Five Things I Learned from The Clan of the Cave Bear

I mentioned in my previous Razor Mountain post that I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. A portion of Razor Mountain follows a pre-historic tribe, and Cave Bear is one of the few titles I’ve come across that is set in a similar time period, albeit in a different part of the world.

The book gave me some things to think about as far as prehistoric settings go. There were aspects of it I really enjoyed. However, the book also had a number of small issues that, taken together, made it a frustrating read for me. Today, I want to dig into those things, and try to discover what I can learn from them to improve my own writing.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is written mostly as straight historical fiction, with a few fantasy elements. The protagonist of the story is Ayla, a Cro Magnon (early modern human) child who loses her family in an earthquake within the first few pages. She is eventually rescued and comes to live with the titular Clan of the Cave Bear, a Neanderthal tribe that was displaced by the same earthquake and forced to search for a new cave. The Clan have only rare interactions with Ayla’s kind, who they call “the Others,” but end up adopting her.

As Ayla grows, she has to deal with the challenges of integrating into the Clan as an outsider. Though her body is noticeably different, the conflicts between her and the Clan are primarily differences in worldview. Auel drives this conflict with the fantasy element of the book. The Neanderthals of the Clan possess ancestral memories that are passed down through generations. They rely on the experiences of previous generations, as well as their own, to navigate the world around them. Auel paints the Clan as a slowly dying race. Their long memory keeps them in a rut of tradition and limits their ability to adapt to change. Ayla, as homo sapiens, lacks their racial memory, but is more adaptable and quick to learn. She chafes under the heavy tradition of Clan life, and constantly seeks out new skills and new experiences.

Lesson #1 — A Little Verisimilitude Goes a Long Way

Auel does a tremendous job constructing a believable world filled with detail. Ayla learns rudimentary medicine from her surrogate mother, the tribe’s medicine woman, who expounds on dozens of plants and their uses. The variety of animals and their habitats are also important to the Clan’s survival, and described in great detail. The tools used by the clan, how they are made, and how the go about their everyday tasks are all carefully thought-out.

I don’t know much about plants, let alone their medicinal properties, but I’m betting Auel did quite a bit of research to get the details right. She didn’t have to name all the plants, or go into detail about which ones are used to treat different ailments. The story could be told without those details. But these are things that the protagonist is learning, and things that her adoptive mother is intimately familiar with. Those details help the reader to feel what she’s feeling by learning about this plants as she does.

There is no limit to the level of detail you can include in a novel, but at some point, it bogs down the story. The trick is finding particular places to add that detail that help the setting feel more like a living world, without getting lost in the weeds.

Lesson #2 — Perspective is Powerful…and Dangerous

The story starts with the child, Ayla, losing her family in an earthquake. Although the story follows her and ostensibly shows her perspective, it becomes clear very early on that the narrator is distant, wiser than this child, and has more modern sensibilities.

Brush close by the upstream banks quivered, animated by unseen movement at the roots, and downstream, boulders bobbed in unaccustomed agitation. Beyond them, stately conifers of the forest into which the stream flowed lurched grotesquely.

As the story goes on, the narration veers into scientific terms to describe some of the animals and their less ferocious descendants in modern times. The narrator is not anchored to any character’s perspective. It’s not anchored in the time period of the story.

Some of this is personal taste and fashion in fiction writing (this kind of third-person omniscient perspective has fallen out of favor in recent years), but there are some clear downsides to this style. As a reader, it’s hard to feel close to Ayla when the narration seems to be separate from her. The occasional digressions into the more scientific and into far-future times pull the reader out of the here-and-now of the story. Jumping from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another in the same paragraph puts the reader at a distance to both of those characters.

This style of writing allows the reader to know what everyone is doing, what everyone is thinking, and any of the past history or future ramifications. It gives the author the power to show anything they want, at any time. The cost of that power is the distance it puts between the reader and the characters and current action.

Lesson #3 — Don’t Break Your Own Rules

Auel makes it very clear that the Clan are people with traditions. In fact, they are trapped in those traditions. Their ancestral memory is such a guiding force that they cannot adapt to change. This is stated repeatedly. When Ayla joins the Clan, she is constantly going against their norms and traditions. It is the cause of almost all the conflict in the book.

Ayla talks, laughs, and cries, all strange things to the Clan, who feel emotion, but experience no physical tears or laughter, and rely on their very limited vocal capabilities to augment a much richer sign language. Ayla hates being subservient to the men of the Clan, a social structure supposedly easily accepted by the women of the Clan. She secretly teaches herself to use a weapon, something that is strictly forbidden to women by Clan tradition. She observes rituals that she should not see. These are things that the clan believes could bring down a sort of spiritual cataclysm on them. In short, by the end of the book, Ayla has completely upended the social and religious order of the Clan.

And yet, time and again, the repercussions are limited. The laws are modified. The punishments are made less severe. The supposedly unadaptable Clan adapts constantly to her presence.

That’s a perfectly fine story structure. It’s a classic “stranger comes to town” style of plot. But it doesn’t make sense to draw so much attention to the Clan’s built-in unchageability when the rest of the story is going to go on and show them adapting every step of the way.

Lesson #4 — Characters Need Goals

Ayla certainly does a lot throughout the book. She is constantly in the midst of conflicts. This action and conflict drives the story. However, there were several points were I got the sense that the story just wasn’t going anywhere. What I eventually realized was that I didn’t know what Ayla wanted.

Most of the conflicts that come up are due to Ayla acting impulsively — doing something without thinking of the consequences. Sometimes she’s completely unaware that there will be a problem. Almost none of it involves her choosing a goal and acting in pursuit of that goal. In fact, the only instance I can think of is when she flees the Clan in order to protect her baby, which she believes they will force her to kill (it looks like her, rather than a Neanderthal baby, and is thus considered “deformed”). I don’t think it’s coincidence that these chapters were the most compelling portion of the book for me.

The other characters are also mostly lacking in goals and desires. They could mostly be boiled down to “support the status quo,” or “help Ayla with all this trouble she’s in.” There are two exceptions.

First is the leader of the Clan, Brun, who wants to be a good leader and take care of his tribe. He is often the one who has to make hard decisions about the conflicts around Ayla, and always tries to do what is best for the tribe.

Second is Broud, the son of Brun. He is the most goal-oriented character in the book. His goal is to make Ayla’s life a living hell.

Lesson #5 — Give Villains Some Good Qualities

The clear villain of the book is Broud. As a child, Ayla ends up stealing some of his thunder at an important Clan ceremony. From that point onward, he takes everything she does as a slight. Interestingly, because he hates her so much, he is the one member of the Clan who is completely intolerant of her transgressions, while the others come to accept her.

Broud is essentially the cave-man version of the 1980s “asshole jock” movie archetype. He’s selfish. Everything he does is to honor himself and gain status. The only thing he fears is his status being diminished, and only because it might prevent him from eventually becoming the leader of the Clan. He is not only cruel, but derives sadistic pleasure from that cruelty. He shows no particular love for his family or those who ally themselves with him.

The climactic end of the book comes when Broud is made leader of the clan, at which point he becomes a literal maniac, screaming and ranting. Without the looming threat of his father blocking his ascension to the throne, he immediately does everything he can think of to hurt Ayla. When Ayla and the others complain, he forces the Clan shaman to essentially excommunicate her, a spiritual punishment that the Clan views as literal death.

It’s certainly easy to manufacture conflict with a character like this, but it feels like such a caricature. Sure, he’s easy to hate. That’s his only purpose. But couldn’t he have loved his family as more than just status symbols? Couldn’t he have actually wanted to make his father proud? Couldn’t he have had some redeeming features to make him feel human?

I know plenty of people who love villains like this, so it still comes down to personal taste. I’d rather see a villain who is understandable and relatable. A villain that, were the story shown from a slightly different perspective, might look more like a hero.

Every Book Has Lessons

Even though The Clan of the Cave Bear wasn’t for me, I don’t consider it a bad book or regret reading it. I think the language of pop media criticism has become really, unfortunately black-and-white, where people talk about books, movies or music as being good or bad. We all have our own tastes, and a book that might be great for someone else just won’t hit right for me. Criticism is about justifying your opinion about art, and even a justified opinion is still just an opinion. From an author’s perspective, that’s nice, because it means readers may dislike some or all of your book, without making it a “bad book.”

In any case, I learned a lot from The Clan of the Cave Bear. By thinking about the things I didn’t like, I can work on excising those from my own work. It was useful to see a perspective on writing a story set in pre-history, and I have no doubt that it will influence me as I continue to work on Razor Mountain.

Reference Desk #12 — DIY MFA

As you might expect from the title, this book is billed as a do-it-yourself replacement for a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. Now, a single book replacing an entire four-year degree is a tall order, and it’s pretty clear as you read that it isn’t really trying to do that. What this book is trying to do is provide a scaffolding for how to build a career as a professional author.

Having never gone through an MFA program, I can’t really compare the two. The impression I get is that MFA programs tend to focus on the fine art aspect of writing and especially on literary, rather than genre writing. I don’t hear much about MFA programs really preparing their graduates for the business of writing as a career. So, while DIY MFA makes for a catchy title, the book is at least trying to be a little more well-rounded than the average MFA program (or at least my slightly fuzzy impression of one).

Breadth Over Depth

DIY MFA is organized around three principles: reading, writing, and community-building. It starts with a brief description of MFA programs, pointing out their weaknesses (as might be expected in a book that positions itself as a direct alternative). Then it goes into the details of each of these pillars.

For Writing, there are chapters on motivation and writing habits, handling rejection and failure, and then more “traditional” technique discussion: developing ideas; outlining; creating characters; beginnings, middles, and endings; voice; point of view; dialogue; world-building. Oh, and a chapter on revision.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. The writing section is the bulk of the book, but each of these chapters is relatively short. Every one of these concepts is big enough to fill entire books. For better or worse, DIY MFA chooses to cover this huge breadth of topics, rather than dig into any one of them in depth.

Next is the Reading section, which talks about reading widely in the genres you want to write, active reading with the intent to learn, and some exercises for more effectively digesting what you read. Compared to the seventeen chapters on writing, there are three on reading.

Finally, there is the Community section. This is really an amalgamation of networking and business concerns. There are chapters on workshopping and critique, crafting an author identity and a website, targeting readers, networking, and submitting work. The book doesn’t play favorites between traditional publishing or self-pub, and generally looks at aspects of the business that can benefit any author.

Who Is This For?

In my opinion, this is a book for younger or inexperienced authors. The framework of Read, Write, Build Community is a pretty good overview of the things you should at least be thinking about if you want to write as a profession. The ideas around goal-setting, organization and learning are the best parts of the book.

The sections about craft and technique are a great jumping-off point, but you’ll need to find other books, websites, resources and mentors if you want to really dig deep into any of these topics, since they’re only addressed by a single chapter of this book.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is a robust DIY MFA website with a whole team behind it. I don’t know whether the book or the website came first, but the book certainly shows the power of connecting your various media to draw in readers.

The book suggests signing up for the DIY MFA newsletter and BONUS MATERIALS! that you can download from the website. I went ahead and signed up, and the amount of emails is right on the edge of being spammy. If you’re an author who dreams of a media empire, this is an interesting example to look at. They have articles. They have a podcast. They have a newsletter. They have a paid courses and a virtual writing retreat. They have a random writing prompt generator that’s a little bit Story Engine-esque.

The Upshot

I may not be the ideal audience for this book. I’ve read variations of the advice in a lot of these chapters before. I think the best and most important thing the book offers is the overarching ideas about what’s important for a career author, and how to stay organized and focused. It’s a good reminder of what you should be working on if you’re making your living writing, or at least aspire to. It certainly made me think about some of the aspects that I have personally been neglecting.

And while the book offers a variety of suggestions about how to do things, they’re always given with the caveat that what works for one person may not work for another. The DIY mindset requires you to develop your own best practices. This is a refreshing divergence from the many writing books that claim to provide the one and only way to do something correctly.

If you’re a young author (or a not-so-young author who is only recently committed to trying to write for a living) and you haven’t delved too much into the books and blogs and myriad resources out there, this is a perfect place to start. Just don’t limit yourself to the DIY MFA ecosystem. Find the pieces that really interest you and look for more resources on those topics.

Reference Desk #11 —Writing Comics

I recently read two of Scott McCloud’s lauded books about comics: Understanding Comics and Making Comics. These books have been around for decades, but they hold up well. And when comics treatises are praised by the likes of Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, and Neil Gaiman, you can be pretty sure there’s something good in there.

I wouldn’t say I’m a full-on comics nerd, but I did work at a comics shop in high school, and I have a respectable number of comics on my bookshelf and e-reader. I know what I like and dislike. And while I occasionally dabble in visual arts like drawing and painting, I’m happy to be a semi-competent amateur when it comes to producing visuals. As a writer, I’m much more interested in the craft of writing for comics. That’s the perspective I brought to reading these books.

Understanding Comics

This book is, first and foremost, a comic. McCloud understands that the best way to describe the medium of comics is within the pages of a comic. He is an adept artist and writer, rendering his ideas clearly and gracefully, with a dash of silliness here and there.

McCloud has a style that appeals to my personal tastes — he loves to define and categorize. He describes the medium of comics by breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, then showing how those pieces can be combined to build new and interesting things.

First, he goes through pages of effort to justify his chosen definition of comics: “Sequential Art,” or more precisely, “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He gives a brief history of art that fits this description, from native Mesoamerican codices to the Bayeux Tapestry to Egyptian tomb paintings, and on into more modern examples. This may sound like dry academics, but it’s much more palatable in comic book form.

Next, he discusses iconography and the complex spectrum between words and pictures; how symbols can be more relatable than realism. He categorizes the ways that a reader infers movement across time and space between the juxtaposed images of a comic, in the “gutters.” He shows the ways that words and pictures can interact together to create unique effects within comics.

Finally, he finishes the book with a broad manifesto describing all art as a series of layers, with some art at the shallow surface level, and some digging deep into other layers. This ties into the comics stuff, but it’s more like his ideas of how to make great art.

McCloud is a great observer of comics. He describes many techniques that I’ve seen before, but his categorization and explanation allowed me to understand how they work, and what they’re good at. This book is not prescriptive, it’s descriptive: it’s a fantastic description of comics from his vantage point as an articulate insider.

Even though this book doesn’t describe comics in a “how to do it” manner, it’s incredibly useful for aspiring creators. It provides framework and language for understanding the medium. These are vital tools in the creator’s toolbox.

Besides, when it comes to creation, there’s a related book called…

Making Comics

Making Comics is another comic about comics. It takes many of the concepts from Understanding Comics and uses them as a foundation. This is much more of a how-to manual, split pretty evenly between visuals, words, and general storytelling principles.

Since my interest is in writing, not art, I skimmed some of the more technical parts related to drawing recognizable expressions and body language. I focused on the parts relating to writing, storytelling, and the way the words and pictures work together.

This book will be most useful to the indie comic artist, who wants to draw and write everything themselves, or perhaps writer-artist duos. McCloud does everything, so that’s the perspective he writes from.

There is a bit less in here for someone like me, who is only interested in the writing, despite it being a thicker volume than Understanding Comics. Still, Making Comics is a valuable book, worth reading if you’re interested in any aspect of comic creation. It solidifies some of the abstract concepts of the first book in more hands-on examples.

Am I an Expert Yet?

Reading these books didn’t make me want to immediately write a comic. But that’s a good thing. They do a great job showing how deep comics can go as an art form, and that’s a little intimidating. They showed me enough to realize I’d need to put in more effort before I think about starting a comics project.

I think my next step will be to re-read some of my favorite comics and analyze what makes them great. McCloud’s books have given me the tools to do that analysis. I know I like the stories, but how are they using the medium, the “juxtaposed images in sequence,” to tell those stories so effectively?

I also want to look for good examples of comics scripts, just to learn the ins and outs of formatting. I know there’s an annotated Neil Gaiman Sandman script in some edition or another of those books, and I’m sure there are other examples floating around. I get the impression that comics script format is a bit less rigid than TV and movie scripts.

As I continue to dig into writing for comics, I’ll come back and post more updates. If you have any interest, these two books are a great starting point. And if you’ve come across any other great resources for comics writing, let me know in the comments.