Review of “Into the Deep” by Susan McBride Els

This is not a “how to” book about writing. It is a meditation on the creative process of writing. I read this book many years ago and it is still my favorite, full of highlights, underlinings, and marginalia. I was swept away by Els’s deep dive into the feeling experience of writing, the wildness of it, as opposed to the rational thinking process. This book will not teach you the nuts and bolts of craft. It will teach you about creativity, the value of intuitions, vague inspirations, listening and “feeling from the inside”. It is about the heart leading the mind rather than the other way around. It is about writing as a spiritual process, yet it is not a religious book. Instead of teaching you HOW to write, it will teach you WHY to write. It addresses the required tension between knowing where you’re going and letting go into chaos. It acknowledges the disparity between the vision and the actual work, and the inevitable disappointment. “By the time the vision falls to earth, it is nothing like the vision.” Some writers will say it’s dangerous to examine the source of their creativity, that it may dry up under scrutiny. Yet this book is more of an honoring of the source rather than an analysis of it. Think of this book as an oasis in the desert, where a pool of water beckons to you to dive in and FEEL your way into the deep. Then keep it on your bookshelf to turn to whenever you need assurance that at least one person in the world understands what you’re going through.

Into the Deep by Susan McBride Els at Amazon –

Slow Fantasy: “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and “The Goblin Emperor”


It seems to me that there are two general categories of fantasy fiction–those that sweep the reader into a heart-pounding adventure tale, and those that explore and describe a fantasy world in extreme, sometimes excruciating, sometimes enthralling detail.

Two novels that illustrate the latter are Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and Katherine Addison’s “The Goblin Emperor”. These two novels both won awards, yet also received criticism from some readers who were disappointed by their lack of action.

Both of these novels include either massive amounts of historical detail about their fictional world, or they indulge in a microscopic focus upon social mannerisms, names, and political relationships (in the tradition of Gormenghast). While these details add interest, they also slow the story trajectory.

What’s missing for the readers who are left unsatisfied?

I believe it is immersion. The focus on detail, language, names, asides, footnotes, etc., while interesting to some readers, can alienate others.

No one will ever call these books “action packed adventures”. They both offer an intense intellectual challenge to the reader, often sacrificing forward action and emotional momentum to (often unnecessary) detail.

So is there a point of commonality between these intellectual fantasy novels and their action/adventure cousins? There is no doubt that good books in both categories can have fully developed fantasy worlds. There is also no doubt that they can both explore their characters’ emotions in great detail.

The reason “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” and “The Goblin Emperor” won their awards is because they offered us, not only extreme mental machinations, but intimate emotional heart as well.

It’s only a matter of the reader being willing to sit still long enough to fully explore the delightful contents of these (rather large) treasure troves.