(Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne 1) was published on January 14, 2014 by Tor Books.
Marital Fights and Elevator Pitches: Occasion Versus Subject
My favorite part about marital squabbles is the moment I try to explain them later to an impartial observer. “So, what was the fight about?” my buddy asks. I take a confident slug of my beer, certain of the legitimacy of my grievance, the lamentable errors of my lovely wife, and start in: “Well, first
, she said that I should dry the glasses in the drying rack upside down…”
Usually it only takes a sentence or two for that initial confidence to wane. I’m relating the argument just as it happened
, and yet, some of the gravitas seems to have slipped away.
“… and then I didn’t want
paprika on the burgers…”
I blunder along, powered by stubbornness as the sense of true purpose starts to flag.
“…said the dog leash should be blue, not black…”
All the while my friend just watches, eyebrows raised. If he’s feeling charitable, when I finally putter out he’ll say, “That sucks,” in a tone of voice that makes it clear that a minor dispute over dish-drying, hamburgers, and dog collars does not, in fact, suck at all, at least not to anyone with the slightest bit of perspective about the real world.
The problem, of course, beyond my own occasional lack of perspective, is the question itself – What was the fight about?
– and that terminal preposition in particular. We tend to respond to that imperfect word – about
– with the specifics, the poorly dried wine glasses, rather than the emotional core of the matter. In a way, this makes sense. People who are capable of saying, “We were arguing about mutual respect, and the difficulties involved in any communication where the partners are unaware or unable to articulate the divergence in their priorities,” are not the same people who get into arguments about the drying of wine glasses.
Interestingly, you encounter essentially the same question when pitching a novel: So, what’s your book about?
I’ve had the chance to respond to this about fifty thousand times in the past year, and I have the answer down: Three adult children of a murdered emperor – a monk, an imperial minister, and an elite soldier – struggle to untangle the conspiracy behind their father’s death while trying to stay alive long enough to complete their own training.
As in the case of the marital squabble, however, the answer is both perfectly accurate, and crap. It captures the central characters and conflict readily enough, but if I pause for a moment, I wonder whether characters and conflict really constitute the core of a book.
Before turning to fantasy, I spent a long time writing and reading poetry, a genre where it is common to distinguish between a poem’s occasion and its subject. Take John Keats’ great late ode, To Autumn
. What’s it about? Autumn, dumbass.
But, of course, autumn is just the occasion of the poem; it’s about
something different, or at least something more
than the coming on of a new season. Helen Vendler (who is, in my estimation, the best living critic of poetry) has a whole long chapter of a book exploring this very question, and even she doesn’t seem to exhaust the answer.
Of course, there are drawbacks to discussing your own work in these terms. Chief among them, obviously, is that you look like an asshole. Just as important, however, is the interesting fact that, even as the author of a book, you might not know what it’s really about. That is to say, you understand the occasion, the characters and incidents that make up the plot, while the emotional, psychological, and thematic ligatures connecting those objective elements, animating them, remain a mystery.
I’m putting the final touches now on The Providence of Fire
, the sequel to The Emperor’s Blades
. It wasn’t until I’d written the entire book, then gone back to read through it, that I started to understand what was going on beneath all the battles and backstabbing, secrets and betrayals. I thought I’d written a book about the emotional ramifications of failure. In fact, the whole thing is about family, duty, and sacrifice.
Who knew? Certainly not me, not when I set out to write the thing. I understood what it was about, but not what it was about. Of course, I’ve now had the opportunity to go back and revise, to develop and shape the story with this realization in mind, and the book is the better for it.
The real trick now, is to apply this knowledge when I put the wine glasses in the drying rack the wrong way.
I live on a steep dirt road in mountains of southern Vermont, where I divide my time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. After teaching high school (literature, philosophy, history, religion) for a decade, I finally committed to writing epic fantasy. My first book,
), forthcoming from Tor in early 2014. Tor.com has been good enough to release the first seven chapters as a teaser that can be found here:
. I’m on Twitter at @BrianStaveley, Facebook as bstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley.