What I have learned that is a valuable lesson is that nothing worthwhile is achieved without its corresponding effort. That fact itself is one thing in the thinking, entirely another thing to understand. Because of where I find myself in life, no doubt, I have been forced really to consider it–at least more than formerly–and it has produced in my writing.
I have a huge problem with my Falcon Lord story: the lack of any protagonist worth having. That isn’t the only problem it has had, but it is the main one, and as it presently stands, really the only one remaining. I have been working on that problem recently, and if I come at it as something that has to be surmounted bit by bit, rather than something seeking for an easy and quick solution, then it stands a chance of being solved.
I guess it’s like learning Latin. You start in the foothills of the first declension, startled at how the way is indicated by these unexpected signs on the trees and rocks: case endings. Then you climb up into the first conjugation and as you begin to see sentences you start to think you’re almost through the mountains. Encouraged you face the more but not so much more challenging second declension, and adjectives of the same. When you get the second conjugation and a few prepositions you feel like you understand the way out, especially when you get the Imperfect and Future down–though the bit about -er adjectives is somewhat disquieting. Then, as you overcome those heights, you look with dismay upon the higher hills and real mountains of the perfective tenses, the third conjugation–not to mention declension, and that neither stop at three–the pronouns and demonstratives, and then they start multiplying before your way. It is then you understand that the firsts and seconds and the scattered conjunctions lobbed at you got were child’s play. You have a longer journey than you anticipated when you scan appalled the passive voice, the participles and those brooding, snow capped Moods. But while you’re slogging toward the pass you start to get a glimpse of the country beyond. You see, or think you see, a vast wood, a forbidden tower, enchanted and unexpected kingdoms and blue distances.
As I take on for the moment the problem of my protagonist, I realize I now have at my command more tools than formerly. There are things about writing–and reading (my life it seems to me is nothing but a laborious approach at learning obvious and easy things in a, if not the most, difficult way)–things about writing and reading which I was never conscious of formerly. Do you know one can distinguish between characters by the kind and also level of detail one descends to in narrating from the viewpoint of each? It is obvious in the statement, but takes a lot of figuring out: how to do it, what it suggests, what it can be made to suggest. I noticed it listening to The Two Towers last night: the view of Ithilien you get is not entirely the narrator’s, but is in large part Sam’s, the gardener. Not that Tolkien tells it only from one viewpoint, but he register’s Sam’s impressions on the whole, which is why you get so many herbs leading into the relief of the coney episode.
Just as a free aside: how much Tolkien describes the weather and the rise and fall of the sun sometimes! But that also goes to show what I am learning. When the careful, detailed imagination of the circumstances, the study to make sure the imagination is well-guided, when there is the work of sinking deeper into the thing you’re making required in order that the thing be of that highest, elvish craft, then he (and how much more every lesser writer!) goes to the lengths required. No detail is gratuitous. He tells everything as part of the atmosphere of that section, part of the forward motion of the story. Pacing with him is more gradual, but it is always stead, which is what counts. It is like our Sunday school teacher who in order to bring us to a high place overlooking a panorama of much of Scripture has led us up a winding and long set of stairs, beguiling us, instructing us, persuading us so that we thought the winding stairs were the point, but his point is in the end to bring us to that height and cause us to look out into distances unimaginable toward the sea and a light through the clouds, and a tall white ship.
A Sunday school class, by the way, on the OT sacrificial system of instructive and careful construction, which I mention in order to point out that that is much of the task. Think of the superscription in the Gospel: Jesus super mare ambulat. Any first year student can translate it: Jesus walks on the sea. But what a statement! It arrested me in Latin, and not because Latin is special but unfamiliar instead. And that is the thing: bring them by new ways to see the wonder in the objects in view afresh. The sea? A light from heaven? A ship? Yes, as long as by elvish craft you vest them with ordinate significance.
That’s all I have to do for my protagonist: vest the black hole with some useful significance. Mountains lie ahead, but vistas, I hope, lie beyond them.