The Only True Grail

As a writer, I strive for the moment of awe.  I know myself and my abilities, and I know at most, most of the time, I come closer to the moment of “aw” which can be achieved just as profitably by looking at a picture of a cute kitten hugging a teddy bear.

But I know what I want to do – where I want to go – I’ve been there.  Not often.

Books don’t have that much impact on me anymore.  Oh, I’m not saying I’m jaded – okay, I’m jaded – but I’ve been reading stories since… well… I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read or didn’t like to read stories.  I think the earliest stories I read were Disney comics (don’t judge me!) and “read” might be a slight misnomer, since I learned to “read” them by memorizing the words my brother read and associating them with the pictures depicting the action I remembered.  Somewhere there, along the line, in the back brain, something went spring, and I associated sounds with those funny scratches people made in the interesting pictures.

That very method of learning to read (but not to write.  I’m actually profoundly dyslexic and my dad made me learn to write by making me do a copy of a page a day. Because he would pick whatever came at hand at the moment: history book, economics text or the newspaper, I was the only first grader who could spell socio-economic, but had issues writing “much” (It’s not phonetic in Portuguese, and as pronounced in my area it was even less so.  I couldn’t believe there wasn’t an nh around there somewhere.))

Anyway, I found that “story” is addictive, and I’d do anything to get more.  Portugal at the time (I really don’t know now) had no lending libraries.  Public libraries were more like the library of congress here, containing only books by Portuguese authors, and mostly only “worthy” books by Portuguese authors.  One copy.  Valuable.  To be read in-situ with gloves.

Fortunately I came from a long line of people who had ruined themselves at the booksellers (my dad knew more used book sellers than I think anyone else in the country – though I discovered one, when I was a teen, that he didn’t know about.  It dealt in French and English books only, in the original language.)

Unfortunately, I ran through the family store of books and read even the unlikely ones, like Joseph and his Brothers and all of Pearl S. Buck by fourth grade.

By the time I was ten I had cultivated entire friendships because the “friends” had a lot of books I wanted to read; I had raided and smuggled home to read (and return) books that my friends parents’ bought and never read (one of my friends had a father who bought the equivalent of time-life collections

This is not meant to brag about how much I read – look, it wasn’t on purpose.  I was seduced by story.  I understand junkies in a way – but to explain how I got some immunity to novelists’ tricks.

I remember being absolutely riveted by the suspense in Castle of Adventure (Enid Blyton) – and I can relive a little of that, when I read it, because I remember it.  And I remember when the IDEAS in Out of their Minds (Clifford Simak) were oh, wow! Mind blowing!

But as I got older “awe” was more difficult.

Awe is the mirror moment.  Not the mirror moment for the character in the book (though it can be that too) which is the moment when the character is forced to drop all his disguises and pretenses and see himself for what he REALLY is – but the mirror moment for the reader.  The moment when you see through the story, and experience something real, something true: the moment the book becomes you and you become the book, and the experiences in the pages hit you at a gut level.

It’s very rare for me, these days.  Pratchett manages it: the final battle in Night Watch.  The “crawl through hell” in Thud.   Heyer (who was a recent discovery for me, as in in the last ten years) manages it, particularly in The Infamous Army or A Civil Contract.  Agatha Christie managed it when describing artists in The Hollow.

Heinlein manages it reliably in a sudden shock, where I feel tears come to my eyes: the end of I Will Fear No Evil; the part in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress where Mike won’t answer.  And two years ago, while listening to a book I’d never read – Rolling Stones – the moment when Hazel Mead/Stone is thought to be dead.  That one was a doozie, because I’m walking with headphones on, and suddenly – downtown! – I’m crying, and people are staring and I’m trying to stop, but the narration is pulling me along, and I’m THERE.

The moment of awe is when you forget you’re a reader with a physical body and you ARE in the book/you are the book/you experience joy or triumph or fear, and it pulls you right along, and when you’re done, it leaves you tired and wrung out, as if you’d just lived through everything you read.  And it stays with you. Later, in a situation, this scene will come to mind, and you’ll realize emotionally you’ve been there before and this is what it means.

As a writer, the easiest moments of awe to manage are gross outs.  This is why so many new authors lovingly describe corpses, or do the equivalent of what Kate Paulk calls “the meaty skull style of art.”

The next easiest is … sex.  This is because we are a horny species.  You really need very little to get people putting in their own feelings and ideas there – and in fact, it’s best if you restrict it to sort of the universal common denominators.  Get too far into what does it for you (a newbie mistake) and you risk having people go “Uh, really? Caterpillars?  How interesting.”)  But paint in broad enough strokes (eh eh eh eh eh eh eh, I said strokes) and add shades of the forbidden but not too forbidden (tie me up, tie me down) and voila!  People will add their own frisson and you have awe… of a kind.  (A turgid and non permanent kind.)  This is why so much porn is wretchedly written.  It needs no more than that.

The next easiest after that is fear.  It’s relatively easy – particularly in short stories – to have the monster jump out of the box and scare someone.  Okay, it’s not that easy.  It requires some weaving of tale and word magic.  BUT it’s not that difficult, either.

These are easy because they’re primary colors.  They’re also deceptive.  A beginning writer MIGHT think he/she knows “plot” when in fact the book has no plot at all. The writer has just kept up interest by throwing in enough sex or gross-out.  (And there’s a pitfall, if your sex or gross out interest/threshold is not the same as the general public.  You’ll find that out by the public’s stern refusal to buy, but it can be baffling if you think you have a plot.)

The other stuff: sudden self-recognition, love, experiencing sympathy with the character, or a sudden understanding of the world… oh, those are much harder.

But they’re the thing that makes a book live.  Shakespeare manages it, across the centuries.  It’s not all pretty words.  It’s that he captures experiences which still speak to us.  Jane Austen too.  And, yes, even Dumas.  (For some reason the one that speaks most to me is the part where Porthos and his servant are holed up in the inn terrorizing the innkeepers… never mind.  I’m a low creature.)

The grown up emotions are HARD.  They’re also what stays behind.  I learned how to cope with some of these grown up emotions in books.  I learned about loyalty and friendship, and creativity and honor by reading about them until they became part of me.

And I aspire to do that to/for readers.  Can I?  Who knows?

I don’t think I’ll even know if I’ve succeeded.  But it’s something to strive for.  For a writer, perhaps, more than money or accolades (though those would be nice too, any time now, Lord.  I promise I wouldn’t let it spoil me) the only thing to strive for.

Because we paint with emotions and experiences, not with words, and our ultimate canvas is the human heart.


  1. Foist!
    In film school, i was forced to suffer through scene readings and short stories and script segments by dozens of Quentin Tarantino wannabees who thought they had mastered plot and storytelling when all they had mastered was ripping off the last movie they saw, and throwing in scenes from the most popular ‘edgy’ movies they had seen for the preceding year.

    1. Yes. In non-visual media it’s usually either sex scenes, ick scenes, crying — as in the author is crying, the character is crying, the reader is bored — or Mary Sue.
      I always tell people to be suspicious of “unearned emotion” when they’re beginner writers.

        1. That is a huge key. Also, you need to exaggerate things on paper so they’ll seem realistic tot he reader. That means your character needs to be more noble, more fuzzy, more whatever than normal humans.
          I was thinking about this, and it’s hard to explain because it’s the essence of art — it’s what we all pursue — so I can’t give you the magic key, but it’s composed of things like “make your characters “more”” and “don’t let your character cry” and “make the story themes echo and resonate, not be disposable scenes.”
          Damn it. I feel another series coming on.

          1. That’s something the better actors know, too: Cry, or laugh, and the audience won’t. Come to the edge of it, and they will.

  2. But is there any way to do it on purpose? I suppose that horror is easy enough to do on purpose, and sex… Family might be relatively easy to do on purpose… hit that note where people long to belong to that fundamental social structure, being the social animals that we are. Death and loss, maybe… But the other part? The sudden understanding of the world. Do readers even hear the same notes?

    I sort of wonder if those of you who might have had a reader tell you “This part *here* spoke to me,” if the most likely thing is to think… that part? Why that part?

    1. I sort of wonder if those of you who might have had a reader tell you “This part *here* spoke to me,” if the most likely thing is to think… that part? Why that part?

      Well, I certainly have seen a similar thing from one reader to another. Someone will tell me that a certain passage or scene in a book or movie moved them, and I’ll usually have to suppress an urge to go, “Really? Ugh.” (with a nauseated expression).

      I don’t know if anything has ever really moved me at the time of reading. Maybe, but I can’t remember anything. On the other hand, I get moved about weird things: If you’ve ever read any of the earlier Tom Swift books, Eradicate Samson, when I stopped to think about it, is probably the most awesomely American character I ever read. He wasn’t particularly bright, but he went around with his mule and cart, worked hard and honest, and took up new skills when opportunity came along, making do with what he could get to do his job. THAT realization moved me, but not particularly while I was reading.

  3. There’s a scene at the end of Susan Cooper’s novel “The Dark is Rising” where Will Stanton’s brother is playing a tune on an antique flute . . . or is he? Because Will hears the music that means a portal is opening and closing, and he (and this reader) know that he’s gained something but lost it as well. I first read the books as a teen and that moment struck me, and sticks with me. I have a few ideas as to how Cooper achieved that awe, but part of me doesn’t want to dissect the book because of losing the magic. *half-sad little smile*

  4. Ah, that sense of awe…

    The death of Sturm Brightblade upon the battlements. The decision of Raistlin Majere to NOT take over the world after all. The death of Primrose Everdeen in the attack on the capital. What I try to accomplish when my MC watches his father die, knowing that if things had just gone a little bit better and help arrived a couple of minutes sooner he may not have, and then sees something positive come of it anyway.

    Notice I said trying.

    Yeah, I love that feeling although there are times when it makes me want to kick an author Right. In. Their. Teeth. after they kill off one of my favorite characters. Just once, I’d like to hear someone tell me I did this for them. The problem being that the only time I’ve ever been asked for a second helping of my writing it was my humor stuff that I do just for S…s and giggles. Ah well, I’m still a beginner. There’s still hope, right?

    1. I don’t know how often I’ve heard that humor is harder.

      I do think it might be true, though. Hitting “funny” is at least as hard as hitting “sad.”

      1. There is a trick to humor. It’s called the absurd and the deadpan drop. You build absurd on absurd on absurd, and then in the end dead pan drop.
        Say, after all the Benet sisters have eloped, Mr. Benet opens a coach service to Gretna Green.
        Or you talk about someone who built a rocket to mars, and in the end his big issue is that you couldn’t get a wind up key large enough. It’s that very mundane ending that starts the laugh.
        Pratchett does this by running both the high flight absurd and the relatively normal, but keeps surfacing, as threads through the whole book.
        One key to humor: if your characters/situation are absurd, the rest of the book needs to be played straight. And vice versa.

  5. The best compliment I’ve gotten so far is from my beta reader Rachel when I sent her a chapter I had worked long and hard on, because it was an emotional rollercoaster – and very hard to write. She wrote back, “This section I am reading with the mental equivalent of curling into a small ball, with my chin pressed into my palms.”

    If I can evoke that kind of emotion, I’m set. She sets a high bar – and now I think ‘torture Rachel’ when I write. But it really, really keeps me on my toes: I only get that reaction when I put the work in, and when I make myself very uncomfortable doing it.

    ‘Taint easy.

  6. And, yes, even Dumas. (For some reason the one that speaks most to me is the part where Porthos and his servant are holed up in the inn terrorizing the innkeepers… never mind. I’m a low creature.)

    Interesting choice. I’ve read The Three Musketeers (found it a bit dark for me at the time–however my tastes have changed so it might be worthwhile to revisit it) and The Comte de Monte Christo, but the real “moment” for me was in the movie version (the one with that de Cappuccino guy) near the end when the second in command of the palace guard (IIRC) pointed at d’Artagnon and said “All my life, all I ever wanted to be . . . was him.”

    Damn . . . that moment.

    You see, I grew up with heroes. I grew up with comics during the late Silver Age, Superman was the Big Blue Boyscout, when Batman wasn’t the cowled psychopath, when Robin was starting solo adventures with Batgirl (and while I knew I could never be Batman, I thought maybe Robin was achievable). I wanted to be the hero, dammit, or if not the hero, at least a competent sidekick.

    Then I grew up and got “respectable”. But a part of me never quite grew out of that.

    And so I like to write about heroes that are really heroes because I figure that there are other people out there, like me, who want to read about them.

    And that’s why I love the idea of Human Wave.

    1. Yes, but that was only the movie version — not in the book. In the books, the great pay off is at the end of Viscomte de Bragelone, when three of the four die, and how they die.
      In the book, my big EMOTION moment was when Athos comes in to protect the others, then passed out. That was the first time I realized guys were different (I was 11) and got a crush.

      1. Oh, I know it’s just the movie version, but I cited it because it was a really powerful scene to me. That one line just summed up so much of my life and dreams.

        I gave up on comic books, not because I outgrew them but because they “outgrew” (if you can call it that) me. In the interests of being “real” and “relevant” and “real” they wanted their heroes to be “flawed” by which they meant “scarcely better than the villains”.

        I saw it in prose fiction as well. Bleah people living bleah lives with not a hero to be found. (And I cannot thank you enough for starting this Human Wave movement.)

        When I saw the movie, I wrote out an anguished essay on the usenet group “rec.arts.comics” titled “Where have all the heroes gone.” The one line just struck so deeply to the core of my being.

        I will never be that hero. I like to think that the dream, however, might make me a better person than I would have been.

        And so I leave you with this musical interlude:

        1. I think that people misunderstand the concept of “flawed”. I also think that “hero” is what is done in spite of the flaws. Sort of Paul’s lament that what he desired to do, he failed to do, and what he wanted not to do he did anyway… not perfect but striving against those flaws and at constant war with himself. What messes up the notion of “flaws” is when it’s about giving up the ideal and being comfortable with some other standard. It’s how I view Human Wave, actually… It’s not that everyone meets the standard, it’s that there *is* a standard. I view it as being about the ability to somehow overcome and to triumph when it really counts. That’s worth looking up to, I think.

          I wrote this today… I’m not sure how it’s going to sound without the conversation leading up to it or if it gives any hint that it means they are united in purpose (the “we” which is supposed to be in italics), but it describes the fellow as a bit of a paragon.

          “The same breeze set the bodies in the hanging tree to swing slowly, frightening the birds who briefly took to wing before landing on them again. I turned to the man and considered him; tall for a human, strong, not old despite his grown children, not cruel despite his demonstrated ruthlessness, far-seeing despite his attention to the moment. I took a deep breath and met his eyes directly.
          “Tamhas Curwen,” I said, “*we* are dangerous.”

          (I can finally write again and I don’t have school until Jan 20th and darned if I’m going to worry about jinxing a plan to write every day by mentioning it. Two days down, and 40 days to go.)

            1. Me, too. Your nascent fans want you to write every day. And, if you skip a day, write the next day anyway.

  7. I think this is why I haven’t reread AFGM as often as I want to. There are spots which are almost too intense for comfort and since I know what’s coming I get all worked up before I’m supposed to. Which means I get even more worked up when the intense bit happens.

    The other book that does that to me reliably is Lois M Bujold’s Memroy. The first few chapters are just a complete “No don’t do that” series of actions.

  8. I can think of about four books that had a really awe/moving scene in them. One was Where The Red Fern Grows, of course. Then there was a Louis L’amour, and it isn’t even a scene, I have NO idea why it moves me, but at the end of the book he is listing of decendants of the MC’s and he mentions two that got married and take a guided camping trip in the area the book takes place in for their honeymoon, and one that “was wounded and cut off in Korea, with a BAR; and twenty-three dead Chinese when he ran out of ammunition.” Then there is the scene at the end of the last of Moon’s Serrano Legacy books, where they make a toast in the bar to their absent companions, and everyone lists off names. And Mike Williamson’s The Weapon, where he uses the same paragraph at both beginning and end of the book, about the Operatives that died in the war (almost all of them) and how they will be waiting at the gates of Heaven to turn back the forces of Hell.

    1. Darn. Now I have to go try Mike Williamson. “waiting at the gates of Heaven to turn back the forces of Hell” did it for me and I haven’t even read the book. Is there something about valiant protectors that makes us feel we are in the presence of someone raised a step above normal men? This kind of meshes with what thewriterinblack mentions.

    2. L’Amour’s DARK CANYON, iirc. The one featuring Gaylord Reilly. That epilog gets to me, too.
      I think I need to look up the Williamson

    3. L’Amour’s DARK CANYON, iirc. The one featuring Gaylord Reilly. That epilog gets to me, too.
      I think I need to look up the Williamson

  9. “The next easiest is … sex. This is because we are a horny species. You really need very little to get people putting in their own feelings and ideas there –”

    According to Heinlein’s biography, he read that one’s first attempt at fiction should be boy meets girl, so, IIRC, he wrote “Let There be Light.” It fits right in with the notion of what works without lots of skill in the craft.

  10. This is too perfect. But you have forgotten a few. Sadness, remorse, anguish. Those too are difficult because you never know how someone will react. For example, I recently wrote a short story, and I wrote it specifically to make people cry. That was my purpose, and I’ve met with stunning success, but one thing surprised me. When I ask what made each person cry, it was a different part of the story every time. It’s fascinating how fickle the human emotions are.

Comments are closed.