Guest post by Julia Park Tracey
Let me help, with a definition: “Ekphrasis: Writing that comments upon another art form, for instance a poem about a photograph or a novel about a film. Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a prime example of this type of writing, since the entire poem concerns the appearance and meaning of an ancient piece of pottery.” The song by Don MacLean, “Vincent,” is another example. (Thanks, http://valerie6.myweb.uga.edu!)
Something I have noticed a lot in indie writing is the copycat form of “I’ll write a novel about that TV series,” or another novel, or a character, such as Jane Austen’s novels rewritten with zombies or seamonsters. You see it in films, in movies like “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer.” Fanfic is a form of ekphrasis. And it’s not bad – in fact, fanfic can be a delicious gloss on a story that ends before the fans are ready to let it go. It can also shed light on a basic tale or character in a way that teaches or further expands our consciousness. The Jewish tradition of midrash is another form of ekphrasis; Wikipedia explains this: “Midrash is a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings. It fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities that are only hinted at.”
So there’s the basic understanding of ekphrasis.
What does this mean to indie authors? First of all, it’s the wonderful opportunity to show off your usage of big words with Greek roots in general conversation. I’m a big fan of that. Second, putting a spin on an existing fable or yarn (such as rewriting fairy tales to give them a homoerotic bend) is an old and beloved tradition. I’m all for tradition, any day (cue up the soundtrack from Fiddler on the Roof). Third, it gives you, the author, great leeway to be creative – a seeming contradiction in terms, if you have to stick to an already-known story. There’s the rub.
When you are writing a novel based on another novel, character, trope or archetype, you have utter freedom to do whatever you want with these beings. And you also have to keep it within the realm of the believable. Jane Austen and the zombies? Again, wtf? How is that believable? It’s not – except that author Steve Hockensmith took great pains to use Austen-like diction, language and construction so that the unbelievable works. Time travel or intergalactic worlds don’t work either, unless you have some kind of science in there. The magical realms you create, or copy – for whatever type of story you tell – must not break the fourth wall of credibility.
Recently I have read a number of YA, genre and other indie novels that have given me pretty settings and situations, but characters who walk and talk like 2013 teens. And I find that hard to swallow. Putting a long dress, a flying horse or a magic wand in the scene gives me nothing. That is just wooden characters playing dress-up. Give me a character, whether it’s from your own mind or the mind of a previous genius, who is at home in the environment you’ve created. The minute your character says, “I’m not down with that,” or “He was incredibly cute,” I fall out of the story like Alice falling back up the rabbit hole. I land way too firmly back in my 2013 living room, shake my head and put the book aside. And that, my friends, is not where you want your reader.
In my novel, Tongues of Angels, I tell a love story ongoing between a woman and a man with a jealous gay best friend. The setting is the Catholic Church, so I had to include the smells and bells, the mystical language, the ritual and the religion. The story could have worked anywhere, but to make it work here, it had to have the details right. It wasn’t easy. In fact, I read theology and canon law, books on liturgy and worship, and the Bible for about five years while writing Tongues of Angels, to make sure every detail was correct.
It’s a tough life, being a writer. You actually have to write, for one thing. You have to write well, for another. Both are incredible sucky, and I’m not down with that. But that’s the way the Communion wafer crumbles, my friends.
It wouldn’t have been easier if I’d set these three characters in the Wild West, or down Alice’s rabbit hole. I still would have had to write the story well. Call this blog post a caution, then, against fast and easy writing. Whether you write worlds of your own, or work ekphrastically with the known worlds of others, do your readers a favor and get the details and the language just right.
Julia Park Tracey is the author of Tongues of Angels, a novel about a priest trying to decide if he should stay in the Church or marry the woman he loves. Follow Julia on Twitter@juliaparktracey or Facebook/JuliaParkTraceyAuthor, or find her online at GoodReads, Amazon, or www.juliaparktracey.com. Julia is a member of Indie-Visible Ink, a consortium of authors who publish amazing independent books.