Was reading over a friend's story this afternoon, which is unusual, 'cos I have all the editing experience of a capybara or a member of Baywatch. The conversation turned around to writing and wordsmithing, and the difference between the two, which got me thinking.
A quote I quite liked, and have since completely misplaced, went something like this--there are writers and there are wordsmiths. Writers have a story to tell. It may be clumsy in spots, it may have a lot of problems, but it has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. A wordsmith often has a collection of beautifully sketched images and nothing else. (I'm mangling it, but that's the gist.)
Now, under this definition, I'm a wordsmith. Not a good one, maybe, certainly nothing to make me give up my day job (heh heh) but if I get an idea, it's for a scene. Or even just a phrase. I'll start writing something, and there'll be a character, sometimes without even a name, and I'll hammer out a half dozen phrases, and then I'm done. They may even be fairly entertaining phrases, I may find the scene fascinating, but it doesn't connect logically to anything else. This is why I'll probably never be a good writer and largely devote my energies to art--my idea of writing a story is to write a vignette at point A and a vignette at point B and then trying tortorously to connect them through a series of--yup--vignettes. Doesn't work so well. (Fine if you're an artist though--all you need is the scene, and it's the viewer's job to write the story in their head. I sometimes think that art requires a lot more manual skill than writing, but a significantly shorter attention span.
My friend, on t'other hand, is definitely a writer--her stories have a beginning, middle, end, and thus, with polishing, it's a perfectly serviceable bit of writing.
Even though I enjoy writing, I don't do much of it any more, because it simply never goes anywhere, except in service to my comics, which doesn't really feel like writing in quite the same fashion, and which is sort've useful because it really CAN go vignette to vignette. Occasionally I'll work on my Great Unfinished Samurai Novel, which is currently in the filling-in-time-between-scenes stage, but it's not, y'know, anything I have a great dedicated passion for, and has in fact been at that stage for well over a year. However, from time to time, I pop open Word and dig through some of the old files, and stumble on some of these little scenes from nowhere in particular, or random bits of characterization. And because I have nothing better to do this evening, I'm gonna subject you to a few random interludes from the Ursula files, some of 'em long, some of them short. Feel free to skip 'em--I promise, there's nothing more amusing at the end of the pile, so you can leave if you don't want to read through Random Weirdness (and I don't blame you.)
His eyes were like the inside of a cat--runny, moist, and shot with red.
It was as if one of Nature’s small, furry, industrious creatures, a marmot or a woodchuck, say, had been invested with the tact of a rhinoceros and a mind like a diamond hammer.
She thinks, privately, that the girl is one of those sad little trailer park refugees who had absolutely no talents and is too lazy to develop any skills, and so has settled on being psychic as the easiest path to notoriety.
Morganna does a lot of rituals, sitting naked in her room with candles and incense and a tape of Celtic instrumental music. Susan has done exactly three, and in her heart of hearts, knows that while Aleister Crowley may be able to summon demonic forces into a pentagram, she’s short several thousand dollars in props, that rock-hard core of belief, and a working knowledge of Latin.
The unicorn’s eyes were the sickly sap-green of honeyed jade, and they were perfect. His pelt should have been the glossy black of obsidian, but it hung in a coarse dewlap under his chin and in thick mats along his sides, where he could not bear the touch of a brush, and it had grown dull and brown and dagged.
The tongueless virgins who cleaned and oiled the unicorn’s hooves were too valuable to kill on such a futile effort, so he allowed them to wash him, soaking blood and grime and urine from his dreadlocked underbelly, but their fingers were thicker and less nimble than the goblin grooms, and if they tried to brush him, he could not help it, he rose up screaming in agony in the bath, striking out with hooves and horn, and then there would be a dead virgin, another few injured, perhaps, and they were entirely too hard to come by in the first place.
It was damnably inconvenient to rule even part of a city, when the touch of most of his subjects made a unicorn’s skin itch and prickle and, if left too long, raise up angry red blisters that burned like fire." (I have no idea where this one was going, but the notion of a deranged and filthy unicorn ganglord kind've appeals to me nonetheless.)
I’ve actually seen a dragon, now.
They’re horrible. The one under the Master’s home is the size of a dozen elephants, and the filth on it is so thick that you can’t tell what color it is. They’ve got seven eyes, and they drool. (Not sure what this was.)
Let us call this structure a rack. It is as good a word as any. If we stood at the base of this particular rack—and oh, we do not, we do NOT recommend this at all, there are bad things down there, snuffling around the foundations—but if it were daylight, and we stood down there, and turned in any direction, we would see a broad arctic plain. It is a sheet of red-brown tundra, stretching to the grey foothilled mountains. Caribou don’t come here, nor muskoxen, only the sharp-faced arctic foxes, and the lithe ermines with blood-black eyes, and their prey, the compact, staring snowshoe hares.
There are no wolves within a hundred miles of this plain, despite the hares. That should tell us something. It is not that wolves are a great deal more intelligent than foxes, but wolves are social, and talk to each other. Wolves have culture, and oral tradition, where foxes exchange no more than hostile-polite greetings, and the occasional dirty haiku.
It is perhaps telling that the packs will stand and fight one of their number infected with rabies, rather than flee into this place.
The woman knows none of this. Strange things have happened to her, very strange things, but she has not yet learned to speak to wolves. All she knows is that at irregular intervals across this plain, there are racks. They are twenty-foot-tall random, shapeless constructs of iron and wire, of wood so ancient that it’s harder than rock, crusted with rust and lichen, like standing stones. They look like a child’s playground caught in a tornado, or bent birdcages, some obviously purposeful construct gone random and warped and weird.
They are harmless, and very terrible.
He wore carefully ironed shirts and carefully pressed pants, which failed to cover his adolescent gawkiness and put one in mind of a poorly folded origami crane.
Her sense of humor could kill cows at fifty paces.
There is a woman, a clock, and a rat.
This room is not really a room, but a wide spot at a junction of drain pipes. The floor is ragged with scummy scraps of carpeting, and things that squish unpleasantly under the knees of the woman kneeling there. Half-rotted boards and broken crates clog the tunnel mouths, make crude, but impassable walls. There is no way in. There is no way out.
There is a woman, a clock, and a rat.
She is about sixteen years old, and her head has been shaved, except for a dark queue at the base of her skull. She has dark, tilted eyes, fixed on the floor, and elegant hands with long, ink-stained fingers. Her skin is copper, but it has gone grey and sallow, the color of old clay.
There is a woman, a clock, and a rat.
The rat says, “It isssss time,” in a long, baritone hiss, not a high, squeaky rat’s voice. It is a black rat, unnaturally large, with teeth like yellow chisel-blades. The air is tense and expectant, and stinks with the sweat of terror that has broken across the woman’s skin, and beaded up across her scalp.
The clock is huge, filling most of the room, an elaborate baroque monstrosity of gears and wires and delicate constellations, with sculpted bone hands not only for the minute and hour, but for the month and the century, and one long hand, constructed of mouse bones wrapped in silver wire, labeled “Conjunction.”
The rat says, again, “It issss time,” and a drop of sweat falls from the woman’s forehead to strike the floor.
The clock makes a clicking sound as gears move somewhere inside, preparing to strike. The rat looks at it, coiling its naked tail across the ornate clock face with something like affection. The woman stares at the ground in front of her.
She begins to recite then, in a quiet, passionless voice, name after name, arcs, declensions, long strings of numbers, speaking clearly, but without inflection. She watches the floor as she speaks, not raising her voice even as the clock clicks again, makes a soft, ratcheting sound, and begins to strike. The heavy, alien notes swell out of the clock and drown her words, but she continues speaking.
The rat watches, saying nothing further, because the first strike of the clock has turned it into stone.
Eventually the clock stops ringing. A long time later, her voice still dry and toneless, she stops reciting.
The world goes away. (No idea WHAT I was smoking for that one.)
A drowned oracle, a fat woman with a great mud-colored fan of gills at her throat, laying in a marble pool of water and dead leaves, reading the future in the jeweled underbellies of lazy-swimming newts, and the patterns formed by drifting leaves from the arbor roof.
"He'sss gone," said the ifrit. "Hisss horssse is gone and the dussst from it iss gone. You can try the door." Her hot, smokey voice trembled with eagerness.
"I'm sick of hearing about the damn door," said Li irritably, cleaning her paintbrush.
"Don't you want to know what's behind it?" asked the undine quietly, dipping a finger into the paint jar and turning the water crystal clear. "He left you the key..."
"Unless it's a fresh tube of Cerulean Blue, no. Everybody deserves some privacy. If he wants a den where he can put his feet on the furniture and smoke cigars, it's nobody's damn business." (A take on "Bluebeard" where the heroine is too obsessed with her own painting troubles to open the mystery door, much to the disgust of the killer and his servants, which got about three paragraphs farther than that and then died.)
There are two great laws governing magic, and at various times, in various worlds, they have been called the power of love, and the power of mathematics.
Among the magi of the Eastmarch, who are selected based as much on grimness and pragmatism as for natural talent in the mystic arts, these powers have grim and pragmatic names. There is something about the blasted desert of Eastmarch, a desolation of geometric shadows and panting, exhausted jackrabbits, that hangs like a millstone around the neck of the inhabitants. The magi choose their words very carefully, to use the least breath, and lose the least moisture into the overheated air. The names are ruthlessly precise, even long, because the magi know that it takes more breath to explain the vague then to name something precisely in the first place.
They call the laws thusly:
The conservation of mass; and
The conservation of worth.
The points may be illustrated best by example.
Say that you have a stone. It may be a rounded black river rock or a crumbling lump of sandstone, humped and threaded with dead roots. If your stone has become inconvenient to you for some reason—if a few telltale drops of the blood of a murdered enemy have spilled upon it, say—and you wish to be rid of it, you may transport your stone from our world into the next one over. But something of approximately equal mass must come back and take its place in our world, so that the weight of the universe remains in constant.
A responsible wizard will allow for this within his spell, so that when your stone has been replaced by something else—a rather large pinecone, for example, or a tree branch, or most likely, another rock—the replacement appears within the confines of the pentacle and maybe be dealt with responsibly.
An irresponsible wizard will simply fling his rock into the aether, and assume that somewhere, in an unremarked garden, perhaps on another continent, the replacement rock will appear, and that no one will notice. In most cases, probably no one will. There is always a chance, however, that instead of a rock, the universe will arbitrarily decided to send a dead salmon, and random fate will place it fifty feet in the air over Sxyllia on market day, where it will fall and cause a panic about a rain of fishes.
That is the law of conservation of mass, and it is fairly straightforward.
There is also the law of conservation of worth, and its ramifications are labryinthical and alarming.
It states that just as for every object sent, you must take back an object of equal mass, for every object sent, you must take back an object of equal worth.
How the great and unknown keeper of universal balance determines worth has been the subject of a thousand thousand treatises; heavy, bound volumes, themselves occasionally ricocheted through the space between worlds, and replaced with objects of equal worth—geodes the size of a calf’s heart, river rocks impregnated by veins of gold, a newborn antelope left shivering on the cold stone of the pentacle, until a kind-hearted novice picked it up and wrapped it in his cloak.
All the treatises might be summed up simply enough—worth is partly price in gold, part sentimental value, part love, part hate, and at least one part that we simply do not understand. (From a long, rambling, and ultimately rather pointless commentary on a hypothetical magic system for a story that never wound up happening.)
It’s hard to know where to begin.
Conventional wisdom is that you begin at the beginning and go on through the middle until you get to the end and stop. But unfortunately, the beginning is usually nebulous at best. Even the straightforward ones that begin “There was once a poor woodcutter…” start somewhere significantly before we pick up the thread. Why did he become a woodcutter? What combination of socioeconomic factors made him poor? And somewhat later in the tale we have to wonder what happened to the local deer population, that wolves have taken to eating grandmothers, and so on. Stories all seem to start significantly before the point that anyone starts to tell them.
Pinning down the endings, therefore, is usually an exercise in frustration.
Part of this story begins several thousand years ago, when Kalaak, the Hyena-Faced God, who laughed a great deal but generally not at things that other people would consider amusing, was bound under the earth with magic chains.
They were quite impressive chains. They were made from swansong and diamond, virgin steel and moonshadows, the bones of the sea and stones from the sky, the breath of fish and the courage of a deer, none of which are terribly easy to get, except maybe the diamonds. The gods had to contract it out to the dwarves, who are good at that sort of thing. The dwarves did most of the work, but even they had to call in outside help, and it was the outside help who lugged the chain up the top of a convenient mountain and tempered it in snow bathed in purple werelight, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.
The chain worked quite well and the other gods bound Kalaak securely under the earth. Being pragmatic sorts, they also dropped a mountain on him just in case. (Okay, this one actually does wind up getting used somewhere, although in nothing like it's current form...)
Okay, enough of that. Anyway, those are the sorts of fragments that I come up with when I write. And that's ALL I come up with. And this is why I went into art, dangit.