The Hero and the Crown (by Robin McKinley)

It has been a while since I wrote a book review, and it’s been a while since I started reading this one. It took a long time to get through, and while I’m very glad I did, it taught me a lot about my own tastes as a reader, as well as the difference between what those tastes actually are and what I would like to think they are.

Specifically that I enjoy dynamic, energetic, fast-paced storytelling, and The Hero and the Crown ain’t none of those things. This is an old-school fantasy novel in the vein of A Wizard of Earthsea or The Last Unicorn: slow-burning, dream-like, a meditative procession through a hero’s journey that focuses mostly on said hero.

I like it, quite a lot, but I only started liking it today, and I’ve been reading this thing for … I don’t even know how long. Over a year, I think, on and off. And most of that time was spent in a state of feverish impatience, waiting for something to happen.

Things do happen in this book, but they’re character-related things, rather than “hey look at that thing happening” things. Our hero – heroine, whatever – Aerin, is the daughter of a king and a “witch” from the North, where demons live; as such, while she is not a bastard child, she is pretty well reviled by most people, because most people are ignorant villagers and her older half-sister. The first three-fifths of this novel are mostly angst. Well-written angst, but also oddly written, because it’s from an outside perspective; third-person omniscient feels very weird when used to describe the visceral intimacy of angst, and emotion of any kind really, especially when it also tells you that the person feeling said angst is only doing so because they don’t know any better, don’t have the life experience, so on and so forth. If this was anything other than a classical fantasy novel, it would have been unbearable, but the voice works in this case – having the voice be a bit “wiser”, I guess, than the POV character brings an aura of having a story told to you, and The Hero and the Crown is a story that revels in its story-ness, and in a way reminds me of Neil Gaiman in that regard.

So, what is it about? Basically, Aerin is used to being – and feeling – ignored and unwanted, so she spends her time geeking around and reading about dragons. There haven’t been any big dragons since the Old Days, but there are still dragons about that sometimes menace villages, usually around the size of a small horse at most. In terms of “stuff happening”, she re-discovers how to create a special oil that protects people from dragon’s fire, the secret of which has eluded the greatest minds of the kingdom for centuries; she rehabilitates her father’s old war horse so that she can ride it, and then goes out and kills a dragon.

You could take care of that in about one chapter, if you really wanted to; this book takes almost half of its page-count to get there. This is because what “happens” is not as important as Aerin’s feelings and motivations along the way. Basically, she goes out to kill dragons because she doesn’t have anything else to do, no prospects or ambitions – no hope, basically, of living the kind of life that might make her happy, and of course she doesn’t know what that is, either. She wants to be valuable, and has vague thoughts of making her father proud by killing dragons, but it’s more just the fact that she’s so isolated and lonely that her thoughts and motives drift almost randomly in this direction, for lack of something to latch onto, something that might make her feel wanted.

Because it took so freaking long to get to the dragon-slaying – a bunch of stuff happens after that, and that’s where I started to like this book – and I was under the impression that this book was primarily about dragon-slaying, I lost my patience frequently while trying to push myself through the first half of this book. But once she kills the second dragon – a proper, dragon-sized dragon – and some other shit starts happening, I realised what the book was actually about and started to get into it. If you’re looking for hardcore, realism-based worldbuilding, you are in the wrong place; if you like being shown instead of told, you definitely need to read something else. And generally, I am one of those people.

But with The Hero and the Crown, I actually quite liked it. I liked other things about it, too; yes, the princess kills dragons and that’s all subversive and whatnot, but there is much more to this story than another Strong Female Character in regards to subverting gender roles, if that’s what you’re looking for. Like the fact that, while there are indeed two love-interests and they are both dudes, she doesn’t actually choose one over the other, and it’s still framed as a positive, healthy, happy resolution to her story. It’s kind of convenient in a way, as one of the dudes is immortal and the other is not, and since she becomes immortal herself she’s able to spend a mortal lifetime with one (where the story ends) and then eventually find her way back to the other one (which the story hints strongly at). On top of that, both dudes, while never meeting, know about each other and there is no jealous confrontation stuff; they just accept that she loves both of them and get on with it. Much props for that.

There’s also some typical high fantasy problematic-ness – our heroine is a pale-skinned redhead in a country full of dark-skinned brunettes, for instance, and out of the two other female characters in the book one is her jealous, bitchy older half-sister and the other is her devoted maidservant – and if that sort of thing bothers you, which it probably should, then there might be other meditative fantasy novels for you to enjoy. For me, I could overlook it because the intimacy and meditativeness, once I got into it, reminded me that I do actually enjoy this sort of story. It’s Aerin’s story, and it’s about Aerin, and I appreciated the narrow focus, honestly.

Particularly today, because I have this knot in my lower back that I’ve had since I was 16 and it decided to flare up really badly last night. As such I’ve spent the past few hours not just reading, as opposed to sitting in front of my computer and endlessly distracting myself with YouTube and WOW, but reading while lying flat on the floor with my legs hooked over my bed. I can’t tell if it’s helped at all, in terms of being able to walk around and stuff, but lying in that position was certainly a welcome relief. And a lot of what Aerin goes through is pain, physical as well as emotional, seeing as she spends a lot of time fighting dragons, teaching herself how to ride a horse and use a sword, hiking, camping in the wilderness – it was really quite cathartic, and comforting, to read about her discomfort while enduring my own. I’ve said that it tells rather than shows, but that’s mostly for plot-related stuff and ambience. When it comes to the mundane agony of Aerin’s nearly-constant discomfort, there’s a lot of showing – and telling. It works well; it feels immersive. And the third-person omniscient voice complimented that, because I could feel a connection to what Aerin was going through while still having a ready-made excuse to distance myself from it if I wanted to. I have said before that I don’t think “show don’t tell” is a good hard-and-fast rule, and The Hero and the Crown proves that point emphatically. Both are good – you just have to know when to use each of them, and sometimes, how to use them together.

Do not read this book for the plot or world-building. Read it for the slow-burn of timeless storybook ambience, and the intimacy with the character and her experiences. I do think I need something a little more fast-paced now to shake things up, but just like coming off a fast-paced, pulpy urban fantasy novel and diving straight into this book was jarring, the thought of doing the opposite is the same. Maybe I’ll give it a day or two.

And in the meantime, I have some writing plans of my own slowly gestating, waiting to be birthed in what is hopefully the not-too-distant future. I’m certainly looking forward to that.

 

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A planner am I (apparently)

I don’t know that I like the idea of categorising onesself as either a “planner” or a “pantser”, not only because it is a false dichotomy but also because even between those two dichotomous zones there is so much room for variation. Nevertheless, as conceptual goalposts they can be quite useful. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time today working on a plan for Revision 2 of Tallulah, and not only did it finally dawn on me today that this means I have officially planned out something I was going to write before I’d written it, but that I’d done it before – with this book, no less.

What I didn’t do, and why it didn’t really occur to me like it did today before now, was plan it out before I started the writing process. I just ranted my thoughts into Word documents as they came to me, tried a few chapters, scrapped them, tried some more until I found one that I liked and just sort of continued like that. Any planning that was done was 1: generally very speculative, more a case of me wrestling with some obstacle that had arisen as a byproduct of whatever I was writing at the time, and 2: after I had already started writing. The writing process itself, and how it started, was stream-of-consciousness to a large degree; part of that stream-of-consciousness was self-consciousness and that led to rewrites and all sorts of derailments, but my point is that however organised I have become, I was not organised to start with. I was in full pantsing-mode to start things off with, and to me, for fairly shallow reasons, that means that this entire project is a pantsed project.

But then aren’t notes, scattered and lacking in bullet-points and their own organisational narrative progression as they might be, still a form of planning? And didn’t I start with notes? And not as in the response-based, solution-oriented kind of notes; I mean noting-downs of my thoughts and feelings about the story, as it was taking shape, long before I ever actually sat down to begin writing the first chapter? Well … yes. I’ve actually been planning Tallulah for about five years, only writing it properly for three, if that counts as planning – and I suppose it really does. It’s preparation; it’s organising your thoughts around how the story will pan out before it has been written, before writing on the book proper has even begun. That’s planning, no matter how informally-written those plans are. I think “planning” and I think of spreadsheets and spider-charts and bullet-points and all of those other semiotic indicators, the tropes of the concept our culture agrees upon constituting “planning”. But even though my wonderings and what-ifs do not resemble those very much if at all, they are still most definitely examples of planning: they are suggestions for potential plot-structure, characters and their biographies/roles in the story, themes, setting, world-building – yeah. I’ve actually always been a planner.

But, on the other hand, the “tropes” still matter: they aren’t just interchangeable symbols with no inherent meaning. If you use spider-charts instead of bullet-points, you planning is going to look, feel and work in a very specific way. All planning is also planned itself; a plan, as in a spider-chart or flow-chart or what-have-you, is a product, and in order to create a product one must have plan upon which the creation of that product can be founded. I say I was a planner, but then again my planning itself was very stream-of-consciousness, and it was only once I had the whole first draft written and finished that I started getting more organised, started “properly” planning.

My point is that … I dunno. Maybe I don’t have one. But I think it’s interesting to think about different strategies to writing, and seeing how much overlap and interplay between them there can be, how one writer can go from using one strategy to another, pick certain aspects of different plans and mush them together to create new ones as the project demands. To me it’s less about having a “style” and more about having available resources to draw on in order to operate the machinery of your writing project. The two big ones I keep seeing online are “pantsing” and “planning”, and while they’re useful, they are also narrowing terms, not least in the way that they narrow the space round them to zero and posit themselves as the only two possible extremes, with all other possibilities falling somewhere within. I mean maybe that’s totally true, but so much is in how we think about and frame things regardless of if they’re true or not, and I find this particular framework quite limiting.

But still useful. And right now I feel like I’m very much in the official “planning” zone, and it’s working really well, so it can’t be all bad.

Jigsaw paint

I finally managed to finish one of my character-arc-mapping projects. ONE. One of SIX.

Hence I have also banned myself from facebook and Tumblr until March 1st at least, and by then hopefully I will have found other ways to occupy my time that don’t feel so One Ring-ish. Such as writing – specifically, trying to improve my writing.

I haven’t really made the goal of improving my writing a priority for some time; part of that has to do with university eating up a good four years of my life, and working on this novel for the past two years has also been part of that. I have noticed that I’ve gotten better at writing through the process of writing said novel though, so that’s cool.

There is something about specifically setting yourself the task of actually getting better at doing something, though, that I miss. I read half of this long-ass article about how being a talented English student results in writer’s block because you’re so used to ‘coasting’ on your natural talent that you’re afraid of really testing yourself and finding that you actually ‘don’t have what it takes’, and while I have a lot of problems with this framing of the issue, it certainly reminded me of how it felt to actually want to be better at writing, and making a conscious effort to consider my own prose and push how far I could go with it.

It could also be that I’ve just gotten better at getting better at writing, where I’m not stressed about it and can just let the words come out without really worrying about it – I mean it’s not entirely true, but it’s far truer than it was before I got used to drafting. I’m still not used to drafting, really, but it’s getting there. And the idea that putting something out is better than putting nothing out is a very useful attitude to have, and attitude is just another skill, which means that, with application, you can get better at it.

I do think, though, that a lot of writing advice is based around one way of doing things, which is a way I’ve found very useful but at the same time recognise as something that won’t work for everyone, and that is the way that drafting works. You write ‘anything’, just to get something out there, and then spend your time and energy refining it in stages – the allegory I’d use is painting a fence: it requires multiple coats before the whole job is done.

The other way of doing things that I’m used to is to edit as you go, sort of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together; you find that certain pieces don’t fit where you thought they did and have to adjust them on the fly, rather than assembling the whole puzzle, seeing all the wrongly-placed pieces and then going back and correcting every mistake.

I am not really comfortable with either of these. The ‘paint a fence’ method is the one I’ve been using with Tallulah, but it gets really easy to lose a grip on specifics and become overwhelmed by the big picture, to the point where continuing to forge ahead starts to seem like an insurmountable challenge and testament to your cerebral ineptitude. Which is not fair to think of yourself; it’s just a pitfall of the method, and the one that’s kept me from going as fast as I’d like with this book.

The ‘jigsaw’ method has the weakness of taking a really long time to get anything done, to the point where you can get stuck on one chapter, passage, plot-point or whatever and then flip a table in frustration, leaving the tea-stained ruins to be submerged in the sands of time. It’s the opposite problem to the paint method, basically: it’s easy to get snagged on the little things when you’re so intent on ‘getting it right’ the first time through.

In practice, I end up doing a bit of both, with an emphasis on the paint method. Obviously sometimes you just have to start over because you’ve dug yourself into a bottomless pit of narrative despair, but in those cases I’ll save a draft copy of the version of the chapter I’m about to ditch just in case it proves useful in the future (which has happened already, and I’m only one revision in). But this is such a necessity that I don’t really know if this counts as a hybrid method; if you literally just wrote whatever came to mind, stream-of-consciousness style, I imagine there would be a fair few plot-holes you’d have to deal with overlooking when you could easily just tidy them up along the way.

On the other hand, sometimes what seems like a plothole at the time, especially if you have some sort of outline of events in mind, can turn out to be, on reflection, actually an integral part of the plan that you had. This is a consequence of being ‘in the zone’, caught up in the specific thing you’re writing and losing sight of the bigger picture, as well as essentially replicating retrograde amnesia: you can easily forget your own plot-points, so that’s another reason to take notes as you go, and always make backups – never delete anything.

And that happens regardless of whether you’re working with paint or puzzles, unless you’re only ever going to write synopses (and hell, it even happens then).

I had a point, I know I did … see? It happened right there. Proof of my irrefutable truthiness.

*ahem* when it comes to trying to improve your craft, the paint method is still good, as being able to look back over your whole, completed manuscript is invaluable feedback as to where improvements are needed, but it lacks the immediacy of the jigsaw method, and the reward-centre of our brain really only responds to immediate stimulus. It’s why it can get really disheartening to spend two years on a book and only have one draft and a revision to show for it. But it’s also why I felt so rewarded when I read it over this last time, because it had been so close to the point where I’d written it that I felt the feedback, even though I actually waited about a month before reading it after completing it. Fast work leads to a quicker reward with the paint method, and while some immediacy is nice, you will still get that rush of gratification so long as you make reasonable progress.

And, again, you get to see your writing in action. I remember reading the manuscript I wrote before Tallulah, the story I’ll probably be working on after I finish Tallulah, and recognising how my writing evolved over the course of the writing process – it did take me about a year to complete (and clocked in at over 180k words by the end), and I saw myself improving. With Tallulah, the revised manuscript is really clunky in a lot of places where my old writing juxtaposes with the new voice I ended up adopting, with varying results. And the other thing is consistency; I realise that I just said that within one draft I went through three different writing styles, but imagine how much more pronounced that would have been if I’d done it via the jigsaw method. In terms of getting a feel for your voice, it’s not that the jigsaw method won’t give you that feedback – it’ll just be delivered to you differently.

I’m certainly not suggesting that if you use the jigsaw method you never go back and re-read what you wrote, and for that reason alone I would advocate the paint method over it, but that still doesn’t quite solve the issue of how to find a decent middle-ground. I guess for me it’d be combining the paint method with having a solid plan – not a fully fleshed-out one, just something solid and clear enough to work with. And that’s essentially what I worked with while writing Tallulah. Particulars changed as I wrote and dipped in and out of stream-of-consciousness enthusiasm for passing whims, but the overarching plot remained the same.

It’s just that planning itself may require edits, if you’re a stickler for twists and turns like myself, and especially anything involving magic or science – magic because you have to think up the rules and then stick to them, and science because you can’t make it up (unless it’s sci-fi, in which case you just have to decide how much criticism you are happy to endure in response to your actions). And then we get into the muddy territory of drafting your plan, which is supposed to help you get started, not hold you back, and we get into the situation I’m still in with Realm of the Myth, my overblown fantasy epic that’s consumed almost half of my life, was picking up momentum and showing promise at the start of this year and has since stagnated again. But oh no, precious, oh not! I will finish it. I will make it work. Even if I end up breaking it in the process.

It makes sense, shut up.

And just thinking of that story again – it tells me just how comfortable I’ve gotten with the paint method, for all that I hate how long it takes, how delayed the gratification. It does actually suit me, and it helps me to feel like I’m making progress, so long as I stick to it. Which, yes, is easier said than done when the gratification is so delayed, and when I just don’t want to continue for the sake of the process when I feel like I’ve messed something up …

And then I remember my own damn advice and just save a copy of the chapter I’m about to discard and everything is fine. Sigh.

It suits me because it gets me out of the never-ending spiral of ‘no I can’t start yet until I’ve done X’, because X is not the priority. For the process, not me. If I were doing things ‘my way’ I’d be fretting over X forever, and that’s the jigsaw method to me. So this has been a pretty useless attempt to try and find a comfortable middle-ground. But I will keep trying.

For now, I think tonight I’m actually going to try to get to bed before 4am, and spend my pre-sleep time reading rather than staring at a computer screen. These Wonder Woman comics aren’t going to read themselves …