Banned Books Week – Day 2

Every day this week, in honor of Banned Books Week, I will be posting a blurb about a book that has had an impact on me.  Today’s book is Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey.

One of the enduring character archetypes of books for younger readers are spunky young heroines who escape the confines of a constricting life and get to a place where they are able/encouraged to flourish.  For me, that heroine was Menolly, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong.

Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey

I’ve talked before about how Dragonquest changed my life, by introducing me to McCaffrey’s Pern series and fostering a lifelong love of dragons and a determination to become a Writer.  Dragonsong was the second Pern book I picked up, and though the main character didn’t become a dragonrider, she did find something more important to her: a place to express herself artistically.  She also broke the glass ceiling in the process, because in Pern, women typically were only taught music as an elective, a trifle to while away their hours—assuming they were allowed to learn at all.  But only men became Harpers.

It’s a systemic inequality that parallels similar structures in the real world.  Through Menolly, we were allowed to imagine an alternative path to success:  if we were brave, clever, willing to persevere and take risks.

My younger self probably wouldn’t have articulated it in this way.  But Menolly went on an adventure to become a musician, and ended up with 9 pet mini-dragons along the way.  What wasn’t to like??

She might not have picked up a sword and gone off to battle, but she taught us how to be brave for the sake of our art.  And she also taught us to remember to be kind along the way.

It’s always important to be kind.

Banned Books Week – Day 1

So, in honor of Banned Books week, I decided to post every day this week, talking about a different book that’s had an impact on me.  Not necessarily books that have been banned, just ones that have left their fingerprints all over my heart.

And I know this week technically started yesterday, so I’m a day behind—whoops!  Nevertheless, you’re getting 7 Days of Book Ramblings from me!  I’ll try to do a double post sometime this week to catch up, so I’m not just backdating everything.

Let’s start with A Wind in the Door.  The title is appropriate for a beginning.  A wind in the door can signify a lot, but to me it carries the weight of something is happening, it’s time to pay attention.

A Wrinkle in Time, the first book of Madelaine L’engle’s Time Quartet, is the most well-known.  But the second book is the one that stuck with me, that I reread so many times.  I remember my middle school library, and checking out this book and one other (Peppermints in the Parlor, by Barbara Brooks Wallace) for Summer Reading with such frequency that the librarian once tried to coax me to check out a new book instead.

Wind in the Door
A Wind in the Door by Madelaine L’Engle


I’ve talked before about how much I identified with Meg.  But I also loved the weirdly fantastical world that L’engle created, one that existed alongside and beneath the surface of our own world.  In her books, beings of all species are aware of this greater reality, and exist as Teachers to guide Meg on her journey.  The Teachers in this book consist of no less than a mysterious dark giant;  a snake living in the woods behind Meg’s house;  and the family doctor.

Meg’s journey in this book is a variation on the Fantastic Journey, where she becomes microscopically small in order to enter the cells of her sick younger brother to find out what evil force is literally destroying him from the inside out.  Far from being stringently biological, L’engle paints a dreamlike picture of the world at this level, with its farandolae and mitochondria (NOT midichlorians, which is its own Star Wars kettle of fish).  It is, like most things in the Time Quartet series, a spiritual journey as much as it is a literal one.

It is also a book about growing up, and about the joy of being.

I’ve read this book at least a dozen times, growing up.  But it’s been a long time since I’ve cracked it open.  Maybe it’s time for a reread 😉

Words and Responsibility

Okay.  Okay.  Way back last September, I wrote a post about the power of words.  And right now, I’m going to revisit that idea because I think the message bears repeating.  And this time I’m going to drop the fancy metaphors and be more explicit in my message.

Words have power.  And if you are not careful, if you wield that power irresponsibly, you can break something.

Words are an intrinsic part of how we as humans communicate.  They carry the weight of so much beyond their dictionary meanings.  They carry context and connotation and history.  They are the building blocks of the stories we tell about ourselves and each other.  We build the patterns of our thoughts with words.

For example, if you call every dog you meet a puppy, you are priming yourself to think of dogs in a particular way:  cute, innocent, playful.  Not all dogs are cute or playful, necessarily, but there is no harm in giving these creatures the benefit of the doubt.

If you refer to an entire class of people in terms of swarms and infestations and other animalistic words, you are priming yourself to think of them as animals.  You are literally de-humanizing them.  You are reducing the rich tapestry of individual human experiences and stories to a mindless horde driven by instinct and appetite.

That is a lie.  And it is a harmful lie.  It is a lie that literally kills human beings.

Words have power.

A lot of people freak out about what they call Political Correctness.  As if the language police are going to rip them from their homes in the middle of the night because they used a slur.  Like we’re being hampered by having to watch our language all the time.

Listen.  Words have been used to reduce people, to make them the Other, so it’s easier to view them with contempt, to ignore their voices, and to kill them in the streets.  More and more people are realizing this, and working to grow and nurture a language that is truer, and that isn’t built on lies that exclude and harm.  This isn’t a bad thing.  It’s a part of growing up:  learning that what we did in our ignorance was stupid and harmful, and trying to be better as adults.

Think about it this way:  we all did stupid things as kids.  We all probably had that moment where we did something mean or small-minded to someone else who didn’t deserve it.  Maybe you pulled on a classmate’s hair and they cried and you laughed because you thought, in that moment, that it was funny.  Maybe you were goaded to it by your classmates.  Maybe your friends called this person names all the time, made it clear they were an outsider, and so of course they deserved your contempt.  And then you grew up and realized, no, that was a terrible and mean thing you did.  You grew up.

As a kid, in that moment, you had power over that person, and you used it irresponsibly.  But now you don’t.  There’s literally nothing stopping you from yanking on people’s hair, but hopefully you’ve learned that it’s bad to use your power to harm others, especially if they have less power than you.

Words have power.

This is me, as someone who loves words and loves the richness of language, asking you to be aware of that.  Asking you to stop using animalistic words to talk about people.  Because it is a lie.

Words have power.  Words have power.  Words have power.

The words you choose to use have power.  And it is up to you to wield that power responsibly.

Story and Theme

“To my mind the master is the one who can simultaneously give the effect of simplicity and restraint–yet you can go right up to it and explore it endlessly with the greatest joy.” -Andrew Wyeth

Let’s talk theme in storytelling.

As I’ve been on another dragon kick in the wake of Fort Fest, I recently sat down to rewatch one of my favorite dragon movies, How to Train Your Dragon 2.  I love both the movies in this franchise, and I’m looking forward to the third, the trailer for which just recently dropped.

And while I’m aware that movies and books tell stories differently (and there are some ways movies do this that shouldn’t be used to guide the writing of books), there are some universal lessons that can translate over.  Theme is one of them, so that’s what we’re going to look at.

At this point in my life, I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies to have seen the same plots and character archetypes over and over again.  So often, what makes a story stand out to me is what it does differently:  how it plays with and subverts my expectations, how it pushes against cliches.  How it blows me away with sheer technical mastery, or provides me with extra “meat” to chew on in the form of a story working on multiple levels.

It’s this latter one I want to talk about, because that’s where theme lives.  Theme goes deeper than a surface-level “message” or moral.  Theme is the idea behind the story, the concept that it’s exploring.  In a masterfully told story, this theme will be reflected in almost everything that happens.  Plot points shouldn’t occur in a vacuum, as discrete events.  Plot points stem from everything that’s happened before, and if you’re doing it right, each of them will speak to or react against the same core conflict or idea.

For example, in the HTTYD movies, it’s a straightforward coming of age/boy and his dog story (though in this case, the “dog” is actually a cross between a cat, a bat, the alien Stitch, and a B-2 stealth bomber).  But go deeper, and it’s really a story about masculinity and leadership.  It’s a story that looks at the emotional and physical crippling that occurs when violence and brutal competition is considered the only “proper” way to achieve manhood.  It looks at how a boy who is intelligent, inventive, and gentle grows up desperate to prove he’s a man by performing toxic masculinity, because the society he’s born into has not given him a place to thrive as he is.  Over the course of the story, he brings about positive change by presenting a different way to “be a man,” one that leaves room for peace, friendship, and the strength to own up to your mistakes and try to fix them.

And the second movie again comes back to this theme, with its own visions of positive and negative (male) leaders:  empathy vs. coersion, strength used to protect all vs. strength used to conquer and subdue the Other.

Go through the movies, and see how they come back again and again to this theme.  The characters and relationships we focus on, the events that move the plot:  everything reflects, explores, and supports the theme.

So, how do we as storytellers go about creating a story that has a strong theme?  It’s not necessarily something that needs to be focused on in the first draft; in fact, sometimes you just want to tell a story, and that’s fine!  As you work on it, as you go back for later drafts, a theme might emerge that can guide your editing.

Can you use theme as a starting point?  Sure, but I’d give a word of caution.  On one hand, a theme can be a guide to help you figure out where the story should go.  But on the other hand, if you’re not careful, using theme as a starting point can lend itself to a story that’s too pedantic or obviously leading with a message.

The key, I think, is to keep it fairly broad.  “Broccoli is the most morally upright vegetable” might be too narrow a starting point; “Vegetables” might be a better starting theme, or “Food and Morality”.  And then if you get stuck, thinking “I want my hero to confront the villain but I don’t know how to make that happen,” you go back to your theme, and decide that they should run into one another in a grocery store.

This is an incredibly reductive and silly example, but hopefully you get my drift.

My husband actually uses this technique when writing the plot for the LARPs we run.  It will always be a (usually) single word that encompasses what our focus is.  That way, if we ever get stuck, we come back to the theme and decide what to do based around that.  So, as a writing prompt/example, I’ll give you some of our past years’ themes:

Greed – Normalcy – Harmony – Insurance – Robots – the Breakdown of Friendship

Try writing a story guided by one of these themes.  See what happens!  You might end up in some interesting places.

The Dragon Lady

I just got back from being a dragonrider this weekend, and boy are my dragon’s wings tired.

Wait, let me back up.

I first discovered Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books in 7th grade.  Our English class was doing units on different genres, and for one of them, I selected Dragonquest, the second book in the Dragonriders of Pern series.  It changed my life.

It was not my first SFF book.  But it was my first adult SFF novel, one that took place in a fully-developed secondary world that was so well fleshed out, so finely detailed, that I felt like I could live there.  It made me see exactly what SFF was capable of, when it came to building entire new worlds of imagination to explore.

It was not the book that made me start writing, or think of being a writer.  But it was the book that made me realize I wanted to write for the rest of my life.  Like most kids, my career aspirations by middle school had wandered all over the map, from botanist to musician, from ballet dancer to ichthyologist (yeah, I wanted to study fish for a while there, and I loved being able to say “ichthyologist”).  But the Dragonriders of Pern series honed my aspirations to a fine point:  I wanted to write, to be an author and create brilliant worlds like Anne McCaffrey.

I’ve been writing ever since.

Not coincidentally, I’ve loved dragons ever since.

I had the privilege of being able to meet Ms. McCaffrey once, at her Dragonhold home in Ireland, over 15 years ago.  I remember her as warm and welcoming, willing without hesitation to spend a morning entertaining a fan and feeding me lunch.  (She made me a BLT!)  Her hospitality, in fact, was a well-known side of her, as so many people will attest.  I will always remember her fondly as the woman whose works changed my life, and who was also kind enough to give me a lift to the train station.

And so, in deepest love for those books and the woman who wrote them, I find myself once a year at Fort Fest, an annual retreat for a Pern role-playing fan club.  I get to enjoy the great outdoors and hang out with fellow McCaffrey fans, the sort of folks who are hospitable and creative and have way too many dragon-themed toys and crafts.  (Although, can anyone truly be said to have too many dragon-themed toys and crafts? asks the woman who has dedicated an entire bookshelf just to her dragon figurines…)  It’s always a good time, full of games and music, feasting and costumes, nature walks and mutual complaining about all these fire lizards getting everywhere.

Fort Fest
The queen dragon watches all…

There’s no moral to this story.  This is just me telling you about a beautiful thing that exists because one woman, somewhere, had a beautiful heart and wrote beautiful stories.  That’s a true joy of art:  the hope that your work will resonate with someone, may move them to create something in their turn, may even change their life for the better.

So, make things.  Put them out there.  Who knows?  The story you’re telling might bring someone joy.  It might encourage someone to create in their turn.  It might be exactly what someone out there needs to hear.

After the Nebulas

So it’s been pretty quiet on this blog for the past month, but I’m still here!  May was a busy month for me, full of conventions and trips—including the Nebulas, which took place right here in Pittsburgh!  This is the second year in a row they’ve been local, so it’s the second year in a row that I’ve attended.

It’s a great convention, full of interesting people and great conversation and some really excellent, top-notch panels.  It’s also a super inclusive convention that (from my admittedly able-bodied perception) really went out of its way to be as accessible and welcoming as possible.  If you have the opportunity, and want to meet some really cool folks in the professional writing/publishing community, I recommend trying to go at least once!

Of course, one of the most fun elements of the Nebulas is the impressive swag bag of free books you get just for registering.  They come in a really sturdy tote bag, which is good, because you’re going to need it to carry all those books!  In addition to all the books I purchased in their on-site bookstore, my free books consisted of 14 novels, 2 anthologies, 1 graphic novel and 5 magazines.  Whew!  That’ll keep me in reading materials for a while.  I’m still making my way through last year’s pile—though to be fair, I’ve been splitting my attention between reading through my Nebula acquisitions and reading through stuff that’s already been in my To Be Read pile for a while.

Then again, I’m never going to complain about having too many books.  It allows me to be a dork like this:

The elusive Jennifer Hykes in her natural environment: lying in a pile of books.

Nebulas 2018

Hey folks, this is just a brief update that I’ll be attending the 2018 Nebula conference, which will be held once again in my hometown of Pittsburgh.  I had the great opportunity to attend the Nebulas last year and had an absolute blast, so I’m looking forward to attending again.  If you’re in the local SFF crowd, I hope to see you there!  And if you are in the not-so-local SFF crowd, I look forward to meeting you 🙂

Seasonal Creation

I’m a four-seasons kind of person.  Having lived most of my life in New England before moving to Pittsburgh at the Eastern end of the Rust Belt, I’ve lived in a climate of four very distinct seasons:  damp, gray-and-green springs; hot, incandescent summers; falls marked by shimmering red and gold leaves; and snowy winters meant for fireplaces and hot chocolate.  The one time I lived for an extended period of time in another climate (a semester abroad in England in my junior year of college), the seasons presented themselves differently and it threw me off.  I am not usually a fan of outdoor snowy activity, but I still love snow.  I love the sight of it from behind a window, I love its soft stillness.  I arrived in England in January and discovered, rather quickly, that I missed snow.

We all have our seasonal associations, based on the seasons where we grew up and where we live.  But I’m often surprised by how little things become associated in my mind with certain seasons.  For example, an album I listened to heavily one spring might come back to mind the following spring, and I’ll find myself wanting to listen to it again.  And the next thing I know, it’s become a ‘spring’ album.  Or maybe there’s a mix CD I made for a road trip, and if I make that journey again, probably at the same time of year, that same CD comes out.  I return to stories I’ve written and maybe set aside, unfinished, because I thought about them a great deal on long summer walks or when the brisk autumn winds were starting up, and seeing those things again has reminded me, “Oh yeah!  That story I was working on last summer!  I should do something about that.”

In certain more obvious ways, the seasons creep into my stories:  this one is awash with the brilliant blue skies of summer, so it’s a summer story.  That one opens with the protagonist climbing a snowy mountain, and I started writing it one chilly November and into the holidays, and now it’s a winter story.  That sort of thing.  I have stories for every season, different parts of myself that come out at different times of year.

And now spring is here, which is always a time when my muse becomes antsy and fruitful.  I love getting out and writing outside and taking long walks while I chew on various plot points.  It’s a time of renewal, and I love it.  Flowers are popping up, the days grow milder, and I just can’t wait to jump into something new.  I always start so many stories in the spring.

Now, finishing them . . . that’s a whole other story 🙂

A Tall Tale

They say that Jennifer Hykes once wrote a whole Nanowrimo novel in a day.  They say she could go out on a walk and come back with twenty new blog posts written and ready to go.  They say the click-clack of her keyboard was so loud that a whole pack of cowboys showed up at her house, mistaking the sound for a thundering herd of cattle.

They say Jennifer Hykes is a sucker for a good tall tale.

Well, that last one’s true, at least.  As for the rest…well, I’ll let you be the judge.

The tall tale isn’t unique to America, but it’s definitely a huge part of American folk culture.  Bragging contests, whoppers, and the lovingly exaggerated accounts of historical figures feature prominently in our tales.  More than one American folk critter has spun out from pranks, tricks, and “creative taxidermy.”  It’s the bald-faced but (usually) good-natured lie told with a straight face.  It’s the wink that suggests, “Well, now, it could be true!”

I think I’m drawn to tall tales for much the same reason as I’m drawn to fairy tales.  A tall tale is just something in real life that’s been stretched out into greater proportions, giving it mystery, making it (sometimes literally) larger-than-life.  Fairy tales tend to be much more explicit in their magic, while a tall tale leaves it up for debate.  But both are in the business of seeing life through a glittering layer of wonder.  Both give us this world, only moreso.

There’s a lot more I can say on the subject, and probably will in future entries.  But for now, I’ll put this aside because I need to get back to my daily 50,000 words, and find a way to deal with all these cowboys.

RPGs and Storytelling

Running a role-playing game is an exercise in reactive storytelling.  It’s a general rule of thumb that no plot you write is going to survive contact with the players.  They’re going to run roughshod over your world; they’re going to romance or possibly kill your NPCs. They’ll look for clues in the oddest places, or miss the ones you’ve laid out for them in (what you thought were) obvious places.

But this is the nature of a role-playing game, and one of the things it teaches me as a writer is to let go, and let my characters run the show.

Sometimes that can be tricky for me.  I get an idea in my head that a story is going to hit plot points A, B, and C in that order.  But then I pass Point A and I have no idea how my character can get to Point B from where I am right now.  Maybe they don’t want to go to Point B any more; maybe I haven’t given them sufficient reason to go in that direction, or what I’ve learned in the process of writing has changed their motivation.  But I’m a stubborn writer and sometimes I keep banging my head against the wall, trying to push them to Point B.  But no, they want to go somewhere else.  They want to romance that side character, who suddenly has become much more interesting.  They want to avoid that confrontation that the story’s been building to.  They want to find a third option in a place I never thought to put one.

So running RPGs can be either frustrating or tremendously rewarding for me.  As with many things in life, it depends on the attitude I bring to the (sometimes literal) table.  RPGs are an exercise in letting go, letting the plot go where it will in reaction to the characters’ decisions.  It’s making plans and being okay with those plans changing.  It’s finding the beautiful moments of synergy and narrative payoff inside all the chaos.