Friday, November 14, 2014

No Longer At This Address

For old friends who might still check in here occasionally or new ones who might stumble upon this blog, I am long overdue in posting a message here that this blog is no longer active. For a variety of reasons, I decided to start up a fresh shiny blog some time ago through wordpress. I post my thoughts there on an irregular though not infrequent basis. If you've got a whim to read my ramblings again head over to...

Thanks for being a past and/or future reader!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Terrible Analogy of the Hook

Your reader?
Let's talk about analogies for a moment. In public school they start teaching analogies pretty early on as part of the English subject. Kids learn them as a formula. This is to this as that is to that. I think this may be at least partially the reason that people in general are terrible at making analogies when they get older. Because analogies aren't just a formula for pointing out similarities. Analogy is a cognitive process by which we transfer information or meaning from one particular subject to another particular subject. We use analogies when there is a particular subject that is difficult to understand and so we find another subject that is easier to understand, then we transfer our understanding of the easy subject to the hard subject. Naturally, they need to be two subjects that can potentially understood in the same way because they have similar meaning.

Now let's talk about a particular analogy that I find... problematic. In advice for writers of stories, the act of crafting the beginning of a story in such a way that the reader feels compelled to continue reading is commonly referred to as "hooking the reader". A common term thrown around is "The Hook", meaning that beginning part of the story that is specially constructed to grab the reader's interest. Now, I have no issue with the idea of writing specifically to capture reader attention and keep them from putting your book down. Here's where my problem is...

The terms "The Hook" and "hooking the reader" and also "reeling them in" clearly are references to the sport of fishing. Now if you spell out this analogy in a bit more detail you end up with enticing the reader in with a delicious worm and once they've taken the bait, entrapping them with a hook piercing their flesh rendering them unable to escape at which point you can just casually reel them in. As a reader first and a writer second I do not like being compared to a fish on a hook. As a writer who is a reader I think it is dangerous for writers to let the meaning of an analogy that compares writers with fishers and readers with fish and books with worms on a hook sink into their creative subconscious. The meaning conveyed by a fishing analogy turns writers into predators and readers into prey. This meaning is inherent to the terminology. It can't be separated out from references to the act of fishing.

Furthermore, I think in many writers it accidentally leads to a subconscious habit of placing all the emphasis on the "hook" at the beginning of the story leading to a more casual approach during the "reel them in" phase in the middle of the book and getting downright lazy with the ending, because the fish is already in the bucket by then. I'm not claiming that all writers who take the "hook the reader" approach do this, but I've encountered enough books that fit this description and that made me feel like the writer did not value the reader beyond getting them interested enough to pay for the book. And when I encounter a book like that I'm going to avoid the rest of that author's work, I'm also not going to recommend their books to anyone else, I may even go out of my way to discourage people from reading their work.

The author/reader relationship is a delicate thing. It doesn't blossom if the author makes the reader feel like a fish on a hook, reeled in for monetary gain.

So I'd like to propose a different analogy for that aspect of writing craft that is concerned with capturing the reader's interest early enough to keep them reading. I'd like to propose looking at the beginning of the book as an appetizer.

An appetizer, as we all know, is a simple yet flavorful dish that comes before the main meal and is meant to stimulate the appetite in preparation for the courses to come. And I believe that's what we should focus on in our story beginnings, presenting the reader with uncomplicated yet intriguing content that stimulates their interest in preparation for the much richer and deeper middle and the more thrilling and emotional payoff at the end. A "hook" leads to a fish in a barrel waiting to be someone's dinner, an appetizer leads to a satisfying meal. We shouldn't be trying to "hook" readers, we should be trying to stimulate their appetite for the exquisite meals we've crafted for them.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Silmarillion Syndrome or Hung up on Structure

I don’t talk a lot about my writing in specific because it’s not an easy thing to talk about. Other writers all seem to have a “WIP” or Work in Progress that they are focused on and can discuss in detail. For me its different. I believe I suffer from what I’m going to call “Silmarillion Syndrome”.

What is it?

Everyone knows Tolkien for his masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but the work that Tolkien devoted his life to was the body of legends that would become The Silmarillion, only published after his death. Tolkien began the stories that comprised The Silmarillion in his youth and some of them went through dozens of permutations. From early on he had the idea of fitting them together into a mythology of the Elves. First there was The Book of Lost Tales, wherein the tales of the Elves were told to a mortal Man who had found his way to the Elves’ island home. Later versions removed the Man and the told story aspect and made them into straightforward mythological accounts collected in a body called the Quenta Silmarillion. Tolkien wrote several versions which he was never quite happy with which is why it later fell to his son to edit together the sometimes fragmented legends into a publishable volume. Tolkien never saw his beloved Elven history in print.

This desire for an overarching structure to the tales and need to have them fit together seamlessly into a single legendarium is all too familiar to me. As is the perfectionism that led to countless versions and revisions. I too want a comprehensive mythology for my world that was full of origin stories and heroic legends. For the past year I have been studying and ruminating and plotting and planning to come up with my own overarching structure for my fantasy stories. I have been obsessed with the Big Picture, trying to create a structure that every idea and every story element I have ever had and will ever have can easily fit into.

Wow, writing it out like that makes it sound stupidly ambitious. Which is, I think, a phrase that perfectly describes me when I start getting creative. Sarah McCabe: Stupidly Ambitious Fantasy Stories. It could work.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to work out this overarching narrative for some time now and I believe I’ve made a real breakthrough. Puzzle pieces are starting to fit together, the Big Picture is almost in view. It’s a dizzying feeling actually because I had begun to doubt whether or not I had the skill to formulate an overarching narrative that created the sort of depth you get from Tolkien’s work. Now I think maybe I can actually plan it out, but it still remains to be seen if I can turn it into a well told story. And whether I can manage to finish such an ambitious project in my lifetime.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Catch-22 of Fantasy Names and Language

So you've decided to create a secondary world for your story. You don't want it to be an alternate version of earth but with magic, you want it to be unique and other and different, a true secondary world. This will be so cool and original.

You quickly become aware that it's very, very difficult to actually imagine things that are truly "other". It begins to dawn on you that is why most aliens and fantasy races are just humans but with exaggerated and stereotyped characteristics. And maybe it's also why people say to write what you know. Trying to imagine something that has no foundation in your mind is quite possibly impossible.
And then there are the technical problems. You have to use words to describe all the strange and alien things you are trying to relate to your audience. The words you have to use are, for the most part, confined to your native language. Unless you're a linguist or someone with a natural knack for making new words, any words and names you come up with yourself are likely to come across to the reader as a random assembly of syllables that are rarely ever memorable. (I can't count the number of times I have felt that way about the words and names used by fantasy authors I have read.) And yet, thanks to Tolkien, fantasy-esque names and words are expected. If you name your epic fantasy hero Bob or Dave or even Steve people just won't take him seriously. (Thanks, Tolkien.)

Aha! You think. I'll borrow names and words from another language that will be unfamiliar to my readers! And thus you join in a tradition as old as the genre. You chuckle at your own cleverness as you take words from an internet vocabulary list for [random language] and incorporate them into your world. You name your characters after obscure figures from various mythologies and smile as you wonder if any of your readers will see the way your choices indicate clues about the characters and their story.

But wait. You suddenly remember something... The internet both connects the entire world and puts all of the world's information at our fingertips. Where, once upon a time, fantasy writers could count on their readers to not be overly familiar with anything that isn't commonly taught in public schools in their own country (and maybe a few more that speak the same language, if they're lucky) we no longer have that luxury. What our readers don't know, they can look up in 5 seconds with google. And with the digital revolution slowly but surely spreading across the globe more people from more countries are likely to be reading your work. How will readers in Japan feel when your characters greet each other in Japanese as if it was an alien language from an alien world? How will readers in Finland feel when they read your work and realize that you've used the Finnish word for "breakfast" as the main character's name because you thought it sounded cool? How will readers react when they know how you've used an element from Mayan mythology in a way that makes no sense whatsoever?
And that brings us back to square one. Using real world mythology, terminology and language makes a lot of sense when your fantasy takes place on some version of our Earth. It starts to make less sense when you're using it to fill in a secondary world and yet anything that you come up with purely on your own isn't likely to resonate with readers as much as material based on real cultures will. Is it a catch 22? Is it a fine line that can be walked delicately and effectively with enough skill? If so, how do you walk it?

Let me give a few real world examples of how I've seen these problems come up in fiction.

1. A new fantasy writer I am acquainted with that published her first book recently with a small press apparently made the decision to have an alien race in her secondary world speak Japanese. Not something she came up with that's based on Japanese. Not Japanese altered a bit to look and feel different. Just straight up Japanese. When two characters greeted each other with "Konnichiwa" it dragged me kicking and screaming right out of the world. They continued to use very common, modern Japanese phrases and honorifics throughout the scene and it just made the whole thing ring false to me. I haven't been able to return to the book yet.

2. I've come across many anime that use seemingly random English words for character names. Notable examples are "Milk" in Legend of the Legendary Heroes and "Jacuzzi" in Baccano! It's another frequent (though not always) immersion breaker for me, particularly if I'm watching in English and wondering to myself how the voice actors are keeping themselves from laughing.

3. Another anime set in 18th century France used the Psalms of the Christian Bible as if they were obscure, powerful spells known only to a few with the power to turn people into zombies among other things. This was such a bizarre way to imagine the Pslams that I found it extremely hard to believe in the narrative and eventually gave up on the show.

4. The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy of fantasy novels by Tad Williams had their worldbuilding heavily dependent on real world counterparts. I could list each of the countries and peoples in that world and point out their counterpart in ours. Furthermore, the main religion of the world was an obvious copy of Christianity, in particular Catholicism. The parallels were so clear and so pervasive and felt so superficial that I had a hard time believing in that world as a real secondary world, it felt more like a pale imitation of our own.

So, what is your take on these issues? Is it something we should avoid? Is it something we can avoid? Have you had similar experiences with fiction you've read or watched or am I just too sensitive to such things? Are there any answers or does each writer have to find the answer that is right for themselves?

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.


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.


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.