Monthly Archives: December 2020

Writing Systems and World Building

The title of The Hobbit, translated. Screenshot from Professor Marc Zender’s “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity.”

Continuing through my collection of Great Courses—sets of DVDs that I rediscovered in my bookshelves after forgetting I owned them—I turn today to Professor Marc Zender’s “Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity.”

The course’s overview of writing systems from Sumerian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs to Mayan and Aztec glyphs is fascinating, as is the discussion of the origins of the Roman alphabet. (Flip a capital A upside down and you’ll see an animal’s head with horns. The name of the letter alpha derives from the Hebrew aleph, meaning “ox.” The shape of the letter derives from an earlier symbol resembling the head of an ox. B started as a picture sign for a house in Egyptian hieroglyphs. In Semitic languages the sign was called beth, meaning “house,” but the Greeks changed the name from beth to beta. And so on through the letter Z, adopted from the Etruscans, who got it from the Phoenicians.)

While it’s all been interesting, the lecture nearest to my heart, as a writer and reader of fantasy, deals with so-called featural scripts, including the invented, fictional alphabets designed for works of fantasy and science fiction. The inventions of J.R.R. Tolkien are standouts in this category.

Professor Zender devotes a satisfying amount of time to Tolkien’s writing systems, pointing out that Tolkien was a professional linguist and a specialist in the history of Germanic languages and scripts, both alphabetic and runic. Quoting from the course guidebook:

“In The Hobbit, first published in 1937, Tolkien used Anglo-Saxon runes as a kind of code for Modern English. Tolkien also invented several writing systems of his own, including the cursive script known as Tengwar or Tîw (meaning ‘letters’) and the angular characters designed for cutting into wood, stone, or metal known as Certar or Cirth (meaning ‘runes’). … He even gave his fictional scripts a fictional inventor, Rúmil. … Tolkien provides charts and full descriptions of his writing systems in appendix E of The Lord of the Rings.”

I confess that, until now, I had barely glanced at Appendix E. After completing this series of lectures, however, I got out my much-loved, much-read 1975 Ballantine Books boxed set of LOTR and took a closer look. The knowledge I gained from Professor Zender about the development of “real” writing systems deepened my appreciation for Tolkien’s achievement in creating his fictional scripts and giving them such deeply thought-out histories.

I’ve not gone so far as to invent an alphabet, but I have imagined several specific words in my fictional language of Ladrehdin. My audiobook narrator is having a field day with them.

Now … Anyone up for learning Quenya? Or Sindarin?

From the slipcase of The Lord of the Rings, 1975 Ballantine Books boxed set.

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Fun With DIY Videos at Biteable

A writer friend recently posted a book trailer she’d made with the Animoto video builder. I loved it except for the Animoto watermark that was displayed on it.

Searching for an affordable, flexible, easy-to-use video maker for my own books, I explored Powtoon and Animaker as well as Animoto. With these, it seemed that the only way to avoid the company’s watermark and to outright own my handmade videos was to subscribe for a full year. Shorter, more affordable subscription terms were not offered.

Then I found Biteable. It’s definitely the one for me. You can subscribe monthly instead of for a year, and every video you make while subscribed is yours to download and keep forever. Biteable’s templates are so easy to use, and their library of stock footage is so comprehensive, covering every need, you can create a great many videos in a month, making this service by far the most cost-effective of any that I looked at.

Another great advantage with Biteable is that you are allowed to use the videos you make for commercial purposes, “something that other video editors don’t allow,” notes Brightspark. I can’t imagine why any writer would pay to make videos that they are not then legally allowed to use for the commercial purpose of promoting their work. That feature alone raises Biteable far above the pack.

Waterspell Book 1 detail

Waterspell Book 1 video intro scene

Brightspark claims that voiceover isn’t available at Biteable. That is incorrect. After I made a very cool (if I say so myself) book trailer for my Waterspell fantasy novels, I emailed the video to my audiobook narrator. He recorded a voiceover in an MP3 file, which I then uploaded to Biteable and synced with the video. Syncing the audio was simple, since Biteable’s video-editor allows lengthening or shortening “scenes” in half-second increments. It required only a few adjustments to the length of each scene to perfectly match the narration with the video.

For authors seeking an affordable, easy-to-use online video-maker for creating book trailers, I highly recommend Biteable. You can subscribe for just one month if you like, and every video you make and download during that time will be yours to keep and use whenever and wherever you wish, unrestricted and watermark-free. Check it out:


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Singing the Social Media Blues

Waterspell on Goodreads

Was there ever an attempt at “social media” that turned out more difficult to use or clunkier than Goodreads? I set up an author profile at Goodreads years ago, but soon abandoned it because it’s so maddeningly difficult to beat into submission. Every update requires multiple attempts to make the edits “stick.” I thought I never WOULD manage to upload the new Waterspell covers and force the interface to show those as the default covers.

I wonder how useful Goodreads actually is to authors like me, who are trying every way we can to reach a wider audience. Cutting through the static is enormously difficult.

With new audiobook editions of my fantasy novels in the works, however, I’m once again struggling with such things as a Facebook page. “Clunky” isn’t a strong enough word for THAT particular platform—it’s dang near impossible to use, and Facebook’s algorithms ensure that few people will see it. I’ve now done my utmost to update my author profile at Goodreads. I’m trying to do something with LinkedIn, though I’m not sure it’s particularly suited to my needs. I’m not looking for a job. Twitter? Yech. I quit Twitter years ago and have no intention of going back.

What’s next? Instagram? A YouTube channel? Are any of them worth the effort they require? Are they worth the time they take away from writing and editing? I don’t know.

What I do know is that word-of-mouth is the only truly effective way of spreading the word about books that are worth reading. Fingers crossed that the soon-to-be-released audiobooks will catch on, the forthcoming fourth book will get some attention, and Waterspell will finally reach its intended audience. Given the glowing-ness of the reviews the trilogy got, I live in hope that more of my potential readers will find my work. I know they’re out there.

My eternal gratitude to everyone who has read the trilogy and left reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, and book blogs. I love you all, dear readers.

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Reading and Writing Quotations

Great advice all around.

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Fear, Resentment, Misogyny and Witches

Earlier, I blogged about watching “The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition,” lectures on DVD by Teofilo F. Ruiz, Ph.D., for The Teaching Company. I mentioned that lectures 1 through 13 held little of interest to me, except for Professor Ruiz’s passing mention of “quest literature” and his contention (with which I agree) that there are only two kinds of literature: the Quest, and the Coming of Age story.

Lecture 14 kicked off the part of the course that is devoted to witches, and that’s when the material really grabbed me. I’m familiar with much of the backstory of the witch craze that gripped Europe (and filtered into Salem, Massachusetts) from about 1480 until the 1690s. However, I did not know that an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people — mostly old women — were executed during that time on charges of witchcraft.

The course delves deeply into the longstanding misogyny that led to the murder of these mostly widowed or single women. There’s discussion of the shift from ancient, female-centered fertility cults and vegetation (harvest) rituals to the male-dominated religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) that would brand women as evil temptresses and seducers of men.

Quoting from the course guidebook [with inserts in brackets from other salient parts of the discussion]:

• “War and other upheavals led to a surplus population of older women. Either widows or unmarried, these women who did not depend on men for their livelihoods [and were past the age of childbearing] became easy targets for witchcraft persecution.”

• “The rise of the [male-dominated] medical profession and its wholesale attack on certain forms of medicine (herbal healing, folk medicine), practiced mostly by old women, is closely related to the birth of the witch craze.”

• Capitalism was transforming Europe’s economy at this time, and “the period of adjustment to new economic systems was so fraught with tensions that it fostered persecution and scapegoating. … The anxieties created by the birth pangs of modernity were experienced as a collective feeling, a kind of mass pathology.”

The parallels with today’s cultural and economic shifts are remarkable. We, too, are undergoing an economic transformation, as low-skill jobs are disappearing and the demand grows for highly skilled professionals. The less-educated in society are afraid: afraid of change, afraid of losing power in the new political and economic order, afraid of people who seem different from themselves—people they’re determined to marginalize. In our own 21st century world, the same kind of mass pathology that once led to the burning of witches has given us Trumpism.

One point that jumped out at me is the fixation on “child murder” — the accusations leveled at “witches” that they killed and ate children. “The charges are as old as humanity itself,” writes Professor Ruiz. “These were precisely the same accusations made against oppressed minorities everywhere—from Christian to Jew to Muslim to Native American—over the course of centuries.”

Today, such accusations find their echoes in the nonsense about a child “sex ring” operating from a Washington, DC, pizzeria. The same impulses are at work now, the mistrust of the “other,” the fear of those who do not look, live, or believe the same way you do. The “other” is viewed as not merely dangerous, but subhuman … demonic, malevolent. Deserving of death.

In 500 years, American society has not progressed. In this country there are people who believe witches cast a “blue wave” spell to influence the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election. There are people who believe Liberals like me kill children. These people would gladly burn me and my kind at the stake.

If you want to understand the deep roots of the science-denying backwardness of tens of millions of Americans, then rent this course from your local library (that bastion of democratic socialism). At the Great Courses website, “The Terror of History” on DVD is offered for $255. I didn’t spend anywhere near that much for my copy, and I advise you to wait for a major sale, or just rent it.

It’s worth the time, particularly lectures 14 through 24: “The Mysteries” (alchemy, astrology, magic) through “The Survival of the Past” (the enduring cultural motifs of fairies, dragons, wizards, etc.). The course guidebook’s bibliography includes several titles that are worth study by history buffs and fantasy fans alike.

(A note on the illustration with which this post begins: It’s a screenshot from “Terror,” from the lecture that mentions “courtly love” — the medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman.  “The love of the knight for his lady was regarded as an ennobling passion and the relationship was typically unconsummated.” This is the flip side of the coin: women have traditionally been regarded as evil temptresses and witches, or as virtuous madonnas, placed on a pedestal. Neither view is realistic, correct, helpful, or healthy.)

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Two Kinds of Literature: Quest and Coming of Age

It pays to prowl through one’s bookshelves occasionally. Tucked away on mine, I found four Great Courses (lectures from The Teaching Company) that I’d forgotten I owned. They were still in their shrink-wrap.

Of the four, I gravitated immediately to “The Terror of History: Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition,” taught by Teofilo F. Ruiz, Ph.D., history professor at UCLA.

Two-thirds of the course (lectures 1 through 13) dealt with Christian mystics and Christian notions of heresy, which mostly left me shaking my head at the horrific damage that organized, institutionalized religion (in all its forms) has inflicted upon human society and hapless individuals, from ancient times to the present day.

By far, the most interesting thing in those opening lectures was a passing reference to “quest literature” and the professor’s comment that there are really only two kinds of literature:

● The Quest — the searching for something
● The Coming of Age — growing up

You might have heard it argued (elsewhere) that there are six core types of stories:

1. Rags to riches – a steady rise from bad to good fortune
2. Riches to rags – a fall from good fortune to bad, a tragedy
3. Icarus – a rise, then a fall in fortune
4. Oedipus – a fall, a rise, then a fall again
5. Cinderella – rise, fall, rise
6. Man in a hole – fall, rise

Smh again. That list seems overly complex and obviously repetitive. I prefer Professor Ruiz’s neatly succinct take on the matter, for it appears to me that the six “types” of stories can all be folded into his two kinds of literature.

All of that business about good and bad fortune falls under the heading of a Quest. Characters go seeking greener pastures or pursuing happiness. They may or may not find what they seek. They may rise, they may fall, they may succeed or fail in their quest.

Just as clearly, Cinderella and Icarus are Coming of Age stories. Cinderella is an archetypal model (now outdated) of female coming-of-age: she found her Prince Charming. On the male side, Icarus is a story of youthful hubris, of a son’s folly in ignoring his wise old father’s instructions, and thus failing to reach manhood.

Perhaps I’m especially drawn to Professor Ruiz’s “two kinds of literature” because my Waterspell series fits perfectly into his view of the matter. Waterspell tells of a quest (the characters travel far, do great deeds, and eventually make their way home). It’s also the story of a young woman’s coming of age, of discovering her inner strength and making a place for herself in a world where she didn’t think she belonged.

So count me on your side of the argument, Professor Teo. There are only two kinds of literature.



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