Tag Archives: fiction

World-building and retelling and digital literary studies

I’ve been thinking, ever since listening to Alicia Peaker‘s amazing WORD LAB presentation about studying environmental words in fiction, about the creative writing process and DH. Specifically: the kind of surface reading that constitutes a lot of digital literary studies, and the lack of attention to things that we writers would foreground as very important to our fiction and what’s behind it, and the story we are trying to tell.

I see a lot of work about plot, about identifying percentage of dialogue spoken by gender (or just character count/number of appearances by gender), about sentiment words. In other words, an inordinate amount of attention paid to the language that addresses humans and their feelings and actions within a story, most often within a corpus of novels.

However. As I write, and as I listen to other professional or amateur writers (of which I am in the latter group) talk about writing, what comes up very often is world building. And I just read an article about the question of retelling existing stories. Other than Donald Sturgeon’s and Scott Enderle’s recent work on text reuse (in the premodern Chinese (and see paywalled article too) and Star Wars fanfic contexts respectively), I don’t see much addressing the latter, which is hugely important. Most writing, maybe all writing, does not come from scratch, sui generis out of a writer’s mind. (That’s not to even get into issues of all the rest of the people involved in both published fiction and fanfic communities, if we’re going to talk about Scott’s work for example.) We’re missing the community that surrounds writing and publishing (and fanfic is published online, even if not in a traditional model), and reception, of course. And that’s probably not a criticism that originates with me.

When it comes to the structure of fiction, though, I think we’re alarmingly not paying attention to some of the most important elements for writers, and thus what constitutes what they write. Putting authorial intent aside — for example, trying to understand what is “behind” a novel — this is also on the surface of the novel in that the world is what makes up the environment in which the story is told. Anyone could tell you that interactions with the environment, and the shape of the environment as the infrastructure of what can happen within it, are just as fundamental to a work of fiction as the ostensible “plot” and “characters.” (And, to bring up another element of good writing, there’s the question of whether you can even separate them: these two books on character arcs and crafting emotional fiction come to mind as examples of how writers are told not to consider these things even remotely in isolation.)

And then there is the question of where stories come from in the first place. I’m not just talking about straight-up adaptation, although that’s a project I’d love to somehow make work between Meiji Japanese-language fiction and 19th-century English or French novels, that we may not realize are connected even now. (Many Meiji works are either what we’d now call “plagiarism” of foreign novels, or adaptations that are subtle enough that something like Ozaki Kōyō’s Konjiki yasha was not “discovered” to have been an adaptation until very recently.) How do we understand how writers generate their stories? Where are they taking the elements from that are important to them, that influence them, that they want to retell in some manner? Are there projects I’m not aware of (aside from the two I mentioned) that are going deep not into just straight-up obvious word or phrasing reuse, but … well, structure, device, or element adaptation and reuse?

These absolutely fundamental elements of fiction writing are not, I think, something that’s been ignored in traditional literary criticism (see, for example, the term “intertextuality”) but I don’t feel like they’ve made it into digital literary projects, at least not the most well-known and -discussed projects. But if I am wrong, and there are projects on world building, environmental elements, or intertextuality that I am missing, please let me know in the comments or via email (sendmailto@ this website) so I can check them out!

Writing Process: NaNoWriMo and Me

I’ve been meaning to write about my writing process for quite a while now and am surprised, looking back through my blog archives, that I have not yet addressed it.

This post could alternately be titled “How NaNoWriMo Enabled Me to Write My Dissertation in Three and a Half Months” or “The Importance of NaNoWriMo for Academic Writing.” Or just “Do NaNoWriMo at Least Once, People.”

NaNoWriMo stands for “National Novel Writing Month” and has been going since the turn of the twenty-first century. I’ve done it myself since 2002, most years. No, I don’t have a published novel, and in fact I only finished two of them in that time. (And the first one didn’t even “win” — the only criterion for winning is having a file containing 50,000 words — because it came in about 40,000 words when it was done. Oh well. My best and first finished work, so I’m cool with it. In fact, I’m still working on revising that work and trying to cut a version of it into a 10,000-word short story.) But man, what I got out of it.

NaNoWriMo taught me how to write. I don’t mean how to write well, or grammar or mechanics or plot or anything like that. It taught me how to put words on the page. And, after all, that is the first step to writing something. You have to just start making words. Continue reading Writing Process: NaNoWriMo and Me

new magazine: yū

I came across a new magazine online recently that, as always, makes me wish I were still in Japan so I could grab a copy of myself. It’s called Yū 幽, or spirit in my translation – and by spirit I mean the supernatural.

In case you can’t guess, it’s all about the supernatural and ghostly, and is your typical “literary” magazine in Japan – some fiction (short enough for a single issue, usually), plus essays and other relevant short non-fiction. When in Japan (and now, through my sizeable collection of back issues) I consumed these kinds of magazines regularly. I would say voraciously, but it makes for some somewhat slow reading given that it’s literary fiction not in my native language. Still, I love magazines, and I love this type in particular. (Some of my favorites in Japan are Bungakkai and Yom Yom.)

Best of all, Yū has a fantastic web site: Web Yoo. It has a number of blogs, including by authors that write for the magazine, about related books, and ones that have news about current and upcoming issues. They even have their own supernatural fiction prize, 幽怪談文学賞. (Never quite sure how to translate that one; I like to use “weird” as in “weird tales” of the early 20th century here in the US.)

Please check it out, especially if you’re in Japan and can get ahold of it. At the very least, you’ll be treated to great content and some seriously fantastic images and typography on the web site.

wuthering heights: a review 160 years after the fact

I recently reread Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for the first time in about 15 years. In fact, I devoured it in only 36 hours, and was so struck by it this time around that I am writing a little review here.

My own history with the book: I read it in high school, for English class, and was knocked over by it then too. I quickly started putting it at the top of my “favorite books” list, despite having only read it once, and having not read it since then. I wondered recently, did I love it so much because it was literally (sadly) the only book I had to read for school that I’ve ever liked? Was it something about being 15 and the book being so over-the-top with crazy drama? Or is it actually really that good? I was hoping it was the last, but this wouldn’t be the first time I’ve revisited a loved thing from my childhood or teen years and had all of my good memories ruined by its reality.

As you can see, this was not the case. In fact, I liked it more this time around. So I can happily say, now, that it is one of the best books I have ever read, with no reservations.

First, the most amorphous: This has to be one of the most well-written works I have ever come across. It’s not every day that a book forces me to stay up half the night reading it, despite almost falling asleep on my Kindle (I’m reading the Project Gutenberg copy – go Gutenberg!). Throughout, I was practically shouting at the page, “Nelly Dean, don’t go to bed! Get back here and finish telling us what happened!” But it’s more than simply keeping a fast and absorbing pace. Emily Brone’s writing style is powerful and unique; I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it before or since. Sadly, I can’t put more of a finger on it than that at the moment. I’m still fighting my urge to reread it immediately, after all.

But I want to spend the remainder of my short review on what I value so much about this book and its narration, and why.

I was looking around for information on the reception (because I’m a book history nerd) after I had finished, and I was really, truly astounded to find this book referred to as a romance and a love story everywhere I looked. Heathcliff himself was being referred to as a romantic hero! I nearly fell off my chair when I ran across that one, but then I kept seeing it again and again. Did these people read the same book that I did?

I’m going to go ahead and make a statement that I don’t think will be terribly controversial to anyone else who has read this novel: This is not a love story. It contains one, but it is not primarily about the love story. This is a book that has one foot firmly in the horror genre, and at times borders on terrifying if the reader has any sense of humanity. It is about unspeakable evil, here personified in the not-exactly-“romantic” main character, who I would also refrain from calling a “hero” in any sense, except perhaps “hero of unnecessary revenge through evil means.”

This is, for me, a tale of abuse and its results; of real, almost unimaginable evil; of madness (and in a sense, the madness that results from the characters and from the environment and experiences that they face); and of a borderline-horrifying environment in which the characters are so isolated that the rest of the world may as well not exist.

Now I’m going to make a much more controversial statement: Emily Bronte was Lovecraftian before H.P. Lovecraft was born.

No, she may not have a Cthulhu lurking among the heather on the moors, but she has the same type of setting as Lovecraft’s freakish isolated New England villages and awful countryside, and if she’s not talking about evil as manifested through fungus and occasionally monsters and aliens, she’s talking about the same kind of incomprehensible evil as personified through our favorite Heathcliff. If you pushed me, I’d rank Cathy Earnshaw just below him on the evil scale. And if you want some more Lovecraft precursor: The theme of madness in Wuthering Heights is overpowering. I’m not one to ascribe bipolar disorder with psychotic episodes (what I’m sure I’m seeing in Cathy, though I am not a doctor) to seeing the face of evil in person, but it’s undeniable that it’s a major presence in the novel – something more than a theme – and goes beyond a simple character attribute.

It is Bronte’s frequent attempted descriptions of Heathcliff – and failed descriptions, for the most part – that make me recall Lovecraft so closely. Obviously, we have a link in their racism and linking of “brown” characters to base evil. I’m being overly general, but bear with me, because if you pay attention you will find it throughout the entire novel, not just in the main characters. More than this, though, is that I truly struggled to envision Heathcliff – especially his face – while reading, despite paying close attention to every word that conveyed any physical characteristic. It’s as though the characters often had to stop at simply concluding that he is the devil or a demon incarnate, describing the terror-inducing emotion they see on his face (the eyes!) rather than his basic appearance. There are attempts but they are repetition of the same few facts over and over.

Lovecraft can point to unspeakable evil, but it is just that: it is indescribable, beyond words. Heathcliff, as a person, appears to be in the same category.

As a final note on my categorization of this book in the horror genre, and close enough to Lovecraft to be in the same corner within that genre, I want to remark that having been to Yorkshire, and having been to the moors – they are terrifying enough on their own. They’re a landscape as bizarre and vaguely horrifying to be eligible for most of Lovecraft’s work to have been set there rather than in New England, although I understand the point of setting a story where New World villages can have been simultaneously without history from newness, and forgotten already. This is what, in my opinion, really sets apart the United States in particular as a setting quite different from any European country. But in these isolated, threatening places, I can imagine the same kinds of stories taking place without too much strain on my part.

This review isn’t as coherent as I’d like it to be, but I’d love to hear what my readers think about my shifting focus here from the “love story” of the novel (which really doesn’t take up a whole lot of space, and in light of the second half of the book, isn’t the overall point) and toward the idea of unspeakable evil personified – and having taken up residence in an isolated, abusive home in a bizarre landscape and threatening world. Not quite the evaluation I’ve been coming across in my online reading, but I can’t be the first person to praise the novel for these points.