The Hero’s Journey, Oversimplified

The Hero’s Journey is one of the most basic plot types in literature. In 2013, author John Green discussed the hero’s journey in his commencement address at Butler University. In my view, he presented an incomplete view.

Simplified Version of Campbell's Hero Journey
Simplified Version of Campbell’s Hero Journey

In 1949, Joseph Campbell introduced his analysis of the hero’s journey in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell’s analysis was a complex one, with no less than seventeen stages of the journey.

At the Butler commencement, Mr. Green said that most people consider the hero’s journey to be from a state of weakness to a state of strength. He contended the opposite was true, that heroes begin with strength and end with weakness.

“The real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness…Many of you, most of you, are about to make that journey. You will go from being the best-informed, most engaged students at one of the finest universities around to being the person who brings coffee to people, or a Steak n Shake waiter…That is the true hero’s errand–strength to weakness. And because you went to college, you will be more alive to the experience, better able to contextualize it and maybe even find the joy and wonder hidden amid the dehumanizing drudgery.”

I get what Mr. Green was trying to do in the context of a college commencement. He was preparing the graduates for an upcoming period of weakness. Further, he was telling them they would be better people for having thus suffered. Granted, that’s a valuable teaching point.

Let’s take a moment to define what we mean by “strength” and “weakness.” The most obvious connotation is physical. But we can also speak of strength and weakness in the following areas: mental, spiritual, emotional, overall character, and others.

In most hero’s journey tales, the hero will pass from strength to weakness in at least one of those planes. He or she will reach a place of utter weakness and vulnerability of some kind (or multiple kinds) at some point in the story. Either the antagonist or the environment will bring the hero down.

One Possible Hero's Journey Path
One Possible Hero’s Journey Path

But the story never ends there, does it? It’s not a very heroic tale if the bad guy wins. The hero must pick himself up from the bloody boxing ring mat, or she must summon all her courage from somewhere in misery’s abyss, to rise above the situation. The hero must achieve, through personal toil, a kind of strength at the end.

That final strength can include nuance, of course. The defeat of the antagonist can come with a new understanding of the world’s complexities—the bad guy might have had some valid point among his faults, a point deserving exploration. Or perhaps the hero, having sailed his ship through the perfect storm, might come to a realization that he would never do such a thing again.

Such nuance doesn’t constitute a return to weakness, however. On balance, the hero must end in a position of strength.

With respect to the author of The Fault in Our Stars, Mr. Green should not have stopped at weakness in his address. What a gloomy view of life he gave those graduates! He should have bent the curve upward at the end, should have said heroes move from initial strength to weakness, and on to final strength. He should have told them what happens after the “dehumanizing drudgery.”

Sorry, Mr. Green, but hero’s journey tales have to end with strength. That’s the opinion of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Note: You’ve gone and done it now. You’ve waited until the very last day of the Smashwords ½ price sale. Tomorrow my books return to full price. Today is your day to be a hero. Pick yourself up from the depths ofswlogo procrastination and, with your last ounce of strength, surf here, click on a book or two, and use the code they give you at checkout to get the discount.

Please follow and like me:

In the Mood, Revisited

Some time ago, I posted about how to get yourself in the mood to write. Today I’ll come at it from a different slant and suggest you should write even when you’re not in the right mood.

We’ve all been there. There’s a task (say, writing) you should do, and it’s now the allotted time for it. However, you’re not in the mood. Something else has happened to put your mind in the wrong frame.

Typically, it’s some strong, negative emotion like anger or sadness. Someone or something has upset you and left you too distraught to do any writing. You can’t bear the thought of writing, can’t imagine sitting down at a keyboard, not at a time like this.

Writing in the MoodYour mind is filled with raw feelings, and you have no room for anything else. You can’t be creative, not now. You can’t get in the mind of a character right now, can’t be bothered with rules of English, or with choosing the right words. Besides, your novel is a comedy, and you’re feeling the opposite of funny.

I suggest that this is a fine time to sit down and write. Why?

  1. It’s important to preserve the discipline, the habit, of writing. As we know, bad habits are easy to form, and good habits are easy to drop. If you skip a day of writing based on your bad mood today, it’s that much easier to make an excuse for not writing tomorrow.
  1. You might just write better. That raw emotion you’re feeling will find its way into your prose, and might well give it power, lifting its quality above your previous best.
  1. Writing might give you fresh perspective on the cause of your mood. Writing may calm you down. Perhaps the massive problems your characters face will make yours seem less by comparison. As you push your heroic, fictional character to save the world while subduing monstrous evil, the hero you create might just create a hero inside you, a real person who can resolve the problem of the day.

Of course, there will be days when life legitimately prevents you from writing. Sometimes that event that soured your mood requires you to take action. You have to act, to deal with the problem. Writing is important, you know, but it’s a lower priority today.

I get that. But note a key difference. If you must act, do so. If you have nothing to do but sit and stew, then write instead. In other words, legitimate high-priority tasks can be an excuse for not writing, but a bad mood shouldn’t be.

Thanks to Jocelyn K. Glei, since her post with her interview of Seth Grogan about his contribution to the book Manage Your Day-to-Day inspired my own post.

How about that? I’ve just increased your writing time. Now you can write even when you’re in a rotten mood, as does—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Note: there’s a week left in the amazing Smashwords 1/2 price sale, where you can get 14 of my books for half price. Remember, they’re listed there at the full price, but when you click on any one of them, Smashwords gives you a code to use at checkout to get the discount.

Please follow and like me:

Twain’s Attack on Cooper

In 1895, Mark Twain published “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” a lengthy criticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, especially his novels The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer. Since it’s one of the more famous examples of literary criticism, let’s explore it, as well as the overall reasons for such criticism.

Twain vs CooperIn Twain’s acerbic style, he starts by accusing three Cooper-praising reviewers of never having read the books. He then lays into Cooper, saying, “…in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” Twain asserts there are 19 or 22 rules “governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction” and says Cooper violated 18 of them. He lists those 18 rules.

Twain scorns Cooper for over-using certain favorite “cunning devices, tricks, artifices.” He also slams Cooper for some improbable events involving shore water undertows, cannon ball rolling, and footprint erasure by erosion.

At length, Twain ridicules Cooper for creating a forest stream of varying breadth, for conjuring a boat so big as to be unlikely to navigate the stream, and for having five Indians lay in wait for this giant craft and yet miss it when attempting to jump aboard. For several paragraphs, Twain then takes Cooper to task for scenes involving implausible target-shooting with rifles, and eyesight beyond human capability.

In Twain’s judgement, Cooper’s dialogue is inconsistent, and his word choices “dull” and “approximate.”

That’s the summary version of the “Literary Offenses.” Twain’s writing style is humorous and satirical, making the essay fun to read and accounting for its lasting popularity.

Once published, Twain’s essay itself became subject to criticism, and one fine example of this is “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defenses,” by Lance Schachterle and Kent Ljungquist of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.  Schachterle and Ljungquist take Twain to task for attempting literary criticism while accomplishing little more than sniping at the physics of certain scenes. Twain, they say, gets some of his physics wrong, and in the case of the river craft and the awaiting Indians, fills in his own details to prove that Cooper’s scene wouldn’t work.

Laying aside the particulars of the criticisms, why would Twain write such an essay at all? Cooper couldn’t respond, having been dead some forty-four years. (In fairness, Twain didn’t reserve his barbs only for deceased authors. He criticized his contemporaries George Eliot and Robert Louis Stevenson as well.) That gap in time is illustrative, since Cooper wrote in the Romantic style, a style no longer in vogue in Twain’s time.

Was Twain trying to tarnish Cooper’s reputation? That was unlikely to suffer, Cooper having become a best-selling author whose works remained popular well into Twain’s era, and even now.

I suspect Twain, like many writers, chafed at the inexplicable popularity of other authors who didn’t write the way he did. In a sense, he’s criticizing the book-buying public. He’s saying, “Americans, here are the rules for literature, and I adhere to them in my stories. Why do you keep buying books by Cooper, who violates them at every turn?”

Still, who can explain why readers line up to buy certain books and ignore others? What makes a book popular? Strict adherence to Twain’s self-imposed rules doesn’t seem to be the answer; otherwise, we’d be reading little else but Twain.

Similarly, Jules Verne criticized H. G. Wells’ book The First Men in the Moon for using a fictional anti-gravity metal. Wells did not obey rules Verne imposed on himself, and Verne couldn’t understand why readers would accept that.

Authors are free to comment on other authors, of course, but should be wary of applying their own criteria of merit on others, or of assuming readers use those same criteria in their book-purchasing decisions.

I must admit, I’m glad Mark Twain never had the chance to criticize any books by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

One more thing: remember Smashwords is selling many of my books at ½ price through the end of this month. These deals don’t come along often. Buy two or more!

Please follow and like me:

What Do Editors Want, Anyway?

Most beginning writers, especially those who’ve suffered a few rejections, wonder about the answer to this post’s subject question. What do editors want?What Editors Want

I can’t pretend to speak for all editors. I’ve not reached the point where all my stories get accepted. I’ve never worked as an editor myself.

However, a few years ago, one editor* gave me his answer to that question, and it’s a good one. He wrote, “I’m a stickler for a story having not only a clear protagonist, antagonist, and plot, but a resolution of the plot (in which the protagonist participates) and a change in the protagonist on some level. I like stories that, as Twain once said, ‘accomplish something and arrive somewhere.’ Most accomplish nothing and arrive nowhere. It’s dreadful to read through an otherwise good story and have it end without ending.”

Let’s accept that as a working proposition and break it down.

  1. Clear protagonist. The reader shouldn’t have to wonder who the main character is. I believe the editor chose the word ‘protagonist’ rather than ‘hero’ since the main character need not be particularly heroic.
  2. Clear antagonist. Stories must have conflict. There must be some entity against whom the protagonist struggles. The antagonist need not be a person; it could be nature or the environment. Once again, once finished with the story, any reader should be able to name the antagonist.
  3. Clear plot. By this, I believe the editor was saying the story must portray events in a logical order. The events must relate to the conflict and follow each other with a clear cause-and-effect relationship. Some events will escalate tension and others will relieve it. Overall, there needs to be a gradual buildup of tension until the resolution.
  4. Plot resolution in which the protagonist participates. The resolution is that part of the plot where the conflict is resolved (the bad guy is defeated, the two people fall in love, the protagonist overcomes a character flaw, etc.). It’s important that the protagonist take action to bring about this resolution and not be some bystanding witness to the action. Note: the word ‘resolved’ does not imply happily or favorably. Resolution of the conflict could be accomplished by the protagonist’s death or other defeat.
  5. Protagonist changes on some level. If your protagonist is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, the reader will wonder what the point of the story was. The clause ‘on some level’ refers to the fact that conflicts are generally classed as external (bad-guy antagonist or unforgiving environment) or internal (character flaw, irrational fear, grief, unreasonable guilt, psychological problem, etc.). Many stories impose both internal and external conflicts on the protagonist. For internal conflicts, the change should be an overcoming of the condition, or at least hope of such problem solving. For external conflicts, the protagonist’s change is generally a maturation of some kind.
  6. Story accomplishes something. This is part of the Twain quote, and is a restating of points 4 and 5. The plot and conflicts must resolve and the protagonist must change. A great way for a story to accomplish something is if it says something useful about the human condition.
  7. Story arrives somewhere. By this, I take Twain to mean that the story must end at an appropriate point, not before the conflict resolution, and not too long afterward.

Save your editor some time, and save yourself another bout of rejection-grief. Check if your story meets all of the above criteria before submitting it. If it doesn’t, it’s not ready.

Of course, even if your story does meet these criteria, that’s no guarantee of acceptance. Who can pretend to know what all editors want? Certainly not—

Poseidon’s Scribe

* Note: the editor who wrote that is David M. Fitzpatrick, of Epic Saga Publishing. He accepted one of my stories for an upcoming Epic Saga anthology. David has gone into more detail about what he looks for in submissions; see this wonderful blog post here, which includes some great writing exercises, too.

Please follow and like me:

½ Price Sale on Many of My Books!

You’re looking for some great beach reads for your Kindle this summer. You keep hearing about that author—what’s his name?—who everyone is talking about. That’s right, it’s Steven R. Southard, the one who calls himself Poseidon’s Scribe.

You’ve been meaning to read my books, but you keep thinking they’re so darned expensive. Well, you’re in luck. Your wait is over.

For the month of July only, Smashwords is offering many of my books (the ones in the What Man Hath Wrought series) for ½ price! That’s right, get two for the price of one.

Here’s how to take advantage of these great prices. When you click on any book at my Smashwords site, a message will appear telling you to use a specific code at checkout to get the discount.

Here’s the list of stories and their prices during July:

AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians
$2.00

 

RippersRing5Ripper’s Ring
$2.00

 

TimesDeformedHand3fTime’s Deformèd Hand
$2.00

 

TheCometeers3fThe Cometeers
$2.00

 

ToBeFirstWheels4To Be First and Wheels of Heaven
$2.00

 

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry and Last Vessel of Atlantis
$2.00

 

ATaleMoreTrue3fA Tale More True
$2.00

 

TheSixHundredDollarMan72dpi-1The Six Hundred Dollar Man
$1.50

 

ASteampunkCarol3fA Steampunk Carol
$1.50

 

AgainstAllGods4Against All Gods
$2.00

 

LeonardosLion4Leonardo’s Lion
$2.00

 

AlexandersOdyssey3fAlexander’s Odyssey
$2.00

 

WithinVictorianMists4Within Victorian Mists
$1.50

 

WindSphereShip4The Wind-Sphere Ship
$1.50

 

Better take advantage of this limited time offer before Smashwords wakes up and realizes what they’ve done. Heck, you could buy all 14 books for a cool $26. How’s that for value?

Remember, go to Smashwords and grab these deals while they last. Tell ‘em you were sent by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Please follow and like me:

My Story Inspires More Antikythera Mechanism Research

These scientists and anthropologists must have read my story. Is there any other explanation?

NAMA_Machine_d'Anticythère_1
Antikythera Mechanism (from Wikipedia)

ToBeFirstWheels3fLet’s review the timeline. My story “Wheels of Heaven” was published two years ago, in June 2014. “Wheels” tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism, that ancient Greek geared machine found in the seabed wreck of a Roman ship. Then in September of that year scientists mounted a diving expedition to see if they could find more pieces of the device. I blogged about that expedition.

Although the expedition did not uncover any additional gears, there’s been a new development, reported last week here, here, and here. With Computational Tomography (CT) imaging and Polynomial Texture Mapping, or PTM, they’ve discovered the Antikythera machine came with written instructions, a guide to its operation, an owner’s manual etched on its surfaces.

The newly translated 3500 characters of text refer to parts of the mechanism that weren’t recovered, such as a display of spheres representing the Sun and known planets. The text suggests the device wasn’t an astronomical research tool, nor an astrological prediction tool. Rather it was a teaching aid, an astronomy textbook of sorts.

Well, that would have been useful to know when I was writing “Wheels of Heaven.” In my tale, the machine has no display spheres, and no engraved text to read. The character in my story, Drusus Praesentius Viator, is an astrologer, and does use the machine to make horoscopic predictions. I based my story on the best understanding of the Antikythera Mechanism at the time.

Ah, well, science marches on, I suppose. Science Fiction writers are used to new discoveries rendering their stories obsolete. That phenomenon doesn’t happen as often to writers of alternate history, but it’s not unknown.

Of course, “Wheels of Heaven” is not obsolete. Scientists don’t know for sure that the ancients didn’t use the machine for astrological predictions. It would be a simple matter for me to update my story to include the text and display spheres.

AntikytheraMechanismSchematic-Freeth12
Gear Arrangement in the Antikythera Mechanism (from Wikipedia)

Further, I’m not accusing scientists of deliberately trying to undermine my story. They may well be motivated to find the truth about this mysterious artifact. After all, no one credited the Ancient Greeks with having any understanding of gears before finding this machine containing at least thirty meshing gears. Not just simple gears, either, but some are complex epicyclic gears.

Still, I’d like to think some of the anthropologists might have read, and been inspired by, “Wheels of Heaven.” Could my story have sparked some of the research? Who knows?

Maybe you’re a scientist who’s curious about ancient technology. Or maybe you just enjoy reading good stories. Either way, perhaps you, too, could be inspired by reading the works of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Please follow and like me: