American Gods

To be clear, Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. I count his graphic novel, The Sandman, among the greatest achievements in the medium, and I adore his forays into film, Coraline and Stardust. Gaiman is my kind of writer. Each of his works takes a daring, no-holds barred approach to fantasy, often delving into the surreal. In my view, he is the spiritual successor to H.P. Lovecraft, if not in style, certainly in the power of his imagination. I like him so much, in fact, he is the only author I have reviewed twice, the first for The Sandman, and now for American Gods.

American Gods is Gaiman’s first venture into the world of traditional literature, and it shows. In many ways, his writing reminds me of Stephen King, with his mix of earthy characters and homages to Americana. Like King, he gives the reader a great deal of information, much of which is unnecessary, like introductions to characters we barely see again, and in his descriptions, there is just way too much fluff. Here’s one example:

He decided he needed sleep, or just not to drive any longer, and he pulled up in front of a Night’s Inn, paid thirty-five dollars, cash in advance, for his ground-floor room, and went into the bathroom. A sad cockroach lay on its back in the middle of the tiled floor. Shadow took a towel and cleaned off the inside of the tub with it, then ran a bath. In the main room he took off his clothes and put them on the bed. 

Unless Gaiman is trying to make some sort of statement regarding motels, or unless the cockroach plays a significant role later in the story, we just don’t care. And, unfortunately, there are many such passages within the book’s five-hundred pages. To be fair, I did read the 10th Anniversary Edition, with the author’s original text, which only goes to prove that sometimes a good editor is a writer’s best friend.

This isn’t to say that American Gods is boring. Despite a glut of needless exposition, the novel’s originality and likable protagonist keeps you intrigued until the end. The selling point is the high-concept premise. As the title suggests, American Gods takes place in modern day, but in Gaiman’s universe, the Norse and Hindu gods, as well as every other mythological being you can imagine, exist and have always existed, and are currently residing in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The old gods are nothing like the all-powerful entities you may have read about, however; their power, their very survival, depends on humans believing in them—which explains why we don’t see or hear much about them anymore. A god without worship turns into a lesser being, like a sprite or leprechaun or a kobold, while a completely forgotten god ceases to exist entirely. This isn’t a completely original ideal. In fact, the 60’s Star Trek episode, Who Mourns for Adonias? explored the same theme, but Gaiman is clever enough to avoid the typical pantheons we all know and love, focusing on a broader spectrum of belief, from little known Hindu, American Indian, and African spirits to the nearly forgotten (likely invented) Lovecraftian gods of prehistoric man, all of which makes for some fascinating reading, and an interesting take on how faith/religion works. The central plot itself is quite pedestrian by comparison. It involves a guy named Shadow, recently out of jail, whose wife dies in a car accident. Shadow is a simple, unassuming character, with a hard code of honor that makes him easy to sympathize with. He soon meets an enigmatic stranger named Wednesday, who turns out to be Odin, which comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Norse pantheon. Through most of the novel, Shadow follows Odin around the country visiting small towns, which often reads like a love letter to all things America. It’s fun to come across some alien landscape (going backstage, Odin calls it) or an African spider god in the form of an old black man, but the story never congeals properly, and we never get a sense of Shadow’s motivation other than great loyalty to his employer. Eventually, we learn about the new gods in opposition to the old, modern deities representing TV, the Internet, even the railroad. A whole lot of fuss is made over an impending war between old gods and new, for which you might expect something epic, some titanic struggle to make Avengers look like a schoolyard fistfight, but the payoff is anticlimactic, boiling down to little more than a murder mystery. The other problem I had was the glaring omission of the Christian God. Although Jesus is briefly mentioned, you can’t honestly tell a story about the fall of old religions without mentioning YHWH. Gaiman’s book insists the old gods were forgotten when immigrants came to America, but that isn’t historically accurate. If anything killed Odin, Zeus, or Ra—it was the change of faith to the more popular god of the Hebrews. Maybe Gaiman was worried about offending believers; after all, this is a deeply religious country, but in a book about gods, it’s hard to ignore the BIG one.

I hate to leave my review on a sour note, because Gaiman does so many things right. There is much brilliance to be found in American Gods, such potential it’s a real shame it fails to deliver. But Gaiman’s failure greatly exceeds other books’ successes. I was especially fond of the historical asides interspersed throughout the novel, short stories dealing with the first settlers to America, from Irish immigrants to the slaves brought to Haiti to the prehistoric people who first crossed the Siberian-Alaskan land-bridge 15,000 years ago. Gaiman’s talent really shines in those parts, which just goes to show that not every writer works best in every medium. Like Lovecraft, whose shortest stories are also his most brilliant, Gaiman loses focus in a longer format, at least that seems to be the case with American Gods. Overall, I recommend the book, though the ride is often more enjoyable than the destination.

Enya 2003 vs. Aenya 2013

Xandr as originally envisioned c. 1999

I was recently contacted by Tim Forcer, a writer for H&E Magazine. Back in ’04, he was gracious enough to give my novel, The Dark Age of Enya, the thumbs up. Unfortunately, the review did little to boost my career. But talking to him again after so many years got me to thinking. This year is an anniversary of sorts. An entire decade has passed since I completed The Dark Age of Enya in 2003. It sometimes makes me sad to think how much time has gone by. I mean, what the hell have I been doing for ten years? I tell myself I got married, had two kids, and took over my father’s restaurant business, but that all seems like an excuse. After all, Isaac Asimov wrote and or edited (according to Wikipedia) 500 books! I like to believe, at the very least, I’ve been vastly improving over this past decade. I like to think Aenya is my masterpiece. Even if it isn’t, I love the Ilmar; they’re the first truly naturist heroes in the fantasy genre, which makes them wonderfully unique, but even with clothes on, they continually fascinate. Xandr and Thelana are not just two-dimensional pin-up heroes, but like real people with real stories, with genuine passions and beliefs and heartaches. If anything, I like to think Ages of Aenya elevates the sword & sorcery/sword & sandal medium into something respectful, into something reminiscent of the greats of literature, more Odysseus, less Conan.

Has it been worth it? You be the judge. The excerpts below are from the same scene, one from the The Dark Age of Enya and the other from Ages of Aenya (keeping in mind, of course, that the new novel does not follow the old book scene for scene).

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The Dark Age of Enya
2003


Nestled in the valleys between the low rounded hills of Kratos was little known Ilmarinen, not a nation or city nor even a village, but a boundless land, home to a stock of men with a language known only to themselves. Here the grass was soft and the rock gentle to the touch, and tulips grew in groves along the riverbanks, and grape-bearing trees spotted the sloping countryside.
On warm days when the golden sun topped the celestial triangle between the greater and the smaller moon, the people of Ilmarinen left their straw-roofed homes shoeless and without clothing, clad in only ornaments. So it was on this day, fourteen-year-old Xandr, with his blond braid hanging down against his left collarbone to show his manhood, proudly strolled between the tall quiet oaks with only his leather sword belt adorning his peach-tone figure. Beside him, as always, was his teacher, QuasiI, flecks of sunlight gleaming off his hairless scalp and filtering through his Goddess-monk raiment, an orange, blue and white feather cape.
For as long as he could remember, Xandr enjoyed these morning walks. But today something was different. Though wind and warm rays clothed him delicately, and the air was fresh with the scent of rain, and distant spreading Ilmarinen was as beautiful as he had ever known, something was not right. Perhaps it was his becoming a man, he thought, and the many questions burdening his mind.
“Teacher,” he inquired, “where have I come from? And why have we never ventured beyond the south river?”  
“You will know some day,” answered QuasiI.
“No. I want to know now.”
The old man turned to the boy, just slightly shorter than himself. “So, you think you are ready to leave Ilmarinen?”
“I did not say that.”
“Have you been practicing with your sword?”
Xandr threw a hand over the bronze pommel at his hip. “Yes, every day and night.”
“Then show me.”
“Wait,” said he, “you always trick me into forgetting my questions this way. But I won’t show you my sword tricks this time.” And he folded his arms defiantly.
QuasiI smiled, saying, “Then, perhaps, you are ready.”
They climbed for a short while both knowing their destination. At the peak of the limestone hill, rising above a cluster of oaks, they came upon a misty plateau of layered rock crowned by a single mossy boulder sitting in a bed of clovers. Here many bloodless battles transpired, many philosophies were pondered, and many astral bodies were studied. And as always, QuasiI leaned his wooden staff against the mossy boulder before sitting, as young Xandr, with legs folded, sat atop the smaller rock below. 
“The unborn chick,” QuasiI began, “too feeble for the outer world, remains safe within his egg. There he waits till he is ready, till he is strong enough to break his shell with his own beak.”
“But teacher,” Xandr replied, “I am no longer a chick, but a grown rooster fit to herald the sun with my crowing!”
“And how can you be so certain, my pupil, when you do not know what dangers lie beyond the south river, beyond the safety of Ilmarinen?”
“You’ve taught me well. I’ve already bested you with my sword!” he eagerly informed.
“There is still much you must learn of Enya. The wise man knows there is always more to know.”
“But how can I learn what you will not tell me?”
“I have passed all my knowledge to you.”
“What of my parents? Who were they? What happened to them? And no more riddles. I want straight answers.”
“You know the answers, young Xandr. You have merely chosen to forget them.”
The boy shifted uncomfortably in his rock chair, raising his foot to find a splinter embedded in his toe. It was strange, he thought, when he had done nothing that morning but walk a short distance from the monastery to their special hill. There were days when he would run barefoot much further, through denser foliage, without the mark of a single branch. Nor would a single weed scratch his sole after hours sparring.
Everything seemed different to him that day, as though the moons were strangely aligned, though they did not appear so. He then supposed it was his uneasiness, confronting his teacher with questions that had been troubling him for years, like seeds planted in his mind only now taking root in his awareness. Any other day, he figured, he would not have noticed the splinter.       
“I can remember nothing,” he replied at last, though hazy images surfaced from the depths of his memory.
“You were brought to us,” said the teacher in a deep, soft tone, “by the Goddess Alashiya in her talons. And with you came the sword. That is how we knew you were special, the Batal of Legend.”
“That is the sword in the forbidden room, isn’t it?”
“So you have looked at it, have you?”
“Yes,” he murmured, pale blue eyes cast downward. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It was not yet time. You were unfashioned clay, and we had first to mould you. For only one man can wield Emmaxis.
“When the Goddess brought you to us, we were bestowed with greatest responsibility, to care for the savior of the world, and to create him. Only the Batal can own the sword. Even if you were to have taken it into your hands, it would not have been truly yours.”
“And my parents?” asked Xandr. “Did you know them?”
“Some of the monks believe the Goddess is your mother. But you are the son of men, brought to us at the age of three with hair in the fashion of the Ilmar.”  
“Yes,” said Xandr quietly. “I do remember my mother. She had deep green eyes, like emerald. But you, teacher . . . I always thought you were  . . . my father.”
The old man smiled, then turned away slowly. “It has not been easy to hide my feelings, Xandr. The other monks thought it sacrilege, to act as father to the Batal. They also believed it would soften you, make you too human, but I do not judge that a weak trait.”
“Then,” said the boy, “may I ask, why did She take me from them, my parents? Would it have been wrong to have had a true mother and father?”
“Xandr . . . my pupil . . . I cannot say, for the Goddess keeps silent and her actions are mysterious. But if you wish to know the truth, I believe now you are old enough to hear-”
“Yes, go on!”
“Your parents, Xandr, they were-”
“Look!” said the boy suddenly, leaping to his feet with his finger pointing.
QuasiI turned to the gray ribbon of smoke wafting in the distance from the thicket of oaks, diffusing in the morning-orange sky between the turquoise quarter-moon and the shining violet, coin-sized moon.
“What could it mean?” asked Xandr worriedly.
“A fire,” the teacher replied. And for the first time the boy sensed uncertainty in the old man’s voice. “We must return to the monastery!” he added, steadying himself against his staff.  
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Ages of Aenya
2013

 

Hand over foot, the young boy managed his way to the top of the plateau. The air was crisp about his pores and the green scent of the Goddess filled his lungs. His arms spread across the horizon, across the turquoise crescent that was Infinity, the greater moon. The other moon, Eon, glittered like an amethyst in the morning sky. Melting snow cascaded beneath his battered soles, vanishing into mists below, the water gathering, pooling over sheets of rock, feeding into the sun gilded Potamis River. A thousand shades met his eyes, from the jade of the leaves to the amber of the oaks to the purple of the ilms. To the north, the Mountains of Ukko met the heavens like strokes of gray-white chalk.
Apart from his wooden sword’s baldric and the lapis lazuli in his braid, the young monk was clad in nothing but sky, with all the ground his shoes and the sun his coat. The sparring weapon and the blue mineral were his only accoutrements, but he was more interested in the stone, remembering the River Girl who had given it to him; she had a pleasing face and an easy gait and he admired the skill with which her henna was applied, the pattern running up her thigh to form an arrow between her breasts.
Effortlessly, his hands and feet met the nooks in the olive tree’s roots. Descending the hill, he spotted his mentor rounding the path.
“Queffi!” the boy called. “I am here!”
QuasiI did not appreciate Xandr’s sudden disappearances, but never punished the boy’s eagerness to explore. Blinded by the sunbeam flaring off the old man’s scalp, the boy suppressed the urge to laugh. It was not as if his mentor lacked for hair; his ash white locks reached to the middle of his back and his silver streaked beard concealed the whole of his collarbone. But the top of his head was as barren as the western hemisphere.
“Recite the names again,” his mentor droned, steadying himself on his quarterstaff.
What enthusiasm Xandr had shown earlier that morning drained from his voice. Not ecology. Again. Why couldn’t they learn more about saurians or mammoths or horgs? He doubted he would ever face mortal danger from an elm.
“High in the canopy there, I see a camphor tree, with elms all about it . . .”
“Good.”
But these trees were easy to name. Oak and camphor were made into homes, its wood integrated with the living whole, a good example, QuasiI loved to remind him, how every life is connected. Lesser known flora, like the dead looking baobab tree, Xandr mistook for a fledgling oak, for which his mentor had rapped him on the head.
They continued on, the boy directing his mentor to things he was certain to recognize, through a grove of twisting bark with dull green leaves. “. . . and these here, of course, are olive trees . . .” The fruits were small and flat, not yet ripe for the beating. It’s odd, he mused, how the younger limbs are smooth but the trunk and the older branches are rough and gnarled . . .
“Xandr!” a voice rumbled. “Focus! What of these flowers here?”
The boy suppressed a groan. “Um . . . blue orchids?”
“They are blue, indeed, but only look like orchids. Did you forget?” Disappointment gnarled his mentor’s face, making him look more like an olive tree. “You must not forget the names of the Goddess, or she will forget you.”
“Yes Queffi, that is true, but—”
QuasiI bent to example a sapling, thumbing the tiny leaves between thumb and forefinger. He was not so different from his pupil, often distracted, aloof, but Xandr’s respect for him never lessened. Despite his great age, his mentor’s hands looked strong enough to squeeze water from a rock. And QuasiI knew things no one else did. He could tell when rain was to fall days in advance; he knew the age of any plant by touch alone; and he referred to each animal as part of a great family, explaining how the rabbit was cousin to the deer and the deer to the ornith.
Every year on the morning of the Solstice, the keepers would descend to the village to select among the wisest of the youth a protégé to be raised in the monastery. A boy or girl showing an aptitude for metallurgy was taught the secrets of metals, and after a lifetime of study was expected to replace their mentor as Keeper of Metallurgy. So it went with all the secrets of the universe. But Xandr was unlike the others. For as long as he could remember, he lived with the keepers, and though he cared little for plants, he was expected to know everything about them. As QuasiI often reminded him, the discipline of ecology was the greatest of all the sciences, but Xandr could not bring himself to agree. He much preferred tales of the Zo with their planet spanning cities and fantastic machines and weapons. The boy could not understand why the Ilmar, despite seemingly limitless knowledge, had no such things as the Zo—why the Ilmar were, in fact, forbidden possessions of any kind. Whenever he asked the keepers about it, he was simply told, “You are the Batal,” and nothing more.
“Shall we go over flowers, then?” QuasiI suggested.
Leaves crackled and seeds popped underfoot as the boy circled. Xandr was a jumble of energy, nimbly ducking branches and hopping roots. “Queffi . . . there are things I wish you to teach me that you never have.”
“Such as?” He arched a bushy eyebrow, knowing what weighed upon his pupil’s heart, and the boy knew it also, knew his mentor was testing him.
Xandr decided to ask a simple question first to loosen his mentor’s tongue. “I want to know of the things beyond Ilmarinen. Is it true that people south of the river must hide their bodies?”
“It is true,” he said matter-of-factly. “Clothing, or fabric, is woven from many different plants, animal skins as well. The most common method is the loom, by which—”
“Queffi!” the boy interrupted. “That is not what I wanted to know.”
QuasiI feigned confusion, but the boy remained adamant, rooted to a mossy root. “With whom have you been speaking?”
“Brother Zoab,” the boy admitted.
“I should have known.” He cleared his throat of morning phlegm, as though he were about to recite from the philosophers. “We are as diverse as the flowers, Xandr. Just as the soft soil suits the ilm so that it may flourish, so do human customs differ. Ice does not fall here as in the Dark Hemisphere, nor does the sun scorch the flesh as in the West. Here in the Womb of Alashiya, we live as simply as we are born, as Kjus teaches.”
“But Queffi,” the boy went on, hopping from his perch, “that is not what Brother Zoab told me . . . he told me that the Ilmar cannot venture beyond our borders without clothing, that we are hated otherwise, that the women in some cultures may even be killed—with stones—should their bodies be seen. I do not understand these things, Queffi. I asked Brother Zoab about it, but he gave no answer.” The boy stood in silence, staring into his own palm, wondering at its complexity, at the faint blue lines beneath the skin. “Are we not to roam freely about the world? Or is there some flaw in the people of the outer world?”
“No,” QuasiI asserted. “The body is an absolute good. Mankind is born of the Mother Goddess, just as our cousins, the merquid and the avian. We are lovingly and minutely refined over the aeons. The flaw is not in us—I fear—but in the stars. Since time immemorial when men became men, before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, we were all Ilmar. For hundreds of millennia, humanity knew nothing of want or possessions . . . or clothing.”
“What happened?” Xandr asked a little too loudly. “Was it the Cataclysm?”
“No—,” he paused, addressing Xandr with uncertainty, with half-truths. “—it was not the world that changed us. It came from within. The Zo ate of the fruit of knowledge, but did not drink from the well of wisdom. They looked upon themselves and saw that they were fauna, and became ashamed, and in their hubris longed to separate from the Mother Goddess, to become gods themselves. Of all the species of this world, only humans hate what they are, hiding behind clothing. This shame is a great perversion. If one does not see the Goddess within himself, he will not see it in others. If man can hate himself, he will hate others of his kind, and those not of his kind. ”
The boy rocked uneasily, disappointed. He never cared for abstractions, for ideologies, for lessons that forced him to think and ponder until his head hurt. For once, he wished for concrete, rigid truths. The history of Aenya was a puzzle, but many of the pieces were missing.
“But Queffi,” he began, choosing his words carefully, “when the greater moon came into being with the Cataclysm, something changed. Man changed. How? Did it have something to do with what Brother Zoab told me, the star called The Wandering God?”
QuasiI paused to glare at the broad shouldered youth who stood up to his chin—then hurried off, his staff clacking against the stones. “I am not so certain Zoab should speak to you of such things. You are not yet a man.”
Xandr held his anger in his fists so that it not show on his face. He was no longer a child. When a boy or girl began to show hair about the loins, they would partake in the rituals of the Solstice Night. Though Xandr had yet to jump the sacred bonfire hand-in-hand with a girl that was to be joined to him, the time was upon him, as evidenced by his maturing body. “No,” he protested, “my hair has grown and my chin is coarse. Soon I’ll be bearded, and a man!” Xandr had never challenged his mentor so openly before, but he still lacked the courage to meet the deep well of wisdom that were his mentor’s eyes.
“Have you been practicing the technique we went over, the delayed counter?”
Devoid of thought, a hand flied to the pommel at his hip. “Yes, every day and night!”
“Show me.”
“Wait . . . you always trick me into forgetting my questions this way. But you won’t this time.” And he folded his arms defiantly.
“So the Batal has come of age, eh?” It was more a question than a statement. “Come.” Without a further word, they followed a path clear of shrubs formed by years of treading feet.
Layers of limestone rose above the tree line. An immense white willow grew at its peak. Its trunk always made Xandr think of a bent woman with a cane. It was a place for bloodless battles, long discourses on philosophy, and an observatory for the Zo, Alashiya, and Skullgrin constellations. As was their custom, QuasiI let his staff against the mossy stone and was seated. Xandr folded his legs atop the boulder below, tucking his manhood between his thighs, a thing which had become a bother lately, especially when he thought of the young girls bathing in the waterfalls in the valley below. He assumed it was a part of his growing to maturity, but he was destined to be the Batal, which made him wonder whether he would ever join in the festivities of the Solstice Night.
“The sapling,” QuasiI began, “too feeble for the outer world, remains safe within its seed. There it waits till ready, till strong enough to break its shell and lay roots in the earth.”
More metaphors! If there was one thing Xandr disliked more than abstract answers, it was metaphors. “But teacher,” Xandr informed, “I’ve already bested you with my sword!”
The old monk waved a dismissive hand. “You know how to kill, but it is not what matters. Do not forget the lesson of the Zo, and the sayings of Kjus, ‘knowledge not tempered by wisdom sows destruction’. I may know to destroy this willow,” he added, caressing the violet bulbs of a flower sprouting from between the crevices in the rock, “yet I may not have the wisdom to hear it speak to me.”
Xandr threw his shoulders back, the sunlight turning his hair to gold. “But I am ready, Queffi, ready to leave Ilmarinen, to become the Batal.”
 “And how can you be so certain, my son, when you do not know what lies beyond the Potamis? Look there . . .” QuasiI pointed to a tree as tall as the sky, with branches thick enough to walk upon, “the Batal is like the mighty camphor. It begins as a berry no bigger than your thumb, but then it grows, becoming a home to many species . . .”
Having heard the lecture countless times, Xandr’s mind drifted. QuasiI was either stubbornly repeating himself or becoming forgetful. It was not quite as boring as ecology, but philosophy made him want to sleep. He greatly preferred Brother Zoab’s tales of magic and monsters and heroism.
Shifting in his limestone seat, he pulled at his ankle to study his sole. The underside of his foot was black as tar and rough as bark, the cracks in it like some form of lettering. In his fourteen years of pounding up the jagged slopes to his monastery home, of navigating the river rocks lining Ilmarinen’s southern border, of stomping through raw earth and twigs, his feet could have borne him across half the planet. But today—he could not remember from when or where—a sharp sensation followed his steps. Being Ilmarin, it had to have been a long splinter for him to notice. Running a thumbnail to his heel, what he thought a splinter was a knife-edged seedling. His fingernails drew blood as he worked to remove it, as he considered that his questions were also seedlings only now taking root in his awareness.
After his mentor was finished speaking, he looked up from his sole, saying, “But am I not already the Batal?”
QuasiI rubbed his skull, forming new folds of flesh, as he did when frustrated. “No. Not yet.” He gazed into the sunrise, drawing images with his hands. “Only by relinquishing pride, by surrendering possessions, can one hope to escape the mistakes of the past. It is why the Goddess chose us, for of all the world’s peoples, only the Ilmar desire nothing.”
“But will you not tell me, plainly, what I am meant to do?”
The wizened monk drew a long, tired breath. “You will know when you learn to listen to the trees, to hear the voices of Alashiya.”
As if remembering something urgent, the old monk’s attention came away and they became aware of it—between the turquoise moon and the violet glow of the smaller—a gray ribbon of smoke was diffusing over the orange sky.
Xandr could see the turmoil in his mentor’s eyes, but to a boy so innocent, imagination did not lend itself easily to horror. “What could it mean?”
 “No,” he murmured, never straying from the ribbon of smoke. Instantly, the staff was in his hand, no longer a stick for walking but a weapon, and QuasiI became more than he had been, a warrior of commanding presence. “We’ve been found! Hurry, Xandr! Today you prove yourself!”
And for the first time the boy sensed real fear in his teacher’s voice.

So You Want to Write a Novel . . .

Book signing for “The Dark Age of Enya” c. 2005

So you want to write a novel . . . great! Lots of people do it every day. But the difference between writing a good novel and writing a stack of pages with words on them is the difference between riding your bike around the block and competing in the Tour de France. People have this strange delusion that anyone, with no practice or education, can simply pick up a pencil and paper and churn out Moby Dick. Nobody thinks that about playing the violin or painting by oils or sculpting by chisel. Most people understand that to play the violin proficiently enough for people to pay you, you need years, possibly decades, of practice; writing a novel is no different. A good novelist spends thousands of hours at his craft, having written hundreds of poorly constructed stories, and more often than not, a number of books that end up on the sentimental shelf. I am no exception. Before I wrote Ages of Aenya, I typed, on a typewriter, something called The Dark Temple. It was crap, thirty pages of run-on sentence with lots of fighting and magic and hardly no plot or character. My second attempt, which I actually sent to four publishers when I was fourteen, was Dynotus’ Adventures. It wasn’t absolute garbage, but it still stunk (read it here, if you like). For a while I abandoned the novel completely, proceeding with many short pieces about Dynotus, until I made another stab at it with The Nomad. Grammar, character, and plot were all present . . . and while some of my high school friends enjoyed reading it (mostly for the sex, I think), it lacked the spit shine that comes from experience. Sentences were terribly long and awkward, dialogue was often stilted and unrealistic, and just because I knew something about character and plot didn’t mean I could do it well. I later got into fan-fiction, winning fans with my He-Man stories, and finally made a fourth attempt at authorship with The Dark Age of Enya. I sincerely thought, This is the one—it’s good! And you know what? A lot of other people thought so too, including fans, friends, and a couple of magazine critics. But it still wasn’t good enough for mainstream publishing, for shelf space at Barnes & Nobles, and so it was another failure. This is why I am continually annoyed by the sheer number of junk novels sold as e-books everyday—most of these books are given away for free or for pennies, because the hard work that goes into making something worth money is just that, hard work. Here’s the problem. With no musical training you have no clue how to play the violin, but you can write notes to your friends on Facebook, in e-mails, or at the very least, you can make a grocery list, so the thinking goes: If I can do all that, how much harder can writing a novel be?

I’m not here to give writing advice. There are plenty of books for that. If you’re serious about the craft, you should know the basics: setting, character, plot. You should know the difference between scene and summary. You should understand dialogue and how best to use it. It’s like learning how to hold the violin, knowing what strings make what sounds and what those little knobs on the end do (see, I know nothing about violins). After the basics, the possibilities are infinite. There are as many ways to write a book as there are books, but every one of those ways involves hard work. To give you an idea, I am now going to describe how I approach writing a novel.

Before any writing takes place, novels are birthed from ideas. What if I mailed myself in a huge box? That was an idea I had when I was six, which I turned into a story. Ideas can come from books, movies, or better yet, real life. But one good idea doesn’t make a story, which is why my mind works 24/7 looking for inspiration. People always think I am aloof; half the time I can’t even remember my coworkers names. I suspect this has something to do with the amount of brain power reserved for story telling. Whether at my other job as a restaurateur, or driving, or in the shower, I am always working on writing. I’ve woken out of bed just to get a sentence on paper. The idea gathering process is ongoing and never ending. Once gathered, potential stories float in the filing cabinet in my head. I may need a name for a character one day, and my subconscious will pull it out. Often, I don’t even recognize where the name came from; it might be from something I heard as a kid. Until recently, one character in my book was called Duncan Oakenshield, and then I saw the Hobbit film and remembered Oakenshield was the lead dwarf in that story. Many ideas go to waste—because they simply don’t fit anywhere. For example, I’ve always wanted to write about a three-handed giant, since the notion of a three-handed sword amuses me, but I can never find a place to put the idea. Some things fit whatever story I am writing at the time, while others lay dormant, decades from inception. When I’ve gathered enough ideas that can be linked together in an interesting way, and if I feel excited by the story’s potential, I begin the brainstorming process, writing bits and pieces down in a little notebook. I may write descriptions of characters and places, pieces of a plot, maybe even entire passages. Unlike Stephen King, I like to know something of the end before I start. As of this post, there’s a notebook full of information regarding my latest, The Princess of Aenya, and I haven’t even written the first sentence yet.

No matter how well I prepare, the actual book writing is always preceded by a level of dread. What if I’ve forgotten how to write? What if my mind goes blank? What if none of my ideas work? These thoughts plague me until that blank screen appears on my laptop. For up to eight hours, I sit possessed, tapping away. Reality melts away and all that exists is the story. Sometimes I can smell the grass, feel the wind, hear the voices of the heroes. If I write something particularly poignant, I’ll catch myself weeping. This is the only romantic part of my job. After eight hours of intense focus, reality comes rushing back to me; I stretch, because my back and neck hurt; I’ll be hungry, thirsty, and have a need to pee, and I am left with about eight pages of text blinking back at me. My immediate feelings? It’s garbage. I suckered myself into thinking it would be good. That passage I was crying about? Melodramatic drivel. I become my own worst critic. So I reread it again, and again, and again. I get a Frappuccino and read it yet again. I read it backwards to unfamiliarize myself with it. And then, simply because I am exhausted, I shut the damn thing off and go home. I’ll work on it tomorrow, I promise myself, and then begins a second day of editing, where I chip away at sentences, adding and deleting words like Michelangelo hammering raw material into what will become the Pieta. Sometimes there will be a third day of editing, and then I’ll move on to a new chapter, not because I’m satisfied with the first (I still loathe it, and hate myself for sucking at writing) but because if I don’t move on, the novel will sit in my brain forever like a cancerous tumor. This process continues, chapter after chapter after torturous chapter. All the while, I am still gathering ideas, many for sections I’ve already finished. I then have to go back and rework those ideas into old passages, reediting chapters I’ve already edited to exhaustion. Throughout this ordeal, my perspective shifts and changes, so what I think is good one day becomes terrible the next. Being a writer is a perpetual paradox, because you are constantly battling your own subjectivity; you are constantly trying to do the impossible, which is to judge your work as if you hadn’t written it. By the time the novel has an ending (notice I said an ending) many years may have gone by, at which point I experience a new level of dread as I must read the whole thing from the beginning. What if none of it makes sense? What if it doesn’t read emotionally? And who the Hell wrote this first chapter? The novel I hold in my hands very rarely resembles the story I wanted to write, because novels are organic things. What seemed great in my notepad reads terribly within the larger context. The characters often want to do their own things, the story wants to take detours I didn’t plan on, and the finished piece is an utter mystery. If you sincerely aspire to becoming a writer, this next part may disturb you, because, after all that self-afflicted mental torture, you may just have to throw the whole thing out and start over. This isn’t editing, by the way, this is rewriting. Why the Hell would I do that to myself? The answer is simple: by the time the final chapter is down, I’ve become a much better writer. It becomes terribly obvious as I read through the first draft. The writing quality steadily improves as the novel progresses. Even after thirty eight years on this planet, thirty of which I’ve spent writing, I am still finding things to learn. By the time I was sitting at Barnes & Nobles touting paperback copies of The Dark Age of Enya, I knew in my heart I was better than what my wares suggested, that I could rewrite the book and improve it by leagues. When will the learning process end? Maybe when I’m dead.

After all this, you may be wondering, why do you do it? It may seem a fruitless enterprise, a grueling, thankless profession, and it is. At the same time, whenever I am not writing, I feel that I am wasting my time. I may work forty hours at the restaurant, play Mario and do homework with the kids, but by Sunday night, if I haven’t managed to put thoughts on paper, I feel like a lazy slob. For me, life doesn’t have meaning without being written, because it’s art that gives life meaning. People like to say, Everything happens for a reason, because it makes them feel good, but I am here to tell you that’s crap. Meaning is a uniquely human concept. It’s something we create for ourselves, to help us endure shit like the Sandy Hook massacre. Even religion, with it’s fanciful stories of gods and angels, is nothing more than fiction dressed up like truth. And so I am compelled to add to the global dialogue of the human race. Now that may sound lofty and inspiring, but 90% of the time, it feels like a mental disorder. Writing is a compulsion, something I have to do to get through the week. That’s what I call the writers’ disease. You want my honest advice about writing a novel? Don’t trouble yourself. Pick something easier, like medicine or law or coal mining, or just about anything.

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Still there? Really? Are you seething with rage? Are you full of anxiety? Are you ready to ram your keyboard down my throat because . . . you really, really want to be a writer? After all, who the fuck am I to discourage you? Well, if you’ve read thus far and you still don’t want to give up—if you can’t even conceive of giving up, because it’s in you, in your blood, in every fiber of your being, then by all means, do it. And good luck. Just don’t sell it on Amazon for 80 cents. Now you’ll have to excuse me. I have to reread this post several more times.

Kurzweil’s Future? No thanks . . .

 

You could say I am a bit of a Luddite. I have never been a fan of the future and the only science fiction I like are the kinds that promise a return to simplicity, like Avatar, or those that are really fantasy in disguise, Star Wars, or those apocalyptic stories that warn against excessive technology, A Brave New World, 1984, Cloud Atlas. It may seem ironic to complain about technology in a blog, of all places, but what choice do I have? I live in a world surrounded by technology, as are all of my friends and family. It is inescapable. I would much rather discuss this subject around a tribal fire or at the local town square, but those things no longer exist. I am also not impractical. I am not about to go Ted Kaczynski and retreat into the woods to wage a personal war against IBM. Like most people on the planet, I accept the modern world. Hipsters who retreat to communes are deluding themselves if they think they’re going primitive. Nature is all well and good until somebody needs antibiotics. So, yes, I do own a computer, a laptop, a widescreen TV, a Blu-Ray player, a Wii U. I may sound like a hypocrite, until you ask me, why do I have all these things? And the reasons are plenty: loneliness, boredom, a desire to be part of society. Yet those reasons, those needs for technology, were less crucial when my father was growing up. For him, Facebook meant face-to-face conversation. Television was singing and playing the bouzouki around the dinner table. Halo was bird hunting in the Greek countryside. Now you might be saying, Sure, Nick, you say you want to live like that, but you’re just romanticizing the past. Certainly, it was a worse time to live. Maybe. But I can recall my own childhood, before hundreds of cartoons played 24/7 on TV, when all I had was He-Man, G.I.*Joe and Transformers. I remember a time before Nintendo, when I busied myself writing stories and living out those stories with my toys. Maybe it’s just nostalgia talking, but those were happier days. I actually used my own imagination then. I created my own worlds. Today, I watch my kids and they barely touch their toys, or think up games to play. Instead, they’ve become information sponges, absorbing whatever is coming from Nick Jr. or Super Mario Bros.. They definitely don’t look any happier with all of this extra stuff, and I am willing to bet that, as long as their basic needs are met, children of all generations are equally happy with the technology they are born with.

The notion that the next great thing will make you happy is a myth, perpetuated by corporations that need you to buy their stuff, by a consumer driven society that places emphasis on wealth. Blu-Ray disc is a perfect example. Everyone was content with the quality of DVD until high definition discs came along. But did the newer format make everyone happier? To me, it seems, all it did is make everyone unhappy with their old DVDs. It only goes to prove what Buddhists have known for centuries. Wanting things is the root cause of suffering. It is an ever perpetuating illusion. We pursue what we most desire, whatever it may be, a new car, a bigger house, the latest iPhone, like a donkey after a carrot on a stick, but those things never manage to provide what we actually want, or, if we do feel happy for a time, the feeling is short lived. Like a drug addict, we are convinced that the answer is more. More stuff. Newer stuff. It never ends. Like Henry David Thoreau said in Walden, and I paraphrase here, you don’t own things, things own you. 

The impetus for this blog was an article a friend showed me by Ray Kurzweil. For those who’ve never heard of him, Kurzweil is an optimist and a futurist, and he has made some truly outlandish predictions. Among other things, by ten years time, he says, we will find a way to live forever. The basis for this claim is something he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns. According to the theory, biological and technological advancement accelerates on an exponential curve, which is itself exponential. With a whole lot of charts and graphs, Kurzweil describes the rapid evolution of life, from animal species to man, the light speed achievements of civilization within geologic time, and the current rate of doubling computer power. With considerable evidence, he makes a compelling case for a world dominated by nanobots, computers that can think far beyond human capacity, and for a time when biology and technology are integrated to form a new kind of human. He’s not talking science fiction here, or a distant, unimaginable future. For Kurzweil, this will be happening in our own lifetimes. My friend who showed me the article thinks this is all hunky dory, but I find it unnerving. OK, maybe I am being short sighted. Maybe my children or grandchildren will think me old fashioned, the way I think of my father, as I cling to my books and my disc based entertainment, while they have nanobots inserted into their brains for virtual reality experiences.

I will admit that many modern conveniences do make our lives better. It brings to mind The Carousel of Progress, which was featured at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, by one visionary future optimist, Walt Disney. You can still see it at the Magic Kingdom. The show is literally a carousel that rotates in stages, showing scenes as played out by animatronic actors. Each stage is a time period. As the decades pass, you can see how simple things like plumbing, washing machines, and electric ovens saved people, especially housewives, from devoting all of their time to work. The final stage, representing “the future” is hardly futuristic at all. Grandma is playing some video game with a heavy looking VR helmet and the oven has an automatic sensor to detect when the food is cooked. We basically have these things already. We are living in the future Walt Disney envisioned. But how much better is human life today when compared to the 60’s, the 70’s or the 80’s? As I see it, our existence has become too convenient, which is why we suffer from obesity. At the same time, it has also become more stressful, with all of our time devoted to filtering spam in our e-mails and checking our bank accounts on our phones. Technology has made it so that I can roll my car window up with the push of a button, except that now I have to worry about rising gas prices, global warming, and a car payment. I would much rather ride my bike everywhere, but the streets are congested with technology, cars, cars and more cars! Even cell phones, everyone’s favorite new distraction, has its pitfalls. The other day I sat in an ice cream shop with my daughter, watching five teenage girls, all seated around a single table, simply staring in silence, like zombies, at their iPhones. What Kurzweil fails to realize with all of his graphs is that for every major innovation, new, unimagined problems are created. He argues that technological development will continue to become more prevalent in our lives, whether we like it or not, and so the best solution to the evils of technology is more good technology. He uses the triumph of programming over the computer virus as an example, which is all fine and good, but where is the programming to help bring people together? I remember a time when kids met at arcades and played in the street or in the woods. Time travelers from the 60’s would find our neighborhoods gravely quiet. They might assume some calamity took place to have made the children vanish, or, should they look through a window, for parents to feel the need to sequester their kids indoors.

I cannot deny that change is coming, unimaginable change. But change isn’t always for the better. Computers superior to humans? Hasn’t Kurzweil seen The Matrix? Terminator? Even if those scenarios are unlikely, a more possible outcome, I think, is a world where humans become obsolete. Who needs writers, musicians, painters, directors, when a machine can do just as well if not better? Kurzweil counters that humans will also have advanced, but unlike machines, people will continue to have selfish needs, like incomes and free time to play and rest. Just as factory machines replaced countless artisans during the Industrial Revolution, computers will takeover the last vestige of human expertise: artistic endeavor. If a computer can write a better screenplay, without pay, why hire a writer? OK, so maybe I am overreacting. Let us assume Kurzweil is correct and a new species of uber-human will out-compete computer labor. What will be the nature of this new humanity? In his article, Kurzweil delves into the philosophy of identity. He argues, rightly so, that we are not made up of the same cells since birth, that we’re not even our physical selves from the previous year—each of our cells die off and are then replaced by new ones. In essence, we are more like a river, with our cells passing in and out of existence, leaving only a repeating pattern. Should, then, each of these cells gradually be replaced, one-by-one, by nanotech, would we then not retain our identities while becoming superior in the process? He makes a compelling case, but there is a flaw. As I see it, Nick Alimonos is neither a cluster of cells nor a recurring pattern. Nick Alimonos is comprised of the times and places he has lived, the people and experiences he has known, and yes, his strengths and his limitations. Of the many facets of my personality, one is simply this: I do not like sports. Why? Most likely because I am extremely near sided, which I never knew until the 6th grade, so I never learned to catch a ball properly. I also have weak lungs and my heart rate is all over the place, so I am physically ill-equipped for sports. P.E. was a continual torment for me. I was ridiculed, almost continuously, by my coach and my classmates. Like Pavlov’s dog, I was conditioned to dislike football and basketball, so I turned my focus to what I could do well, like reading and writing. My lack of ability defines who I am. Place me in the body of Michael Jordan, which I am sure is right around the corner should we ask Kurzweil, and I am no longer Nick Alimonos.

Maybe I am being overly sensitive, but the future scares me. Unlike Kurzweil, I see a potential looming dark age. History is cyclical. Before 1200 B.C., the Cycladic Greeks lived in a kind of paradise (from which the Atlantis myth derives). Afterward, Greece entered into a thousand years of darkness. The same thing happened after the fall of the Roman Empire. Kurzweil argues that, looking at the larger picture, humanity has continually moved forward, and I cannot argue with that, but as individuals we are short lived and fragile. Should we enter another dark age, one populated by killer cyborgs, we may die before coming to an eventual utopia. I am not all doom and gloom about the future, however. I look forward to a time when fossil fuels are replaced by clean energy, when cities are redesigned to integrate seamlessly with nature, when food is grown hydroponically in skyscrapers, and where the primary method of transportation will be either walking, cycling, or mass transit. But what we do not need is nanobots inserted into our brains, or computers that can outthink us, or robots to do all of our laundry. It’s all just stuff, newer and better, but stuff has never made us any happier and it never will.