Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Writing 101: Thog's Masterclass at BayCon

If you've attended any of my convention panels having to do with the craft of writing, then you have undoubtedly heard me refer to Thog's Masterclass.

Who is Thog? According to Thog.org, "Thog the Mighty, a not terribly bright barbarian hero, is the creation of John Grant (Paul Barnett) in his 'Lone Wolf' fantasy novels. Thog first appeared in The Claws of the Helgedad (1991)."

Thog's Masterclass is a regular feature of David Langford's zine Ansible, enshrining prose gems primarily from science fiction and fantasy publications: "It is to be assumed that the chosen selections are stuff which brutish Thog really likes." The site goes on to explain how the tradition began at the 1993 UK EasterCon, when David edited the con's daily newsletter with Paul Barnett's assistance. I'll leave you to further investigate Thog's history should you so desire.... (and more on Ansible1 later in this blog post.)

Over Memorial Day Weekend I attended BayCon, an annual San Francisco Bay Area convention that is now in its twenty-ninth year. And this year I participated once again in the Iron Editors workshop: writers present the first 2 pages of a story or novel for review and critique by the panel of editors. The author's name need not be included on the pages, so while the writing may be anonymous, the critique is public. This allows other writers to learn from the critiques as well. In fact, writers may attend the workshop without having submitted anything for review.

Along with moderator Kent Brewster, this year's panel of editors also included Jeremy Lassen, Deirdre Saoirse Moen, the Kollin Brothers, and Dario Ciriello. The review process is quite hectic, to say the least. Kent likes to keep things moving so that a marked up submission is always on the display screen and open to discussion. Often I'll be working on one submission and have to stop what I'm doing to comment on my mark ups on the submission that is being presented. Consequently not all submissions are reviewed by every editor.

Usually a Thog's Masterclass-worthy sentence will arise from the heaps of paper, which will provide me with the opportunity to introduce the audience to Ansible and Thog. Due to the hectic nature of the workshop I didn't have an opportunity to write down the specific sentence, so this one will have to do (it is similar in content). This sentence is from a previously published story that was part of a collection that I acquired and published with Golden Gryphon Press. The author and story shall remain anonymous, to protect the guilty.
...his face: a strong jaw, cheekbones ruddy with cold, softened by a well-proportioned nose, and eyes which skipped from aisle to counter to shelf like pebbles glancing over water.
The boldface is, of course, my addition to highlight the content that I know Thog would really like. When I brought this sentence, and Thog's Masterclass, to the author's attention, the author chose to rewrite the text before including the story in the collection. But this isn't always the case. In Liz Williams's Detective Inspector Chen series of novels, you'll find sentences like this one:
Sung's eyebrows crawled slowly up his broad forehead.
In the Chen novels, Liz wants that stylized, exaggerated content; a better word might be "campy." And as the editor for all five (so far) of her Detective Inspector Chen novels, I'm right there with Liz on this. So story content is dependent on your style, your goal, what you wish to create within the story. Just be aware that these types of sentences just may find themselves in some future entry of Thog's Masterclass.

But then again, this isn't always a bad thing, according to at least one particular author. Here's the entry from Ansible #178, published in May 2002:

Thog's Masterclass. Highbrow Dept. "Nordon dug out the ship's plans and located the approximate position from Jimmy's report. Then he whistled softly and his eyebrows climbed towards the ceiling." (Arthur C. Clarke, The Sands of Mars, 1951)

Okay, more climbing eyebrows. What can I say? This was evidently the first time that content written by Sir Arthur C. Clarke had made it into Thog's. When Clarke learned of this, he sent the following letter, which was included in Ansible #182, September 2002:
Outraged Letters. Sir Arthur C. Clarke finally read the A178 Thog department when it resurfaced in Interzone 180: "Now I can die happy – finally made it to MASTERCLASS!"2

For some authors, a Thog-worthy sentence is accepted with good humor and honor, as in the case of Sir Arthur; for some, it is an intentional stylized technique. As for others.... Which brings me to the current issue of Ansible #287, which recently arrived in my inbox. When I began reading the following paragraph I was expecting this to be the writings of some little-known author from the pulp era; but no....

Thog's Masterclass. Dept of Introductions. "I am Ayla of the Ninth Cave of the Zeladonii, acolyte of the Zeladonii, First Among Those Who Serve The Great Earth Mother, mated to Jondalar, Master Flint-Knapper and brother of Joharran, leader of the Ninth Cave of the Zeladonii. I was Daughter of the Mammoth Hearth of the Lion Camp of the Mamutoi, Chosen to be the spirit of the Cave Lion, Protected by the Cave Bear, and friend of the horses Whinney, Racer, and Gray, and the four-legged hunter, Wolf." (Jean M. Auel, The Land of Painted Caves, 2011)

I'll admit that I've never read The Clan of the Cave Bear or any of Jean M. Auel's other novels, but I do know they have won awards and sold millions (and millions) of copies. But this sentence: What was she thinking? The only thing that's missing here are a few "begats"! Is this indicative of all her writing, or has she simply jumped the shark in this new book?

The sentence brings to mind something that BayCon Author Guest of Honor Mary Robinette Kowal said during our Sunday morning panel entitled "Make It or Break It: The First Three Pages." (The panel was the same day and a few hours before the Iron Editors workshop.) I'm paraphrasing here since I didn't jot down the exact quote. Mary said: "You need to be careful about introducing more than one new thing per page. It takes readers a while to absorb new concepts -- and this includes characters -- so if you throw a lot at them at once, they'll get lost. One new thing per page is a good general rule." Again, what was Auel thinking when she wrote that horrendous sentence? If the person speaking those words was introducing herself to a hostile tribe, she would have been killed before she got to the third "Zeladonii"! As Mary said: one new person or thing or concept per page.

One more point in closing: During the Iron Editors workshop, I had a brief lull toward the end when there were no pages for review in front of me and none of my mark-ups on display, so I used the opportunity to make a comment to the audience as a whole. I stated that although I hadn't seen all of the pages that were submitted, none that I read had an opening sentence in which someone was waking up, as opposed to last year in which there were at least a half-dozen such submissions. And then Kent placed the next submission on the display and -- you guessed it -- a person was waking up in the opening line. Jeez... you just can't win.

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Footnotes:

1. I've been a faithful reader of Ansible for many, many years, and I have "borrowed" examples from Thog's Masterclass for many a panel, workshop, and blog post. According to Wikipedia, David Langford has won 21 Hugo Awards for Best Fan Writer, 5 for Ansible as Best Fanzine, and another for Ansible as Best Semiprozine. Not too shabby for a freebie! So if you haven't yet subscribed to this wonderful little 'zine, what are you waiting for?

2. Award-winning UK magazine Interzone has been published since 1982; the current issue is #234. Each issue contains an "Ansible Link" column by David Langford, which includes content from his Ansible 'zine. For more history on Interzone, see the Wikipedia entry.

11 comments:

  1. Michael E. StammJuly 1, 2011 at 10:55 AM

    I've never read any Auel, either, though I've had a signed first of the first in the series since it came out. The paragraph you cite may have been well-intended as a demonstration of contextual identity in a culture with, theoretically, solely an oral tradition; but it could have been much better. And briefer. (Friend to horses?) You do have to admit that it beats a whole re-cap chapter of "previously in CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR & C: . . ."

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  2. Hi, Michael,

    Thanks for your comment, and as I am not familiar with Auel's work either, you may indeed be correct that this long-winded introduction is culturally motivated/required. But you gotta admit that it does go on and on and on. And whoever the recipient of this introduction is, s/he has surely lost track of most of the names and relationships by the end.

    Cheers,
    - marty

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  3. Friend of the horses: Ayla has invented everything, including riding horses. While a long presentation of herself, it reminds of how royalty or an ambassador might be presented.

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  4. Thanks, Lisa, for the clarification.
    Cheers,
    - marty

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  5. I've enjoyed Dave Langford's "Thog's Masterclass" entries for decades. I first saw it in early issues of Games Workshop's "White Dwarf" magazine. I think the "Thog" name predates the Barnett character, and may derive from a White Dwarf comic character.

    The only thing that irritates me about the Thog quotations is the frequent, persistent taunting of "eyes" used as a synonym for "gaze." At least one Thog entry per column retells that particular joke; you tell it here too. And yet, whaddya know, "eyes" used as a synonym for "gaze" is a perfectly acceptable dictionary usage. See, for instance, the Random House Dictionary, sense 7: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/eyes

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  6. Hi, Allen,

    I wasn't aware of (or at least I don't recall) Thog appearing in White Dwarf though I am familiar with the magazine. In fact, I may even have some very old issues packed away somewhere in this madhouse. Thanks for this.

    Yes, the "eyes" have it, or so it appears in my examples and those regularly posted on Thog's. I checked out the dictionary link you provided, but how I interpret the usage seems to be somewhat different from yours. As a noun, an "eye" is still an "eye" and I don't see how this dictionary meaning allows for an "eye" to, essentially, wander outside of the body. The verb form is "to eye" something, as in he "eyed" the road ahead, which I will certainly accept as being replaceable with "he spied the road ahead" or "he gazed upon the road ahead" -- though their individual meanings are not identical.

    Cheers,
    - marty

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  7. Marty, as I mentioned during your Iron Editors panel, to truly appreciate the glory that is Thog the Mighty, readers should look up his epic presence at the 1993 Eastercon, as chronicled by Langford (with obligatory nod to Agatha Christie), having been resurrected from obscurity by the aforementioned John Grant / Paul Barnett for the Eastercon newsletter.

    Cheers,
    Rick Moen
    rick@linuxmafia.com

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  8. Thanks, Rick, for posting the link here; it's much appreciated.

    And for other readers of this blog, this Iron Editors panel to which Rick refers is not the Baycon event referred to in the above blog, but rather the one that was just held this past weekend (July 3) during Westercon 64.

    - marty

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  9. I don't want to belabor the "eyes" quibble in itself (though the Merriam-Webster definition 1d for "eye" gives "look, glance" - http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eye ). Rather, my point is that after dozens and dozens of "eyes" entries in Thog's Masterclass across two or three decades, David Langford has never retreated -- never pondered, "Hmmm, these 60 or 70 authors all think 'eyes' can mean 'gaze'; I wonder if that could be a correct usage of which I was unaware?" He has the convictions of a born editor, and I expect he's quite good at it.

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  10. For Allen Varney: Thog never appeared in my White Dwarf book review column, nor its continuations on other UK RPG magazines. You may be thinking of Thrud, a supernaturally dim and overmuscled barbarian hero (though without literary interests) who had his own White Dwarf cartoon strip for a while. Nothing to do with me, though.

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  11. There you have it, straight from "Thog," as it were....

    It's always good to hear from you, David, and thanks for the clarification re: White Dwarf. And thanks, too, for the mention in the latest Ansible!

    Cheers,
    - marty

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