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Archive for April, 2012

There’s something wonderfully comforting about knowing that Neil Gaiman is still up to form: happy and writing. It’s like knowing that the world still makes sense, and that over night it hasn’t become some dark unrecognizable thing. Everything around me keeps changing, I barely have a grasp on what I already know. I haven’t a clue what to do with myself most days and that truly scares me. I’m not sure what I can do to feel more certain of myself as writer, but at least I know that as long as the world still loves Gaiman, there’s a place for me in it.

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– An excerpt from a young adult fantasy novel I’m working on. –

            She could smell the grass, a light moist scent that drifted on the breeze. She could feel the humid earth between her fingers and the dampness of her clothes as they clung to her skin. She could hear the crickets and the frogs and the flutter of some distant bird taking flight. Fae’s eyes slowly opened as she pushed herself into a seated position, holding her head with one hand. She was in a moonlit clearing barely two spans wide, a small expanse of moss and earth amidst a dark and looming forest. Fae squinted up at the night sky. The full moon shone surrounded by a field of tiny bright stars that glowed like fireflies above a tranquil inky pond.

She knew she was no longer in Valley, she knew it the moment she could no longer smell the wisteria blooming, or hear the faint hum of cars driving down the interstate. She also knew because she could feel the humidity that hung in the air around her, she could feel summer for the first time in weeks. But she could also feel the storm on the winds, the unnatural twist of icy breath that would soon envelop this place.  Despite the heat, she shivered and reached to tighten her coat around her shoulders only to realize it was not there. She had left it back home, wherever home was.

Something howled in the darkness and Fae realized for the first time how exposed she was in this open space. She looked up at the sky; the stars were clustered in foreign constellations that she did not recognize. With nothing to lose, Fae picked out a star that she felt shone a little brighter than the rest and began to walk towards it. Clutching her brown canvas bag to her chest she ventured into the dark wood, stealing once last longing glance at the moonlit clearing before it was swallowed by the trees.

***

      Fae plodded through the dark undergrowth, her legs covered in small scrapes to the point that she no longer flinched when a protruding branch drew blood. She felt exhaustion weigh down her bones and humidity cloud her head. She had long since lost sight of the constellation that guided her, the feeble starlight lost behind a maze of dark twisting branches. She had contemplated turning around and heading back the way she came, but the howling had come closer, a blood thirsty wail that pressed her steps. Fae thought she heard something stalking her in the darkness, swift strides on the damp earth, a soft growl on the back of the wind.  She pressed forward, trying to mute her heavy panting breaths when she stumbled onto a narrow muddy path.

  She looked to either side, hesitating. Suddenly, the howling was upon her, so she veered left and instinctively began to run. She could hear padded feet running along each side of her, no longer worrying about stealth. Fae forced herself to look up at the sky, which was barely visible amongst the treetops. No moon shone down upon the beaten path to cast its pale glow and dispel the darkness around her. Her chest heaving, Fae looked behind her and to either side, but there was nothing there that she could see. But she heard them. Snarling and howling, calling one another to the hunt.  There was nothing she could do but keep running.

Then she tripped on a rut and slid head first into the muddy ground. Pain shot up her right leg as she pushed herself onto her knees; she heard howls erupt all around her. Pressing her hand against her throbbing ankle, she spun her head from left to right, but they seemed to come from everywhere at once. Dark figures darted in and out of sight, yellow glowing eyes peering from the darkness then were gone the next instant. Disoriented, she shut her eyes and tried to calm herself. The howling pressed closer, turning into snarls that dripped saliva and craved blood. She tried to slowly get to her feet but as soon as she put pressure on her ankle she collapsed onto her other knee with a cry. Then the howling stopped, and she heard a low growl that caused the earth to tremble.

Fae opened her eyes and saw a figure slowly creep out of the darkness ahead of her. It snarled, its jet-black fur spiked up at the ridge, streaks of silver gleaming as it moved. Its paws pushed down into the muddy earth, sizzling as the water beneath the pads of its feet evaporated into thin white steam. Fae looked into the wolf’s glowing yellow eyes and saw hunger. Her hand slid along the ground and found a thick jagged branch. Her fingers grasped it tightly as she slowly got to her feet again. Placing her weight on her good leg, she took an awkward step back as the wolf snarled. She wished she was home, she wished she had stayed in her warm bed with the covers drawn up against the unnatural cold. Instead she felt the hazy warmth of this foreign place. Instead her head swam, her ankle throbbed and her bones felt like led. Instead she was lost in a dark forest where the stars were strangers and the shadows were wolves.

The wolf-like creature bared its unnaturally long fangs, saliva dripping into a pool at its feet. She grasped the branch so tightly she could feel splinters pushing into her skin, but blood pumped in her ears and she payed no mind to the sharp pain. All she could see where the creatures yellow eyes, they seemed to flash with keen anticipation.  It lunged, and a scream caught in Fae’s throat as she threw up her arms to protect herself with the stake. She felt something fly by her ear and heard the wolf snarl furiously. She opened her eyes and saw an arrow sticking out of the wolf’s neck, dark purple blood dripping onto the muddy floor as it thrashed violently. Its yellow eyes fell on Fae, but as it was about to pounce another arrow shot from behind her and silenced it.

She stared disbelievingly at the dead wolf, which lay silently in a pool of its own sizzling blood, two arrow nestled deeply in its throat. She turned her head as three more creatures leaped out of the forest, bellies low to the ground and teeth barred. Two arrows shot simultaneously at the pack from the trees, but they leapt out of the way and in one fluid motion swiftly began running towards the source of the arrows. Another arrow shot out of the darkness, but the wolves weaved in and out of formation, easily evading it. They leapt towards the trunk of a large tree, a shaft suddenly piecing through the leaves pinning one of the wolves to the ground as it was in mid air. The other two sank their claws into the bark and began running straight up the trunk into the depths of the branches.

Fae hobbled off the muddy path and collapsed on the ground in a near by bush. She heard a yelp and turned to see a wolf break it’s back on a large branch before falling into a heap at the base of the trunk. Then someone leapt from the branches, still facing the tree as they landed in the mud using one hand to steady themselves. The other held a sword, the purple blood steaming against the cold metal of the blade.

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Recently, and by recently I mean my entire life, I’ve been having trouble sitting down and writing something that I consider to be truly meaningful. As a sarcastic misanthrope who prides herself on being able to observe the idiosyncrasies, shortcomings and hypocrisies of modern society, or a ‘writer’ in laymen’s terms, I was frustrated and traumatized by the reality that I could produce anything that sounded vapid, uninspired and worthless.  And yet here I am, now convinced that I’m a part of the same social mechanism I’ve spent the better part of my life attempting to mock with subtle wit. I idolize and pertain to understand great writers such as Gaiman, Vonnegut, Orwell, Salinger and Atwood, but sometimes I feel like I’m all show and no tell, like a fraud in my own skin, like I really don’t know anything at all. And maybe I don’t.

So it turns out that my life up till now has been a sham, I can’t write, I can’t produce a simply story. – Daria

Then, while watching an episode of one of my favorite shows Daria that happened to be airing on TV, I came across the root of my problem. It was the final episode of the second season entitled ‘Write Where it Hurts’ in which Daria is given an extra credit assignment that requires her to write a story with moral dimensions. Though an intelligent and witty character, Daria is unable to write something that she claims is ‘up to her standards’. During a conversation with her friend Jane, the existential problem of all writers emerged.

Daria: I can come up with all sorts of ideas, but none of them feels true.
Jane: Well, what’s your definition of true?
Daria: Something that says something.
Jane: What, anything?
Daria: No, something… about something

Jane: Let me get this straight: you're telling me you want to write something, not just anything, that says something about something.
Daria: Right.
Jane: Gee. Who'd ever believe you're having trouble communicating.

This is a spiky pit in which many writers find themselves at one point or another, impaled by their own self-inflated moral agenda. When we say that we want to write something meaningful, what do we even mean? How can we write without knowing what we want to write about, or better yet, without knowing why we even want or need to write it? All we know is that we want to say something… about something, but not just anything. Do we want to write something that will change the way people think or something that will turn society on its head as we pat our own backs in triumph exclaiming, “See! See what I did there! I’m better than the lot of you put together!”

My story sucks. Everything I do has already been done. I wanted to write something meaningful, I can’t write anything at all.

I feel that this is a problem that all writers, myself included, have faced or will face when trying to create meaningful works. We sit down with the idea in our head that whatever ends up on that page will be the greatest comment on modern society that has ever been, when really that just means that we are out to prove how much smarter we are compared to the rest of humanity. More often than not, we end up writing nothing at all, either because our attempts at meaning turn into self-opinionated bullshit or our fear of facing possible mediocre writing has left us frozen at the starting line. I’ve often felt discouraged at my own pending ineptitude.

Later in that same episode, Daria has another heart to heart with her mother, after a failed attempt by Helen to get closer to her daughter earlier that day. Once she actually understood Daria’s dilemma, she came up trumps with some extremely good advice.

Helen: Maybe you’re trying too hard, maybe you don’t have to write something meaningful, just something honest.
The easiest thing in the world for you is being honest about what you observe. What’s hard for you is being honest about your wishes, about the way you think things should be, not about the way they are.

We always tend to be critical and cynical about the world around us, but noticing that there are problems with the world isn’t something to feel smug about; everybody knows that humanity isn’t perfect. What’s hard is refraining from smoothing it over with derisive sarcasm, and genuinely saying what you truly feel about it, what you think will make the world a better place. We mustn’t forget that our desire to create meaningful literature stems from an honest aspiration to live in a better world, not a desire to be the best at pointing out the problems with it.  We point and laugh and criticize others, then, without doing anything at all to change things, we close our books, put down our pens and with a satisfying nod say: “All in a days work.”

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that satire, sarcasm and cynical wit can’t be good tools to use, nor am I saying that making people aware that there are problems or issues isn’t half the battle. I’m saying that writing for the sake of writing something meaningful is honest but ultimately worthless, writing something for the sake of being honest is what makes it meaningful.

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Her hand drifted aimlessly over the page, ink dripping down her finger and spattering in tiny droplets onto the floor. The unusual spring heat wafted in through the open window. She let the low drone of the city drift past her, drift far away. She signed her name, then carefully lay down the pen. Like a ghost, she glided to the open window. The dark edges of the sky bled into the distant twilight, the stars rendered invisible by the amber glow of the city lights. She let the lights blow past her eyes, until  they glimmered like flecks of color in a dark void. She smelled ashes on the wind. She thought of warm summer days and fireflies and the pale glow of the moon. She thought of spider webs and slender needles and dark winding hallways. Despite the stifling heat, she shivered as she grasped the casement with her frail hands, leaving smudges of black ink on the chipped white paint. She closed her eyes because she did not trust herself to look at the beauty of the world again.

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It has been a few days since my last post as I’ve spent the majority of my free time watching the latest episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones. George RR. Martin is one of the great fantasy writers of our time, but I was skeptical when I first heard that his acclaimed series was going to put on HBO. But after watching the first episode last year, I was hooked by the story all over again. Outstanding in nearly every respect, I can say little to disparage this captivatingly dark fantasy.

When I find a story as enthralling as this, I like to try and pick apart the pattern and find the threads that really tug at me. Most often, I discover that characters are at the other end. Characters such as Daenerys, Tyrion, Arya and Robb are, for me, the most relatable in the show up to date, and retain the perfect balance of internal growth and external action, which only makes their performances that much more remarkably evocative.

However, I’ve noticed that I learn nearly as much when studying characters that I utterly despise, which brings me to Joffrey Baratheon. Jack Gleeson was a perfect cast for this smarmy self-important twat who seems to do nothing but make me loath every single fiber of his being. He actually reminds me of Commodus from Gladiator, which remains one of my favorite films due largely in part to Joaquin Phoenix’ marvelously odious portrayal of the character. Though Commodus is considerably more calculating and intelligent than Joffrey, they both are infuriating, cowardly and bitterly sadistic. I did find Commodus to be a more of a well-rounded character as his greed, cruelty and hatred are balanced by desperation, anxiety and loneliness. He feels abandoned by both his father and his sister, who have chosen to deliver unto Maximus what Commodus believed to be his right, whether it be the Empire of Rome or simply their love and respect.

And just like Commodus, Joffrey is a pitiful character. We almost come to enjoy hating him. His mannerisms, his speech, his smug little smile, all seem to make you want to throttle him.  I believe that any character that can rouse such sentiments in a viewer or reader is a successful one, even if he is a sniveling spoiled brat like Joffrey. These types of characters push you to root for the protagonist, to invest in the crisis of the story, and to revel in their inevitable downfall.  But they also exist to show the viewer a side of human nature that is forcibly repressed.  The fact of the matter is that Joffrey is a product of his parents twisted sense of self-importance. We hate him because we hate the idea that such appalling qualities could reside within us all. As a writer, we must be able to create characters so abhorrently vile that we cringe every time we write them onto the page. A nameless evil that threatens the realm is all well and good, but a revoltingly pompous little shit is so much more satisfying to squash.

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I think that every writer has a compendium of works that they would prefer never to see the light of day. A hidden trove of half finished novels, embarrassingly bland poetry and plotless short stories that remain untouched since youth. I for one was a spirited writer when I was younger. I remember propping my binder up in 7th grade social studies to hide the stack of loose leaf papers on which my furious scrawl expounded stories of fearsome dragons, time shifting amulets and ancient prophecies. I was consumed.

While my teachers thought I was taking notes, I filled binders and notebooks with character sketches, chapter outlines and story research. I believed, like I’m sure many writers did at that age, that I would be the youngest person to have written such a captivating fantasy. So confident was I in my writing that I never stopped to second guess myself. All that mattered was getting my ideas out on paper before my fickle adolescent mind moved on to the next. Don’t get me wrong; upon re-reading it today I see how juvenile my writing really was. Horrendously childish dialogue, unabashed character exposition and a staggering amount of run on sentences that would make Robert Jordan’s head spin. I kid you not, the first sentence of my novel was:

Cling Clang, the clash of dueling swords echoed through the empty corridors of Providence Academy.

Indeed I have shown you a glimpse of my embarrassing past, now please keep it to yourselves! 😉 I can only classify my youthful exploits as cliché-ridden drivel, a shameless amalgamation of every fantasy, psi-fi and supernatural story I had every read, watched or heard. But despite all this, there was a hint of something that was irrefutably mine. A voice, amidst that of my literary idols, that could be none other than my own wild imagination running free across the page. I think that writing contained more of myself, with my imperfections and flaws bumbling up as grammatical chaos.

A writer is a whirlwind of thoughts, feelings and opinions that soar freely in our boundless imagination. As we mature, we learn to contain it within grammatical structures and story guidelines. But in our fervent search for some all-inclusive formula for success, we forget the roots of our own imaginations. We forget how to be spontaneous, and wild and outrageously childish. In turn we lose sight of who we really are, of what drives us to sit down and write until our fingers are smudged with lead. A writer must find that inner self, and never let it go.

Now, I think twice before I put something down on paper, I re-read and re-type every single sentence. I put so many limitations on my imagination. I look back to my 13 year old self, hunched over my desk, writing as fast and my pencil could form the letters, and wonder how it must have felt to have nothing to fear.

Calvin and Hobbes

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“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things.” – Neil Gaiman

In my opinion Character is the most important aspect of any story. The main character is the person with whom the reader/viewer can identify and follow throughout the course of the narrative. The story’s meaning is created by the character’s reaction to the events of the story and by how the resolution of the conflict influences/reveals the protagonist’s ‘true character’.

But what is ‘true character’? It’s a character’s genuine nature, the essence of who they really are. The true purpose of Story is to reveal ‘true character’ by means of extreme pressure or crisis. The greater the stakes, the more true to character the reaction will be. It’s through this that the reader comes to understand what the writer is trying to say, what the significance of the story is in relation to the greater concepts in life. A writer must never simply tell the reader how to feel.

Usually when creating character, the author will write a character development sheet in order to visualize how that character will react or affect different situations. Story is a world of causality that centers around the actions and reactions between characters. The writer must attempt to know their character’s ‘true nature’ before the story even begins. But how can character be created or revealed without story? If a character is defined by what they say and what they do, then how can we define them before they have done or said anything at all?

I then thought of how we are defined by our actions, and how our lives are given meaning by what we do. What meaning has the story of my life taken? What’s my ‘true character’? I used a typical character development sheet to evaluate my own self-image, my own nature. The experience of self-reflection is one that I would recommend to all writers. Though you don’t attain some greater knowledge of self that reveals the meaning of your life, it does help in understanding how your personality was created by your actions, and visa versa. It’s great source work for any good character. Just because a character is an artificial construct you’ve created, doesn’t mean that the feelings the reader experiences due to their actions aren’t genuine and real.

When writing always keep in mind that a character’s purpose is to reveal the meaning of the story, a writer’s purpose is to tell that story. 

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