thing hang together. The Appendices, Unfinished Tales, and various collections of his correspondence are full of snippets and backstory that help Tolkien justify this or that “odd thing” from The Hobbit. In some ways, making that story work as part of the greater whole was some of the hardest stuff he had to do – I have no doubt that if he believed he could have gotten away with it, he’d have written a ‘grown-up’ version of the story that made a great deal more sense in the larger scheme of things, and chalked the original up to Bilbo as Unreliable Narrator.

But he didn’t believe that was an option – stories, once printed, were all but set in stone (funny, considering the malleable epics he studied) – so he forced himself to play around the edges of the thing to make its odd corners and angles fit within the larger puzzle of Middle Earth.

Jackson gets to do what Tolkien believed he couldn’t – retell The Hobbit with the hindsight of what it would mean within the larger history and events of the setting, and get it to match the continuity and tone set in the larger and inarguably greater work that followed.

Which brings us to the latest Hobbit movie. Sort of. Almost.

There’s one more thing retelling the story as a movie lets Jackson do.

Skipping the Boring Parts

There’s a point (several, actually) in The Princess Bride novel (“the greatest love/action/revenge story ever abridged by a modern author”), where the author specifically calls out the fact that he’s “skipping the boring stuff” in the (fictitious) original classic on which his version is supposedly based: boring political history, a full chapter on the Buttercup’s preparations for the wedding, et cetera.

I have, more than once, wished for a “princess bride” treatment of The Hobbit.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the book. I read it and reread it multiple times before the librarian for our elementary school mentioned that there were “other books that happen after this one” up in the High School library (which sent me on a terrifying quest of my own, past trolls and evil giants). I’ve reread it many times since. It’s one of the first ‘chapter’ books I read to my daughter, and the only one to date that I’ve read to her more than once. I will, without a doubt, read it again to Sean when he’s a bit older, then again to Zoe, and I will do so happily, every time.

But it is in no way a perfect book. It’s not as slow a start as The Lord of the Rings, granted, but it has its moments, and those moments (already weak in the book itself) do not translate well to film, nor should they. Some of it is a matter of pacing: the dwarves are imprisoned in Thranduil’s halls for a month and a half – it takes Bilbo almost two weeks just to figure out where Thorin is being kept; the company spends roughly a month between getting to Laketown and opening the door into the Mountain, and spend a week of that time just sitting on the doorstep, twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the Sun/Moon to get to the right position. Some of it is emphasis in the book on elements of the story that make perfect sense in terms of what The Hobbit was (a fairy story for kids) and what it became (a prelude to Big Events and Epic History): as cool as the scene with the spiders is, for example, in terms of the big picture it’s quite unimportant.

So, we have two problems with The Hobbit – it doesn’t mesh well or easily with the rest of the “stuff” of Middle Earth, and there are points (more than a few) that just aren’t very good storytelling, especially in terms of pacing – Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings seventeen years later – it’s entirely to fair to say he became a better storyteller over the years, and certainly fair to say he grew into his own voice over time. (Who among us wouldn’t like to go back to a story we ‘finished’ years ago and give it a fix-up pass, if we could?)

So how did Jackson do in The Desolation of Smaug?

Tying it into the Larger Story

I don’t think there’s a misstep of any kind with regards to tying this section of The Hobbit into the larger Middle Earth story. In terms of both plotting and tone, we’re getting a much more unified and ‘whole’ retelling.

Gandalf Wanders Off and Leaves Us: The Dol Guldor stuff does a great job of setting up the Big Wizard Showdown coming in the third movie (and told in a fair amount of detail in various Tolkien appendices), and the whole “orc leader” side plot serves a necessary evil: the bad guys in movies need a face to play well with audiences, and Sauron doesn’t have one.

The Ring: The problem with the Ring as it appears in The Hobbit is that it’s entirely safe. All of the danger of corruption and evil falls within the scope of The Lord of the Rings and, with our perfect hindsight, we can see that it doesn’t make any sense. Using the ring is really never safe, least of all now, with Sauron stirring and making his first attempt at gathering forces together. It’s especially dangerous to put to use when you’re wandering through the same zip code as the guy ceaselessly searching for it (Bilbo’s not much further away from Dol Guldor when he traverses Mirkwood than Frodo is from Barad-dur when he and Sam pass Minas Morgul). Jackson handles this in most places by shortening the amount of time Bilbo wears the thing (thankfully, our poor hobbit doesn’t have to spend six weeks in Thranduil’s Hall wearing a homing beacon for the Dark Lord) and upping the danger of spiritual corruption associated with its use.

A great example/foreshadowing of this is with the spiders: as short as that scene is, Jackson managed to make it exponentially more significant to the “ring” story than it is in the original text – lots of people have mentioned the bit of ‘ring greed berserk’ that Bilbo displays here, and that’s good, but the bit where he slips on the ring and only then understands the spiders’ speech? Pure gold.

This section also reintroduces a theme from Lord of the Rings that is very useful later in the movie: the greater the evil that’s close at hand, the more dangerous the ring is to use. The few times Bilbo uses the ring in the first movie, he’s basically by himself. Then he uses it with the spiders and scary things happen to his personality. We get to the scenes with the dragon, and I was exactly where I needed to be with regards to the ring: torn. Of course he needs to use it, but how can he use it while standing right next to Smaug, Chiefest and Greatest Calamity of Our Age? Frodo found out the hard way that being around the Nazgul with the Ring was a hard row to hoe, but what are Nazgul? Corrupted men. Kings, maybe sorcerers, quite old, certainly, but… just men.

Smaug is a dragon. His voice alone is powerful magic (well done, Cumberbatch) – he is ancient and his kin have literally eaten more rings of power than still exist in the mortal realm in the Third Age. You can’t ‘activate’ something like that right under his nose and not expect problems.

And it’s not like being invisible helps that much against the dragon anyway, even in the book (eleven thousand clinking gold-plated aluminum movie coins aside).

Cutting Out the Boring Stuff

Under which I’ll also add “Cutting Out the Fairy Story Stuff that Doesn’t Entirely Fit in Middle Earth.”

Top marks for this, as two-month incarcerations are squeezed down into a day, fairy parties in spider-infested woods are removed entirely, and all thumb-twiddlings on the Doorstep go the way of ancient rooks. These sections of the story are better, by virtue of being better paced and more interesting, and the same can be said for most everything that happens with the dwarves in Laketown.

Adding in Stuff Tolkien Never Included

Under this, I include Tauriel and some but not all of the stuff with the two named orcs, since they actually both tie back into Appendices lore quite well enough, but take up a bit too much camera time chasing dwarves who I feel they’d assume would probably be eaten by a dragon anyway. Azog starts to feel like an obsessive Captain Hook searching for his Thorin crocodile.

Jackson scores major points for including a female character in the story. Tolkien wrote in a different time, and wrote this for his kids (of which three(?) were boys), so I’ll forgive him the gender bias, but I was glad to see some feminine presence on screen.

He then loses most of those points for using Tauriel to do little more than kick ass and deal with “love interest” entanglements – either being longed for by Legolas, longed for by Kili, or doing some counter-longing in both directions. I have it on good authority that women do more than participate in romantic feelings of one kind or another – it would have been nice to see that here, rather than a fairly well-trod situation with Legolas and the unaccountably ham-fisted writing of “the thing with the dwarf.” (Something I personally think could have been handled much better by the writing team before it ever reached the actors, echoing Gimli and Galadriel.)

Finally, he earns back a few points for a positively lovely call back to some real Silmarillion-grade ancient lore when Tauriel waxes rhapsodic about starlight. As one of the subset of elves who reached the Greenwood and decided to travel no further west toward Valinor (the Nandor Teleri, if you want to get pedantic), she comes from a people who never knew light other than the distant stars until the Sun and Moon were put into the sky. Her obvious passion for their beauty was something Jackson didn’t need to bring into this story, but which gave Tauriel the weight of a character thoroughly grounded in the oldest parts of Tolkien’s lore, and I liked that very much.

There were also some changes to the story that I think are going to bear fruit in the third movie – things that Tolkien might not have done even on a rewrite, but which I still see as a net good. The company splits up at Laketown in a way that never happened in the book, and I think it’s going to make for some very, very interesting scenes in the third movie. In the book, you have Thorin raging over his walls at “outsiders” and a hobbit he no longer trusts, and now we’re going to see that same thing with not only Bilbo, but a wise older dwarf, well-spoken (and fan favorite) Bofur, and both of Thorin’s heirs (Kili and Fili) on the outside and not at all ill-disposed to the people (elves, via Tauriel, and men, via Bard) who helped them when Thorin left them behind.

The Dark, Cliff-hanger Ending

No one complained at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring which is (in my daughter’s opinion) at least as grim. This ending, ignoring the classic Jackson final action scene, is actually quite close to what’s happening at that point in the book, but with awareness on the part of the dwarves and Bilbo: they’ve woken something up and set it loose, and how they each react to that will speak volumes in the third movie. They can’t claim ignorance and innocence when Laketown burns, and that’s both better and more interesting than the blinkered treasure trove diving they’re doing in the book while Bard saves the day.

I could say more about pretty much any part of the book (Black Arrow as a masterfully forged ballista bolt = great choice, especially when we already have at least three master archers already on screen), but instead I’ll wrap up with this.

The Book and the Big Screen

Those of you paying close attention will notice that I refer to the Hobbit movies as a retelling more than an adaptation or “inspired by” or whatever. There’s a reason.

There are a number of ways you can translate a book to the movie screen.

One of them involves a slavish adherence to the words on the page, cutting only for time considerations but otherwise leaving everything else the same. I’ve yet to encounter a movie produced in this way that was very satisfying. The most obvious example of this, to me, is the Harry Potter series, which are to my mind an absolute mess when watched as a movies in their own right. I can say this with some authority because I’m not a particularly dumb person who specifically didn’t read past the third HP book so that I could ‘test’ the movie series on its own merits, and without the books as reference, the movies are all but impossible to follow – a barely coherent mess of half-finished side plots and incomprehensible ‘dog whistle’ scenes tuned to fans of the books — twenty-four hours of multimedia extras for the avid reader.

Another route is the movie ‘inspired by’ a story – taking what’s there and distilling it in one way or another. You see this a lot with comics, both good (Scott Pilgrim) and bad (Wanted), but it also happens with stuff like The Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is inspired by a stream of consciousness hot mess of a stage play, and vastly improved upon its source material.

Finally, you have retellings. Take the original story, and say “I am going to retell this story, in this other medium,” and you’ve freed yourself from perfect adherence to the text of the book, while staying true to the spirit of the story. Cloud Atlas does this, and tells a story that, if nothing else, delivers a stronger theme and better ending than the book it’s based on (still doesn’t make it good, but it’s better than the book). Jackson did it with The Lord of the Rings, and now he’s doing it with The Hobbit, in this case not so much putting the verbatim text of the book on the screen, but retelling the story of all the events going on within the time frame of the events of the book.

Again, as with LotR, he takes liberties. Pulls in stuff from other sources when needed and outright changes stuff when necessary to serve the medium he’s working with. We notice it more in The Hobbit because he has to do it more – because the source is, in all honesty, not as strong a story in its original form as The Lord of the Rings and needs more of that kind of work.

Is it perfect? Certainly not, but it is good, both as a series of movies in its own right and as a (by my lights) faithful retelling of the story as a part of Middle Earth, with the perspective granted by time, and the ability to make it mesh with what is, in literary terms, the greater of the two pieces of work. I think that is the reason you see so many people talking about how they disapproved of the stuff that was changed or added, but concluding with “I still really liked it, though I don’t know why, and I guess I’ll just have to wait until next Christmas to see if the whole thing pays off.”

My recommendation: Go see it.

Odds are, you’ll like it, even if you don’t know exactly why.

And that’s okay.

Had a really good talk on this morning's drive with +Kaylee Testerman – talking about what the monsters/aliens/whatever in Doctor Who are doing on the surface (usually: being scary, silly, or both), and what they're really doing – how they get added to an episode because there's something specific the writers want to talk about

Me: "So, if someone wanted to say something about people using too much tech all the time, or having their lives taken over by tech, they'd u–"

Her: "They'd use the robot guys from that episode with the Doctor and that baby that called itself Stormageddon." [Cybermen – Closing Time]

Me: … uhh. Wow. Right! And if they write an episode with the Daleks -"

Her: "– what they're really writing about is Hate."

Me: …

Her: What?

Me: You make me really proud sometimes.

A Thought about a previously unmentioned element of Magical Realism (maybe)

This occurred to me a few days ago.

I was pondering the kinds of of stories that I think of as Magical Realism, and I noticed something I think is worth bringing up. I’m not sure it’s a hard-and-fast rule, but then again the whole MR sub-genre is more than a bit hazy.

It seems to me that these sorts of stories are, at some level, “self-aware” of themselves as stories.

By that, I mean to say that there seems to be a common stylistic element in these sorts of stories – the style of a story being told to an audience.

I’m not sure if I can put it more concretely than that – I haven’t personally encountered a literary term that describes what I’m talking about – but there seems (to me) to be a readily-detected tone in these stories of “This is a story I am about to tell you.”

Or perhaps “Once upon a time…”

In some cases, it’s subtle, as with At the Mouth of the River of Bees. In other cases, as with (for instance) Big Fish, the storyteller is front and center and you’re made aware of that structure and style.

And yes, every story is a story told to an audience, strictly speaking – what I’m talking about is the sense that these particular stories are framed (either subtly or obviously) as a Told Thing: a shared object… and (just as important) at some level, they seems to know it.

I think, perhaps, it hearkens back to MR’s pre-war antecedents: fairy tales. Their origins  (even if you’re talking only about the south/central american origins) grow, more directly than most, from spoken tales.

Am I making any kind of sense, or it this just early-morning ramble?

Nailing Down Magical Realism

This isn’t going to matter unless you are a bit of a lit nerd.

I’m participating in a “Directed Reading” for the rest of the year, focusing on Magical Realism. (The air quotes are in there because the ‘reading list’ includes stuff like Pan’s Labyrinth and Big Fish, with which I otherwise have no problem.) The goal of the DR is basically to sort out what the term even means in modern literature – there’s some historical examination – looking at where the term originated and why, but mostly the goal is to work out for ourselves what the hell this creature even is.

I think everyone participating will come up with an answer. I very much doubt we’ll all agree. Magical Realism is a bit of mess. From a literary criticism point of view, it’s functionally useless – it isn’t a real thing when looked at with any academic level of rigor. It’s just a term that gets thrown around a lot, applied to many things it shouldn’t, some that it should, and is often dismissed out of hand by those who see only the sloppiness with which the label is usually applied.

So, the first assignment: list four ‘core’ elements that (first) make a story Magical Realism and (second) not anything else. This is my list.

  1. Magical elements. This almost goes without saying, given the term “magical realism”, but it needs specific mention as a prerequisite: magical or fantastical elements appear in an otherwise objective, realistic story. If this isn’t happening there’s no point in looking at the latter criteria.
  2. The magical is mundane. When magical elements are introduced, the story proceeds as if nothing extraordinary took place. 
  3. Antinomy is accepted by the characters in the story. Contrast this with standard contemporary fantasy, where magical elements are remarked upon or explained at length and usually in detail. In fantasy, the presence of the magical or supernatural is something that draws special attention; in magical realism, the natural and supernatural are equally ‘valid’ elements the story, neither one more (or less) deserving of attention.
  4. Authorial reticence. This is a central element, for me – especially when it comes to setting magical realism apart from standard fantasy. In short, the narrator does not provide explanation for the magical elements in the story. Explaining the supernatural world reduces or destroys its magical nature. You would no more stop to explain why one of the characters floats three inches above the ground than you would stop and explain why a character’s car starts up when they turn the key in the ignition.

This list is my starting position. I fully expect it will change – in fact, I’ve rewritten or revised the thing four times while writing this post, moving bits from #2 to #3 and from #3 to #4, and I’m still not happy with it. I strongly suspect that points 2, 3, and 4 are describing different parts of the same elephant (introduced via point 1). A shorter list might read:

  1. Magical elements in an otherwise objective, realistic story.
  2. Antinomy within the story is accepted by the characters/narrator; both ‘sides’ are seen as equally valid, important, (un)remarkable.
  3. Explaining the supernatural elements reduces or destroys the power they bring to a story told in this style.

I like this list quite a bit more than the longer one, but the instructions say four points (for now), so what can you do.

We’ll see where I end up by December.

The Umpires are Human

My chat pinged.

Them: Hey.
Me: Yo.
Them: I would REALLY like it if you weighed in on the thing in the forum.
Me: The what-now?
Them: On the forum. Someone linked an op-ed piece and it turned into a “big five bash” by people who would dance a jig if they got picked up. Your perspective might help.

As a frequent victim of what I now call Rule 386, I was wary. There’s not much use (and a great deal of time lost) in my getting embroiled in some internet debate on the goods and bads of the publishing world.

Still, it was a request from a friend, so in I went.

Luckily, the discussion wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but I did spot a number of the familiar themes.

So many gatekeepers are wearing “the next Hunger Games” glasses.

That phrase really worked better a few years ago when it was Harry Potter glasses.

Because he wore glasses. Nevermind.

The Enormous Five aren’t just looking for the next best-seller. They decide — before seeing it — what the next best-seller will look like, meaning a narrower and narrower idea of what they they’ll publish. Standard megastar bestseller mindset.

It’s not enough to call them the Big Five, anymore, I guess. They don’t seem monolithic and inhuman enough?

Reversion of rights to the author is a joke in most contracts now.

I’ve actually got a funny/awesome story to tell about that, but I’m going to save it for next week.

Writers should just publish their own work and let people decide.

Which, though the original poster might not have intended it, implies quite strongly the editors and agents within publishing houses or literary agencies are not people.

Really, I think that’s what a lot of those quotes are saying, and that puts me in mind of one final quote:

Mechanistic dehumanization occurs when features of human nature (cognitive flexibility, warmth, agency) are denied to the subject. Targets of mechanistic dehumanization are seen as cold, rigid, lacking agency, and likened to machines or objects. Mechanistic dehumanization is usually employed on an interpersonal basis (e.g. when a person is seen as a means to another’s end).

That’s what I want to talk about.

As a writer, I’m in an unusual situation, and I have been for quite a long time. I’m blessed to know quite a few people (there’s that word again) in traditional publishing — published writers, editors, and of course agents. I have some experience with what it’s like to be on the “creator” side of things, and at the same time I get a fly-on-the wall view of what it’s like for those ‘in the industry’ — I’ve even written about it. Sharing my life with Kate has given me the ability to speak frankly and (often) sanely with my own agent and editor.

Now, I have my own problems with traditional publishing. They are well-documented.

But I don’t have a problem with the people in publishing. I disagree with those who imply that agents and editors are just looking for the next Lemony Hunger Potter, because I’ve seen those editors and agents fight for books they believe in.

Like mine, for one easy example. Hidden Things, for all that it may be beloved by tens of dozens of people, walked a long road to publication. My agent worked with me through a complete edit before we signed a contract, and my HarperCollins editor did the same (again, before we had a contract). That’s significant.

You know what ‘before we had a contract’ means, really?

It means ‘before there was even the slightest chance they would get paid for their time.’

All that work was to get the book to the point where it would pass muster with the other parts of the agency and/or publishing house.

Some might wonder why they do that, but I live with an agent, so I’ve already figured out the answer.


Once upon a time, Kate worked in New York; part of the second largest literary agency in the city (so large and well-recognized that — to this day — they still don’t bother with a web site). She worked her way up, sacrificing so that she could live and work at the heart of publishing.

She for damn sure wasn’t doing it for the money — Manhattan isn’t cheap, and working past six every day, hauling twenty pounds of manuscripts home every weekend (to read on her own time), and pulling down ‘specialist’ wages left her about enough for a rich assortment of ramen noodle flavors.

That went on for over a decade.

Five years ago, this very day, Kate and I got married. Our anniversary is, very nearly, also the anniversary of her own agency. In those five years Kate has (at my conservative estimate) read approximately three hundred twenty thousand pages of queries, partials, and manuscripts. That’s three full-length young adult novels a week for half a decade, and doesn’t include reading work from her signed authors, dealing with contracts, handling perpetually late payments, and all the rest.

She shows no sign of slowing down.

Further, as much as I love my wife (and count myself so very, very lucky), I know this: my agent does the same thing. My editor does the same thing. Your agent and editor (even the one you haven’t found yet) does the same thing.

There is only one reason someone would do that, and it’s not to find the next the next commercial hit.

It is, simply, love of a good story, to a degree that would shame most of us.

I hate the phrase “gate keeper” applied to agents and editors. It turns these people — these very human, motivated, story-loving people — into some kind of minor boss you have to fight to get to the next level of a video game.

They aren’t.

They are, in fact, the allies you recruit to ensure victory. Anyone with any sense should count themselves lucky to have them.

Agent, Author, Editor. (You didn’t seriously think I’d finish this post without a gaming screenshot, did you?)

Yes, agents must be particular about what work they represent. Sturgeon’s Law applies.

Yes, editors must be particular about what work they will take on, and must justify that work to marketing, payroll, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Yes, these people (again, people) must judge, and sometimes the judgement doesn’t go your way, and that sucks.

But the Umpires are Human.

Today, remember that. If you have the means or the desire, say thanks. Do it for me.

Call it an anniversary gift.

If You Have to Steal My Book, Steal My Book

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share dinner with a guy from Amazon’s KDP and CreateSpace services (e-publishing to Kindle and Amazon-enabled print-on-demand, respectively). Also there: a couple other authors with published work out on the market. The conversation turned to ebooks and publishing and things like Digital Rights Management and all that sort of stuff; it was sort of inevitable.

I ended up arguing with one of the other authors a bit, because we had (and probably still have) fairly different views on these topics.

“I hate DRM,” I said. “I hate anything that says ‘since criminals theoretically exist, we need to put something in place that treats everyone like criminals, in order to deal with a few theoretically bad people.’ Even more, I hate something that artificially limits one story medium – e-books – so that it’s as equally crippled as some other medium – books.” (This was in regards to big publishers putting a usage cap on any ebooks purchased by libraries, which we’d already been talking about, and which I’ve previously opined is just a publishing company trying to charge rent on products the purchaser should entirely own.)

“Books do wear out,” said the other author.

“Sure,” I replied. “But e-books don’t, and there’s no reasonable excuse to force them to do so. Making e-books ‘expire’ because a paper book would wear out is like engineering cars to fail after thirty thousand miles because a horse would die if you rode it that far. Don’t confuse the actual story with the bucket being used to carry it.”

“You’d give up the sales you’d make from libraries needing to repurchase your e-book?”

“Absolutely!” People at another table glanced our way and I lowered my voice. “Look, I get paid… what? A buck per e-book sale? Maybe a buck and a half? Do you think I’d give up a buck and a half if it meant twenty five more people would read the story at the library? If I could be sure that would happen, I would happily give away a hundred or a thousand times that, because it would create readers who’d seek out my next story, out of hundreds or thousands of people who don’t currently know me and don’t care. There is absolutely no margin in restricting e-books in that fashion: in forcing a librarian to ask ‘Do I have the budget to re-order a new copy of this story?’ when the competition for their dwindling budget is always growing.”

The other author got that look on their face that says they don’t have any kind of counterargument, and aren’t happy about it. “That doesn’t have anything to do with normal DRM, though,” they muttered.

“Let me tell you about DRM,” I said. “When my book came out, one of my buddies – jokingly – said he wasn’t going to buy it, he was just going to wait until the e-book showed up on piratebay and download it. I told him when he found it on there, to tell me where, so I could post the location on my website and point people there if they liked.”


“And when he does, I will do that, and here’s why: most people — hear me out — most people are not grabbing the e-book off a pirate site because they hate the idea of paying the author: they are doing it because either (a) they want to do with an e-book what they can’t do on Amazon and what they CAN do with a paper book in a store: read the first couple chapters to see if they’ll like it or (b) they already bought the story in some other format and feel they’ve bought the story and deserve that story in other formats — which is a stance I happen to agree with, because I care about whether they bought the story, not whether they paid for a particular format.”

“Actually,” the amazon guy said “we’ve just started doing that with music. If you’ve bought a CD on amazon – like, ever – you can now download the MP3s of those albums. You bought the song, not the format.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Which means that publishing will eventually get there, once they finish imitating all of the music industry’s mistakes, because publishing is copying the music industry’s evolution pretty much exactly, but fifteen years behind.”

“What about audiobooks?”

“Totally different thing,” I said. “You bought the story. You did not buy the right to hear Morgan Freeman read it to you. That, you should pay for separately, and as a general rule people do because — as a general rule — people aren’t criminals and shouldn’t be treated as though they are.”

“But what about piracy?”

“Prove to me piracy exists as a sales-damaging activity — I don’t believe it does; the biggest file downloaders are statistically those spending the most on the stuff they’re supposedly stealing — and I’ll spend time trying to fix it.” I thought for a second. “Actually, I know how to stop piracy. Entirely.”

The author across from me crossed her arms, but the Amazon guy leaned in. I pointed at him. “Amazon needs to get make it so that everything you can do with piracy is easier with Amazon. Hell, not even easier. Just “as easy”, or even “almost as easy, but guaranteed safe with no viruses.” I smiled, thinking of my wife, whom I missed more and more every day of this trip. “I’m not much of an optimist, but I’ll say this: people are generally good — give them an option where they can do the right thing, not be treated like a criminal, and actually OWN the thing they paid for, and they’ll pay for it, even if a shady-but-free option exists.” I looked at the author. “Some won’t, but they were never going to become a long-time reader anyway — they’re already a lost cause. You didn’t lose anything with them.”

None of this conversation was new thinking for me. I’ve said much it before, more or less, but it was new to them, and maybe it will be new for whomever is reading this, so that makes it worth repeating.

The Amazon guy, at any rate, thanked me, and thanked me again the next day, and in an email a week later, so maybe some good will come of it.

Here’s hoping.

Finding your Voice

A few days ago, I muddled around, talking about a writer’s voice, exploring the idea that it’s not something that can be taught — not in the way that grammar or world building or plotting can be taught.

In fact, it’s possible that I made fun of the different (and contradictory) advice out there on “finding your voice” — it certainly sounds like something I’d do.

Obviously, the logical follow-up to that post should be my own advice on how to find your voice.

See, while I don’t think voice can be taught, I do think it can be trained in the same way a singer’s voice can be trained: with exercises, drills, and most of all lots and lots of writing. However, while training is good, you really have to have a pretty clear picture of what kind of voice you have before you get started — it’s not much good to simply decide “I’m a soprano” and proceed to train yourself accordingly.

Who’d have guessed the princess was a bass?

So… yeah, you have to find your voice.

But how’s that going to work? All joking aside, I’m pretty sure those bits of advice I mentioned in the last post are pretty useless, but neither am I satisfied with “just keep writing and it’ll sort itself out.”

Luckily, my granddad provides a solution.

Your Dominant Eye

There are certain qualities each of us possess. To sum it up in highly technical terms, it’s just how we’re wired. Fear of heights. A fascination with the structure of feathers. Maybe you don’t like pickles, or the consistency of cooked fruit. Ticklish feet. Whatever.

One of the most obvious of these qualities is left- or right-handedness, but for some people it’s equally important to know your dominant eye; it’s the sort of thing that matters when using firearms, shooting pool, or taking pictures. Also, you can’t assume your dominant eye is going to be on the same side of your body as your dominant hand — mine isn’t.

Luckily, it’s pretty simple to figure out which eye is the dominant one. My grandfather (who taught firearms safety courses for several decades) led me through the exercise when I was fairly young — maybe five or six — and spent the next five years or so arguing with my dad about it. (Dad was pretty sure my granddad had tricked me into thinking I was left-eye dominant just out of sheer orneriness. To be fair, that is exactly the sort of thing the men in my family would think is funny.)

One of the things I’ve always loved about this test is that it’s automatic — the subject doesn’t have to think, they just have to do, and the results present themselves without bias. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of dominant eye test for finding your voice?

But wait!

I don’t know if this is exactly the same thing as a dominant eye test for a writer’s voice, but it’s still pretty good. Stefon Mears hit us with a neat little “Status Check” writing exercise a few weeks ago — as a general rule, I don’t like writing prompts in any format, but I liked what I got out of this one, and asked his permission to share it. Goes like this:

First, a writing prompt: someone was killed in this room on New Year’s Eve. Write about that for five minutes. Go!

Do not read further until you’ve finished writing.


All done?

Seriously: Do the writing thing first, because reading the next part will permanently ruin the exercise for you. You get one shot at this. Don’t be lazy.

Really all done?


Look over what you’ve written, not in terms of what story the exercise might produce but in terms of the writing choices you made:

  • Did you write about the killing itself, events leading up to it, or the aftermath?
  • Did you devote more focus to character or plot?
  • What kind of conflict did you choose? Did you include more than one?
  • Did you write more dialog or narrative?
  • Point of View – is it 1st person? 3rd? Close or distant? Omniscient, limited omniscient, subjective, objective? Does the viewpoint stay with one character or shift to others?

Those are only a few examples. You can examine the work in terms of any craft tool or story choice you want. The key is to notice those choices, and realize which were conscious and which were automatic.

Emphasis (and some paraphrasing) mine.

As I said in the first post, voice isn’t point of view choices, or tense, or a preferences toward dialogue over narrative — not exactly. But it might contain those things, because “Voice” is a terrible, sloppy, catch-all, nest-stealing bluejay kind of term that encompasses whatever we need it to encompass at that moment, and looking at the stuff we do when we’re writing instinctively can be helpful when we’re trying to figure out what our voice actually sounds like.

It’s not perfect and simple, the way that dominant eye test is, but it helps.

Stefon again:

Spontaneous writing under time pressure can give us a snapshot of where we are as writers, not in terms of development, but in terms of choices. Every writer develops habits, and while many habits may play to our strengths, they limit the scope of our options. As writers, we owe it to ourselves to discover our habits and choose which we keep.

Good stuff, and I want to thank Stefon again for letting me use the exercise to illustrate the idea of a “voice test”.

There is one problem, though.

It’s possible I’ve oversimplified.

The thing is, the dominant eye test and others things like it work better (especially with younger kids) if the subject doesn’t know why they’re doing it. Foreknowledge can lead to skewed results. This is quintuply true for any writing exercise like the one above: now that you know what you’re going to be looking for after you’re done, you’ve tainted the results; the whole point is to do it without thinking about the choices we’re making. (River warned us about spoilers.)

But this is not a complete loss.

Go back and pull out a bunch of different first drafts and look them over, asking the same questions as the exercise above, and you can start to see the recurring patterns.

Once you see those patterns, decide what bits you like and get better at them — work on it in your writing, pursue it in your reading, whatever.

Decide what bits you don’t like and… you know… stop doing that.

You can’t teach voice, I said, and I believe it. But you can find it, and you can train it, and I think maybe that’s how.