A Thing of Joy and Beauty

I love the moment when I’m reading and I forget to breathe. There is nothing like being so caught up in the beauty of the interior world that is being shared that I forget about the rest of my physical packaging.

While I speak often about things that I enjoy and don’t enjoy about stories, make no mistake that there are few things that bring me greater pleasure than a good book.

I still remember the first time I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot and sucked in my breath with each consecutive image. The closing lines were:

 We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown              
Till human voices wake us, and we drown

I was twelve years old and I didn’t understand everything in the poem.

But when I put the book down and closed my eyes, I knew that I wanted to read stories that made me feel the way those lines made me feel.

It’s not just imagery of course that can pull the breath from my body. Characters that make me care, plot lines where the resolution is both brilliant and inevitable can hold me so close that I look up only to realize that the day around me has passed me by.

There are few stories that can maintain that kind of moment forever.

But those perfect, beautiful moments that create a world stronger than the one around me?

Those are the moments I read for.

My breath is precious.

A story that can steal it is valuable beyond words.

IMG_0993Some moments and images are perfect in themselves, whole and complete

I love reading. I love the imagery and stories that overwhelm me with their beauty.


I am always working towards creating perfect moments within my own writing. If you would like to see my attempts, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

The Extraordinary Ordinary

I am, I admit, less impressed by those who shock with flame-breathing unicorns than I am by those who shock with teaspoons.

One of the best parts of reading a good writer is their ability to turn the everyday, the mundane, into something extraordinary. It is that ability to take something that I know and turn into something new and strange that will hold in my head long after the story is completed.

I love reading stories that make me think in new ways about things I thought I knew.

The problem is that this is hard.

In order to offer a new perspective on something familiar, you have to have… a new perspective.

It is a lot easier to pull from the list of existing “shocking” images than it is to take a look at old things in new ways.

Not that I am not fond of fire-breathing unicorns, but there is something deeply unsettling about the idea that writers have to draw from the well of the over-the-top shock in order to create reader interest (I include cheap emotional shock in here as well as physical imagery).

There is room for both outsized imagery and more subtle interpretations.

I would just like a few more stories where the moment that makes me catch my breath involves the light reflecting off of a teaspoon and not off a unicorn-razed village.

IMG_1083Even a humble head of cabbage has unusual, and beautiful, angles

I am fascinated by what writers choose to affect their readers… and what they don’t.


My own imagery teeters between the outlandish and the small. If you’d like to see some of it, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

A Long, Strange Trip

There are stories that I read that make me feel as if I have accidentally taken a right turn into the Land of Purple Elephants and Nonsensical Non-Sequiturs.

Then I realize that I am holding the book upside down.

Metaphorically.

(Also, sometimes literally, but I like to pretend that doesn’t happen.)

While there are a number of stories written just to be series of hugely imaginative, strung-together pieces of unusual imagery, I think that a lot of the time we may not be reading these stories from the same frame of reference.

I think that with many genres, we get used to a certain pathway through the events of the story. The events themselves may change, but the general pathway and the type of character interaction remains very similar. Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” is a type often associated with epic storytelling, but many genres have even more narrowly defined and specific sequences.

Most of the time I like this.

When I pick up a story in specific sub-genres, I know exactly what I am getting into and what I can expect out of my reading. As a consumer, I know what I want for these and I am happy to get what I am paying for.

The problem lies in the more general genre categories such as “Fantasy” or “Science Fiction”. Pushing the boundaries of these categories can be very rewarding for the reader, but it can also mean that the frame of reference for how we are looking at the story is wrong. If I come into a Fantasy story and expect an epic, sword-wielding journey and I am faced with the existential crisis of a man slowly turning into an insect, I may feel like I have just been whacked about the head.

The thing is, a lot of Fantasy writing in particular relies on roots in a very specific set of traditional stories and assumptions about how a fantastical world will work. When fantasy that is rooted in other stories or other assumptions is produced, it may leave the reader feeling as if they are reading the book upside down.

I see a lot of these changing structures in the deeper understanding that the internet has provided of multicultural myths and folktales. Someone who has run into these other types of stories and structures is less surprised by Fantasy pulling from non-fairytale sources. However, those who have largely read and enjoyed Arthurian fantasy may find stories rooted in Shinto ethics a little confusing and bewildering.

I hope that we see more boundary-pushing, more stories that aren’t rooted in the same assumptions and fundamentals.

Because sometimes a purple elephant isn’t a nonsensical non-sequitur.

Because sometimes it isn’t the book that is upside down, but our own perspectives.

IMG_1100Hallucinations don’t last nearly as long as a good book

I like both the familiar and the unfamiliar as a reader. Reading has given me worlds that I could never imagine and gifts that I could never imagine living without.


If you’d like to see my own attempts at perspective shifts, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

The Furniture of Words

Writing is a tool, not an outcome.

Sometimes when I read, I am forced to remind myself of this somewhere in the back of my head.

There are stories that are pieces of technical perfection, polished to a fine gleam, in perfectly ordered sequence.

They are also as lifeless as the fine pieces of wooden furniture they most seem to emulate.

What shows up on the page is not the destination when we read, it is the vehicle. Words shouldn’t start and end with what we see but should instead transport us into our own imagination, our own sets of realities.

If someone is trying to tell a story, then the words should be there to tell us a story, not to make us marvel at the way they beautifully reflect the light… and make us lose the thread of what they are actually trying to say.

It is not that beautiful words and beautiful writing do not have their place, but their place should be in service to what they are trying to say rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, in a story, the words are both the scaffolding and the furniture in the room where the story takes place. They provide support and the vague shape and sense of what the room contains, but ultimately it is what the inhabitants of the room do that will create the story that fills the room.

If there is too much furniture, too many finally polished works filling every nook and cranny, the story will keep tripping over itself trying to get anywhere.

The story will never be able to take off and find its own pathway.

The difference between a mechanical telling and a story that lives is difficult to see or explain, since it is often something that we instinctively know and recognize.

I like to think of a living story as what comes up between the spaces we leave in our writing.

If we are lucky, life finds the cracks between the words.

If we are very lucky, our words allow life to bloom, rather than sitting as a still collection of polished furniture.

IMG_1087The chair is not the living part of this picture.

Stories that live and breathe have always drawn me in and held their own rooms within my head.


If you would like to see my own attempt at word cultivation, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

A Choice of Frames

The way we cut a picture is almost as important as what a picture contains. The difference between a sleeping lion and the potential of imminent death by claws is about five inches of focus.

This is not a blog entry about photography.

One of my few promises to myself when I created this blog was that all of the pictures I used for my blog entries would be unedited. Everything that goes up here has not been altered after being taken, so I have to live with poor focus or lighting or framing.

I think that there are some important lessons that I’ve been able to take from this and apply both to my writing and to the stories I read.

As much as a few inches shift can affect what a photograph shows, so can a small difference in the choice of focus in a story.

The more I’ve become involved in photography and graphic design, the more I’ve become aware of the difficulties people encounter when they try to decide how much or how little their story is going to show.

Viewpoint can help decide this – a tight first-person narrative is normally going to show less of the world and its events than an omniscient, head-hopping narrator. But much like photography or playing cards, knowing how much to show -and how much to conceal- is a vital part of creating the power and motion of a story.

I’ve mentioned Shirley Jackson on this blog before, but her short story “The Lottery” is a masterclass in framing. I’ve often wondered if Ms. Jackson knew anything about photography because her slow pans and careful scenic movement feel cinematic. The movement towards her reveal of the full scene is careful and cautious and helps to create the power of her conclusion.

I think that sometimes there is a temptation to show everything at once right away or to hide so much information that people become lost and confused. Good framing is honest about what it is showing, but still leaves enough pieces out to create interest and draw viewers into the story or photograph.

There is also the kind of framing where the only part of the story that is told is the part that justifies the experiences of the focus character. This can be used in interesting ways if the narrator is shown to be unreliable (in cinema, something like Rashomon or in story, American Psycho), but it can also make it harder to suspend disbelief if the story does nothing but prop up the character’s thoughts and beliefs.

Have you ever read a story where you spent a few minutes thinking about the main character and decided that you probably would have sided with the villains?

This is often because of a failure of framing. When what we see as bad actions on the part of the main character are justified rather than challenged, we will often lose trust in both the story… and the writer.

Much as viewers will lose trust in a photographer who makes a sleeping lion look as if it is a dangerous threat.

Thinking about how a story should be presented is a vital part of writing.

It is important though that the tale accurately reflects exactly what kind of lion sits on the other side of the lens.

IMG_0623The other part of framing is what is shown and what is not. What’s on the other side of these irises? You’ll never know!

I am fascinated by what we choose and do not choose to show in our stories and how that translates into the tales we tell.


I enjoy playing with framing in my own writing, although I can promise that all lions are portrayed at an accurate level of threat. If you would like to see for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

All the Orphans

One of the things that most concerns me when I read Fantasy literature is the dreadful spread and contagiousness of Orphanus Maincharacterus. I have been half-tempted at certain points to look and see if there are fundraisers to prevent the tragic removal of every parental or family figure of a person who is about to star in a Fantasy series.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a tragic backstory. Often these stories use these backstories as a way to explain the shaping of the main character’s goals and dreams.

The problem is that often this feels like an emotional shortcut rather than a fully-fleshed characterization decision.

If these characters had adopted families or circles of family-like friends, then the character development would seem more well-rounded.

Unfortunately, this trope is often paired with a hermetic seal around close personal connections and the main character will start the story without any deep family connections at all.

This puzzles me because familial interaction is one of the richest, most diverse sources of plot inspiration and interaction.

We love our families and sometimes we hate them too (and no, our father doesn’t have to be Darth Vader for this to be true). They shape us and we shape them in a way that is difficult for others to approach, because for most of us, we’re connected to them for the rest of our lives.

We can grow closer and we can drift apart, but they are part of a bond that is hard to forget and almost impossible to completely break.

What I see in the abundance of orphans that I read (and yes, other genres do this too, but Fantasy seems to do this so much more), is the desire to have a main character with a completely blank slate.

No previous ties, no complicating connections, no inconvenient character-shaping except from loss and grief.

I like complications.

I like characters who didn’t spring, fully-formed, from a dark void somewhere in the Land Before the Story Started.

I like characters that walk into the story full of love and frustration and terrible conversations that only other family members understand.

There is a purity to the Hero’s Journey that erases everything except the Hero’s motivation and talents and ability to pull themselves up completely by their own bootstraps without any pesky past connections aiding or blocking them.

But there is something lovely and messy and real about characters that are part of a larger social and familial web that shows its influences in the path the story takes.

There is no need to eliminate the Tragic Backstory entirely from works of fiction.

But if all the fantasy cities are full of orphans and only children, perhaps it is time to investigate whether this a kingdom not of magic, but of cliches.

IMG_0813Let a thousand orphans bloom! Just be wary of creative rot.

I am fascinated by how we do and do not write write about our families.


 

Family, in its various blood and not-blood forms is a large part of my story-telling. If you would like to see how I handle it in my own writing, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

I was also alerted to a lovely little review of “The Guests of Honor” available over here. One of the things that makes me happiest as a writer is when people have fun with my story. If you are someone who is interested in a thoughtful discussion of what worked and didn’t work for a reader of my story, please check out My Little Book Blog’s review.

A Curious Mind

Stories come from people who ask questions.

If the world is solved and wrapped in a neat, bow-tied package, there is no need to add new conversations. If we already know everything there is to know and have traveled every pathway there is to travel, then why would we try to search out what we have not already experienced and commit it to words?

Now, this is a ridiculous exaggeration and certainly, there are stories that are told and re-told over and over again.

But any story that is not a direct repeat of the one before it came from finding some way to slide or shift or look beyond what was already there.

Stories come from people who ask questions.

What would “happily ever after” look like for a cowboy and a hard-nosed single mother?

What would happen to our society if nobody could sleep?

What would a world where dragons were tools of war look like?

How could a cat find happiness with an owl?

Stories are about answering questions, conscious or unconscious, and creating more in the process.

As a reader, I love asking questions.

Every new story I walk into has so many possibilities and directions and I am eager to see what shape the writer creates from their initial question.

My problem is that, sometimes, I think that writers forget that the root of our desire to read and explore is curiousity, is that insatiable need to poke at mysterious objects with sharp sticks until they reveal their secrets.

It is not that there is not comfort in tried and true formulas, skillfully executed.

It is that sometimes I think that there is such an overwhelming rush to get to the answer of the initial question that the world the question inhabits is left as pieces of stage scenery being carted about by grumpy extras.

There’s no need to fill in every background detail and piece of the surrounding universe (that has its own set of terrible problems)!

But sometimes I wish that more writers would leave hints of a world that is doing its own thing outside of the central story, continuing in its own pathways and mysteries, while the story takes place within it.

It takes a question to begin a story.

Our minds do not become uncurious because we are following that question to its conclusion.

I can only hope that more writers will leave some of those other questions sitting quietly to the side, a gift for those who wish to ask and answer questions of their own.

IMG_0794It’s nice to have a path to follow but even nicer to have other paths running alongside

I love creativity and curiousity in equal measure. I can only hope to encourage more explorations of both in the works I read.


If you’d like to see my own sets of answered and unanswered questions, you can read my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

Slipping Into Our Skin

I re-read a favourite story recently.

My life is often a perfect wave of chaos, but as soon as I turned to the first chapter, I could feel my heart rate slow and my breathing even.

There are a few of these stories that I read time and again. As I think about them, I realize that they don’t have a lot of commonalities in terms of genre or tempo. Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” is on that re-read list but so is Roger Zelazny’s “A Night in the Lonesome October” and the collected works of James Herriot and Basho (Separately. Not together. Although that would be very amusing.).

I know that it’s a lot less complicated for other people when it comes to what is or is not a favourite. Often it is a specific genre that feels like coming home when we open the book and it is what we consider the best books in that genre that become our favourite re-reads.

Because this is not how my brain works, I’ve been forced to think a lot harder about what it is that draws me back to a story.

I read a lot.

Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual-audio experiments – I read them all.

But there are definite books that I return to, that feel like I am slipping into my own skin when I move through those pages.

I have things that I know draw me into a story. Specific types of characterization, plot, and style will engage and hold my interest. But even stories that deliver perfectly on the things that I know I want won’t necessarily draw me back to re-read the book.

I’ve thought about this and tried to articulate what brings that sense of familiarity and joy when I re-read old favourites.

The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that it is an underlying generosity of spirit within both the characters and the writing.

Other works of Austen’s irritate me with some of their characterizations, but “Persuasion” is remarkably empathetic in how it handles its heroes and its villains. There is an understanding of people and the world that shapes them that I think was a lot less overtly written in her earlier stories.

I won’t turn this into a literary critique, but as I look through my list of re-readables, the underlying spirit of respect for the characters and the world they inhabit leaps out at me. It is easy enough to mock or to villainize, but I feel most comfortable in stories where there is a level of understanding extended, even to the least and worst of their inhabitants.

I know that there are different things that draw people back to stories, time and again.

For me, it has been an interesting discovery that I am most comfortable in a borrowed skin if it is one that is shared with generosity and respect.

IMG_0706Vets, dogs, and naval intrigue – my favourite stories are all about being comfortable in one’s own skin

I’m always interested to track what catches my own attention and brings me comfort. It’s interesting to see how that matches up with other people’s experiences.


I’m always interested in writing with respect and empathy. If you’d like to see whether or not I succeed, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

 

The Moment of Truth

I love plots.

In my day-to-day life, give me a straightforward existence. In my stories I want meaty, complex, intertwining puzzle pieces that build towards a breath-taking reveal.

The problem is that there are very few reveals that can support the strength of the plotting that came before them.

When I reach the part of the story that promises to explain all that has come before, my nervousness starts to ratchet upwards. I so badly want to be dazed and awed, but often I’m just left dazed and feeling vaguely cheated.

I’ve thought about this, as someone who finds joy in fully immersing myself in the worlds I am privileged to visit.

Surely a lackluster solution can’t take away the hours of enjoyment I’ve spent tracing the threads that lead to this climax?

And yet…

“The moment of truth” is seen as a groan-worthy cliche, but I think it captures the heart of the problem arising from poor plot solutions.

As readers, we work hard to build on the skeleton provided by a writer. With our own lives, our own thoughts, our own dreams and nightmares, we flesh out the words on the page into a living universe that we absorb as we read.

No writer, no matter how great or talented, is going to be able to cover all of those little universes contained in the minds of thousands of readers. Just like great horror suggests rather than shows outright, allowing you to build your own nightmares, great puzzles use your own assumptions against you. Great plots expect you to build your own worlds and your own interpretations of the actions and both incorporate and play against those visions in your head.

Here’s the problem.

The solution ends those games.

The solution is where we are finally able to see the writer’s truth of the heart of the story.

There are few writers whose truths can stand against a thousand fleshed and coloured worlds.

The stories whose solutions I have loved understand this and their truths are built into the marrow of the worlds they create. The great solutions are those that respect the visions of the readers because their core is at the base of the worlds they have built.

No matter how many disappointing endings I read, I am still excited to see stories brave enough to attempt difficult and intricate complications.

I only hope as I turn the page that they have given me the bones I need to build a compatible world.

IMG_1856What we build with should be able to withstand the storm of interpretation

I love plot and how much of its interpretation is a complicated dance between the reader and the writer.


 

My Grand Reveal still has four books to go. If you’d like to see my own building bones, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

Can You See What I See?

When I read fairy tales, I wanted to be the dragon.

Even in the watered-down versions I read before I found the real stories, the knights and princesses seemed to be made of very thin cardboard and so remote that it was hard to care about their lives or dreams.

The dragons, at least, were understandable.

Plus, they could fly.

I’ve heard more than one interview with an author or the creator of a successful television or movie franchise where they remark in bewilderment that they have no idea why their consumers are so much more drawn to their villains than their heroes.

There are many reasons for this, starting and ending with what we like to write not necessarily being what people like to read.

I want to talk about dragons.

See, the thing is that most of those knights and princes and princesses were saying the lines that the story thought they should say rather than what a living, breathing person would actually say in the situations they faced.

Now dragons, dragons seldom spoke in those stories.

When they did speak, it was for important things: death, valuables, flying about terrorizing the countryside.

I didn’t have to agree with what the dragon wanted, but I could understand it. Their desires were clear and obvious, backed by their words and actions.

Now the rest of those characters…

While being a hypocritical muddle or a walking morality play is true to many real-life people and situations, it is a lot less fun to follow as a perspective.

Creating an ‘evil’ character allows room for charisma, for showy depth of characterization.

Creating a ‘good’ character seems to strait-jacket the ability of the character to find their own feet and voice beyond what the story needs them to say.

The thing is, many good characters are blind to the destruction they leave in their wake. The story needs them to get from Point A to Point B but very little time is spent on the price of that movement. We do not always consciously acknowledge this hypocrisy, but it often becomes hard for us to empathize with those who show little empathy themselves.

The evil characters at least have actions consistent with their perspectives.

When I read about princes bravely charging towards the dragon, their lances upraised, it was hard to forget the villages they had destroyed on their way to their destiny.

When I read about dragons, I thought about what the world looked like when you could fly so high that the petty concerns of everyone else faded into tiny pictures on the ground.

(Really, most problems could be solved by giving heroes more flying sequences.)

(Get on that.)

IMG_9248We like to look up. Be willing to help us look down.

I have many thoughts about the higher connection with villains than heroes. Here are a few of them.


I have a few ways I’ve tried to handle the normal hero/villain dichotomy. If you’d like to see my attempts, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.