Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Storytelling vs. Writing

On a fantasy writing forum that I have recently joined, a member posted a question:
I know both the story and the way it's written is important, but if you had to pick one above the other, which would it be and why?
First, of course, I have to pause to sigh at the imposed false dilemma. Why is it that humans have such an urge to force ourselves and others to choose "one or the other" when there is no real need to do so? There is absolutely no reason to make one aspect of storytelling more important or more of a focus than another, unless that is your personal preference.

Second, one has to ask what the questioner means by "story" and "the way it's written". This is the missing element that bothers me in so many debates. Terms are seldom defined even though we all tend to mean different things by what we say. To be on the same page in any discussion it is important to understand how we are using certain words, to agree on how to define the terms being discussed. For instance, to me "story" includes the whole package. Story includes the individual elements of the particular story being told (plot, characters, setting, theme, etc.) as well as how it is told by the author (exposition, dramatization, characterization, description, foreshadowing, etc.). So in my opinion there is no such thing as "story" vs. "the way it's written".

However, if you define "the way it's written" as "the technical aspects of writing" such as sentence structure, word choice, and techniques based in the words themselves such as alliteration then I think there is a very important difference between "storytelling" and "writing". A difference that one has to think back to the oral storytellers of other eras to fully appreciate.

I have a book called Hibernian Nights which is a collection of the stories told by Seumas MacManus, a real Irish shanachie (storyteller), often called the last. In his preface he laments the lost art of the told story. There are certain qualities of the told story which the read story can never possess, he says. For one, the told story is a living story. The storyteller can alter it each time he tells it, adding details or flourishes or whatever he wishes in the moment. The read story, he says, is dead on the page. He describes the told story as "glowing, appealing and dancing with energetic vitality- the personality and inspiration that the good storyteller can always command into the tale he tells." In addition, he says that the read story possesses alone the value of the story its self while the told story also benefits from "the golden worth of the good storyteller's captivating art and enhancing personality- trebling its worth."

Now I agree with him to an extent. These are real problems with the written down, read story. However, I disagree that these are unchangeable qualities of the read story. I don't think it has to be that way. I think authors have been taught to write that way. Yet I have read many stories in books where the author's voice came through so well that I did feel I was being told a story and it felt alive. I love those stories more than any others. Yet across the internet I see the advice to stay far away from the feeling of the "told story", to keep yourself separate from the story. I think this is terrible advice. I think it is a real detriment to literature. In addition, the advice I see across the internet focuses on technical aspects of writing. We are told to improve our storytelling by avoiding certain types of words to avoid any storytelling technique that presents even the slightest challenge. Our tools are removed from our hands by the so called experts and we are patted on the head and told to be a good little author and write things that appeal to critics (agents and editors) instead of readers.

Seumas MacManus
But, as I said, I don't think it has to be that way. I think most of the great things about the told story can still come through a written story, if the author has the art of it. And what is lost, for instance the changeableness of it, I think is outweighed by the good. I think in many ways the written story in this day and age can move above and beyond the told story, but not if we abandon the value to be found in the told story. You build on a good foundation, you don't tear it down before putting up your walls.

We have certainly all but lost the art of good storytelling, which, as Seumas MacManus says, "was ever a propagator of joy". I think that in losing the art we've also lost the joy. My goal, at least, is to try to find it again and do what I can to propagate it a little. That's what's important to me as a reader and a writer.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Cause for Celebration

Today I'm joining in the weekly Celebrating the Small Things bloghop for the first time. It's simple: just sign up on the linky list, post some celebrations, and hop around to share the celebrations of others. This week I feel like celebrating so here goes.

First, something that none of you will get but I have to mention it anyway because it makes me so happy. Last month, the player music system in the MMORPG I play, The Lord of the Rings Online, was broken beyond use. Now, this is my absolute favorite part of the game and one of my favorite things in life period. So I've been pretty sad about it. But on Wednesday, it was finally fixed! I spent yesterday afternoon playing music in game with friends and it was wonderful.

Second, and more important, yesterday was also my son's Kindergarten graduation. Now to understand why this is so special to us, you have to understand that my son was put in a special school program for children with autism. He's been getting therapy for his speech and motor skills because when he started the school year in September, he could barely communicate with anything other than movie quotes and he wasn't even potty trained. But his teachers are the most wonderful set of women in the world because throughout the year he has seen steady improvement. He's potty trained (though he still sometimes goes through periods of regression), he actually talks to us and understands us, he's progressing so well in math, reading and writing that he was able later in the year to join in a regular kindergarten class for those lessons. His improvement is remarkable and we are so proud of him. (Though I imagine he's still going to drive us crazy after his classes end on the 19th. Summer is the bane of all parents.)

Third, and most important of all, last weekend my brother was in a dangerous car crash after falling asleep at the wheel in the middle of the night. It was a head on collision and the two victims (my brother and the woman in the other car) were both injured. My bother had several broken bones and was believed to be in danger for a day after being taken to the hospital. However, he pulled through quickly and though he looked pretty banged up when I visited him on Monday, he's recovering well and should be able to go home this weekend. (Though he probably will seriously miss the little button he gets to push to administer pain meds.) It reminds me of the car crash I was in many years ago after I fell asleep at the wheel in the middle of the day and rear ended someone. It could have been much worse (no injuries) and I was so lucky. But at least for my brother there isn't any permanent damage and maybe he'll learn a lesson about driving tired.

Nothing new on the writing front because with doctor appointments and end of school year activities this has been one busy and exhausting week. And tomorrow we are driving out of town with 5 kids (!) to attend a family high school graduation part. Wish me luck. 

Well, those are the things I'm celebrating this week. How about you?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heroes and Villains from Bleach

Heroes and Villains. They make or break a good story. Today I've signed up for the Heroes and Villains Blogfest hosted by Dani at Entertaining Interests and Jackie at Bouquet of Books which has us listing our favorite heroes and villains. Now, man, that's hard for me to do because there are just so many fantastic heroes and villains I could name. I love the character aspect of story.  So I've decided to limit myself to two exceptional examples. Characters that I pondered long after the story was over and who taught me new things about story and character.

Hero 

The many faces of Ichigo Kurosaki
Ichigo Kurosaki is the hero and main character of the anime series Bleach, which I've mentioned before because I'm a bit obsessed with it. As a character, Ichigo took some time to grow on me. In some ways he's a typical teenager and I've never much liked that breed. But as the story progresses you begin to see how he's different and awesome. One of the most typically annoying things about teenagers is their overweening confidence in their abilities and in this regard Ichigo is no exception. He tends to go into conflicts and battles assuming that he will be able to handle it, sure that he will win simply because he must. But the difference here is that Ichigo's confidence doesn't come from arrogance or conceit, it's not founded in himself. His confidence and his surety in battle is founded in the strength that he receives from his friends and from his need to protect them. Because of this Ichigo is able to accomplish amazing feats.

 Ichigo Quotes:

"I'm not superman, so I can't say anything big like I'll protect everyone on earth. I'm not a modest guy who will say it's enough if I can protect as many people as my two hands can handle either. I want to protect a mountain-load of people."

"It's meaningless to just live, it's meaningless to just fight. I want to win!"

"The difference... in strength... what about it? Do you think I should give up... just because you're stronger than me...? I've always known you were strong. Nothing I see now will change my mind. I will defeat you Ulquiorra."

"When you cross blades, you can tell a little of what your opponent's thinking. I'm not saying you can read their mind or anything like that, but you can tell what kind of resolve lies behind their blade, whether they respect you or look down on you. That kind of thing, you can tell. When I'm actually fighting, there's no time to think about it, so I don't usually realize until afterwards, but in general, the stronger the opponent is, the more of that "heart" seems to come across."

What Ichigo, and other anime heroes like him (Inuyasha, Natsu), teach me is that heart really does matter. Inner strength makes a difference. I like him not because he's powerful, though he is, and not because he always wins, which he generally does. I don't like him because he's got a tough attitude or because he looks cool in his Shinigami outfit, though that's true as well. I like him because he puts others first. He's able to completely throw himself into a fight without holding anything back because he isn't thinking about himself. He wants to win, he is determined to win not for himself, but for the people he is protecting. He is a real hero.

But a great hero needs a great villain. There are almost a literal ton of bad guys in Bleach, but I want to focus on the one whose conflict with Ichigo was, I think, the most compelling and whose final battle with Ichigo was easily the most epic.

Villain

Ulquiorra's normal appearance on the right and his "Resurreccion" form on the left.

Ulquiorra Cifer is not actually a "main villain" of the series. Ulquiorra is not human, but is a member of an extremely powerful caste of creatures that are born of human souls that do not pass into the afterlife upon their death and become corrupted. He is an underling of Aizen, who could be comparable to Sauron on the Dark Lord scale. Nonetheless, he is a formidable opponent. He was responsible for kidnapping Orihime, a close friend of Ichigo, which causes Ichigo and some of his other friends to attack the enemy's stronghold to rescue her.  Ulquiorra is also responsible for Orihime's care and it is in this way that a strange relationship develops between them.

The battle between Ichigo and Ulquiorra is intense. Ulquiorra, an embodiment of "emptiness" reveals multiple forms, each more powerful than the last. Ichigo is really no match against him, but continues to fight. In fact, Ulquiorra actually kills Ichigo at one point only to see Ichigo summoned back by Orihime's screams in a new, powerful and terrifying form.

Ulquiorra quotes:

"Hearts, you say? You Humans are always so quick to speak of such things. As though you carry your hearts in the very palms of your hands. But this eye of mine perceives all. There is nothing that it overlooks. If this eye cannot see a thing, then it does not exist. That is the assumption under which I have always fought. What is this "heart"? If I tear open that chest of yours, will I see it there? If I smash open that skull of yours, will I see it there?"

"Kurosaki Ichigo... Those are the words of a man who does not know true despair. Very well... I shall teach it to you. Now you will know true despair..."

"I see. This. Yes. This thing in my hand is the heart?"

Ulquiorra ultimately dies by Ichigo's hand and his dying words (the last quote above) reveal his secret longing as he and Orihime reach out to each other. Ulquiorra is, to me, a sympathetic villain. Those who live in despair, once knew hope. Those who are empty, long to fill their emptiness.

Since I spent so long talking about these two characters, I'll refrain from listing any more. This has been a fun exploration. And now, a gratuitous image of Ichigo and Renji Abarai, cause they're awesome.


 

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Harper's Song



I do a lot of research for my worldbuilding. This usually has me delving into various world mythologies, making word lists from various languages, or trying desperately to understand various philosophical concepts. Quite often, I come across fascinating material. So I've decided to do occasional posts sharing some of the cool things I've learned that may or may not be used in my fantasy world and stories.

Today I'm sharing The Song of the Harper, taken from my copy of The Literature of Ancient Egypt, translation by Vincent A. Tobin.

The Song of the Harper
Fortunate is this prince,
For happy was his fate, and happy his ending.

One Generation passes away and the next remains,
Ever since the time of those of old.
The gods who existed before me rest (now) in their tombs,
And the blessed nobles also are buried in their tombs.
But as for these builders of tombs,
Their places(1) are no more.
What has become of them?

I have heard the words of Imhotep and Hardedef(2)
Whose maxims are repeated intact as proverbs.
But what of their places?
Their walls are in ruins, And their places are no more,
As if they had never existed.

There is no one who returns from beyond
That he may tell of their state,
That he may tell of their lot,
New Kingdom harp
That he may set our hearts at ease
Until we make our journey
To the place where they have gone.

So rejoice in your heart!
Absence of care is good for you;
Follow your heart as long as you live.
Put myrrh on your head,
Dress yourself in fine linen,
Anoint yourself with the exquisite oils
Which are only for the gods.

Let your pleasures increase,
And let not your heart grow weary.
Follow your heart and your happiness,
Conduct your affairs on earth as your heart dictates,
For that day of mourning will (surely) come for you.
The Weary-Hearted(3) does not hear their lamentations,
And their weeping does not rescue a man's heart from the grave.

Refrain:
Enjoy pleasant times,
And do not weary thereof.
Behold, it is not give to any man to take his belongings with him,
Behold, there is no one departed who will return again.


(1) "places" here refers to cult chapels for the dead.
(2) There is an existing fragment of an Instruction text of Hardedef, but there are no known writings of Imhotep in existence. Given Imhotep's reputation for wisdom, it makes one wonder what writings we may be missing due to the destructive force of time.
(3) "The Weary-Hearted"  is a title of he god Osiris.

I find The Song of the Harper fascinating. First, it appears to be but one example of a genre of writings called "Harper's Songs". This particular Song claims, in the text, to be from the tomb of an unidentified King Intef though it was found grouped with many "love songs" in Papyrus Harris 500. The Papyrus is from the New Kingdom, however the language of the Song indicates Middle Kingdom origins. Second, Harper's Songs seem to give a view of life and death in ancient Egypt somewhat divergent from the mainline religious beliefs. The sort of "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die" theme wasn't common in Egyptian writings and may express a viewpoint more in line with the people rather than the religious leaders.

For my world, these songs have been partial inspiration for my minstrel/bard character Bulsara of Akhet. A highly skilled musician, a bit of a rebel, a lady's man, a fun guy who's going to get into quite a lot of trouble with the religious establishment, setting off a series of, I hope, interesting adventures that will be good short story fodder.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fairy Prince Blogfest: Prince Ashitaka

I've signed up today for Rachel Morgan's Fairy Prince blogfest (to celebrate the release of her new book, details below) because it gives me a good excuse to talk about one of my favorite characters: 

Get ready for a gratuitous amount of images.

This is Prince Ashitaka from the movie Princess Mononoke written and directed by my favorite modern storyteller, Hayao Miyazaki. Mononoke-hime could easily be considered a Japanese fairy tale with its proliferation of gods, demons, spirits, a Prince protagonist and the titular "princess".

Ashitaka is the last prince of the Emishi tribe. He is a warrior, wielding both sword and bow and arrows, though he abhors violence and uses it only to protect. In the story's beginning, Ashitaka fights against a corrupted boar demon that is attacking his village. He fights without fear, killing the boar demon but earning a cursed wound in the process.

Wise Woman: My prince, are you prepared to learn what fate the stones have foretold you?
Ashitaka: Yes, I was prepared the very moment I let my arrow fly.

Ashitaka is told that the infection in his arm will slowly spread through his body causing him a painful death. Due to the laws of the Emishi, Ashitaka must cut his hair and leave the village, henceforth considered dead to his people.

Wise Woman: You cannot alter your fate, my prince. However, you can rise to meet it, if you choose.
 Ashitaka's one hope is to travel west, to the source of the corruption that cause the demon to become consumed with anger and hate. The Wise Woman of his village tells him that it is his fate to go there with eyes "unclouded by hate" to see what he can see. Ashitaka bravely takes on this fate without any bitterness in his heart for what has happened to him.

In the west he becomes embroiled in the conflict between the humans of Iron Town who are consuming the resources of the land to make profitable iron to fuel human civilization and the spirits and gods of the nearby forest whose land is being encroached upon by the humans. He meets Princess Mononoke ("princess of the spirits"), a human girl who was raised by the wolf gods of the forest when her family was killed in war, a human who now hates humans. Another angle to the conflict arises when the Emperor sends a mercenary monk to the forest to cut off the head of the Forest Spirit whose dual nature of life and death can offer healing or destruction. But the emperor wants the head to give him immortality. Ashitaka takes no side in the fight, but tries to convince all the players that violence and anger and hatred cannot lead to anything good.

Ashitaka: Look, everyone! This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! It’s eating me alive, and very soon now it will kill me! Fear and anger only make it grow faster!

And in the end it is only because of Ashitaka's devotion to life and to protecting that which is worth protecting that the world is not consumed by the Nightwalker, the destructive side of the Forest Spirit. Ashitaka is my favorite prince because of what he stands for: the courage to life a life of peace, the bravery to honor and love all life. He never sees anyone as the enemy, he knows they are all victims. He never sacrifices or falters in his convictions. He protects everyone and earns the right to live again.


San (Princess Mononoke): Even if all the trees grow back, it won't be his forest anymore. The Forest Spirit is dead.
Ashitaka: Never. He is life itself. He isn't dead, San. He is here with us now, telling us, it's time for both of us to live.

Also, his music is awesome:


It's release day for The Faerie Prince, the second novel in the Creepy Hollow series! Woohoo! If you're keen to read it, you can find it at the following places online:



Guardian trainee Violet Fairdale is just weeks away from one of the most important occasions of her life: graduation. After messing up big time by bringing a human into the fae realm, Vi needs to step up her game and forget about Nate if she hopes to graduate as the top guardian of her year. Everything would be fine if she wasn’t forced to partner with Ryn, her ex-friend, ex-enemy, current ‘sort of friend’. They might be trying to patch up their relationship, but does she really want to spend a week undercover with him for their final assignment? On top of that, the possibly insane Unseelie Prince is still on the loose, free to ‘collect’ as many specially talented faeries as he can find—and Vi is still at the top of his list. Add in faerie queens, enchanted storms, complicated not-just-friends feelings, and a murder within the Guild itself, and graduation is about to become the least of Vi’s problems.



In celebration, The Faerie Guardian is on sale for a limited time!


**GIVEAWAY**

There will be a giveaway running from now until the end of the blog tour (Sun 9 June). A giveaway where FOUR people could win something! The prizes are a signed copy of The Faerie Prince (or The Faerie Guardian, should the winner prefer that), an Amazon gift card, a mini book pendant and necklace, and a Creepy Hollow pin badge. Check out the pic below!
Giveaway is open internationally



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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Anime: The Book of Bantorra

Last night my husband and I finished watching the anime The Book of Bantorra. It was good. Really good. The first anime we've tried in a while that made me want to stay up way longer than I should to keep watching. It also made me question some things about my story preferences that I thought were true.

First, let me give you a quick summary of the show's premise. In Bantorra's universe when people die their bodies slowly turn into books (which look like vaguely book sized slabs of rock) which other people can touch to read and learn the deceased's life story. Bantorra Library is home of the Armed Librarians (how cool is that?) whose job is to collect, organize and protect the books. The Armed Librarians are in conflict with the Church of Drowning in God's Grace (also called the Shindeki Church) who believe that being human means that you have the right to seek happiness at all costs. The top ranks of the Church are the True Men, who use others to gain happiness and thus create the most beautiful books of their lives that they can. Then there are the Mock Men who serve the True Men. Lowest of all are the Meats who the True Men have brainwashed to forget their humanity. Meats are used as cannon fodder and guinea pigs in various experiments the Church carries out.

To say more would be to give away too much. The anime is full of intrigue, of world-changing secrets and interesting plot twists. It's well worth the watch. So what assumptions did it call into question?

1. I thought I hated character death.

Of course I don't mean ALL character death. Sometimes it's appropriate or even necessary to the story. But I have firmly hated and condemned the kind of character death that G.R.R. Martin engages in: where characters seem to die right and left and the only purpose of it seems to be either a glorification of violence or "Ha! You thought you could root for him? You never know whose going to die or when in this book! Don't get too comfortable, reader. Muahahahahaha!" OK, that may be a bit of an exaggeration but I think you know what I mean.

Many characters die in Bantorra and only some of them are bad guys. The first episode introduces a group of Armed Librarians. As typical in anime they are all given a unique look and unique abilities and unique personalities. They are presented as whole characters. Only a few of them will survive to the end. And while it hurt each time one of them died, somehow it fit into the mood and theme and direction of the story perfectly. And perhaps this is the key to why it worked for me: (semi spoiler) the climax involves a two layered fight involving the still surviving characters and all the characters that had died thus far all working together in their respective realms to win the conflict. It was awesome.

Three of these characters die.

 So while many of the deaths seem pointless at the time, ultimately they have meaning.

2. I thought I hated unsympathetic, morally questionable main characters.

In truth, there's not really one main character in The Book of Bantorra. But Hamyuts Meseta, the acting director of Bantorra Library, is certainly one of the most important characters. (She's the one in the image above with the ridiculous cleavage.) She's also a terrible, terrible person.

In the very first episode she uses her power to blow up a ship despite all of the people that are still on it including her own Armed Librarians. The rest of the series establishes that she is ruthless, bloodthirsty and extremely deadly. She is clearly keeping some ominous secrets and no one really knows who she is or what her goals are. And at first I didn't like her. But then...

One of the things I love about anime is how EVERY SINGLE character is far deeper and more complex than they appear in the beginning. But animes tend to take their time about revealing the full picture of their characters. Each new storyline will deepen your knowledge of the characters. It's like each character is a puzzle. In the beginning of the series the frame of the puzzle is intact and slowly new pieces are added with each arc the character goes through until you can finally see the whole picture. It's fantastic. Hamyuts is no exception.

One of the other characters, Minth, has an ability called Sacred Eyes which allows him to look into people's souls. He once used it on Hamyuts. He expected, he says, to see nothing but evil and villainy in her soul, but was surprised. He finds that her main trait is self-loathing, her thoughts are void, and she wishes for love.

By the end of the series I could believe that, even though in the beginning she had seemed a villain. Slowly, gradually, so that you barely notice it consciously, she is deepened. And in the end it is possible to sympathize with her and even root for her to win. It is expertly done.

3. I thought I wanted romances to have a happy ending.

Tragic romances are all well and good when you are young. But being a wife and a mother has made me prefer seeing a good happy ending for lovers. It's gotten to the point where I'm likely to shun a story if I think it's going to be too heartbreaking. And yet...

There are several romantic or semi-romantic couples in The Book of Bantorra. The only couple that has something like a happy ending are never at any point physically together (they live hundreds of years apart). Three couples are separated by death. Two of those three never consummated their relationship. It was always on the brink of something more. All four of these relationships were beautiful, each in different ways. And they were heartbreaking and I loved them.


I would totally ship Noloty and Enlike. 


So what's the moral here? I think it's that there are no rights and wrongs when it comes to story telling. Anything can work. It just depends on how well you implement it. But you can't know how well you might or might not be able to carry out a particular technique or trope until you try it. At that point, you should let the readers decide whether it's good or bad.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Fumbled it Again

I fumbled the A to Z Challenge. Again.

But rather than asking myself why I even bother to jump into things that I obviously can't handle I'm going to stick to telling myself, "It's better to have strived and failed than never to have striven at all."

Still, I think I've learned something important about myself. (Something more than "Oh God, remind me never to try the A to Z again.") Or at least finally managed to get it through my thick skull:

I can't handle hard deadlines or schedules.

Now, let me clarify. I've tried deadlines and schedules. I've tried them in abundance. I've tried participating in the excellent A Round of Words in 80 Days, which is about as lenient a writing challenge as you can get, and I even signed up for NaNoWriMo last year, a much stricter challenge, and gave that a shot. I've tried setting my own goals somewhere in between. I've tried telling myself "just write something, anything, even if it's only one sentence of fiction, everyday." I've tried various daily word count goals. I've tried every type of goal I can think of.

But here's the thing... (and when you read that, I want you to hear it in the voice of Tony Shalhoub as Monk, because I always do.) Here's the thing... I become hopelessly anxious at the thought of deadlines. And it doesn't matter what word you use. Call it a goal, call it a challenge, call it whatever you want. My inner demons aren't fooled. If I'm supposed to accomplish a specific task by a specific time/date then I can't handle it.

Trivia: in my senior year of high school I was supposed to write a 10 page paper for my English class. I couldn't handle the deadline for this paper. It passed by and I hadn't even read the book I was supposed to be analyzing. (I never actually did read the whole thing. It was an awful book, but there was a list of books we were supposed to choose from and I was sick that day so when I came back to school I had to choose from the dregs.) Weeks passed. My teacher finally cornered me and made it clear that my grade would be shot if I didn't turn in that paper. Filled with anxiety, I forced myself to write 10 pages of, what I thought of as, drivel. (Have I mentioned that I hate literary criticism? Which is basically what we were supposed to do.) Well, I must have simulated what my teacher wanted well enough because despite taking off 20 points for being late, I scraped a grade of 77.

What's the point of that story? There's a part of me that knows perfectly well that I can do the tasks that are set for me. I'm a smart, competent person and even a decent writer and part of me knows it. The other part is thoroughly convinced that I'm a failure at everything I do and that I can't write worth crap. The second part of me is usually in charge. And fighting against that part of me, even thinking about going against it, causes terrible anxiety EVEN WHEN I KNOW, LOGICALLY, THAT THAT PART OF ME IS WRONG. I've talked a bit about my anxiety before. Anxiety is painful in a very physical as well as mental way and it's exhausting to struggle with it. And people, like me, with real anxiety problems (I take medication, but it only helps so much) have no control over how our minds and bodies react to it.

I can't handle deadlines. They give me panic attacks. They paralyze my mind and body.

So what can I do?

I think the key to why deadlines give me such anxiety is that they are in the future. During all the time between NOW and THEN my mind has ample opportunity to play on my insecurities. (And it has a rip roaring time, let me tell you.) I usually start out well. But as time passes everything becomes more and more difficult for me to face. Perhaps, then, I should eliminate that time factor. But how?

I'm also the type of person who needs to feel prepared when I sit down to write. Otherwise uncertainty creeps in and that leads to more anxiety. I need to have my research done, my notes to hand, and at least a rough outline of what I want to accomplish with my story in mind. Right now I don't feel prepared. So I'm going to focus on preparation, because the thought of research and outlining doesn't freak me out like the thought of actually writing the story does. And I think if I'm better prepared then the thought of writing the story will freak me out less.

So my goal is to finish all of my research and worldbuilding notes and outlines by the end of the summer. (By that I mean the end of summer vacation.) Right now I've got 5 kids, 2 of which are in school. In September my middle child will be starting kindergarten. That will mean only the two little ones home and they both take good naps during the day. So if I can manage to finish everything I need to feel prepared over the summer, I'm going to try to discipline myself to sit down and write during nap time. I'm not going to set wordcount goals or anything, I'm not event going to set myself the goal of writing everyday. I'm just going to try to set up a correlation in my mind: nap time>write. I won't guilt myself if I miss a day or if I can only get a sentence down before the boys wake up. I will try to empty my mind of all pressures associated with writing. It will simply be nap time>write.

I will just have to wait and see whether this method will be helpful to me. Every writer needs to find their own method, their own positive habits, what works for them. I'm still searching. Perhaps once I have begun to find it I will feel that I can begin to call myself a real writer. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Fantasy Rapid Fire Part 2



Without further ado...

When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time I felt like Alice must have felt when she followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland: I was falling down into a world so deep that I might never come back from it. It was the depth of Lore in LoTR that gripped me from the beginning. The sense that I might explore Middle-earth forever and never learn all there is to know about it. Soon I discovered that the fantasy genre is full of Lore-rich works and I fell hopelessly in love. Finding a new book or series that has a richness of Lore and background/backstory details to lose myself in is my greatest joy while reading.

Magic. It seems to be the one ingredient that everyone can agree is absolutely essential to fantasy literature. But what is Magic? Arthur C. Clarke famously said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Gene Wolfe wrote that "There is no magic. There is only knowledge, more or less hidden." I've been giving a lot of serious thought to the question of what Magic is lately. I plan on writing a series of posts about it after April. Come back then if you're interested in my conclusions.

One of my favorite tropes of fantasy is Names. In no other genre are Names as important as they are in fantasy. For in fantasy Names can tell you much about a character and their world. Name construction can give you clues into the author's worldbuilding. For instance, in Tolkien's works, the names follow the rules of the various languages he created. One of his names can instantly tell you a character's race and country of origin before you know anything else about them. And the meaning behind the name might give you clues to their character and role in the stories. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a smart reader could have realized early on that Professor Remus Lupin was a werewolf just from his name. Names in fantasy are like clues to a mystery, a game I the reader am playing with the author. Meta or not, I find it good fun.

An element that fantasy inherited from mythology and the fairy story is the Otherworld. The Otherworld can be either the land of the dead or just a parallel world of spirits and deities. A character in a fantasy novel may interact with the Otherworld by summoning spirits, communicating with the dead, being tricked into venturing there themselves or even crossing the boundary between the worlds of their own free will on a quest. An Otherworld gives a writer a great opportunity to include really strange stuff in their fantasy without having to explain it: the Otherworld has always been a bizarre place.





Thursday, April 18, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Fantasy Rapid Fire Part 1



Let's go!

You've all heard of the Hero's Quest, but how about the Hero's Geas? A geas is a concept that comes from Celtic Mythology and it can be either a taboo or an injunction placed on the hero, typically by a woman. For instance, Cuchulainn has a geas on him to never eat dog meat and he is also bound by a geas to eat any food offered to him by a woman. So naturally one day a woman offers him dog meat to eat. Geasa frequently lead to the doom of the hero who is bound by them.

In the real world, we are confronted daily with the knowledge that we are mortal and must die. Perhaps this is why in fantasy Immortality is such a common theme. For better or worse we all at times wish that we could live forever. In fantasy, people can live forever, but frequently they find that it is not as wonderful a thing as they thought it would be. Is this a way of compensating for our inability to live forever, simply to make us feel better about it? Or is there truth there?

Fantasy stories frequently feature great Journeys across vast lands. Think The Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time or any major epic fantasy series. Readers go along for the journey, often following along with a relatively clueless character who has never traveled beyond his home town before. In this way the reader experiences the same discovery that the character does as he sees new lands and meets new people and learns new things. Only in fantasy can we make such journeys of discovery in wholly new worlds.

Fantasy has become the refuge of the Kingdom. While Kings and Kingdoms still exist in our modern world, they are simply not the same anymore. And it must be confessed that there is something romantic and awesome about the Kingdom. Part of us longs for the pomp and circumstance that goes along with a kingdom and some of us long for the romance of princes and princesses. But perhaps it is just as well that the good and bad of the monarchy is mostly preserved for us in the pages of a fantasy book.









Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Elfland and Faerie

The first week of this year's A to Z Challenge coincided with spring break, which meant that all 5 of my kids were home all week. This on top of having a brand new baby and a sick two year old. So needless to say I've been having some trouble finding time for blogging and am already way behind. Rather than just picking up where the Challenge is now, I'd like to make up the letters I've missed. So I'll be blogging two letters per day this week until I'm caught up. So today will be E and F.


Today I'm going to kill two birds with one stone by using two words for the same idea. (Hahaha!)

I am currently reading the book The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany. In it, the people of the Vale of Erl desire to have a magic lord to make their lives more interesting. So the old lord of Erl sends his son, Alveric, into Elfland to marry the King of Elfland's Daughter. The story so far seems to me less about the characters and more about the relationship between the "Fields We Know", as Dunsany calls the mundane world where the Vale of Erl is, and the magical realm of Elfland. The story strongly stresses the differences between the two and indeed those differences are the major source of the conflict. The people of the Vale of Erl are drawn to the magic of Elfland and yet have trouble understanding and accepting it.

I don't know how this conflict will play out but I am eager to find out.

One of the pages above talks about Tolkien's brilliant essay On Fairy Stories. In it he talks about the nature of fantasy as rooted in Faerie. Not Fairies, but Faerie, or as Tolkien called it, the Perilous Realm. The place from whence the stories come.

Faërie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold. ... The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. ~ J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

Tolkien goes out of his way not to define Faerie, saying that part of its nature is to be indescribable though not imperceptible. But one thing is for certain: whatever Faerie is, it is other. It is something that is at once wondrous and dangerous, compelling and repulsing, beyond us and yet a part of us. Faerie, or Elfland, is the essence of Fantasy, allowing us to pass beyond the Fields We Know and emerge again different, and hopefully better, people.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Exploring Life After Death






One of the great things about fantasy is that it allows us to explore things that are impossible or at least impossible to know in this real world. One of my favorite impossible things to explore is Death and Life after it.

Currently my favorite example of this is the anime series Bleach.


Bleach is about Ichigo Kurosaki who has always been able to see dead souls. Then one fateful night he meets Rukia Kuchiki, a Shinigami (lit. death god) whose job is to help those wandering souls enter the after life. Ichigo is drawn into the world of the Soul Society where dead souls go to reside and where the Shinigami protect the balance of life and death. Not all souls go peacefully to Soul Society, he learns. Some become monstrous Hollows and when Hollows linger in the living world to eat human souls it is the Shinigami's duty to end their existence (with super awesome sword powers).

What I like particularly about Bleach's version of the after life is that it doesn't at all seem like an afterlife. Soul Society is a real, fleshed out world where souls live like normal people. While souls do not need to consume food unless they have high spiritual power (and those who do tend to join the Shinigami), water is still necessary for existence. Thus life after death continues to be a struggle for survival.

Over the course of the series you meet members of rich and powerful families residing in Soul Society whose sons and daughters almost always join the 13 Court Guard Squads of the Shinigami. You also meet those that came from the poor and the destitute sections of Soul Society where people scrape by a living, and where those with unusual spiritual power often suffer more than most, being lucky if they can one day join the privileged Shinigami. 

The interaction between the living world and the Soul Society is the crux of the show, Ichigo being a sort of  fulcrum between the two. It's a fascinating world. And it could only be explored through fantasy.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Courageous Authors of Fantasy


This post is both for the A to Z and for the Insecure Writer's Support Group.

Today I want to talk about Courage. But instead of talking about courage within Fantasy stories, I'm going to focus on the courage it takes to write Fantasy stories.

Fantasy has been a much maligned genre since its emergence in the 1800s. (Note: when I talk about Fantasy as a genre I mean modern fantasy beginning with such writers as George MacDonald and William Morris.) Often considered only good for children or as escapist fare for pathetic losers, everyone who doesn't enjoy it seems to look down on fantasy, even the people who publish it. In addition, "experts" were declaring traditional and epic fantasy dead not long ago. Tell someone you were working on a fantasy novel and you were likely to pitied more than praised.

In the face of all this, the last hundred years has been full of courageous writers defying the odds and proving the naysayers wrong with spectacular works of fantasy literature that expand reader horizons and add much beauty to the world. I'd like to take a moment to recognize some of the authors who I think have been particularly bright stars in the universe of fantasy fiction and salute their courage as artists and creators.

Robert E. Howard is remembered as the father of Sword and Sorcery due to his creation of the iconic Conan the Cimmerian character. Conan was the consummate adventurer and a perfect example of the courageous fantasy spirit.

Lord Dunsany (or Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) was, I believe, the first great world builder. His stories were filled with exotic and wondrous locales with memorable names and fantastic atmosphere. He was also probably the first modern mythopoet, crafting a world of gods and their mythologies unlike anything before him.

It goes without saying that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis belong on this list. For without their brilliant creations of Middle-earth and Narnia fantasy might never have gained the widespread popularity it achieved in the middle of the last century. Their works resonated with readers like none other before them gaining lasting status as classic that will surely be remembered for centuries to come.

One of the finest fantasy series I've ever read is the Amber Chronicles by Roger Zelazny. It's the perfect example of fantasy that transcends subgenres, brilliantly utilizing tropes from ever kind of fantasy fiction without ever being subject to them, it never feels cliche.

Lastly, I want to mention an author who is not a favorite of mine (though he is a favorite of my husband) but whose work and artistry I have profound respect for. Gene Wolfe is an author of all kinds of speculative fiction, not one of his stories being like any other. The depth, subtlety and originality of his work is sadly underrated by readers while being widely praised by authors of all kinds. Or, as my husband has said, "All Gene Wolfe and no Gene Wolfe makes Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe." (Don't ask me what that means.)

These shining stars of fantasy (and science fiction) paved the way for writers like me (and you!) with their courageous refusal to write anything but the best and their determination to see their work make its way to readers. They made it possible for the genre to grow and thrive, gathering new writers and new readers constantly, by digging deep and producing amazing works of art that no one else could. Looking to their example, we can do the same. We can persevere against all odds in the name of getting our own unique stories to readers and perhaps one day be remembered as they are. Artists and creators who add beauty and wonder to the world.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Beauty



"Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron." ~C. S. Lewis on The Lord of the Rings

I believe that the purpose of every art form is to create Beauty from within ourselves and add it to the world. Writing stories is one way of doing that. Writing Fantasy is, in my opinion, one of the best ways.

Now when I say "Beauty" I don't mean superficial prettiness. I don't mean that a story should necessarily be pleasant to read. As C. S. Lewis said, beauty can hurt.

"There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar." ~John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Art creates Beauty and Beauty points to Truth and Truth is that which, as Steinbeck puts it, teaches us, cures us and lets our hearts soar.

The reason that I think Fantasy serves so well in creating Beauty is that it allows us to take a step back from reality, which can so easily cloud our eyes. It allows our imagination freedom of movement to see things from angles we've never seen before and in lights we've never known before. It allows us to examine humanity and the world and our place in it in ways no other art form can. Properly employed, it can leads us to truths no other genre can. And I think that is its true purpose.

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty." ~ John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn



Monday, April 1, 2013

The A to Z Fantastic: Anthing Goes



Last year, the first time I attempted this theme before dropping out after 6 posts, I talked about how I believe fantasy is the best genre for Adventure.

This year I want to talk about how in fantasy Anything Goes. (Who has the song in their heads now? And who thought of the version from the Monty Python sketch?)

Anyway!

The more fantasy novels and stories I read the more I realize how utterly limitless the genre is. Most genres seem to have limited subject matter and often come with guidelines about how that subject matter should be explored. (Example: Romance needs to be about the romantic relationship between two people and generally needs to have a happy ending.) But fantasy can be about anything and in fantasy anything can happen. Sure, maybe some things are predictable. Good always triumphs over evil. But there are infinite ways it can happen and the joy of the genre is that sense that you never know what's going to occur on the next page.

As a writer, I love the freedom that fantasy grants me. Literally anything I can imagine I can write about. There's no idea so crazy or so outlandish that fantasy can't accommodate it. There's no idea so mundane that fantasy can't spice it up.

And just for kicks, here's Anything Goes (the song) Indiana Jones style:


Sunday, March 31, 2013

New Baby, A to Z and Turning 31, Oh My!

I'm starting this post at 3 am because there's a hungry newborn baby in my arms. Severian Wolfe, born March 20th, continues mine and my husband's insane tradition of naming our kids after literary characters. Our first two are named after Elves from Tolkien's Middle-earth. The two after that are named after a prince and princess from Roger Zelazny's Amber Chronicles. Severian, number 5, is named after the main character from Gene Wolfe's (you see what we did there) The Book of the New Sun series. (Wolfe is also a reference to the lupine character from The 10th Kingdom movie.)

Who's the precious? You are!


Needless to say, this had made daily life rather busy lately. Hence my relative silence. And yet here I am signed up for the A to Z on Monday. I've been trying to come up with a good theme for the past month or so. I've tried several out and sat down to work out what to use for each letter and hit upon about 5 or 6 dead letters each time. Anyone who thinks blogging by the alphabet is easy should be shot. So in the end I've decided to fall back on the theme I picked for last year. The year when I signed up for the A to Z, put out 6 posts and then abruptly failed to do anything for the rest of the month. I guess this will be my opportunity to finish what I started since I had a lot of positive feedback on A through F. (Of course, I'll be using different words for those letters this year.)






The A to Z Fantastic will examine 26 qualities of fantasy literature that I think make it unique and wonderful. And I promise I'll finish it this time.

If all this weren't enough, today is my 31st birthday. Which means that I've been 30 for a whole year. I can remember when the thought of being 30 was horrifying, but the truth is it's been a surprisingly good experience. I've learned a lot more about myself in the last year than I have in a long time. I've noticed many changes from my younger days and I think that it's fair to say they were universally good changes. It's almost shocking, but I'm enjoying getting older. I feel like a better person than I've ever been before.

So all in all I am looking forward to April. I've always loved the Spring with its feeling of growth and potential permeating the air. This year I feel particularly hopeful about the coming months. I feel like I'm in a good place to really accomplish some things this year. Now how do you keep the evil spirit of procrastination away?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Blogfest! My Favorite Movies

Today I signed up to post for Alex Cavanaugh's Top 10 Movie Countdown blogfest. And the truth is, I've been trying to figure out what my favorite movies are for the past week with little success. Oh some choices are obvious.

All three of the original Indiana Jones films were huge influences on me in my childhood. It was Raiders of the Lost Ark that sparked my love of ancient history and made me want to be an archaeologist for several years. Of course, when I became older and wiser I learned that what Indy does is not archaeology, but I never lost my fascination for ancient cultures that these movies inspired.

The Last Crusade is my favorite of the three. You simply can't go wrong when you pair Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. I'm also probably one of the few people who thought the new movie was fun and decent. Harrison Ford was still Indy and that's enough for me.




Jumping ahead, in the last few years I've discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki and fallen completely head over heals in love.


Japanese animation is a great storytelling medium and Miyazaki is its King. I cannot overestimate his genius, every single one of his films is a work of wonder and delight and incredible imagination. ALL Miyazaki films are better than at least 95% of the other fare out there. I've blogged about Spirited Away before, but brilliant as that one is, it's not one of my favorites of his.


For me, his first epic masterpiece, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, is still the best. It's a story set in a post apocalyptic world where humanity is fighting for survival against a poisonous environment only to discover that their ancestors were responsible for the devastation that threatens to wipe out human life. The land its self has set up a system of purification, but can humanity survive long enough to see the remade earth? Nausicaa believes that only learning to live in harmony with the earth again can save them, but not everyone agrees and war sweeps across the kingdoms that remain while Nausicaa fights for life. The world of Nausicaa is vividly imagined and the conflict is both awesomely epic and deeply personal. The score is also one of my favorites. Joe Hisaishi, who does all of Miyazaki's scores, is as unparalleled a musical genius as Miyazaki is a storytelling genius.


Then there's Princess Mononoke. Everything about this film is beautiful. The magical forest environment where most of the action takes place, the nuanced characters, the amazing musical score. This is a story which never takes the easy way out. It asks tough questions about how humans should treat their environment, it pits several different characters with differing viewpoints against each other and yet there is no "bad guy" and no one faction wins in the end. The message is clear: life is sacred and hatred can do nothing but destroy.

Other awesome Miyazaki films that everyone should definitely see include: Howl's Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso, and Ponyo. Though like I said, every single one he does is great.


Dune. Not the cheesy 80s movie. The visually spectacular, and much more faithful, mini series adaptation. (Do mini series count for this? They'll have to.) The book Dune is my favorite though its cerebral nature makes it a hard read. Somehow, the makers of this mini series managed to take a book that should be nearly impossible to film effectively and create an amazing visual interpretation that enhanced rather than detracted from my enjoyment of the book. (Which is saying something. I am a book to movie purist all the way.) The actors deserve major kudos for their portrayals of some of the most nuanced and real characters ever to grace genre fiction. If you like the Dune books and you've never seen this adaptation then you're really missing out.




I'll finish this not-a-Top-10-Countdown list with a couple of my favorite fantasy movies.


I admit it. I'm a sucker for David Bowie as the Goblin King. Dance Magic Dance. Also, Labyrinths are just cool.





"Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles."


What more could you ask for? That quote is actually from the book, by the way, which, yes, is still better than the movie. Though not by much.

All right, I cheated and didn't actually list 10 movies. I'm not good at categorizing my favorites. (Don't ask me why I signed up to do just that.) These are some of my favorite movies. They are movies that have had an influence on me as a person and as a storyteller.

Truth be told, I've always been more of a book person. ;)

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Insecure Writer's Support Group: Learning to say "It is good"

Take an insecurity and ratchet it all the way up and what do you get? An anxiety.

I've probably obliquely mentioned that I have anxiety issues before. But I'm one of those people who likes to (needs to, really) maintain a veneer of being calm and collected no matter how I feel on the inside. So while I'm projecting this...





There's a very real chance that on the inside I look more like this...




And the problem with the anxiety that I suffer is that it's general, meaning that at any given point in time I'm feeling strong anxiety about nothing in particular that manifests its self by making everything I want to do difficult. My anxiety isn't based on anything real or anything rational for the most part. And let me tell you, that drives me insane. Because I am a very rational and logical person. So I can sit back and examine my symptoms of anxiety and KNOW that there's nothing to be anxious about, no reason to argue about the possible consequences of every little thing, no basis to most of my fears. And yet, that knowledge has absolutely no affect on my symptoms. I simply can't control the physical effects of my fear. I can't stop the breathing difficulty or the rapidly beating heart or the muscular paralysis or anything else that I experience every time I need to make an important phone call. (That's right, I get severe anxiety from making phone calls. It's stupid and really, really inconvenient and I've been struggling against it for years with no results.)

Quite honestly, anxiety is something that people who have never suffered from it can't understand most of the time.

And I'm talking about this today because in addition to phone calls, trying new tastes, needles and other various things I suffer from anxiety of putting my own words out there for other people to read. I know that this is what's been holding me back for a long time as a writer. It was easier, once upon a time, when I didn't really consider publication as the goal of my writing. I just wrote because I couldn't help it and the only person I ever showed any of it to was my husband. Now that every word I write has the potential to be seen by the public...



Well, let's just say I even have a hard time hitting the publish button on blog posts. There's a part of me always second guessing myself, whispering "You could have said that much better with a bit more time". But down that road lies madness. If you start telling yourself that with a bit more work it could be so much better (even though it's true) then you'll never get around to publishing anything because it could ALWAYS get better. None of us are sitting down to the computer and typing up perfection on the first draft or even the 50th.

For me, this particular madness is preemptive. Before I even get a first draft down the voices are whispering to me, "Why bother? You'll never get it right. It will always fall short of what you want it to be." And that's probably true as well. It's probably been true of all the masterpieces of literature that were ever published. In one way or another, they fell short of the author's vision. And yet we have those masterpieces because at some point the writer looked at his or her creation and said "It is good." Not "It is perfect and could never get better" but simply "It is good."

I haven't managed to reach this point yet, but I'm working on it. I suspect simple discipline is necessary and I am admittedly not a very disciplined person in my habits. That's something I plan to work on this year.

So how about you? Do you struggle with this anxiety? Have you found ways of combating it? I could use all the tips and tricks I can get.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Getting to Know My Characters

Characterization is pretty important to me as a writer. If I have a good understanding of my characters and their natures it makes it a lot easier for the words to flow. For me, to a certain extent, the plot flows directly out of the characters. Who they are and what choices they would make determines what happens in the story. So I need to know my characters. I need to know how they think and what they would do.

For this reason I often do characterization writing where I'll just sit and write stream of consciousness style from a particular character's point of view to try to get them to reveal themselves to me. I generally do this until I can hear their voice, and I mean that literally. When I can actually hear the sound of their voice in my head as I'm writing their words (it usually takes the form of a voice I've heard from an actor or actress) then I know I'm ready to write them in the story.

Right now I'm gearing up to finally make a fresh start on my novel which I'm planning as the first in a saga. (I like the sound of "saga" better than "series".) So I've been doing some characterization writing and I thought I'd share some of it here. What I'm sharing today is from the point of view of the character Menes, who is one of the two characters that speak from the future in the saga's framing device. Menes is a priest who is the curator of the great library in the city of temples. I hear his voice as the voice of the character of the technomage Elric in the sci fi show Babylon 5...


Menes

I remember.

When the summit of holy Tatenan breached the surface of the primordial waters I was there to remember. When Seppo the Architect broke ground at the feet of that mountain to make the foundation for the first of the four great cities I was there to remember. And when the rumblings of the earth caused the seas to boil and overwhelm the land I was there to remember. All things I remember. This is my role within Mayet.

For a thousand thousand years I have watched and remembered. I have lived among the mortal children of Re through countless cataclysms and catastrophes. I have seen them in their darkest hours and known the depth of their potential for honor and glory, as well as for betrayal. In the unending struggle between the Bas of Order and the Sheut of Chaos, I believe it is the Akh power of these mortal Men that will tip the balance for Mayet or Isfet.

I live among Men, when most of my brethren have retreated beyond the living world, to help guide their steps along the path of Mayet and prepare them for the task they must take up if Order is to triumph.

What others have forgotten, I preserve. What they have forsaken, I will restore.

This is my participation in Mayet.

So what do you think? Does Menes seem like an interesting character? Does Elric have the best voice ever or what? Do you do any similar exercises to get to know your characters?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Thoughts about Love on Valentine's Day

Eleven years ago I had one really perfect Valentine's Day with my future husband. 5 months later we were married and we've never worried about Valentine's Day since then. We've never worried about "romance" and we've also never for a moment not known with absolute certainty that our marriage will last until death do us part.

Over the last few years my husband and I have watched helplessly as the marriages of my brother and his sister (both of whom have one child) fell apart suddenly and ended in divorce. In one case we know why it happened. One of the spouses turned out to be a crazy, lying piece of excrement. In the other case, the divorce is so ridiculously amicable that I cannot fathom why the marriage had to end at all. It's heartbreaking to see how it is affecting the children caught in the middle. It is also heartbreaking to have to occasionally assure my oldest child, who can see what is going on and is unsettled by it to say the least, that divorce is something she never, ever, ever has to worry about in her family.

Some weeks ago when the subject of divorce entered a conversation with my mother, I had occasion to comment to her that divorce is something my children will never have to go through. My mother, who went through 2 divorces before finding happiness with her third husband, looked at me seriously and said, "I hope so." I was shocked by that response, though in hindsight I know I shouldn't have been. Mostly because the tone of her voice clearly said "that's a nice thought, dear, but you'd better be prepared for the possibility". She didn't really believe me, in other words. Divorce is too much a part of her reality (going through 2 herself, seeing other family members around her going through it and now helping my brother through his) for her to ever believe that it's not always lurking around the corner.

And it seems like that's true of most people. Most people seem to view relationships of any kind with the built in assumption that there's always the chance that the relationship will change and come to an end. And the world is filled with people trying to figure out how to keep that from happening. Married couple discuss their tips and tricks for having a healthy relationship. Gurus and experts and counselors tell people all sorts of things they need to do to keep a relationship going. But the assumption is always that there's a limit. There's some point where you've done all you can do and you just have to let a bad relationship die. That it's a natural part of the process.

Well, I've only been married for 10 years. And God knows we have our ups and downs like everyone else. But there is one huge difference between our relationship and every other relationship that I see around me. It's very simple and I truly believe that it is the one and only thing that will guarantee the life of a relationship.

We do not, under any circumstances, admit the possibility of separation or divorce. It is simply not conceivable in our view of marriage.

So we argue and disagree. We fight. (I once threw a hard cover book at my husband's head and gave him a concussion.) We're normal people who have tempers and don't always feel mushy and loving toward each other. But we always know in our hearts that none of that stuff matters. Because we are married and we are always going to be married and that is that. Ending the relationship in any way is simply not an option.

That's what love is. I'm the most fortunate person in the world to have it and to have had it from the beginning and to know without a shadow of a doubt that I will have it until death tears us apart.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What is an Epic?

Ok, I'll let this one go.
The word "epic" gets bandied around a lot on the internet these days and I admit that it makes me very sad to see the meaning of the word watered down and used in ridiculous ways. The truth is that the word epic comes from the Greek meaning "word, story, poem" and was traditionally used to refer to a lengthy narrative poem. Homer wrote epics. The word does not refer to something you think is neat or impressive. It is not an adjective to be shoved willy nilly in front of the words "win" or "fail" as if they weren't opposites.

Of course, we've appropriated the term for things other than narrative poetry that aren't so stupid. I'm a pretty big fan of Epic Fantasy. But then, I think we've been defining Epic Fantasy too loosely. If we're going to use the term "epic" for prose rather than poetry, that's understandable. Long narrative poems just aren't really a viable method for storytelling these days. But I do think that our prose version of the epic should at least participate in some of the other characteristics that set the epic poem apart.

This definition of the epic is from A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman:

Epic: a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.

Let's look at some of these elements. 

An Elevated Style 


Within the context of poetry, that's pretty self explanatory. Poetry is an elevated style. But what would this mean in the context of a prose tale? The idea brings to mind passages from certain works that express ideas and emotions so strong, so grand, so glorious that you want to shout them into a thunderstorm or while swinging a sword above your head. Words that stir you. For instance, it used to be that whenever we had a storm around here my husband would feel the need to go outside and proclaim into the gale:

And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Which is, of course, a line from Shakespeare's King Lear. Just the other night I read some lines from the classic fantasy novel The Worm Ouroboros which gave me distinct chills:


And now, let the earth be afraid, and Cynthia obscure her shrine: no more words but mum. Thunder and blood and night must usurp our parts, to complete and make up the catastrophe of this great piece.

Or this from Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany:

Far over the waters, and on the wings of the prayers beats the light of an inaccessible star. No hand hath touched it, none hath journeyed to it, it hath no substance, it is only a light, it is the star of Hope, and it shines far over the sea and brightens the world.
An elevated style, I think, is using the power and the sound and rhythm of words to conjure up in our hearts things of grandeur and beauty. Things greater than anything we are likely to experience in our day to day lives. 

Central Heroic Figure and Characters of High Position


Achilles. Beowulf. Odysseus. Gilgamesh. Rama. Siegfried. 

The great epics feature huge casts of characters, but the nexus of the story is the Hero. The character whose words and actions can move mountains and ultimately drive the story. The Hero of an epic is a larger than life character and usually embodies the values of the culture from which the epic is born.

The Hero is not, of course, the only character of importance. Given the vast scope of most epics there will be many other actors in the drama having their own adventures and escapades either with the Hero or on the side. But all the parts of the tale come together through their relation to the Hero. He is, in other words, the glue that holds the epic together.

But why, one might ask, should an epic specifically be concerned with "characters of high position".

Well, keep in mind that the art form of the epic goes back thousands of years to times and places where it was only those of high position who would have participated in adventures on a scale grand enough to influence the history of a nation and justify an epic. Everyone else was too busy wondering where their next meal would come from. Also, which type of tale would you rather be entertained with at the end of a long day toiling in the fields? A story about Joe who lives in the next village and has the exact same cares and faces the exact same conflicts as you? Or the tale of mighty Achilles overcoming the great Hector outside the walls of Troy? I know which I'd prefer.

Still, we live in a different world now. People of "high position" who can change the course of a nation or influence a culture can come from anywhere. To incorporate this idea into a modern prose epic one can choose to focus on the individuals in a story that have the most at stake and the most influence over their world. The characters whose actions and words have powerful ramifications within their culture are the characters of "high position".

Episodes Important to the History of a Nation


My husband suggests that a better choice of wording in this part of the definition would be "episodes important to the identity of a nation or race". In other words, epics are born out of a culture as well as helping to shape the culture. Reading the ancient epics gives us insight into the mind and heart of the cultures of the ancient world. These epic poems developed from the tales told by the people as part of their cultural identity. They reflect what was sacred to the people, what made them Greeks or Romans or Anglo-Saxons, etc.

Stories don't have quite the same relationship with culture these days. Not only because there are hundreds of thousands of books published every year allowing us to be really picky about which ones we readers turn into successes, but also because culture just doesn't mean the same thing these days. The world has become, at the same time, a much bigger and much smaller place. Bigger because we're not confined to villages anymore. Smaller because the unknown and unexplored has all but vanished. Which is why, I believe, a lot of us have turned to the realms of fantasy and science fiction for those things which once would have been part of the cultural epic.

To achieve the same kind of importance and meaning in a prose epic today an author almost has no choice but to create their own setting. An epic should involve circumstances and events that have far reaching consequences and it should be played out across a vast and lofty canvas. 

Artist's rendition of mythological Ireland, where the sagas of the Age of Heroes happened.

I'll be honest. I think there's too much "epic fantasy" out there that doesn't count as epic in any way. I think we need more truly epic works of fiction. And the reason I am exploring this topic is because it is my goal to write some. Toward that end, I'll probably spend some time talking about particular epics and examining some of the other common elements of the ancient epic here in future posts. Wish me good fortune!