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What I Learned about Writing this Week…from Jeff Long

Or: Pop Quiz, Hotshot

Today, dearest inklings, I have a pop quiz for you. Oh noes! Not da quiz! Quick, everbody pull out your handhelds and scroll through past WILAWriTWes! Cram for this impromtu test as fast as you can!

*ahem* Just kidding. No cramming necessary. This is an easy one, I promise. Ladies and gentlemen, you may open your test envelopes now…drumroll, please…and here you go:

From the options below, choose the one that best completes the following statement.

For as long as Courtney can remember, reading has been one of her…

  • (a) major vices.
  • (b) favorite escape mechanisms.
  • (c) favorite guilty pleasures.
  • (d) best teachers.
  • (e) all of the above.

Of course, any one of those answers would be correct; but, as you might have guessed (educatedly, I assume), (e) is the most applicable. I’m not sure how old I was when I started learning to read (in English), but it was well before I started first grade (which is when German schools typically begin teaching reading). “Voracious reader” is such a cliche term — but really, I have been constantly hungry for books and books and more books for as long as I can recall.

In 2009, I read 49 books. I don’t know how many I read per year as a teenager, but I do know I used to read a lot more than I do now. And, without lengthening this preamble any further, my favorite of these guilty pleasures have always been those that transport me to another world, another time, another place…while retaining some connection to my real world, that the child within me might ever believe and hope that those alien, fantastical wonders could be around my very next corner.

Descent Into Fantasy

As of this writing, I am just over halfway through The Descent by Jeff Long. My task for this WILAWriTWe is to talk about this novel without giving you too many spoilers — because this novel is getting a high READ THIS! recommendation from me. The story is full of fascinating twists and ooh-I-like-this moments, and I don’t want to rob anyone of the pleasure of discovery. So I will attempt to tread gently.

Long’s novel is set in our modern world (the first scene taking place in “modern” 1988). Incident by incident and character by character, individuals and cities and nations discover an ancient network of subterranean caves and tunnels apparently spanning the entire globe. And lest anyone get the idea that the story concerns the joys of spelunking: This ancient, subterranean cavesystem is inhabited by an ancient, subterranean race of sub(?)-humans — who are not terribly pleased about the surface dwellers’ invasion of their territory.

From one scene to the next, Long takes his readers on a journey from the surface into the depths. But don’t expect Verne-esque dinosaurs and giant mushrooms; Long’s below-ground world is more reminiscent of a place where Gollum might feel at home. Exposure to gases metamorphoses normal, healthy tissue into something we don’t want to recognize. Pale, fishy white is the only native skin color. The things that live down there don’t like the light…and they are always hungry.

Nope, it’s not a happy fantasy. But it is utterly fascinating and what I call an UPDA read: UnPutDownAble. In fact, as I’m writing what you’re reading, I’ve had to leave the book on the other side of the room, hoping that out-of-sight will help me resist picking it up. Since I’m writing about the book, thereby unable to keep it out-of-mind, this ploy is not working terribly well.

Light in the Darkness

Long’s story unfolds from the point-of-view of four main characters and a handful of side characters. At the halfway mark, the two MCs I’m most interested in are deep within and going ever deeper into the cave-tunnel system. Among other interesting and spooky things, they discover a lichen that sprouts a stalk to attract flatworms. (What is it with two WILAWriTWes in a row referencing worms, anyway?) These stalks glow in the dark, their sheer numbers dispelling the darkness with phosphorescent light. This light is a visual and emotional relief to the explorers, who are adapting to their extended time underground but still long for the simple yet magnificent blessing of sunshine.

In the same way, Long lets the reader return to the light by interspersing the explorers’ scenes with briefer scenes taking place aboveground. Most of these involve the other main characters, who have a vested interest in below-ground happenings. But Long also mixes it up with events concerning individuals who make but a single appearance on this story’s stage. Their particular purpose is to hint at what the subterranean inhabitants are up to while Our Heroes carry on the adventure.

Three Scene Types

Thus, halfway through the novel, Long is telling his story with a particular combination of scenes that best keeps me hooked:
one or two protagonists wholly immersed in the fantasy world
a handful of side characters dabbling in the fantasy world
and a sprinkling of foils and antagonists to continue piquing my curiosity about the true motivations of the fantasy world’s denizens.

Dear inklings, I couldn’t put this book down even if I wanted to.

A novel of this type — with multiple POV-characters, set in multiple arenas — is a courageous undertaking not for the faint of heart. Were I the type to keep my feet on the ground at all times, I would advise you not to try this at home. I would tell you that you need more practice first (as do I). I would advise you not to attempt a noveling feat of this sort until you have oodles and gobs of writing experience under your belt.

Laugh in the Face of Danger

But oodles and gobs of experience can get uncomfortable, especially when crammed under a belt. So join me, dear readers, in throwing caution to the wind. Let’s not be intimidated by the magnitude of any undertaking. Yes, this sort of story is complicated. Yes, it requires diligence and vigilance (there those are again) in keeping your characters straight — in your head as well as on the page. Yes, we need to prepare before we strike out on such a quest.

But strike out upon it we should! Try it, if you haven’t already. Tell us in the comments if you have — and share the ups and downs, ins and outs of your experience. Tell us in the comments if you’ve wanted to embark upon so ambitious an enterprise — and share what’s been holding you back. Let’s grab each other’s hands and plunge into the darkness of the writerly unknown…and trust that there will be plenty of phosphorescent lichen-stalks to light our way.

And that’s WILAWriTWe. Please excuse me now — I’m off to check my closet for Narnia. Or maybe do some more reading. It’s practically the same thing.

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Photo credit Julie V. Photography.

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