Friday, December 25, 2015

A Long-Expected Announcement

I have a short story in an anthology!

My short story, "The Debt-Keeper," was published in the Crossover Alliance Anthology Vol. 2 this month.

That's me on the top right of the list. :D

I've been keeping this announcement under wraps until our family Christmas celebrations were past, though, because part of our gifts to our parents were copies of the anthology (which you can purchase directly from The Crossover Alliance in your ebook format of choice here or in Kindle and paperback formats here*).

This is a big deal for me, and I've had the hardest time not spoiling the surprise.

You can also check out this awesome group interview that Peter Younghusband (who also wrote the foreword to the anthology) conducted with all the authors in the book. I wrote a little about the origins of the story and the world of John Valley where it and my two stories in When the House Whispers are set.

If you'd like to get a book of stories to entertain and challenge you, please pick up a copy. If you're near me, I can even autograph it for you. (I can't autograph ebook copies, though I will sign your eReader if you like. ;) )

* The book is printed via Amazon's CreateSpace platform, so it will come to you once they print it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Writing Lessons from Dr. Seuss, or What the Grinch Teaches Us about Storytelling

As we commenced our annual viewing of the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas, I discovered that this simple little special (and the book upon which it's based) offer some impressive little tips on writing, and I thought I would share those with you (as much for my own edification as for yours).

1. Introduce the conflict ASAP.

"All the Whos down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot, but the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not."
Seuss just lays down the central conflict in a sentence. Granted, he's writing a children's book so he has less room to wiggle, but no matter whether you side with the Whos or the Grinch at first, your attention is caught.

2. Don't overexplain your antagonist. There's something to be said for mystery and ambiguity.

No one quite knows the reason, but here's a working theory.

3. Keep your characters true to themselves, and the story will follow.

You can't have the Grinch hate Christmas and not do something about it.

4. Introduce the opposite of your character to create conflict and allow for emotional resonance.

This is one of the few things the live action film did well.

5. Everyone's a sucker for a redemption story.

Especially me.

6. If you can't find the word you need, make it up.

Or in this case, alter an existing word to fit your rhyme scheme.

What unexpected lessons have you discovered in Christmas movies or specials?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hard Lessons for Christmastime

Hello, everyone! I'm sorry I all but disappeared last month. NaNoWriMo took up a lot of my spare time. To sum up: I won NaNo with about 52,000 words, but didn't finish There's No Place Like Home? by about 10,000-15,000 words. So December's goal is to finish that up and maybe get a couple other small writing projects off the ground.

While working on NaNo, I've also been preparing for Christmas dramas at church. Really, I've been preparing for them since some time in August or September (I've slept since then, so the exact details are a bit fuzzy), but we are now in crunch time, with the next two Sundays taken up with adult drama (written by yours truly) and a children's musical (which I will only be participating in as a character).

Not THAT character, but the show does have a Whoville-type setting.

And in the last few months of preparation for these productions, along with an Advent-starting service this past Sunday, God has been teaching me some hard lessons about myself and leadership that I didn't know I needed and wasn't sure I wanted. God's like that -- He gives us what we need like a good Father, sometimes over our protests.

If only getting shown your shortcomings tasted like strawberries...

I'll spare you all the details of the situations and confrontations that led to these lessons, but suffice it to say that I have been hit with the hard reality of my own inadequacy and shortcomings.

So, the lessons:

1. Protect those under your leadership (whether they be younger siblings, children, team members, or members of a study group or ministry) from harm, even and especially if the harm comes from you.

2. Count the cost of any endeavor before you sign yourself (much less other people) up for it. Make sure you know how much will be expected of you (and your team) and that you are willing to put forth that time and effort.

3. Even when things look like they are falling into place, something can change your plans. Be flexible and try not to get your feelings hurt when your idea for the perfect whatever has to be tossed out to make room for what God is sending you.

4. Even if you thought the previous plan was what God was sending you.

5. When you have a backup plan for when things go wrong, don't wait until the last minute to enact it. It's no good to anyone if you never use it when it's needed.

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Always. With everyone. Even if you think you're on the same wavelength with everyone, communicate anyway. You'll save everyone a lot of stress and heartache this way.

7. Don't expect everyone to think the way you do. Something that's immediately obvious to you may not be from another viewpoint. Your thought processes are not universal, so don't pretend they are.

8. When your feelings are hurt, as they inevitably will be, don't linger on them, but don't ignore them either. Acknowledge them, deal with them (which for me is just acknowledging and then ignoring so they don't take over), and move on. Dwelling on hurts and harms, particularly small ones, without seeking reconciliation just leads to resentment and a hard heart. Have a spirit of forgiveness toward everyone, because you'll need it yourself when you say or do the wrong thing.

As you can see, I had a lot to learn.

To end on a lighter note, here's a picture of our adorable calico, Pumpkin, inspecting the invaders who have taken over her place beneath the tree:

One of these is a Decepticon, Dad. I'm sure of it.
As we head into Advent and Christmas, what lessons is God teaching you? Are you willing to listen and learn? (And do you have adorable pictures of your pets interacting with seasonal decor?)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Beautiful Books Part 2, The Writing Process

It's time for another Beautiful Books post. This blog link-up is hosted by Cait at Paper Fury and Sky at Further Up and Further In. This month, the questions are focused on the writing process.

Is the book turning out how you thought it would be, or is it defying your expectations?

I would say it's turning out mostly as expected, but with fun twists and layers I hadn't expected (which is in itself something I'd hoped for/expected).

What’s your first sentence (or paragraph)?

"A grey existence can hardly be called living, no matter the busyness it may use as a mask."

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you ever tried both methods and how did it turn out?

I'm a bit of both. I tend to focus heavily on discovery writing (in first drafts especially), but I love a good outline, and almost any future drafts will be outlined several times as a tool to organize, edit, and revise what's already there as well as find the holes that need to be filled. This is the first NaNo that I've had anything really resembling an outline (that I recall) and it's been fun holding that basic structure in mind as I spend a little more time in some places than I'd expected and end up working toward the same climax from a different angle.

What do you reward yourself with after meeting a goal?

Usually a glut of Kingdom Hearts. This time around, I'm celebrating each day's goal by sending out the chapters to a group of beta readers and I'm hoping to buy something special when I finish the book. (I haven't decided what yet, or if it will happen. It'll most likely end up being a visit to our local used book store.)

What do you look for in a name? Do you have themes and where do you find your names?

I look for a name that fits the character, that makes me like them or at least feel I know them, even before I begin to write. I look for names with strong histories, meanings, and sometimes cultural associations. I mine far more than is good for me, and I collect names (even made-up ones) to use later.

What is your favorite to write: beginning, middle, or end -- and why?

I'd have to say middles or endings because you can have a lot of fun in the middle and the ending is where all the big revelations/conflicts resolve. Beginnings are the worst for me because you have to get the momentum of the book going.

Who’s your current favorite character in your novel?
That's tough to say. When I first started, I thought I'd have trouble writing my main character (Teddy) because as cool as his arc is, I really like to fanboy about my Lion character with some of my writer friends. He's just a fun person to write and talk about. At the moment, I think I'll say Crow is my favorite because it's become the resident snark lord of the group.

What kind of things have you researched for this project, and how do you go about researching? (What’s the weirdest thing you’ve researched?!)

Honestly, I've not done much research for this one other than reminding myself of some of the details of the original Wizard of Oz and its sequels.

Do you write better alone or with others? Do you share your work or prefer to keep it to yourself?
I tend to write better alone while knowing others will see what I write. It took me a long time to get to the point that I wanted to share what I write with people I know, but now I'm pretty eager to share no matter what. So, when someone says they want to see what I've written, I say, "Here, take all of it!"

What are your writing habits? Is there a specific snack you eat? Do you listen to music? What time of day do you write best? Feel free to show us a picture of your writing space!

My writing habits are in a constant state of flux (read: what writing habits?) but NaNo has given me a good structure I might follow after November: I write in the morning for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how prompt I am at getting up and going through my morning routine, quiet time, etc. I may squeeze in another 15 minutes over lunch (after I've read a bit from whatever is my current lunch book; right now that's G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy). Then I'll write after dinner until I've hit the end of the day's chapter(s). Since I'm writing shorter chapters for There's No Place Like Home? than I do in my Albion books, this pattern may not hold after November, but I like the idea of setting aside time every day to write rather than letting it be whenever I decide I feel like it. Let's face it, I don't always feel like it, so doing it anyway is good discipline. As to music, I usually have music going when I write. I even have playlists for a couple of my books, including TNPLH?, which I've been listening to since well before NaNo started.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Publishing Announcement

Two of my stories set in John Valley have been included in a Halloween-themed anthology put out by Oloris Publishing, When the House Whispers.

This is basically my face right now.

You can purchase the anthology here in EPUB or MOBI format.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Do not Go Gentle into that Good Book

I've talked before about stories being more than "just" fiction. The topic came up again recently in a couple of conversations with some friends of mine, and I thought of another angle for the Christian who enjoys stories in all their forms.

There's a spectrum of responses to the idea that stories have the power to affect us. On one extreme lie the folks who say that stories are dangerous and should be avoided at all costs unless they are safe and uplifting, free of all the bits that might make us uncomfortable or indicate anything beyond surface-level sin. On the other end sit the folks who say stories don't affect us in any way, so let's all just enjoy the show, you bunch of kill-joys. (Incidentally, there's a third group which occupies a place at either end of this; this group acknowledges the power of stories, but believes stories can only affect us positively and therefore should be enjoyed without thought or worry.)*

The best stance, from my experience, lies somewhere in the middle. We must acknowledge that stories can affect us, for better or worse. Most of the time, stories will make us happy, help us experience catharsis, or inspire us to think. They are useful for developing our minds and emotions (yes, even the stories with Bad Content).

But sometimes, I think we have to go back to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:29-30 --

If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

In context, Jesus is talking about adultery, so the obvious application of these verses is to lust and other internal sins. However, what if it be a story (or type of story) that causes us to stumble? We might imagine Jesus addressing such a situation as follows:
If watching Game of Thrones makes you stumble, don't watch it, regardless of how cool your friends say it is; for it is better to lose the enjoyment of one story than to enjoy it and be separated from Me by it. If reading Harry Potter causes you to stumble, don't read it not matter how your friends insist it's okay; for it is better to miss out on one story than to be separated from Me by it.
Yes, it's an extreme example using a series I cannot personally enjoy (GoT has too much nudity for me to safely enjoy it**, and I don't care for the books because they're so depressing) and a series that I do enjoy (but if for some reason Harry Potter causes you to stumble, don't read/watch it).

But the principle still applies. Addicts, if they are recovering and sober, learn that there are habits, behaviors, and even thought processes they must avoid in order to remain sober. As fallen human beings, sinners saved by grace, Christians must also learn to avoid whatever tempts them or might lead them into sin. These guardrails (to borrow from Andy Stanley's terminology) are not always the same for everyone. While there are many clear statements in Scripture about what is and isn't sin, there are also many more areas of life which are not as black and white. There are large gray areas each person has to establish personal boundaries around in order to avoid sinning.

Stories are one of those areas. If you find yourself enjoying a story, that's wonderful. Keep on reading, watching, listening, or playing. But if you find a story leading you down a mental, spiritual, or emotional path that isn't healthy for you in some way, cut the story out and don't look back. If we can allow ourselves to leave a book because it isn't good (i.e. interesting or well-crated), we can leave it because it isn't good for us.

* On a side note, for either of the "just enjoy it" camps, artistic quality is probably a concern; the "safe and uplifting camp" often tends to sacrifice art for the sake of the cause (protecting readers and viewers from Bad Content).

** This is a personal guardrail of mine; others have already discussed whether the show is safe for Christians in general.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Beautiful Books (A Blog Link-Up with Further Up and Further In)

Currently Writing: Albion book 2
                               NaNoWriMo prep

Currently Reading: A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny
                               Blood Thirst: 100 Years of Vampire Fiction by Leonard Wolf
                               Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb
                               Monster by Mirriam Neal

My friend Sky at Further Up and Further In does a blog link-up for writers called Beautiful People every so often that allows writers to delve into their characters and share those insights with each other on their blogs. This month, in anticipation of NaNoWriMo, she's changing it up and making it Beautiful Books instead, so we can all introduce our novels to each other. Since I'm doing a NaNo novel this year that I'm pretty excited about, I decided to participate.

1. How did you come up with the idea for your novel, and how long have you had the idea?

The germ of this novel came from listening to RED's album Until We Have Faces a little too often. The more I heard the music, the more I became convinced that there was a somewhat dystopian novel hidden in it, and a few months ago that idea collided with some Wizard of Oz retelling story ideas I'd been toying with, and my NaNo novel was born.

2. Why are you excited to write this novel?

Because it's the first novel that isn't connected to my larger universe of books that I've had the idea for in a while, and because it's come together so well so quickly.

3. What is your novel about, and what is the title?

I've toyed with a few different titles, but the one we've settled on is There's No Place like Home? because it fits both the story (a Wizard of Oz retelling) and the tone/theme.

The story follows Teddy, a young man lost in a strange city with no memory of his past and no understanding of the world he's landed in. As he tries to find his place (his home, if you will), he meets some strange but lovable characters and a few who think they'd be better off if Teddy were anywhere but their city -- including the grave.

4. Sum up your characters in one word each. (Feel free to add pictures!)
Teddy: wanderer

Gloria: Empty

Ariel: Lionheart
Westford: ruthless

Scarecrow: innocent (Not pictured because it's not human or even human-seeming and I haven't worked out what its voice should sound like yet.)

5. Which character(s) do you think will be your favorite to write? Tell us about them! I think 

I'm going to have a hard time picking a favorite because they're all so much fun. Teddy's chapters will be good because he's the main character and gets to explore this world I've built around him. Scarecrow is probably the funniest and also the wisest of them in its own way. Gloria's story is heart-breaking (see what I did there?) and Ariel's just a great person to have with you in  shady city districts. Even some of the side characters are so much fun I have to keep them in control so they don't wreck the story. ;-)

6. What is your protagonist’s goal, and what stands in the way?

Teddy wants to regain his memories and find out who he is and where he belongs. Standing in his way are some powerful people (Westford, pictured above, and his sister Eastman) who see Teddy as a threat to their way of life and the fact that he never seems to be able to stay in any place long enough to dig into his past.

7. Where is your novel set? (Show us pictures if you have them!)

A futuristic city called O.Z. where people are always connected to one of the Nets and no one really moves around.

8. What is the most important relationship your character has?

While Teddy's relationships with the three companions are all important, the one that means the most to me personally is his friendship with Scarecrow, because they're both so ignorant of what this world is like in their own ways and their journeys are so similar on the surface, though they have different  goals and endings.

9. How does your protagonist change by the end of the novel?

As a famous time traveler once said,

Suffice it to say, Teddy discovers that what he thinks he wants at the beginning may not be his heart's true desire.

10. What themes are in your book? How do you want your readers to feel when the story is over?

Honor and honesty are still valuable. Humbugs shouldn't destroy our faith. Our past is less important than who we choose to be now.

I hope my readers will feel like they've been with Teddy and his friends the whole way and been changed for the better ( ;-) ) by the experience. I hope they will have hope in dark situations because of the hope Teddy and the others express.

NaNoWriMo BONUS: Tell us your 3 best pieces of advice for others trying to write a book in a month.

  1. Write every day. Even when you don't feel like it, and even if you don't have time to reach your word count goal.
  2. Don't let the word counts get you down. (That should be on a mug.)
  3. Gather your supporters, whether they be fellow writers or non-writers, and keep them close for the days when you ask yourself why you were crazy enough to try writing 50,000 words in 30 days.
If you've got a novel in progress, whether for NaNo or not, I encourage you to try this exercise out. It'll help you keep the steam and excitement flowing for your project. If you blog about it, share it with Sky here

Friday, September 18, 2015

Top 10 Fantasy Books

Once again, it's time to see what my Top 10 favorites in a category are. This time it's (big surprise) fantasy novels!

As usual, these are in no particular order and may be subject to change at any given moment. (Favorites are rarely forever, and change as we do.)

The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis

I'm going to do my best to limit myself to one book per series. The Horse and His Boy has been my favorite book in the Narnia series since I first read them in middle school. For some reason, I have always felt drawn to Shasta's story, his journey and adventures, and especially his encounter with Aslan. I think that Aslan's words in this book, more than any other, have been the ones that resonate with my soul. While my favorite Narnia books may change order from time to time, this one always rises to the top.

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

I'd put all of Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium on here, but as I said I'm trying to stick to one book per series. Also, I have read this one more than either The Hobbit or The Silmarillion (probably more than both combined). There's a little bit of everything to love in Tolkien. While I haven't quite reached the point of rereading it every year, every few years I get the urge to make the journey to Mount Doom once again, and the road goes ever on. With my reread of The Silmarillion fresh on my mind, now is probably a good time to start. There are a lot of references and bare implications in LotR that make more sense in light of the Sil. All the references to Beren and Luthien, Elbereth, and even the histories of Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman become much clearer in the wake of this big book of backstory. I'm always eager to visit these old friends and see what about me has changed since I last walked the lonely roads and thoroughfares of the Shire, Gondor, and beyond.

The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

The second book in Turner's The Queen's Thief series (or the Attolia series), this marks the beginning of Eugenides' true growth as a character for me. He moves from being simply a smart aleck to someone with a great deal of heart and hurt, and watching him become the person he needs to be in order to save his home is beyond beautiful.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

There's something special about a book that follows a bunch of rabbits in modern England and simultaneously makes them relatable but refrains from making them stand-ins for humanity. Dandelion's stories from the rabbits' mythology and folklore mesmerize me, and I loved watching Hazel grow into a leader as the book progressed.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Let's face it. I can't not include this book because it is one of the best books about magic and society that exists. Now that I've seen the BBC adaptation (it was almost perfect in every way), I have to reiterate that this book is fantastic in the sense of content and quality. While it moves slowly through the plot, it's no worse than Dickens and often a bit funnier. Its story is one which invites you to meditate on the subtext and look at what the characters don't say as much as what they do. It is resplendent with symbolism and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys fantasy or historical drama.

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White

This version (the original, almost stand-alone version, as contrasted with the shorter, altered version included in The Once and Future King) is what Disney based their loosely adapted film upon and what sparked my interest in King Arthur and the stories around him.

Really, my fascination has almost always been with Merlin, the wizard who tutors Arthur and guides him toward his destiny as king; but Arthur is just as often a background figure in Arthurian stories as he is a main character, so I don't feel bad about that.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

This isn't a lot of people's favorite in the series. Most days, it isn't mine either, but I'm including it here because it does such a fine job of bringing the story full circle and tying up (sometimes satisfactorily, sometimes not) the many plot threads Rowling had woven throughout the previous six books. It has some of my favorite scenes and lines in the entire series, including the quote that serves as this blog's theme.

The Bartimaeus trilogy (The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate) by Jonathan Stroud

I know, I said I was only picking one book per series. Unfortunately, I can't pick just one of these three. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but as a whole it's one of the best fantasy stories I have ever read. The character arcs of the three main characters (Bartimaeus, Nathaniel, and Kitty) are simply astounding. Stroud begins with the simple premise that the ruling class of magicians from the old stories is not so much a stratum of benevolent guardians as it is a corrupt coalition of power-hungry individuals, and the story follows that premise as a young boy (Nathaniel) is swept up into this glamorous world of power and intrigue. The witty, sarcastic, and sometimes heartfelt narration from Bartimaeus makes this world come alive.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

The first in Nix's Old Kingdom series, this book follows the story of a girl named Sabriel as she tries to fulfill her father's role as the Abhorsen, a necromancer of a different sort. Instead of summoning and enslaving the dead, Sabriel, her father, and their ancestors use magic bells to keep the dead in the grave. The concept alone drew me into the book, but Nix's keen writing made me stay. His characters are real, complicated people who sometimes want nothing more than survival, but who feel the call to do more with their lives. While his recent prequel, Clariel, didn't quite live up to my expectations, everything else that I've read in this series* has delighted me.

*Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen, "The Creature in the Case" (in Across the Wall)

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

If there's anything a book-lover loves more than books, it's a book about books. While the idea of being transported into a book isn't the newest idea (The Neverending Story did that in the '60s), Inkheart has a personal power to it. The fact that Meggie and her father are at risk because of Mo's affinity for books makes the tragedies they fight through that much more meaningful.

This series also includes one of my favorite characters ever, Dustfinger, whose journey toward redemption is one of the most satisfying things in literature.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I won't let myself include honorable mentions because the post would go on for pages.

Let me know in the comments if I missed any of your favorites.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Subversion in Fiction

Currently Reading: Ladyhawke by Joan D. Vinge
                              The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (reread)
                              Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Currently Writing: Merlin Book 2
                             Wizard of Oz retelling (outlining and prewriting)

When I was in grad school, one of the major topics we discussed in any given writing class was the idea of transgression or subversion -- working against or around the status quo. The discussion always made authors who transgressed against the commonly held ideas of society seem like the cool, rebellious kids at school that everyone wants to be acknowledged by.

Except I never did.

Maybe I'm the odd man out on this one, but I never saw the appeal in what appeared to me to be stirring up controversy for the sake of controversy (or sales, in  some cases). It's just not how I think or operate. Oftentimes "transgressive" literature wasn't written for that reason, but because there was something in society which the author believed needed to change. Unfortunately, a lot of the discussions never focused on that, choosing instead to celebrate transgression and subversion for their own sakes.

However, I'm coming to the realization that subversion isn't always about throwing liberal sexuality or Communism or any other idea you want into a story because it rubs against the grain of society. Sometimes it's simply writing something unexpected to keep the story real, true, and fresh. This is especially true in genre fiction, where each genre has its own tropes and stereotypes that are at once expected and apprehended (in the sense of anxiety rather than capture). An author might choose to take one of those standards (like the Chosen One) and give it a little twist. He or she might make the story do something unexpected.

G.R.R. Martin does this in A Game of Thrones by killing the ostensible main character. Brandon Sanderson does it in his Mistborn series by turning any number of fantasy tropes on their heads, from the evil overlord to the chosen one.

For a Christian writer, perhaps the transgression appears in the form of a character who keeps to their moral convictions in a world surrounding them with other options. Perhaps the subversion of their genre tropes comes in the form of a conversion scene, but maybe it comes by not having a conversion scene where one is expected.

For NaNoWriMo this year, I'm planning to write a retelling of The Wizard of Oz. One of the themes in the original is the self-sufficiency of the main characters, the fact that each already has what they were looking for. That's something I can subvert. The Wizard, who in the early chapters is spoken of as a stand-in for God, is revealed to be a charlatan, a poor sort of god if such a thing exists in the world of Oz. This, too, presents itself as a target for subversion.

Because, as scary as this is, the idea of Frank Morgan being a god in any sense is scarier.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Power of Stories -- Not "Just" Entertainment

"But that's not the way of it in the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually -- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn't. And if they had, we shouldn't know, because they'd have been forgotten."
-- Samwise Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings, Book IV Chapter 8

In The Two Towers, Sam ponders on the sort of tale he and Frodo have fallen into, comparing it to the ones "that really mattered." For Sam, the stories that really mattered are the ones in which characters press on to the end regardless of their circumstances, and some of them had really horrible circumstances; he mentions Beren facing Morgoth (the first Dark Lord of Middle-earth) and taking one of the Silmarils from Morgoth's crown in a time when no one -- I mean no one -- could be expected to survive such an attempt, much less emerge successful. But Beren went through with it, not because of some foolish pride or bravado, but for the love of Luthien, whose father had set the retrieval of the Silmaril as her bride-price much as Saul had done to David in 1 Samuel 18. As Sam says, if Beren had turned back, he'd likely have been forgotten, along with his love for Luthien.

But what is it that makes a story "really matter"? Does the simple inclusion of a determined protagonist make a story worthwhile?

Actually, I think most stories are worthwhile in the sense that they have power. Stories (in their many forms both written and spoken, filmed, acted, and sung, long and short) are capable of showing us the truths we like to avoid in our everyday lives.

The other day, a friend of mine had a discussion on Facebook about whether video games affect our thought patterns and influence us toward violence. Our Sunday school teacher shared a story about asking his nephew not to play a violent game around his younger son, to which the nephew replied, "It's just a video game."

Whenever I hear the word "just" in the context of stories, I always flash back to this scene from Finding Neverland:

As Johnny Depp, in the form of J. M. Barrie, points out, "just" is often a word we use to make something meaningless, or at least mean less. With stories, especially the visual forms like television shows, movies, and video games, this means we dismiss any power they have to make us think or love or act in a way that's different from before.

But most of us have encountered at least one story that truly matters to us, one that changed us in a way we might not have expected. For Christians, the story of Christ is foremost among those. For me, I would add the Narnian stories, the Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series and a museum's worth of others.

But stories aren't limited to the arts. There are also social narratives that affect our ways of thinking. anyone who's watched the news or seen how a particular mindset can be spread throughout a group of people without thought. This type of story is the easiest to fall into, the easiest to be changed by, and often the hardest to discern.

Stories have power, and we shouldn't ignore that. Pretending that they don't doesn't deprive them of the power to change us; it merely makes it easier for stories to change us in subtle, often undesirable ways without our knowing. When we ignore the power of violent stories, we may find we are more susceptible to violent thoughts and actions than if we had paid attention to the stories we experienced and what they were trying to say to us. When we ignore the narratives by which we live our lives, we wind up living by a narrative, a story, that we didn't intend to be part of.

There is no such thing as "just" a story.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Villains Revisited

What I'm Writing:  Merlin Book 2 (first draft; planned to be finished by November)
                                Oz retelling (pre-writing and outlining; planned for NaNoWriMo 2015)

What I'm Reading: The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)
                                The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
                                Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb (Kindle)
                                Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography
                                They Have Not Seen the Stars: The Collected Poetry of Ray Bradbury
                                Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper (audiobook; reread)

A while back I talked about villains with shallow motivation making for weak characters -- and by extension, weak stories and conflict. I finished Dune a few days ago, and it has got one of the best-written villains I've come across in a while. He's truly villainous, and odious to boot.

I'm talking about Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, of course. While he's not the biggest sandworm in the desert, he's certainly the worst. Part of what makes the Baron so cringe-worthy is that he is so indulgent that he's gone beyond being gluttonous; there's so much of him that he can't even move around unsupported by gravitational suspensors. He's capable of cutting down entire villages with a word because he's unhappy. The man has people drugged and brought to his chambers for whatever perverse enjoyments he passes the time with. And he somehow infects the impressionable members of his family with his own pride, greed, and conniving.

But Herbert doesn't simply tell you all of these details on the surface of the story. While he does dip into the Baron's mind for a few sentences here and there, Herbert tends to rely on the Baron's conversations and behavior to bring his unsettling nature to the reader's attention. He shows us the Baron's mannerisms and speech patterns around his family members, around his drugged companions, and around his subordinates in order to demonstrate the Baron's vileness.

That's something I need to practice more in my writing, and not just for my villains -- using behavior, mannerisms, small turns of phrase to reveal more of a person's character.

I'm keeping this in mind especially for my Oz retelling that I'm planning to write in November, because while many of the characters in that book are based on characters from Baum's novel, they are taking on entirely new personas for this story. I need to know them well enough to show their inside personalities on their outsides in the small ways that we all reveal ourselves to others - hand gestures, facial expressions, silences, and dialogue that we don't even realize is saying more than we think.

What are some great villains you've read lately? What little things did the authors use to make them more alive and evil?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

My Favorite Songs Inspired by Narnia

Currently Writing:   Merlin Book 2
Currently Reading:  Dune by Frank Herbert
                                The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)
                                The Woodcutter by Kate Danley (Kindle)
                                The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket (audio)

For the purposes of this post, I'm not considering any instrumental tracks, but I will mention some of my favorites. "Heart of Courage" by Two Steps from Hell was the trailer music for the Walden version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and it still gets me excited for Narnia. There are various tracks from the LWW and PC soundtracks that evoke the longing for Narnia, such as "Narnian Lullaby," and the themes "One Day" and "Reepicheep's Theme." The Narnian Lullaby from the BBC Narnia films is also a favorite of mine. Now, without further ado, here are some of my favorite Narnian songs:

"In Like a Lion (Always Winter)" by Relient K from Let It Snow, Baby … Let It Reindeer

This song was originally written for Music Inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia, but was not released until this Christmas album. It captures a lot of the spirit of LWW and the low times that can be associated with the Christmas season when we never seem to get to Christ.

"Edmund" by Heath McNeese from The Weight of Glory

Part of an album dedicated to Lewis' works, this song is one of the best on the album not only for its direct connection to the source material but also for its great use of artistic license. Some of the lines don't actually fit with the book (like the references to the singer's parents and their reactions to the Witch) but the song as a whole still captures Edmund in the early parts of LWW. I recommend checking out the entire album.

"The Lament of Eustace Scrubb" by The Oh Hellos from Through the Deep Dark Valley

This song is actually part of the reason I love Heath McNeese's "Edmund"; it takes a similar tack in writing a song that's from the perspective of the titular character while allowing itself the freedom to write something that's not concerned with rigidly sticking to what's said in the book. My only complain about this song is that it only has three very short verses, and I'd be happy with two or three times that if they were of this same quality.

"Voyage" by Scott Krippayne

This single was released not long after the Walden film of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I often tell my Narnia-loving friends that I would have had this song over the Pauline Baynes-illustrated credits – if the movie had actually followed the book and not tried to be "the book C.S. Lewis didn't write."

"The Call" by Regina Spektor from The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian original soundtrack

While the song's opening lyrics are placed awkwardly in the movie (e.g. right after the Susan-Caspian kiss that should never have happened), the lyrics as a whole actually cover a good deal of the remaining books, with references to the children coming back when called and "when it's over." There's even a hint of warning in the lines about others being unable to feel what the children feel, a warning emphasized in the film as the camera remains on Susan as she reenters "normal" life.

"Music from a Garden" and "Silver" by The Gray Havens from Where Eyes Don't Go

If you have not had a chance to look up this band, do so now. They are fantastic sing-songwriter-storytellers. With a name like the Gray Havens (spelled slightly differently from the Grey Havens of Middle-earth), you expect to have some Tolkien and/or Lewis references show up in their music. These two songs, from their EP, are the most Lewis-infused. "Music from a Garden" incorporates the imagery common to both Lewis' and Tolkien's creation stories in The Magician's Nephew and The Silmarillion respectively – that of the universe being sung into being. It also speaks of the Lion as the Creator and of His return. "Silver" borrows from both VDT and The Silver Chair to tell a new story about seafaring adventurers.

From Courage, Dear Heart by Meg Sutherland:

"Real" deals with Lucy not wanting to leave Narnia at the end of VDT and her faith in the realness of Aslan. She reminisces about her journey, recalling the appearance of the albatross on the Dark Island, and prepares to return to her own world. This is one of the best Narnian songs I've come across

"Doug's Song" borrows imagery from MN similarly to "Music from a Garden."

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," while not specifically Narnian, fits nicely with "Real" and the use of the Dark Island and serves as a reminder not to be afraid of the hard times we face in life, because they can be used for something better.

You really should check out this entire album. Douglas Gresham helped produce it, and his remarks on Ms. Sutherland's ability to capture the nostalgia and longing for Narnia come as very high praise.

Music Inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia by Various

There are a couple of songs on here that are especially Narnian in my opinion. A couple, like "Turkish Delight" and "New World," aren't exactly Narnian in style but still evoke the book in a fun way. I wouldn't ask the artists to change their musical styles just for this album, and the fact that they somehow capture Narnia in such non-Narnian music makes me love the songs even more. I think "Remembering You" and "Lion" are possibly the most Narnian songs on this album. The first looks back at Aslan from the end of LWW from the viewpoint of several characters and does a handy job of encapsulating the emotion of the book. "Lion," on the other hand, focuses on Aslan in the midst of the story; I'd actually argue that this song fits Lucy in the middle of Prince Caspian better than it does LWW, but I think that's primarily due to the "Now you are a lioness" line from the book. This album is available on Spotify.

"Further Up/Further In" by My Epic from Yet

This band seems to have a mild Lewisian influence, and this song has only the barest of Narnian references despite the title – it talks about all times being "soon" to God. That said, it's worth a listen because they make that line the linchpin of the song. Their song "Rich" also carries some of the longing from The Last Battle and mixes it with imagery from VDT.

"The Witch and the Lion" by Narnia from Desert Land

One of the band's few songs actually featuring Narnia-related lyrics, it's worth checking out if you enjoy heavy metal. The band's music is pretty good in general and rife with references to God and His saving grace, but surprisingly lacking in Narnia references.

"When the Stars are Falling" by Narnia from The Course of a Generation

This song, while not explicitly Narnian, seems to have some overtones from The Last Battle.

The Roar of Love by 2nd Chapter of Acts

This album is a bit odd because it's one of the better-known and -loved Narnia-related musical projects but its style is not something I care for overall. That being said, there are a few songs that I would consider going back to apart from the album (which carries the listener through the entire story of LWW).

"Tell the Truth" and "Turkish Delight" both deal with Edmund's first visit to Narnia and its aftermath. I don't find this "Turkish Delight" as memorable (or fun) as David Crowder's, but it's a livelier song than most on this album, and it fits very well with the plaintive tone of "Tell the Truth."

"Christmas Where Are You?" takes its inspiration from the same line as Relient K's "In like a Lion" but isn't quite as memorable.

"I've Heard the Stars Sing Before" actually hearkens back to MN; I think it's meant to be the Professor's song, meditating on his mysterious (if you've read LWW and not MN) connection to Narnia, but it follows Aslan's resurrection so that may not be the case.

"He's Broken Thru" celebrates Aslan's resurrection and the freeing of the statues in the Witch's house. It also reveals the Witch's knowledge of Aslan's victory over her magic.

"Something is Happening in Me" and "White Stag" close out the album by examining Edmund's change of heart and the return of the children from Narnia. Though not necessarily high on my list of Narnian songs, this album is one Narnia fans should listen to just to have the experience. The entire album is available on Spotify.

Awake! by The Pilgrim's Regress

This is a concept album based on The Magician's Nephew. It's only five songs long, but it has some fun instrumentals. The best vocal song is "The Bell and the Hammer."

"Eastward" by Nick Milos

This song is meant to be from Reepicheep's perspective during VDT. It reminds me of "Bright Eyes" from the film of Watership Down.

Are there albums or songs that I've missed? Despite my intentions for this to be a "favorites" post, it seems to have grown into more of a list of what's out there (though it doesn't include songs from the musical productions that have popped up around the globe). I'm always interested in finding new songs based on Narnia. Let me know in the comments!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Top Ten Books to Reread

Currently Writing:  Merlin Book 2
Currently Reading: Dune by Frank Herbert
                                The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)
                                The Woodcutter by Kate Danley (Kindle)

I've been wanting to do another Top 10 post since the first one. I can't do a Top 10 Books general post because there are just too many I love, so I decided that Top 10 rereads was the best way to go. So here, in no particular order, are my Top 10 Books to Reread:

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

I'm counting this whole series as one book, not only because I have an omnibus edition, but because I love to read all of them again and again. All told, I've probably read the whole series five or six times, and individual books anywhere from that number to ten or so. I never come out of reading these books without something new occurring to me. I never get tired of reading Aslan's words to the various protagonists and living through their adventures in between those special meetings with the Great Lion.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

This book is similar to Narnia for me, in that I can always get more out of it when I reread. I've only read it through a handful of times, but I always want to dive in again. I'm rereading The Silmarillion now for the first time, and it's whetting my appetite for Tolkien's mythology.

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper

Okay, it's another series. This time, I don't own an omnibus edition, but I dare you to read one of these books and not keep going. Once you meet Great Uncle Merry, you're going to keep reading just for him. Cooper blends together the modern (well, for its day) intrigue with the Celtic myths so well in these slim books. I come back to them because, hey, who doesn't like a little Arthuriana before bedtime?

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

I haven't actually read this one in a while, but I reread it consistently for three or four years when I was younger, and I have continued with the series off and on since then, even rereading one of the sequels, The Scarecrow of Oz, multiple times. I actually think Scarecrow might be more of a reread favorite than Wizard, but Wizard is a classic and the more recognized title, so I listed it.

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

This is another one that I reread several years in a row when I was younger. If you've never read any of Roald Dahl's books, then this one is a good place to start. It demonstrates his talent for mixing the magical and the mundane into a superb, fun children's story that entertains and educates.

The Attolia/Queen's Thief Series by Megan Whalen Turner

You should have expected another series, really. This quartet (which fans hope will eventually become a quintet and then a sextet) is centered on a sort of alternative historical version of Greece and the surrounding countries and on a man named Eugenides, who find himself tangled up in the political machinations of the rulers of no less than four countries as the series progresses. The first three books are better than the fourth, but they are all worth at least one read; I'd say the first few are worth the rereading.

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

This series is another that gets better with every reading because, despite its flaws, you can't help but appreciate J.K. Rowling's talent for lacing elements into the early books that seem unimportant but wind up being the basis of major arcs in the end. She also has a talent for dealing with important social issues like prejudice without making the stories seem preachy. Add in some fun magic and lovable characters, and you've got a recipe for rereadable books.

'Salem's Lot by Stephen King

Other than Dracula, this is the only vampire book I've read multiple times. I prefer King's book only for its ability to make me do a double take halfway through the book. Maybe it's just the wear of the ages, but you can't go into Dracula and not get vampire vibes from the first few chapters. 'Salem's Lot, by contrast, opens like a haunted house story. Even when I reread this book, the first long section doesn't even begin to whisper, "Vampire"; instead, it seems to shout, "I'm the precursor to Rose Red!" King definitely takes his cues from Shirley Jackson in this book, and that's a good thing.

The Giver/Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

I'm not listing the whole series here for two reasons: 1) the first two books stand up better under rereading; 2) Messenger and Son, for all Lowry's attempts to continue the story and bring the first two books together, just aren't as good even on initial reading. If you've not read The Giver (or at least seen the recent film, which was a very good adaptation), then you're likely in for a treat. That is, if you keep in mind that the plethora of dystopian fiction in the young adult section largely follows The Giver, which itself has its roots in older literature like 1984. That being said, The Giver is still a solid book that explores an awful lot of emotion and philosophy in a very brief span of time. Gathering Blue, likewise, covers a lot of ground in its thought processes, but Lowry takes a very different tack in this book. The disparity between the two settings may be part of the source of the failure of the later books, but I think that can be better chalked up to Messenger's rushed ending and Son's useless middle section.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Every few years, I have to pick this mystery off the shelf and go through the fun of seeing the madcap cast of characters unravel the riddles old Sam Westing has laid out for them. It's not like the story changes between readings, but these characters -- good, bad, and oh so colorful -- are like old friends or distant relatives that you need a dose of every once in a while. Then, you've had your fix and you're good until the next coincidental meeting or family reunion. If you haven't read it, don't read any spoilers. The first time especially, it's fun to try solving the mystery yourself.

Are there any books you just can't stop rereading? Are there some you haven't read more than once but would like to read again? Let me know in the comments!