After “The End”

I have had the experience several times now of reading a book that I am very much enjoying–right up until the end.  Then the work either fizzles out, simply stops, or blatantly kicks me in the teeth (as a reader).  Leaving me feeling, well, WTF, author?

Authors spend a lot of time crafting beginnings.  They worry and work over their middles–but sometimes, they neglect the most important part.  Endings are critical.  Mystery writer Mickey Spillane said that the first page of your book sells that book, and the last page sells your next one.  If you deliver a satisfying reading experience all the way through, then readers will be eager to pick up your next title (and for you writers out there, remember that your first reader is likely to be an editor/agent/reviewer/blogger).  And if you fail to deliver that complete experience, then your next book is likely doomed.

Author and psychology professor Jennifer Lynn Barnes  in an article for the Novelists’ Inc. newsletter recently pointed to a reason why endings are so important.  She references an experiment involving subjects plunging their hand into painfully cold water (A) or plunging their hand into painfully cold water, then into slightly less cold (but still painful) water for a longer period of time (B).  The subjects overwhelmingly preferred B, in spite of the fact that the suffering overall was longer.  They preferred their suffering to end on a better note.  (The Ninc newsletters go online for public consumption about six months after publication–so you’ll have to wait for the full article–totally worth the read.)

It turns out (and if you examine your own experiences, you will probably find anecdotal confirmation) that in any given experience, people tend to remember most the highest point–the most thrilling, most terrible, most beautiful–and the ending.  So, for example, I took a trip to Hawaii last year where we got to visit with seahorses (most beautiful), and had a really terrible flight off the island.   High point, ending.  We also visited with a dolphin, and if I sit here to recall more, I can dredge up those memories, but if you said, “How was your trip to Hawaii last year?”  likely, I’d mention the seahorse and the flight–and nothing more.

The ending of the experience is what solidifies the whole thing.  It encapsulates what that experience was like, bringing it together and resolving the emotional impact on the reader/experiencer (even if the thing itself is somewhat unresolved, like the middle book of a trilogy).  You get to that ending, and you’re thinking, “Wow–that was great!”  Or maybe, “Wow, I was really enjoying this–until now.”

The same moment, plot-wise, can deliver a very different impact on the reader, depending on the order of ideas, sentences, phrases, or the effort of the author to find just the right image for that final note of resonance.  Imagine this is the last line of a story:

Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him.  She might not survive the night, but at least they rode on together.

Or this one. . .

Jerry helped his injured companion up onto the horse behind him.  They rode on together, but she might not survive the night.

The first example, in spite of the companion’s injured state, leaves you with the positive impression of these two characters, together through it all.  The second one ends on the downer that it doesn’t matter if they are together, she’s doomed.  Sucks to be her.  And probably sucks to be Jerry, too.  The same things happen.  The same phrases are used.  The impact is *completely* different.

An ending can be flat–neither enhancing nor detracting from the experience of the work.

It can be brilliant–the shining capstone on the work that leaves you googling the author for their next title, right now!!

It can be a sucker punch–one that rewards the readers’ time, patience and investment with a moment that undercuts everything the reader loved about the book.

Please note:  if what the reader is loving is the horror, the pathos, the dread, then the ending doesn’t need to be happy at all–that’s not what I’m suggesting:  it needs to be the culmination of the reader’s emotional engagement, even if that emotion is a negative one.

The endings that bother me are the ones that turn the contract with the reader on its head, refusing to provide any satisfaction, leaving the reader hollow, ignoring emotional resolution or the potential for positive emotion even in a negative or unresolved situation, the endings that feel like you found a bug at the bottom of your ice cream sundae.

For you writers out there, take a hard look at those critical last moments on the page.  Are they delivering the impact you want to leave with your reader?  Are they the clincher for the experience you’ve been crafting so diligently?  Is this a final page that will encourage the reader to seek out more?

For you readers, what was the last truly satisfying book you read?  How did it end, and could the ending have been stronger?  weaker?  Have you, like me, suffered that terrible let-down of a great book with a bummer ending?

The first pages of a book are where the author makes a promise about the journey to come, and the last page is where they deliver. . . or not.




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Alien Intelligence, Close to Home

Thanks to a clever octopus in New Zealand who escaped back to the sea, there’s been a lot of talk lately about animal intelligence.  A recent book by Frans de Waal  questions whether we are even smart enough to know if animals are intelligent.

Years ago, I had the chance to do a behind-the-scenes tour at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and heard the mystery of the disappearing fish.  It seems that one of the tanks had fewer fish every morning–and they finally figured out that an octopus down the row was slipping out at night and helping himself, then going back home again.  A board placed over the top of his tank stopped that problem.  So the adventure of Inky the octopus was not surprising, merely the culmination of a series of incidents involving cephalopods on the move.

an octopus off of Hawaii

an octopus off of Hawaii

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I am often in the position of considering non-human intelligence, whether that is the intelligence of the working wolf-pack, of a mythical creature, or of an alien species on another planet.  How would it manifest?  What evidence would we look for, or be able to recognize? Science fiction is rife with tales of mistaken identity, wherein the intrepid humans fail to see the intelligence of the creatures they encounter, whether those are giant termites, as in The Termite Queen, or adorable miniatures, as in the Fuzzy books.  Our own assumptions about what constitutes intelligence or culture stand in the way, in spite of our apparent eagerness to learn and openness to new ideas.

Tool use and communication, as well as an ability to organize group activity are usually considered key to intelligence.  Crows use tools, and learn from watching each other.  Dolphins, and even prairie dogs, communicate and coordinate their activities.  Centuries ago, European explorers had the bad habit of considering everyone they encountered who lived in a different way from themselves as savages.  (Interestingly, one account of the rumor of gorillas refers to them as simply another tribe of people).  In our continued arrogance, are we doing the same thing to many species today–denigrating their innate intelligence in order to advance our own agenda and justify treating them as “mere” animals?

I think this is often the overt or subtextual meaning of those science fiction stories that depict wildly different races and the efforts of humanity to get along with them. Ashleigh Brilliant, the creator of Potshots, may have said it best:  All I want is to be treated like everyone else, no matter how revoltingly different I am.

What does it take to define intelligence?  Once having done so, how do you decide where, upon the scale of sentience, to place the dividing line between animals we eat, animals who are our companions, and animals who are, perhaps, our cousins if not our equals?

Creating scenarios and playing them out in fiction is one way to grapple with these questions. It’s gratifying to see some of that conversation entering the mainstream, thanks to Inky and other animal ambassadors.  It can be hard in a fictional context to create a truly alien intelligence–beings who think and act very differently from us–which is why many authors draw from examples in the animal kingdom to inspire new races in other places or on other worlds.  This often begins with a series of what-if questions.  What if a particular behavior in ants signifies their true culture?  What would spur the development of advanced skills in a certain species, or the development of an intelligent species in a particular environment?

Now, it seems, we should be scrutinizing these questions more closely. . .what if our extrapolations are not so far from the truth?  Another of the recent videos that questions our assumptions about intelligence features a dolphin who apparently sought out a diver to help it with an injury that required hands to undo.  Fiction, science fiction, animals, aliens.  They are already here, and we are starting to take notice.


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Kylo Ren and the Question of Parental Succession

Star Wars:  The Force Awakens recently came out on video, so I gave it a second viewing.  This blog will contain spoilers.  you have been warned.

One of my favorite elements of the film centers on that scene spoiled for so many (and objected to by many others) when Kylo Ren kills his father.  It comes toward the end of the film, after a moment when you (and Dad) think that Kylo may be convinced to return to the light side.  He describes himself as torn, struggling with that last thing that will galvanize his future.  It is, of course, killing his father.

One of the main criticisms of this film has been that it’s basically a re-hash of the first movie where the elements are mixed together, with some new characters and some old ones, and I basically agree.  But I did appreciate that the film also, in revisiting Star Wars:  A New Hope also goes back to the source material–namely, the heroic mythology that influence the story.  If you read many fairy tales or fantasy novels, or see many Disney films, you will find that there are many, many orphans.

Mythologically, metaphorically, and often historically speaking, in order for a child to have an adventure, their parents must be gone.  This is what allows the child the necessary autonomy to go forth and take risks.  With the parents around, it’s usually the parents’ job to, say, save the world, confront the evil or make the sacrifice.  When they are gone, the child not only has the freedom to make these big choices, but may, in fact, be obligated to do so.

This is the moment when the child becomes an adult. They can no longer hide behind their parents’ choices, go running to their parents for help, or count on someone else stepping up to take care of things.  The child is now in command.  Liberating and frightening, by turns. The child must take on adult roles and responsibility.

In historical terms, the parent must die for the child to rule, and many stories stem from the way things go wrong if this is not the case. Either the child rebels against the father, committing murder in order to bring about an early succession, or the father abdicates in favor of the child, suggesting that there’s a problem with the traditional order of society (King Lear, anyone?) or perhaps the natural order of the world.

Parents speak of leaving a legacy in their children–in the desire for the child to be better off, more powerful, more wealthy than they have been–wanting the child to exceed their own lives.  And governments speak in terms of the “replacement rate” for births, in which the expectation is the parents die off, but have left enough children behind for society to go on.  Family businesses have the hope if not the expectation of children who grow up to take their parents’ place at the helm, whether that is a family restaurant, a laundry shop, or a political dynasty.  In spite of all the changes in our world from the era of royalty until now, this sense of the child eventually rising to take on the adult’s role of leadership is considered by many to be part of the natural order.

So of course Kylo Ren could not move forward with his goals and ambitions while his father lived.  He needed both the emotional freedom that comes from decoupling the child from his past (gaining orphan status, with which to go forth on his adventure) and also the dynastic sense of succession, becoming a general in his own right–although for a very different cause than the one his father supported.  He tells his father that he needs only one thing in order to move on, and Han Solo, being the good hero and devoted dad that he is, delivers it:  his death.

I wonder what would happen in a more mythically aware version of the scene in which a father, realizing what the son requires, chooses to deliver it by killing himself. . .


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Unused Settings: Aachen, the Imperial City of Germany

I’ve mentioned Aachen in a couple of recent blog posts, and I figure it’s time this beautiful city got its own entry although, alas, it will not appear in my book.

I had the opportunity to visit a couple of years ago on a research jaunt aimed at making my series “more epic,” ie, wider in scope and scale, by expanding beyond England, and in the final two volumes you’ll see the result of that effort (and hopefully love it).

germany 647

Aachen is the westernmost city in Germany, sharing a border with Belgium and the Netherlands, on the Rhine river. If you have the chance to go, I highly recommend taking a river cruise or taking the train to get there.  The entire length of the Rhine is studded with spectacular castles.

Charlemagne visited for the first time in 768, after his coronation as King of the Franks, and began spending all of his winters there (his down-time between seasons of war or or official travel), making it the center of his court.  While he does not appear to have added much to the fabric of the city, he did build his Palatine Chapel (now the cathedral), a sumptuously decorated central plan church, which houses his striking throne.

germany 668

The striking part is, of course, how plain it looks: made of just a few slabs of white marble, with wooden doors to cubbies underneath.  But this throne has its own story.  Those slabs of marble and the steps leading up to them were taken from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  And the cubbies underneath?  During the coronation, the jeweled and gilded Purse of St. Stephen would be placed inside.  This holy relic enclosed dirt from the place where St. Stephen was martyred.  So when a king of Germany sat here, he was symbolically seated in Jerusalem, the center of the world.  Charlemagne had already been crowned, but the throne still held a great deal of significance.

Throne of Charlemagne

Throne of Charlemagne

In the nearby city hall, you can take a marvelous audio tour, which includes a nifty interactive component that makes you a witness to the coronation of a later king, with commentary by everyone from merchants to servants to nobles who might have been present at the event.  I was a little irked that, in the audio tour, they did not fully explain the imperial regalia, replicas of which occupy a nice glass case.  You can see a version of the Purse of St. Stephen here, along with the Iron Crown (which contained a nail from the Crucifixion–okay, one of many nails made from a nail that theoretically came from the Crucifixion)  and Charlemagne’s sword. However, the audio does not explain the significance of these artifact/relics, nor does it even mention the lance: said to contain a fragment of the very lance that pierced the side of Christ.

the Purse of St. Stephen, with the Holy Lance

the Purse of St. Stephen, with the Holy Lance

In Aachen, the enthusiast for medieval history can thus discover how the secular powers sought to claim the imprimatur of the heavenly power with every bit of stone and soil.

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Crowned with Legitimacy: Recognizing a Ruler

Here in America, we are in the throes of a presidential election cycle (you may have noticed. . .)  If one of the candidates sweeps up a large majority of the popular vote in November, that leader will be said to have a “mandate”:  the backing of so many people that their leadership will afford the chance for sweeping change.  Without that mandate, the president will be expected to scale back on campaign promises, to work hard for compromise (wouldn’t it be nice if they did so anyway?) and to be cautious about public polling taking a nosedive.

the "corona" or crown chandelier at Aachen cathedral

the “corona” or crown chandelier at Aachen cathedral

My blogs on the competing Holy Roman Emperors got me thinking about this process of legitimizing a ruler.  HRE Louis was crowned at Aachen, the capital established by the Empire’s founder, Charlemagne, but not by the traditional archbishop, nor was his throne ever recognized by the pope, so his grip on power was tenuous at best, and he and Charles struggled to gain more of the electors to their side in order to claim that legitimacy.

In my novel, Elisha Rex, I have a totally unexpected candidate for the throne of England, based on the power of “laying on of hands,” which was said to be a royal sign, and certain other acts perceived as miraculous–showing that the new monarch had been anointed by the Lord.  This recognition, in the book, comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the prelate of England, and the man who had the authority to crown the king, all signs that lend an air of legitimacy to the unorthodox ruler.

In China, there is a long tradition of the “Mandate of Heaven,” the idea that the celestial bodies, representing the deities, have given their blessing to a particular reign, typically an imperial dynasty, somewhat similar to the idea of the king being “God’s anointed.”  If a challenger succeeded in overthrowing the current dynasty and establishing a new one, the it was clear that the Mandate of Heaven had passed to the new ruler.  Sometimes, this meant presenting or claiming signs of that legitimacy:  portents that would indicate the shift in celestial backing, like finding a message in the belly of a fish, or claiming miraculous birth, as did Liu Bang, the peasant-born founder of the Han dynasty.

Interestingly, the Mongols, who rose from the neighboring steppes under Chinggis Khaan, also perceived themselves as having the Mandate of Heaven–in their case, the Eternal Blue Sky–to spread across the lands all the way to the sea, and every victory they won seemed to legitimize the claim.  But their great khan still required a vote of support from their followers–a sort of hybrid system between the Mandate of Heaven, and the will of the voters.

What will happen in November?  At this point, it’s hard to say–but whoever wins will almost immediately begin to look for the markers of legitimacy, even if they fall short of claiming healing powers or heavenly intervention.


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Relics in the Middle Ages: The Crucifixion

In honor of Easter, which many folks will be observing this weekend, I wanted to look a little more deeply at the role of relics in the Middle Ages.  It’s no secret that medievals were a little mad for relics.  They bought, sold, and traded them, used them as marriage or coronation gifts, and carried them as souvenirs of important visits or as talismans to maintain a close connection to a saint.  Many people could not afford a “true” relic, of course, but they could have handkerchiefs or other bits of cloth, or an ampula of water from the holy destination–or even, from the water said to contain the blood of St. Thomas a Beckett.  Naturally, the exchange of relics was theoretically against Church doctrine, but a gift could be given, for a certain financial consideration. . .

There are several orders of relics, from the actual flesh or bones of the saint, to things that they touched or used.  The most important relics in the Catholic Church are those associated directly with the Holy Family:  the girdle and tunic of the Virgin Mary (not to mention some drops of her milk, and her tears) are carefully preserved in cathedrals in Prato, Italy, and Chartres, France respectively, and there is even a church which claims to have her tomb.

A chapel at Ely Cathedral, England, dedicated to victims of torture displays the "regalia of Christ", including the crown of thorns and scourge

A chapel at Ely Cathedral, England, dedicated to victims of torture displays the “regalia of Christ”, including the crown of thorns and scourge

But the central figure of the Christian narrative, Jesus Christ himself, presents a bit of a problem from the standp0int of the obsession with relics.  Because, according to Christian doctrine, he rose bodily into heaven after his resurrection, you can’t have first-order relics.  Well, save one. . .and that would be the holy foreskin (officially known as the Holy Prepuce).  Possibly the world’s most embarrassing relic, but also the only bit of flesh from the Messiah to remain in the earthly realm.  If you are curious about it, I highly recommend David Farley’s book, An Irreverent Curiosity:   In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic, in Italy’s Oddest Town.

So the faithful are left with other kinds of relics.  The Shroud of Turin is certainly notable, but didn’t arrive on the pilgrimage scene until the 14th century, and may have been a fabrication intended for that very purpose–pilgrimage was big business in the medieval period.  Charlemagne claimed to have the lance which pierced the side of Christ, and it was said that whoever held the lance could not die.  The crown of thorns can be visited in France, but of course some thorns have been broken off and distributed to other churches or monarchs.

We owe the presence of the earliest of these relics, the cross itself and the nails that pierced it, to the persistence of Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, who, after her son embraced Christianity, journeyed to the Holy Land in search of relics to display the new faith to the Roman Empire.  All I can imagine is that the local guides saw her coming. . .over three hundred years had passed since the Crucifixion.   Nevertheless, she found not only a substantial chunk of the True Cross, but also the plaque placed with it.  The largest part of the cross now resides in the church at Rome that bears its name.

Nails are another matter.  Were there three? or four?  Different artists depict different numbers, and archaeological evidence suggests there may have been only two for the feet, while the arms were bound with rope instead. In any case, there certainly weren’t seventeen, in spite of medieval claims on behalf of various nails around Europe. There are currently thirty different places claiming to have parts of the nails (and 50+ hits on e-bay for “crucifixion nails”, though none claiming to be actual relics)  Helena had the nails she brought home melted down and cast into new nails so they (and their holy power) could be more conveniently shared.  One of them was made into a bridle for Constantine’s horse.  Another became part of the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which may have been used to crown Charlemagne, among others.

It’s important to remember, in all of this apparent dealing of relics and bits of the saints, that what people truly wanted–then, as now–was the sense of holding close to something greater than themselves, drawing inspiration from those they perceived as holy.

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Review: Magic, Mysticism, and Hasidism, by Gedalyah Nigal

I picked up this book after discovering it in the bibliography of a couple of other books on Jewish mysticism which I was reading as research material for book 4 in my Dark Apostle series. I wanted more detail on some of the apparently magical powers of certain rabbis and sages, which are relevant to my fantasy novels, and this book delivered.

The book is broken into sections with intriguing subject areas like intermarriage with demons, dybbuks, and kefitzat ha-derekh (“bending the way”–a means of extremely rapid travel used by the righteous). each section then gives numerous examples from both folklore and rabbinical history where these subjects cropped up. It places the examples in chronological order, which is very handy for me because I am focusing on the 14th century, and references much after that are less useful. The book also includes a lengthy section of notes in the back which are easily found (the tops of the pages tell you which page in the book are covered by those notes–why don’t more books do this??)

My first complaint is the lack of context for some of the names. The book assumes a good knowledge of the Jewish sages, by name, place and dates, because it rarely bothers to pin down these details in the text. Without that knowledge, I was sometimes lost and had to cross-reference the names in order to identify the time and place origin of the stories being related. It doesn’t help that the author, while primarily working in chronological order, will occasionally refer to contradictory opinions of scholars from later eras. This makes for a nice mishnah effect with overlapping commentaries, but from an academic standpoint, is a bit dicey.

Also, some subjects did not appear, like the concept of the lamed-vov, the thirty-six righteous ones who are guardians of the Jews, driven by compassion, and without whom the world might be allowed to end.

However, if you are interested in Jewish mysticism, this book contains all kinds of goodies. For the areas the book covers in detail, it is much more engaging than other works I have read. I had not previously found references to kefitzat ha-derehk being used on the water, but a couple of the wonder-workers here sped their boats by use of holy names written on the bow or sails, or understood that the term “golem” might be applied to a soul-less body in general (ie, a corpse re-animated after someone has died), not just a created being as we usually see it applied.

Still haven’t figured out the new system for sending my Goodreads reviews over here, but if you’d like to read more of them, you can find my reviews here.

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