Swim or Sink?

Or An Examination of the Necessity of Exposition versus Jumping Into a New Fantasy World with Both Feet

 

It is a puzzlement, isn’t it?

Here you are, author, writer, creator of an entirely new fantasy universe. You’ve molded it, raised mountains, named continents, populated cities or underground lairs or alien planets. You’ve set up governments, cultures, languages, concepts of right and wrong, systems of economics, and hierarchies of power. You’ve dotted it with wizards or barbarians, beings of light, striped, carnivorous horses or warrior-bearing dragons.

It’s perfect. It’s amazing. It all fits together with your plot and characters at the center. And now, your only question is, how do you present this gift, this creation of your heart and imagination that took you years to conceive and birth to your readers?

You could drop them into this world – this universe – without an explanation or a life jacket. Expect the reader to be so intrigued, so fascinated that he hangs on long enough to figure it out. You could revel in the mysterious symbols, in the tiny hints and subtle clues that will (hopefully) send the reader in the right direction, to follow your lead to the correct conclusions. You’re expecting a lot, but your momma always told you not to assume your reader is ignorant or oblivious. He’s smarter than you think.

Or, you could explain. You could hand your reader the life preserver of exposition. Using character interaction or dialogue, you could lay out the rules, the players, and the gameboard until he gets his bearings. You could add a forward or a preface. You could find a way in an early chapter to fill him in on the important concepts, the vital statistics of this foreign world.

This dilemma is one every writer faces. Too much exposition, we are told, is boring. “Who are you, Victor Hugo? Prefaces are for brilliant scholars, not for sci-fi or fantasy hacks.” And prefaces are so passé, non?

But, the others say, I don’t get it! Who are these people? What are these words? “Symbolism? Seriously? We’re not in AP Literature anymore!”

Over the past few weeks I’ve read two books by the same author. They are set in the same multiverse, great fantasy/sci-fi stories. The second book (which I read first, of course, in my usual bass-ackwards fashion) gave us conversation and explanation – exposition, using an ‘innocent character’ – someone else as unfamiliar with these strange concepts as the reader. We learned as Violette learned. The first book threw the reader into an evolving story with no explanation, expecting us to be carried along with the fast-paced action with barely a moment to catch our breath.

One author. One fantasy world. Two books. Two different choices.

All fantasy/sci-fi authors have had to make these choices. This is the genre that demands it. The reader is not on Earth in some century that is available for Googling if he wants to know more. This is not a language that anyone at the local Starbucks is speaking. Some authors cleverly reveal the rules and regs of their worlds in bits and pieces as the reader goes along. (Frank Herbert’s Dune disguised exposition as young Paul Atriedes learning about the world Arrakis which would be his new home. Anne Rice told us a story about a vampire as Louis told his life story to a young boy.) Some dump us into their world and stand back to watch us splash around. (Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass is a beautiful example of this method.)

Some readers want an explanation – a list of characters, a pronunciation guide, a map of the world. Some want less – just tell me a story, they say, don’t bog us down in detail.

Is there a right and wrong to this? Is it important which choice an author makes? Is there a happy medium?

Discuss. And, please, let one would-be writer in on the answer if you are in the know.

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“Tepeu’s Tears”

With the gracious author, Lady Soliloque’s, approval and tremendous encouragement, I present “Tepeu’s Tears,” a fan fic set within the multiverse of Enoch the Traveler.

Author’s Notes:  Rated T

Extended scene, Chapter 51a, if you will, of Enoch the Traveler by Lady Soliloque. This is a work of fan-fiction, all characters, scenes, and everything else in this wonderful multiverse belong to the Lady – gratitude to her for allowing her fans to play in it.

Pronunciation guide:

Tepeu – tepAYwa

Ah Peku – ahpeKWA

Chaob – CHAob

Hunhua – WANwah

AhZacumvach – ahzaKOOMwach

Xaman – SHAman

Taat – (father) taAT

 

“Tepeu’s Tears”

 

“I was in Ilopango.”

 

Deacon’s attention was wrenched back to the present, his unseeing gaze lifting from the gnarled trees that lined Violette’s property to rest on the immortal seated beside the window. The two had fallen into an uncomfortable silence after Deacon’s revelation, Enoch’s eyes clouded by shifting sensations as he focused inward, seeming blind and deaf to anything happening around him. Deacon lowered the arm that had been braced against the top of the peeling window frame and turned to face the other man.

 

“Sorry?”

 

One hand laying protectively across the face of his Tempore Cogitatus, Enoch sat back in the carved wooden chair, his shoulders stiff, the planes of his face all sharp angles and deep shadows. “In the year 450, as the people of your race measure time, I was in Ilopango. I had been traveling the multiverse for many lifetimes, freely moving through time and space before –” A momentary pause, a slight, nearly unnoticeable widening of the eyes revealed Enoch’s discomfort. “Before. Let us leave it at that,” he added.

 

Deacon nodded, shifting so that the lowering sunlight was at his back.

 

“I was visiting a community of Mayans along the west coast of the landmass that once linked your western continents. I found their civilization intriguing. Simple and yet sophisticated – their lives were filled with the struggle for day-to-day survival and yet encompassed such art, such science, as many older cultures on older worlds could never have attempted.”

 

The Mayans. Deacon sent a query out into the vast storehouse of his mind. Within the space between seconds he had put together an entire, concise encyclopedia entry on the ancient people – including architecture, religion, literature, and manufacturing. Knowledge, he reminded himself, was not always the same as understanding. He settled onto the edge of the bed, moving slowly and deliberately so he wouldn’t break this spell, this moment of connection with the immortal traveler.

 

“Tell me about it,” he urged, his voice encouraging but not impassioned.

 

Enoch’s gaze flicked towards him and then again into the distance out the open window. “I do not … know … what to tell.”

 

And that obviously bothered Enoch, confused him. Deacon lifted his hands from his knees. “Anything you like, I suppose. Something about the people you met there?”

 

Enoch’s lips thinned as if he bit at them, undecided what memories to share. His eons-molded definition of what was ‘important’ or ‘vital’ was crumbling at the edges.

 

“There was a man.” The immortal nodded once. “Yes. A man named Ah Peku. He was a pottery maker. Very well regarded in his village and all along the trading coast. Every morning, just as the sun rose, he and his children traveled up the ridge to the edge of the lake to collect clay. The oldest boy, Chaob, was club-footed, unable to find work or a mate among the villagers. But he was strong, and could dig deep trenches in very little time to find the rarest earth Ah Peku needed for his art. The middle child – Hunhua – was a shy girl of eight years. She led the burro – an animal that was treated more like a family pet than a beast of burden – up the steep hill. Pampered and fed scraps by the children and adults alike, the burro had one job: it carried two wicker baskets strapped across its back up and down the mountainside every morning. One ready to be lined with green leaves and packed with Ah Peku’s clay, and one full of bread and goat’s milk and fruit for the family’s breakfast.”

 

“And then, the youngest,” Enoch held out one hand about three feet from the floor, “a small boy named Tepeu.” He shook his head, a smile lingering behind his eyes for a heartbeat. “Such clever brown eyes.” He chuckled, caught up in the memory. “And a sharp, honest tongue, as well.”

 

“Are you coming AhZacumvach? Are you? Coming up to the lake?”

 

The small boy jumped and pranced, running first one way and then the other along the footpath. His teeth flashed in his bright, brown face, a smear of dirt already evident on one cheek, even in the early morning hour.

 

“Yes, Tepeu, I am. Does the smoke not keep your father away?” Enoch raised his eyes to the huddled mass of grey that hugged the volcano’s caldera like a dirty shawl. Soon. Very soon, he thought to himself.

 

Tepeu wrinkled up his pug nose. “Taat says the gods are arguing. I think it smells like Ganja’s medicine.”

 

Enoch laughed. Sulfur. The boy was not wrong. “Well, if your father is sure, I will walk with you a while.”

 

Tepeu jumped up and down. “Taat! Taat! The xaman is coming! I can walk with him, yes? Yes, Taat?”

 

Ah Peku turned from his quiet discussion with his oldest son to shoot a stern glance towards his youngest. “Only if you can keep from biting at his ears with your constant chattering, little monkey.”

 

The child caught at Enoch’s hand and tugged him farther up the hill.

 

“Tepeu!”

 

Enoch raised his other hand in an easy dismissal. “It’s all right, my friend.” For now, at least. It would be another few hours before the worst came. He would need both hands, then, to escape the devastation.

 

He and the boy caught up to where Hunhua was walking next to the hairy-eared burro. She’d stripped a thin branch of bark and was whipping the switch through the air, laughing at the buzzing noise it made. Enoch received one smile before the child’s face disappeared beneath a dark curtain of hair.

 

The people of the village had accepted him easily, had welcomed him as a wise-man, a xaman on his spirit-quest, looking for a guide animal to assist him with his magics. Many of the people called him AhZacumvach, the white-faced one, because of his skin color and his alignment with white magic. Enoch had arrived well-prepared, dressing in breechcloth and girdle, his shoulders bare of an elder’s mantle. His clothes and simple necklace of ribbons and feathers had identified him as a man on the cusp of his adult power; one who had chosen a xaman’s path and was setting out on his own to confirm his calling and find a village to claim him.

 

It was the safest role.

 

“Why do you say that?” Deacon asked, breaking into the immortal’s tale.

 

Enoch frowned, what looked like a rebuke on the tip of his tongue before some inward sense choked off his pride. He swallowed back words that seemed to taste of ash and blood and breathed out a sigh. “By passing as a young xaman, or scholar would perhaps be a better word, I could keep myself largely apart from village life, clear of entanglements or pressures to take a place within their culture.”

 

Deacon raised his eyebrows. “’Clear of entanglements,’” he repeated. “You wanted to observe them, these people, these families, and yet still stay aloof, unaffected by anything that happened to them.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“To learn about them – about that time period – without getting involved.”

 

Enoch’s frown was growing deeper. “Of course.”

 

Deacon dropped his head into his hands, trying to smother the sick laughter that tried to crawl up his throat. “That’s –” He took a moment to breathe, to put his tumbling thoughts and knee-jerk accusations into nonjudgmental, unemotional terms. This man – this cold, immortal, arrogant, disaster of a man who had watched, unmoved, while others suffered and fought and died, was drowning in Violette’s emotions. In fears and worries and pain and loss. Even resting in the hospital, even after her small taste of Joshua’s healing, Violette’s mind would be churning with memories completely foreign to this mysterious being. A human woman – the most human woman Deacon had ever met – was broadcasting each sensation straight to Enoch’s immortal heart. Deacon should be amazed Enoch could talk at all.

 

Keeping his expression carefully controlled, Deacon turned back to the window, away from Enoch’s assessing gaze. The scene painted itself before him – three children and their father in the misty morning light, nothing on their minds except a daily journey, the love of their father, the smell of fresh bread overlaid with sulfur like an omen. He could see young Tepeu squirming at Enoch’s side. Shy Hunhua, one hand rubbing the burro’s soft downy coat. Chaob limping up the mountain, the short shovel held over one shoulder. And Ah Peku, leading his beloved children towards a horrible, needless death.

 

Deacon, his face still hidden from the immortal, felt his anger fray to tatters by the sorrow he knew was to come. “Please continue,” he whispered.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

He blinked, eyebrows twitching. What was it that he heard in Enoch’s voice? Sympathy? Concern? Deacon shrugged and then nodded his head. “Please.”

 

“Very well then.” Enoch cleared his throat. “The people of the village knew me as a young xaman, still searching for guidance from the gods. They knew I would not take one of their daughters in marriage, nor would I challenge their own ah k’in, or town priest. They trusted that I would stay for a time, earn bread and bed with ointments and small prayers and then leave them alone. And so they were free to welcome or to ignore me as they wished.” He paused, the old wooden chair creaking as he shifted his weight. “Ah Peku and his family were unusually gracious … not unlike the Lady Violette.”

 

Deacon closed his eyes and allowed the mountain trail to come to life all around him.

 

“Work first, play after,” Ah Peku shouted, laughing. He steered Chaob by one shoulder, never hurrying the crippled teen, just encouraging him towards one end of the smooth, grey lake. Hunhua followed, tugging on one of the burro’s ears.

 

“Be careful, little monkey!”

 

Tepeu was racing across the uneven carpet of grass and gravel, outdistancing all of his elders, angling towards a thick-trunked tree that stood sentinel at the leading edge of the jungle. “AhZacumvach! Come! Help me climb!”

 

Enoch hurried over, feeling the rough vibration of the earth beneath his bare feet, stealing a long look at the gathering storm of the volcano as he joined the child beside the massive trunk. Massive. The tree was easily the width of his outstretched arms, the bark wrinkled and gnarled like an arboreal grandfather. This was not a sacred tree – a ceiba, lined with thick, sharp thorns. The World Tree, of Mayan religion. No, this old man was smooth-barked and majestic, and it called to Enoch as a perfect structure for his portal. He smiled down at Tepeu’s eager expression. The tree clearly called to the small boy, too, but for entirely different reasons.

 

Tepeu held up his arms and danced from foot to foot. “Please, xaman! Please! Lift me up!”

 

The lowest branch was far out of reach, the trunk too wide for purchase. Enoch eyed the boy and then measured off the distance in his mind. “Ah Peku?”

 

The potter was already on his knees, breechcloth tucked up front and back, out of the mud, pointing out the trench he and his oldest son would cut in the soft earth. He rocked back on his heels and, eyes sparkling, watched his son’s antics for a moment. “You hold on tight, Tepeu! There is no room on the burro for a silly boy with a broken leg.” He nodded at Enoch. “Don’t throw him too high, xaman. My boy would only make mischief among the stars.”

 

Enoch caught Tepeu in his arms, startling a squeak from the child, and then began to swing him back and forth, back and forth, the upward arc growing higher each time. Tepeu’s squeal turned into delighted shrieks and he reached out with both hands for the lowest branch.

 

“Ready?” Enoch called.

 

“Ready! Ready!”

 

Enoch tossed the child towards the tree and waited, watching, arms upraised to catch Tepeu if he missed his grasp. He need not have worried. The child clung to the branch with both hands and then lifted his legs to hook his ankles up as well.

 

“Taat! Look! Look at me!” he sang. “I will find the best, thickest leaves now!”

 

“You had better, monkey!” his father called back, shaking his head. “You make our AhZacumvach earn his breakfast catching them!”

 

The family now busy with the chores that would allow their father to present the best examples of his art for trade, Enoch stepped closer to the shelter of the tree and observed. Across the lake, the dark soil was peppered with shining black rock long cooled from the last eruption of the great volcano. Here, on the farthest shore, surface-rooted trees and undergrowth had taken hold during the quietus of the past two hundred years. The jungle was so full of green, growing things that nothing could quell its nature for long – life leaped in to fill any void.

 

The cloud was growing, crawling down the sides of the mountain and billowing upwards in dense curls that turned the early morning light into grim shadow. Lightning flashed within it, loud blasts that Enoch knew were not thunder sounded more and more frequently. As Tepeu chattered above him, tossing down handfuls of leaves that fell around Enoch’s feet, unheeded, he watched Ah Peku lift his head, brow furrowed. Somewhere down in the man’s soul, the artisan and father realized that this was not a normal storm. That the odor of sulfur, the clash of rock, and the oppressive cloud added up to something far more dangerous. He glanced over at Enoch, a question on his lips.

 

Enoch had already set his Tempore Cogitatus to take him to a safe distance in the same timeline. His hand was raised, hovering just a few inches away from the bulk of the tree’s trunk. Ready. The explosion would come any moment now and would send lava and rock and ash up in a gigantic plume over 16 miles high. And then death would fall on Ah Peku and his children, on the village, on the men and women who lived in the mountain’s shadow. Some would escape, he knew, but the culture would fall, here in the highlands. He had to be ready.

 

“Xaman?”

 

He looked down into Hunhua’s eyes. She had drawn close beside him while he watched the mountain. Close enough to touch him, to grasp the edge of his girdle with one small fist.

 

“Hunhua,” he said, his gaze flicking back and forth between her fearful eyes and the now rumbling, roiling cloud, “you should go to your father.” Enoch couldn’t allow her to keep hold of him or she would be sucked into the portal with him when he departed. “Hurry, now.”   He gently unhooked her fingers and encouraged her with a hand between her shoulders.

 

Just then the tremors of the ground changed from a constant shivering to a shuddering throb. Beneath the ground, the mountain was gathering its fiery breath, inhaling for the last time.

 

“Go!” Enoch shouted, all but hurling the child away from him.

 

The burro was running towards the trailhead, long ears laid back along its head. At the edge of the lake, Ah Peku held onto his oldest son, steadying them both, his eyes, wide with terror, speared Enoch with a stare filled with fear and rage. In that single moment, he knew. He saw his children’s death in the mountain’s roar and in Enoch’s level gaze.

 

And this doomed man, this father, hated him.

 

Enoch watched for another few heartbeats, felt the first explosion through the long bones of his legs, heard the roar of fire and rock through every pore, and saw the tall plume of death through eyes that had witnessed the cracking of suns, the extinction of beings, the breaking apart of worlds. As the first shower of searing ash and rock began to fall, tearing leaves, pattering on rock, and burning tender skin, Enoch swept his hand across the great trunk and opened the portal.

 

Just as his foot moved across the threshold, he looked up into Tepeu’s bright eyes, now wet with a child’s pure tears. And then he was gone.

 

“I moved farther into the jungle, in the same timeframe, within the same world and universe. A safe distance from the volcano’s rain of death. I remember being absorbed by its beauty, the awe of nature’s balance, the way the cloud of its eruption fell over one small part of creation and yet the entire world would feel its impact.”

 

Deacon felt each tear as it tracked down his cheeks. Unashamed, now, he turned towards the immortal man.

 

“And now, Enoch? With all that you have seen and experienced between that moment and this one, what do you think now?”

 

Enoch was pale, hands clenching and unclenching where they lay on his thighs. His gaze finally focused on Deacon, took in his tears, his hitching breath, and the misery that must be broadcasting from his soul. “Now? Now … I’m not sure. I’m not sure that … what I did … what I didn’t do …” He broke off, confusion stealing the immortal’s customary certainty.

 

Deacon managed a deep breath. “‘It is impossible to understand a culture, to observe a civilization – humanity itself – by looking in from the outside.’” He’d once been rebuked – oh, so gently – by the same words.

 

“You speak as if you are quoting another.”

 

“I am,” Deacon admitted. “It is a truth that I’ve learned very slowly over the centuries. A truth that I freely share with you.” He willed that hard-won truth to take root in the immortal’s soul, to find a place there to grow until Enoch was able to absorb it. Deacon had done his share of running, of hiding, of standing off, aloof from the world. It didn’t work.

 

A shadow of loss, of sorrow, drifted across Enoch’s face. “It is all that I have known.”

 

Deacon tried another way. “Why do you think that memory is one that you chose to share with me?”

 

Enoch shook himself from his thoughts, his gaze growing deliberately calm, that familiar reserve attempting to tighten down his features into accustomed lines. “Because you shared your tale – your history among these people in this part of the multiverse.”

 

Acknowledging the other man’s words with a tilt of his head, Deacon leaned in, elbows on his knees. “I think it’s because it bothers you, Enoch. Even after all of the centuries that have passed, even with all you’ve seen and all you’ve done since then, those brown eyes stare back at you from your dreams – your nightmares.”

 

“I do not have –”

 

“You do.” Deacon cut him off, his voice barely audible in the still air of the bedroom. “You have nightmares – or you will now. Nightmares. Regrets. That hollow feeling when you wake up in the middle of the night and Tepeu’s tears are all you can see. Nickolov used Violette’s tears to crack open the shell you’ve built around your soul. And there’s no going back.”

 

Deacon watched his words hit Enoch like bullets, saw the immortal flinch and sway in the old wooden chair, barely holding himself upright. His own eyes were dry, his spirit certain that he had said and done all he could. He rose and moved towards the door, ready to stop, to turn back, at one word. At the threshold, Deacon stood a moment, listening to Enoch’s rough breaths.

 

And, a moment later, he took his place again at the immortal’s side. He could afford to wait a while. To remember with Enoch. To do homage to a young boy’s tears.

Raise Your Hands and Say “Enoch!”

Image

 

I’ll admit … I’ve doubted. I’ve shut down my laptop at the end of a nonproductive day and sighed, “No, Lord. I can’t do it. I’m not good enough.”

(Amen. Preach it sister.)

I’ve re-read pages with grinding and gnashing of teeth and then, in my weakness, hit Ctrl+A Delete.

(Yes. Yes.)

I’ve lain awake at night, staring up at the blank white ceiling of my bedroom and searched deep … I say DEEEEEP … into my imagination –

(Come on, come on)

And found nothing but trite clichés and overused plot-lines. Dialogue full of churning angst and descriptions filled with those words – yes, and I say yes, again! – THOSE words! The words of evil. The words of darkness and (novel) death.

The words that end in ‘ly.’

(Shocked gasps. No, sister, no!)

Yes! And I’ve bowed my head and wept.

(Umm-hmm. General head shaking.)

But then –

(Yes. Yes.)

Then, when I thought all hope was lost –

(Preach it, preach it!)

When I knew, in my heart of hearts, that nothing would ever be good enough –

(Come on, come on!)

Then! Then I went to … TIMEGATE! And I met a woman … a woman who had fought the good fight!

(Amen! Preach it!)

A woman who had persevered! Who had seen the light at the end of the tunnel and Lo! It was not a train!

(Amen!)

Lady Soliloque! She showed me the light! That a fan fic writer/vidder/geek/fan/nerd could do it! She could write! She could write a novel!

(Preach it!)

She could write a good novel!

(Amen!)

She could write a great novel! One that was published! And that could be made into an audio drama starring a cute Welsh actor!

(OOOOO! A-MEN!)

And then into a television SERIES!

(WA-HOO! Amen! Organ plays and hands clap in rhythm.)

And so can I!

(Crickets.)

Hey!

(Sorry, that was a largish leap of faith there, sister.)

Where my people at?

(Oh, we’re still here, just sort of waiting …)

Well, wait away, but, after meeting Lady S, listening to her wonderful team of talented voice and screen actors, and delving into this new world, this multiverse that she has created, I am encouraged!

(That’s good.)

I am excited!

(Good, good.)

I’ve even written my first Enoch fan fic!

(Writing is good!)

I am more convinced than ever that I can do it! I can write my novel!

(Don’t get a big head, now.)

And I am humbled that she could conceive of and write a fantasy novel that encompasses a multiverse like this one in just ONE YEAR.

(Yikes! You’d better get going! You’re behind!)

You’re right!

(So, what are you doing here, blogging? What’s Matthias up to? What mischief is Deok getting into? What are the Grey Robes and how do they figure into your alternate history?)

Geez, give me a break!

(Sorry.)

I’m blogging today to tell everyone about Enoch the Traveler. And to advise you to go NOW and get the book from Amazon.com, to get the iTunes radio drama, and to follow Enoch and LadyS on Twitter and Facebook to hear all about what’s happening in the multiverse. Get on board. Travel with Enoch. You won’t regret it.

(…. Are you done? Got your coffee? Got your Spotify on the right station? Then sit down and write your novel, sister! )

Amen!

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