Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: April 2006

Review: The Anubis Gates

The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers
9/10 — Brilliantly conceived and written supernatural/time travel story.

Tim Powers is my most recent favorite author. I first read (out of order) his Fisher King series of books: Last Call, Expiration Date, Earthquake Weather, in which the Western U.S. is revealed as a supernatural battleground under the thin veneer of reality. The Anubis Gates is an earlier work, spanning a wider variety of settings, from London to Egypt and back through time, but the same themes prevail, if the settings are of necessity somewhat less detailed.

The plot, in as much of a nutshell as I can fit it: an attempt to return the ancient gods of Egypt to power has fractured time somewhat, allowing a rich sponsor to take Professor Brendan Doyle and a party of guests back in time to hear a lecture by Samuel Coleridge. Of course, all does not go well, and Doyle soon finds himself stuck in early nineteenth century London, armed only with his knowledge of the era. Not only does he have to figure out how to survive in London itself, he soon has to contend with a body-switching werewolf, a sinister clown-like prince of beggars, and a mysterious organization that appears–for reasons he cannot divine–to want to kill him.

What I love about Powers’ writing is his mingling of the fabulous with the grittily real. His depiction of nineteenth century London is richly realized and eminently believable, from the way people treat beggars to the customs in public-houses. He presents life as it was, at least far beyond the point where I could quibble with it, and by weaving his supernatural world into the details of the real one, he gives it a similar credibility. Not only that, he has a tremendous imagination; more than once I found myself shaking my head and wondering “Where did he come up with that?” And all of the crazy things in his world work and mesh just as smoothly as the details of the “surface” world.

If you’ve never read Powers, The Anubis Gates is a great place to start. He inspires me to add detail to my worlds: what are people eating? What do they see as they walk from place to place? What are the little details that go just far enough below the surface to add texture to a world? He inspires me, too, to let my imagination run wild. I don’t think it can run along the same paths he does, but at the very least, he remains a reminder that those paths exist, a “here be dragons” on my creative map.

Subtext

One of the comments brought up when we workshopped my story yesterday was the value of subtext in dialogue. Dialogue’s great to use, it really moves stories along and gives you a flavor of the person, but it can be constructed in such a way as to reveal even more about the person. As a crude example, I would have had the mean kids say to the main character’s friend, “Why are you hanging out with this trash? You’re better than him.” A more effective line would be to have them say, “Hey, Jeff, wanna go to the park?” (or something similar). There’s subtext there: the main character is being deliberately excluded, and the reasons are left to the reader’s imagination. It feels more authentic.

This was a function (I think) of the story being an early draft. I was mostly concerned with getting the story on the page and wasn’t really inhabiting the skin of the characters. In going through the scenes, again using the above example, I just wanted to establish that the mean kids don’t like the main character but that they do like (or have the potential to like) his friend, and wanted to put that in dialogue. So one major step in the rewrite is to go through carefully and think about what each character is thinking as they’re talking.

What I wanted to communicate, I guess, is that you don’t add subtext by saying, “Hm, how can I add some subtext to this dialogue?” You add it by understanding the character, knowing what he or she is thinking, and figuring out what he or she would realistically say in that situation. Moments of frankness do happen, but they are rare and should be focal points in the story.

Kicking off…

Writing is by nature a solitary pursuit, but as I’ve been very belatedly in my writing life going to workshops, I’ve realized the value of having a community to discuss writing with. I’m going through a lot of learning and trying to become a better, hopefully published writer, and I hope other people will not only be interested in hearing about those steps, but exchanging ideas about them. I’ll use this space to talk about ideas I have about writing, and other ideas that peripherally relate to it.

The first one is about the title of the blog. A fellow writer read me a quote about writing being an affliction, and it really feels like that sometimes to me. If I go more than a few days without working on some story or another, I get restless and annoyed. I hear that for a writer, this is a good thing–at least, it is a sign that you’re on the right path in attempting to forge a career as a writer. The only time it really feels like an affliction to me is when I have the urge to write without any projects to be working on, which is a rare circumstance and I try not to let it happen.

I know a lot of people who write, but don’t seem to have that obsessive need to be writing constantly. Can you cultivate it? I wasn’t always this way, so perhaps it’s an acquired affliction, like an addiction rather than a condition. However it happened, I’m addicted to writing now.