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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Steven Brust: My Ultimate Weapon

I’m going through a tough patch in my writing right now.  Last week the words flowed more freely than just-uncorked champagne, as the number of blog entries I posted will attest.  Nothing occurred on the weekend to dampen my enthusiasm for diving back into my second dragon novel this week.  Yet yesterday, when I sat down with pen in hand, the words refused to come.  

At least I managed to post a blog entry in the morning, one that I had started last week, and felt reasonably happy with.  Yet, even after taking off some time for lunch, I still had no idea where to begin, or how to approach whatever scene might come next.

Whereas many authors use outlines to power through a first draft, I’ve found that laying out my path in advance actually inhibits me from writing.  By traveling through my fantasy world alongside the protagonist, I am forced to create (most) everything on the fly: his struggles, the overall plot, the characters who help or hinder him along the way, and their aspirations and agendas.  Such successful authors as Kevin J. Anderson and Terry Brooks testify that they could not be nearly so prolific if they did not plan out every character and major plot point ahead of time.  Yet so far, I’ve failed to make their methodology work for me.

After lunch, as I loaded the dishwasher, I grew angry.  I could not let this day pass without getting my pages in.  Yet when I sat down again and picked up my pen, the empty page defied my willpower to fill it.  It was at this point that I reached for my ultimate weapon in combatting writer's block: Steven Brust.

My trusty (and "familiar") companion.
Or sword.  Or Dagger.  Or....

Ten years ago, Steven Brust visited San Diego as Guest of Honor at Conjecture.  Usually, I try to brush up on a literary Guest before the convention, but this time I had not.  Nor had I even noticed his work in a bookstore up to this point.  In the dealers’ room, I perused a few examples of his work.  Lacking any knowledge of his characters or writing style, I finally settled on one novel that piqued my interest.  It’s title?  Dragon.

Dragon takes place midway through the series of novels concerning Vlad Taltos.  Brust’s protagonist starts off as a mob boss and assassin.  Yet he is not an evil man.  Nor is he a static character.  Throughout the series, he continually wrestles with who he is versus whom he can and should become.  As a result, his position in life, as well as those he views as friends and foes undergo significant change.

I think what I love most about the Vlad Taltos novels is Brust’s voice.  As the perspective is first-person, we view the world through Vlad’s eyes.  At that Conjecture ten years ago, Steven Brust said that nothing thrilled him more than constructing a sentence that sounded really “cool.”  Perhaps it is that love of wordplay that propels me through his stories.  The first time I embarked upon the series, several years ago, I needed something that could lift my spirits during the Winter months.  Somewhere along the way, I discovered that a few pages of Brust’s storytelling could help me write my own stories.  

Yesterday, after reading three pages of his novel Teckla (contained in the omnibus volume The Book of Jhereg), I was ready to write.  I set his novel aside, and with my teeth gritted together, embarked upon my own.  My wife came home before I was finished, and kindly gave me the extra time I needed.  In the end, I found my own scene so compelling I wrote an extra half-page in order to finish it.  This morning, recognizing that, inspiration-wise, I had fallen into a pit and had yet to claw my way out, I didn’t fool around.  I picked up Brust again, and after reading another scene, was able to face the blank page.  I might have needed a few breaks this morning, and several more scenes from Brust in order to complete my pages, but reading his work helped me finish my own.  

I’m not sure what it is about Steven Brust (and his character Vlad Taltos), but he’s helping me get through a dry spell that might otherwise have left me in despair over not fulfilling my daily goals.  Whatever trials or struggles you're currently facing, I recommend his work to you.  Perhaps, just like he’s helping me, he can help you get through your day.  But if you want my advice, don’t leap into a mid-series novel like Dragon.  Start off with The Book of Jhereg (which contains Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla), and follow Vlad’s journey in publication order.  For just like my protagonist (and my methodology), each person, whether real or imagined, encounters life without foreknowledge of what is to come.  It’s so much easier to begin at the beginning, and journey with the other person through his life, as you encounter the trials and struggles unique to your own. 

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