An Ambitious Choice

There are a few “compliments” that can be said of a story that are immediate warning signs for readers.

“It looks beautiful holding my door in place!”

“It really gets going at page 842!”

“I liked the part where all the characters died.”

“It was… ambitious.”

I’ve always wondered at what point in literary history it was that “ambitious” became synonymous with “hot mess”.

Now, to be fair, calling a book ambitious is generally describing it as a very specific kind of hot mess. Books that I’ve heard called ambitious tend to be books with big ideas, intricate interweaving plots, and/or complicated characters or stylistic choices.

The other trait that they have in common is that they fail.

Somehow the bigger pieces do not come together in a way that works for the reader who is trying to describe them to other people.

“Ambitious” also tends to be used when the reader knows that something is wrong with this challenging work, but they don’t know what exactly is throwing them out of the story.

In one way, it does make sense.

Ambition is what we hold to drive for success.

An ambitious book is one that attempts to succeed in a difficult way, but stops short of achieving the actual success.

Is it fair that it bothers me?

While I enjoy straightforward, to-the-point stories, I also love seeing people try to push the boundaries of what is available.

I like seeing people tackle issues and construction that differ from what is already out there.

I also see a number of these stories succeed on multiple fronts, even if not in every way.

I sometimes wonder if this damning with faint praise is more harmful than engaging directly with the meat and guts of the story. I wonder if it is worth it to dive in and say, “Yes, this worked and this didn’t and this was breathtaking.”

It’s hard to tackle stories that aren’t clear cut successes or failures, especially those with dreams larger than their wings.

I can only hope that we have more of them anyways because I would rather discuss an interesting failure than a bland success.

Maybe the next time someone says a story is ambitious, I will smile and ask, “Why?”

IMG_0607I am well aware that my fluffier pieces rest on the broader back of my more ambitious work.

I am always interested in experimentation, especially in the genres I love.


For my own combination of straightforward writing and ambition, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

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On the Shoulders of Giants

While most people speak of Suzanne Collins, writer of “The Hunger Games”, being influenced by “Battle Royale” (for that debate you can see here), I wonder whether she was a fan of Shirley Jackson.

I first read “The Lottery” (an audio version here) when I was twelve and it is one of the stories that has sat at the back of my head as a masterclass in tension and plotting. If Ms. Collins was influenced by “The Lottery”, she certainly wouldn’t be the only writer. Both Neil Gaiman and Stephen King cite Shirley Jackson as an influence, although “The Haunting of Hill House” may have more obvious plot influences.

This is not a bad thing.

So often when the discussion of influences in writing appears there is a fundamental undertone of “See! They haven’t done any real work!”.

While we have these conversations in music and art, there seems to be a strange misunderstanding when it comes to books.

Let me tell you a secret.

No story comes entirely out of thin air.

I would argue that the best writing is consciously aware of the technique and tales that came before it.

Our strongest stories are those that acknowledge the giants before them and build upon their shoulders.

Writing is a craft as much as an art and a good craftsperson practices their technique and understands the techniques of other works in their field.

It is not a point of pride to be unaware of the tropes and tales within our rich history of literature. By knowing those tropes we can move beyond their bases and create something that is new, that clearly acknowledges the richness behind us.  I also think that it is important that we look beyond classic European works to fully understand and recognize our rich literary lineage.

I’ll tell you another secret.

Stories disappear.

Without iterations and re-tellings and connected inspiration, most tales vanish into the empty void of lost memory.

I find it telling that Ms. Collins’ writing is compared to “Battle Royale” rather than the work I think that she was far more likely to have encountered.

Entertainment is very much in the moment. While “The Lottery” is still well-known more than sixty years after its publication, it is not as well-known as the stories it has influenced.

How many other stories from 1949 can you name?

The fear of the tales we tell is not that someone will write a story with a similar idea or setting.

The fear is that after we have stood in the square, stoned as a tribute, that no one will remember us at all.

IMG_0600In the end, our ideas are as ephemeral as seeds on the wind if they do not take root and spread

I am openly influenced by writers as diverse as Basho, Lewis Carroll, and Agatha Christie. I hope to do honour to their proud literary tradition.


If you would like to judge my literary influences for yourself, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

From the Campfire to the Page

I come from a family of storytellers.

Not writers, although we have a few of those, too.

Storytellers.

I would sit as a child, wide-eyed, listening to them craft whole worlds with nothing but their tongues and hands.

I have never forgotten that total immersion of voice and motion.

One of the hardest moments when I started writing was the realization of the frustrating distance between that performance and the words on the page.

There is a visual presentation that happens when we write to the page. We use a method of layout, of sentence structure that sits prettily between the running header and the page number, a neat visual symmetry.

I think there is a seductive power to this look and to this way of organizing sentences.

But I can always tell which stories have not been read aloud.

Maybe this is only something that happens to me, child of the children of storytellers, but I read as I write.

I set my sentences so that if you are to read them, all the visual breaks are where you would pause for breath, where you would look at your audience and watch them lean closer.

When I turn blue reading a sentence aloud, I chop it, because every sentence should aid the performance and not take away from its power.

This is a conflict between writing that is meant to be seen and writing that is meant to be spoken.

I know that there is a power in words, well-placed words, neatly set on the page.

I still cannot help remembering the strength of those fire-lit stories.

As I write, I lean into the flames with my fingers.

IMG_0586The grain of our stories fuels different fires

I’ve been thinking about some fundamental differences in approaches to writing. This is one of the pieces I teased out of those thoughts.


For my own fine-grained approach, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

The Stories I Don’t Tell

I know a lot of other people’s stories.

Some are told to me, some I hear, some I see as I pass them by.

These are not the stories I tell.

I have always winced a little when told that we should write what we know.

So often I think that we are faced with this command and become tempted to cannibalize the world around us, convinced that our own lives are not nearly as interesting as the secrets we observe.

(Or we write our own lives in endless variation. This has its own joys and sorrows.)

These are not the stories I tell.

These are not the stories I wish to tell.

I have seen and heard stories of heroism and tragedy, terrible loss and unbelievable gain, and none of them are my stories.

Writing our friends, our families, our neighbours, thinly veiled or proudly presented, is a long-standing tradition of literature.

How old is the joke that writers have no friends, only characters they haven’t yet written?

Yet, for myself, I don’t write the people I know.

The truth is, I hear these small pieces of other lives and think to myself how little of the puzzle I hold, how necessarily unfair my exposure would be without the richness of context or experience.

Others can overcome these concerns and write brilliantly and beautifully on the lives around them.

For me, my head contains realms enough that I am little tempted by the incomplete pictures around me.

Even then, I think of the stories I am told and how I am told them.

I think of the stories I’ve heard and known and see how they harm or do not harm those around me.

I think of the stories that have stood on the stage of the world and held the minds of millions.

Some stories are meant to be shared with the world, shone under a bright light and exposed.

Others are conferences of trust, small gifts of love meant to be held quietly, somewhere under the heart.

IMG_0508To tell or not to tell? The branches of choice bear interesting flowers.

I think that this is an interesting choice most writers have to make at some point in their writing career. It is certainly possible to view this in a variety of different ways.


Sentient toasters, potato men, and murderous laundry are NOT based on my life and can be found in my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

In Defense of Fluff

Sometimes, in the world that is not the internet, I talk to writers.

While I thoroughly enjoy most of these discussions,  every once in awhile I have a conversation that sits like a burr at the back of my head.

I have been thinking over a few of these conversations for the last while.

One common theme I hear from writers is a strange fear of being seen to write “fluff”.

No one really defines what “fluff” is but they are all terribly afraid of writing it.

I assume that much like the infamous definition of pornography, it is something that they know when they see it.

Me?

I have no such fears.

Now, this is partly because although I write funny stories, they often have fairly dark undertones. However, it’s also because I’m not convinced that writing fluff is a bad thing.

Life can be a hard box to inhabit.

There is a reason we think of entertainment as ‘escapism’.

Everyday, I see the small and great tragedies play out in front of me and sometimes I just want to see a world where things work.

Why are we so afraid of joy?

Why are we so uncomfortable with admitting that we enjoy reading about success and happiness and a buoyant sense of wonder?

Why is it so much easier to count tragedy as the work worthy of our praise than the works that can help us rise out of the trenches of our own daily misfortune?

I cannot answer these questions, but I can think of myself, heart-sore and exhausted, standing in a field and watching the cottonwood fluff blow into the air.

As I watched them rise into the heat and disappear, I fiercely envied their buoyancy, their ability to grasp the currents and rise.

Some days that’s what I want to read.

Maybe you do too.

IMG_0673Even when it comes to ground, the fluff never forgets the time it flew

I like all types and genres of stories and sometimes I like to think about why some of them work for me and some of them don’t.


My own fluff and not-fluff can be found in my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

Shadowfall

I wonder sometimes when I pick up a story just what tragedy awaits me.

It is a strange feeling. However, in a number of the genres that I read I am resigned that the stories that are not explicit comedies will deal largely with the worst parts of people and the world around us.

There is a beauty in this and a power that I often enjoy reading.

It makes me sad sometimes because it seems a deliberate cut of so much of what makes a world live and breathe.

I have never agreed with that famous line from Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Truthfully, unhappiness is often predictable. It is broad strokes painted on a black canvas.

Is there adultery? Is there a dead child? Torture? Death? Disease?

Happiness is so much stranger, so much more composed of odd bits haphazardly fit together.

Happiness is personal.

A dead child is a short-hand for a kind of emotional tragedy that everyone can relate to.

How much harder is it to explain the joy that someone takes in rearranging the pieces of broken sea glass they place in the window?

But there is no need to have merely one note, one emotion in a story.

I think sometimes that we take the wrong lesson from the art of chiaroscuro, the usage of light and shadows.

The power of shadows is not that they become the complete image themselves, but that they highlight the light beside them.

How much stronger is a joy mounted against a backdrop of pain?

When we paint only in grey, there is skill and technique in fine differences of shade and colour.

But few paintings or stories can match the power of bold strength and colour standing out against the darkness.

IMG_0668All the best of light and shadow

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the value of contrast. I hope that these thoughts are useful to others as well.


 

For my own play with light and shadows, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

The Spinner’s Burden

I have a close relative who loves to spin wool.

The process of choosing the material that will produce the best thread combines both art and science.

None of this is visible to those who wear the final product.

I think of her sometimes when I am writing an outline for a story.

When we discuss stories, we often focus on how the threads that form plot and character and setting mesh together to form the final product.

Less often, unless it is a very thorough dissection, do we examine the threads themselves.

We talk of stereotypes and ridiculous plot points and unbelievable locations but I think it is harder to sink down to the root of many of these problems.

Sometimes the threads themselves are such poor quality that nothing of value can be created from their weaving.

Sometimes the threads come from material that is weakened or damaged, that will never support a strong, consistent weave.

In many ways, I am not a natural plotter.

When I have a beautiful idea, I want nothing more than to giddily dive in and flesh it out, to share it at once in as many ways as possible.

I learned though, that if I did not strengthen my material before I began, create a steady base from which to pull my threads, that there would be weak points, points of damage and disruption.

This is not true for all writers or even all weavers, but I hated the moment where my threads revealed their weak points.

Weak points that became obvious when I looked them over before I began.

I choose my threads carefully now.

Sometimes even the best threads will have hidden weaknesses that could not be avoided.

But as I stare at the bindings I create, I can see the strength in that hidden study of material.

In the invisible moment of choice before the weaving begins.

IMG_0676

 Before the weaving comes the spinning

I’ve been thinking about plotting and planning again and the commonality that so many crafts share at their core.


For the weave of my own fabric, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

Fields of Gold

The fallow fields are to the south

This time of year

The fields closest to the farm

And farthest from the hills

When the farms are gone

The fields stay for awhile

Before the pine and aspen grow

I walk there sometimes

Those fields left to yarrow

And dandelions

All the more beautiful

For the briefness of their fierce embrace

Of colour

Of living

IMG_2255These are the fields I remember, long after they have passed

I think a lot about the changing face of the land around me. It is always beautiful.


If you’d like to see some more colour, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

In Passing

These things we notice

The odd buoyancy of moss

Beneath our boots

The incessant murmur

Of cold water

A shaft of light

Breaking through the canopy

A small illumination

Of the world beneath

IMG_2401A quiet point of passage

I love hiking and love even more the ability it has to help me clear my head.


If you’d like to see some more passages, my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor, is available here.

Some Things that Never Happened (And Some That Did)

So I’ve written one hundred posts. I spent a lot of time these past few weeks thinking about how I could thank all of the wonderful people who have made it such a pleasure to write each of those posts.

Finally, I came up with a wonderful/terrible idea. This blog has been more about my non-fiction than my fiction, so I thought that I would write a piece of fiction exclusively for my readers.

But not just one piece of fiction.

Five pieces of fiction!

And not just any fiction.

Stories written in exactly one hundred words to commemorate my one hundredth post!

Here they are, a collection of  completely original one hundred word* stories to celebrate my one hundredth post! I hope that you enjoy them.

*Except for Number Three. For reasons that will become obvious.

Disclaimer: The labeled stories are works of fiction. I only wish that my life was as interesting as the remixes would imply. No cats, chairs, or octopuses were harmed in the creation of this blog. Yes, that is how I am going to write the plural of octopus. Feel free to tell me all about it.

 

Five Ways that Cat Amesbury Never Started a Blog (And One Way She Did)

 

1. You Can’t Handle the Truth

She’d made it to the hole in the wall with the broken chairs and the layer of dust as thick as her hand on the counter. The only secure connection in the city didn’t need to advertise.

The man at the counter nodded, handing her the device without a word. She’d planned and sacrificed and bled for this day. It was hard to believe that it had finally arrived.

It only took a few keystrokes to lay it all out in cold black and white.

There was no turning back.

“The truth is out there,” she whispered.

She hit ‘Post’.

 

2. It’s a Terrible Life

“Is there a reason I’ve got a chain-smoking angel sitting on my dresser?”

“Look lady, I don’t get paid the big bucks to tell you how you’re too old to play with toy trucks.”

“They’re collectibles!”

“Whatever. Your life is great and you’re great and you shouldn’t do whatever stupid thing it is you’re planning on doing.”

“… Buying a giant purple octopus to hang over my front door?”

“No, that’s a great idea- Hey, are you Nat Amesbury?”

“Nope.”

“Well, da- Er, you’ve been chosen to spread the word! Congratulations!”

“Wait! Why do I suddenly have a WordPress login?”

 

3. The Cat with Artistic Pretensions

She sat in the house
Doing nothing at all
Her eyes on the screen
Her eye on the ball

So sitting and staring
She soon failed to see
The strange-looking creature
That fell from the tree

Its claws were quite sharp
Its fur- how it shone
And it crept to the house
Creep, creep cross the lawn

So when she looked up
Her heart how it beat
It’s not every day
A cat that you meet!

This cat had a hat
And a pen and a book
And he shoved them towards her
And told her to look

No fun for this writer
She lost in the fight
All the words of her cat
She now had to write

 

4. Temperance and Tentacles

It is a truth not at all acknowledged that a woman in search of world domination must be in want of a giant purple Kraken. Upon meeting such a Kraken, her first act was to secure an unbreakable pact. In truth, there was something in her air and her manner of mad cackling that was appealing to those monstrous cephalopods. Kraken secured, she dispensed with such unpleasantries as suitors and meddling family. Her first desire accomplished, she proceeded to write her manifesto of intent.

As her words were scattered throughout the meeting places of the ton, she smiled.

“Entail this!”

 

5. Speed Infinity: We’ve Run Out of Tense Situations

The other people in the computer lab looked towards her, their eyes wide.

Amateurs.

She picked up the phone with the practiced ease of being the only person old enough to remember when you still had to pick up a phone to answer it.

The person on the other end got right to the point.

So did she.

“So if I type below fifty words a minute, the internet explodes?”

The silence on the other end of the line was all the answer she needed.

“Right.” She nodded and rolled up her sleeves. “Let’s blow the ribbon off this mothertyper.”

~

∞ The Boring Truth

“Look,” they said. “You’re the one who thought that you needed a blog to show people how you write. So write.”

“So much writing,” she said, glancing nervously at her next chapter. “So much writing.

They shrugged. “So find something you like and write about that.”

They paused for a second before adding, “Well, maybe not the weird things you like. Save those for the story.”

She wrote and she was sure it was a completely normal post. Still, she hesitated before she posted, looking towards her family.

“So how do you feel about giant purple octopuses in carny outfits?”

~Finis~

IMG_0573All good things must come to an end, but here’s to one hundred more beginnings!

 


 

Honestly, if you enjoyed this, you are probably related to me and really should go check out my fantasy novel, The Guests of Honor.  It’s over here.