Writing Lessons from Reading: “God’s Demon” by Wayne Barlowe

The author of God’s Demon, Wayne Barlowe, is an artist by trade; look him up on Amazon and books of his art are mostly what you’ll find. His novel was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which provided subject matter for many of Barlowe’s paintings before the novel came along.

The main story arc concerns Sargatanas, a fallen seraph, now a resident of Hell, who decides to rebel against Beelzebub, who’s running the show, and regain himself a place in Heaven. The final score: Beelzebub zero, Sargatanas one ticket to Paradise. It’s a beautifully written book, fully imagined with many a subplot, character and challenge to keep you turning pages until the end.

As always, when I read I’m hoping to learn something new or reinforce something I’ve learned already. Here are a few gems of that ilk from God’s Demon.

Use metaphor and simile in description.

Adjectives are fine, but in the company of metaphor and simile they can be great. Here’s a sample: “From their altitude the world looked as it always had. Vast olive-brown plains, like sheets of skin, rended and folded, were cut by flowing, incandescent rivers of lava and pocked by scattered outposts, pincushioned with fiery-tipped towers.” The adjectives here, like “incandescent” and “pocked” are vivid, but the simile “like sheets of skin” and the metaphorical “pincushioned” are what make the scene pop.

Use an approachable observer to bring an intimidating character down to earth.

Sargatanas the seraph is larger than life, to say the least, at least twice as tall as a human being, with facial and bodily features that shift at will or with mood and a vision for turning upside down the established order of one-third of creation. It would be all too easy to make such a character pompous, distant or even grotesque. Enter Eligor, captain of Sargatanas’ Flying Guards.

The Flying Guards are Sargatanas’s personal bodyguard, so Eligor has a close professional relationship with the demon. Sargatanas also acts as mentor to Eligor, so there is a personal relationship between them as well. Eligor’s admiration and fondness for his superior comes through in his viewpoint, drawing the reader closer to this imposing main character.

Here’s an example of Eligor observing Sargatanas: “Sargatanas went about his tasks with a preternatural intensity that bordered on the obsessive. He never tired of directing the large and small matters of state. It was, Eligor guessed, his way of not thinking about the reality of their situation.” Through Eligor’s view of Sargatanas, we see not only the big boss demon, but the troubled soul as well. Barlowe uses this device throughout the book and it works beautifully.

Use artful foreshadowing.

One of the characters in this book, Semjaza the Watcher, seems for most of the book to be just part of the scenery, a way of showing how awful Hell is. A titan imprisoned in Hell long before Sargatanas, Beelzebub and the gang ever got there, Semjaza lies beneath Beelzebub’s city of Dis, making a scary racket once in a while. You first hear about him 17% through the Kindle edition (“…this giant Watcher, whom few had ever seen…”) and he doesn’t come up again until the 72% mark (“The Watcher had been unusually restless these past few weeks…). Then at the 91% mark he plays a key role in the resolution of the story, which comes as a surprise but is completely plausible, thanks to the foreshadowing that went before.

Thanks for reading. See you next time around!

Choosing the Right Word for the Situation

Word MagnetsAt my advanced age, I am still laboring under the impression that, I was a pretty darn good college poet. It’s more likely that a few of my poems passed the sniff test and the rest stunk, but I’ll retain my illusion, thank you. What I do know for reality is that I loved picking out the individual words for those poems and found that the exercise of poetry made my prose writing better.

Poetry taught me that the better your individual word choices, the better your writing. That might seem like a statement worthy of a “well, duh” response, but I submit to you that some writing sings and some talks in a monotone, and a lot of the difference is word choice.

So, here are a few thoughts on choosing words.

Audience. Who are you writing for? Adults? Kids? Women? Men? One writer who does a great job of taking audience into account is J.K. Rowling. The Harry Potter novels increase their language sophistication with every book as Harry gets older. Or compare lines from the beginning of “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara to a few from the beginning of Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell:

From the former: “They are rebels and volunteers. They are mostly unpaid and usually self-equipped. It is an army of remarkable unity, fighting for disunion.” The words are mostly factual and sharp-edged. The closest you get to “pretty words” are “unity” and “disunion.” It’s my guess this book was originally aimed mainly at men, although with a Pulitzer prize to its credit I’m sure a lot of people of both genders read it.

From the latter: “In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father.” The words are soft, lyrical—“delicate,” “aristocrat,” and “florid.” Mitchell is writing a historical romance, probably originally intended primarily for women, although it has garnered readers everywhere.

Meaning. Obviously, you want a word that means the right thing, but there are different opportunities with synonyms. You could say, for instance, “The starving dogs fought over the orts from the master’s table.” On the other hand, you could say, “The starving dogs fought over the scraps from the master’s table.”

“Ort” is a little-used word for a bit of food left from a meal. If you guess your audience will be full of people who like unusual words, or who might already be familiar with “orts,” or if you just plain want to be obscure, “orts” might be your ticket. “Scraps,” “bits,” “morsels,” or “chunks,” might be good enough, though. I mean, really… orts?

Context. What setting is the word used in? Who is using it? If you’re writing a tough-guy novel about an army general, he might say “Let’s start a war.” If you’re writing something about college professor, he might say “Let’s instigate a conflict.” If you’re describing a mountain outcrop as an inviting destination, you might use words like “majestic,” or “challenging.” If you’re describing the same outcrop as an obstacle, it might be “flinty” or “barren.”

Sound. Sometimes you need a word that falls into the ear the right way. That has a lot to do with the words surrounding it, but let’s take a couple of words on their own. Say your character is taking after somebody’s car with a sledgehammer. “Smash” sounds more like the action itself, whereas “demolish” doesn’t sound like the action and actually distances you from it.

“Smash” winds up with that “sm” sound—you can almost hear the hammer on the backswing—and then down it comes with “ash!” It’s a single, pointed syllable.

With “demolish,” the three syllables all have softer sounds. With “de” maybe the character is swinging the hammer back and forth a bit. With “mo” I don’t get much of an image at all, just a hushing—maybe the character puts the hammer down because it’s heavy. And “lish,” while it gives you the same “sh” as “smash,” is sapped of power by the gentle “li” sound and the preceding two syllables. So, do you want the reader to have that immediacy or not? Maybe if the scene is actually happening, “smash” is the best choice, but if the scene is part of a dream sequence, perhaps the more distant sound of “demolish” would work better.

I could go on, but I think I’ll spare you the agony. Just remember that choosing the right word for the right moment in your writing can make the difference between singing and squawking.

The Fictive Dream versus The Leaf Blower

Today, I’m going to swipe an idea of the late John Gardner’s. I had the pleasure of meeting him once when I was but a callow college lad. He was a fine writing teacher and I’m proud to spread his wisdom in this space.

Mr. Gardner had a notion he call “the fictive dream.” In The Art of Fiction, he writes, “In the writing state—the state of inspiration–the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols.”

If the writer is true to his dream, his words will provide his readers the same experience. They will fall into a sort of dream state in which they are living the story along with the characters. If you’ve ever been engrossed in a work of fiction, you know what I mean.

Now, what if you’re asleep, and you’re having a great dream, and your neighbor starts his freakin’ leaf blower about two feet from your window? You’re jolted out of it, right? The experience is ruined.

Something similar happens when a writer screws up grammar, at least if the reader is aware of the problem, which isn’t always the case, I realize.

I’ve been reading a couple of very talented self-published Kindle authors lately, with genuine enjoyment, but they keep shocking me out of the dream state with their inability to use the verb “lie,” as in “lie down,” correctly.

I’m dreaming along and I run into something like, “He was exhausted after the chase and decided to lay down.”

Aiiee! Leaf blower! It should be “decided to lie down.” A person does not lay down. My dream is interrupted by the error. I’m jolted awake and forced to acknowledge I’m just reading a story. The sense of reality is gone. The writer has defeated his or her purpose. (For the complete poop on this verb, just go to dictionary.com or someplace similar.)

Perfect grammar isn’t always desirable for a writer. In fact, bending or outright breaking the rules can be a great way to achieve effects.

The problem comes about when a writer makes an unintended error out of carelessness or ignorance and it’s egregious enough for the reader to notice.

“To lie” might not really be a problem for much longer. It’s getting increasingly common to mix it up with “to lay.” Many people don’t even notice the error, I’m sure. After a while, we might see a change in usage that makes “I’m going to lay down” perfectly acceptable outside southern Mississippi.

Until then, I hope writers everywhere, especially the self-published ones who rely on their own resources, will proofread carefully and continually upgrade their vocabularies. Keep those readers dreaming, folks–please.

That’s all. I have done lied down the law.

Oh, and let me lay this smackerel of Thin Spots (totally unedited rough draft) on you: smackerel 12-14-11