Sunday, January 20, 2013

Not at All yet Completely New

At a Mount Holyoke College commencement speech, Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen warned that “Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Bleak House,’ ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel.” Now that’s discouraging! But then she added this: “Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had.”

How true. And it isn’t just that each writer has an individual voice. Unless that voice captivates—and instantly—then we’ve heard it before, and it’s yesterday’s news.

Writing about death, dragons, and denial? Nothing new there. But watch what D. L. Burnett does in this passage from “In the Kingdom of the Dragons”:

“Death wasn’t as easy as Gaspotine the Dark expected. He tried denying it, choosing to believe this a fever-induced nightmare. Or perhaps he’d stayed in the Continuum too long and exhausted his flesh. Shortly he’d return to his Cavern of Diamonds, strong and virile.

The Niede, a primordial instinct like hunger and thirst but ninety-three times worse, demanded his spirit rejoin his body. He tried again and again until he’d lost half his mist.
He must really be dead.

Gaspotine thrashed his tail. The tip flew off. Shocked, he froze. These deteriorations had never happened before. But then he’d never died before, either.

Code decreed another Dragon must devour his remains, easing his spirit’s permanent transition into the Continuum, preventing him from returning to dead flesh. Tallasha the Resplendent had done that, but without diminishing the Niede.

Dragons shouldn’t die, especially the greatest current rider, Gaspotine the Dark.”

By creating a new world for us, Burnett offers insight into our own world. Imagine a Continuum where we survive after we’ve died, where we can ride silver waves and see the future. Imagine the lifeless body struggling to merge with the surviving spirit. Imagine feeling yourself too powerful—too special—for death to claim?

These are a dragon’s feelings. But how many humans have experienced them? More than empathy entices here (and empathy for dragons is pretty special): It’s the voice. Snappy sentences set off long ones; strong verbs like “thrashed,” “flew,” “froze,” and “devour” propel this forward.

The other strength here is harnessing the external to convey feelings. This wouldn’t work if Gaspotine whined about weakness, frustration, and anger. Instead, Burnett supplies the concreteness of “fever,” “Diamonds,” “hunger,” “thirst,” and the specificity of “ninety-three.” Those images lay a foundation for the shocking cannibalism of the Code and grip of “the Niede.” Burnett’s voice creates this new world—and our empathy for this tormented dragon.

Tip: It’s not necessarily your job to offer something “new.” It’s your job to use your voice to make whatever you describe feel completely new.

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