Ep. 3 - Get Might-y
Try. Find out if you can't before you won't.
On December First, I’ll start writing about two thousand words per day. On December second, I’ll be editing those first two thousand before writing two thousand more. I’ll be doing that in addition to my day job and this podcast and other commitments. And that’s not totally unheard of, but it’s not for everybody.
I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing one thousand words of fiction each day. That said, comfort is a tricky thing. If you get comfortable with your workout routine and diet, that’s a sign that you’re either maintaining or losing bodily strength. If you push yourself, you might get stronger, or you might break.
I guess that’s the idea of this whole thing.
So, here’s a story.
When I was in high school, I began having a bit of a health crisis. I was just a little tubsters, if you know what I mean. I spent most of my time reading and eating and I had body parts that just wouldn’t quit flopping around like an elephant ear. And so I started trying to run. And I have a distinct memory of when I first ran a full five-k. A little over three miles. It was on a local track, and there was another family walking around the track, so I actually told them about what I’d just done and how happy I was to have done it. The family pretended to be impressed.
From then on, I knew that it was possible to run that far and that fast. And every time I went a little further or faster, I knew that that, too, was possible. In fact, it got so that I would feel really bad about myself if I didn’t do my best on any particular day. And this, along with my self-confidence issues and my general lack of mental health, ended up almost killing me. I got to where people were getting worried about all the bones they could count under my skin. And when you don’t feed your body and keep demanding that it run all over creation, certain parts of you begin to shut down. You get a little cold-blooded. Your emotions get weird and ghostly. I didn’t care at all about comfort. I wanted to be the very best, very most disciplined kid there ever was. But then my body wasn’t just cold and weird. It broke.
Thank God for the friends and family and therapy. I’m alive. And I still run every single day because I’m alive. Because I took a bit of interest in my comfort, I get to sustain the life that sustains the work.
So don’t kill yourself trying to do the most with the least. That’s what almost got - and then eventually did get - Philip K Dick and other writers who ought to have lived and worked a lot longer.
That said, you can probably do more than you give yourself credit for. See, they call the area above your lower tolerance for comfort a “comfort zone,” appropriately. And your zone can shift. When you were young, going to kindergarten every weekday seemed INSANE the first few times you went. Where am I? Why are we talking to a flag and gluing together popsicle sticks? Where are these popsicles?
By the time you were twelve, you probably weren’t still running to your guardian’s car with tears in your eyes when you heard the afternoon bell. You’d gotten used to a habit. And the habit was good for you.
You would not have been served by staying in your comfort zone.
You would also not be served if kindergarten was some sort of army boot camp where you had to chew each bite of food seven times before swallowing. And have Ms. Dinkledorf screaming at you, calling you a maggot and so forth.
So, just because I’m doing this experiment of quick-first-draft-get-it-out-the-door-then-do-it-over-and-over… just because I’m trying it out doesn’t mean it’s best. In fact, I guarantee I won’t write anything even close in quality to George R.R. Martin’s “A Game Of Thrones.” That said, I will write something better than “The Winds of Winter,” only insofar as what I write will eventually exist. I’m going to stretch to see how far I can stretch, but I’m not going to stay perpetually stretched, to follow this increasingly elastic metaphor.
So, right now, since I’m a little tubby when it comes to this particular marathon, let’s get slowly up to speed.
Most months, I won’t have a ton of time while writing one book to think about plotting its successor. I’ll use podcasts like these to think aloud about what happened on the last plot, and what I’d like to do with the next one. And since I’ve got a bit of a head start on December, I think I’ll pitch you one of the more tricky stories I’ve been wanting to write.
Everything I say from here on out is my opinion. And opinions are like buttholes: everybody’s got one, but you’re entirely justified if you want to ignore it.
One of my ancestors was in the union army in the American civil war. I’ve always taken a smidge of pride in that. I’ve always been able to say to myself, whenever the latest neo-nazi terrorist shoots up a church – well, at least my white genes were present and accounted for in a single good instance in America’s never-ending war against its own original sin of slavery.
Now, if you detect a certain self-satisfaction in my voice due to some event over which I had zero control, you’re correct. It’s that smugness that makes me unqualified to talk about racism.
Racism is a tricky thing to write about. So I’m not gonna.
The family legend is that my ancestor was left for dead outside of Andersonville – this sort of death-by-starvation camp in the deep south – and was nursed back to health in secret by a slave. My first idea was to take that story and add a fictional element: that my ancestor fell in FORBIDDEN LOVE with this mystery woman, and that sixteen years later, their bastard child who was previously unknown to his father comes to dad and tells him “Mom said if she ever went missing, I should come find you.”
Cue the rollicking adventure where dad and son defeat the evil racists in reconstruction-era Georgia, and there’s some “True Detective” style occult mystery, and all the white people close the book feeling kinda good about the good white man who reflects the ideals of 2020 Green-Book-Watching Americans, and our own consciences wouldn’t be bothered much. That was my first idea.
What I’ve learned is to never, never, accept your first idea without question. And the more I started to question the idea, the more uncomfortable I found its answers to be. Now, I could still write that first idea, but I’d spend the whole book trying to answer the question of MY white guilt and hidden prejudices rather than focusing on the real issues that the characters face. It would be a book that spends its time trying to defend its author. That’s not very interesting.
Now, just because your first idea doesn’t stand up to questioning doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Picture that first idea as a car with a busted chassis. The car’s a total loss, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cannibalize the car for its motor. The motor made the idea run in the first place. Why toss it out?
Here’s my new idea: transport that initial thought from its original context into a realm of fantasy.
But, you say, this has been done before, sometimes clumsily. Andrzej Sapkowski has an interesting take on human colonizers destroying the elves and dwarves that originally occupied the world of “The Witcher,” but his writing on women more than makes up for any lost discomfort. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both have fantasy “races” that are, on the most charitable reading, problematic. J. K. Rowling has a world of different races which, for all their genius and charm, strike some as offensive. When you create a fantasy world with different races of sentient beings, making those beings different from one another in intelligence, ability, or even appearance, you start to play with very dangerous themes of essentialist inequality. That is, by making races different, you raise the possibility that they should be treated differently. The authors I mentioned approach that subject with nuance and tact, in many cases. I don’t trust myself to overcome the hurdles they faced.
So, let’s think again. What if the slaves look exactly like the masters? What if the difference between the lower and upper classes is just… class?
The ancient Romans didn’t see this as a problem. In the Roman Republic, the masters actually feared what would happen if one could tell the difference between a slave human and a free human on first glance. After all… what if the slaves realize how many slaves there are? What if they realize their power?
See, the obvious question of “is American chattel slavery and racism bad” has been answered pretty thoroughly by authors more qualified than I. I’m interested in a different question. What if slavery was secret? What if we didn’t even call it “slavery?”
Formal slavery was recently abolished on the Koresh isthmus. The former masters look just like the former slaves. One can differentiate status by speech, clothes, and even the way one smiles… still, there are masters who pretend to be slaves, and slaves who pretend to be masters.
Turner was born a slave. Now “free,” he works the same land as his ancestors, taxed by his former master to cover the loss of his enslaved property. Turner dreams of covering his debt and saving up enough to marry a girl above his station and move to the capital where his father supposedly lives. Then, one night, all that possibility gets taken away by a secretive cult that offers a… strange… alternative to the status quo.
Turner is told that his father fought in the war to free the slaves. Turner hopes that his father can fight for him again.
Granted, I came up with that prompt while I was writing this very podcast episode. How? Well, it’s a prompt, but it’s not a story. Not yet. I just took the motor out of the broken car, and now I have to build a car around it.
We have the advantage, in a fantasy setting, of building an entire world around the themes. This story can do something that the old story couldn’t.
Some oppressed people - no matter their appearance – refuse to fight the status quo because they believe, with enough gumption, they can get on the more comfortable side whatever system of oppression currently exists in that society.
I think the most interesting thing we can do with our quasi-slavery story is to interrogate that American Dream. Turner, our protagonist, is going to attempt the hero archetype by seeking out a capable master and becoming something more than the humble farm boy. He will think that the system, though flawed, can ultimately be overcome by talent and perseverance. But, like I said… first thoughts should be put to the question.
But so far, aside from the removal of racism, there’s nothing fantastic about this story. But we’re telling a story about hierarchy.
Why don’t we put the main characters on really big wolves?
When I think about this type of conflict, I think about predators and prey. I think about the ultimate servant class of humanity. Dogs, I mean. Horses are cool, but they’re scared of dogs, who are half the size of a horse, at best. So, what would the world look like with a little bit of magic and the introduction of large, weaponized predators?
I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but that’s why I’m writing the story through the month of December.
And that’s the freedom of this project, for me. See, if I was going to devote my next year to this idea, I’d be a little nervous. I’m nervous as is, but that’s normal for me. I’m only using a month of my writing time to explore this book. If it’s any good, I can come back and buff it up. If it turns out to be the clumsy morality tale that my subconscious thinks it might end up becoming, then I’ll count the writing time as practice, and lose nothing.
Hold your ambitions in an open palm. If they fall, let them fall, and don’t get crushed underneath. That said, hold them if they can be held. Lift just a little harder than you think yourself able. You just might hold up.