Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Study of Fantasy: Lord Dunsany Opens New Horizons

I continue to work my way through the modern fantasy genre chronologically but also slowly. My last post in this series was about William Morris and his novel The Wood Beyond the World. Before that was George MacDonald and Phantastes. I wasn't able to give either of those books very high praise as a reader, though I can see how they were very influential in creating fantasy as a new genre, separate from the traditional fairy story. The next book on my list was The Well at the World's end, William Morris' epic, but given how little I enjoyed The Wood Beyond the World and the fact that The Well is ridiculously long, I decided to skip it.

That brings me to Lord Dunsany, who started publishing an entirely new kind of fantasy story in the early 1900s. I was excited to test out Lord Dunsany since I had read that he was a major influence on my favorite author, J. R. R. Tolkien. I began with "The Gods of Pegana", published in 1905, which is not really a fantasy novel. It is, rather, a collection of very short stories or, more accurately, vignettes. Each one describes a god of Pegana, his characteristics, his sphere of influence, his role in the history of Pegana.

First is Mana-Yood-Sushai (Isn't that a deliciously exotic name?) who created the gods and then fell asleep. A recurring motif of the stories is that all of the lesser gods can run around and have fun in Pegana while Mana-Yood-Sushai is asleep, but one day he will wake and then he will destroy everything that has been made, including the gods, and remake them. Men are not allowed to pray to Mana-Yood-Sushai.

Mana-Yood-Sushai, illustration from the original publication by Sidney Sime

Another particularly interesting figure is Skarl the Drummer whose ceaseless drumming keeps Mana-Yood-Sushai from waking.

Some say that the Worlds and the Suns are but the echoes of the drumming of Skarl, and others say that they be dreams that arise in the mind of MANA because of the drumming of Skarl, as one may dream whose rest is troubled by sound of song, but none knoweth, for who hath heard the voice of Mana-Yood-Sushai, or who hath seen his drummer?
~The Gods of Pegana

 Slid, whose soul is the sea, is the subject of the short "The Sayings of Slid" which I particularly liked.

And the People of Earth said: "There is a melody upon the Earth as though ten thousand streams all sang together for their homes that they had forsaken in the hills."

And Slid said: "I am the Lord of gliding waters and of foaming waters and of still. I am the Lord of all the waters in the world and all that long streams garner in the hills; but the soul of Slid is in the Sea. Thither goes all that glides upon Earth, and the end of all the rivers is the Sea."

~The Gods of Pegana

Slid by Sidney Sime

 His story is told more fully in the short "The Coming of the Sea" which is found in the book Time and the Gods.

I read Time and the Gods after reading The Gods of Pegana because I enjoyed Pegana so much. The first half of Time and the Gods was much like the previous volume. More short stories and vignettes about various gods, though this time also about the people who worship them. The second part is the story of a King who is preparing to make a journey and calls various priests and prophets of different gods to tell him what the end of his journey will be. It quickly becomes apparent that this journey is a metaphor for death, and the king wants to know what will happen to him after he dies. Alas, all of the priests and prophets give conflicting answers (and there are some fantastic images there) and ultimately the king decides to just eat, drink and be merry and then he dies.

The most striking thing about Dunsany is that he is creating a fantasy setting wholly different from the familiar Anglo fairy tale settings. He claimed both the myths of the Greeks and the Bible as inspirations, but these two books of stories are decidedly more exotic in flavor than either. The names in particular give a strong feeling of otherness. They are at once strange and marvelous. Names like "Sardathrion", "Limpang-Tung", "Alhireth-Hotep the Prophet" and "Dorozhand, Whose Eyes
Regard the End". Though admittedly, he does miss the mark sometimes as with "Triboogie, the Lord of Dusk".

 But Dunsany's imagination was amazing. In only these two books you have so much. There are the games of the gods, one of which was creating men. Men trying desperately to find the gods, only to be rebuffed at every turn, or finding certain gods only to find later on that there were other, more great gods further on. The rise and fall of cities and empires. And, of course, the search for meaning beyond death. But Dunsany doesn't draw any conclusions from these little explorations. He leaves you to draw your own.

Ultimately, I have to say that I was thoroughly enchanted by these two books. They swept me right off to distant places that only exist at the World's Edge. They fired up my own imagination more than any contemporary book I've read for a long time. At some point I want to delve into some of his other writings such as The Book of Wonder, The Sword of Welleran and The King of Elfland's Daughter.

I highly recommend Lord Dunsany to anyone who has an interest in fantastic worlds. You can find much of his writing free at Project Gutenberg.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why Anime is Some of the Best Storytelling

That should probably say "Why Manga is Some of the Best Storytelling" since most animes I have seen were based on manga. However, I don't read manga, but over the past couple of years I have somehow become a huge fan of anime.

(Why, if I love anime so much, don't I read the manga? Isn't the book always better than the movie? Well, I just don't like the graphic novel format compared to the animated series format. And anyway, by all reports, anime tend to follow their manga far, far more closely than any movie ever followed a book.)

It started with InuYasha, a story about 15 year-old Japanese school girl Kagome who goes through a magic well and finds herself in the Feudal Era where she meets and teams up with a half demon called Inuyasha to find all the shards of the Shikon jewel before the evil demon Naraku can use it it make himself more powerful. In one sense it's a pretty straightforward action/adventure fantasy story. There's lots of fighting and lots of people with cool powers. (After watching and loving nearly 200 episodes of InuYasha I still cannot bring myself to swing a sword without shouting the name of Inuyasha's signature move: "Wind Scar!!") But on another level it's the very emotional journey of a group of people whose lives have been irreparably altered by the power of the Shikon jewel which inspires terrible acts of hatred and greed wherever it is found, even just a piece of it. (I highly recommend it.)

That's the great thing about manga/anime. There are always multiple levels.

On the surface anime is generally flashy and fun, down and dirty storytelling. It doesn't mess around. It knows what it is and it isn't afraid to play by its own rules. Those are: 1. all fights are liable to take place over the course of several episodes because all the participants do a lot of talking in between actions. 2. all characters who get into violent conflicts on a regular basis have at least 10x the amount of blood that normal people have. 3. whenever possible, do everything with style. 4. the phrase "less is more" has no meaning here. More is always more. 5. drama and comedy go hand in hand. 6. anything can happen. 7. there tend to be a lot of very, very pretty men and boys and very, very well endowed women and girls.

Eye candy from InuYasha: Sesshomaru

(There are more principles of anime, I'm sure. But that's what I can think of off the top of my head.)

But despite all the style and flashiness, excitement and fun that makes up the top layer of anime, there are many, many other layers to explore. But for heaven's sake let's be simplistic and only talk about a couple of layers today. Let's talk about story in general.

I can no longer think of many movies made by Hollywood in recent years that weren't entirely willing to kick good storytelling to the curb in favor of flashy special effects and stylistic flair. Anime is not. The animes that I have watched so far have all been incredibly well rounded in the story department. Superb visualization and conceptualization of the setting, deep and meaningful characterization, forward moving and compelling plot, and thematically rich.

Over and over again I have been continually amazed to find that the best new stories I have experienced over the last couple of years have been in anime format. I think manga/anime is getting a lot of things right that a lot of people over here in the west have forgotten. I'd like to do some posts where I highlight my favorite animes and the aspects of storytelling that they excel in.

 Have you watched any anime? If so, what are your favorites and what do like best about their storytelling?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Writing: Not so Solitary

I've come to the conclusion that I'm the luckiest writer in the world. Why's that?

Because of my wonderful husband.

You see, he is my target audience, critique group, first reader, and editor (in the grammar and spelling sense) all rolled into one. We think alike, we communicate (rather) well together, and I can trust him implicitly. The truth is I couldn't write without him. I know because I've tried.

 "Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends, and society are the natural enemies of the writer. He must be alone, uninterrupted, and slightly savage if he is to sustain and complete an undertaking." ~Jessamyn West

Everywhere I go in the writing blogosphere, all the authors and those who give writing advice to new writers seem to agree on one thing. You shouldn't share your WIP with anyone. You should wait until it's done and even then you probably shouldn't share it with friends or family. What could I do in the face of such unanimity?

I have at times tried to go for weeks without talking to my husband about my WIP. I usually start out well. I'll get quite a bit of wordage under my belt and start feeling confident in my abilities... and then I always hit a wall. ALWAYS.

On the other hand, when my husband and I sit down together and talk about my ideas and the direction I want to go with my stories... then everything just seems to flow together. The ideas pour forth and everything becomes clear. Suddenly I figure out everything that's been troubling me.

Which is what happened last night. I've been feeling lost lately. Not just because I've been too sick for several days to do any writing and I don't have any momentum going. (Head colds: the bane of the writer.) Though that doesn't help. But also because there is a constant conflict within me between the worldbuilding aspect of the sub-creation I aim for and the actual narrative writing. I'm the sort of person that feel an intense need to fully understand the world I am writing about and how it works before I can write stories about it. (And not just cultural aspects of where the story is actually taking place, I'm talking the metaphysics of the whole universe. I feel the need to understand it as thoroughly as possible.) And yet I know that spending all my time worldbuilding isn't going to get my work published. This is a constant struggle for me. And it's often enough that it causes me to become paralyzed. (Because I wouldn't be a fantasy writer if I was an emotionally stable person.)

So after I'd sat there staring at my notebook without actually writing any words in it for about an hour I finally told my husband what was bothering me. And then we spent another hour discussing the metaphysical properties of air, earth and water, delving into the workings of the afterlife and exploring ideas about order and chaos, form and substance, and many other things.

As a result, I think I have a clearer idea of the overall story arc of my entire fantasy world than I ever have before. I know more about the timeline of the world (and where various stories will fit into it) and understand better the sources of conflict that exist there. All in all, I feel better prepared to write.

I won't make the mistake of trying to do this alone again. For me, writing is not, cannot be, a solitary occupation. And I'm so lucky to have someone that I can share this process with intimately. I wouldn't want to do it any other way.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Insecure Writers Group: Shades of Mediocrity

There's a particular line from the song "Homeward Bound" by Simon and Garfunkel that has always resonated with me:

But all my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity

This is something that I always feel very keenly when I write. There are days when I have to sit there and force myself to put words on the paper because the whole time I'm writing there's a voice in my head saying, "God, this is so dull. Why on earth do you think anyone would want to read this? Your use of language is appallingly simple and coarse. Would you please stop? I can't take it anymore."

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think I'm a bad writer (even though that's what I say to my husband every time I ask him to read a scene for me). I do actually think I'm a far better writer than many, many people on the planet. Of course, the majority of those people never claimed to be writers and are perfectly happy with their lives in other lines of work. I also think I'm significantly better than many authors of certain *cough* fanfictions *cough* I've read. But that's not really a source of pride. I am, I think, a decent writer.

Then I read books that make me marvel at their ideas and images and prose. Then I look at my own and think "Dull, dull, dull. Irrepressibly drab and awful." All my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity.

And I think that most writers (especially we who aren't published yet) suffer from this to some extent. That's why writers tend to rewrite, revise, edit, and polish over and over again until they think their manuscript is as close to "perfect" as it can get. Our prose is almost never good enough for us as it is. Have you ever had someone read your work and tell you how good, how compelling it was and how strong the voice was? And then you look at them at if they're deranged and begin to suspect that they're just outright lying to you because how could they possibly think any of that pile of steaming crap had any merit at all? 

Well, there's a reason for that. Here's how author Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains it:

When you’re telling the same plot as someone else, you differentiate that plot from the other person’s only by making that story personal, making it something you care about.  You write honestly, without stylistic flourishes at all.

If you do it right, that story will be compelling—and here’s the weird thing. Everyone will mention how strong your voice is.  You won’t see your voice in that piece at all.  In fact, you’ll think that story’s prose is colorless, unoriginal, and rather mundane.
Ever since you learned the language around your first year, you’ve been thinking precisely that way.  That’s how you think. That’s how you talk.  That’s your perspective.  It’s old news to you.  In fact, it’s normal.  But to everyone else—especially people who’ve never met you—that perspective is new and vivid and memorable.

 Remember that folks: you can't hear your own voice in your writing because it's been yours since you learned to talk and to you it's just the same old song. But to other people your voice is different, unique, fresh, interesting.

And we as writers need to just learn to trust our voice without attempting to polish it into oblivion. We need to trust the unique perspective that we write from to make our writing personal and thus more compelling.

I've known this for some time but I still hear those evil negative voices in my head. Most of the time I just need to block them out and keep going. Trust doesn't come naturally to me, I have to practice it. We all do, to an extent. We need to just keep writing and we need to not get stuck in endless revision cycles. We need to write and then go ahead and put our writing out there, whether that's submitting it to traditional houses, or publishing it yourself. Take chances and trust your voice. It's the only way your voice will be allowed to develop.

Believe in yourself as a writer.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

It's Not A New Year in My Head

Every year New Year's Eve rolls around and I feel like I should be making resolutions for the new year. I should be turning new leaves and lining up goals. It's what you do. But every year my brain rejects such activities. It looks around and says "I don't see anything new about it. It's exactly like the past weeks and no different from the coming weeks." And so and resolutions I had been contemplating easily dissolve into mush simply because I can't keep them in my head.

Honestly, I cannot fathom why the ancient Romans decided to make January 1st the start of the year. Or why everyone else eventually went along with it. To me, Spring has always felt like the Beginning of Things. It only makes sense. How can a year begin when everything around you is dead? And indeed, it was only relatively recently that western civilization adopted the January 1 date. England celebrated it on March 25th until the 1700s. A date in March, near to the vernal equinox, makes a lot more sense to me.

This also appeals to my geeky, Tolkien-obsessed side because in Middle-earth it was established that the Elven year (loa) began on the day before the spring season (Tuile). "Yestarë" (or First Day in Quenya) falls on March 28th on the Gregorian calendar. (Yes, Tolkien even named all the Elven seasons in two languages and established several holidays for them. The man was nothing if not thorough.) So it may be the geekiest thing in the world, but I think this year I'm going to celebrate Yestarë instead of the modern New Year.

Oh, I'll still be writing 2012 on all my documents. But in my heard the new year won't really begin until March 28th. It's a better time for resolutions and big changes, I think. The time when the world is awakening, color is returning, all living things are being born and growing. Until then I'm just going to stick to the goals I've had for the past year: keep on write, write everyday, finish something, self publish it.

Nothing new to see here. But maybe in a few months...