Sunday, 30 September 2018 18:36

Bringing Ragnarok, Dev Diary 4

Well, the end of September has arrived, and with it, my target deadline for finishing the initial draft of Bringing Ragnarok Book 2.

While I'm not quite there yet, I actually came within a half-day's worth of writing of reaching the 120k word budget I'd set for the draft. Which I call a win, given that it will take at least another ~15,000 words to finish out Book 2, as I've gone (again) over my word budget on several chapters. I'll aim to trim the total during editing, but as often as not I find my wordcount increasing post-edits, because places where I trim unnecessary explanation or dialogue are more than matched by places where I add either or both.

Regardless, I'm still looking good for a late-December release, as the draft will be fully completed by mid-October, allowing line edits (round 1) to commence. Which will take about a month (I go approx. 3x faster on edits than in writing the initial draft, for reasons that are probably obvious), followed by another month of edits (two rounds) done with pen and paper, including the time my primary beta reader spends adding her own suggestions/fixes.

Still, most definitely, a compressed timeline, but this is where all the research I did prior to starting Book 1 really pays off, because much of the plot is already pre-determined by the stuff I've laid out so far. Part of why I characterize Bringing Ragnarok as a saga, and not a novel, is that as something intended to be pseudo-historical, there are limitations on what characters can do or experience. Novels - and this is why I actually read more non-fiction than fiction, fall prey to making points, or engaging in too much wish-fulfillment. One of by biggest irritations with storytelling is scenes that seem too contrived, where the characters suddenly act out of their normal bounds, without any real justification other than the creator went a little too much into god-mode, and failed to question how much of their own perspective is intruding on that of their characters.

Now, funny that I write this now, because this week I wrote a chapter that, in many ways, is right at the heart of what Bringing Ragnarok is all about. Without giving too much away (if anyone even reads this, of course) - many of the events that take place in Bringing Ragnarok 1 and 2 are structured to produce this particular chapter. It is a chapter that I sincerely hope will, in effect, 'bring the war home' - put violent conflict into a frame of reference that many people will relate to. As such, there's definitely a 'point' to the chapter - as there is to the entire saga.

Which naturally puts me at risk of doing exactly what I hate that other authors do - putting some characters 'on rails', forcing them through a situation just to make some author's point. An intrusion into the story. My hope, though, is that I've avoided falling into the usual traps, by setting up the situation such that the reader will recognize (at least after reflection) why the chapter was essential to the plot, why the events that occur are both foreseen and foreseeable, that is, events transpire in a logical manner, true to how similar events have occurred throughout the history of violent conflict on Earth.

I worry that this won't be well-received primarily because, in America, we've largely been trained to ignore subtlety and relevance in our media. It goes beyond all clickbait 'news' and pseudo-science, straight down to how American writers seem to like to tell stories.

I've actually reached the point that I'll almost always prefer to watch a TV show or read a story from the UK, over one from America. When I look at my bookshelf, most of the fiction I love the most was written by UK authors. Tolkien, Rowling, Adams, Lewis - these authors have inspired me far more than almost every American contemporary, save for Twain and Steinbeck. And when we sit down to watch a tv show, I will take even the most slow-paced, boring UK product over almost any of the popular American shows.

The reason for this is that something terrible has happened, again in my opinion, to the tradition of storytelling in America. What the American media has done to Tolkien in particular simply disgusts me.

In his legendarium, both the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wanted to write a story that was deeply philosophical, concerned with ethics, filled with characters living a totally different kind of life than we collectively live in this strange 'modern' age. He did not write what Americans call 'fantasy' ('faerie' in the UK has very different context), and in fact would have probably called his work 'science fiction' if he were living in America today.

Even more than that, Tolkien was writing what amounts to a meditation on death. Lord of the Rings in particular is entirely about death. Why people risk it, what they risk it for, and how many of them fear it above all else. Power plays a vital role in Lord of the Rings, and is an extremely potent force - but in the end, the problem with power is that it gives the powerful the illusory ability to control, even escape, death. Sauron is not a mindless force of evil, not a disembodied eye that just randomly hates all things for no apparent reason. Sauron is a demi-god, one of the creators of our world, but whose fundamental flaw is an inability to accept his own long-term irrelevance to the unfolding of the saga of the world. Sauron seeks permanent power, an escape from the confinements of reality set by his creator - he seeks that same level of godhood. As such, he is a god to his slaves, and seeks to make all things his slaves, in order to sustain his own permanent (and privileged) existence in Arda.

None of this makes it through the Americanisation of Tolkien. Peter Jackson and his collaborators produced an excellent version of Lord of the Rings - provided you are willing to accept it being shorn of all deeper meaning and relegated to an endless hack-and-slash festival. I am not, and my experience with the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy - and even more so with the abysmal Hobbit spinoffs - has left me with exactly zero hope for the next iteration of America's cultural inability to see deeper meaning in anything, its obsessive need to tear down anything bearing a hint of subtlety and craft. 

This next iteration will apparently be an Amazon product. Which doesn't in and of itself mean that it will suck, and I'm not part of the anti-Amazon crowd at all. But just because Jeff Bezos owns something, does not mean that it'll end up being actually run/produced by someone with the right qualifications.

Truth be told, there are only a few people in this world who have those right qualifications, which so far as I'm concerned represent a true respect for the original author. But Americans, well, can they truly get past their own narrow cultural bullshit to produce something Tolkien would have felt carried on his work - something he specifically hoped would happen?

I'm very, very doubtful. And even if the writers have the best of intentions, American media executives think their audience is stupid. And so feeds them stupid material. I strongly suspect that two male writers on Lord of the Rings will simply double down on the hack 'n slash aspects, bring in a few attractive women to pretend that they care about the female audience, and continue the longstanding (and wrong!) tendency to portray all heroes in Lord of the Rings as pale white folks, and the bad guys as dark-skinned. Which is absolutely wrong, given that in Middle-Earth, just like in real Earth, people migrated and mixed for thousands of years without much respect to skin color or ethnicity. Most paleo-Europeans were actually quite dark-skinned, and the later influx of 'white' genetics stems from the migration of Indo-European peoples over thousands of years, who disproportionately had whiter skin as a result long living in modern-day Russia (not terribly sunny).

There is a way (are ways) to write an epic Lord of the Rings story, suitable for an audience that is sophisticated enough to enjoy Dr. Who, Man in the High Castle, Breaking Bad, and all the other new and innovative series we've seen emerge over the past ten years or so. I can easily imagine a true-to-the-source-material on-screen version of Lord of the Rings, that moves past the fantasy stereotypes that have been foisted onto Tolkien's work, and actually explore the ideas and meanings he was himself so interested in. I could easily write a Lord of the Rings done like, say, a multi-year episodic series like Broadchurch, that actually explores locations, peoples, and all the beauty of Middle Earth, with a diverse cast, that would be more true-to-Tolkien than the white male fantasy I'm afraid - like the Star Trek movie the writers of this new Amazon LotR series wrote - this new series will become.

Truth be told, about the only person I'd trust to do Tolkien right is... well, me, pretty much. Because I've read everything he's written, multiple times. I feel I understand - and support - the vision he and his son Christopher Tolkien sought to bring to the world, even after JRR Tolkien's death. Not that it matters, because I'll never be granted the opportunity, under the present ownership structure, to prove I'm right.

But if whatever gods may be (and care) grant me success in my own work, I promise this: if the time comes that I can ever acquire the rights to Lord of the Rings, some day in the distant future after American media culture has done its best to, Orc-like, profane anything it can't understand, I will do so, and bring to the world a vision of Middle Earth in all its splendor and depth, true to the vision of Tolkien and his heirs.