Monday, January 28, 2013

Who am I? Part 2: The Blog

The Look

Recently I've been looking at my blog. For while now it's been bright and cheerful. All happy little clouds and primary colors. I liked that look. It made me smile to look at it. But let me bring you in on a little secret... The look of my blog didn't reflect me as a person in the slightest. It also didn't reflect the type of stories I want to write at all.

That's a problem. As I'm sure you all know, there's this thing called author branding. Now, I hate the term "branding". It makes me feel like a commodity. Still, the principle behind the term is solid. Branding is all about how you present yourself to your potential readers. It's important to send a clear message about what readers can expect from you as an author.

And the simple truth is that I am not one of those cheerful, carefree bloggers that are always relating amusing stories and making people laugh. That's just not me. Sometimes I wish it was, but I have to accept who I am. I'm a thoughtful, introspective, often philosophic person who only talks when I have something worth saying and always, always, always fact checks any statement I make on any subject for dread of being wrong. When I'm humorous, it's usually sarcastic humor. I'm a somewhat serious and old fashioned person who sometimes wishes I had been born in another age and always wishes I had been born an Elf in Middle-earth. I'm not bright, cheerful colors and happy little clouds.

That's why I've decided to go for a new look. Something that reflects me and my writing better. Yeah, I'm definitely more of an earth tones person. The picture I've chosen for my new header is by Scottish painter David Roberts who produced many images from his tour through Egypt in the 1840s. It's no secret that Ancient Egypt is a passion of mine and a strong influence on my worldbuilding.

The Name

I've also chosen a new title for the blog. Truth be told, I've never been happy with "The Aspiring Subcreator". There's something suggestive about using the word  "aspiring". It subconsciously gives you permission to stay aspiring forever, to never quite meet your goals because you can always reach higher. Well, I'm tired of that. I want to accomplish something this year. I'm not giving myself permission anymore to keep putting off achievement.

I do love the term "sub-creator" coined by Tolkien. But the term "mythopoeia" (which also come from Tolkien, in the context of fantasy literature) is probably more descriptive of the particular way in while I want to write. And the structure of the word gives me a good opportunity to use it to make a geeky reference to Babylon 5, my favorite Sci Fi TV show. (The phrase "Falling Toward Mythopoesis" is a shameless paraphrase of the title of a season 4 episode of Babylon 5, "Falling Toward Apotheosis".) And we geeks love our little in jokes and references, don't we?

To match the new name and new look and new everything else, I think I'd also better change the blog address. As far as I know, if I change it nothing should get screwed up. Everyone who follows me under this address will still be following me under the new one. Please tell me if I'm wrong about that before I do anything drastic. My intent is to just use my name, since this will probably have to serve as my author's website for some time after I finally begin publishing. In fact, that's really what this whole overhaul is about. Getting serious about my goals and preparing for the day when I'll be using this site to present myself to the world as an author.

The Content

But the main thing about a blog is the content, right? No matter how pretty it looks it still needs to be engaging to those reading it. And now I'm going to talk about an observation I've made recently that may be a bit... unwelcome.

I took a long break (again) from the blogosphere. Actually, this past year I took a couple. Every time I stepped back and stopped watching my blog list and then came back... I've noticed that the list of blogs I follow becomes more and more about a relatively small group of writers constantly promoting each other to each other and little more. Which makes me wonder... Who are we even talking to here?

Most posts that show up on my blog feed are all cover reveals and blog tours and new releases. And I see the same ones over and over and over.  Do readers see any of this? Or is it mostly fellow writers? Is that even slightly effective? I'll be honest, I follow a lot of fellow writers because they are writers and I am a writer and I'm interested in writerly fellowship. However, most of the time I'm not at all interested in their books because I'm not going to force myself to read something that doesn't suit my literary tastes just because I like the author's blog. I admittedly skip over the blog tour posts and the cover reveal posts and the release date posts and all the other promotional posts. It means I end up passing over most of the posts that show up on my blog feed everyday. There are few enough that have any real substance outside of promotion.

The other major category of blog posts I see is inexperienced, amateur writers dispensing writing wisdom to other equally experienced amateur writers. Now, maybe it's just me, but this bothers me. I think that if you're going to act like an authority on a subject you should actually be an authority on that subject. If you're going to say things like "This is how you should ____" then you should have at least 10 published novels under your belt.  Now, it's fine if you're clearly just talking about what your personal opinion is or describing your personal observations of the writing process. But all too many unpublished, short term writers blogging around here act as if they know exactly how all books should be written and their posts come across as if they think their way is the right way or that they've discovered the one secret to good writing. Perhaps it's just bad communication, but I expect better than that of writers.

I don't say these things to call anyone out or to tell you you're doing it wrong. Whatever brings you happiness and success as a writer and blogger is what you should do. But I'm not happy with this blogging atmosphere. And I don't want to fall into that trap. The trap where all I'm talking to are fellow writers who probably don't want to read my books anyway because they simply enjoy different genres. The trap where all I do is promote myself and those fellow writers to other fellow writers or the trap where I talk as if I know everything about writing stories even though I haven't accomplished anything on a professional level.

I think I do have worth while things to say about writing and books, but they are only my opinions. I do think that blogs are a good venue for promotion, but only in moderation and I have doubts about how effective so-called blog tours could possibly be. I realize that it's hard to reach beyond the writing blogosphere to the actual readers (who aren't writers), but that's where I want to be headed. And I want to start making my blog right now a place where readers and writers can glean near equal value from reading my posts.

In Conclusion

I have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Who am I?

Last year I went through a period of hardcore writer's block lasting for most of the year. The main reason for this was personal life issues. The energy I had to invest in learning to be the mother of an Asperger's child left little creative energy. However, as I've been adjusting to my new reality, I've also been spending a lot of time pondering who I am, what I want and where I am going in the context of my creative urges.

(Kudos to anyone who gets the references in the images.)

My identity as a writer has always been strongly linked to my love of everything written by J.R.R. Tolkien. It was The Lord of the Rings that made me fall in love with the fantasy genre and long to tell stories as magical. Over the past year, I've made a serious effort to read some of the other foundational material of the fantasy genre and to educate myself about the authors and works that made the genre popular in the first place. I've discovered a lot of forgotten treasures and learned a lot about what elements of fantasy resound with me most strongly. It's been a fun learning experience.

What I've learned is that I'm decidedly old fashioned in my tastes and preferences. The more I read the older literature of fantasy, things like The Worm Ouroboros, Lord Dunsany's works, the Conan the Cimmerian stories and many others, the more I become disenchanted with the modern fantasy literature being published today. In my opinion, it tends to be far less imaginative than the fantasy of the earlier part of the 20th century and certainly far less magical.

Sometimes I become discouraged because everywhere I go on the internet I see people that disparage the fantasy of yesteryear and praise the strides taken by modern fantasy in the direction of "progress". People seem to want fantasy to reflect modern sensibilities and values. They want Strong Female Characters and racial equality and political correctness and whatnot. Personally, I just want strong characters, whether they are male or female is incidental to the story, and I don't think fantasy stories are the place to make political stands. I hate politics anyway. It takes the magic out of everything. So I worry that if I write the kind of stories that I would like, they won't find favor with modern audiences.

But then I think about how perpetually popular The Lord of the Rings is, despite being pretty much the antithesis of everything people claim to desire in their reading material these days. Something about the story still grabs them and draws them in, generation after generation. So maybe people don't really know what they want as well as they think they do. Perhaps there are universal themes and ideals that reach through to all of us no matter what age we live in. Perhaps there are more people in the world like me despite what it seems like on the internet.

Tolkien's writing style tended decidedly toward the mythological. Now, real myths are developed over thousands of years by hundreds of people within a distinct culture. (Those vague round numbers may be a huge understatement.) They were not authored by any one person and so they belong, if they can belong to anyone, to an entire people. For this reason they tend to reflect human truths better than any other form of art, so Tolkien believed. But Tolkien took it a step further when he decided to attempt, as one man, to create an entire mythology from his own imagination. He also coined the term "mythopoeia" which means "myth-making" to describe the art that he was engaged in. And unsurprisingly, as a life long lover of myths and a die hard fan of Tolkien, I too am drawn to this kind of sub-creation.

The main problem with this is just the epic scope one has to deal with if one seeks to be a mythopoet.  I love worldbuilding. I take great enjoyment from it. But worldbuilding is in the background. One still has to decide how exactly one wishes to structure and present their mythopoeia in story form if one wishes to be an author. And this is something I've been struggling with for some time now.

When Tolkien was young, he wrote The Book of Lost Tales, the original precursor to the posthumously published The Silmarillion. The Book of Lost Tales tells many of the same stories that appear in The Silmarillion (though obviously in much more primitive form) but begins with an interesting framing device wherein a human Mariner and explorer makes his way to the Isle where the Elves who once inhabited Middle-earth have withdrawn to. There he becomes part of an Elven household and is told many of their myths and tales of the world and their own history. The first time I read The Book of Lost Tales, this framing device really threw me off. I was used to The Silmarillion. But every time I return to those Tales and think about the framing device, I am really enchanted by it. I like the idea of meaningful tales being told from a future perspective.

Shortly after I began doing research for my worldbuilding, I came across a passage from one of Plato's books which described an encounter between an old Egyptian priest and the Athenian statesman and philosopher Solon. Solon sought to impress the priest with everything he knew about the ancient genealogies of Greece, but the priest merely laughed at him and called the Greeks "children". He proceeded to explain that the Egyptians had been and had watched for long ages while the other civilizations of the world rose and fell due to various natural disasters. It was for this reason that the Egyptians remembered more of the history of the lands of the Greeks than the Greeks did, including the war between the Atlantians and the people who then lived in the region of Athens, which resulted in the destruction of Atlantis.

And thus I was enchanted with another framing device wherein an ancient and knowledgeable storyteller conveys his knowledge of the past to a man from the modern age. That marvelous sense of history, of ancient things lost which may still have meaning for today, of the wise passing on that legacy to the young, is something I love. So I've been struggling with my desire to utilize such a framing device and my fears that this would alienate too many readers who don't like storytelling, only storyshowing. I love told stories and I think too much showing is more annoying than too much telling, but most people seem to disagree with me.

But if there are other people like me, even if we're only a fraction of the market, I believe that there should be stories out there for us. There should be stories for every kind of person. One of the things that has for a long time been frustrating me about traditional publishing (and drawing me to self publishing) is that trad publishers seem to only want to publish two kinds of books: 1. Books that will appeal on a mass scale to whichever type of buying readers is the largest and 2. Books that will appeal to practically no one, but might win an award from critics. This business plan leaves people like me who don't belong to the bestseller crowd in the dust. Trad pub doesn't care about the people who don't fit into their narrow view of readers and so we don't get books published for us.

There's a famous writing quote that says something to the effect of : If the book you want to read isn't written yet, you should write it yourself.

There are a lot of empty spaces out there in the regions of the fantasy genre where I think there might have been books I would have liked, if traditional publishing hadn't rejected or changed them. I really hope indie publishing will fill up those empty spaces. But I also don't want to just sit by and wait for that to happen. I'm only one person, but I want to do my part to fill up some of that empty space for people like me. I want to contribute my own story to the readers of the world that long for tales of beauty and magic and light and wonder rather than darkness and grit and so-called "realism". We all deserve to have the kinds of stories that will be the most compelling to us as individuals out there to read. No one should be excluded.

In the end all this angst leads me right back to where I started: as a person who loves stories and who has found stories within herself that must be told. And they can only be told in a way that I, the author, can be passionate about. It doesn't really matter if no one else will like them. I have to try, to make my contribution. And who knows? Perhaps like Tolkien I will find that my stories will attract a larger audience than I ever thought possible.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Insecure Writer's Support Group: The Importance of Storytelling

Sometimes we get caught up in storytelling as entertainment and forget how essential it is to our development as human beings and our relation to others. So today I have a story from my personal life to help remind us of that important truth.

This little lesson on the importance of storytelling was impressed on me by my 5 year-old son with Asperger's. To set it up a bit, my son, Maedhros, has a very hard time going to bed at night. He has some ADHD as well, which commonly goes along with Asperger's in children, and so it's very hard for him to just shut down when bed time comes. He gets a lot of leniency because of that. One night, my husband and I had allowed him to stay up late with us. When we finally insisted that it was time for all of us to go to bed it was around midnight. He still fought us about it. But I put my foot down and insisted he had to go to bed in his room. We went into our room and left him outside in the hallway having a tantrum.

As we lay in bed listening to his shouts for the moment when he would start bringing himself under control, we noticed something interesting. He was shouting something very specific.

"Come on, you guys! You can't!" and "Mom! Dad! Come on, quit eating! Get out of here!" followed by "Mom! Dad! Where are you?" We could tell that he was moving around a lot while saying these things too. Eventually it all clicked, and we realized that he was completely acting out a scene from one of our family's favorite movies: Spirited Away.

(Which, by the way, is a brilliant movie by Hayao Miyazaki that everyone should see regardless of age.)

The particular scene he was quoting word for word is when the heroine, Chihiro, and her parents wander into a sort of resort for the spirit world. The mom and dad find an empty shop full of appetizing foods and start gorging themselves, thinking they can just pay later. But as the sun sets and the spirit world awakens, Chihiro's parents turn into pigs, a punishment for their gluttony, and Chihiro is left scared and alone while strange beings appear all around her.

The connection is obvious. Maedhros was acting the part of Chihiro and my husband and I were obviously the parents who did something stupid, something their kid warned them not to do (in this case, going to bed), and ended up getting into trouble and abandoning their child in a strange and scary world.

But he didn't stop there. He continued the scene up to the point where Chihiro is helped by Haku, one of the few good and friendly spirits in that world.

"Where are my mom and dad? They didn't really turn into pigs did they?"

"You can't see them now, but you will."

He was doing lines for both Chihiro and Haku now, but still clearly identifying with Chihiro. And he finally started to calm down and bring himself under control. His parents may be missing, but he wasn't alone after all. Soon after Haku came into the scene, Maedhros stopped quoting and quietly went into his room and went to sleep.

We couldn't reason with him, we couldn't comfort or reassure him, but the story did. By putting himself in Chihiro's shoes and placing himself inside the story he knew well, he was able to feel the comfort of knowing that Haku would help Chihiro and Chihiro would eventually save her parents and everything would be all right in the end. When nothing else could ease the chaos of his feelings, the story did.

And stories do that for all of us. Not in such a literal and exaggerated way as how a 5 year-old with Asperger's experienced it. But placing ourselves inside the stories we read and watch and participate in helps us to deal with a lot of the daily strife and stress that is part of life. When the characters overcome their obstacles, we feel like we've been there along side them, we get the same thrill and sense of accomplishment and maybe we learn something from how the characters acted and dealt with their problems. Experiencing stories helps us to live life.

That's why being a storyteller, no matter what medium, is an important vocation. It's an integral role in society and deserving of respect. It doesn't even matter that kind of story you're writing. Spirited Away is pure fantasy, but it helped my son in the real world. Stories help people live.