Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Promoting Blaggard's Moon, Character and Dialogue - August 2010 Christian Fantasy and Blog Tour, Day 3

Every story that has compelled me to read it again typically included a peculiar character, sometimes more than one, so well-written that I could see him and hear him. Of course, the voice and looks that came to my imagination were often those I’d seen either in real life, or in a movie, or in a child’s story book. But the reason they came was because the writing invoked them, called them forth, and they came: Gollum, Puddleglum, Tom Fitzgerald (The Great Brain), the Scarecrow (The Wizard of Oz), John Carter (The God’s of Mars), Vernon Dursley, Rubeus Hagrid, Severus Snape, and Dolores Umbridge (Harry Potter), Jack Torrance (The Shining), Mr. Li (Plague Maker)...and others.

Blaggard’s Moon has such a character whose role is catalytic, yet without him, Polivka could not have told the tale of Blaggard’s Moon as he did...literally. Hammond Drumbone, known as Ham to his shipmates, if he ever existed in real life, would probably have been one of the most likeable pirates one could ever hope to meet (assuming one would knowingly want to be an acquaintance of pirates). Yet, he plays no role in the unfolding or outcome of events. But he adds such a flavor of drama that without him the story would not have been so fresh. How so?

Ham doesn’t come into the story in a flare, but quietly. The reader is commiserating with Smith Delaney and thereby becomes acquainted with Ham. Smith Delaney is skulking about trying to find things to dwell on other than his little predicament. You see, Delaney’s sitting on a pole (eight inches across, eight feet high) in the middle of a piranha-infested lagoon, abandoned by cutthroat pirates. Ham comes to mind and Delaney is struck by the pirate’s gift for telling a tale. Sometimes Ham filled in where there needed filling in but, as Delaney recalls, no one who listened really cared what was real and what was fabricated, it all was real when it came from the lips of Ham.

    Delaney could almost hear Ham talking now, a shade of melancholy in his deep voice, calling up both lonesome longing and high hopes at the same time, painting those word pictures like only he could paint them...He’d wait until there was quiet there under the decks, quiet but for the creaking of the ship’s timbers. And then he’d begin.
    Where did it all start? he’d ask. Where do such tales ever start? It was what he’d always ask at the outset of a story. Then Ham would answer himself. Deep in the darkest part of the heart, where men don’t know what goes on even in their own selves. That’s where every story starts.
    That Ham. He could tell a tale.

The reader is already charmed by Ham wanting to hear a tale himself, see if Ham lives up to the grand story teller of Delaney’s nostalgic memories. The paragraphs that follow do not disappoint. In those paragraphs, Polivka does a remarkable thing. He treats the reader with the blending of two voices and two tales, his own and Ham’s.

    “Dark and clouded it was,” Ham began one evening below decks, “with the sky iron gray and restless, the misty sea churning beneath it, throwing off white foam as far as the eye could see.” Smoke rose from his pipe as the men lay silent, hammocks in tight rows swaying together with the movement of the ship. “A storm was brewing, aye, and a big one, too. And then a thundering came, and it echoed, and then a voice came, carried on the thunder. But the voice was not like the thunder. The voice was high and beautiful. The voice was a girl singing sweet, and lingering on every note, a pure voice from far away, from out of the rain, out of the storm, out of a dream.”
    “How old was the girl?” a young sailor asked in hoarse whisper.
    “Don’t matter her age,” Ham answered easily.
    “What’d she look like?” asked another, bolder.
    “It was just a voice, gents. A disembodied voice, as they say.”
    “Ye mean she ain’t got a body?” a third asked, somewhat shocked. “It’s a ghost, or what?”
    Ham sighed. “It’s all happening in a dream. The ship, the singing, the girl...I’m telling you about a dream that Mr. Delaney had. When he wakes up you’ll know where he is, for some of you were there. But I’m trying to build some mystery into it, so shush, and let me tell it.”
    The pirates went silent again, and Ham continued...

The mood is palpable. The crew-filled hammocks, the ship creaking, the pipe smoke rising, the beginnings of the tale. The reader stands among the hammocks watching the scene play out. But before Ham’s story gets going, he is interrupted and a dialogue (conversation that brings drama) ensues.

The dialogue is not contrived. It has a back and forth banter that is true to life. It completes the picture; hitherto, the reader sees the crew gathered about, but now he hears them. And it all centers on Ham who, without any pretense, admits that he’s trying to build mystery into his tale. The pirates apparently like that, and so does the reader.

The dialogue permits the reader to peek into the social psyche of the crew. The tales of Ham were their only means of entertainment. There are (apparently) no books, obviously no movies or television. The nearest comparison that I can think of is how families at one time (in the ‘old days’ as I thought of them as a child) sat around the radio listening to radio plays and drama. This is more striking because Ham’s introduction could have been used for radio. Do you see it?

    Where did it all start? he’d ask. Where do such tales ever start? It was what he’d always ask at the outset of a story. Then Ham would answer himself. Deep in the darkest part of the heart, where men don’t know what goes on even in their own selves. That’s where every story starts.

This is akin to the way the old radio melodrama The Shadow began, ‘who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men...only the shadow knows,’ (organ in the background). Good radio drama has a quality that is unique. Those who sat around the radio in the ‘old days’ were entertained in a way that television, movies, and books are unable to provide. These pirates are unwittingly entertained in similar manner with the likes of Ham. So is the reader.

Ham was a master of suspense:

    “...This fine young lady was boarding a ship, and at that same moment a fierce young warrior wearing the blue naval uniform of a Vast marine was disembarking from another. She glided up the gangway to the main deck of a heavy-laden merchant vessel, which was bound for the southern seaports of Warm Climes.”
    “What’s her name?” one of the men asked.
    “Tell us what she looked like!” begged another.
    "Aye, and don’t tell us there’s mystery to it!” another called out. Laughter rose. Ham was always shrouding some fact he easily could have explained, just so he could produce it later with a flourish, making his listeners feel satisfied after a long hunger.
    “Oh, she was a mystery,” he said. “She was indeed...”

Mystery, a technique that Ham used, and so does Polivka. The names of the lady and the Vast marine are not mentioned until a fitting time later, all the while making the reader wait tantalizingly for the disclosure of the mysterious persons.

The lady and the marine are key to the story of Blaggard’s Moon, and Polivka’s use of Ham introduces them unforgettably. The two going in opposite directions turn at the same moment and their eyes meet - they recognize each other; they have a past:

    “...He saw beauty, fresh and unspoiled, radiant and sharp-eyed, but with sorrow somehow bound up deep within. And what she saw was a dark-haired, scruffy warrior just in from the wildness of the seas, fresh from the fight, but with some unquenchable thirst, a drive she couldn’t name.”
    “Wait, wait, did you say a fight?” one of the men asked. “What fight?”
    “You are a hard bunch to tell a story to, and that’s a fact. If you must know, that very morning Damrick Fellows had had his first battle against a pirate. It wasn’t much, really, just a...”
    Now the cramped room exploded.
    “What did you say?”
    “Hang on now!”
    “You sayin’ it’s Damrick Fellows?”
    “This story is about Hell’s Gatemen?”
    When the room calmed, Ham puffed his pipe for a moment. Then into the tense calm, he spoke the single word, “Aye.”
    The room erupted once again, this time in glee. “Tell us the fight!”
    Ham savored the moment. “But gents, we were about to learn of the fair Jenta Stillmithers, and her travels, and how she was first introduced to the world of pirates and scalawags.”
    “Jenta?” and “Wait, ye mean the pirate’s woman?” and “We want to hear Jenta!”
    “No!” and “Hang on, tell the fight!” others countered.
    And then the forecastle was in an uproar, men shouting at one another from their hammocks, until a few rolled out and stood, the better to argue their points, particularly should their own position on the matter require proofs of a somewhat more forceful nature.
    “All right, shush now! Shush or you’ll hear neither!” Ham bellowed. The room quieted some. “You’ll get the Whale down here thinking there’s fisticuffs broke out amongst us, and we’ll all be feeling Mr. Garvey’s lash. Just furl some sail, boys, and ease up a bit.”
    The men grumbled but settled quickly, then waited impatiently.
    Ham cleared his throat. “Aye, the tale is of Damrick Fellows, and Jenta Stillmithers, and Conch Imbry and his gold. And you shall hear it all.”

And so shall the reader hear it all, thanks to the pen of George Bryan Polivka.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Promoting Blaggard's Moon: A Novel's Opening - August 2010 Christian Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, Day 2

With fiction and the great majority of nonfiction, the opening is the most important segment of the work, not because it may contain extraordinary literary deployment (though that could be the case, of course), but because if we lose on readers here, we’ll never get them back. In tennis we get a second serve; in most types of writing we don’t. We get only one chance to intrigue our readers, and we’d better make it work! – William Noble, Conflict, Action & Suspense, p 35.

The opening of the novel must accomplish at least two things:
(a) Capture the interest of the reader.
(b) Contain the seed of which the novel is the germinating flower.

If this is not done by page two, or at most by page three, the reader will be too ready to put the book down. Even if he survives an opening that fails on either of these two points, he will have a more critical eye trained on all that follows. It will take more to put the reader into a positive frame of mind toward the story. Mistakes that may come later (a historical inaccuracy, an unrealistic moment, a dull description, an unimportant detail, a subtle grammatical error, etc.), however small, will not be easily forgiven.

One of the ways to ‘capture the interest’ is to open with conflict and/or intrigue. Conflict is intriguing, but I’ll not grant that intrigue is conflict. Conflict is a clash between a character and another character, a character and his circumstances, or even a character and himself. Intrigue has more to do with the unusual and unexpected both of which may or may not be the result of conflict. To encounter a bee gathering pollen may be intriguing, but hardly a conflict (unless you consider the bee as struggling for survival in his pollen-gathering, which to some degree is true).

An opening scene which is rich with intrigue, and equally rich with conflict, is very astute. Blaggard’s Moon opens precisely in this way. The first paragraph, a single line, is so pregnant with intrigue that the reader does a mental double-take.

“On a post. In a pond.”

The reader stops, if only for a moment, to try and let the meaning of that sink in. Does it mean what it really sounds like it means, something (or more unexpectedly, someone) is stuck on a post out in the middle of a body of water? What is it/he doing there? How did it/he get there?

The reader wants and expects the author to reveal what this is about, and if the gratification of that ‘want’ isn’t met in short order, the intrigue will turn to frustration. But Polivka does not let that happen. The next paragraph tells just enough to begin to satisfy the need to know:

Delaney said the words aloud, not because anyone could hear him but because the words needed saying. He wished his small declaration could create a bit of sympathy from a crewmate, or a native, or even one of the cutthroats who had left him here. But he was alone.

Conflict is a sure source of intrigue. Two of the three types of conflict identified above are present here: between character and his environment (the individual stuck on a pole in a body of water), and between character and other characters (the pole-sitter and the cutthroats who put him there).

The abandonment on the pole is conflict, and it is so unusual that the intrigue is immediately palpable. The intrigue comes in the form of dread, and Polivka increases the dread by revealing the unthinkable scope of the conflict in the next three paragraphs. But the paragraph immediately following is a teaser:

It wasn’t the post to which he’d been abandoned that troubled him, though it was troubling enough. The post was worn and unsteady, about eight inches across at the top where his behind was perched, and it jutted eight feet or so up from the still water below him. His shins hugged its pocked and ragged sides; his feet were knotted at the ankles behind him for balance. Delaney was a sailor, and this was not much different than dock posts in port where he’d sat many times to take his lunch. He was young enough not to be troubled with a little pain in the backside, old enough to have felt his share of it. No, the post wasn’t the problem.

The focus of this whole paragraph is on the post. No action here. We don’t need any because we are entranced with the painting of a picture so vivid that we are tempted to wriggle in our reading chair to relieve the psychosomatic pain that developed in our own backsides as we read. We are revolted at the quandary of the post, and yet the post is not the real predicament. The scope of the dilemma grows and so does the dread (intrigue).

The pond from which the post jutted was not terribly troublesome either. It was a lagoon, really, less than a hundred yards across, no more than fifty yards to shore in any direction. He could swim that distance easily. He peered down through the water, past its smooth still surface and eyed the silver-green flash of scales, lit bright by the noonday sun.

The piranha, now, they were something vexing.

The dread of the predicament increases and reaches its climax in a single-sentence paragraph. Polivka’s use of that single sentence does two things: (a) it reveals the horrendous problem in a moment so that its realization is immediate, and (b) it is the verbal equivalent of a symphonic clash of cymbals – it jolts you.

Such a beginning is so intriguing, the potential of so many story lines, that the reader is struck with wonder of not only how the one in the predicament is going to get out of it (if he does), but where the story as a whole is going to go.

In terms of seed and blossom (or the building block which "must be sturdy enough, strong enough to support the story to come," Conflict, Action & Suspense, p41) it turns out that the sailor on the pole is the catalyst for a variety of ways in which the story is told, i.e., his recollection of events first-hand, or the recollection of the tales of a skilled pirate story-teller, whose delightful character is worthy of an article in itself.

This is ‘opening’ at its best.

Promoting Blaggard’s Moon, August 2010 Christian Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, Day 1

I’m reading Blaggard’s Moon, by George Bryan Polivka, and am wondering why it has never made the New York Times Bestsellers list. Actually, there is no mystery to it - it hasn’t been discovered, yet. Whose fault is that? As Randy Ingermanson once pointed out in an e-zine, nobody is more interested in your book than you are. The burden of marketing one’s book lies heavily on the shoulders of the author. Those who have spent the time (and, I assume, the money) to promote their own books unrelentingly have largely been rewarded for their efforts. If Polivka were to do the same, assuming he has the interest and the means to do it, I think this book could make it big.

For so-so books, or even books that are above average, I would say that it is justifiable for the bulk of promotional responsibility to be on the author. But a book of this caliber should find more than its own author as the promoter.

The publisher comes to mind. Why would a publisher not seek to get the word out on this book is a mystery to me, unless he doesn’t recognize the book to be as good as it is. Surely, that is not so. Perhaps the publisher has to be careful during this economic downturn and cannot afford to devote the time or money to it. If that is the only reason, there should be a change of heart as soon as recovery comes. Perhaps the publishing house believes that many of its books could equally vie for such attention. That may be true, but I cannot think there could be one better than Blaggard’s Moon. The publisher  would do well to take a serious look at what could be done to bring this book to the attention of the reading community. I don’t think it would take a lot; once discovered, word of mouth surely will do the rest.

The author and publisher are not the only factors in the promotion of such a book. There are other influential causes: Blogs and websites whose purpose is to bring attention to good Christian works. Other (well-known and respected) authors could take up the cause. Those who have already read it could do more to get the word out.

Why does it matter? A more pertinent question for me, an aspiring author, is why should I be concerned about the well-being of another’s work; don’t I have enough to handle as it is - trying to produce the best possible work given my time and talent, its publication, and most difficult of all, its marketing?

One might consider that if the general recognition and respect for modern Christian literary works were raised by one successful author (whatever his genre), it might bode well for others of similar aspiration. That might be true, but only possible if the hopeful beneficiaries are themselves exceptionally good writers – as Polivka is. And it is this latter point that is the single reason that makes the promotion of Blaggard’s Moon so reasonable and worthy. It is a novel in which the writing is a work of art. It is the exemplar of which many of us need to become familiar and by it learn the craft of writing.

For that reason, I intend to write a series of articles in which I will use Blaggard’s Moon to illustrate the principles of good writing and story crafting. The first two of these will appear as my second and third posting for the August 2010 Christian Fiction and Fantasy Blog tour.