The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman is another of those monolithic writers that I admire and look up to. His urban fantasy has a subtly to it that you can’t find anywhere else. Instead of being worlds where the magic is separate and secret from the mundane, Gaiman’s worlds are full of magic. It isn’t separate from the mundane, but a part of it, and the fact that most people are unaware is just part of the magic.

So I couldn’t think of any other writer to take on a story about a boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard. That being said, I honestly can’t believe that it hasn’t already been done. If anyone knows of another story of this nature, I’d love to hear about it. I find the concept itself to be very cool and would like to see how other writers have handled it, if they’ve tackled it.

One of the things that I liked about The Graveyard Book was that it was more a series of short stories than one long novel. In a story that spans over more than ten years, it can be hard to keep time moving and not feel like vast amounts of important details are being left out.

I think that telling the story in a progression of smaller stories was the right way to handle it. Like a comic book actually. A series of issues will together create a larger story of their own. I think it deftly showed the passage of time.

As I said before, the casual way in which the magic of the graveyard was incorporated into the story and setting works very well. Instead of drawing away from the characters and conflicts with another conflict of ‘keeping magic secret,’ Gaiman just left the existence of magic as a fact of the universe, and actually entangled the world in the magic itself. This allowed the story to focus on what was really important, Bod and his life among the ghosts.

I will say, however, that I was disappointed in how Scarlett’s story ended. On the one hand, it’s not always a good idea to give the reader what they expect. But on the other, a lot of the story is about Bod growing up and learning how to take care of himself out in the world. Making friends and relationships is part of that.

I don’t think it added much to have Scarlett be afraid of him after everything they had been through. I’m not saying they should have fallen in love and lived happily ever after. But staying friends at the least would have added more to the emotional stability and positivity of the story.

One last thing that I’d like to mention: Not explaining or revealing what Silas was was I think a very good move. I formulated some theories of course, from hints dropped in the story, but I ultimately think it was a good idea to leave that mystery unconfirmed.

I think some writers fall into a trap of feeling like every aspect of the story has to be revealed and explained, and I don’t think this is always healthy. Keeping things veiled in mystery and unexplained gives the setting complexity. As long as the writer knows what’s going on, and the mystery doesn’t get in the way of the story making sense, then withholding that knowledge can sometimes actually go a greater distance than if it is given away.

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Flame On Or Flame Out?

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As a fledgling writer, one of the greatest day-to-day struggles that I face is with burnout. Juggling a job, a family, social functions, school, on top of the day to day needs of being alive is a task that can be overwhelming. I am constantly plagued by doubt, compounded by a less than supportive society that doesn’t always consider the pursuit of art as a ‘real’ job. The creeping voice of failure that suggests the deplorable option of giving up is relentless in those very vulnerable moments of breakdown.

An article caught my eye last week titled “Why we are burning out in the arts.” I’ve been going through a few rough patches recently, and I wanted to see if it offered any insights that I could benefit from.

While it offered a lot of information on the institutions in art culture that lead many artists to burnout, it didn’t offer me much in the way of advice to overcome or avoid burnout. I felt that the conclusion of ‘self-care’ was weak and under-explored. It also didn’t take a look at artists individually, instead focusing on generalities that ended up not ringing very true with me.

So I contacted a friend of mine to talk about the issue.

Zach Fischer, an incredibly talented freelance illustrator, concept artist, and cosplay designer, and a pretty cool guy besides, is on pretty good terms with burnout. And the struggle to stay financially above water is only part of the issue. Art is emotionally taxing, and keeping the creative juices flowing is a key function in avoiding burnout.

“Logically, you can recognize that something needs to get done. This project, it has to get done. And you prioritize it, push everything else aside, to do that. But that doesn’t always work.” In fact, Zach said trying to do so can sometimes lead directly to burnout.

Creative energy isn’t always logical. Not only can it be in constant flux on its own, but what it is focused on can also be changing. Sometimes that story that your editor is waiting for isn’t where the muses are dancing, and only by indulging those gut instincts, those fleeting ideas, can the muses be brought back into focus.

I have actually seen this strategy work for myself. A lot of the time, the creative energy is there, but the focus isn’t necessarily where I want it to be. And that can be stressful. Taking the time to relax with what your passion happens to be at the moment can rekindle your will and drive in other areas, and lead to more productivity in other projects. Plus, you are still creating art.

“Sometimes you need to burnout, though,” Zach pointed out. “Sometimes you need to burn off those things that are holding you back or getting in the way, so you can create something new.”

For Zach, burnout is an opportunity. Not only can it purge old ways of thinking that can hold an artist back, but it can allow for a re-evaluation of goals and strategies. Burnout can force an artist to take a step back and look around themselves. But what you surround yourself with in these times is crucial.

In these vulnerable times, an artist really needs a supportive network of friends and family. But not unilaterally supportive. Realistically supportive. You don’t want people who will flatter you, or ‘fangirl,’ as Zach put it. You want people who will pick you up when you’re down and push you to look at the situation in a new way.

As always, every obstacle can be a bane or a boon. It is in how you approach it that determines what you will gain from it.

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A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin

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Sorry this is a bit late. It’s a pretty hectic time of the year for me. UPS gears up for the holiday season, my Masonic Lodge gears up for installation season and elections, and to top it all off, these holiday things keep popping up and dragging me away from my keyboard or bed.

But, that aside, I finished A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin’s fifth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, or more popularly known by its TV series name, A Game of Thrones. It is the most recent book out for the series, and while I dread waiting for the next book, I can also appreciate Martin’s attitude toward completing his work. He doesn’t rush. He takes his time. “It’ll be done when it’s done.” It’s better to lose fans for taking too long than to lose fans for giving them something sub-par.

All stories become more complex before they become simpler. It’s the nature of conflict. Things have to be muddled and complicated because it creates the tension that drives the story. It’s the catalyst for the characters to act.

The trick is knowing how much of that complexity to show. What story are you telling? And I think this is something that A Song of Ice and Fire is missing. Martin has the very complex and detailed world, with its expansive history and storyline, and Martin seems compelled to show as much of this world as possible. Dozens upon dozens of perspectives give us a very detailed narrative, but bog down the actual story.

Further than that, there are three distinctive stories being told. Combined with the plethora of POV’s and personal narratives going on, A Song of Ice and Fire has turned into a monstrously long and complex creation. Martin actually split books four and five into two categories covering the same period of time in order to cover the full scope of the story.

I think I would have to agree with a lot of the critics in that this wasn’t the best of solutions. Especially because Martin changed his mind in writing A Dance With Dragons and actually continued the story. This actually goes back to what I was talking about earlier in his attitude; I think he takes it too far in his inability to stick to his decisions and offer consistency in how his story is told.

I’m woefully behind on the HBO series, so I won’t speak to that. That being said, I enjoyed A Dance with Dragons, and I continue to enjoy the complex world that Martin has created. I do look forward to reading the next book, but I don’t hold my breath on it coming soon, given Martin’s tendency to take his time and change his mind.

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The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

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I was very excited to receive this book in the mail two and a half weeks ago. I’d read about its pending release over the summer and instantly wanted to read it. Not only is it a new Jim Butcher book, but it’s also in the steampunk genre, one that I find interesting, if have little knowledge of beyond the visual style.

The Aeronaut’s Windlass is set on Spire Albion, a sky civilization above the clouds. The surface is a dangerous place that no one goes to, filled with monstrous creatures that are enraged by the taste of human blood. Strange magic, called etheric currents, power the technology of the spire and a few, called etherealists, can tap into those currents directly at a terrible cost.

A small ensemble of newly-made Guardsmen, the militaristic policing force of the Spire, are tasked by the Spirearch, a figurehead-esque ruler of the Spire, after an attack from a rival Spire, Spire Aurora, to protect and aid an etherealist and his apprentice in their search for the Enemy, your typical dark force that won’t be revealed until much later in the story. They are aided by a disgraced Fleet captain who now captains a privateer flying ship called Predator.

There are a lot of things that I loved about this book. The technology was brilliant, and presented with enough complexity to be fascinating, but enough simplicity that it could be explained in its principles without a dissertation. The attention to detail when it came to the application of the technologies, especially in the area of the airships, was very well done, and was a  very effective engine for describing shipboard combat, something that came up numerous times.

The steampunk culture was very well captured, but wasn’t pushed too close to the forefront. It was, as culture is, behind the scenes. There were subtle layers of conversation and etiquette that added depth to the scenes, without requiring explanation. Even a mildly-intuitive person could tell what was going on, and someone who knows the genre or etiquette would get satisfaction out of the subtlety.

The only thing that I didn’t particularly enjoy, and this is more of a beef with a genre than with this book in particular, was the intelligence of the character. I found, after doing research and talking with people who are bigger fans of the genre than me, that it is typical, and even a standard trope of the steampunk genre, for characters to be extremely intelligent. So intelligent that they are able to deduce what is going on and what will happen well before it happens.

But unlike other genres, where this knowledge is stewarded by the writer and only revealed in dramatically appropriate moments, steampunk characters have to tell the reader right then how smart they are and what they’ve figured out. So what you end up with is a scenario playing out and then one of the characters figures out what is going on, tells the reader what is going on, via inner or inter dialogue, and then that thing happens, usually with a small twist that the opposition put in to throw the protagonist off. Nothing major or fatal, usually.

My issue with this type of writing is that it then becomes tricky to steward plot tension. The explanation takes valuable time for the severity of the situation to wear off on the reader. If the big bad unbeatable enemy is bearing down on you, it draws away from that tension for a character to seemingly break off to explain the tactics of their side, the enemy side, and any other side that might be around.

That is not to say that there wasn’t any plot tension. Far from it. But this was more the tension of a chess match, with deliberation and well thought out counters, as opposed to the more typical tension of a boxing match or sports play – quick, rough, and you don’t always know what’s going on.

 

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Ramblings on Writing

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I’ve recently been going through the Chronicles of Narnia again. I never finished them as a child, and I figured it’s just one of those series that you have to read. Everyone has read them. They are a staple to every childhood, like Harry Potter, or the games tag and tic-tac-toe.

But going through them again, I can remember why I had such a hard time getting through them. The narrative style was more than a little off-putting for me. It apparently isn’t for a lot of other people, but it was for me. I don’t like it when the narrator becomes another character in the story. It’s different when the narrator is already a character, like a first-person perspective, but a third-person omniscient, who is addressing the reader directly just bugs me. It keeps jarring the reader out of focus.

I like the story to draw me in and keep me there. I don’t want to constantly be reminded that it’s just a story. I want to imagine that it’s real, and immerse myself in the scenes and stories that are unfolding in front of me. And I hate the guy that stands next to you explaining all the things you don’t know. I like that voice to be more subtle.

But one of the things that I am enjoying greatly is the little nuggets of wisdom that C. S. Lewis drops in his stories every once in a while. He doesn’t make a huge exhibit of them. He just drops them in the narrative and moves on, letting the reader muse on that aphorism or nugget of information to the depth they are comfortable with.

And it’s almost a reverse of his narrative style. His philosophy is the low-key narrator in the story, while the actual narrator is constantly in your face telling you what’s happening, and what’s not happening, and what’s in people’s heads and why it’s in there.

Which brings to my mind the thought that maybe that’s the point. Maybe C. S. Lewis cared more about the wisdom he could impart with his stories then the stories themselves. Maybe the narrator is a smokescreen for the philosophy and wisdom that lies throughout the story. Especially in a children’s story, the lessons that can be taught can’t be too directly stated. But placing the seed in their minds, and letting them think on it and develop it themselves. I can see how that might have potential as a very effective teaching tool.

While I don’t know for sure if that’s what Lewis was trying to do, and I’m not a fan of the style myself, and I didn’t like it as a kid, I still think there can be something to learn from observations like that. Picking apart a piece of literature and musing on why an author might have written something a certain way can be very enlightening, and I would encourage everyone who wants to write to make a practice of it.

And don’t just do it to the stories you love. You can learn a lot by analyzing what you don’t like. Find out why you don’t like it. See if it still has some useful technique embedded in it. Try to find the merit in it and it can only help you, even if it’s only telling you what not to do.

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Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold

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on August 24th, 2015

BrothersinarmscoverDespite fear of sounding like a broken record or a fan girl, I will once again say that I am astounded by Lois McMaster Bujold’s writing. Every time I pick up the next story in her Vorkosigan saga, I am completely blown away by the consistently amazing storytelling present in each and every one of them.

Brothers in Arms continues with Miles Vorkosigan’s career as an Imperial Security Operative for Barrayar, namely in his undercover role as Miles Naismith, the notorious captain of the Dendarii Mercenaries secretly working for Barrayar. Caught in between his two identities, and trying to retain the authenticity of each, the consequences of both identities’ actions follow him, and he must find a way to dodge Cetegandan assassins, Komarran/Barrayaran politics, and the ever present danger of his cover being blown by his distinctive appearance and notoriety.

Before I really get into the seriousness of the story, I would like to bring your attention to the humour in the Vorkosigan stories. I don’t know whether I have mentioned it before in previous reviews, but these can be very funny stories. Bujold has a way of portraying the situation and setting the scene that brings the humour of Mile’s interesting personality and his predicaments forward without pushing the seriousness from the story. Humour is woven throughout the story, sometimes taking the whole story or multiple stories to be fully appreciated.

But what interested me about this story in particular was Miles’s struggle for identity. Not to say that he didn’t have identity before. He has quite a lot of identity. Maybe too much. And that is the struggle for him. He is both Miles Naismith and Miles Vorkosigan, two very different people, but both completely Miles. It is interesting how he struggles to separate the cover from his real identity.

It isn’t like many stories, where the protagonist finds his ‘true’ self in one or the other. The conflict is a lot more complex and subtle than that. It isn’t about choosing to be your true self or a fake self. Miles has to learn to balance these two equally true selves, and this is beautifully portrayed in Brothers in Arms.

 

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How Much of Yourself?

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on August 21st, 2015

A question has come to me over the past few days, and I’m not sure how to answer it. I have been reading some things that include morally reprehensible (at least, to me) behavior. And I have started to wonder how much a writer has to believe a thing in order to write it. Do these writers that include rape, murder, cruelty and countless other evil things on some level believe in what they write about?

I have written some things that have made me uncomfortable to think about. Some things that I’ve felt sullied for even just being able to think of them and create them in vivid description. And a lot of my discomfort comes from the thought that a better man wouldn’t be able to imagine them.

But I wonder at that. Would a better man not be able to imagine the evil in the world? Whether we like it or not, murder, rape, and cruelty exists. It happens every day. Maybe not in our own narrow sphere of experience, but somewhere, somebody suffers from these experiences every day. So is it a matter of believing in these things? Or a recognition of their existence, and using them, like any other story element, to give realism to our stories? Being able to step outside of our own morality and create people that in turn symbolize the full spectrum of humanity?

And above that, using these conflicting moralities to tell us a story. These evil characters make us root for the good guy. These evil acts invest us in their justice. They pull us into the story precisely because they are evil. We want to see them resolve in a reassurance that despite the evil in the world, things are not hopeless.

So ultimately, I would have to settle on the belief that it depends on how these things are used. If a story rife with evil events and behaviors and characters uses those things for a reason other than their simple existence, than I would say that more was going on in the writer’s head than a simple belief or acceptance of those things. Sometimes, our original ideas have to be broken for us to learn something new.

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A New Self-Evaluation

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on August 14th, 2014

About nine months or so ago, I listened to a speaker in a business class. She was young and full of energy, talking about how to ‘brand’ yourself when seeking a job. How to turn your strengths into marketable items that you can use to sell yourself. And she had a fascinating explanation of strengths and weaknesses that completely blew my previous conceptions out of the water:

A strength is anything that gives you energy by performing it. You don’t necessarily have to be good at it, but you enjoy doing it, and you feel energized after doing it.

A weakness is anything that takes energy from you in order to perform it. Again, this doesn’t mean you are bad at it, just that it is energetically draining to do it.

These simple explanations completely boggled my mind, and actually gave me a little bit of a panic attack. This potentially threw everything I knew about myself up into the air. I knew what I was good at, and what I wasn’t, but I was a little more shaky on what things gave or took energy from me. That’s a little harder to determine.

I feel physically tired and sore after practicing Tai Chi, but my mind is alive and vibrant with energy and new ideas. Even more so when I’m teaching Tai Chi. Then my mind is tired and I’m socially burnt out from engaging students and coralling them through a class period as well as being physically tired from demonstrations. But I’m still filled with new energy that lifts my mood.

I get excited about formulating story ideas. Planning character arcs, behind the scenes machinations, planning dramatic moments and constructing a narrative. These things make me want to do more and more, and never stop. But the writing. Getting these ideas down into a readable format. While I’m pretty good at it, or so I’m told, I find it difficult to stay focused on it. I find myself wandering, and I feel bored and drained after a day of forcing myself to write.

These examples just outline the complexity of determining your strengths and weaknesses. I have a strength in creating stories, but a weakness in writing them. This seems counter-intuitive, and lead to a lot of cognitive dissonance when I first tried to figure out these new definitions.

But it has been worth it. Having this subtler evaluation of my skills and strengths has helped me work through the low energy times, balancing those things that give me energy and those things that take energy from me but are necessary to the whole.

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A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham

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on July 13th, 2015

A Shadow in SummerDaniel Abraham was suggested to me by a close friend, but whether he intended me to pursue his short fiction or his novels, I can’t guess. If he meant for me to read the Long Price Quartet, I think he may have misjudged either my tastes or the author’s abilities.

But before I talk about the things that I didn’t like, I will talk about the things that I did like. First of all, the setting. As a fantasy setting, I was very pleasantly wrapped up in how “low magic” it was. It had the obvious air of a fantasy story, but it kept the supernatural aspects to a minimum. Its mundaneness made it very unique and interesting.

The use of posture and hand gestures as a communication technique is culturally interesting, and I liked it as a reader and as a topic for speculation. But taken as a fellow writer, I would have to agree with the consensus that it lends to a “telling” of what’s going on with a character instead of “showing,” which is one of the first lessons a good writer has to learn. Coupled with the fact that the hand gestures and postures were never described, it creates an amorphous and disconnected feel of what’s going on when two people are talking.

I would also say that the pacing and plotting wasn’t very compelling. When you thought the story should be wrapping up, Abraham started telling a new story. And it wasn’t the sudden twist that changes everything to turn up the intensity. The intensity wasn’t turned up. It was allowed to die down and then had to be built up from the beginning again.

Another failing on Abraham’s part, in my opinion, was the inclusion of certain ideas and segments of the story that seemed superfluous. The prologue, for instance, is the most glaring of these to me. The information in the prologue is barely relevant to the story and is subsequently covered later in the story. While it was very interesting and I wanted to read more, it wasn’t relevant to the story being told, and once I realized that, I felt like my time had been wasted.

I’m hoping that the rest of the Long Price Quartet has something greater to offer, and if it doesn’t, maybe I’ll try his short fiction. But so far, I’m not impressed by his novels.

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