Thursday, April 29, 2010

Who is Robin Hood!

Who is Robin Hood? One of the books I’ve been researching for takes place in the late thirteenth century and has (theoretically because I can never say exactly where a book will go) quite a bit of Robin Hood in it, so this is a question I need to answer. I will not ask myself who WAS Robin Hood. Robin Hood WAS (if he even existed) some poor bloke who stole in order to survive. He might have been noble. He could have been driven to it by the injustice of feudalism. He may even have lived during the reign of Ceor de Lion. We’ll never know. Whoever that man was he has evolved into something so much bigger, so much vaguer and so much more true since his death. He has become a legend.

Legends evolve. They are retold so many times, collecting new details and shedding others that no one remembers where they came from or which of the details are fact.

I say fact, not truth. All legends are true in some way or another. Sometimes truer than fact. Legends are in many ways the personification of truths (oh yes, I’m very big into metaphysics. You’re just gonna have to get used to it). They tell us about their storytellers if nothing else. Studying the evolution of Robin Hood I have watched him go from bold but violent yeoman to disinherited nobleman to champion of the people to champion of the king. It all depends on who is telling the story.

Many things have become “Robin Hood” from mere repetition. One storyteller added in a detail and the others liked it and used it again. Listeners grew used to hearing it and it became part of the hero’s tradition. It has become a trend with recent authors get rid of these traditions in order to make the character seem more “real” or “fresh”. I do not like this trend.

The reason we are still telling stories about Robin Hood seven hundred years after his (possible) death is as difficult to pin-point as the man himself. Because he defied authority? Because he was noble at heart? Because he represents a kind of hope for the oppressed? Who knows? Perhaps simply because he can be so ambiguous. Nothing about him is set in stone and yet there are traditions that have become a part of his legend. We hear of a bugle horn sounded in Sherwood and know that he will be along soon. We see some greedy merchant from Nottingham set off down the road and know what his fate will be. True, it is predictable but it is part of the life of Robin Hood that he breathes on his own even without a story to place him in. Deliberately pulling away from these images seems to take some life out of the legend. When we retell his story we are not simply retelling one man’s story. We are retelling thousands of people’s stories as they told them from generation to generation.

So who is Robin Hood? I have no idea. He can’t be everything that legend calls him. A yeoman and a disinherited lord? A man who lived during the reign of King Edward (which ever one) and King Richard? He married the shepherdess Clorinda? He married the queen of the May games? He worked for the king of the fairies? He is loyal to the king? He leads a rebellion? I must choose which traditions work best for my story.

Does that mean I am doing the same thing as all those “modern authors” who so annoy me? Will the legend be shedding other people’s stories in order to make way for my own? Will he even be “Robin Hood” at all or just some new character with the same name? I guess the only question I can really ask is who Robin Hood is to me. I can hope some residue of the legend still clings to my version but I can’t tell everyone’s story.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser . . .

This is the “Wonderland” garden display my cousin designed.

Complete with mystical doorway, chessboard tiles . . .

A mad tea set and the pig who used to be the Duchesses’ baby . . .

And magical mushrooms.

I can almost see the white rabbit poking its head out at me.

I love plants. I love the way they are always changing and give us air for every bit they take. I love the way they can make things better simply by being there. The way they seem to slow life down a little. There is a Chinese proverb. “If you have two loaves of bread sell one and buy a lily.” I may just be insane enough to sell my first loaf of bread for a lily –or African violet, or camellia or iris or ivy vines or fern . . .

I love the way the gateway between worlds seems to open up when I am standing in a garden. Suddenly anything is possible. My imagination is awake and I am ready to listen, to breathe, to create. I love the way something small becomes something alive and so much bigger than you ever thought it could be. I love the taste of life that you can’t quite place, can’t quite touch and can’t quite see.

So I guess I’m feeling inspired.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Entmoot

I take a long time to write. Well I guess I take a long to do everything. I once told my ten year old brother who was flabbergasted that I was driving slow that one of the key points in understanding me was that I am ‘NOT IN A HURRY’. Ever. I’m like an Ent. I never do anything unless it is worth taking a long time to do. Sometimes this is good. Sometimes it is not.

The manuscript I am working on now I have been working on for four years. Only the last two have I been serious about it but still, that is a very long time. I look on those who whip out a first draft in a matter of weeks or even months with a certain pang of envy. How do they do it? I start feeling accomplished if I can crank out a scene a day. Not two or three chapters.

I’ve experimented with trying to speed my work along, telling myself that I wasn’t taking it seriously enough or I was being lazy. It didn’t work. I would start writing and change my mind on what the scene was about half way through. I would write a chapter and realize after I’d already printed it that, that was not at all how it actually happens. I know I can always go back and change things after I’ve completed a draft but how can I build on a story if I haven’t got the beginning right? It didn’t work for me. I need to let each scene breathe a little before moving on. The story has to have time to fester inside my brain before it can come out right.

I write slow. Does that mean my first drafts have less flaws in them than those who write fast? Maybe. I don’t think so. I still see plenty of revisions that need to be made and the second draft isn’t particularly fast either. I see days and days ahead of me, letting my story sink into the cracks in my head as I get to know every corner of it. It will be a long time before it is ready.

Oh well. I am not in a hurry.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Beauty Spots

Sometimes when I read other people's writing and then they read mine I am surprised that they like it. I see their work and make a comparison and its not even close. Comparison is almost always a bad idea. I've been over my work a hundred times trying to make it perfect and I see confused plotting and unclear character development, chaotic blocking and those annoying little typos that I was sure I'd cleared out. I see imperfection. I am aghast. But that is not necessarily what my readers are going to see.

Think of it like the wrinkles or zits (depending on your age I guess) we often obsess over on our faces. Our flaws and imperfections always seem obvious to us because we are so close to them but even if we forget to rub ourselves down with lotions for a day no one is going to say "Oh my God, look at those bags under that woman's eyes". They probably won't even notice them but if they do it won't be such a big deal. They don't expect the same kind of perfection we do from ourselves. In fact in the case of a mole or one eye a little higher than the other our imperfections might even be what people find attractive about us. They are the beauty spots that make us unique.

So obsess over your imperfections. (in writing that is. I'm not about to condone obsessing over your appearance)Get rid of those punctuation mistakes and plot holes and clumsy dialog but also remember that you will never reach perfection. You don't have to. If you compare your work to other people's you're not letting your story speak for itself and your mistakes may even be a part of what makes your writing beautiful in the first place.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

"A Double Life"

Last night I finished reading "A Double Life", a collection of five short stories by Louisa May Alcott that were published under a different name during her life time because of their content. They are thrillers or "Blood and Thunders" which happen to be one of my favorite kinds of book.

Most literary critics consider these stories drivel. She pumped them out for various magazines because that was what sold and didn't even put her name to them. What is typically regarded as her serious work are her children's stories, particularly "Little Women". Because it was based on her life as a child "Little Women" is said to reveal the true Louisa May Alcott.

There is another school of thought however that says her thrillers, with all their on stage murders and and barbarian princes, reveal the darker side of her that was suppressed by Victorian society. After all, "Little Women" was never her idea. It was written on commission at the suggestion of her publisher. (So was "A Long and Fatal Love Chase" which is probably my favorite of hers) So which was the real Louisa?

Probably both. Some prefer her more innocent realism stories while other prefer her darker sensational tales. The point is Louisa May Alcott wrote for money. Does that mean she was never a real artist? Is everything she ever wrote crowd pleasing drivel with no other purpose?

I choose to think not. She wrote some things I really enjoy. The concept of the author's deep inspiration and intense attachment to their work is inspiring but perhaps it is asking little too much. In the end it is the result that matters and a true craftsman can make even their most detached assignments writhe with inspiration.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Re-incarnation Through Reading

Forgive me for going a bit mystic on you for a moment. It will connect, I promise.

Earlier this week I watched a documentary on Buddha. One of the things they talked about was finding enlightenment from all the lives we live through re-incarnation. I don't exactly believe in re-incarnation and I'm not about to convert to Buddhism but somehow the thought stuck with me. In it I found an answer to a question I have been asked over and over.

Why do we read? Why do we write?

There have been many answers suggested by various sources and I have tried all of them on for size, never quite feeling like I've got it right.

The answer most often given is escapism. We use books to transport us to another world when we find we can't quite cope with this one. This is a stigma attached especially to fantasy junkies like myself.

"We Read to know that we are not alone" (this one is from my old friend C.S. Lewis). We Read to see that others experience the same joys and sorrows and confusions that we do.

Literature has been described as a mirror, reflecting reality.

Literature has been described as a light, inspiring us to change reality.

Probably the closest I've come to the answer is Dickens' concept of "Mooreeffoc" ("Coffee room" backwards) of using literature to see reality in a new way.

Here is my new answer:

We read to come to terms with ourselves. To seek enlightenment.

Think of every book we read as another life we live. Re-incarnation if you will.

It is an answer that is almost not an answer because it encompasses all the others.

It is escapism because we must step outside of what we perceive as ourselves to partake of this other life.

Through this experience we do learn that we are not so very unique in our struggles. That we are not alone.

We see the reflection of new pieces of reality that we might not have otherwise noticed.

We see light we never imagined the the visions of others


we emerge back into our reality, seeing it in a different way.

We are closer to knowing ourselves.

Of course sitting down to a cozy mystery or romance might not always seem like a path to enlightenment. The effect will usually be much more sudden than ant kind of epiphany but emerging yourself in someone else's world for a period of time will help you find piece in your own world. Just make sure you always know how top come back.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Narrative Summery. Friend of Foe?

It would be impossible to tell a story entirely in real time. My current manuscript is well over 120,000 words as it is. If I wrote out everything scene by scene I would never have time to finish it and I don't think anyone would want to read a book that long anyways. Most books have portions of narrative summery that only last a page or two but convey the events of weeks or even months to link important scenes without loosing stride in the prose. For some reason I am unable to do this. My narrative summery always goes too fast when I read it back. That inner voice that had been instilled in me since who-knows-when starts screaming "Don't tell your reader that the next few days passed slowly. Show it." and though my conscious mind realizes that that would be a bit extreme --I mean honestly, who wants to read days passing slowly in real time? --I can't seem to shake the niggling. I always want to add a few more details. And then a just a few more. And then --well it might as well be a scene now anyways right? The manuscript grows thicker. The plot starts to get off track. I find myself explaining rules to a card game that was supposed to be there only so my characters had something to do with their hands while they talked . . .

The closest I have been able to come up with as a solution has been to cut straight to where the action starts to pick up again and stop for a paragraph or two after I've set the scene to fill the reader in on what's been going on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It may just be that my writing style does not pair well with narrative summery. Or that I have not yet accumulated the skills.

Monday, April 5, 2010

I Write Genre Fiction

I am not William Faulkner. I am not Earnest Hemmingway. I am not George Eliot or Nathanial Hawthorne or John Updike. I am not even Tolkien. My work is not groundbreaking or profound or particularly original. I write fantasy adventures novels.
For some reason this is a hard concept to get across in casual conversation. When I tell people I've been working on writing a book (well more than one really) I always get a reaction like I'm especially clever or deep and I feel like I'm misrepresenting myself.
It also doesn't help that my current novel project is hard to sum up into a sentence. (OH how I am dreading summarizing it into a query) The best I can come up with is "There is this three way war and it follows the lives of six characters who want to be friends with their political enemies" which sounds like its some kind of WAR AND PEACE which it is not.
Its not that pieces of my personal philosophy don't find their way into my stories or that I don't dig as deeply as I can into the characters and cultures I use but I don't have any great concept to get across to the the world. I don't feel I have to. I love stories. I love experiencing things through my imagination and getting into the heads of other people. I love the world of 'What if'. I won't pretend my manuscripts can do anything more than entertain. They are stories. Nothing less, but nothing more.
Still, the words 'novelist' and 'book' and 'manuscript' have an unaccountably impressive ring to people who don't write. Is there a way I can convince them that genre fiction (at least what I write. I do not mean to malign anyone else's writing)is not really such a grand thing?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Review

And not after all that anticipation I bring to you my very important opinion of the book Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whelan Turner.

It was great.

Oh, wait, you want more specifics? Are you sure about that you could be opening a never ending gush here. OK. Specifics it is. Without spoilers. O dear. I shall try.

As usual for Megan Whelan Turner there are a lot of things that aren't stated outright in the narration but are revealed later. For example that one significant detail in Sophos's dreams and what he plans to do at his final confrontation with his would be usurpers. Most of them are pretty easy to guess at though. There isn't any "OH MY GOD WHAT!?!!" moment of revelation but it is still fun to be kept on your toes and be left to figure things out for yourself.

Sophos's character was a very interesting perspective to see the story from. He's much more honest than Eugenides for one thing --though one might argue not quite as clever. But not to be underestimated either. In the space between this book and The Thief --the last time we saw Sophos (or should I be calling him Sounis?)--and even more during the course of Conspiracy of Kings he goes through a lot of changes. There is no mistaking him for the same boy who slept late and let Gen steal his food but he also becomes quite fierce. On more than one occasion he is called 'lion'. He still blushes. I love that he still blushes. It is a true mark of Turner's genius that she is able to grow him up without loosing that sweet self-conscious boy that he was. It is the extreme contrast of him being entirely one thing but also entirely the other that makes him such a multi-layered human being, struggling through different stages of his life. I think this contrast in identity is what makes all her characters seem so real instead of characterized plot points.

The book is partly told in first person and partly in third. I love how the voice is so different for both but also consistent for Sounis' (shall I call him Sounis now?) character. Turner is not afraid to play with the format but the switching of narrative isn't a gimmick either. It contours to the needs of the story. In the beginning if we have been reading the other books we want an immediate connection with Eugenides and even promise of the role he's going to play before we're ready to plunge into what has been happening to Sophos -sorry I mean Sounis-- all this time. There are also some things that need to be to be expressed from inside the minds of other characters toward the middle of the story. Having him relate where he has been to another character is the obvious solution.

The story is exciting and intriguing and it ends happily (oops is that a spoiler?) but even though Sophos gets everything he's after I'm left feeling a little sad for him. He's just so convenient to everybody. His dad, Eugenides, the magus, Edis. They don't ask him if he wants to do things for them. He does of course but they don't ask. I don't know what that will do to their relationships in the next books. (there are supposed to be two more but, alas Ms. Turner takes so long to write her books)

In conclusion. Read this book. It is fabulous.