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Between the Perfect and the Real: On Writing Part 2

Continuing my series of thoughts on writing and the peculiar soup of skills and perspectives that go into it, I present to you points 3-5. These are not in any particular order, one is not more important than the other. It is not a top ten list, but numbers help me think in an organized fashion. Today's seemed to unintentionally group into a "Buck up, Camper" theme.

3. People Are Going to Shit All Over You

Oh, yes they are. It really doesn't matter if you try to do something different or you just want to rescue the princess in the tower. It'll start with your teachers, in college or high school or workshops. You are going to have to hear, more than once, more than ten times, that not only does your work suck, but it betrays some signal flaw within yourself, and you as a person are terrible for having written this thing. This is true, basically, no matter what you write. It is especially true if you are trying something off the beaten path, whether that beaten path is one of bestsellers or your teacher's own predilictions. I have personally had verse and chorus of "Nothing" from A Chorus Line spewed at me from numerous teachers. For those of you not musically inclined, it goes something like: you're bad at this, you'll never amount to anything, give up and work at a gas station and leave this to the real artists. One professor literally threw up his hands at our final conference and said "You're just going to do whatever you want no mater what I say so there's no point in even trying to teach you about good writing."

We all have stories like that, I suspect. Most particularly those of us who write SFF, which makes no friends in universities. The best part is, it doesn't stop there! Once you're published, new and exciting people will appear to tell you how bad your work is, even if you are popular and/or critically acclaimed. And it will get personal, especially if you are throwing down with your whole being, laying your kinks and history on the page like a sacrifice. If you're a woman, or other-than-white, or queer, it will probably, at some point, get really personal. Many readers have a huge problem separating the work from the creator. The mountain of crap I got for writing Palimpsest, both in public venues and in private emails, would make you crawl under the table with a bottle of fuck-you whiskey. I not only wrote a bad book, but I am sexually disturbed (I either hate sex or like it way too much, depending on who you ask) and politically suspect. Give up and work in a gas station. Name a book you think is universally liked and I will find someone saying it is a sin against man, decency, and the dictionary. People get very invested in books, which is the whole point of writing books. I have myself gotten upset to tears over books and have said so online. I try not to do that unless at great need now. I know too much.

It's easy to say: you must develop grace about this. I doubt anyone actually has grace about it. We all get mad or sad or hit the bar and rage against it all. It takes a really long time, or a really good internet filter, to be ok with how much some people will not like your work and by extension you. I'm not saying get grace at the bargain virtue store.

But you can fake grace.

Do not respond to online wars about your book unless you can do so with a cool head--and even then, have someone else look over your response and gauge the probably fallout before clicking "post." Know that once a book is published it no longer belongs entirely to you. Readers will engage with it and take it apart if you are very lucky. Let them do that--it's their right as readers. If someone says your book is racist or sexist or homophobic or fatphobic or cruel, try to listen and see if there's something you can do better--because the nature of predjudice is that most people don't know they have it. Scream into your beer with your real life friends or over email. Fake the grace not to do it in public. Some takedowns are because people are dicks and want to shred things they don't understand. Some are because there's really a problem. And we as the authors of the text are way too close to it to be the ones deciding which is which.

And know that someone, always, will not like your work. Those voices sound louder than the ones who love it sometimes, because we are human and hurt easily. Because these books are pieces of our hearts bound in glue and cardstock. If you can't fake grace, just don't read your reviews. Reviews are a brutal kind of crack: when they're good you feel you can conquer the world and everything is fine. When they aren't, it's a painful come down from the level of ego it took to write a book in the first place. All these things are normal. A mask of grace will get you further than Hulking out on every blog that reminds you of how much painful, painful rejection and misery comes stapled to the contract.

Carrie's mom was right: they're all going to laugh at you. Bucket of blood is not actually the answer.

4. You Will Never Be As Good As You Want To Be

And that's a good thing. There's always some data loss between the perfect book that existed in your head before you screwed it all up by writing it down and the final, actual book that heads out into the world. (Peter Straub's In the Night Room is possibly the best literary treatment of this sad fact that I've ever seen.)

At least for me, every single book I've ever written (12 so far) has seemed so big and monstrous when it only existed inside me that I could not even imagine, at first, how to begin writing it. I have torn my hair out in stages over every book, and with every book there were moments when I thought I'd never finish it, or worse, that I was simply not good enough yet to pull it off (possibly actually true). I genuinely believe that variously-attributed quote: "You never learn how to write a novel, you only learn how to write this novel." I have felt, every time, like I was starting over as a beginner.

You learn to live in that space between the perfect and the real. Walking that fence keeps you hungry, keeps you turning over the things you're obsessed with until, like the rock tumblers we geologically inclined children loved, eventually those concepts begin to gleam with clarity and color. But they will never be perfect. They will always have lumps and pockmarks. That's why working writers write fr their whole lives, chasing that book that says it the way you meant it, a grail that is always in the next castle. We are Lancelots, not Galahads. And it's almost worse if you do come close and write something incredibly good, because that next castle can become terrifying, paralyzing. Doing it again can feel impossible. This is another high-level writer spell I didn't get until I had a big hit: it's far easier to say fuck the haters, I'm gonna knock out the next one like a motherfucking prizefighter than to whisper everyone loved this, and I don't remember how I did it.

The point is, the race is long. It is never about only one book, unless you get well and truly paralyzed and only ever write one. What keeps me going in the long dark deadlines of my soul when I think my old professor was right is the hope that someday I will write something as good as I hoped it would be when the idea first landed in my brain. I won't; the rabbit races forever in front of me. But sometimes, just sometimes, I can smell it as I run.

5. Use Your Voice

This one comes in two parts.

You know how everyone says all the stories have already been told? (Aristotle did, but also probably your flatmate.) It's totally true.

I've never understood why that means we shouldn't write anything else ever. There are a limited number of stories when you boil it down to Event A + Event B = Narrative C. But that's never been the whole of literature. Yes, indeed, your plot is basically Beowulf/Arabian Nights/Antigone. So? What makes the difference is voice. Every story has been told, but you have not told every story. What your peculiar experience brings to a narrative is what makes it new. Human skeletons come in a certain more or less fixed configuration, but we all look completely different. The musculature and skin are as important as the bones. (Or: style is content, as the man said.)

This may seem to fly in the face of the No Cliche Stinkeye I cast yesterday. I poked fun at the monomyth because it's so easily recognizable as a Thing that Has Been Done. But you can even make the monomyth fresh--it just takes a lot of work and awareness. And I think awareness is the key. Examining the tools and materials you're working with, asking yourself what is necessary and what is simply easy, what is your own and what you borrowed. Asking yourself repeatedly why you are writing what you're writing, is it still what you want to be writing, has it become something else, something more or less interesting than when you started out? Being willing to take it apart again and start over. And most of all, most especially if you are working with well-worn tropes or retellings or engaging vigorously with the Great Conversation, be that the science fictional one, the critical one, or the one you've been having with your friends for the last ten years, does this thing you end up with look and sound like you? How have you added to or subtracted from the model you started with?

Follow your voice is a common bit of teacherly advice. And yeah, it's true, sort of. I think that in the beginning, most of us try on the voices of other writers, because we love them, because they resonate with us, because we want to see what fits and what doesn't. You're Sylvia Plath for a year, then you're Ursula Le Guin, then you're Charles Stross, then you're Jane Austen, then you're Homer for awhile. Eventually you come out with a technicolor dreamcoat of all the bits of voice and technique and style you've loved, minus what you don't, and stitched together with what is uniquely yourself, and that's what we call a voice. When you're just starting out it's ok to wear Jane's dress and Kafka's shoes. Hopefully, you outgrow it and keep growing into and out of things your whole life. This is part--but only part--of why it is not possible to be a writer without being a reader. Follow all the voices. See where they lead. And use it. All the tricks, all the backflips and hat-dwelling rabbits you know.

The second part is a more technical thing: read your stuff aloud.

Not just to yourself, preferably, but to someone who can react in ways subtle and gross. But if it's just to your cat, it's still the best tool I know for editing. You learn immediately what dialogue does and doesn't work, what flows and what judders, what beats you're hitting and what you're missing. (You also clean up your spelling real nice.) If you have another person to listen, you can see when they get bored, when they get excited, when they don't understand. I was in theatre for the first major portion of my life, and my parents were, too. I can preach this like the gospel. Stories were performed once upon a time, and you can see your work plainly, nakedly, fully only if you speak it aloud. You will also figure out what Your Voice really is, the natural cadences of your own accent/dialect, your sense of speech and rhythm, and how to invert or play into those hidden tics.

Not for nothing are the first words of The Iliad and The Odyssey are Speak and Sing.

Part 3 coming tomorrow.



Splendid advice. Especially '3'.


There's a peculiarly English version of (3). It is that no matter who you talk to about your accomplishments, the listener will tell you of someone they know who is better.


I recall when I was about 12, and had just failed the 11+. For those who do not know, back then the exam split people into one of two schooling systems. They either went to Grammar School for the academically inclined, or Secondary Modern for the soon to be manual workers.
I was last out of a classroom at the end of the day and the teacher, who was also new (and probably just out of training) asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her: "A scientist".
It was almost as though I were telepathic and saw instantly what she thought, which was something along the lines of: "Poor kid doesn't know the real world".
Anyway, I made it.


Yeah, when I was twelve, I decided I wanted to be Leonardo da Vinci.

People told me, you can't do that. You can't be a Renaissance Man nowadays.

My advice? Fuck it. Try anyway.


Exactly - even if you fail you might end up like Richard Feynmann as second best.


Amen to item 3. The part about reviews also applies to writing apps. People are very emotional about their idevices these days and extend this to the apps they download or purchase.

BTW, the first word in the Iliad is rage or to be precise of rage, at least in greek.


Whoa. It feels like Catherynne has some sort of a hyperspace-travelling ultrasharp pricking needle with coordinates to my heart. She already pricked my brain with the last post, but this second article hit right at where it hurts.

I'm not a writer of any sort -- at least I do not say I am out loud. I've done a few plays at the university. Every Spring I have an urge to do one more. At item 4, Cat put to words how I feel then. There's always something that I could improve on. Was the ending good or did it feel rushed? Were the characters alive on stage as they were in my head? Were they true to themselves or just puppets in my hands? Should I try a non-linear structure this time?

It doesn't matter whether I am a real writer or not. What matters is getting the story out! Last time I wrote a synopsis for consideration I was so scared. Not for myself, but for the characters. This was their chance to live! (They didn't.)

It's a good kind of scaredness. It would seem that this May I will not resist the urge.


> Stories were performed once upon a
> time, and you can see your work
> plainly, nakedly, fully only if you
> speak it aloud. You will also figure
> out what Your Voice really is

Having been a Roger Zelazny fan for a long time, I snapped up "A Night in Lonesome October" when it first came out. I wavered between bitter disappointment and disgust... what was this, something from the spiderwebbed box of old crap in the back of his closet? I traded it off as soon as it was over.

A couple of years ago I was in a truck stop looking at the swap rack. (subculture information: truckers are probably the #1 demographic for audiobooks, and truck stops not only sell them, they have racks for "take one - leave one" trades) and there was nothing much I wanted to listen to. There was a set of "A Night In Lonesome October" that looked like the best of a bad lot, so I swapped the Follett or whatever it was I'd brought in for it, and listened to "October" while driving all night.

Interesting. I'd thought the book and bland and dull. The audiobook was read by Zelazny. "The experts" opine that having an author read his own work is a Bad Thing. I don't know why, this one worked out okay. Checking the dates, he was on the downhill side of a long fight with cancer and kidney failure when he read it, which probably accounts for some of the odd noises and pauses here and there. But a whole lot of the characters' internal dialogue that my inner voice rendered as a bored monotone came alive as Zelazny's honking Yankee twang gave inflection. It changed the whole context of the story.

I dunno. Maybe he was distracted when he wrote "October", or in another of his experimental phases. Or maybe he dictated the story instead of typing it, and was deaf to the lack of affect it gave the printed word. There was a big fad for dictating for a while.


"The experts" opine that having an author read his own work is a Bad Thing

It often is. I'd go so far as to say that it is so more frequently than not: an author is someone whose talent is to write rather than to perform.

On the other hand, some authors do read their own works better than I can imagine anyone else doing. My favourite is Neil Gaiman: I have 3 CDs of him doing just that, and at an Eastercon some 4 years back, his reading was packed out.

(He was GoH, together with Charlie, Tanith Lee and China MiƩville. Oh we were blessed that weekend.)


Regarding reading aloud: Reading silently to myself sure doesn't seem to work since I always "hear" what I meant to say instead of what I actually said. I have tried reading public domain works for and maybe I need to practice recording and then listening to my own memos and papers. Thanks.


Could the list include: "Exorcise Your Inner Trash to Maximum Advantage" ... ? I have known aspiring writers who spun out on the path precisely because they were afraid to write badly. It's going to happen, might as well profit from it.

I believe new writers need to face up to the sound of their "Outer Voice" -- how they sound to others -- as well as much vaunted inner one. The harshest critics, seen likewise from the outside perspective, transform into benefactors rather than soul-crushers.

My $0.02 (obligatory chiche).


Regarding 4 - I will mention some of my frustrations as a reader to reinforce the difficulty of maintaining focus on the next book or even the rest of the book. I like John Grisham but "The Appeal" came off as a message book that abandoned the likeable characters and put me inside the heads of people I didn't really want to know and then just let the tragic ending unfold, perhaps to awaken some social conscience. It didn't get me to "occupy wall st." although that could have been the message. I regretted finishing the book. A different story: I am glad I spared myself days of frustration by stopping halfway through "the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.". I could have liked one or two of The Girl's personalities but my frustration with the incredible hodge podge of capabilities and flaws made it a happy decision to drop that book. Some time after that, I read "Halting State" and I had found my most wonderful author and story teller to ever write for me personally. Here were people I could call friends, in an environment I had lived in for years, in a future that was plausible, enticing, and fascinating. Later, I cried out "Oh joy!" when Rule 34 came out to fill the hole in my life. Well I am part way through Rule 34 and hoping that Charlie won't abandon me at the end, because I am spending too much time in the heads of people who may be "real," but they not someone I would take the time to meet in real life. And oh dear it seems a little like I should be caring about a Message instead of the characters who have the potential to become my friends. (They haven't quite earned my respect yet.) The fate of my future desire for fiction is in Charlie's hands! Will I trust the Author ever again? Or will I listen to Lana Del Rey until my soul is repaired? Oh the burden of being an author!


My experience has been that my best friends and folks who consider themselves to be writers, whether published or not, mostly ignore my work and avoid discussing it when we're together. Others, who are mere acquaintances and whose egos are not intertwined with writing, are often gracious and complimentary. Thanks for your observations.


I have known aspiring writers who spun out on the path precisely because they were afraid to write badly.

This is also a problem in music teaching; adults don't like to play badly. (Little kids are happy to bang away on the instrument and appreciate whatever noises come out.)

It's said that every aspiring author has a million unsalable words inside them. You might as well start letting yours out.


I tried reading some of my work for a radio show that went out on (London) Resonance FM. It was much harder than I thought it would be, came out worse than I expected, and I don't intend to do it again.


"This is also a problem in music teaching; adults don't like to play badly. (Little kids are happy to bang away on the instrument and appreciate whatever noises come out.)"

This is true of adults learning anything. I first noticed it when teaching martial arts, and later the whole "learning how to use a computer" thing. Unless you play around and don't mind making vast numbers of silly mistakes you don't get anywhere. Hence Matthew 18:3
"And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." When learning, drop the ego.


Look at it this way. 50 years from now your stuff will still be read, while any comment or criticism will vanish with the blog when the monthly fee goes unpaid. HA!


Many readers have a huge problem separating the work from the creator.

An insufficiently-repeated rule for [a writer's] life, attributed variously to Robert Heinlein and/or Lawrence Niven:

"There is a technical term for someone who confuses the opinions of a character in a book with those of the author. That term is idiot."

I look forward to your further expositions nuggets on writing, for which I can but thank you in advance.
– Chris


She doesn't have to wait 50 years:

- She's already got her own meta data tags in the Library of Congress:

100 1_ |a Valente, Catherynne M., |d 1979-

Just how many of her critics have THAT?

- I'm a terrible typist so I typed her name wrong in Google when I wanted to see how networthy she was compared to her critics. Well, she's so important on the Web as a writer that I got this nice reply from Google:

Showing results for cat valente
Search instead for cat valenet

Try that with her critics!


I agree wholeheartedly with point (3) -- cultivating a rhinoceros-thick skin is vital if you want to work as a writer, or any other kind of entertainer.

Mind you, I suspect part of the explanation for the personal vitriol we get is that some folks have a very hazy grasp of the borderline between fiction and reality. Fiction requires us to conditionally believe in a pack of lies, or at least to take them on trust for the duration of the experience -- and even more so if the author is playing fourth wall-breaking games or messing around with metafictional forms; and some people just can't let go of reality. They have to treat the written word as Fact, as factual for them as any word of god enshrined in holy scripture. And so, they are horribly disappointed when it turns out to all be no more than a dream, or worse, a snare and a deception.

Actors are on the receiving end of a different subset of the reality-challenged when members of the public berate them in the supermarket for the shortcomings of the fictional characters they portray in soap opera and film; it's not so very different.


"Actors are on the receiving end of a different subset of the reality-challenged when members of the public berate them in the supermarket for the shortcomings of the fictional characters they portray in soap opera and film"

There's probably a kind of reverse of this where fans write in saying they can imagine what a relief it is for the actor to get out of the fat suit at the end of a day of shooting for Eastenders.


Since I just got my nightly dose of indigestion by listening to the US news and the Republican race for the nomination, all I can say is that, IMHO, most people have a tenuous grasp on the difference between fiction and reality. I think it's called being human.

Mind you, I agree that there's a bit of difference between words on a page and what's going on outside the words, but we seem to be hard-wired to run on beliefs, screwy or not.

And yes, I've seen too many hardened atheists take the testimony of a textbook over the evidence of their eyes to believe that some people are better at discriminating reality from fiction.

It's a great thing that we also have the ability to forgive, forget, and ignore people too.


Reality and truth - ultimately the only definition that matters is utility


Speaking of how representative of his work and author might be, I've just watched Dennis Potter's "Singing Detective". Brought back memories of the horror and squalor of the period.



Sorry, I'm thick tonight - care to elaborate?


Cat's OP (5) - All the basic plots (somewhere between 4 and 8 depending on who you ask) have already been told multiple times. Changing the names of the cast, the tech level of the society and their writing style allows a single author to tell pretty much the same plot a whole shedload of times. Pretty often what it's all going to come down to is how engaging the individual reader finds $author's execution (setting and characters).


When I was eight, I started writing because my best friend Rebekah was writing a school play. I wanted to do one, too. And I started writing like crazy. Then Junior High, 7th grade: The school was offering a creative writing class. Both Rebekah and I signed up for it. I got summoned to the counselor's office, and the counselor told me I couldn't take the class. "You're not capable of handling it." I came back in tears. She hadn't even seen my writing and had declared me a failure. But I decided to prove her wrong. By 9th grade, Rebekah was, curiously, no longer writing, and I had placed honorable mention for the school essay contest!.


But when a writer makes a habit of having characters express certain opinions, it isn't quite such an idiotic idea.


I refer the honourable gentleman to my previous comment.


John Norman - the BDSM SF series Gor.


But when a writer makes a habit of having characters express certain opinions, it isn't quite such an idiotic idea.

I don't understand why. People express certain opinions, so why shouldn't characters? The trick is to remember that just because a character says they like X, it doesn't mean the author likes or even approves of X. And even if they do, so what? It's a piece of entertainment, not a manifesto for why they should be King of the World or tonight's bed mate.


> John Norman - the BDSM SF series Gor.

In spite of all his detractors, it's not everyone who can singlehandedly create a recognized subculture...


Well, it did take a professor of English to do it.
The pinnacle of his academic career.


Sorry, professor of philosophy


"... cultivating a rhinoceros-thick skin is vital if you want to work as a writer, or any other kind of entertainer."

This is the problem: you as an entertainer/ storyteller are trying to have it both ways and a segment of the audience says 'No!'. I think that this is in large part because entertainers/storytellers are assumed to possess much greater empathy/understanding of the human condition than their audience so the upset audience asks: because entertainers know their power over me (their audience), then by choosing to convey negative emotions, they (the entertainers) must be 'bad'.

This is also seen commercially, specifically with consumer packaged goods targeting mass audiences. There's a pretty stable segment (%age-wise) that becomes absolutely livid with/hostile to any advert that strays from 'fact', especially adverts using humor or cartoons.


"There's a pretty stable segment (%age-wise) that becomes absolutely livid with/hostile to any advert that strays from 'fact', especially adverts using humor or cartoons. "

If its a bit of technology eg computer, car etc then count me among them.


It's the habit of expressing certain opinions which becomes suggestive, and the word "habit" suggests something more than just writing about the same characters in a series (which would cover John Norman). Continuing with that example, I would also point to the notorious Imaginative Sex. That is a bit more than a suggestive pattern.

It is as idiotic to say that every author reveals the truth about themselves in their books as it is to say that no author does so. And sometimes there is the curious incident of the dog that barked in the night.


Well sure, there are always going to be outliers. Usually it's a fare mix from column A and form column B.

But for every John Norman, there are a hundred authors who have a certain wheelhouse they write from, with certain topics or viewpoints that they, as authors and people find appealing and worth exploring at length and in different ways. That's half the fun. Expecting an author to stay neutral would create the most, wishy washy, boring fiction ever. Sometimes it's fun to read something by someone who has different view points than yourself and can express them clearly and argue for them. And sure, tastes vary. But from what I gather, John Norman has his fans, just as Charlie and Cat do (though I'm guessing both Charlie and Cat are glad their fans doesn't overlap too much with John Norman's. Though it wold make convention appearances a lot more interesting...)


I have met "John Norman" (remember that's a pseudonym).

I don't hold with bad-mouthing people in public, so I won't. But you will note the absence of cover blurbs from that source on the back of my books (and vice versa).


BDSM SF - If I had thought of it first I would have done it just for the $$$ and notoriety, probably under my own name. According to wiki he has sold 12m copies. Whether the world is a better place for it, I'm not too certain.
So what horrible SF related genre does not yet exist, but might?


I wouldn't read a lack of cover blurbs from a particular individual as evidence of a negative opinion.

It is as much the publisher's marketing department seeing a combination of similarity and name-recognition. There is some of the same reasoning as in Amazon's recommendation system--this is a story about crime in Scotland, so are there any well-known writers of such stories?

John Norman, discounting the sexual element, has written a lot of swords and sandals adventure fiction, and that doesn't seem to be what Charlie is writing. A blurb with his name on it would be a pointless piece of marketing.

That doesn't mean it couldn't happen.


There is at least one other marked commonality between (Halting State and Rule 34) and the works of 2 well-known Scottish crime writers (for values of Scottish relating to where their works are set anyway): They are all set in a highly geographically recognisable Edinburgh.


You might not suspect this, but composers of music get this treatment too.

I've been composing and performing for over 35 years. Just now, in my early 50's, am I becoming able to weather/ignore the criticisms which range from (on the rock side) "You're a wanker" to (on the thematic side) "That's pretty lame, why waste time with this crap." to (on the avant-garde side) "You're making children cry with this stuff." I think the best dig was from a close friend who said, "This is chartreuse music that would bug most people."

My friends and family (all uber-conservatives, even the musicians among them) pretty much slagged off my music from the get-go. A lesser individual would have quit decades ago.

I think it was exactly their destructive natures that fueled the fires of my constructiveness. Outside of my circle I have many, many fine, loving fans. I got more than 125,000 downloads of my last album. To date I have recorded more than 25 albums, 18 of them released so far, and recorded almost 600 pieces of music ranging from full-scale metal to pop to easy listening, classical, 20th century, jazz and even a trough of anti-music and dada.

While all of them are dwindling from their own crapulence, I continue to soar because, as it's been said, "Success is the best revenge."




You may notice the presence of a Chris Brookmyre blurb on the UK edition of "Rule 34". He's absent from the US edition because he's got zero name recognition there (as opposed to being front-list/bestseller in the UK). If I tread that territory again I'm going to see if my editor can get Ian Rankine interested ...


I did note the blurb; I've just never read anything of Chris's that's set in Edinburgh.


Thank you so much for these posts, Cat - they're wonderful. Points 4 and 5 spoke to me in particular, today. I look forward to tomorrow's instalment!


I think most of the Jack Parlabane novels are set in Edinburgh. (Notably, "Quite Ugly One Morning" opens with our hero waking up in a flat along with a dismembered corpse ... about 100 metres from my front door!)


Make post #44 read " of 2 well-known Scottish crime writers ..." then.

My one issue with Chris is that he sometimes writes descriptive prose that is actually too good! EG, a passage describing a murder scene that made me feel sick (unusual).


I'm really enjoying these posts about writing. They reflect the originality and intelligence I love about your work.

But the first words of the Iliad and the Odyssey aren't "speak" and "sing". They're "rage" and "man". I'm sure you know this. menin aeide, andra moi ennepe. Maybe I'm being needlessly pedantic, because speak and sing are right there in the second dactyls, and if you translate the Greek literally into English, odds are you're going to start your sentences with speak and sing, but...but. It's just not true. And to say it overlooks the significance of the actual first words. The subject of the Iliad is the menis of Achilles, and there it is right there in a beautiful programmatic statement. And the subject of the Odyssey is this guy, Odysseus, an andra polutropon. I love that about Greek, that you can do that and stick the object of your singing at the beginning of your sentence.

I mean, you could certainly say that the Iliad and the Odyssey begin with the commands to speak and sing, which is beautiful and significant. But they aren't the first words. They aren't. My little Classics major's heart is bothered.

Probably I'm crazy for caring about this.


Re: #3.... GAH!! Why couldn't I have read this (using a time machine, of course) thirty years ago? I wanted to "be a writer" since I was old enough to hold a pencil. My first semester of college I took a Creative Writing class, had my work summarily trashed, and didn't write another piece of fiction until (drumroll...) last month. If I'd just kept going who knows what might have happened? As it is I'm starting from scratch at a ridiculously advanced age. Alas, we had no internet back then to learn from each other! I love technology.


Yeah, I know. I'm a Classics major too. I paused with my fingers over the keys.

But an argument can be made that in English, they do. Most English translations begin with speak and sing. It is our more natural word order. When Fagles put rage first it was a Thing. (Can't recall if Lattimore does or not.) Even if we get pedantic together, the first verb certainly is.



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This page contains a single entry by Cat Valente published on February 11, 2012 7:13 PM.

You Are What You Love: A Numerical List of Loosely-Connected Thoughts on Writing (Part 1) was the previous entry in this blog.

Blank slate: politics and context in the 21st century is the next entry in this blog.

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