Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Challenge Answered (and a little explanation)

When Bill laid the gauntlet down, I immediately said yes, even though I knew good and well that trying to write like Robert E. Howard is a fool's game. Even to go Howardesque invites scorn and ridicule. Nevertheless, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what goes into the hopper to make Howard's writing so good. I thought that it would be fun to play with his "clash of cultures" idea that he used to great effect in most of his stories. There was always someone different or apart from the rest in Howard's work. Conan, in his youth, is the outsider, the barbarian, in such stories as "The God in the Bowl," but clearly Working For The Man in "Beyond the Black River" as he battles the savage Picts.

Anyway, for some reason, I keyed in on The Northern Warrior and so that is what pulled the story in this particular direction. It's a mere 1,600 words. But I tried, like REH, to pack as much story into the space as possible. So, give it a read and tell me how I did.

(Side Note to the CWSB Crew: If I win this bet, I'll make it worth your while, as I happen to know Bill makes a hellacious lasagna, for he taught me the recipe. No pressure, here. But seriously: godly lasagna.)

A Challenge Answered

by Mark Finn

Brannon Harak, the northern warrior, kicked the door open. There was murder in his eyes and cold steel in his hand. “Vahid!” he screamed. The muscles of his neck strained against the collar of his ring mail shirt as he cast his gaze about the room. The inner sanctum of the keep was as opulent and decadent as the main hall. Rich silk tapestries dripped down the rough stone walls, and rounded oil lamps hung from chains in the ceiling, swaying gently in the night air. Each guttering flame cast amber light into every corner, while errant shadows played across the ornate, heavy furnishings in the room.

One light burned brighter than any of the lamps, and that was the arrangement of candles at the head of a large stone table. Laying on that table, covered in white linens, was Nissa. Her golden hair spilled down over the lip of the table, and her eyes were closed. Standing over her, still in his riding garb, was Count Vahid. The wrappings from his head were loose, hanging to one side of his dark face. He stared at the Northman with a mixture of disbelief and unconcealed hatred.

“What have you done to her?” Harak thundered, crossing the distance between them in a half dozen massive strides. Before he could reach Vahid or the altar, the Count drew his own curved tulwar and the blades crashed uselessly together over the woman’s still form.

“I? Nothing!” Vahid turned Harak’s broadsword away and swung around the altar. “She caught an arrow from your men as we rode back to my castle.” He slashed at Harak’s head, the sharp steel whirring through the air as Harak jumped back. “I was tending to her wounds when you kicked open the door.”

Harak roared and leapt forward, his blade cleaving great arcs before him. “I’ll not leave her to your foul magic! She lives or dies by Jheran’s whim, not your black deviltry!”

Vahid barely drew his curved fighting knife in time to deflect the rain of steel that sought his hide. He countered and parried with both blades, his lips drawn back in a sneer of contempt. Unable to penetrate Vahid’s defenses, Harak aimed a kick at the Count’s midsection.

But Vahid was adept at close quarters melee, and he caught Harak’s boot on his thigh and turned down and away, sweeping his leg against the giant’s unprotected knee. The maneuver would have shattered the bones of a lesser man, but Harak simply fell down and away with a grunt.

Vahid stood over him, the point of his curved sword inches from his face. “You ignorant savage. Our ways are neither foul nor unclean. You would treat her wound with prayer, while I would use herbs and medicines.”

“Don’t speak to me of civilization, Count,” said Harak. He clutched his knee and grimaced. “You sweep into our village in the dead of night, when we had brokered peace with your city-state not a fortnight ago! Your men set fire to our Great Hall so that you can spirit away the king’s daughter in the confusion. Not even the Jaffiri in the West would stoop to such barbarous tactics!”

“And what was your plan, General Harak? I can hear no nattering diplomats in my courtyard below. Not unless all of your Chieftain’s court ride chargers and swing swords.” He withdrew the point of his sword and walked to the window. “No, indeed, it would appear that my men have yours at a distinct disadvantage right now.”

“Liar!” Harak roared. He staggered to his feet, favoring the leg. Truthfully, the blow hadn’t hurt him at all, but Harak knew what a crafty fighter Vahid was, and knew he could use the theatrics to his advantage. “I brought a squad of my finest men.”

“And yet, they seem unable to kill boiling oil and crossbow bolts,” Vahid said. He smiled. “It would appear that you are to be my guest while I conclude negotiations with your chieftain for sweet Nissa, here.” He bowed slightly, and moved away from the window. “See for yourself, Oh mighty oaf, for I can plainly see that you do not believe me.”

Harak approached the window, wary of Vahid’s blade, but the Count retreated behind the stone table where Nissa lay, allowing Harak to spare a glance down into the courtyard below. What he saw sickened him. He had ridden through the city and into the keep with forty-eight men. Now there were less than a dozen of them, pinned between two portcullis gates. Archers were running up the steps to the ramparts, nocking arrows as they went in their eagerness to rain death down on the intruders. The men had formed a perfect shield wall, circular, but their shields and their will would only last so long. It would be a slaughter.

Harak turned to the count. “Spare my men,” he said. “Spare them and I’ll turn myself over as your hostage.”

Vahid smiled at Harak. “Your word?”

“Aye. My word.” Harak set his broad sword down and backed away from it. “Spare them.”

Vahid strolled back to the window and shouted down in Farese. Harak never bothered to learn the language, but he recognized the shouted reply that drifted back up to the window. He breathed a sigh of relief and clasped his hands behind his back.

Satisfied that his orders were being carried out, Count Vahid turned to face Harak again, and something kicked him in the chest and knocked the wind out of him. He staggered back against the window and saw a small throwing axe embedded in his chest. It had gone through his leather jerkin like paper. He tried to speak but produced only a bloody cough. His eyes were accusing as he slid to the floor.

Harak reclaimed his sword and sheathed it, watching Vahid for any sudden movement. “And what good is your word, that you have broken our peace?” Harak said quietly to the dying man. “We are enemies. Now and ever more. As it has always been, so shall it always be.”

Vahid summoned the will to gasp out, “It is…our way…”

Harak reached down and planted his foot on Vahid’s shoulder and pulled out his axe. A ribbon of blood and air followed its withdrawal and the Vahid was gone in seconds. “We are too different, our people,” Harak said as he turned away, now thinking only of Nissa.

She was still breathing, Harak saw, and he cradled her head as gently as he could in his hands. “Nissa?” he said. “Can you hear me?”

Her eyes fluttered. “Oh, my Love…” she said.

Harak’s heart swelled and jumped in his chest. It was the first time she had ever addressed him in so intimate a fashion. Their exchanges in court had always been notoriously formal.

“It is I, Brannon,” he said. “You are safe, for now. Can you move?”

Nissa’s eyes opened, pale, blue, and questioning. “What…happened? Brannon? I don’t understand…”

“You were kidnapped,” Brannon said shortly as he examined the wound in her side. “Spirited right out of the Great Hall by Count Vahid and his mongrel horde.”

“Where is he?” she cried.

“It’s all right,” he said, smiling, his voice now gentle. “He won’t bother you any more. Well,” he said, standing up, “I think we can wrap your wound up with some of this silk and then get you on a horse…” he turned around to pull one of the tapestries down. Behind him, Nissa had started to sob, but he couldn’t be bothered to deal with that just now. They weren’t out of danger yet.

Something hit Brannon on the back, under his shoulder blade; it felt like a pinched muscle as it made his back spasm. He tried to draw a breath and found in a panic that he couldn’t. There was a second hit, and then a third, and now he knew he was being stabbed. He let out a bellow of rage, sweeping wide around for the assassin that must have climbed in through one of the open windows and found only Nissa, holding a bloody ceremonial fighting dagger. In fact, it was a dagger the King had given her on her last birthday.

“You fool!” she screamed. “You great, lumbering fool!”

Brannon moved to take the knife away from her, but he still couldn’t get his lungs to fill with air and his grab became a lunge that she easily sidestepped. He landed awkwardly on the stone table, his back soaked wet with his own blood. “I saved you…” he said.

“You didn’t save me! I wanted to leave! Vahid and I were in love! The peace accord was part of our plan to wed!” Nissa pointed at Vahid. “He was going to make me a queen! I would have ruled this city-state! Not some collection of shacks and huts. Oh, you stupid fool, you’ve ruined everything.”

Brannon could only watch as Nissa pulled the Count’s cloak and broach off of his body and fasten it around herself. “Maybe I can stay here. I’ve got to find Zelik and the Master at Arms.”

“Nissa,” Brannon gasped. He tried to stand. “I’m…I’m…” He never got the rest of his apology out. She walked out of the room, swearing in Farese. As the dark tunnel slowly closed off his vision, he thought, I didn’t know she could speak that foreign devil’s tongue. He fell, not an arm’s length from the man he killed.

Outside the window, a shrill command was shouted. Arrows twanged in the night air. And all was silent.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Miscellaneous Stuff

I should catch you up on some news and general stuff, much of which has been piling up and some of which doesn't merit individual posts.

Item One: Scattered Werewolves spotted, with chance of howling.

If you glance to your left you will see the gorgeous cover to a Bigby-centric Fables original graphic novel (coming out not soon at all) called Werewolves of the Heartland. Its title is not, as too many comics sites have posted, Werewolves in the Heartland, which sounds more like a weather report to me, rather than the more poetic of the. Small differences can be vital ones.

The cover was painted by the vastly talented Daniel Dos Santos whose website, which is chock full of wonders, you can visit here. The Werewolves piece is a wrap-around cover, so you are only seeing the front half of it here.

So who is that achingly lovely blonde in Bigby's arms? It certainly isn't Snow White. Is it Cinderella or Rapunzel, as many have already guessed, or somebody new entirely? You will of course have to read the book to find out.

Item Two: A small private debate made public.

I had an interesting exchange with Stacia Kane, the author of a number of fantasy books. You can learn more about Miss Kane and her books by visiting here. On her website, or blog (or I forget), she expressed such a strong dislike of first person narrative in general, and a vow never to perpetrate it in one of her novels, in specific, that I had to find out why. As an admirer of the first person story I felt a need to stand up for it and the following mini debate ensued (paraphrased in parts, due to my doddering old man's memory):

Me: First person has one quality I like. With damn few exceptions (such as unreliable narrator) it's loyal to one character in the story. True and dedicated loyalty is so rare in real life that I want to experience it from time to time in fiction. First person almost requires the reader and the point of view character to be allies. Almost. When's the last time you spent so much time with a person you knew you could count on, when the chips were well and truly down? So that's one among the reasons I like first person. It forces you to pick a side.

She: Good point, yes, but I write in a very tight third, single character. I don't jump into other POVs. In actual first person I'm forced to deal with the filter of the POV character -- all those "I felt, I saw, I blah blah blah," -- whereas in third I can almost cut out the middleman. I think it feels more intimate, rather than less. At least the way I do it.

Me: Granted. Very tight third person single character POV is just as good. Your rebuttal to my rebuttal is on target. I yield the point. (And then, following some back and forth nonsense): Take what victory trophy you deem most fit.

She: I win! I win! But you don't want to give me that kind of freedom. You'll end up with my name tattooed on your very attractive ass. (Okay, she didn't actually say "very attractive" there. I may have inadvertently added that part. The original transcript seems to be a bit garbled there.)

Me: How about I write a blog post about our wee debate in which I admit you fairly out-argued me? Will that suffice to prove I am well and truly owned?

And so it went. But, regardless of having to concede a highly narrow point to Stacia Kane, I am grateful to her for forcing me to put into words one of the more compelling reasons I am a fan of first person narrative in fiction. And, with my limited research powers, I can't find that my specific argument has been made before. I have yet to do a prose novel in first person -- at least none that have been finished and published. Now I need to. I've got the bug.

Item Three: The Robert E Howard Day, One-Man Contest.

Look at the post below by Mark Finn. He's always a good writer, but he's seldom better than when writing about Robert E Howard. All three of those points he made are cogent and compelling. I must use the term "tall liar" in a story soon. When Mark makes the claim to be a Robert E Howard scholar, I suspect he might be guilty of understatement. But how often can Mark write about Howard? Why not instead pay tribute to that author we both love by writing a Howardesque story?

From time to time us Tick Tock Men (back when we were all male, so no intention of leaving you out, by using the old, defunct term, Marjorie) would issue writing challenges and contests to each other, often with mixed results. But they were always fun and revealing. So I hereby issue the following writing challenge to Mark Finn alone: You will write a prose short story in the Howard style and post it here. Your opening line is: "Brannon Harak, the northern warrior, kicked the door open. There was murder in his eyes and cold steel in his hands."

Here are the rules:

1) You can fix that opening line(s) a bit, but not much.
2) You must finish and post the story within five days, starting tomorrow, Sunday. And no, I won't accept as an excuse that you didn't see this post in time. You and I share many aspects of the same ego, buddy, so I know you've been checking back here at least daily to see who's commented on your latest post.
3) You are limited to between one and two thousand words, max, but fewer is even better.

The Prize:

A) If you simply finish on time and within the rules, I cook you a victory dinner at the next Clockwork retreat (with the same dinner for the others too, if you deign to allow it).

B) If all other Clockworkers unanimously vote that it is an excellent story, then not only do you get all of the above, but I do the deed, cooking and serving, in full formal mode (ala the Famous formal dinner in which you and Brad cooked and served and you-know-who had to wear the chicken suit), cooking a menu of your decree. No, guys, I'm not the one in a chicken suit, in this scenario. I'm in the fancy pants "Happy to be of service to you, sir, will there be anything else?" part of the famous bet. Ask Mark for details if you must.

And Mark, of course you are allowed to campaign for "excellent" votes from your peers. We are still a silly people at heart.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Happy 104th, Robert E. Howard

104 years ago, the Muses set a thunderbolt down on this planet in a small town in Texas. His name was Robert E. Howard, and he was the greatest pulp fiction writer the world has ever known.

Here at Camp Clockwork we have spent many an hour talking about REH, and even penned a tribute issue of the old Clockwork Storybook web magazine to him. Howard invented the genre of Heroic Fantasy (less charitably called "Sword and Sorcery" by some) with the stories "Red Shadows," featuring Solomon Kane, and "The Shadow Kingdom," featuring King Kull. He wrote several successful series characters in a humorous vein, including my favorite, Sailor Steve Costigan, and the hillbilly man-child Breckenridge Elkins. Of course, he is best known as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, who has become one of those universally recognized characters in the same camp as Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes.

Undoubtedly, Howard was an inspiration to so many writers, including myself, of course. But what exactly made him such a great writer? I think there are three major components to his "style" of writing, along with a host of other intangibles that vary from character to character, story to story, and series to series. But the three biggies are as follows.

Howard was a poet. His was a lifelong study of poetry, both as a reader and a writer. His mother read poety to him as a child, and he really took to it. He wrote reams, literally, of the stuff, and he wrote so much of it that it's very difficult to even try and sort it into classifications. Regardless, Howard was used to thinking poetically--that is, descriptively and with economy. There are no wasted words in his work. There are only the right words; the words that you key into and create the most vivid pictures in your mind as you read. Howard wrote that way, intuitively, whether he was laying out kingdoms in broad, swift strokes, or relentlessly pounding out a boxing story.

 Howard was a tall liar. That's a Texas thing. The appropriate turn of phrase today is "Master bullshitter." And one of the best definitions of bullshit I ever heard is, "If it ain't true, it ought to be." A tall liar in Howard's day was the porch swing raconteur, the fellow who could walk into the general store and waste five minutes of everyone's time talking about "this old boy from over yonder" and the hi-jinx he got up to the other day. H.P. Lovecraft famously said of Howard that he "believed everything he wrote," and this has been mis-interpreted over the years to mean that Howard was crazy. In fact, he merely invested in his writing the same earnest verisimillitude of authenticy that a veteran tall liar would in his oral recitation. Howard may well have been the first Texas writer to ever write fiction from the precepts of oral tall tales. But it's why, in so many cases, his prose just rings true. Of course the sword would turn on the shield that way. Certainly the horse would throw the man just so. That sense of earnest bullshit is one of the most overlooked traits in Howard's writing.

Howard was trapped. In his personal life, Howard was the primary caregiver to his tubercular mother. His father was a doctor, back in the days when they made house calls, and he frequently traveled for days at a time to be with and tend to patients. Had their unique family situation not been what it was, Howard may well have pursued a more physical career, or at the very least, moved to a larger city to follow his passion. As it was, he was stuck, either by his own hand or others, in a small Texas town, surrounded by a number of people who didn't fully understand the situation in the Howard house. Thus corralled, Howard did the one thing that was available to him: he projected his imagination as far away as he could, moving through time, back into pre-history, and even to other worlds. His fierce imagination gave him the needed building blocks to create some of the most memorable characters in popular fiction and imbue them with the life he himself could never lead.

Howard's personal story is a sad one. But his legacy as a writer of merit and substance continues to this day. The 11th book in Del Rey's line of Robert E. Howard books comes out in February: El Borak and other Desert Adventures.  This character, believe it or not, was one of the early influences on Indiana Jones. No kidding. I love these stories. Heck, I love them all. I still get that twelve year old's rush of discovery when I re-read certain stories he wrote.

If you've got any Howard on your shelf, today is a great day to pull a book down and read something he wrote. You won't regret it.

Happy Birthday, Bob!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Serendipity is the Enemy!

As a mystery and crime writer I like to believe in cause and effect. Beyond the poetry of the prose, there lay the nuts and bolts of story construction. My characters have to figure things out, so I have a series of objects placed in front of them and the correct construction of the right clues will show a solution. It is like being a puzzle-maker, but I use things beside jigsaws and lumber.

I recently hit a wall in a certain plot and had a character just stumble across a thread that would lead to a momentum- changing clue. To me it feels like a cheat. That moment of serendipity stands out like a sore thumb. It's the bathroom with the bad drain in the brand new house. With luck, I will be the only one to notice. Rather than going back and fiddling with it endlessly, I'm working on the next thing. But it is rather irritating to have a coincidence propel a detective story.

Clockwork folk, how often does this kind of thing happen to you?

(Yes, when it gets cold enough, I dress like a manga character.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lessons from Westlake

Michael Berry, the science fiction columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has posted a list of 5 writing lessons he's learned from the work of Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark). It seemed like a strong list to me, so I figured I'd share them here and see what you folks make of them.
  1. Choose a strong title.
    Some of the early Parker novels have titles so terse that they don’t really stick in the memory: “The Score,” “The Outfit,” “The Seventh,” “The Hunter.” I have trouble keeping track of them in my head. But after a 24-year break from writing about Parker, Stark brought him back in “Comeback.” Which was followed by “Backflash.” Followed by “Flashfire,” “Firebreak” and “Breakout.” The titles are down to one word, but they’re evocative and the progression from one to the next is clever without being distracting.
  2. Waste no time getting the story started.
    In the early books, the first sentence always started with “When…”
    When the woman screamed, Parker awoke and rolled off the bed. He heard the plop of a silencer behind him as he rolled, and the bullet punched the pillow where his head had been. —
    “The Outfit”
    When he didn’t get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.
    – “The Split”Even without that gimmick, the openings are always active and compelling.

    Parker jumped out of the Ford with a gun in one hand and a packet of explosive in the other. — “Slayground”

    These aren’t books that begin with long ruminations about the weather. There’s action on the very first page.

  3. Understand structure.
    Many of the Parker books are organized around a four-part structure. The first two parts are from Parker’s perspective. The third offers multiple viewpoints of a critical plot turn. The final portion wraps things up, again from inside Parker’s head.It’s a particularly effective technique. The third-person limited perspective keeps everything focused and leaves little room for extraneous business. The late-in-the-game breakout from the protagonist’s perspective allows the author to ramp up the suspense by dramatising conflicts that Parker can’t foresee.
  4. Don’t be afraid to change your style. Westlake has said that he once grew frustrated with a draft in which Parker kept losing the thing he was trying to steal. Rather than bull his way through a book that wasn’t working, Westlake decided to turn it into a comedy, thereby creating his long-running character John Dortmunder, who first appeared in “The Hot Rock.”
  5. If you don’t work to avoid obsolescence, you may wind up having to kill someone to keep working. Although not published with the Stark pen-name, “The Axe” is one of the bleakest novels Westlake has ever written. The tale of a middle-aged middle-manager who strikes back against downsizing by killing off his competitors, “The Ax” is cautionary tale for anyone who has become too complacent about their job security.
Check out the original post on Berry's blog for more.