Another defense of children’s fantasy.

I was at the public library some weeks ago, as is my wont, when I stumbled upon an intriguing volume in the juvenile nonfiction. (Don’t knock juvenile nonfiction. Rhoda Blumberg’s Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun is the best account of the Opening of Japan I’ve ever read.) It was called The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus, and featured interviews with such luminaries of children’s fantasy as Brian Jacques, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman, and Jane Yolen.

As the interviews in the book are organized by the subject’s last name, the first one I read was with Lloyd Alexander (who passed away in 2007, the year after The Wand in the Word was published). Everything he said resonated with me, and I found myself wanting to know more about his writings. I don’t know how I missed him in my childhood reading. I loved fantasy, especially C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the works of Roald Dahl, The Phantom Tollbooth, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Ella Enchanted, Artemis Fowl… and yet somehow I got through my entire childhood and adolescence without having so much as heard of Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. So last week I made sure to pick up The Book of Three, the first in the series, when I visited the public library again.

I’m only about halfway through, but I love everything about it. Un-self-conscious, pure, classic children’s fantasy, without any of the “modern twists” or ironic wink-wink-nudge-nudges that I find in a lot of contemporary children’s fantasy.* Kids these days are too cool for taking fantasy worlds seriously, I guess.

From the author’s note prefacing The Book of Three:

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we believe we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.

Aren’t I just.

*One notable exception that comes to mind: Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Oh, and another: Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver. There are more, but I can’t think of them at the moment.

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Out of my depth?

Last week I was out of town, and this week I was dealing with a packed schedule and a beast of a 10-page paper for school, so a late post this week.

For as little work as I’ve been able to do, ideas for the sequel to UNBoaTCfAFHV have been flying fast and loose in my brain lately. I’ve jotted most of them down, but there’s always that fear that once I try to flesh them out they’ll reveal themselves as the melodramatic, hackneyed things they are. Like when you wake up from a dream you think was beautiful and emotionally gripping and then you get your morning coffee and start your morning commute and realize… no. It was weird and didn’t make a whole lot of sense on any level.

I’m fending off the notion that this novel I’m in over my head. What do I know about the stuff I’m writing, anyway? And yet, I know that if I don’t push through and finish the dang thing, I’ll be more miserable than if I’d at least given it my best shot.

Relevant, from author Shannon Hale’s blog in November 2011, when she was writing what would become the excellent Princess Academy: Palace of Stone:

The rewrites are a struggle right now. Sometimes I wish writing a book could just be easy for me at last. But when I think about it practically, I am glad it’s a struggle. I am (as usual) attempting to write a book that’s too hard for me. I’m telling a story I’m not smart enough to tell. The risk of failure is huge. But I prefer it this way. I’m forced to learn, forced to smarten myself up, forced to wrestle. And if it works, then I’ll have written something that is better than I am.

“Write what you know” is for sissies.

Prioritizing writing.

This week I tried a new thing.

I’m used to writing being a “fun” thing; something I do after all my homework is done. This works when you’re a high school or college student, perhaps, but I’m a grown-up now, and writing is something I seriously want to pursue. If I want to make a living from it, it has to become work.

Part of my problem has been that when I come home from (my current actual) work, I turn on the computer and do things like check my email and RSS feeds—things that I feel like I need to get out of the way before starting my “fun.” That’s where the rabbit hole starts, and by the time it ends, I’m too tired to attempt writing. (Or, on worse days, I plop in front of the TV and watch two hours of Netflix over dinner before even touching my computer.)

So on Thursday I came home, turned on my computer, opened up the sequel-in-progress to Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from America’s Funniest Home Videos in Scrivener, picked a playlist, and lit the WRITING candle. This is what happened.

  • 5:34pm 4,478 words.
  • 6:08pm Candle is at maximum meltage before spilling into the holder and is extinguished.
  • 6:24pm Potty break. Cat joins me because why not. Cats are weird.
  • 6:31pm Cat jumps on lap.
  • 6:31pm Cat leaves lap.
  • 6:31pm Cat back on lap licking my arm.
  • 6:32pm Cat now on desk with butt four inches from my face. Thanks, cat.
  • 6:33pm Cat butt is obscuring numpad of keyboard. Tail extends over length of keyboard. Thanks, cat.
  • 6:42pm Fatigue begins to set in. Perhaps dinner is in order.
  • 6:45pm Second wind.
  • 7:13pm I’ve been stuck on what to name a character for a good fifteen minutes. Maybe it’s time for dinner now.
  • 7:14pm Dinner time. 5,317 words.

839 words. Not bad for 90 minutes.

  • 9:41pm Still ended up watching TV for two hours. But at least I did real work today.

PS: The candle might be better during winter months. It is HOT right now.

Writing and ritual: the candle.

The key to being a writer, as they say, is writing. Seems easy enough, except I’m a human.

Getting my butt in a chair in front of a computer is not the hard part; it’s getting me to open up Scrivener and type and not to open up Firefox and plumb the depths of some blog I found or watch every SNL Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch from 1996 to the present. Because going down Internet rabbit holes is easier and less scary than writing what I know will be an awful first draft.

I’m really good at coming up with excuses to not write. I’m not in the right mood, I tell myself after a depressing news tangent. Now I just feel like an Internet glutton; I need to detox from the computer for a while, after a YouTube tangent. I’m thinking about [some media franchise I’m a fan of] too much to write, after a Netflix binge or video game play session. Or how about this one: I can’t write now—I feel like all the people in that awful comments thread I just masochistically read through are watching and judging me. And then, finally, after a full day of this stuff, It’s too late at night. I need to go to bed.

And that is how novels don’t get written.

I’m still working on avoiding temptation and practicing self-control. Something tells me this is going to be a lifetime struggle. But I’ve found a cheap little thing that’s helped me quite a bit. “One Weird Trick,” if you will.

It involves three very inexpensive things:

  1. A 50-cent glass candle holder from Goodwill
  2. A 75-cent votive candle from the Yankee Candle discount basket
  3. A $3 barbecue lighter

And it is a simple 4-step process:

  1. Declare candle the WRITING candle.
  2. Place WRITING candle in candle holder.
  3. Light WRITING candle with barbecue lighter.
  4. WRITE.

Why is this so effective for me? It plays into a lot of my quirks—my desire to squeeze every penny out of that 75-cent candle, for example. If you’re familiar with those little 2-inch votive candles, you know that they never burn perfectly symmetrically; the wick always curves in one direction, pushing the flame out from the center of the candle and melting more wax on one side. Eventually (after about an hour, in my experience) the outer edge of the candle on that side collapses and all the wax drains into the candle holder, dramatically shortening the life of the candle and making you have to chip the wax off the glass after it cools. Worse, the wax now covers an area bigger than the opening, so it’s impossible to get it out in one piece.* To prevent this from happening, you have to extinguish the candle before the wax melts, around the 60-minute mark.

And since that is my WRITING candle, I do not want to spend my one hour of WRITING time on dumb Internet tangents.

The trick is to light it before that nonsense even begins.

candle
This is literally what pushed me to finish Draft 2 of UNBoaTCfAFHV last October and November.

Sure, while I’m writing I get writer’s block now and again, but the candle gives me something mildly interesting to stare at while I wait for more ideas to come. (Once I leaned in too close and singed my own hair a little bit. Don’t do that.)

By the time it’s time to blow out the WRITING candle, I’m often on such a roll that I just keep going. If I need inspiration, I just smell the candle. (I don’t know if that actually works or not. It’s just something to do.)

Just—y’know, be safe about it. Don’t leave burning candles unattended; don’t put flammable things near or above the candle; make sure the candle is on a stable, heat resistant surface; keep pets and kids away, etc. Don’t make dumb decisions. Don’t singe your own hair.

Anyway. There you go. Maybe it’ll help someone else, too.

*The trick to getting wax out easily is freezing the candle holder after the wax is completely cooled. (Freezing it before the wax has completely cooled is a good way to crack the glass.) The wax will shrink and pull back from the glass. The you can just snap the wax into a few pieces and take them out one by one.

Not much to report this week.

This past week I didn’t get a whole lot done on that sequel, for a few reasons, including homework and errands… but also a bit of an emotional shake-up with an important decision. Can’t go into detail, but I’m all right now, I think.

In other news, I got another commented-upon draft from a third friend, who is exceptionally talented at worldbuilding and has given me lots of good tips in that regard. He also included some meme images that made me spit water on my keyboard. (Just a little bit, though.)

Lessons from writing a sequel.

Last week I got 2,000 words into a sequel to the Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (UNBoaTCfAFHV for short). UNBoaTCfAFHV isn’t close to polished/finished yet, but I figured after nine months of dedicated work on it (after four years of almost no work on it) it could benefit from being shelved for a while.

This is only the second serious first draft I’ve started, and it’s been almost seven years since the last one. I don’t like dealing with the messy, inevitable crappiness of first drafts, so I rarely start them. But the ideas I have are so strong and I can’t stop thinking about them—even if I don’t know where they’ll lead.

When I first started writing it, the ideas and the words flowed relatively easily, which made me think that perhaps the rest of the draft would be just like that: 1,500 words, rough but workable, in only a couple of hours. Maybe I could do that every day and have a complete first draft in a couple months! I thought.

Yeah…. no.

I tried again a few days later, and squeezed out 500 words of choppy prose, one-dimensional characters, robotic dialog, and melodramatic events. How could something be so beautiful in my head and then turn out so poorly when I try to wrap words around it? It’s like that Ecce Homo painting in Spain that was ruined by a well-intentioned amateur artist back in 2012.

But I have to remind myself that the same thing happened when I finished the first draft of the original. It was “103,680 words of plot holes, inconsistent characterization, telling (not showing), awkward dialog, and just plain bad writing,” I wrote after finishing it at 4:00 in the morning. I wondered if I’d ever be able to wade through it.

And it took four years, but I did, and was surprised at how pleased I was with the result.

Rewriting is a huge task; don’t get me wrong. But the nice thing about rewriting (at least, in my experience) is that the more you do it, the clearer your story’s direction becomes. I allow myself to become overwhelmed with the task as a whole: rewriting ENTIRE CHAPTERS? But writing them the first time through was hard enough already! etc. But taking it little by little, allowing the story to show itself, made the task manageable. And, hey, sometimes rewriting flows easily, too.

In other news, just in the last hour an email showed up in my inbox from my friend (a different one this time), with my UNBoaTCfAFHV Draft 3 and her comments attached. Huzzah, supportive writer friends! I look forward to reading her perspective.

A little help from my friends.

I spent much of last week visiting my friends from college, one of whom was the one who gave me those helpful comments on my draft back in January. We had a ton of fun, caught up on the last six years of each other’s lives, made good food, played board games and card games and a D&D one-shot (I was a human rogue), watched one of my friends start playing Breath of the Wild (the local Target had seven Switches in stock. Seven!), and talked a lot about writing and reading. Book recommendations flew. I brought (the finished!) Draft 3 on a flash drive to be passed around. I’m a little nervous about the revisions this time around because I let myself be just a wee bit more vulnerable. They say vulnerability makes one’s writing better, but it’s also terrifying. I await critiques.

In the meantime, a few ideas for a sequel have been bouncing around my head (which is kind of a surprise, but a nice one), so perhaps while I take a break from Untitled Novel Based on a Talking Cat from “America’s Funniest Home Videos” I can get started on that. Maybe it won’t take six years to get to a presentable draft this time.

A side note: I’m currently reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik at my friend’s recommendation. I’m only a few chapters in (maybe 11 or 12) but I’m totally hooked on the story and setting. I’m a sucker for good worldbuilding. It’s also one of my greatest weaknesses.

Quick update on progress.

I accomplished a lot in the past week but I’m kind of in a rush, so just a few quick things:

  • I went back to the Celtic music session yesterday with my accordion and did a lot better (though still not amazing; but hey, practice really works!).
  • I may have a lead on a harp teacher, or a harp community, at least!
  • I have a passable third draft! Just need to find time to get down to the copy shop and have it printed and spiral-bound.

Busy, apparently.

Oof, school kicked my butt this past week. A six-page paper plus a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation plus mandatory discussion all due the same day. And that’s just in one of my two classes.

I was out of town visiting family for most of the last week, which is always good for stepping away and reevaluating how you’re doing life. At times I found myself worrying about “wasted potential”—wondering if I could be doing something amazing if I just hadn’t watched so much TV as a kid, or had eaten a better diet growing up, or just tried harder. Such thinking isn’t terribly productive, though, and eventually I decided to stop worrying and think about what I want to do with the days ahead. Being out and about tore me away from the Internet for long stretches of time, which I realize has made me a generally happier person. I read too much news anyway, and news is overwhelmingly negative and largely about things outside my control. Spending less time with TV and video games was good for me, too. I can’t see myself ever saying “I’m sure glad I spent my entire summer consuming content in front of a screen.”

Now that I have a bit more breathing room before my next big assignment is due (well, kind of; there’s a 10-page paper due next Wednesday) I’m going to make sure I take time this week to pick up and delve into the stuff I want to be doing. (And call that accordion repair guy, for reals!)

A side note: On the trip to visit my relatives I took a couple of paperbacks for airplane reading: Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens and Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13,* and while I enjoyed both (or at least the first half, in the case of the 432-page Good Omens, which I haven’t yet finished), I’m still partial to middle-grade fantasy. I have to constantly quell the fear that this affinity is a sign of stunted development (more wasted potential!), but that doesn’t stop me from visiting that section of the public library every time I’m there. Also, I’ll read anything by Eva Ibbotson. She might be my favorite author ever. Island of the Aunts made me cry.

Here’s some relevant Neil Gaiman from a 2013 Guardian column that accurately reflects everything I believe about libraries and children’s literature:

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

*It’s about a pure-hearted boy raised by horrible stepparents whose destiny lies in the magical place accessible only through a secret portal in King’s Cross station. If that sounds familiar, note that The Secret of Platform 13 was published in 1994 and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. When asked about the striking similarities, Eva Ibbotson reportedly said that she’d like to shake J. K. Rowling’s hand, and added, “I think we all borrow from each other as writers.”

Stepping out.

I finally did it—I attended an SCBWI event. And it was totally worth it.

A neighboring regional chapter hosted a workshop on revision techniques yesterday, led by a local professional (bestselling) author. It was truly fantastic, and completely worth the 45-minute drive.

I’m still in that gap between Draft 2 and 3 on the novel I started in 2010. There are a few parts that I know need to be rewritten that I’ve been avoiding. After yesterday’s workshop I realize I’ve been avoiding rewriting it because it’s actually boring. I’ve got my work cut out for me—and a lot of different tacks I can take.

Another memorable takeaway from the workshop was an exercise in determining a story’s theme. “It’s 10 years after the events of your story. Imagine that you’re at a bar or a coffee shop and your main character sits down next to you. You get to talking, and the character recounts his or her experiences. Then you ask, ‘So what did you learn from all of that?’ What does your character reply?”

That’s one I’m going to be chewing on for a bit.