Nothing New Under the Sun: The Franchise Awakens

STAR WARS STAR WARS STAR WARS STAR WARS

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_Poster
Theatrical poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Image from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Now that I’ve got your attention by name-dropping the biggest and most record-breaking film on the market right now, I’m going to be talking a bit about the film Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. There’s a lot I could say on the film, both good and bad, and since much of it has already been said throughout the many circles of the blogosphere, I’m certainly not going to try to give an exhaustive, in-depth analysis here.

Actually, I’m going to take it back a bit and try to get a broader look at some things, such as general storytelling principles and the concept of an ongoing franchise that has a lot of continuity to deal with. About a year ago, when advertising for the film first began in full force, I wrote a post about it on my personal blog. I was a tad skeptical, but cautiously optimistic, because I’ve been a fan of all things Star Wars for so long–not merely the movies, but also the numerous books, comics, and other media that had been created subsequently by various authors to flesh out the story more and further expand this universe. My post argued that, even though the new movies weren’t drawing from the existing source material and were straying from the wealth of books and other stories that I loved, I would still enjoy the films as long as they told good and creative stories of their own. (The original post I’m speaking of can be read at this link–and, since it was written a year before the movie came out, it is 100% spoiler free.)

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One fan’s collection of the very best Star Wars books (which are pretty much any written by Timothy Zahn). Image taken from user Sarah Thrawn on Flickr Creative Commons.

Well, like many fans, I saw the film on opening weekend (and again after that). And, true to what I said above, I did enjoy it. But that’s about all. I liked it well enough to see it a couple of times as a fun event with friends, but I didn’t really love it quite as much as I may have anticipated. And there may be a few reasons for that, including the fact that I had some pretty major parts spoiled for me (thanks, internet jerks). But now that the initial hype has begun to settle down and my opinion has solidified more, I think it’s because–as many people have claimed before me–The Force Awakens was not a very original film on the whole.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars and have talked to anyone about the new film, then you may have heard some people claim that it’s not a very original film, reusing many plot and character elements from the first Star Wars film back in 1977 (not to mention many concepts that appeared in the books but were somewhat changed or mixed around for the onscreen version). Some harsher critics have even used terms like “rehash” or “rip-off” to describe the film. And, while I did enjoy the film on the surface and for the few hours of exciting escapism it gave me, I find myself agreeing at least somewhat with those critics who say that the film was lacking in originality and thus somewhat lacking in depth. (For a fuller and mostly-accurate explanation of how The Force Awakens recycles things from A New Hope, click here–but this link DOES CONTAIN SPOILERS, so beware!)

This common complaint about the film’s lack of originality raises some interesting questions for us, both as audiences and as writers. Questions such as: does a work of fiction have to be completely original in order to be good? Wasn’t it good that J.J. Abrams tried to recreate the feel of the original trilogy, since that’s what a lot of fans wanted? Or would it have been better for him to take a new creative direction with the franchise? Is it even possible to be completely original anymore? Aren’t most stories just new combinations of old elements in different ways anyway? Where do you draw the line between appropriately borrowing from the ideas of previous works and completely ripping them off? How much true originality and creativity is it really possible for us to muster and channel into our writing?

These are questions that I hope to explore further in my upcoming posts for the rest of the week, as they relate to both Star Wars and other massively popular fictional franchises. I hope you’ll join me then. In the meantime, if you need some food for thought, chew on the questions above and feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below.

 

Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Overdue!

I moved into my new flat this past weekend, Sunday was taken up with watching the new episode of Doctor Who, and Monday necessitated a great deal of unpacking in addition to job prep for my last day of teacher training (for today), so when I suddenly realized at about 1930 on Monday night that I had to write a post, I was somewhat flummoxed. I had no ideas whatsoever for a topic, and I was contemplating the writer’s version of ritual seppuku (making and sharpening your own quill pen before disemboweling yourself with it as you chant the names of all your literary ancestors in hopes that they will forgive you), when Tom stepped in with an alternative.

humperdinck
But not like this.

“Write a short story!” he said, as I sharpened my quill, only half-paying attention. “About a time traveler,” he added, knowing exactly what would pique my interest. A few more interesting details were added to the prompt, and I arose, dramatically tossing my quill to the side, salvation in sight. “I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!” I declared, apparently unaware of the irrelevance of the reference, and began to write. For your enjoyment today, I present “Overdue!” a short story by yours truly.

****************

You’d think that being a time traveller would mean never having to deal with library fines. It’s a completely logical thought to have, what with the ability to jump around the time stream and all, but it’s also completely wrong. Studies have actually proven that owners of time machines are more than twelve times more likely to be chronically late about returning their books. The entire Warsaw library system is funded completely by fines from sheepish chrononauts who thought they were popping in right at closing on the due date to return their copies of Welles’s novels and other historical fiction, only to discover they were showing up at noon two years, six months, and four days later. “Sounds like the voice of experience,” you might say, and you’re quite right, kids. My name is Morstan, Elliott Morstan, and I’m a time traveller. And as of three days ago by linear time, I’m also a library criminal.

Until recently, I’d always been conscientious about taking care of my library books. They keep telling you the rules: never leave your library book in your time machine, don’t check out books from libraries in more than one time period at the same time, and above all, don’t ever try to return your book while using your machine. We all know libraries are bound by linear time in order to contain all the strange time irregularities that happen within, and strange things sometimes happen if you mess around with that. We’ve all heard about what happened when someone broke the rules in Alexandria.

Oops.

But even though we know these stories, something deep down inside still whispers “but it could never happen to me. I’m so much more careful; I’d never cross my own time stream while returning a book” and so on and so forth. That’s what I thought, too, when I took my library copy of the best-selling theoretical manual Wibbley-Wobbley, Timey-Wimey, and Other Stuff for the Discerning Time Traveler by R.T. Davies, along to occupy me during the boring bits of the Battle of Hastings. This in and of itself isn’t a problem…but I became so engrossed in the battle that I left the book inside my machine. All on its own. With all of that peculiar book magic that wreaks havoc on the temporal mechanics of any time engine if left unsupervised.

Ugh. Keep in mind, this was a genuine moment of forgetfulness. Not a good thing to do, but not criminal.

So when I made the return journey home, I planned to arrive just 5 minutes after I left, which would give me two hours to finish my book before returning it. I opened the door, stepped out, yawned, and then my jaw dropped as I stared ahead, terrified. Where the library had once stood instead loomed a giant Starbucks. The 50-mile high green and white logo leered at me as it proudly pronounced in glowing neon letters, “Meeting your linear caffeine needs since 2367.”

The library was closed.

My book was at least 50 years overdue.

When the library branch police caught up with me, and we all know they always will find you if your book is overdue, the fines would be horrendous. I’d never be able to pay them off. And I’d never be able to live with the shame of having my name on the list of those “Banned for Reckless Endangerment of a Book,” the terrible fate of those who eat tomato sauce near a book or return it more than 5 years overdue. I had to go back. Surely just going back along my own time stream to the library just long enough to drop my book in the slot wouldn’t hurt anyone… Fortified by resolve and blinding fear, I jumped back into my ship and headed back for the original due date.

Upon landing (in the correct date this time), I opened the door and cautiously peered out. The fabric of reality seemed to be holding together pretty well thus far. Emboldened, I grabbed the book and stepped out, prepared to make a dash for the return slot just a few feet away. But the moment both feet touched the ground, I realized I’d made a huge mistake. Time seemed to constrict and expand all at the same time. Something started screaming in a high-pitched tone that threatened to shred my eardrums. The whole world began to shake and I felt as though I was about to turn inside out and explode. Terrified, I dropped to the ground, curled up in a ball, and began pleading with the universe to calm down.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “Just please stop. It was stupid of me. Don’t unravel all of space and time. I’ll never do it again, I promise.”

“We know you won’t,” a cool voice said from behind me. I sat up, my eyes blurry, to find myself surrounded by severe-looking people in dark red uniforms.

Damn…not the library police! Dear god, please no.

The speaker, a stern woman in a peaked cap glared down at me over the bridge of her spectacles. “You are lucky we were on hand to stabilize the fabric of reality before your reckless actions could cause any real damage to the universe,” she said, nostrils flaring. I shivered. “We cannot allow such actions to pass with just a warning. Your machine will be confiscated and you are hereby restricted to the index room for twenty years, with no chance of parole.” I stared at her in horror. The index room…where I would only ever be able to see the bibliographical information for books but never see the books themselves.

“Mercy,” I pleaded, kneeling as the tears streamed from my eyes. “Anything but the index room!”

It was clear that to her, the matter was now over. “Confiscate her library card and give her an index room pass,” she declared to the uniformed officers as she swept past me.

“Yes, Madame Librarian.”

I have been restricted to the index room for three days now, and I already feel my soul dying. Follow the rules, kids, no matter what time you’re in. Don’t be like me. Don’t be…a library criminal.

This segment of the Library Criminals PSA cycle is brought to you by Librarians Against Time-Space Book Negligence. Don’t read and time travel.

Sunday Reading List

So, I’ve been saying that I’m going to post my reading list from this semester, and the semester is just about over. So, here is the list of works that I read this semester. This includes all of the assigned books from my classes, the fiction I read, some other books I read, and some (but not all) of the works I read for research. All in all, and this is admittedly a guess because I haven’t had time to actually calculate everything out, I think I’ve done somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand pages of reading in the past few months. I was quite a hall… now to do it all over again next semester. I swear, I’m not a masochist.

Terry Irwin, Plato’s Ethics
David O. Brink, Moral Realism and The Foundations of Ethics
Daniel A. Putnam, Human Excellence: Dialogues in Virtue Theory
Inazo Nitobe, Bushido: The Soul of Japan
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
Richard Cavandish, The Tarot (Partial)
Benjamin Farley, In Praise of Virtue
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics
Karl Barth, God in Action
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Bryan Van Norden, Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self
Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Oleg Benesch, Bushido in the Meiji Dynasty
C.S. Lewis, “On Ethics”
Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel
Leon Gautier, Chivalry
James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell, The Blood Gospel
James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell, Innocent Blood
Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics
Chuck Hogan, The Strain
Ed. Xiusheng Liu and Philip Ivanhoe, Essays on the Moral Philosophy of Mengzi
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis, A Pilgram’s Regress
Philip J. Ivanhoe, Ethics in the Confucian Tradition
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Andrew Downing, “Sin and It’s Relevance to Human Nature in the Summa Theologicae”
John Haldane, “Philosophy, the Restless Heart and the Meaning of Theism”
Matthew Elliot, “The Emotional Core of Love: The Centrality of Emotion in Christian Psychology and Ethics”
Dolores Puterbaugh, “The Screwtape Letters: Sophistication and Self-Absorption”
Lowell Garetner, “It’s not WEIRD it’s WRONG: When Researchers Overlook uNderlying Genotypes they will Not Detect Universal Processes”
Edmund Pincoffs, Quandries and Virtues: Against Reductivism in Ethics
Jay Richards, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem
Susan K. Allard-Nelson, An Aristotelian Approach to Ethics: The Norms of Virtue
John Murray, Principles of Conduct
Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Partial)
Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith Volume 3: Christian Theistic Ethics
Kwong-Loi Shun and David Wong, Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
C.S. Lewis, “The Psalms”
Tom Nelson, Work Matters
John M. Rist, Plato’s Moral Realism
Carl F.H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics
Stephen Angle and Michael Slote, Virtue Ethics and Confucianism
Norman Vance, Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought
J. Daryl Charles, Virtue Amidst Vice: The Catalog of Virtues in 2 Peter 1
Yiu Sing Lucas Chan, The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life
Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value (Partial)
Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto (Partial)
Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Partial)
Chuck Hogan, The Night Eternal

Story Challenge of the Week

intelligent-books-to-readMoving is stressful. Unfortunately, I tend to be the frog in the pot. I don’t realize how much stress I’m under until I’m about ready to pop. However, I’m fairly good at finding ways to manage my stress as well, even when I don’t really realize that I need to. All that to say that I’m sitting in a room with about 50 boxes covering the floor (mostly books amazingly enough) as I’m writing this week’s challenge posts, and it’s kind of stressing me out. So, I have a scene challenge for you. So, if you don’t already know the rules: I give you a prompt and you write a scene off of it.  Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction.  If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit.  If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.

Your prompt: “Simon’s gaze slid over the book’s cover without really registering it…”

G’desh: Using Religion

First, when it comes to fantasy, religion is going to exist. Many writers create actual gods which walk among men and say “This is right, this is wrong, I do exist, and these are the curses and blessings you may expect.” If there isn’t that, there will be ancestral worship, animism, or a number of other simple religions at the least. You can even make it complex with a number of rituals, gods, and other facets.

Religion should be reflected by something which exists. These provide the best foundation, and from there it’s pretty easy to manipulate to the needs of the story. There are some obvious differences, though. Sometimes in fantasy the gods can actually exist. It’s possible in science fiction to reveal those gods as not real. Perhaps they were even killed. There are a lot of variations you can use. Just make sure it matters to your story. This could be a main plot line, a foil or parallel, or setting for what is to come.

If religion will add nothing to your story, mention it briefly from time to time, but then move on. Song of Ice and Fire had set up the the religion of R’hllor as early as the tournament when they talk about Thoros running out into the tournament with his flaming sword. We can’t even tell that this was a sign of the religion until season three. I’m only on the second book.

Why wouldn’t Martin tell us about R’hllor in the first book? It didn’t matter. Until we see Melisandre and Stanis, the religion would only detract. He simply left us enough hints so we could see that it existed already on the peripheral. The same as the Drowned God. Until we reach the second book, he really doesn’t matter. So even if you have a religion, unless it means something, hint at it lightly and otherwise ignore it. Just like R’hllor.

Old school book images.
Old school book images.

In my own story I called upon Judaism and Islam, with a point of origin and a point of extremism. The point of origin is a peaceful religion that believes in true tolerance. From there, one faith believed in the purification of blood. Only man could live (there are other races), and the soul and body must be put through fire. If one does not believe, fire will consume their doubts.

From this, another religion is created. When the Purifiers start taking land through war, some of those who were peaceful take to violence, creating the Followers. They believe they are right and pure, but in time motives are corrupted. Mimicking the Crusades, they become blood thirsty, while alienating the peaceful origin of the religion.

Religion is used to show the nature of man overall and to show the corruption of ambition. It’s also used to move along the story in ways I do not want to tell you quite yet. So use religion in your own to further the story, to show generalizations, and to give information overall. Next week I’ll talk magic.

How have you used religion and what have you come up with for your own stories?

 

Pleasure Reading as “Research”

My motto in life.
My motto in life.

I’m an English Lit grad student. I want to be a college professor if and when I ever decide to grow up. Basically, this means I get to read awesome books and write things for a living, which makes me extremely happy. What I’ve discovered, ever since coming to the Dark Side and becoming an English student, is that the reading I do for fun and/or for classes (usually they’re one and the same) actually help me with my creative writing. Like a true academic, I have thus taken to referring to my reading as “research,” whether or not it has a direct bearing on whatever I happen to be writing at the time. The different styles and approaches of the works I read give me fresh ideas for future writing projects. Frequently I come across phrases or descriptions that strike me as interesting, and they influence areas of my story. In other words, when I’m working on writing projects, I make a point of reading as many books as I can – no rhyme or reason to the selection thereof (unless I’m doing REAL research), just books I’m interested in. And I’m often surprised at the cool stuff that shows up in my own stories as a result. A few months ago, I put together a list of books I need to read that I will pick up while I’m working on projects. And believe me, some pretty awesome writing is happening as a result 😀 So, I’m going to share my list with y’all. Any works anyone would recommend that I add?

 

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (Finished)
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie (Finished)
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (Dreadfully dull, but I’m going to read it anyway)
1984 – George Orwell (Finished)
The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
White Noise – Don Delillo
The Art of War – Sun Tzu
East of Eden – John Steinbeck
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
Foucault’s Pendulum –Umberto Eco
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett (In Progress)
The Gambler – Dostoevsky
The Idiot – Dostoevsky
Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré
The Tale of Genji – Lady Murasaki
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller (In Progress)
Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
100 Years of Solitude – Marquez
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
Lady Chatterly’s Lover – Anthony Trollope
The Beautiful and Damned – F Scott Fitzgerald
The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne
War of the Worlds – HG Wells (Read this 13 years ago – need to read again)
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (put me to sleep on the last attempt, so I’m going to try it again)
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Middlemarch – George Eliot
The Man Who was Thursday – GK Chesterton (In Progress)
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Beloved – Toni Morrison
2001: a Space Odyssey – Arthur Clark
Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Allan Quatermain – H Rider Haggard
Blythedale Romance – Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner (Also have to read for an American Modernism class)
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas (read 13 years ago – time for another go through)
The Prisoner of Zenda – Anthony Hope
Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
Vanity Fair – William Thackeray

Sequester

Three years ago was my first attempt at Nanowrimo. For those out of the know, it’s national novel writing month. For the month of November you write furiously to hit a 50,000 word count. You do this online with a bunch of other writers, and everyone is going for that one glorious goal. There are guest speakers to pump you up and articles on how to best utilize the time you have. A few articles exist on how to write, how to keep the ideas flowing, but primarily it’s all about 50,000 words and how to make sure you hit it. Quality doesn’t matter. You should try it. I haven’t won yet, but it’s a lot of fun.

While writing furiously my first year, on November 15th, there was a video that shot me square through the eyes: sequester yourself. Chris, one of the heads of the movement, said the best way to get writing done is to sequester yourself. I was a teacher at the time. I had students hanging all over me. At night I had to grade. Parents would call because it was my first year and they had my number. I lived at home and there were chores to be done or my parents wanted to bond. How in the world would I sequester? As I said, I did not hit the word count that year.

As I’m editing a 388 page monstrosity, I’m not appreciating my progress. The words of Chris haunt me once more: sequester. I’m taking up his call, as each and every one of you should. This week, maybe even all month, find something that distracts you. Now destroy it or hide it away. If they are children, please don’t destroy and remember they need food, but otherwise a large enough closet makes for great slumber parties.

Take whatever it is you know sucks up a lot of your writing time, and avoid it at all costs. If it’s something on the internet, block it. If it’s your phone, remove the battery and give it to your spouse or roommate for an hour. Whatever it takes. To show that I’m taking up my own banner, I have blocked Facebook on every computer I have access to and removed it from my phone. Between chatting with friends and looking at Game of Throne memes, I lose hours to this monstrosity. So away with Facebook for a week, and I’ll see what happens from there.

The purpose of this is to refocus your efforts. I was told that what we focus on, what we do over and over, is what we will become good at. Often times what we distract ourselves with is not something which is improving us. It isn’t something the world craves. Writing expresses your inner thoughts. It makes you more in tune with communication. It allows you to see both details and a big picture. Window shopping on Amazon makes you envious or poor.

Many times, this can be helped by a spouse or friend. Have them keep you accountable. So with this in mind, with your manuscript or ideas in hand and head, block the temptations of this world and get to work. The world wants to see your vision and will no doubt be a better place for it. So get writing, and stop getting distracted!

Young Adult Fiction

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Last week I introduced a hot topic in the literary world through some questions about the up-and-coming genre Young Adult Fiction, often called YA fiction.  NPR recently posted their top 100 list, and needless to say, it caused a few debates about issues found in the following questions.  I asked readers to answer the questions or post their own thoughts on the topic as comments.  Additionally, I took these questions to some of my facebook friends, an assortment of English teachers and other literary scholars.

The questions were as follows:

1. What is the place and role of MODERN YA books?  Note: the word modern as used here means books written within the past 15 years or so.  This does not include books like To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, LOTR, etc.  It does include books like Harry Potter, Twilight, 13 Reasons Why, etc…

2. There has been some discussion on the fact that many of the top 100 books have a female author.  Does this make a difference?  Is there a reason behind it?  Should/how can this change?

3.  What are some pros and cons for YA books, especially modern YA books, in and out of the classroom?  (Ex. PRO: Encourages reading.  CON: Simplistic in style.)

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In going over the responses there were some general concessions about YA literature.  Mainly, that it generally contains a watered-down style of very little literary value.   While there are some exceptions to this rule, such as the Harry Potter series (which is genius when you look at some of the stylistic techniques used by Rowling, but that’s another post), most books in the YA category serve as little more than cheap escapist entertainment.

However, I did have one response stating that YA fiction shouldn’t exist at all, as its very presence essentially gives permission for authors to write poorly conceptualized and written novels.  Still, there were a couple of responses that basically listed YA literature as “gateway” literature which inspires interest in reading and is therefore a good thing.

So, let’s take a more in-depth look at YA literature and break it down a little.

Garfield is a classic.

First, as to its existence, I say “why not?’  In our modern world of globalization, societies are filled with people trying to find a place where they fit.  In the literary world, this is where genres come into play.  There is a genre for everyone, even the creepers.  No one questions the need for and existence of children’s books and of more adult-focused books.  Why?  Because parents recognize that children need books specifically targeted at their attention range, reading level, and social existence.  Therefore, no one criticizes the Berenstain Bears books for being simple or the Mercer Meyer books for focusing on specific issues related to kids, liking making friends.

Likewise, adults also wouldn’t want their younger, or even teen children, reading some of the books written for adults (ah hem, 50 Shades of Grey). Sexually explicit books, as well as novels with a high volume of profanity, should have no place in a teen’s mind.  Now, not all adult literature is like that, it is true.  But then again, adult literature, is by it’s very nature, geared towards adults – adult life, adult emotions, adult situations.  While a young adult, especially on the older range, may get some value from adult books, they are still generally left out in the cold.

For, if there were no YA genre, then young adults would be stuck with the stories of their childhood and pre-teen years.  And let’s face it.  Teens should not be stuck with the stories of their childhood for several reasons. Talk about simplicity.  Reading those stories will not help improve their reading level.  Two, the sheer boredom will remove all vestiges of interest in reading they have.  As they grow older and their situations change, so do their interests.

YA books cover a whole host of topics that relate directly to its targeted audience.  It provides a balance between the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Stories are fairly straightforward, sometimes exceedingly simple, yet.  However, the issues covered handle everything from divorce, bullying at a more mature level, identity issues, drug problems, sex, college stress, and more.  But, these issues are covered in a more age-appropriate manner.  As a result, it gets YA readers who usually read nothing more than menu at a coffee shop, a gateway into the possibility of books.

Now, to cover content.  The stories themselves as far as plot and content go, I can usually condone through the above reasoning of relateability .   However, as for the actual literary content (writing style, characterizations, etc) I have no excuse.  Yes, many of the YA books circling the public realms today makes me cringe.  And I am a huge advocate of YA books in general.  When I read a YA characterized book, I am not expecting Thomas Hardy or Dostoevsky.  I don’t expect that when I’m reading adult literature like John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Stieg Larsson.  I expect something more befitting the reading level of 8th-12th graders, preferably closer to 12th graders.  With this in mind, then there are quite a few good YA authors such as Sarah Dessen and Gayle Forman.  That being said there are seemingly more authors who use as genre as an excuse to publish quantity over quality, especially in the YA paranormal department.  Still, this problem IS NOT unique to the YA genre.

Which brings me to my next point.  When comparing the YA books of today with those of the past, there are going to be a lot of grumbles at the sad state of YA literature.  After all, who can compare Twilight with To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer for Owen Meany or 1984 with The Hunger Games?  In fact many readers wouldn’t classify To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer…, or 1984 as YA books.  Their intrinsic value is so far above teen fiction today and their themes transcend typical teen angst and teen society that they belong to adult literature.   Yet, they are classified as YA literature.  And, in comparison, everything produced today seems juvenile.  At least that’s what the critics say.  However, once again, this is not unique to YA books, so it should not be held against the genre.  Adult books have the same problem.  Larsson and Brown are good, but they do not hold up to Dostoevsky.  And what leg does Jodi Picoult have to stand upon when compared to Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte?   Literature, in most genres, is sliding from the standard classic sets.  If you punish one, you really should punish all.  We could get rid of genres all together and let all books blend and mesh into one indistinguishable mess.

Ideally, all YA authors would have a proficient grasp of literary techniques and styling.  They would write novels that efficiently transition to and more closely resemble adult literature than children’s literature.  Kudos to those that do.  But, just because that is not sweepingly the case does not call for the elimination of the genre.  It does not lessen the value of the books that justly and efficiently serve their purpose and place in YA literature.

To summarize, I’m including a response from one of my literary scholars that gives a fairly objective voice to the three questions (meaning she lists the good and the bad).

‎1.) To further rot our adolescents brains and to think that things like abusive relationships are okay. On the other hand, it does foster an active imagination and a desire to read, which getting adolescents to do nowadays can be challengi

ng.2.) I think there is a huge difference between a male writing a YA novel and a female. For example, Christopher Pike wrote some amazing vampire tales. They were gothic and intriguing and appealed to both guys and girls. And then you have Stephanie Myers who wrote Twilight. I can count on one hand the number of guys who read Twilight. Some women can accomplish the feat of writing to appease both genders, however most seem to prefer the woman’s point of view and write primarily to a larger female audience. A greater majority of male authors, on the other hand, can write to appeal to both genders.

3.) A pro of the YA novels in the classroom is that it does encourage reading. However, a big con is the absolute lack of morals and creativity that a lot of popular YA novels have. Most encourage and have things such as smoking, drinking, sex, and drug use throughout the novels.

ONCE AGAIN, feel free to comment and discuss.  

A Review of The Dragon’s Dagger by R.A. Salvatore

No, really, don't miss it!

Last week I reviewed The Woods Out Back, the first book in the Spearwielder’s Tale trilogy.  Every author  has something that they are best at, maybe not the best in the world, but the best work they do.  R.A. Salvatore finds this niche with his mix of serious fantasy and humor.  While the series is not a parody, ala Split Heirs, it does not take itself too seriously.  While author’s like Glenn Cook and Steven Erikson have mastered the darker, more serious side of fantastic fiction, Salvatore shows a similar master of the light, fun, and humorous.  The second book in this series The Dragon’s Dagger gives the reader his first taste of the difference in the flow of time between the real world and Fairie.  This is a technique often seen in stories of the Fae, and Salvatore demonstrates a strong understanding of it.

Overall: 8.5/10

The Dragon’s Dagger brings with it the same humorous take on cliche that made The Woods Out Back such a wonderful book.  While much of Salvatore’s more serious work falls victim to overly cliched storylines, or immortal characters (Drizzt!), this series uses those cliches to its advantage.  Salvatore masterfully works in elven archers, dwarven craftsman, and evil kings, all with a rampaging dragon running rampant across the land.  The familiar characters, combined with a truly fresh story, make this book a little bit better than its predecessor.  While you loved meeting Gary, Kelsey, Mickey, and Geno in the first book, now you will feel like you are coming home to famliar friends.

Writing: 8.0/10

Salvatore’s writing doesn’t change much between the two books.  He still writes great actions scenes, and still provides a lot of wit and clever use of cliches and tropes.

Characters: 10/10

Like I said, Gary, Kelsey, Mickey, and Geno were great to meet.  In The Woods Out Back we watch these standard fantasy cliches grow into real, vibrant people.  In The Dragon’s Dagger you will feel like you are coming home to a roomful of good friends.  The characters continue to grow and change, especially Gary, but there is a comfortable familiarity in them that allows the reader to relax into the book, instead of feeling constantly on edge, as is the case with some of Salvatore’s other work.  There are good things to be said for both of these styles, but a relaxing book is a wonderful thing now and again.

World: 7.0/10

The Dragon’s Dagger provides us with more details about the realm of Fairie.  While the story revisits many of the same locations as the last book, most of them are given more detail and background.  While the humor and freshness of The Woods Out Back was enough to distract the reader from the lack of detail, The Dragon’s Dagger retains the same level of humor, without needing to provide a distraction.  While many questions about the world are left unanswered, enough world detail is given to satisfy most readers.

Yup, that looks about right.

Plot: 9.5/10

What can I say, an evil king sits on the throne; a wicked, angry dragon has been released to terrorize the land; and Ceridwyn is trapped on her island.  Like The Woods Out Back this book takes a load of cliches and turns them into a fun, fascinating, meaningful story.  This shows Salvatore’s mastery of the style.

Pacing: 10/10

The story has a pleasant back and forth flow that keeps the action going at a reasonable speed.  There are some parts that are faster than others, but nowhere does the book become slow or boring.

Commentary: 4.5/10

While there is some commentary in The Dragon’s Dagger it focuses more on entertainment.  However, one major theme that I thoroughly enjoyed is the nature of friendship.  Similar to Tolkien’s characters in The Lord of the Rings, Salvatore explores the dynamic of friendship in the face of racial tensions.

Conclusion:

This is a great book, a must read if you are looking for something light and fun.  If you liked The Woods Out Back then don’t miss The Dragon’s Dagger.