What’s In A Name?: Famous Authors Who Wrote/Write Under Pen Names

It’s safe to assume that we’re all familiar with the concept of the pen name. The pen name is a fake name – whether something that sounds like an actual name, or something that sounds more like a cool code name – used by authors to disguise the fact that they are who they are. Why authors would want to hide under a made-up persona is personal, of course. It may be that a person does not want other people to know that they’re writing genre fiction, and so would use a pen name when publishing their works. It may be that an author who usually publishes in one genre wants to write in a totally different genre, and so to avoid possible negative reactions, or just outright shock readers might experience, would write instead under another name. Reasons vary, and they can all be equally valid. They may eventually reveal who they really are, anyway, when they see that what they’re writing under a pen name is well-received and considerably successful.

Which authors, really, wrote under pen names? Let’s look at a few authors and their reasons why.

  • Famous horror writer Stephen King wrote several novels under the name Richard Bachman. It was his attempt to go around being restricted from writing more than one book a year, and also a test to see if he really was successful because he was talented, or if he just got lucky.
  • Another horror/speculative fiction writer, I Am Legend writer Richard Matheson, wanted to be known under the name “Logan Swanson” when I Am Legend was adapted into film in the early 1960s. It was done because he wasn’t happy with changes made on his screenplay. He did the trick again when his work on Twilight Zone and Combat! were edited to the point that he didn’t like them.
  • An example of an author wanting to write in a different genre this time. Famous mystery author Agatha Christie wanted to write romance stories, but understandably, her readers would have been shocked if she’d suddenly start writing them. So she chose to write under the name “Mary Westmacott,” and managed to write around six romance novels before being found out.
  • The Bronte Sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, all published their first works under pen names, taking on the male aliases Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The choice of male pseudonyms made sense as, Charlotte herself reasons, ‘we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.’
  • Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote under the name Paul French when he started writing a YA sci-fi book – that was also picked up for a TV show. He felt embarrassed about the YA sci-fi series he wrote, but eventually admitted to writing them.

So those are just some examples of authors who chose to write under pen names. And there are a lot of different reasons – from trying to avoid prejudice because they were women writers, to trying to avoid being associated to works that they’re not particularly attached to, to trying to find out if people really thought they were talented writers. What is important to point out is that each of the writers in the list – and the many others who are not in the list – wrote under pen names for reasons that may or may not be good, but reasons that meant a lot to them personally.

What do we pick up from this, though? Are we encouraging you to write under a pen name? Not necessarily. It’s fun to know which authors wrote under which names, and why, but taking on the decision of writing under a pen name yourself is an entirely different thing. There are many reasons why you should – and shouldn’t – but that will be a discussion for another day.

Other Interesting Links

Do you know other reasons why writers choose to write under pen names? Would you write under a pen name? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @creativwriters!

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Love Wins: LGBTQA in Literature

The recent Pride Day celebration for the LGBTQA+ community and their supporters all around the world has made such a presence that it’s difficult not to think about how queer themes and concerns have become a large part of culture and a topic of discussion. We live in an age where queer communities are able to celebrate and be vocal about their identity and who they love. But queer themes have always been part of culture, albeit muted or suppressed in the past. Instead of the regular long post, this post is a list of websites, pages, commentary, and lists on the rich and long history of queer themes in literature and queer literature, as well as the authors whose own life experiences have helped shape and contribute to it.

The Greatest LGBT Love Letters of All Time – from BrainPickings.org

  • Maria Popova of BrainPickings gives us a fascinating rundown of the love letters shared by famous writers and artists, such as Virginia Woolf and Allen Ginsberg, with their lovers. The post itself provides excerpts of the letters, which are, in their own right, beautifully written and filled with passion. If you’re a fan of these artists and their works, you’ll potentially find connections between their lives and their work. Looking for and reading the letters themselves can be rewarding experiences.

On Bisexual Characters and YA Literatureby Malinda Lo, from her website.

  • Malinda Lo, who is herself a writer of YA LGBT, tackles the issue of – as the title outlines – bisexual characters in YA. Bisexuality itself gets overlooked as, Lo points out, issues tackled are often on the “gay” part of the queer community. Bisexual erasure does happen – bisexuality is often seen as a “watered-down version of gay,” which, Lo says, is problematic. All in all, the post is fascinating, as Lo ultimately asserts that – while each part of the LGBTQA+ has its own problems and its own history – bisexual representation has to overcome certain prejudices and prevailing notions that hurt it.
  1. As a side note, you may also want to look at Malinda Lo’s article, My Guide to LGBT YA,” a rather long list that covers covers issues, writing advice, interviews, and statistics on LGBT YA literature. This list is especially helpful if you want an overview of LGBT YA.
  2. Another side note: I’ve said earlier that Lo herself is a writer, and her works are particularly good and readable. You may want to read her Cinderella-inspired novel, Ash, as well as the follow-up and companion novel, Huntress.

From Problem to Pride: A Short History of Queer YA Fiction – by Daisy Porter, from Malinda Lo’s website.

  • YA has always been a place that tackles queer themes as part of teenagers’/young adults’ coming-of-age and identity formation, although queerness was not always given a friendly treatment. Daisy Porter tackles the history of queer YA fiction, looking at how it started out and listing down the key texts of queer YA, from Nancy Garden’s Annie On My Mind, which was the first major queer YA text depicting a queer relationship in a positive, healthy light, to more recent works and writers, like David Levithan.

Julie Maroh on creating Blue Is the Warmest Color – by Trish Bendix, from AfterEllen.

  • This article is a short interview with the graphic novel Blue Is the Warmest Color’s creator, Julie Maroh. The graphic novel is, of course, the work on which the film directed by by Abdellatif Kechiche, starring Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.

50 Essential Works of LGBT Fiction – from Flavorwire.com.

  • Finally, if you want to read LGBT fiction, or fiction that tackles LGBT themes, here’s a long list that you might want to check out. Among texts listed here are works by Jeanette Winterson, Yukio Mishima, Alice Walker, and Patricia Highsmith.


Do you know other important or interesting works that contribute to discussion on LGBTQA+ literature? Let us know in the comments!

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Creativity from Simplicity

Few people, I think, actually want to complicate things. Simplicity is key, or so the saying goes (along those lines, of course), and complicating things can be both impractical and time consuming. That’s why a lot of students prefer not to close-read or over-interpret texts handed to them in their high school literature classes and college general education lit classes. But complicated texts – especially the modern and post-modern ones – can’t be avoided, and it’s definitely frustrating if finding out the meaning of something feels like a futile task, best left to literature majors. The thing is, while complicated – or complicated-sounding – passages sound impressive, they’re also harder to understand and appreciate, unless you like that kind of thing. And therefore simplicity is sometimes preferable to dense passages talking about the waste land.

Despite what is easy to believe – that a dense narrative, or really anything that’s studded with adjectives, verbs, and punctuation is something you’re supposed to read and appreciate over simple passages – simplicity has its own merits. And I’m not just talking about simplicity of language, but also simplicity of subject matter. A lot of texts written are dense not only in how they are written, but also in what they talk about, and often these delve into a lot of philosophical or metaphysical subject matter. Political, sociological, ethical – a lot of things. And while literature often succeeds in that regard, it will eventually get taxing if you’re just reading similar things, over and over again.

With that, I direct you to one of the poems by American Romantic, William Cullen Bryant. The poem is entitled “The Yellow Violet,” and talks about a simple flower and its merits, against the showy, gaudy blooms that blossom during the spring time. Here’s a passage:

Ere russet fields their green resume,

Sweet flower, I love, in forest bare,

To meet thee, when thy faint perfume,

Alone is in the virgin air

It will no doubt be better, if one were to read the poem in its entirety. But Cullen Bryant – and other poets and authors during the American Romantic period – extolled the virtue of simplicity, noticed every day things that people often took for granted, and crafted beautiful poems, beautiful verses, that celebrated simplicity and the every day quality that these simple things take. Another would be “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats. We go back to “The Yellow Violet,” and see that the language is not dense, but light and airy, beautiful and perhaps perfectly capturing the beauty of the yellow violet during its days of solitary existence by early spring. It’s not heavy, it’s not complicated, and it’s a quiet piece, beautiful and unhindered by too many bells and whistles.

What am I getting at, then? Creativity can be inspired by simplicity. A lot of people dream of writing the next big thing, the great novel of today that will be a classic tomorrow, the kind that has political statements and theological inquiries and food-for-thought. Existential crises galore, in other words. But take cues from Cullen Bryant.  Creating something out of something simple can also be detoxifying, purifying. Simple is beautiful, in other words.

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Why Fairy Tales are Appealing (and the Creative Things We Can Learn from Them)

Fairy tales these days are hastily associated with one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry: Disney. One certainly can’t deny that Disney’s done a lot to deliver fairy tales in easily digestible, not-quite-morbid visual treats, the kind that kids and adults alike can enjoy. Disney-fied fairy tales give the stories happy endings, and don’t capitalize on the dire implications that are present in original versions. There is no lady who cuts off parts of her own foot so she could force the foot into a glass slipper. Sleeping Beauty doesn’t get pregnant and give birth – while still sleeping – in the Disney film. And while Hercules’ story is not a fairy tale, Disney has altered the narrative so much that one would be, maybe, shocked to find out that Hercules – while pretty strong – isn’t the gallant gentleman that he is in the Disney film.

But the Disney versions of fairy tales deliver a specific thing, and probably wouldn’t have worked as well, if they had depicted fairy tales in their original forms. Which is interesting, because a lot of people seem to be more interested in the original – and considerably more morbid – versions of fairy tales, despite the Disney films having special places in peoples’ hearts.

The fairy tale’s enduring appeal may be, in part, because of Disney’s treatment, but if it ends with Disney, then certainly the implication is that the fairy tale is not appealing in itself. Fairy tales often talk about princes and princesses, true love and happy endings, trouble in the middle, godmothers and evil witches, dragons and all sorts of terrible creatures that threaten to keep the prince and the princess apart. But though it’s easy to read the fairy tale as a straightforward story of magic and wonder, there’s certainly a deeper meaning. Fairy tales, among other things, may serve as critiques of expectations of beauty, of the desperation for one to have a beautiful, comfortable life – so much so that one is willing to sacrifice parts of himself or herself to achieve this. There are troublesome villains whose motives may not be entirely clear at first glance, but some of them are actually ostracized and oppressed, and these often plant seeds of hatred.

There’s always the didactic element in fairy tales, but sometimes these tales – especially the ones during the Victorian era, when fairy tales weren’t necessarily limited to the Grimm stories, among other things – deliver valuable lessons that are relatively more dense and nuanced. Fairy tales can be interpreted in many different ways, without compromising the element of enjoyment. That’s why children and adults alike may be able to appreciate them. Look at the fairy tales by George MacDonald, for example. The Light Princess presents reversals of gender roles (it is the princess who saves the prince) – something rather radical, considering the era in which it had been written. Mary de Morgan wrote A Toy Princess, which may be read as a critique of the impractical and pointless ceremony of the upper class, of too much dependence and embellishment put on royalty, of the beauty and practicality of a simple life.

So what can we get from this? Simple. If you’re taking cues from fairy tales, it’s this: that we should be able to try, at least, to craft nuanced narratives that are deep enough for them to be read in certain ways, but light, easy, and fun enough for the younger audience to be able to appreciate them. In short, be able to find what can appeal to your audience. Certainly, the fairy tales already do that, Disney-fiable as they are, even. Fairy tales are timeless stories, perhaps more enduring than the modern classics we have today. They’re valuable gems that deliver lessons and meaning, and are told in a manner that is easy to comprehend but certainly beautiful in their simplicity.

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Future Imperfect: The Creative, Profound Ways Cyberpunk Deals With Crime and Humanity

Cyberpunk is one of the many subgenres of science fiction, and primarily deals with dark, futuristic locales, cyborgs, and criminal intent, and often takes on a noir feel. Think about urban nightlife, populate it with a lot of cybernetic things, flying cars, and outrageously outfitted criminals, and you’re probably going to get the feel of it.

It’s an interesting subgenre, because it deviates from the instantly conjured image when science fiction comes to mind – that is, stars, space, robots, colonies on other planets, and aliens. Cyberpunk grounds science fiction perhaps a little closer to home. In fact, a lot of the early cyberpunk works are interesting because to us, they’re familiar now. Take Synners, or Neuromancer. While not familiar in the sense that what they’re showing is reality, we have at least reached the level of technology where what has happened in early cyberpunk fiction is not impossible by today’s standards.

But sure, the Internet is not a mystified spectacle, and we’ve all had our fair share of visuals and virtual realities, experienced in different ways. The one thing that cyberpunk deals a lot of with is crime, since a lot of cyberpunk fiction anchors events in seedy underbellies with black market technology, and cyberpunk is able to negotiate with crime in so many creative with.

Take the Japanese anime Psycho-Passfor example. The premise is intriguing: in a futuristic Japan, the Public Safety Bureau solves crimes and attempts to preempt crimes by analyzing an individual’s Crime Coefficient – that is, the likelihood of him or her committing crime. Machines are everywhere in the series, and much of the technology the viewer is presented with figures out a person’s psychological state, this being the basis of whether or not one has criminal tendencies and the means to kill. And certainly it’s a brutal series, and certainly it challenges ideas and morals. Is it unethical to capture someone who’s only likely to commit a crime, but has not actually been caught red-handed? Is it alright to just rely on Dominators – guns that determine someone’s Crime Coefficient, and depending on the Coefficient, choose whether what you shoot is a paralyzing shot or a lethal one? The dependence on technology is obvious, and one questions whether the approaches are humane, whether there is even room for a human thread to run in the Public Safety Bureau’s line of work.

Psycho-Pass reminds me of a – not necessarily cyberpunk – short story by one of science fiction’s biggest and most influential names, Philip K. Dick. You might be familiar with the movie, but [The] Minority Report started out as a story about a Commissioner John Anderton, and the Precrime system, which predicts – through the help of people called ‘precogs,’ essentially people who can see into the future – which crimes will be committed in the future. And, accordingly, apprehend the criminals before a glimmer of criminal intent even sparks in their minds. It’s an interesting concept that deals with the question of whether or not someone should already be arrested before the crime is even committed. If, without a doubt, an individual would be guilty of a certain crime, then is it humane to arrest the individual while he or she is still innocent? But of course, it’s not that simple, because you will find out in the text that the Precrime system is not actually a hundred percent accurate.

There’s also the film, Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It involves an authority figure – a Blade Runner – called Deckard who’s tasked to apprehend renegade Replicants – essentially androids (and they look like humans – no immediate, on-the-spot way to figure out of they are Replicants) made to be shipped off to colonies where they’re supposed to do menial work. The film puts into question ideas of humanity, and what makes one really human.

There are, of course, much, much more cyberpunk works worth reading and seeing, and many of them – like any good piece of fiction – unsettle and make the individual questions things which are otherwise taken for granted. Cyberpunk is amazing, because it’s unrealistic but also realistic, in the way that the worlds and what is happening in them are familiar, in the way that the dynamics presented in them are familiar, except clothed in a lot of neon, grime, and cybernetic fixtures.

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Strange Love: Unhappy Endings in Literature

Most people take the fourteenth of February – Valentine’s Day – as an opportunity for a person to (and I apologize in advance for how chokingly saccharine this might sound) shower love on his or her special someone. So of course – but this may also depend on the culture, and on the country – February 14 means a lot of chocolates and flowers, couples going around, Valentine’s Day specials on television and elsewhere, and the world bleeding profusely with fifty shades of red. Basically, most – if not all – jump on the bandwagon, taking it as a chance to prove undying love.

Literature is, of course, rife with love stories of all persuasions, transcending ages, transcending generations, transcending real-life love stories that have come to an abrupt – sometimes violent – end. But love in literature is balanced. The sweet is tempered by the bitter. Death rears its ugly head to tear lovers apart.

For a season-appropriate post, I’ve come up with a list of tragic or unfulfilled love stories in literature, to remind us that the world is not always –as Taylor Swift puts it – “burning red.”

John the Savage and Lenina Crowne

Not necessarily the “couple” of the narrative – one can argue that Bernard Marx should instead be partnered with Lenina – but this comes from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Unfulfilled, due to the two’s inability to see eye to eye, and the nature of Lenina’s upbringing – conditioned as she is by the World State – which automatically flicks an off switch to feelings, whenever these genuine feelings arise. In the neat, systematic, futuristic society of Brave New World, there doesn’t seem to be any real room for love.

Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh

I heard someone say that Peter Walsh is Clarissa Dalloway’s biggest “what if,” but we will never know. Two central characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway, prior to the events of the story (in a sense, because Mrs. Dalloway is very fond of flashbacks/time skips/general messing up of the timeline) marries the sensible Richard Dalloway, who is able to provide a stable family life for Clarissa and their daughter, Elizabeth. Prior to Richard, however, Clarissa was involved with Peter Walsh, who spends a significant part of the narrative attempting to convince himself that he doesn’t love Clarissa anymore, years after their break-up. It’s an interesting story peopled with interesting characters, and Clarissa and Peter certainly attempt to test the bounds of the idea of the “biggest what-if” for a good part of the story.

Greek Myths

The Greek myths themselves are overflowing with strange or unfulfilled love stories. “Pygmalion and Galatea” is about a sculptor who falls in love with his sculpture. “Orpheus and Eurydice” and the Persephone myth both use the Underworld as a prominent setting in crafting – or breaking – the love story. And of course, we have Narcissus, who falls in love with himself.

Adolf Verloc and Winnie Verloc

The Verloc couple – from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent – suffers from a love story that is completely devoid of romantic love. Instead, Adolf Verloc acts as a father figure – in terms of what he brings to the table, literally and figuratively – to Winnie and her brother. The Secret Agent culminates in an awakening that consummates what is essentially a marriage of convenience (Verloc was a practical choice for a husband, being able to provide for Winnie’s family) in the most interesting of ways: a dagger through Verloc. Who kills him? Winnie.

Romeo and Juliet

And this one goes without saying. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, contrary to popular belief – or what the songs tell you – is not a romance. It is a tragedy. And while it’s easy to cut out the rest of the play from consciousness and keep only the legendary balcony scene in your head (certainly the media has been able to do this), it always pays to remind yourself that the teenaged Romeo and Juliet die – and by their own hand – at the end of the play.

Many pieces of literature cast a rather grim lens on what might otherwise be something just beautiful, but certainly it’s worth remembering that not everything about love is beautiful. Look at it this way: at least literature has the courage to tell people what they refuse to see, or believe.

Happy Valentine’s.

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Myth Madness: Books On Myths and Legends That You Should Experience

Myths and legends make up a good chunk of any nation’s cultural foundation. We’ve got the Norse myths, the Greek myths, Japanese creation myths, Egyptian myths, among many others. Everyone’s familiar with at least some of the members of the Greek pantheon, and certainly you must have, at the very least, heard of Egypt’s Ra. Marvel, in particular, has assimilated Norse deities Loki and Thor in its pop culture hero ensemble, along with heroes like The Hulk. Then, of course, there’s the ever-present, all-powerful, and legendary Disney, whose magical work over the decades include retellings of myths like Hercules. With a more kid-friendly, good-versus-bad, good-triumphs-over-bad approach, of course.

Why all these retellings and borrowings? It’s because myths, as they are, are timeless. There’s a lot of material buried underneath a culture’s myth-and-legend structure, and of course it’s always interesting to find out how a certain culture explains the creation of the world and of other things, through the lens of stories either written or passed down. I’ve been very much interested in myths myself, primarily of the Western sort, and have decided to list down a few pieces of fiction that one who is interested in myths should experience. I’m also going to be toeing a blurry line here. But to lay down a more concrete idea of what I mean by myths and legends, I will be quoting the website “Myths and Legends” for definitions.

A legend is:

a semi-true story, which has been passed on from person-to-person and has important meaning or symbolism for the culture in which it originates. A legend usually includes an element of truth, or is based on historic facts, but with ‘mythical qualities’. Legends usually involve heroic characters or fantastic places and often encompass the spiritual beliefs of the culture in which they originate.

A myth, meanwhile is:

a story based on tradition or legend, which has a deep symbolic meaning. A myth ‘conveys a truth’ to those who tell it and hear it, rather than necessarily recording a true event. Although some myths can be accounts of actual events, they have become transformed by symbolic meaning or shifted in time or place. Myths are often used to explain universal and local beginnings and involve supernatural beings. The great power of the meaning of these stories, to the culture in which they developed, is a major reason why they survive as long as they do – sometimes for thousands of years.

Okay so far? Alright. Here’s my list, and why they should be read/watched/played (whichever is applicable):

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman. One of Neil Gaiman’s heftier works, certainly, though no less entertaining than his short stories and other novels. It isn’t my favorite of Gaiman’s works (that spot is taken – perhaps permanently – by Neverwhere) but it paints an interesting picture of a battle between the old and the new, beliefs long forgotten and newly-formed faiths, with a smattering of pop culture references here and there. Where does the myth fit into this? The myth seeps in everywhere. Odin, Anubis, Thoth, Anansi – just some of the mythical figures from different cultures all over the world. African, Norse, Egyptian, it’s there. And Gaiman blends it all into an interesting, compelling roadtrip.
  • The Mabinogion. I’m probably blurring a few lines here. The Mabinogion is a collection of Welsh prose tales, with the central tales revolving around a figure known as Pryderi. Welsh – well, Celtic – belief involved putting a lot of premium in the Otherworld and the supernatural, and The Mabinogion demonstrates Welsh interest of the setting through the prose tales. There’s also a lot of interesting stuff going on: dead bodies reanimated after being thrown into a magical cauldron, a man striking a deal with a figure from the Otherworld, and a woman being accused of killing her own son. The Mabinogion also contains early versions of the Arthurian legends, with the stories themselves revolving not around Arthur, but around The Mabinogion’s version of the Knights of the Round Table.
  • Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Of course, we are all familiar with the legend of King Arthur. Disney made The Sword in the Stone, a movie about young Arthur/Wart. Then there’s also the TV show Merlin. Lord Tennyson wrote the cycle of narrative poems, Idylls of the King, which retells the legend of Arthur. T.H. White wrote The Once and Future King, which is about Arthur (and White’s own beliefs, injected in the narrative). It goes without saying that the Arthurian legend has touched pretty much everything, but it’s interesting to look at one of the most influential foundational works about the legend. Le Morte d’Arthur collected the loose pieces of the Arthurian legend, and tried to make the entire thing into one cohesive narrative. There are a lot of translations, of course, and you’re free to choose which translation/version of Le Morte d’Arthur you’d like to read.
  • Mythology by Edith Hamilton. A no-brainer, of course. Hamilton’s Mythology is one of the most popular pieces on Greek myths – and Norse – to date, with Hamilton having painstakingly collected all the important stories (and there are a lot) and put them in one volume. I like to think of this as the Le Morte d’Arthur of Greek myth, and it’s certainly more recent a collection compared to Malory’s, but it does what Malory did for the Arthurian legend. That is, create a comprehensive, categorized, coherent collection (as coherent as Greek myth can be, that is) on Greek and Norse myth.
  • Celtic Myths and Legends by. T.W. Rolleston. A personal favorite of mine. Published in 1911, Rolleston collects myths and legends from Britain – that is, Wales, Ireland, England – and intersperses these short, condensed narratives with commentary and information on the Celtic culture.

There’s definitely a ton more on myths and legends that you should read. Fairytale and folktale collections should be right up your alley if you’re interested. I’ve deliberately left out the Eastern variety, as I don’t think I’ve read enough of the myths and legends from those places to be able to draw up a mildly interesting list.

I wonder, though. What are your favorite books on myths and legends, and why?


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Artificial Nature: On Jungles, Concrete, and the Modern Days in Literature

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Written and published just as the twentieth century was settling in, it talks about the titular secret agent, Adolf Verloc, and the landscape of a pre-twentieth century London, where anarchists plan to attack the Greenwich Observatory to make a statement. Needless to say, things go haywire, and people who are not supposed to die, die. Within The Secret Agent, we have a character known only by the title of “assistant commissioner,” who, at some point in the book, treats the book’s London – a London at the cusp of the modern, industrial age – walks around viewing the city environment as a jungle in the classic, leafy woodland sense.

Meanwhile, I’ve had the privilege to procure copies of J.G. Ballard’s works – from the science fiction post-apocalyptic debut The Drowned World, to the (in)famous Crash, and even The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard. I have yet to finish Crash and its companion piece, Concrete Island, but I’m aware of what they are about. Concrete Island, in particular, as a riff on Robinson Crusoe and the classic adventure tale of getting marooned on a desert island.

You’d have to read the books I’ve mentioned yourself, I’d say, but I’d like to point out an idea. Months ago, in my class’s discussion of The Secret Agent, the idea that we’re basically in a loop came up. “Old problems with new solutions,” basically. The general perception is that hundreds, thousands of years ago, humanity was rooted in nature and problems were rooted in nature, and that today we’re technologically advanced, certainly, and much more civilized, and it’s easier to find something to eat because we don’t have to worry about getting speared through by our prey’s tusks. Architecture and man-made things dominate the urban landscape, and “nature” – that is, trees, greens, shrubs – exists in order to fill in the gaps in the concrete. For display.

But how different is the manufactured, concrete landscape from nature, in how we perceive it? These days, we live in “urban jungles,” civilization working on the veneer of advancement on all fronts – technology, society, government – but under the surface, wouldn’t you say man can still be beast, that the geometric, shiny surfaces of office buildings polished to a fault as “natural” now to the working urban human as trees and caves were to the cavemen?

What’s my point? My point is that these are ideas that literature posits. The Secret Agent, Crash, Concrete Island – they’re just some of the pieces that can do this. Challenging the normal, general perception of daily life – especially Ballard’s works, as they’re more appropriate, I suppose, given our time frame, our own age – by making what we know as part of our mornings and evenings as strange, wild, jungle-like and formidable, is one of the things that literature does. It may sound as if I’m shoehorning a point in a patchwork of premises in literary pieces decades old, but I’d say there is truth to this. Literature challenges expectations and destroys perceptions, which makes it succeed, precisely because what we choose not to question will be held up in front of us, maybe punch us in the face.

Meanwhile, yes, you might want to read the books I’ve mentioned, and see for yourself how the modern world is treated, and what themes are tackled. The ideas might fester under your skin, and you might be better off having them there.

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Of Epic Proportions: The Problem of Lengthy Fantasy

One of the more attractive umbrellas in literature is speculative fiction, and it’s easy to see why. If literature can be escapist, speculative fiction touches on this the best by actually offering a variety of texts that detach the reader from reality for a couple hundred pages, and immerse him or her in a world that is entirely fictional, with improbably things happening within the world. I’m here to talk about a particular genre in the group, though: fantasy.

Fantasy is, of course, a well-established genre spanning a pretty large spectrum of texts. Fantasy has people like J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit), George R.R. Martin,(A Song of Ice and Fire) and Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time), alongside authors like R.A. Salvatore (The Legend of Drizzt) and Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (various Dragonlance books). And those are just names that I consider to be under the high/epic fantasy subgenre, because Neil Gaiman is also a fantasy writer, and I’d argue that Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake is also fantasy. What these authors have done with their texts, though, is obvious: create a living, breathing, engaging world, and populate it with characters. Then weave a plot that gets the reader and pulls him or her in. It takes a lot of work – you’re looking at several years’ worth of writing a single series, plus spin-off novels, and it takes effort to get details to mesh together with other details and offer consistency.

And for the most part, this works. If you find yourself looking forward to the next installment of your favorite fantasy series, then you know it works. Even stretched out to more than three books (the trilogy, I think, being a trend in fantasy writing now), if the story engages, it engages. But fantasy, if too epic, if too intricate, if too huge, spawns its own monster. The late Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, I think, is the biggest violator when it comes to creating too huge worlds. Fourteen books – with a single volume averaging around eight-hundred pages – in The Wheel of Time already sounds daunting, and it takes effort on the reader’s part to slog through the middle, because when you get to the middle of the series, something happens. Which is, precisely, nothing.

And I think that’s the problem of too epic fantasy. I am currently reading Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, the first book in the Stormlight Archive, and while I do find it enjoyable and interesting, it’s just too long. The mass-market paperback edition is easily longer than most – if not all of – The Wheel of Time’s paperbacks, and that’s saying something, because Jordan was overly fond of being wordy. Perhaps The Way of Kings’ length owes itself, in part, to the fact that Sanderson had to finish The Wheel of Time on Jordan’s behalf. The Way of Kings does well to build up its characters, their conflicts, and their backstories, but it becomes an exercise of slogging through the introspective chapters and detailed descriptions of what a character is doing (Shallan as she draws, for example, which takes up an entire page and a half – although I might be exaggerating), hoping for the action to pick up.

Perhaps the moral is this: if you can say it in a few words without compromising the quality of writing, do it. Characters are important, definitely. They’re what ties a story together. But if every single detail is given undivided attention, it becomes a drag, no matter how well-written the story is.

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Real Worlds: World-building

Part of what makes a lot of stories compelling is the world in which the characters live and breathe in. World-building isn’t just confined in literature, because a lot of shows, movies, and video games make use of made-up settings for the narrative, and populate these settings with a lot of different people. It sounds like a really tough job, making a world from scratch, especially if you consider all the work you have to put into it. Countries, cultures, industries, government, a magic system (if applicable, of course) and religions are just some of the things one needs to develop in order to create a convincing, living setting. And sure it’s daunting, and it almost feels like you need to iron out every little detail – down to the kinds of animals that live in the forest – just to make sure everything falls into place. And then you have to check and recheck every detail in order to achieve consistency. And that’s not even putting the story into things.

I’m hardly qualified to tell you about world-building and give tips, as I’ve never been published before and I’m convinced that I haven’t managed to make a good enough world that’s not a carbon copy of some other world that’s already made, or a half-baked, pieced-together Frankenstein’s monster of a world. I have, however, tried to build enough worlds to know that I’ve been doing it with a certain pattern in mind, and here are the things I usually do:

  • Make a map. I love books that have maps, and I love the details put into them. Having a map for a setting makes the world all the more enticing, because maps provide a sense of realness. So you could try – if you haven’t already – making a map for your own setting, putting a good amount of time into details: borders between countries, landform locations, important landmarks, cities, towns, villages, waterforms, names of relevant places – you get the drift. I find making maps a pretty fun activity, and – although I don’t guarantee it – it may give you a better sense of physical distances between locations, which may, in turn, help with generating a sense of authenticity.
  • Give names. Names to important places, events, dates, and institutions, that is. A world needs to have culture. You don’t have to name everything from the start, because that’s overwhelming. What you can do is start small – start with a town, or a city. A country. Detail its culture, its hierarchy, its industries, what people eat, wear, do, and joke about. The daily lives, preoccupations, and worries of the population all add another dimension to your world. And then, of course, once you have names, define them. It doesn’t help if you just have a name for an event that happens during, say, the summer season. Why is that event happening? What brought it about? Why do people celebrate it, if it’s a celebration, for example? Those things don’t have to be extremely detailed – just detailed enough for them to become relevant to the world you’re building.
  • Don’t overwhelm yourself. I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. It’s tempting to create a world and obsess over every detail, but I’ve found that it’s not very healthy, especially if the world overshadows other equally important things, like the story and the characters. Remember to balance things, and remember to give equal weight to details that have to be pieced together to actually make the story work.

Like I said, I’m hardly qualified to say these things. But this comes from experience, however little. Budding writers jump headlong into creating worlds, only to find themselves stalling and confused in the middle, and I know the feeling. In the end, it still helps to consider the kind of world you’re actually building, and whether or not you like it. Details have to be nice, but easy enough for you to remember. Eventually, and hopefully, your world will come alive.

Professional Opinions:

I’ve given a few “tips” based on experience, but it helps a lot if it comes from the authors and the experts themselves. Here are a few articles on world-building to get you started:

7 Deadly Sins of World-Building / Writing Fantasy: Tools and Techniques (Brent Weeks) / Five Foundations of World Building

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