Guest Blogger: Ien Nivens

“You don’t mind putting in long hours, and you like punching people, so let’s combine the two. I’m going to teach you ‘chanting’. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of precision, and doing a whole lot of steps exactly right, but when it works, you can make some pretty awesome stuff.”

Bone Shop

“Awesome would be a nice change,” Marla said.

–from Bone Shop, by T. A. Pratt

Available at http://www.marlamason.net/boneshop/

Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
By Ien Nivens

Tim Pratt’s Bone Shop is the foul-rag-to-dubious-riches story of a street urchin’s rise through the ranks of sorcerers in the East Coast city of Felsport.  A prequel to Pratt’s Marla Mason series, the hectic urban eclecticism of this introductory novella is wound in prose as frank as baling wire—tarnished here and burnished there—and bound by the spittle of broken promises, dire prophecies and talking jawbones.  I’m going to say this once, maybe twice:  Download it.  Read it.  It’s as free as a dirty needle, and the odds are better than even that it will infect you, leaving you jittery, addicted, and wondering if you’re sick. It’ll be OK.  There’s more where this came from at http://www.marlamason.net

Pratt has peopled Felsport with a cast as intriguing as the magical artifacts they find, finagle and fiddle with in this tale of jiggered hopes and cracked dreams. Jenny Click deserves a novella of her own (but don’t give her a copy; she’d only set fire to it) while Artie Mann’s ideas about sorcery deserve at least a spread in a dirty magazine.  In the end Bone Shop is, oddly enough, a morality tale.  At least, I think so.  I can’t tell you what the moral is exactly, because that part of my memory has been wiped clean by a tincture of lethe water.  But I’m pretty sure that it has something to do with cobbling one’s ambitions together around a vacant heart.

There are problems with the hodge-podge of narrative fabrics and other magics that Pratt has grabbed off the racks at the thrift shops of myth and imagination. Nothing so threadbare that it can’t be mended, but a little backstitching here and there would keep this dream from always threatening to unravel.  In a few places, where the seams are turned needlessly inside-out, a little clipping is all that’s needed.  Let me show you what I mean.

Bone Shop begins with Marla Mason as a sixteen-year-old dropout.  Literate and homeless, she spends a lot of time at the public library, reading to keep warm.  We never learn why she’s on the streets and not in school, but we do come to understand that it’s a matter of preference.  She is mentally tough and determined to improve her circumstances but certainly not by way of a traditional education.  She is not a stickler for rules.  Except, apparently, grammatical ones.

Marla finds Artie—the man who has taken her in, made her his apprentice, given her a semblance of a home and a family—disemboweled.  She must go in search of his murderer.  Whatever sense of loyalty she may (or may not) feel toward the sorcerer has been augmented in advance by a magically binding oath of vengeance called a geas, which takes the form of Artie’s voice screaming in her head until his killer is dead.  Stalking the killer, Marla “[pushes] open a door marked ‘Employee’s Only’ – that stupid apostrophe [makes] her grit her teeth…”

Mind you, apostrophe abuse annoys me, too.  But an author poking his fingers through the fabric of a story with his pet grammatical peeve, while his protagonist is breathing down the neck of a serial killer is enough to make me wince.   (But I wax as pricklish, surely, as Pratt’s sanctimonious angels, who stumble about in bum’s clothing, accusing everyone of…well, of something not quite proper.)  I reluctantly absolve Pratt of the little crimes he commits and move on to Bone Shop’s bigger sins—of omission.

First is the baffling failure to introduce Somerset—a sorcerer of great historical significance in Felsport, apparently, but who knew?—until Marla needs a new nemesis.  Somerset is brought back from the dead, before we know that he ever lived, to fill in a plot hole in the next to last chapter.  We learn that the democratic structure of the sitting “sorcerer’s council” is a reaction to Somerset’s “reign of terror” while he was alive.  Since this is information that a teacher/sorcerer like Artie Mann might have imparted to his apprentices in memorable detail, its absence from Marla’s early curriculum is regrettable.  It leaves the final levels of the fictional structure top-heavy and out of joint.

While Somerset’s tardy appearance damages Bone Shop’s rickety structure, a lack of sufficient character development with regard to Marla’s one and only love interest, Daniel, saps vitality from the novella’s soul.  The peripheral and superficial treatment of Daniel’s personality prevents two important events from achieving sufficient credibility, or even comprehensibility.  The first of these is what Jenny Click, believing that Daniel must be dead, decides that she must do about it.  (I won’t tell you what that is, because she is one of the most intriguing minor characters I’ve met in recent fiction, and you really should get to know her for yourself.)   Jenny’s action stretches the cables of my suspension-of-disbelief bridge to the snapping point, not because it isn’t possible or likely, but because Daniel has so far been presented as little more than a cute butt with a vague Southernness that we never quite hear, see or feel, and the rare ability to nourish himself on the energies of other people, places and things.  Marla has fallen in love with Daniel, apparently, but how hard and what for?  We just don’t see what she sees in him.  We aren’t given the opportunity.

Pratt is not a prudish writer, but he glides over the intimacies of Marla’s and Daniel’s relationship with an almost juvenile coyness.  Maybe he assumes that telling us about all the wild sex these two teenagers are having is enough to convince us that they mean something to one another.  It’s not.  A little tenderness in these early scenes, an emotional resonance that the reader can tune into, would go a long way toward making the finale as unendurably poignant as it’s meant to be.

Hearts are ripped out of their chests in this story; guts get wrenched, mangled and left steaming.  But not the reader’s heart.  Not the reader’s guts.  And that’s a crying shame.  This improbable structure of bone and magical gewgaw that Pratt has somehow rigged together is surely sturdy enough, complex enough, lifelike enough to support the organ of poignancy he tries, too late, to animate.  We end up surprised by an ending that might have shocked his story to life—and shocked us numb with its bitter beauty.  But owing to a simple lack of preparation early on, that doesn’t happen.  Pratt fumbles for the heartstrings of a strong plot and plucks them hard, only to find that they haven’t been properly tuned.  They could be.  They ought to be.  The independent publishing platform that Pratt employs would allow for it.  Bone Shop has all the claws it needs to rip, wrench and mangle its way to an awesome conclusion. All that’s missing is the tender vitals.

Ien Nivens’ reviews of independently published fiction also appear at http://www.berkshirefinearts.com/

Painting by Cindy Kaplan

Thank you Ien! As always, your presence in and support of The Asylum is always appreciated.  ~J.S.

*If you’d like to write as a guest blogger for Welcome to the Asylum, feel free to email me at batman0762@gmail.com.

Body and Soul

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”  ~George Orwell

The ink stains our hands, even if we no longer use quills or ink wells. At times, it stains more than our skin, it stains our souls, marks us as the constant purveyors of madness that we are. It’s like howling at a moon that isn’t there (just try informing one of us of its absence). Not only are we the only ones who see it, we’re hell bent on sharing with the rest of you how all-encompassing it is. We’re dumbfounded by the world’s blindness, amused even. And yet, would we want it any other way?

No—that is surely the uniqueness to this incurable, curious behavior. We’re secretly glad that you can’t see our moon. A wonderful inside joke has been told and instead of merely making us all chuckle to ourselves as we pass each other in life’s line, we get to paint a verbal, canvas-less picture of what you’ve all been missing.

And the reward for this lunacy? The expression on your faces as you see, indeed, what you would not see were it not for the generous sharing of our insanity; what you would find missing from your lives were it not for our howling at absent moons, baying at unseen frights or laughing at non-existent gestures made by imaginary beings.

I’ll take my demons over the unimaginable misery of their non-existence, any day of the week. Some things are better when they’re not fully understood…

Slaying Your Dragons

“An absolutely necessary part of a writer’s equipment, almost as necessary as talent, is the ability to stand up under punishment, both the punishment the world hands out and the punishment he inflicts on himself.” – Irwin Shaw

No, I don’t mean slaying dragons literally. Though, come to think of it…

I’m talking about the dragons you’ll face as an author. It doesn’t matter what you write, they’ll still be there. They lurk in dark corners, they circle you like prey and when you  aren’t paying attention, they’ll steal vision, voice and most importantly, conviction, from your story. They come in all shapes and sizes, some are literal flesh and blood creatures (these are usually of the in-law breed), but others aren’t so obvious. The darkest, most ravenous dragons are the ones we’ve spent a lifetime cultivating, feeding, nurturing; that self-punishment that Irwin Shaw was referring to.

We’re somewhat attached to them, whether we know it or not. They sit next to us as we pen our prose and say snidely beneath their breath, “You don’t have anything to say, not really. You aren’t good enough to write. Why bother?” or “Just because you think you’re a writer, doesn’t mean you are.” What is worse, is that we listen! Subtler glances and expressions can cause more damage than the phrases that repeat themselves in our heads. After a paragraph, a page, a chapter, do we grimace out of habit before we’ve even given the work a decent chance of standing on its own? I want you to think about this carefully, most of you will respond in the negative, “If I’m concerned or dislike a chapter, it’s because it needs work. It has nothing to do with imaginary dragons.”

You sure about that? How many stories have you abandoned? How many times have you run with the breathtaking momentum of a tale, only to a discover a solid wall a few paces down the path? That’s not a wall, it’s a dragon and it will move on its own if you’re persistent enough. After all, you’re the one who told him to stand there. (I did not!) Yeah, actually, you did. You fed him by doubting yourself, you primped his ego by listening to his negativity and then you affirmed his stance by laying down your sword (pen, computer, typewriter). Pick it up! Stand your ground and take a few steps with the confidence that he’ll move aside when you get there. Grab a hold of that conviction you once had—you have a voice, you have a story to tell and no one else is going to tell it for you!

I’m not talking about editing here. I’m not talking about a story that you’re actively working on because it does need tweaking. I’m talking about those abandoned visions and that toxic manner of thinking that will forever leave you questioning your own abilities and your worth as an author. You’ve got to question your motives every time you set a story down. Are you really walking away from it because it doesn’t have merit? That’s a seriously easy trump card. “Oh, I didn’t finish it because it’s awful. It isn’t any good.” Who is anyone to question the author of the story, the authority on that piece? That’s my point exactly. If you say it isn’t, then it isn’t. You alone know the whole truth of it. I’m merely saying that there are an awful lot of fat and happy dragons hanging around and the feeding of a lost story to one of them is the equivalent of giving him a whole cheesecake. You can rest assured that they’ll be quiet for a while! You think you’ve done the right thing because you don’t hear those nagging voices anymore…but unless you slay them, your dragons will never leave you.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Writing…

Seven Deadly Sins

For most of you, this post is going to be nothing but a big fat, “duh” and certainly nothing revolutionary. For me, this was apparently nothing less than a miraculous connecting of ideas: There is far more to writing than writing itself—it begins with the breath and ends only once it has traveled through the whole of our body, mind and psyche, and reached the very tips of our fingers. There can be physical hindrances to our creativity any number of places along the way.

Hence, the seven deadly sins of writing: Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and my personal favorite, pride. How does this translate? Easily, and with peanut butter in most cases.

Lust is expressed through our unchecked need for self gratification. Do we write to please others or merely the self? Do we write with The Story in mind or with what we hope it can bring us? A sincere lust for the self will translate into your fiction faster than you think and it will leave your prose flowery but lacking in the most elemental of ways, because it will appeal only to you.

Gluttony is related, but a little different in its manifestations. It isn’t merely the want for self gratification, but the extreme need for it. We don’t just want some of the credit, we want all of it and we want it now. WE are the best. We wear t-shirts proclaiming our writerly status, we snap at others because they stifle our creative energy with their ridiculous musings and we refuse to commune with those who don’t understand our interests. We don’t reach outside of our own little world because if we left our post for even just a minute, we’d lose some precious THING in the process. What that THING is, we’ll never quite know—we just know that we can’t get enough of it…

Greed, often related to monetary wealth, shows up in a number of ways for the writer. Aside from the obvious, greed can manifest in an uncontrollable need for fame and the spotlight—to the point where others are completely cut from the process. Spouses who provide support and friends who have given endless encouragement fall by the wayside in light of the author’s need for recognition.

Sloth is the wasting away of God given talent. “I don’t feel like writing” or “I’m not inspired”; a basic lack of will to get beyond these things. “I could, but I won’t” for any number of reasons.

Wrath, my second favorite. This blames everything on everyone but the writer. “I’m not published because the agent/publisher/reader can’t see how brilliant the story is”; when in fact, the market has little or nothing at all to do with your productivity as an author. Instead of merely stating an opinion once and being done with it, the sentiment gets carried again and again into blog posts and into fictional scenes where characters proclaim the author’s soapbox in ways that all but assure a lack of understanding on the reader’s part. Why? Because it’s not the sentiment of the characters; it belongs to the writer. It will feel out of place to everyone but the author who put it there.

Envy, the green-eyed love child of wrath and greed. Sometimes it’s a coveting of something the writer never really wanted in the first place. If lust and gluttony have a strong enough hold, you’ll find yourself lusting after a whole host of things that really aren’t related to your craft at all; fame, fortune, recognition, awards…the list goes on and on.

And Pride…”I don’t need help”, “I don’t need to improve” and “You don’t have anything valuable to say” can easily overtake a rational writer’s thinking. The reverse of this is just as damaging: A low self esteem can leave an author reeling after every comment or criticism and will force them to lean heavily on the thoughts and suggestions of others.

The bottom line for any author is this: You’ve got to know yourself before you can know those who you create, that which you create. Just like an athlete knows their body well enough to know when the muscles aren’t working properly, when nutrition is lacking, so does an author need to know their mind and body well enough to know when something isn’t right with their story, character development or even just the mechanics of grammar and sentence structure. This means that there is more than a small connection between how we treat our bodies and how productive we are as writers. Poor health, emotional or physical, will carry through to your prose. Ever hit a block that couldn’t be explained by visiting your typical writing sites, blogs, self-help books? Did your anti-depressants even fail to address the problem?

Been there, made the damn shirt…

Still making the damn shirt…but I’m at least working on it: Yoga, running (4-5 miles a day right now) and better nutrition are all a start for me. Did I know all of this before hand? Yup. Apparently there is no connection between knowledge and understanding. I’m feeding my brain by watching what I eat. Whole grains, fruits, veggies, lower sugar, green tea and lean meats….duh. I feel more motivated already.

I Do …

I’ve read plenty of commentary on the dread middle, that no man’s land section of a novel that sits down in the center of the map and refuses to be anything of value. I’ve tread there. It’s rocky terrain. It’s also not what’s irritating me right now.

The map is drawn. The plot hath been plotted. I’m seeing the finish line. In fact, I’ve already planned the victory party (If you’re fond of cigars, then you are automatically on the guest list). I’ve written the next to last scene for Nightshade and plotted out the last few chapters for Icarus. Both works are absurdly close to being finished (first draft). So why can’t I finish them? Because…well…same reason the psychic runner that knows how the race will end, has trouble getting motivated to run. Absurd analogy, but I’m going stir crazy in my non-writerlyness…how’s that for a new word? Blog posts this week are no problem whatsoever. Prose? Utter disaster. And it’s all because I didn’t take my bi-annual week of solitude in December.

See what I get for skipping my routine? Madness ensues. I’ve brainstormed a lot these last few days and while it’s been fun, it isn’t what my heart wants. I want, no—I need to finish the other two works and I really need to get through the last few chapters of the second draft of book two in the Fable trilogy. Which means I need to get away from everything for a few days and force myself through the sludge. And believe me when I tell you, writing on anything right now feels like mucking barefoot through a derelict horse stall. Loads of shit…

I’m okay tuning everything out while I am working on a project, right up to this point in the process. Here, is where I’m no longer rushing to the story in order to hear what it has to say, because I know already. The honeymoon is over, we made it through the seven year itch and are complacently settled somewhere between midlife crisis and retirement. We’ve put a down payment on the camper for God’s sake.

It’s time to renew our vows. And so, with any luck, I’ll go hide away somewhere for a few days (soon!) and return triumphant, suffering the writing hangover to beat all hangovers.