Writing dense descriptions and generative rhetoric.

Aside from “What’s best in life?” there are two sentences from the Conan stories that are more or less widely known, even outside REH fans. The most likely winner would be

“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance.”

But I’d say the second is this from the introduction in The Phoenix on the Sword:

“Hither came Conan, The Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyes, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet.”

That is just a sentence, but it’s hard to imagine a more apt and densely-packed description of Conan. It is also widely different from the usual way of writing descriptions (or writing, in general.)

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More limits of description (II)

Following from the previous post, I was going to jump straight into the next part (the writing of dense, cumulative descriptions), but then I realized that post might have left some points unanswered or not appropriately explained. So, in this post, an intermission of sorts, I will try to show, almost quantifying it if possible, the limits of the “painting with words” approach to descriptive writing.

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The limits of description

There are four broad categories of text you can write (exposition, narration, description, and dialogue,) and descriptions are what can give more problems to a fiction or genre writer. To sum up, description isn’t even a good kind of text. We tolerate it because it is required, but the least there is, the better, for reasons I hope will become clear in a moment.

Textual versions of visual phenomena are not good conveyors of information, at least not the kind of information most novice writers believe they should convey (raw visual data.)

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Magic-user versatility within a strict Vancian interpretation (now that’s a lame title if I have ever seen one.)

This post grew from watching a video by Aaron the Pedantic (Twitter: @cha_neg) I saw recently, where he mentions things he (as a new guy with that edition) likes about AD&D, second edition. One of them is the Vancian system of magic, with its well-known memorize & lose style of spellcasting. He believes that the restrictions imposed by such a system are a good thing, as they encourage more thoughtful gameplay rather than just “cast whatever you want.” But, paraphrasing from memory, he says that the system is “At the start of the day you pick up which spells you will memorize…”

Although that is, indeed, how most people play and how Vancian magic is usually explained and understood, the goal of this post is to explain that there’s (or could be) more to it than that, and that I believe (whether it was intended or not when the rules were written) that Vancian magic is very versatile if one follows the memorization process as explained in the Dying Earth books, which implies dropping the assumption of “at the start of the day.” Maybe this might help dispell the idea that Vancian magic is broken or doesn’t work in games, which might be of the reasons later D&D editions ignored it. The point is that people who claim such things are not exactly wrong, for Vancian magic can be unnecessarily restrictive, but I believe this comes from a mistranslation from the books to the games or a too gamey implementation of its logic. Also, I don’t believe my reinterpretation requires new, strange rules because what I’m going to say is implied, yet rarely noticed, in the rules themselves. It might be common-sensical for some people.

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The Narrator and the Reader can know things none of the characters know.

The Narrator is the medium through which storytelling occurs, and the writer is the man behind the curtain that pretends to be the former. The characters in a story should know as much about the two as an ant is required to understand thermodynamics to live and die.

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Nounfall Adverbborn, or The only type of naming convention in fantasy and nerdom

Although slightly silly and inconsequential, the issue in this post points to a more important (philosophical even!) question about the human mind and its relation to speech and language: why do people speak (and write) the way they do? Are we rational agents who, as if homunculi living inside our own skulls, have an idea, and then have to rationally choose the best way to express it? Or are we more like Skinnerian rats who use the words and expressions we use because these have been socioally reinforced and happen to be more effective to achieve a goal we might not even be completely aware of? My experience doing posts about writing and language, as well as observing how people write in what are heavily Skinnerian domains (social media,) makes me think truth points towards the latter. After all, who has never noticed a new expression that everybody seems to be using all of a sudden?

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Goodbye, and Hello.

To keep this relatively short while trying not to degenerate into worthless drama: I’m out. Of where? Now that’s a good question. Of whatever BS has been going on for the past 4-6 years, which has been a complete waste of time for me. Maybe for you it has been a time of great productivity and self-discovery, in which case, congratulations, but for me and, I’m sure, many others, this has been quite useless.

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Reading the Hugos (2020): A Catalog of Storms

This is the final nominee (Disregard that, I actually forgot not just to review another one, but actually to read it! There’s still one more story left) for this year’s short story Hugo Awards, A Catalog of Storms, by Fran Wilde. If you were expecting a roaring end to this review series, you are going to be disappointed.

Fran Wilde wrote years ago one of the few Hugo stories I actually liked, mostly due to its raw, angry energy and somewhat autobiographical content, but A Catalog of Storms has none of those things as far as I can see. To me, it feels like a by-the-book Hugo finalists: wandering, dreamy, with florid language, oozing with magic realism, and with barely any plot or real tension.

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