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Category Archives: Classics

Pilgrimage, Heroic Fantasy, and Robin Hood

Pilgrimage, Heroic Fantasy, and Robin Hood

The difference between wanting to write and having written is…hard, relentless labour. It’s a bridge you have to build all by yourself, all alone, all through the night, while the world goes about its business without giving a damn. The only way of making this perilous passage is by looking at it as a pilgrimage. ― Shatrujeet Nath

What a pilgrimage it has been — and it’s far from ended.

I meant to write a blog post last month, or perhaps the month before, about the most influential character I ever encountered as a reader, and thought the character and the words would come pouring forth with ease.

I shoulda known better.

My imagination went into hiding, I seemed to forget every story I’d ever read, and all the words evaporated like summer rain in the desert.

HFQ 6x9 front cover ONLY-croppedAdd to that sudden betrayal by my brain the equally sudden request from my friends at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly: They’d finalized the stories and poems for their anthology, and were ready for me to do my part — design and format the book.

I’d been preparing for this event for about two years. It is one of several reasons I published Dragon’s Rook after almost throwing it away. Needing material on which to practice, I heavily revised the novel and restructured it, then learned how to format it for print and e-book, and then — with the artwork and cover design from a friend — published it independently. The experience and skills gained from that process has been put to excellent use in helping bring HFQ’s anthology to the public.

Words may have hidden from me, but book formatting is a different kind of creativity.There wasn’t much time to bemoan the lack of storytelling or blog posting — there was a cover to design, and text to manipulate, and fonts to sample. And a deadline to meet.

Still, I pondered which character(s) could be considered “the most influential”, but didn’t know the answer until it strolled onto the scene in a private message exchange on social media. A fellow writer said he was preparing to read my book, but had lost some of his enthusiasm for the genre.

There’s more to his message, and more to my reply, but this is the portion pertinent to this post:

(I)f you proceed, I hope you’re pleasantly surprised. People see swords and dragons, and they form opinions without knowing how those items are used in the story. Rather than being a Tolkien knock-off or a GRRM wannabe, Dragon’s Rook is its own thing.

Couldn’t duplicate GRRM or Robert Jordan or most others, even if I tried, because I’ve never read them. My reading is mainly in other genres — detective mysteries, for example.

The main stylistic influence is Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, a book which led to trouble one summer when I confessed to having read it x number of times and was about to read it again. Dad decided I needed to get out more, so he made my brother and me cut and haul pine on BLM land that needed to be cleared, and then we stacked it at our house in preparation for winter. (Yes, I have stories about stories.)

Bingo! Robin Hood! How did I not realize that before?

a photo of the rough front cover of my beloved Velveteen-Rabbit-ed copy (KB)

a photo of the front cover of my beloved Velveteen-Rabbit-ed copy (KB)

He isn’t the only character who has influenced my life once I read his/her story, but Robin i’ the Hood certainly had an impact on my plans that summer.

My dad meant to make me exercise and soak up sunlight, but he’s also the one who introduced me to this edition of the book, and he used to read portions aloud, so — loving it as he did — what did he expect but that I would love it, too?

I loved it so much, in fact, that the copy pictured here has begun to fall apart. Several years ago, I purchased a replacement copy — in much better shape, almost pristine — of this very same edition. It is the best, mimicking an illuminated text, and rich with color and action.

I’ve read other versions by other authors, but none beats Howard Pyle’s. It’s robust, full of humor and tragedy and exploits, and it fired my imagination until I composed pale imitations of the adventures of Robin and his merry band.

In seeking for something Robin-like, I stumbled upon other classic tales, such as Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel.

You guessed it. That book’s falling apart, too.

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How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

edited & reposted from Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I’ve been writing since I was nine or ten years old, and I’ve lost count of the writing conferences, seminars, and classes, and groups I’ve attended, but the greatest learning has come from the simple act of writing (and revising — a lot), and the best advice has come from sitting down and talking to other and better writers. Reading How to Write Your Best Story is rather like one of those conversations: down-to-earth, intelligent, understandable, and useful.

Shortly before publication, Philip Martin, a fellow writer and editor, asked me to read through the manuscript for How to Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale (128 pages, $14.95, Crickhollow Books).

My first conversation with Philip Martin was several years ago at a writers conference. I attended his session (I forget the topic), then asked him to autograph my well-read copy of his recent book, The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon’s Lair to Hero’s Quest, a Brothers Hildebrandt painting of Smaug on the cover, which just makes a good book that much cooler. I’m not usually the groupie / fanboy type, and I certainly don’t go around asking other folks for their autographs, but this time, it just seemed like the thing to do.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming. 🙂

HowToWriteYourBestStory“Never judge a book by its cover” is old advice that isn’t always true. After all, most of us have seen plenty of cheesy science fiction covers with awkward robots or scantily-clad alien women, or trashy romance novels decorated in shirtless men with impossible hair or women in torn bodices. We look at those covers, and we pretty much know what we’re gonna get. The whimsical cover art (by the late Marvin Hill) for How to Write Your Best Story is the reader’s first clue that the contents are written by someone who knows and appreciates a good story, and probably read his share of them.

What I like best about this book of advice is that it’s less about rules and more about principles of good storytelling:

Good storytelling exists in a world outside of formal structural elements of literature. It has intangible aspects, like a beautiful melody or an appealing fragrance. It exists in imaginary worlds you know well, like the 100 Acre Woods, or Narnia, or Lake Woebegone, or in mostly real worlds, such as a humorous journey on the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson — or in any number of great books based as much on storytelling as anything else. (p9)

And

(F)or a good number of years, I’ve pondered the question: is there a way to teach good storytelling, in the fashion of Kipling, Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, O. Henry, Tolkien, or other beloved writers classic and modern — successful authors who we’d all agree knew a good story from a hole in the ground?

What do readers look for in a good tale? What specific techniques do I find myself most often recommending to emerging writers to boost the quality of their stories? (p10)

That’s what Martin endeavors to do in the rest of the book, and he does it with a whimsy to match the cover art, by telling a story interwoven with instructive chapters. After the Introduction, for instance, is the beginning of “The Princess & the Apple”, followed by Part One: General Things about Good Stories, followed by the further tale of “The Princess & the Apple”, which is interspersed among these chapters: The Case for Intriguing Eccentricity, The Case for Delightful Details, and The Case for Satisfying Surprises.

Included are many quotes from the works of famous authors and poets, including this quote from Joyce Carol Oates:

“Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses — one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment.” (p25)

That’s a push-pull war in which I constantly engage: what to leave out, what to add, what must be spelled out, what can be implied, what’s trivial, what matters.

A few more examples of advice from the book:

throw out the thesaurus (pp26-30),
juxtapose or fuse two ideas to offer a unique intersection (pp50-51),
listen (pp55-56),
use more senses (pp68-70),
ask what your characters want most (p93),
don’t dodge the difficult ending (pp104-105),

and much more.

How to Write Your Best Story is chock-full of good, perennial advice, but it’s also fun to read. This book will remain in my permanent library, and that’s just about the best recommendation I can give.

 

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Discipline? Can You Give Me Context? Maybe Use It in a Sentence?

Discipline? Can You Give Me Context? Maybe Use It in a Sentence?

(originally posted September 4, 2010)

As a writer, I have no discipline.

That could mean many things:
1) I don’t have a specialty.
2) I can’t control my hands while typppppppping.
3) I write all over the place, and prefer markers on freshly-painted walls.
4) Uniquely constructed sentences I make.
5) 5:00 in the morning is meant for sleeping, not writing. (Unless, of course, one is on a creative spree, and has not yet been to bed.)
6) Focusing on only one project at a time is imposs- Squirrel! (Squirrel Removal in 12 Easy Steps — HI-larious!)
7) I give great writing advice but rarely follow it. (Write to the end then edit.)
8) I find all sorts of activities that keep me from writing, when writing is all I really want to do.
9) An outline is not the Ten Commandments, and is a lot of hard work for something I’m just going to ignore anyway.
10) Planting butt in chair and creating is not something I generally do on command. In fact, there are very few things I do on command, and even then I might pause to think about it.

And the list goes on, but I’ll end it there. (End not to be confused with aforementioned butt.)

Yesterday, I sat on the couch, felt-tip pen and scrap paper in hand, stared into space while a DVD miniseries adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel played in the background, and wrote a couple good pages of material. All rough, of course, but solid.

As I wrote, I thought it was brilliant.

Then, some time later, long after the pen had been capped and I was no longer under the heady influence of Sharpie fumes, I read it again.

Meh. As I said, rough but solid. I can work with that.

As for discipline, well, that’s a concept that looks different to each writer. What really matters is the outcome: What is produced? Regardless of a writer’s method — laptop in the park, legal pad in the coffee shop, scrap paper on the couch — words must be written. Stories must be told.

Bring on the Sharpie!

"Presented in Cinemascope!" facade, Hollywood Wax Museum, Branson, MO (c2013, KB)

“Presented in Cinemascope!”
facade, Hollywood Wax Museum, Branson, MO (c2013, KB)

 

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Shakespeare, Modern Romance Novels, and a Rant

MuchAdo

“We are the only love gods!”

I kept hearing this line in Denzel Washington‘s voice, and couldn’t recall why and where and when, then it hit me: He’s Don Pedro in Kenneth Branagh‘s version of Much Ado About Nothing. *

What does that have to do with anything? Well, it happened to wander through my head after I posted this on Facebook:

Just finished proofing a romance novel with naughty bits. Those bits could have been reduced from pages to paragraphs, or been excised altogether, and the story would have been better for it.

I have said many times I am not the audience nor the editor for romance novels. And yet in which genre do I have the most editing experience?

Yep, you guessed it.

Perhaps my canted eye — that distrust and dislike of the common romance novel — makes me a good choice to edit such books, because I am not enamored of them. Everything — depth of character, depth of relationship, dialogue, plausibility, etc. — is scrutinized. Perhaps more than if the books were in a genre I enjoyed.

But, please, SOMEbody, let me edit more Westerns or mysteries or speculative fiction. I beg you.

Yes, I was a bit cantankerous at the time, and further explained my mood thus:

Every once in a while, the curmudgeonly editor has to have his say. He blows off a little steam then gets back to work.

The novel that sent me down the editing path was a Western, and I think there may have been romance somewhere in the plot. In my own novels there may be characters who are in love, but my tales aren’t much akin to modern romance novels. My mom used to read romances written in early decades of the 20th century, and I’m a Jane Austen fan, so I’m not against love stories.

However, many of the romance novels I’ve edited/critiqued/proofed have seemed to exist mainly as catalogs of physicality. **

Y’know, I don’t care if I’m the odd man out. I don’t care if I’m called a prude, old-fashioned, or whatever. I really am not interested in reading that stuff. Shakespeare is full of bawdy puns and ribald jokes, but at least there’s wit. Chemistry is great, but give me romance with more depth than hormones.

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Feel free to disagree, but please keep comments respectful, on topic, and clean. Many thanks.

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* I like this version slightly more than Joss Whedon‘s update of it: Much Ado About Nothing. However, both versions are great fun, and are excellent renditions of the Bard’s work. Michael Keaton edges out Nathan Fillion in their different portrayals of Dogberry the idiot sheriff, but both are comical. (Read more about the play here.)

On a side note, my favorite Hamlet is Mel Gibson‘s portrayal in the Franco Zeffirelli film, followed by Ethan Hawk’s and Kenneth Branagh’s portrayals.

** “Physicality” — in other words, the porn-y stuff that now comes standard in the average romance novel these days. And have the authors actually tried some of the stuff they make their characters do? From folks in the know — and by that I mean folks who’ve tried it and lived to tell — sex in the shower is an emergency room visit waiting to happen. Or, at the very least, a series of visits to the chiropractor. 

Other places that the adventurous advise against due to logistical and physical issues: the bathtub, the car, the couch, the alley, the public restroom, and the list goes on. Pretty much, folks, keep it horizontal and in the bedroom. (from an online blog post or author interview or panel discussion that I can no longer find, or I’d provide a link)

But, as the consolation prize, links regarding the pervy side of Game of Thrones, which is by no means romance but does include similar, uh, physicality:
The naked hypocrisy of Game Of Thrones’ nudity
Hollywood’s Secret Rape Culture
Dehumanizing Actors for Our Entertainment
a faith-based commentary at Speculative Faith regarding the TV show

 

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Romeo, Romeo

RomeoJulietLooking for contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare’s work?

You just may find your fix in the 2014 version of Romeo and Juliet starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad. It’s muscular and creative, and it plays up the humor.

The balcony scene could easily have been set in two separate bedrooms and featured the characters looking at each other through their windows while speaking on the telephone and waiting for the other person to hang up first.

Christian Camargo gives one of the best portrayals of Mercutio I’ve seen, delivering the Queen Mab speech in a comprehensible, conversational fashion.

However, the play can be antic at times, speeding through the scenes as if afraid to sit still, and the actors often deliver their lines by rapid-fire sing-song rote that often steals the power, playfulness, or pathos of the words.

When the play slows to allow the moments to play out more naturally, less frantically, that’s when it shines.

Still, though I like many of the lines and scenes, this remains one of my least favorite Shakespeare works.

 

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Here’s to You, Mr. L’Amour

Here’s to You, Mr. L’Amour

The poem below is by the late Louis L’Amour, perhaps better known for his Western yarns than for his poetry. The following is included in the volume Smoke From This Altar.

The “deep-throated blast” is, I imagine, the bellow of the foghorn. As for the “up-turned collar”, I know it well, from many a disappointing day in childhood when a sunny sky did not necessarily mean a warm ocean. (The August day on which the above photo was taken should have been warm, but I wore a jacket and was glad of it.)

Picture

Gray fog steals along
The waterfront and gathers
In shadowed places…
Old ships doze beside the dock
Dreaming lazily…
Damp lumber piles loom darkly
Along narrow slips…
Somewhere a deep-throated blast
Echoes lonesomely…
With up-turned collar I slouch
Away into mist.

I grew up reading L’Amour‘s novels and short stories, and I dare say they shaped not only my imagination but also my love of history and the American West.  He traveled widely, and at various times in his life was a boxer, a mine worker, a pulp fiction writer, and a sailor. He once lived not far from where I live now.

When I was a teen, I wanted to write to him, but never worked up the courage before he died in 1988, just weeks before my seventeenth birthday.

Here’s to you, Mr. L’Amour.

 

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Silence

Silence

In honor of Poetry Month, a short piece by Paul Laurence Dunbar that speaks perfectly to friendship:

Silence

‘T is better to sit here beside the sea,
Here on the spray-kissed beach,
In silence, that between such friends as we
Is full of deepest speech.

A prolific black writer from Dayton, Ohio, Dunbar died at the age of 33 from tuberculosis. Read more about Dunbar at The Poetry Foundation, at Biography, and at Wright State University.

The above poem was taken from my copy of Selected Poems, purchased at one of the National Park Service visitor centers in the Dayton area.

 

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