Laugh While You Can

Reblogged from Way Too Fantasy:

For those of you that haven’t read the book, you probably think I’ve just described the plot of an interesting bit of contemporary fiction, something that may not win awards, but will be a night’s or a week’s entertainment. For those of you who have, you know. Describing this book this way is like if I reviewed that famous Hitchcock film by saying “It begins when a woman wants to run off with her boyfriend and embezzled money from her work. On the road, she gets second thoughts, and after a pleasant meal and a conversation with the nice, mild-mannered motel proprietor, decides she’s going to go back home and return the money. But first, she’s had a hard day, so a shower seems like a good idea…”

Rest of the post here:

 

What Comes to the Surface, Part 1

All of these blurbs and bits are things that come to mind while I work on other stories. Some are quotes from other people; some are my own.

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, and prejudices — to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own – for the children… and the children yet unborn.” — Rod Serling, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”

All you know of a person’s identity is what he or she tells you. That goes for yourself, too.

“I hope life isn’t a big joke, because I don’t get it.” — Jack Handey

No matter what you write, someone will get offended by it. And if you go out of your way to not offend anyone, I’ll probably get offended.

The terrible things we get up to while trying to prove something to someone could fill a book. Wait… they already do.

 

 

The Best Haunted House Novel?

Reblogged from Way Too Fantasy:

Here, nothing jumps out from a dark corner baring fangs and claws crusted with the blood and souls of your friends and takes you by surprise; by the time you’re this far into the story, it doesn’t need to. It can quietly sit next to you on your bed and wait for you to finish, because it already knows you’re lost.

Here, I talk about The Haunting of Hill House, which I still think is the top candidate for best haunted house novel.

The Detective with a Funny Hat

There’s a trope, a meme almost, found among editors and publishers. A writer has a story featuring a brand-new detective, in a mystery that he claims is unlike anything ever written. He sits down in front of his fellow writers and relates the plot of what is otherwise a standard, cliché-ridden mystery story. Finally, the editor cuts him off.

“What’s different about this story?”

Everything,” he says, breathlessly.

“Are you sure? You have a family locked in a mansion for the weekend. They can’t go anywhere. The crime is a murder by poison a third of the way through, and everyone hates the victim. The red herring claims he didn’t do it but wished he had, and he becomes a red herring halfway through, right on schedule. And the real killer was actually ‘helping’ the detective solve the crime. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story, mind you, but what’s different about it?”

“What, are you blind? The detective is wearing a funny hat.”

This has become shorthand in some writing circles for character traits that are just pasted on like they were cut out of construction paper and glued to the guy at the last moment. These traits don’t actually affect anything in the story, but the author, and some readers, are convinced that everything is all that much more different because of the funny hat. Or suspenders. Or whatever is added in an attempt to make the protagonist stand out from the crowd.

This shows up in fantasy fiction as well. You can almost see the gears turning in the author’s mind…

I’m tired of reading about farmboy protagonists who save the world. My character is a farmgirl.

There are too many stories about magic swords. Mine is about a magic morningstar.

Elves are always magical. I’m going to make the Dwarfs magical instead.

All of these could of course make an entertaining story, but only if the story is driven by these traits. If your character is an ambidextrous transexual Finnish stamp collector with a propensity for eating Fluffernutter sandwiches whilst riding a neon-plaid Vespa, that’s fine… but only if the ambidextrousness or transexualness or stamp collecting or other traits somehow affect his character and/ or the story. Otherwise, you’ve done nothing but take a stock character, make a beard out of cotton balls and construction paper, strung it on his face, and called him a brand-new creation. This is great for a grade-school play, but not so much for professional writing. Rather than make your story stand out, it showcases lazy character development and plotting.

Why am I bringing this up? Besides having it brought to my attention in a post by Lisa Richardson at Way Too Fantasy, this idea of using superficial changes to substitute for characterization has been on my mind ever since I first started fleshing out my stories and reading books as a writer and not only a reader. In today’s world of inclusiveness and diversity, it is easy to decide you need to flip a coin and randomly make one of your characters white, or Chinese-American, or gay, or black, or on the Autism Spectrum, or anything else that you feel will make your story appeal to a wide audience. This is even worse than giving your protagonist a weird hat. This is nothing more than pandering to a perceived notion that, say, readers of a certain group will more readily read something featuring a protagonist like them, without bothering to see if your character truly conforms to that particular group. It’s easy to take a sheet of stereotypes, cut out a mask in such a way that it doesn’t look stereotypical at first, and paste it on a character that is exactly like you or your friends.

As brought up in an excellent post on the Karavansara blog, there is a lot of diversity in the world already, if you look past the surface. The idea of a lily-white medieval Europe is either the product of a racist and/ or social Darwinist mind, or is something written by a politically correct diversity crusader who is convinced that Europe = White = Evil. But from the Caliphate in Spain to the Greek and Eastern Mediterranean colonies in southern Italy to the Asiatic and Turkic tribes in Hungary and Ukraine and the Baltic countries, Europe was anything but homogenous. Hell, Germany alone was made up of about seventeen thousand different kingdoms, each with its own culture and legends and folklore.

There are many ways to make your world diverse. Start by having at least the setting conform to the real world, and not just a surface impression of it. At some level, every character is a minority of one. Find out what drives that minority and you’ll have the seeds of a great story.

Disneyfucation

That’s not a typo.

I like to talk about seeing stories from a different point of view. This is not something I came up with, of course. Two books I read and fell in love with when I was much younger are John Gardner’s Grendel and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George.
And even when I was un piccolo bambino I found myself copying examples of switched viewpoints such as this classic Peanuts cartoon.

All of this has been in the forefront of the offices in my head because I’m writing a second draft of my version of a Disney story, one that is a relatively straightforward adaptation of a classic fairy tale. What surprised me while I was writing that story was that it really was a straightforward adaptation. That is not exactly par for the course for Disney movies anymore. Not that the classic Disney versions of other fairy tales were ever close to the source material (check out the Talking Cricket’s role in the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi… perhaps he should have wished upon that star a little harder, eh?) I remember being vaguely disquieted as a child when I read the original fairy tales and stories that Disney bowdlerized and sanitized, but since they occasionally produced a quality work of art (such as The Little Mermaid) I lived with it. All of this ended when The Hunchback of Notre-Dame came out in the mid-nineties.

The original novel by Victor Hugo is not as well-known in the US as Les Miserables, which is a shame since it’s just as moving and thrilling as that book, and at 500 pages, about the size of just one of the descriptions of what people shouted at The Battle of Waterloo (in the abridged Les Mis, of course…) Most of us these days only know the story from the various movie versions, and while many of them are  well-done, they don’t quite capture the power and pathos of the source material. Particularly misrepresented in many versions is the character of Phoebus. The novel has, of course, the hero, Quasimodo (who is also deaf, as were all bellringers in the days before ear protection), the villain, Claude Frollo (who is possibly one of the most despicable characters in French literature I’ve come across) and the beautiful wronged Gypsy woman, Esmeralda. And then there’s Phoebus.

In the book, Phoebus is best described as a weasel. Like Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, he doesn’t have the cojones to truly be a bad guy. He does bad things in a moment of weakness and either doesn’t own up to them, or blames his weaknesses, or blames other people for not taking his weaknesses into account. Phoebus, however, is so much more painfully well-wrought than Dimmesdale is. No other character in literature filled me with such pathetic disgust like he did. When people talk about what they would do if they could magically travel inside one of their favourite books and meet its characters, I don’t think of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or Winter’s Tale, or any of the “Black Company” books, or even hanging out in a tavern in Lankhmar with the Grey Mouser and his companion. I think of how sweet it would be to step inside 15th Century Paris, find Captain Phoebus, and just smack the everloving shit out of him. No character deserves it more than he does.

So fast-forward to the mid-nineties, when I see a trailer for the Disney movie. True, I’d been a little disappointed with Pocahontas, (who wasn’t?) but the movies that Disney had been putting out since 1989 (The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) were stunning enough for me to look forward to what they were going to do with perhaps my favourite French Gothic novel. And then I saw a toy commercial for the movie, and amidst the other plasticized characters, the announcer pointed out “Brave Phoebus.”

Brave Phoebus.

This was a character that perhaps caused most of the bad things in the novel to happen, was too weaselly to do anything about it, and still somehow came out ahead in the end.

Of course, the little cynic that I keep locked in a trunk in the back of my head piped up, “Well, of course they had to make him the hero. God Forbid they make a hero out of the ugly deaf guy. I mean, really… what would that teach our children?”

I’ve never seen any direct evidence that that was the direct cause of Phoebus’ transformation but everything else that Disney’s done since then (like Merida‘s makeover from self-sufficient warrior tomboy to glamourized, sexualized, properly keeping to her own place Disney Princess) hasn’t disproved my hypothesis.

This is why us writers and artists and creators need to produce quality stories about quality people, adults and children. Real people. Warts and body odor and clumsiness, along with accidental good deeds, kind eyes, and a way of occasionally doing the right thing. (The cynical movement in literature and film is just as naïve and detached from reality as the Polyanna-esque ‘everything is sunshine and rainbows and unicorn farts movement.) Even though it may be one day Disneyfuc’d into something barely resembling its origin, the stories need to be there. And once the story’s out there, flip it over and tell it from another point of view. Or tell it backwards. Or tell a realistic version of a magical tale or vice-versa. The slippery plastic sheen of homogenous popular culture may always be more visible, but people are always willing to dip beneath it for the good stuff, if you give them a reason to.

Antisociology 1

“Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” — Douglas Adams

Writers write about people. Sure, the main subject may be a time machine or a dragon or Siberia, but first and foremost, they write about people. In order to write about people, they must know people, meet people, talk to people. They must learn people. In addition to being a student of their craft, they must be a student of the culture, and maybe of all cultures.

Writing is solitary. Writers can’t talk to others, can’t be disturbed, can’t work in groups. Sure, editing can be done in groups, but the actual work of writing must be done in a closed room, in a cell, pulling each word out after the other and spilling blood on the page. If a writer is in a room with other people, or a bar, or a coffeeshop, or on top of the Washington Monument, he must still be alone. Barriers go up when the notebook comes out. She can’t talk to anyone around her while she pushes the words out of her pen. Nothing can exist during the writing… if something else exists, the writing stops.

And herein lies the problem we face:  We have to be with people to write but we can’t write when we’re with people.

Grab a coffee. It’s going to be a long day.

Mrs Shaw

This is my newest published story, appearing for the next three months in Issue Three of Way Too Fantasy. I also have a serial in this issue, but I’ll talk about that more in another post. I’m actually really rather proud of this one. It’s a very close and personal story for me, and I wasn’t sure if I should publish it or not, but maybe some others, especially writers, can relate.

Yes, the title is a pun of sorts.

Fairy Tale Revisionism

I’ve always been a fan of these types of stories… books that claimed to tell the real story of the Three Little Pigs, Neil Gaiman’s hard-boiled (heh) detective story about Humpty-Dumpty, and so on. I even liked the dark ones, such as Tanith Lee’s excellent story, “The Reason for Not Going to the Ball.” But sometimes I wonder about re-revising these stories, and making them magical. Or what about turning the Internet’s endless supply of urban legends and “Friend-of-a-Friend” stories into a new collection of folk and fairy tales?

Once upon a time, my friend’s friend’s uncle’s roommate was riding in his carriage around the lake with his girlfriend. It was late, and even though the King’s crier had told everyone that a mad Ogre with a hook for a hand was roaming the countryside, he decided he wasn’t going to let that stop him from enjoying the evening…

I think a few of those might wind up on my “Fifty Stories” page…

 

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