Banned Books Week – Day 7

On this, the last day of Banned Books Week, I decided to cast my net a bit further in defining what counts as a book.  And I chose 20th Century Boys, a Japanese manga series by Naoki Urasawa.  It’s an amazing story—honestly, one of the best stories I’ve ever read, hands down—executed with a deft hand for character and pacing and emotional weight.  And it’s in book form, so it counts!

20th Century Boys
20th Century Boys, Volume 1, by Naoki Urasawa

I’ve been a fan of graphic novels and manga for many years now, and I’m incredibly impressed by the breadth and quality of stories told in this serial art format.  From stunning, complicated art styles to very simple styles, these creators weave amazing stories, using panel composition and framing, color and linework, to guide the reader through.

20th Century Boys, in particular, is a favorite of mine.  It follows an ordinary workaday Japanese man named Kenji, thrust suddenly into a conspiracy involving a cult trying to take over the world.  And the seeds of this cult—and the means to stopping them—lie in Kenji’s past, in the stories he and his childhood friends wrote together when they were just kids hanging out in their secret fort.  There’s a LOT more to it than that.  But suffice to say it’s equal parts mystery, thriller, horror, and intense character drama, and the time I devoted to reading it was time very well spent.

I think (I hope) that graphic novels are being viewed more often these days as the mature, varied medium they are.  They encompass a wide variety of genres and have a lot to say to us.  And honestly, there are so many I could recommend to those willing to give them a try.

Anyway, that wraps up my week of talking about books that have had an impact on me!  There are so many more that I could have included here, that I’d love to talk about in future posts.  So, watch this space!

And in the meantime, if any of my listings have inspired you to pick up something new, or at least gotten you thinking about books that have impacted your own life, I’d be happy to hear all about it!  After all, the world can always use more Book Love.

Banned Books Week – Day 5

Everyone knows Tolkien.  The influence of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the modern fantasy genre cannot be overstated, and Tolkien himself is a household name.  Ask a lot of fantasy writers for someone who was a big influence on them, and many of them will tell stories of reading Tolkien in their youth.

So you don’t need to tell me those books had an impact.  But I will point you to a far less well-known Tolkien work, which had a greater impact on me personally.  Tree and Leaf is a deceptively slim volume, originally containing Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and the short story “Leaf by Niggle.”  The later edition I read also included his poem “Mythopoeia.”  The book was recommended to me by a friend in college, and I was so glad when I finally tracked it down in my grad school library; at the time, the book was not easy to find.

Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The essay and the poem are both defenses of the value of myth and fantasy in our lives and in our stories.  While fantasy has broken out much more into the mainstream today, for much of my young life, it was derided as useless at best and actively dangerous at worst.  In academia, professors and even fellow students often didn’t know how to approach it, and assumed that fantasy was intended for younger readers, lacking depth and unable to reach the lofty heights of True Literature.  So reading these defenses were important to me.  They reassured me that the space I chose to play in, the stories I wanted to tell, had value.

And “Leaf by Niggle” is its own gorgeous story whose images continue to haunt me to this day.  It’s a story about a man working tirelessly to achieve his grand artistic vision, and the unexpected way in which that vision is finally realized—in many senses of the word.

So, you could say that Tree and Leaf is Tolkien explaining, exploring, and justifying the act of imaginative creation (or sub-creation, as he would term it).  In prose and poem and essay, he reflects on the value and importance of a topic that meant so much to him—and that means so much to me.

Banned Books Week – Day 3

*kicks down door*

Okay, it’s time to put the pedal to the metal this Banned Books Week, by talking about a book about banned books, that has itself been banned!  I am, of course, talking about the science fiction classic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is an absolute master of craft, and this book was my gateway drug into his deftly-written work.  He is able to pack so much into his stories with just a few careful strokes.  With only a single sentence, he can evoke entire worlds.  This is what astounded me the first time I read Fahrenheit 451.  Bradbury doesn’t dwell on details—a sharp contrast to the richly-detailed fantastic worlds I was used to reading—and yet he can convey so much.

Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

He didn’t need to spend whole pages describing the malignant robot dogs that chased down our protagonist; he only conveyed just enough that I knew they were terrifying.  To my young imagination, they were lethal shadows, they were ghosts, and my mind could fill in all the details on its own.

As for the story itself, it’s famous enough:  in an unspecified future, the world passively consumes shallow media that’s high on petty drama and low on substance, while books are contraband, fit only to be burned by Firemen.  Our hero, Guy Montag, is one such Fireman, but defects when he is introduced to books and learns to slow down and start paying attention to the world.

Much can and has been said about this book’s reflection on real-world trends:  the speeding up and dumbing down of media, a 24-hour cycle of nonstop sensation at the expense of quieter reflection, and the slow atrophying of our connections to ourselves and others.  Make no mistake, this book’s world is a dystopia and it reflects the very worst of ourselves back at us.  I’m not going to belabor its points here, because this blog entry would go on forever and turn into a book report.

But suffice to say that while I believe some media trends are cause for concern and even active pushback, I am also seeing positive trends in how we tell stories and the sort of stories we are telling.  The human thirst for stories that move us is a bottomless well, deep and full of starlight.

And I will leave you with this:  the most powerful image this book left me with is the image of people who have become books.  Memorized every line, every word, and carried the books with them into the future.  I’ve often wondered what book I would choose to become, if I had to.  Or even if I just wanted to.

We don’t need to memorize books word for word.  But if each of us takes at least one book into our hearts and carries it with us into the future, I think there is hope for us yet.

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.

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.

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.

Thoughts on “A Wrinkle in Time”

I just got out of seeing A Wrinkle in Time, the latest Hollywood delve into classics from my childhood.  I’ve honestly been pretty hype for this movie since I saw the first trailer.  The book meant so much to me growing up, and the movie was a genuine labor of love by the director, Ava DuVernay.  I’m glad it’s out and that the movie theater was packed with families full of kids.  It’s a story that I hope means as much to a new generation of readers as it did to me.

I read this book several times growing up, and its sequel, A Wind in the Door, was one of my go-to annual rereads.  The four books that make up Madelaine L’Engle’s Time Quartet are magical, cerebral, philosophical science-fantasy adventures.  The main character of the first two books, Meg, is a shy, awkward nerd girl whose love is capable of reaching across universes and filling emptiness with light.  Given that I was an awkward nerd girl growing up, and given my taste for happy endings, well…you can guess the appeal.

It is fitting that the movie is a labor of love, since love is a prevailing theme for not just the original book but the whole Quartet.  The antagonists in these books are an abstracted darkness, a virulent emptiness that brings out the worst in people and spreads throughout the universe.  But the answer is always love:  our willingness to connect with others, to open ourselves up to embrace each other and ourselves, despite our flaws and limitations as human beings.

In the universe of the Time Quartet, stars sing for the joy of existing.  That is an image I still carry with me.

And I think the movie does an admirable job capturing that aspect of the books.  There is a joy in this story that is unmistakable, that shines through as light.  And joy is just one exuberant form of love.


The World is Made in Wildflowers

The Thing about Fantasy is, you’re just making stuff up.  Sort of.  But not really.

I’ve touched before on needing emotional connection points in fiction:  a way for readers to empathize with your characters.  But it’s more than that.  You have to know a bit of how the real world works if you’re going to break the rules well, if you want to build up a world that is internally consistent.  Fantasy is a flower that blooms out of the same soil as any other story.  It needs nutrients, it needs good clean earth.  It needs to be real, and in order for that to happen, you have to feed it real things.

So maybe that garden by the enchanted palace is based on that time the author went to the gardens at the palace of Versailles.  Maybe the conversation that two grizzled wizards (grizzards?) have on their sun-drenched porch is a conversation the author heard their grandparents share on their own sun-drenched porch: the sort of well-worn back-and-forth that’s been had many times over the course of decades.  Maybe the way the prince tilts his head and presses one finger against his cheek when he’s thinking is the same habit shared by the author’s boyfriend.  Maybe the birds that sing in Elfland are the same that sing outside my window.

It helps to draw from your own experience, if you can.  We can’t all up and learn how to forge armor or ride a horse or pilot a rocket ship, but if you want to describe a field, think of the fields you yourself have seen, and go from there.  Build your descriptions from that, instead of relying on other authors’ descriptions of fields.  Copies of copies degrade over time.  But there is plenty in your life you can draw from, if you learn to pay attention to your experiences.

What flowers did you find there?  How did it smell in the heat of summer?  What sounds buzzed through the air?  How did the ground feel after a long rain?  What was it like when the frost covered the tips of winter-dry grasses?  Did their stalks crackle sharply beneath your boots?

Behold, the field in which I grow my worlds.

Building a fictional world can start with broad strokes: a city made of gold, aliens made of light, people riding telepathic dragons.  But as you zoom in, the world will be made real in the creak of leather and the warm smell of a bakery and a shock of green grass in the middle of a gray city.  Call it verisimilitude, if you like.  Build your city to music, build your world from magic, but also remember to build it in wildflowers.