Monday, December 31, 2012

After a Long Hiatus, Symbol Systems

Sorry for the long empty space there. School, while being inspirational, doesn't always leave me with enough time to type out these musings.

My subject for today could take up several posts, but I'm going to keep it brief. This semester, I read John Granger's How Harry Cast His Spell, a book on the alchemical and Christian imagery and symbolism in the Harry Potter books. In the last few weeks, I've been reading Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia, in which he examines the use of medieval cosmology (specifically the seven planets) in the Narniad. Both of these books have sparked my imagination and introduced me to systems of symbols and images that I hadn't encountered in such detail, if at all, before. One of Ward's sentences particularly grabbed my attention: "Imaginative writers are allowed—indeed, expected— to adopt symbol systems..."* By symbol system Ward seems to mean an overarching groups of symbols which pervade an author's works, remaining symbolic of the same things whenever mentioned, though the symbols may be both positive and negative based on the context (for instance, the Queen of Underland in The Silver Chair is a negative Lunar character, while Aslan is a positive, so while they may both have silver symbols associated with them, the two aspects of the Moon's characteristics are still represented by a Lunar symbol, silver).

Obviously, these two authors (Ward and Granger) are dealing with specific systems when they examine Lewis' and Rowling's works, but this statement that imaginative writers are expected to adopt symbol systems made me begin to ask whether I had already selected a system or whether I ought to think about one yet. Admittedly, I have already appropriated bits of the alchemical and planetary imagery in these two series, partially through reading them and partially through reading books like Ward's and Granger's. I've also taken to using systems like the four classic elements (fire, earth, water, air), which is a favorite system in fantasy. Yet, although I have come to the conclusion that all of my stories and novels are set within the same multiverse, I cannot say that even one branch of my work operates within the same symbol system. Perhaps this is because my understanding of symbols and their use on the author's side of the book is still developing, in no small part due to books like Ward's and Granger's and to my classes on creative writing these last few semesters. After thinking about this sort of overarching system the last few days, I have come to the conclusion that (for some of my works) there needs to be a separation in symbol systems, if only for the sake of differentiating the different worlds I write about. Yet, there must always be some kind of unity within any author's body of work due to its being written by the same person. Even Ward's well-defended thesis about Lewis's planetary imagery only deals with part of his work, but the imagery extends throughout Lewis' career as a writer.

Another question that occurred to me while thinking over Ward's statement was whether such expansive and inclusive symbol systems as the ones he and Granger discuss are exclusive to fantastic works of fiction. After all, the use of imagery based on alchemical experiments and planetary spheres seems predisposed to fantasy and science fiction. Yet Granger, in his book Harry Potter's Bookshelf, argues that alchemical imagery has been used by authors writing fiction which is not supernaturally or scientifically driven. Authors such as Shakespeare and Dickens have used this imagery to great effect, he argues; I can attest that Shakespeare has used alchemical imagery in The Tempest, though I'm not sure I completely agree with Granger's alchemical reading of Romeo and Juliet, and I've yet to read A Tale of Two Cities, the Dickensian work that Granger says is alchemically driven. Still, the possibility for realistic writers to make use of this sort of symbol system seems open.

Does anyone have a system of symbols that you have seen used and felt drawn to? One that you plan to use or have looked into?

* Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia:The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 47.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Let's Talk About Gaiman

Recently, a friend of mine posted on Facebook about Neil Gaiman's script for the film Beowulf. Personally, I avoided the film as soon as I heard about the changes, specifically that Grendel was Hrothgar's bastard child with Grendel's mother and the dragon was the same for Beowulf. Furthermore, Beowulf is portrayed as a lying, boasting fraud. I'm just not okay with that.


This friend (to return to my opening point) said: "Didn't have to read more than a few pages into Neil Gaiman's script of Beowulf to conclude it's a rotter - but then it completely violates the very thing Tolkien believed made Beowulf powerful. Bad form, dude. Bad form."


I had to agree with her, but then, I also felt I needed to read Tolkien's essay on Beowulf, which I had been interested in since I first read the long poem in high school (yes, I was one of those freaks who liked it in high school).


Inevitably, the conversation (through another of her friends) led to whether Gaiman had actually done anything "wrong" (I use quotations because I'm not sure there's an absolute morality when it comes to how fiction is written and rewritten, except where it is touched on in morality in general). There were comparisons made to Gaiman's short stories "The Problem of Susan" and "Snow, Glass, Apples." The first is Gaiman's response to what is seen as, you guessed it, the problem of Susan in the Chronicles of Narnia, specifically in the final book, The Last Battle. I won't go into that argument, mostly because some of the lovely people below have already discussed it fully enough for my tastes, from both sides of the argument. The second of the stories I mentioned is Gaiman's twisted version of Snow White. Now, I'll be honest. I have not read "The Problem of Susan," apart from excerpts in the blog posts below. I'm still torn about whether to read it because even the people I know who have enjoyed some of Gaiman's other works, including the Beowulf film that started all of this, dislike this short story because Gaiman does not show much respect for Lewis and his theology, despite being a lifelong fan of the books. However, "Snow, Glass, Apples" is arguably a similar treatment (at least to Gaiman's treatment of Beowulf) and I thought that story was an interesting take on the old fairy tale. It's an inversion of sorts in which the evil stepmother is given narrative priority and is turned into the protagonist (and a very sympathetic one at that).


So, why don't I care for Gaiman's Beowulf? Because I think he does to Beowulf (story and character) what the Lord of the Rings films did to Faramir and what the most recent Narnia film did to the story of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: he has taken a hero and made him not a hero. Does this sort of story work? Yes, when it is well done. Should we exclude Beowulf from the list of stories which can or should be treated in such a way? Not necessarily. I think what bothers me most is that Gaiman has taken the story and, instead of portraying it as a retelling or whatever the hip term is these days, he (and all of the producers and advertisers) make you think that you are in for Beowulf being Beowulf, when you are actually in for someone from primetime TV pretending to be Beowulf.


The episode of Star Trek: Voyager that dealt with Beowulf did better.


***
Links you may choose to examine on the problem of Susan (the first is Devin Brown's study addressing several arguments against Narnia, including the problem of Susan; the last is a short interview with Gaiman about the story; the rest are other blogs about the issue and the story):

Also, for the curious, Tolkien's essay on Beowulf:

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ray Bradbury and Dustfinger

Current Reads: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke
                        The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier
                        Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

Current Writing Projects: Thesis material, currently a story titled "A Young Man with Grassy Arms"

Ray Bradbury passed away this week. This is probably the second or third time I can remember an author whose works I love to read passing away (the last was Brian Jacques, and if I remember correctly Madeleine L'Engle was in there somewhere as well). What makes this even more sad, scary or possibly frightening is the fact that in my large stack of thesis reading material this summer there sit four books of his short stories for me to read, study and subsume. I don't believe in coincidences, especially where authors are concerned. I sat on my couch for a good fifteen minutes trying to tell myself that this most definitely was not in any of the Bradbury stories I had read.

But it should have been.

Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are two of my favorite novels. 451 even surprised me by being one of those books I enjoyed despite having to read it for school. While I love reading, often my school requirements just don't make my mental cut for what I want to keep around. This novel did. Maybe it was the subject of keeping books alive in a society that does not want them but needs them. Maybe it was Montag's choice of Ecclesiastes for his book. Whatever it was, this book stuck with me.

Concurrent with this pair of Bradbury revelations (his death and my involvement in one of his stories by dent of reading so much of him this summer), I am reading Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. This book is one of those YA books I have been told for years to read, but never got around to until now. From the first chapter, I was pulled in. Not only is it well-written, but I am blown away by Funke's skills at characterization and her translator's skills getting that characterization across (the original text was German). (I also enjoy the epigraphs Funke includes at the start of each chapter; there's even a curse for book thieves from a monastery in Spain.) While the whole cast of characters is brilliantly written, the one that stands out to me from his first appearance on the page is Dustfinger. Great name, right? Even in a literary realist story, that name rocks. It has weight all on its own. And from the first, we recognize that Dustfinger has weight himself. Here is how Dustfinger is described in his first appearance:
"...the stranger was little more than a shadow. Only his face gleamed white ... The rain was falling on him, but he ignored it.... the stranger's stillness had infected [Meggie]. Suddenly, he turned his head, and Meggie felt as if he were looking straight into her eyes.... But the figure outside the house was no dream.... the man emerged from the darkness of the yard, his long coat so wet with rain that it clung to his legs.... Dustfinger smiled at her. It was a strange smile. Meggie couldn't decide whether it was mocking, supercilious or just awkward." (Inkheart 2-6)

It's that smile that gets me. In the next few paragraphs, Funke gives a little more physical description for Dustfinger, but that smile creates a complex character by itself, even if it is presented as the impression of a child. That smile shows up again repeatedly in the book, as do some of Dustfinger's other complexities -- his guilt, his talents, his preferences for darkness and fire. One thing I am learning by reading this book is how wonderfully complex a few little words can make a character. I hope my characterizations are half as good as those in Inkheart.

(Another reason I enjoy reading about Dustfinger is that Paul Bettany plays him in the film version, and while I have yet to see it, hearing Paul Bettany's voice reading these lines in my head has helped me get a better grasp of the character, especially his inflections. I want to start picking actors whose voices I can use for my own characters.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lots of Merlin

Current Reads: Otherland Vol. 3: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams
                        Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Current Writing Projects: Thesis work, focusing on the introduction for the next few weeks

The first bit of news I want to share is this: SOMEDAY, that mysterious series-opening novel I mentioned in my first post on this blog, has reached the end of its first full draft. This has been an effort three years in the making, and it is far from over (I imagine at least two more drafts will be necessary). However, in a sort of celebratory mood, I am planning on going through a massive reading list of Arthurian books, some old friends and some new ones recommended by people I know over the years. Here is my starting list:

The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (the relevant parts anyway)
Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory
The Idylls of the King by Lord Tennyson
The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
The Pendragon series by Stephen Lawhead
War in Heaven by Charles Williams
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Great Tree of Avalon trilogy by T.A. Barron (I haven't included his Lost Years of Merlin series because I don't feel the need to reread it right now)
The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King by T.H. White (I realize that SitS is part of OaFK, but I like the longer, separate version of SitS better, so I'm reading it and skipping to Book II of OaFK.)
The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis (Technically only the third book is Arthurian, but I love them all.)
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Tolkien's translation)
The Mammoth Book of Merlin edited by Mike Ashley
Merlin edited by Martin H. Greenberg
The Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff (I may also include her novel The Eagle of the Ninth, as it's related to this one.)
The Light Beyond the Forest by Rosemary Sutcliff
The Sword and the Circle by Rosemary Sutcliff
Arthurian Romances by Chretien de Troyes

Anything I'm missing? Anything you don't think should be on the list? Let me know. I'm always interested in new Arthurian books.

Also, if I can find James Mallory's novelizations of the Hallmark miniseries Merlin or Jane Yolen's Young Merlin trilogy, I will be adding them to the list.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Shallow Villainy Does not a Good Story Make

Current Reads:  Orsinian Tales by Ursula K. Le Guin
                         Attack of the Copula Spiders by Douglas Glover
                         Sabriel by Garth Nix

Current writing projects: Same as last time

This weekend I watched the film The Legend of Zorro with Antonio Banderas for the first time. I have not seen the first film with Banderas as Zorro, but I enjoyed watching the old black-and-white Disney series Zorro in reruns when I was a kid and I thought I would give this newer version of Zorro a try. What I found was unsurprisingly a fun action movie with lots of sword fighting and acrobatics and a decent storyline. My issue with the film was its secondary villain, the one who opens the film: Jacob McGivens (whose name I had to look up because I don't ever remember hearing it in the film itself). This man appears at the start of the film with a brand of a cross scarred into his face and shouting that he is there to "Do the Lord's work," a line which does not convince the priest and the townsfolk he is addressing. This line is McGivens' mantra, and he uses some form of it in almost every scene he has in the film. He also misquotes the Bible when he is extorting a farm couple off of their land. He cites something that sounds like it comes from from the Old Testament (it sounds like something from the Books of Moses or possibly Joshua, but I am not certain of the exact reference if it is Scriptural) about casting the dwellers of the land out before you. Obviously, the verses (if they are) are referring to God's promise to the Hebrews inhabiting the Promised Land and have nothing to do with the actions of McGivens and his lackeys. McGivens also has guns he calls Salvation and Damnation and talks of sending someone out as a "sheep amongst wolves." So what is the issue? Sounds like your typical crazy religious villain, right? Well, that's the problem. That is all this character is: a murdering maniac who uses God as a shield. He is never given a reason for doing what he does with such a religious flair. No backstory, comments, or insight are offered to the audience. We are simply supposed to accept that he is crazy and somewhat religious.

That is just shoddy writing.

I understand that there are villainous people who claim Christianity or any number of other religions as their driving force. What bothers me about this particular character is that he is not rounded out and given a motivation. Any good writer will tell you that word motivation is the most important aspect of any character, and I would say it is especially important when writing a villain, a bad guy, an antagonist, whatever you want to call him or her. If there is no clear, understandable motivation, the character will be flat and uncompelling.

I am going to take a hint from a friend of mine and use as my example of a well-rounded villain Loki from the film Thor. I won't go into his role in The Avengers because I have not seen it and that would not be entirely fair to McGivens. He only gets one movie, so those I compare him to should as well.

A quick recap of Thor and Loki's character and role: Loki  is the adopted son of Odin and the natural son of the king of the Frost Giants, who are shown at the film's opening to be the more villainous of the two alien races we are introduced to. Loki and Thor (Odin's natural son) are shown to have a friendly sibling rivalry and both boys say that they will rule the heavenly world of Asgard fairly when they grow up, but only one of them will be able to rule. It feels a bit like Prince of Egypt, actually. When we fast forward to the present day, Loki is shown to be a person capable of smooth-talking almost anyone into anything, with his brother Thor being possibly the one exception. He is very charismatic and convincing. When Thor's almost-coronation is interrupted by Frost Giants and Thor decides to strike back in retribution, Loki does his best to convince him otherwise and even has their father alerted of the trip after they have gone so that Thor will not be injured.

Sounds like a great little brother, right?

Except it quickly becomes clear that Loki has a sneaky plan in the works, one which includes having his brother banished from Asgard and claiming the throne for himself. He has a close and loving relationship with Odin, and soon learns of his true heritage as a Frost Giant. Not only that, but Odin tells him of a plan that had been in place since Loki and Thor were boys: a plan which has been ruined by Thor's arrogance and Loki's interference. Loki later lies to Thor by saying that Odin has died (he is only in a coma-like state called "Odin-sleep") and that Thor will never be allowed to return (Odin had said Thor could return if he proved himself worthy). Loki continues to manipulate and lie to everyone around him with his ultimate goal being revealed in the last few minutes of the film: he wanted to destroy the Frost Giants completely, just as Thor did initially. Odin tells Loki that this plan is neither wise nor good. His last words to Loki are "No, Loki," a refusal to agree with Loki's plans for annihilation of a race, and Loki falls into the cosmos, seemingly gone for good.

To make everything just a little bit worse, in the credits scene it is revealed that Loki is now controlling the mentor of the human protagonist Jane Foster, Erik Svenson. Another friend of mine has even suggested that Loki was controlling him throughout the film, and not just at the end.

What Loki demonstrates is that a villain can still be sympathetic and is more compelling when given a backstory and a motivation. His ultimate goal is even one that we sign up for (at least a little bit) at the film's beginning when Thor suggests it. He is not simply an evil person out to destroy everything. He has a noble intention at the heart of his motivation: protecting his family. He just has a strange way of pursuing that goal.

You may have noticed that I went from a secondary villain to a primary one in my comparison. To be completely fair, I will also offer a secondary villain who bears a striking similarity to Jacob McGivens. I am referring to Caleb from the seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Like McGivens, Caleb is a preacher man out to destroy those he sees as unfit, in this case all the potential vampire slayers across the globe. He similarly spouts Biblical words and similarly-styled phrases. However, Caleb has that one simple thing that McGivens lacks: motivation and backstory. Caleb's motivation is tied into his backstory (as it should be). He has been approached by the First Evil, often called simply the First. The First has convinced Caleb that the Slayer (Buffy) and all those who are like her and help her are really serving evil in the end and they must be stopped, preferably killed. Caleb's presence haunts the entire seventh season of Buffy, mostly appearing offscreen during Buffy's dreams about the potential slayers being killed. He finally appears in the final five episodes of the season, killing and causing lots of mayhem, but always with his drive to kill Buffy and her friends.

My point is, if you are going to write a villain, do not go to the Stereotyped Villain Kit TM. It won't help your writing that much.

Monday, April 30, 2012

"Some Content not Appropriate for Children" -- Does It Really Improve the Text?

Current Reads: Orsinian Tales by Ursula K. Le Guin
                        Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice
                        Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Current Writing Projects: Various thesis work including my craft introduction and a short story being reworked as a triptych of flash fiction (yeah, it blew my mind too when I thought of it)

It's been over a month since my last update. Sorry for that, but school gets crazy in the last month of the semester and then there's the post-semester desire to do nothing for a very long time (which I've kept contained to less than a week so far).

A week or two back, I came across this quotation in an interview with Steven Moffat (the guy who now heads production of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who and BBC's modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation) regarding the difference between writing for an audience with children and an audience without: Writing for adults often means just increasing the swearing - but find an alternative to swearing and you've probably got a better line.

This statement struck me because not only did it summarize and agree with my own stance on writing, but because this is a guy who makes his living writing and producing very popular television series. If anyone understands the modern push to use more swear words in his writing it's this guy, yet he says it is better to find another line than to use cussing.

I don't hold this position out of some prudish ideology that those words are inherently wrong, because they aren't. They are words just as much as the ones I am using now. The problem lies in the intention behind the words and the attitude behind their use. Also, some of those words aren't words I care to hear or read, much less write. So how do I justify this attitude of cursing less in my fiction? Aside from my own personal convictions on the matter, I find that Moffat's statement holds true: find something else to put there, and the line is 99% likely to be better than before. (If it isn't, you may not need the line at all.)

This idea has been rolling around in my head for some time, but since reading Moffat's take on the subject I have read George Saunders' collection Pastoralia. The collection is good, and the stories themselves are very well written, but Saunders often makes use of language I wouldn't use or care to hear used. I have noticed most of the newer short story authors I have read make frequent and heavy use of language most of the time (each author I can think of whose collections I have read has at least one or two stories that are relatively free of foul language) and I am puzzled by this trend. On the one hand I suppose the more frequent use of cussing has arisen from the blurred lines of morality in culture, but that's another subject. It might also arise from the cool-factor or the trendiness of transgression (which is a big topic in literature studies and very popular). By transgression we mean something that goes against (transgresses) the mainstream or dominant culture. So novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude would be considered transgressive because Marquez says that the history as told by the government is not only faulty but a complete fabrication.

I understand that some stories will call for the use of cussing -- there are some situations and characters who will not speak without this sort of language. However, I think that a story which relies to heavily on this aspect of those characters will be weakened by it. For instance, one series I enjoy reading is Jim Butcher's Dresden Files. The books are part noir detective story, part modern crime thriller and all fantasy. Given the situations and characters, I understand and can stomach a certain amount of cussing in these books. The second book, Fool Moon, is no exception. The problem I have with Fool Moon is that a story I would like to enjoy enough to reread it from time to time has so many uses of the f-bomb that I really don't want to read it ever again. Another example of a story that suffers from overuse of language is the film Sleuth (I mean the more recent version with Jude Law and Michael Caine, not the earlier one with Caine and Laurence Olivier). This film used the f-bomb and other obscenities so frequently I nearly turned off the television (and sometimes wish I had). Yet the story was compelling and since the previous film did not contain that level of language, I can only assume the language used was unnecessary to the story being told.

I feel I'm getting a bit unfocused, so I'll wrap up. Swearing isn't necessary to make your story more edgy or gritty or hip or sellable. In fact, I think more people will buy your story/novel if they can recommend it to others without fear of offense (an issue I run into frequently with newer fiction). I speak here of everyday people, not of publishers, editors and agents. I cannot speak for them as I haven't had much experience speaking with them.

One final thought: I always write my characters with the following situation in mind: I may at some point have to read this aloud. Readings are a large part of the writer's community today, and audiobooks read by the author are not unheard of, so my philosophy on using language or other "questionable" content is this: If I would be embarrassed to read this line in front of an audience, I probably shouldn't be writing it.


Interview with Steven Moffat that started all of this ranting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/2012/jan/20/steven-moffat-sherlock-doctor-who

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rules on the Use of Magic (Or Guidelines, Anyway)

A quick post to gather my thoughts and the thoughts of others on the subject.


Laws on magic:
Nesbitian laws (as stated by Brian Attebery):
-          What is wished for must be paid for. In a growing number of fantasies, this is written out in some form of “Magic has a price.”
-          Every magical act sends ripples of consequences out to the ends of the world.
-          Magic tends toward chaos unless checked by patterns of word or number.
Brandon Sanderson’s Laws of Magic:
-         An author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic. (Sanderson uses this to delineate “hard” “soft” and “middle ground” magic, based on the level of explanation and understanding given to the reader in the text.)
-          Limits > Powers, meaning that what limits a person’s powers makes that character more interesting than the possibly limitless powers would. Sanderson cites Superman’s weakness to Kryptonite as an example.

One of Larry Niven’s laws: It is easier to destroy than to create.

Niven’s reversal of one of Arthur C. Clarke’s Laws: Any sufficiently rigorously defined magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Basically, Magic has limits when wielded by characters, but is limitless in nature. All magic used by characters must have some cost and must have consequences, because magic operates within the laws of physics in that any world in which magic operates includes in its physical laws the laws that dictate magic. Magic will tend, like any power in a fallen universe, to corrupt and go haywire; magic is like any other energy source in the world: it is going to follow the course of entropy.

As a fantasy writer, I feel the philosophy behind the use of magic in fiction is something one must understand deeply before and while writing fantasy fiction. Even if you are working within a system that Sanderson might call "soft" magic (where the reader is never quite certain what magic can and can't do; this might be applicable to magical realism), if you have some of these concepts in mind, the story will operate more coherently than if you simply threw in magic higgledy-piggledy. Magic isn't the only thing that makes fantasy. The earliest theorists on fantasy like George Macdonald believed fantasy had to be self-coherent and internally consistent.

ETA"You can't cross a sea by merely staring into the water." - Rabindranath Tagore

Sources: The Fantasy Tradition in American Literature by Brian Attebery (p.143)
http://www.brandonsanderson.com/article/40
http://www.brandonsanderson.com/blog/1047/Sandersons-Second-Law--Updates

Friday, March 2, 2012

Magical Realism and Fantasy

Current Reads: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie (for class)
                            After the King edited by Martin H. Greenberg
                            Walking with Frodo by Sarah Arthur


Current Writing Projects: SOMEDAY, various short stories


Once again, my classes are inspiring me to put thoughts down on the page. Magical realism - what is it? What makes it different from fantasy? How do you know if something is or isn't magical realism?


Furthermore, how does one write magical realism?


These are some of the questions I have been mulling over this semester, both because of class and because of my own curiosity. Before this semester, I held the opinion that magical realism was just another way of saying fantasy, only written either a) in another language (as Terry Pratchett claims) or b) in a fashion atypical of the fantasy genre. I still hold this opinion somewhat, but I have refined it and made it less reactionary.


Here is how I have come to define magical realism:


Magical realism: (n.) a mode of literature in which the everyday world is juxtaposed with improbable or impossible events, which are narrated in a matter-of-fact tone consistent with literary realism


In other words, magical realism is a type of literary fantasy, but whereas most fantasy, whatever the quality of the work as a whole, focuses on the impossible events narrated therein, magical realism focuses instead on the mundane aspects of the story. Sometimes, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," the mundane or realistic aspects of the story are emphasized within the impossible events. In this story, the narrator takes the time to notice the parasites that are living in the old mans wings. The argument is that with such realistic detail, the impossible events simply become accepted as part of the rational universe.


That's fine and dandy for the reader of speculative fiction. At last something we like gets recognized as being good literature, right? I'm not so sure. Of the magical realist texts I have read for class so far (One Hundred Years of Solitude, House of the Spirits, Midnight's Children) I don't know that I would expect or want to find them shelved with fantasy, despite the fact that I do consider them to be related to fantasy fiction as a whole and to urban an low fantasy specifically. They do not necessarily contain the characters and plots I expect in my fantasy fiction. Maybe this means that I have grown too comfortable with standard, trope-filled, genre fantasy rather than yearning for the exploratory imaginings that have sparked some of the series I have come to love best (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Earthsea, Harry Potter, among others). One of the ideas I have had to confront this semester as I research the difference between magical realism and fantasy is that fantasy fiction is meant to be a movement of broadened perspectives, corrective thinking, and wildly creative ideas. One does not simply throw a young protagonist into a world threatened by a Dark Lord, add a few elements like a wise old mentor, a powerful artifact and an unknown king and voila! there's a fantasy. To be sure, many of the great fantasy series and novels have used some or all of these elements, but the elements are not the source of fantasy's power. The ideas, the themes, the tone of a fantasy story is what gives it its power. There is a reason we listen when Gandalf speaks, and it isn't just because he has a powerful speaking voice (for that we might better listen to Saruman). Instead Gandalf and those like him have authority in the lives of their friends and followers because somewhere inside the mind and soul of the author there is a longing for and a memory of an encounter with the Godhead, with Truth, and bringing that experience to the page lends characters like Gandalf authority. I may have gone too religious for some (and they will rightly point out that Earthsea was written by a self-declared "congenital non-Christian"), but the point I a trying to make is that great fantasy has a power beyond its individual parts.


What does that mean for the writer? How does one write good fantasy or good magical realism? Should I want to write magical realism instead of fantasy so that the literary world at large will pay me more and better attention?


Well, like any writer, genre-specific or not, fantasy or not, writing good fiction comes from two things: reading as much as possible and writing as much as possible. For the fantasist or magical realist, this means two things: read the texts that are the great works of your genre and read what those works' authors have to say about writing in general and their writing in particular. One of the best things to come out of this research for me was reading a book called Fantasists on Fantasy, a collection of essays and speeches edited by Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski. In it, some of the greatest fantasy writers share their thoughts on the genre and how it is best written. The theory of one's genre is something that can be understood implicitly through reading good texts as I mentioned above, but at times explicit analysis is necessary to make clear the thoughts that might otherwise remain wordless feeling.


As to whether magical realism is better than fantasy, it depends on who your audience is and what the demands of the story are. If your story calls for fantasy, use fantasy; if magical realism, use magical realism. 


"The life-giving, life-saving story is a true story that transcends facts. " - Madeleine L'Engle

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Opening Sentences

Current Reads: The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende (for class)
                        Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (for class)
                        After the King edited by Martin H. Greenberg
                        Walking with Frodo by Sarah Arthur

Current Writing Projects: SOMEDAY, first novel in a quartet about a young wizard named Merlin (no, not that Merlin)
                                     "My Friend the Fish," a short story for class in imitation of Kelly Link, mentioned above
                                     Various other short stories, some class assignments and some not

This Week's Writing Thoughts and Advice: Since I am in a really great writing workshop this semester, I will probably channel a lot of that advice into this blog for the foreseeable future. This week we discussed opening sentences in stories. They have a lot of power, or at least they should. Your first sentence should immediately hook your reader into the story and grab their attention. In some cases, this means starting off in the middle of the action, in media res as they say, while in other cases you may choose to start with dialogue or a mind-blowing statement. I'll offer a couple of examples from my class of what could be considered good examples of great opening sentences:

Southerners are water people.

He pulled it up out of his mind and shot it.

He didn't even hold my hand while I got the tattoo.

When James tells me he is the product of a fairy tale marriage, I figure he is being metaphoric.

You will notice that there is a variety of sentence structures represented here. The first is simple, the second is compound (at least it has a compound predicate), and the last two are complex; that is, they have a subordinate clause attached to an independent clause. This variety demonstrates that there is no one way to start a story. Even these opening lines may not be seen as particularly great by every editor who is reviewing a stack of new submissions to a journal. That does not mean that they are bad, either. The thing to remember about short stories especially is that every word counts. You are writing within a (supposedly) limited space. Make the most of every part of it, especially at the beginning. If your reader isn't interested in the story's opening, there is no guarantee he or she will continue to the end.

(Yes, the last sentence is actually the opening line of my story "My Friend the Fish," listed above. I put it up here because I am proud of it and other people in the class liked it.)


Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. - Proverbs 4:23