reviews

Mythadapted: The Hazards of Love (2009) by The Decemberists

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For this review, I have something a little different to bring to the table! That’s right, I’m reviewing, not a novel, but a music album! (An album almost a decade old, at that.)

I haven’t read any books lately which are suitable for reviewing on this particular blog. On the other hand, I recently found this old Decemberists album at my library (how dare they withhold an album by one of my favorites for so long?), which is not a traditional album, but, in fact, a rock-folk opera.

Naturally, one of my first thoughts was, I’m so going to review this on Symma.

TWO WARNINGS: 1) I will not be holding back on spoilers in this review. I figure since it’s an album, no one will mind too much. 2) Two songs, “The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing” and “Margaret in Captivity,” make brief but direct mentions of a planned sexual assault. Obviously, if that’s going to be a problem for your mental/emotional state, I’d steer clear of this album, since every song contains crucial storytelling information, and I’m not sure how the album would play without them, especially “The Queen’s Rebuke.”

The Story

The Hazards of Love is a love story, that of a woman named Margaret and her own true love, the shapeshifting young William. While Margaret is relatively unburdened by backstory, William is the ward of the Queen of the Woods, a powerful fairy/fey/elf/spirit, and, according to Wikipedia’s assessment, she wants William to become fully immortal, not waste his time on a mortal woman. It’s too late for that, since Margaret is pregnant already, but William makes a deal with his terrifying mother nevertheless: if he can see Margaret one more night, he’ll return to the Queen in the morning, and, in embracing immortality, repay his debt to her for saving his life.

That’s where the Rake comes in, but we’ll get to him. Man, will we get to him.

The story is a relatively simple fairytale: girl meets wounded fawn in the taiga, wounded fawn is actually a shapeshifting boy, girl and boy do what some couples might do in the woods in a fairytale like this, and forces both unhuman and inhuman get in the way of their happy ending. Such a thin concept might be easily run into the ground in a novel after fifty pages, but as a folk-rock opera, it’s heightened, turned into a gauzy, hole-punched myth that leaves you wanting just one more answer, one more detail. The limited number of songs and the constraints of songwriting in the album’s little collection of genres make the storytelling sparse and full of double meaning; as it should be, the music’s mode and mood is equally responsible for narrative weight as the lyrics are. There is just enough specificity to provide the plot’s frame, but much of what happens within that frame is left for the listener to fill in themselves.

It’s not a perfectly told story by any means, and the album had its detractors back in the day, but I’ve gotten pretty fond of it, holes and all.

Characters

I love the entire concept of William, the concrete details and the facts of him that are left to the imagination. In “The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid,” about halfway through the album, we learn that the Queen took William from the world as a baby; whether he was sick, or dead, or otherwise – “From cancer I cradled you,” she sings, and says that he was “entombed in a cradle of clay” – we don’t know. Either way, she gave him the ability to take the shape of a white fawn; it was in this shape that he met Margaret at the very beginning of the story.

As I said, Wikipedia claims that the Queen wanted William to stay and become fully immortal, as she is, rather than continue on with Margaret. This is what brings about a key moment in the story: William’s deal with the Queen that, after one more night with Margaret, he’ll return and repay his debt to his mother by becoming fully immortal. I, personally, see no reason to believe that William isn’t fully immortal already; my theory is that he and Margaret were planning to marry that night, and he wanted to go through with it even if he had to leave his mortal beloved behind after that.

But that’s just me.

The Queen, despite being without objective morals or respect for life, is my favorite. Maybe it’s because she is so terrifyingly subjective in her judgment of the rest of the characters; I don’t like her, but I find her presentation the most fascinating, if only because I’ve always had a weak spot for those powerful creatures of folklore who work only towards their own desires, no matter how selfish. The Queen is the very picture (sound?) of faerie amorality, and I love her ruthlessness.

Perhaps because he’s human, the Rake’s greediness seems even more corrupted, though still abhorrently fascinating. His introduction, “The Rake’s Song,” is so horrifying, so darkly theatrical, that I started laughing when I first listened to it while reading the lyrics. I have no affection for him – he’s a monster in every conceivable way, without the excuse of being other than human – but he fulfills his role perfectly, and the way he constructs his own downfall is both obvious and satisfying.

What’s there to say about poor Margaret? As heroines in many stories such as these, she doesn’t say much that’s not about her lover. Her lyrics are lovely, and her voice suits her character (more on that soon), but there is just not much to her, otherwise. One’s reminded of the woman in that one panel of La Dame a la licorne, holding the supernatural creature on her lap and doing very little else. It’s perhaps the most significant disappointment of the album that Margaret, one whole half of the love story, is given so little to say.

Music

I asked my brother, a graduate of the Dark Horse music production program in Nashville, how I should approach reviewing the actual music part of an album if I don’t know much about music. He said I should “reinvent the album review” and “not overthink it.” Here goes.

As in any given Decemberists album, the music of The Hazards of Love comes from a few different genres. The strongest influences are folk – alternative folk, folk rock, maybe prog folk. There are songs or sections played with harpsichords and organs, used to spectacular effect to create very specific moods (stilted and muffled with the harpsichord, ominously religious with the organ). Then there are the Queen’s songs, played with riotous electric guitar, instantly overpowering any other voice in the album, if not in emotion then in sheer presence.

Beneath even the lyrics and the notes of the songs are the rhythms, the way the music moves. Love songs between Margaret and William sound perhaps the most modern; they flow freer and lighter than the others, retaining the trappings of some vague “traditional” sound, but still less aggressive and more accessible. A synthesizer is present in “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?”, the last happy love song of the album. The Queen’s rock rages are even less bound by meter – making her even more frightening, less in control of herself – but her few songs are so aggressive that “free” becomes an utterly inapplicable adjective. (If I have one complaint about the Queen, it’s that her guest singer, Shara Nova, doesn’t have the kind of beefy voice I’d want behind someone as mysterious and powerful as the Queen. She’s very good, and, in fact, “Repaid” is the first song that made me really pay attention to this album, but I still wish the character had had a little more to her voice.)

So there’s something equally disturbing about the Rake’s songs, as rigidly metered and musically unchanging as they are. Colin Meloy “plays” both William and the Rake, but his vicious enunciation, paired with the eerie repetition of the verses in “The Rake’s Song” and “Margaret In Captivity,” somehow make him very creepy. Is it an impression of control that a man so very depraved has over himself? or is it that the man is so unhinged that he must repeat his music over and over, instead of creating more complex sounds and rhythms? I’m not sure, but every time I listen to “The Rake’s Song,” it gets more unnerving.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite track. In “The Rake’s Song,” we learn that the Rake, in order to free himself from responsibility, murdered his three children. In “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”, there are screeching violins and three child singers.

Yeah. It’s as amazing as I am insinuating it is. It might be worth listening to this whole album if all you’re interested in are the vengeful child ghosts.

Recurring Imagery

One of my favorite things about musicals and storytelling albums such as this is the ease with which musicians employ comparison and contrastReprises bring back phrases with twisted irony or new layers of meaning; songs foreshadow and make the listener squirm with dramatic tension.

One of William’s key phrases early on is “the wanting comes in waves.” It’s a metaphorical statement early on, a pretty turn of phrase but, I thought, a bit odd to fixate on. Then comes “The Queen’s Rebuke” and “Annan Water,” and William’s promise to the river makes his “waves” refrain dreadfully literal. And, while we’re on William, it’s impossible to ignore one of his first songs, “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)”, in which he, yes, wagers all, just for his love of Margaret… not like that could ever go wrong.

Two songs come just before the peak of the story, one after the other – “The Queen’s Rebuke” and “Annan Water” – which, once and for all, contrast the Queen’s and William’s characters. The Queen parts the waters of the river Annan so that the Rake may escape with Margaret and eventually kill her; when William reaches the water, he pledges his own life to save Margaret’s. In the end, Queen loses what she had killed to keep; William, in death, gains what he wanted to save. It’s a heartbreaking twist.

Finally, because this review is already too long, a final note, this time, of comparison. In the beginning of the story, William calls to his love as she makes her way to him: “O my own true love! / O my own true love! / Can you hear me, love? / Can you hear me love?” It’s a haunting, distant call, and Margaret echoes it later in “Margaret In Captivity” after her abduction. Finally, in “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned),” our lovers’ final, lovely, impossibly upbeat lovesong, they sing together, in chorus, “But I pulled you and I called you here (Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I?) / And I caught you and I brought you here (Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I?)” It’s the single running thread between them, that act of calling to each other with such faith and desperation that, even in death, they are together.

Conclusion

The Hazards of Love isn’t a great album on the first listen, not when you don’t read the lyrics and understand what parts of the story Colin Meloy gives you (much less try to elaborate on the parts of the story he doesn’t give you). While much of the story is, as I said, told through the music and the rhythm and the voice, those audio elements only have their proper weight if you know what’s being said.

Now that I know the story, and I’m emotionally invested in the unanswered questions (such as, how did William and Margaret end up drowning? Why aren’t they alive?”*) as well as the story given, I think it might be one of my favorite music discoveries of the past few years.

It’s a piecemeal presentation, inescapably modern, but self-consciously classic in a dozen different flavors of “old.” It lays on the border between sincere and schmaltzy. It’s a fairytale, moth-eaten and confused and dedicated to the feeling, not the thinking, of storytelling. Technical details such as time period, backstory, and character arcs are secondary to the sheer experience of all-encompassing love struggling against insatiate violence and greed.

I fully recommend this album, if not as great music then at least as a heartily entertaining exercise in something different. If it’s not Great Art, it’s still art at its most enthusiastic and wholehearted. And, guys, I can’t stress this enough: ghost children.


* My theory: the ghosts of Isaiah, Charlotte, and Dawn destroyed the castle with fire and water; in “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”, the drums/percussion sound suspiciously like the destruction of a building. The kind of fortress that the Rake mentions in “Margaret In Captivity”? In his haste to rescue Margaret, William ran with her to the river and, forgetting his promise to let it take his life on the return journey, he led her across it (maybe in his deer form). It rushed up to make a wreck of him and it made a wreck of her, too, joining them once and for all.

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The Gifts of Writing

Last week, I finally read Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken me this long to get to it. I might as well admit that I only read On Writing by Stephen King in my second year of college. Oops.

Bird By Bird is an advice/philosophy/warning book for writers, and it was delightful – coarser than I expected, funnier, more honest and incisive. Some of the instructive portions were old hat for people who’ve done their research, but you can always use a quick reminder. Then there were the warnings: writing is hard, and you need the right worldview and motivation to do it right or it’ll drive you crazy. Like I said, old hat – even if you haven’t done your research, writing has probably worked some screws loose in your brain every once in a while.

But, very early on, Lamott made an inconspicuous comment: “One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”

The concept of writing having gifts isn’t really one that I’ve noticed authors talking about. I’ve always heard them saying that it won’t be easy. I’ve sometimes heard them talk about the satisfaction of progress made, or the reward of writing a story well: you put in work for fifteen years and somewhere down the line, you have a poem or two you don’t hate, or a few checks from stories you sold.

I couldn’t say I’ve ever heard a writer talk about the gifts of writing, which are not the same things as rewards. Rewards are earned; gifts are freely given for arbitrary reasons. Lamott’s words put me in a strange frame of mind – a tad emotional, even. Have I been grateful for writing enough? Not for the things I write, but for the gifts that writing gives me even before I type “Chapter One” into my text document?

The answer is, “Defs not.” Gratitude grows in humans like flowers in the Atacama.

So, in the interest of mindfulness, cultivating a thankful spirit, and list-making, here is my list, my Top Five Gifts That Writing Gives Me, with some significant help from Anne Lamott.

1. excuses to do cool stuff

There is nothing I love more than going into my local library to look up something really weird. A few weeks back, I grabbed half the section on radioactivity. (Newsflash: none of the books dished on X-Men-style mutations.) More recently, I had some difficulties finding books about the history of Romania. Books about crematorium practices and death rituals around the world have become something of an annual search for me.

On my internet browser, I have a folder labeled “Writing.” In it are pages like, “How To Poison Your Character,” “Cults of the Greek states,” “Death and dying in medieval and modern Europe,” “meanings and origins of number phrases,” “science-fiction technology terms,” “endangered animals of Germany.” I have an entire folder for my southern gothic paranormal story that’s just a bunch of Atlas Obscura pages for Alabama.

One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. (Lamott, xii)

I haven’t been many places physically for the sake of writing, but it’s on my list when I save up the gas money. (Those Atlas Obscura pages aren’t just for reference; I fully plan on seeing the Tree That Owns Itself soon.) The point, I think, is experience, for the simple reason that the world is big, and there’s absolutely no reason not to see as much of it as you can. If you’re interested in the world outside yourself, which you probably are if you’re writing, then why not go see it? Writing is your passport to go sit in a cemetery and take headstone rubbings, to visit that weirdly specific museum a few towns over, to talk to someone whose “backstory” deserves to be heard. And you never have to feel weird about it, because everything you experience goes into the melting pot which is “writing.”

This leads to the next gift, which is…

2. humility + selflessness

Another [gift] is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around. (xii)

Writing gives you a free pass to explore and learn about and empathize with the weird, the unexpected, the overlooked, the undervalued, the strangely beautiful. We live in an old and tightly-packed world, and we can only ever know the teensiest little bit of it. But if you want to write, then you have every reason – and every need, as an Ethical Storyteller – to find out just a teensy bit more. Widen your horizons and you might write more humbly; the more voices you hear, the less impressive your own gets. Which is always a good thing.

Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up.

And yeah, this is totally still a gift, as much as character development is ever a gift. It might not feel like it, but it is. (You’re pretty happy when you put your own characters through the blender, aren’t you? Hypocrite.) What’s not a gift about this writing thing that gently nudges you to be better than you were the day before, more selfless, more generous towards others?

3. ritual + work

That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. (xxvi)

Work is a gift!

One of the best things about finishing Bitter Magic (talked about here) was that the act of writing – the harmony of mental and physical productivity – became… fun. Even when I knew that what I was writing wasn’t particularly good, I often liked it, because… I was writing. I was working at something that I cared about. The book of James in the Bible has that verse about faith being dead without works; that verse can be twisted to say pretty disheartening things about Christian faith, but the spirit of it suits my writing life well: when I care about something – when I let myself care about something – so much that I just have to write it, regardless of showing my own failings and foibles? That’s good work, and the opportunity to do good work is a gift.

4. a place in the Grand Scheme

In this dark and wounded society, writing can give you the pleasures of the woodpecker, of hollowing out a hole in a tree where you can build your nest and say, “This is my niche, this is where I live now, this is where I belong.” And the niche may be small and dark, but at last you will finally know what you are doing. (234)

If you get published, or even if you don’t, you’ll never be able to know how long your words last, how many people whose lives you touch with the narratives inside your brain. Maybe you’ll see hundreds of people cheer for you at some major convention; maybe you’ll have one five-star review on Goodreads claiming your poetry changed the reader’s life; maybe the most you’ll ever know about your impact is having a friend say, “Yeah, it was better than some fanfic I read.”

But when you have the writing bug for real, knowing the grand sum of your reach is, I’m relieved to say because its impossibleness, not necessary. It’d be nice, sure, but, at your core, you don’t write to know you made a difference. “Making a difference” is the reason you might give people who ask more than one question about your writing life these days. It’s not the real reason, though. You write because you do, because you’re supposed to, and maybe the only person you ever knowingly impact is yourself. That’s fine; that’s one whole person.

It’s a gift to be able to fit yourself snugly into a space on the great gameboard of life and say, “This is where I go.” It gives you a touchstone. Of course, it probably shouldn’t be the only one, or even the main one. Maybe you have a faith, and a relationship or two, which come first. Writing is still a gift; it makes my life, at least, better, knowing that I know what I’m supposed to do, on the days when I’m not sure why I’ve been put here at all.

5. fun ! ! !

Writing, for me, is like a jigsaw puzzle. And I freaking love jigsaw puzzles. Not only do I get to worry over pieces fitting together just so, and not only do I get to organize how I do each puzzle just the right way to suit the particular size, weight, and vibe of the picture, I get to choose the picture myself – even color in some of the more unique portions!

I love prewriting. I love the brainstorming, the physical shapes and positions I twist myself into as some knotty problem slowly unravels to reveal something fantastic, exciting, intriguing, disturbing, heartbreaking – in other words, something fun. And I’ve already mentioned that, when I’m in the right headspace, I love writing, too, putting all my theoretical formulas and hypotheses into practice, letting the characters gasp awake and promptly ruin all my plans by making them better. I even love editing: paper freshly warm from the printer, the aroma of ink, the pens and notebooks and endless tinkering. It’s the heady feeling of being better at storytelling than the past version of myself, aka the slob who presented the literary equivalent of a greasy old pizza box that I’m reworking with spit and panache into the hecking Mona Lisa.

It’s fun. It’s not everybody’s type of fun, but it’s mine. And having fun is one of the best gifts of all.*

Conclusion

If you think writing is what you were made to do, there are bountiful reasons to work hard, to know that good writing doesn’t come easy or soon, to remember that your truest, most lasting motivations are easily obscured by the prospect of fame or intellectual vanity or maybe impressing the cute guy ahead of you in the Starbucks line. There are plenty of reasons to remember that writing is hard.

We can be grateful for the hurdles to jump, but that’s hard in and of itself. It’s nice to remind ourselves, once in a while, of the sweet, easy things that writing gives us, graciously ignoring, for now, our frittery motivations du jour, our issues with time commitment, and the fact that we like talking about writing more than we think we like writing.

I think we all know, in our heads, that storytelling is a give and take operation. But we have to remember to take, not just to give – or to think about giving until it depresses us and we move on to scrolling through Netflix without ever actually watching anything because commitment is scary.

Things can be nice. Writing can be nice! We, as a little subculture, need to rethink our relentless onslaught of doomsday messages, warning ourselves and the ones who come after that we might write some good stuff but we’re not gonna like it. Think of what we have in writing! Think about what we have, not only what we give, and write with gratitude in mind!


Header image by freestocks.org on Unsplash

* Which is why I believe that adults should still, if they so choose, have birthday parties. Come on, guys. Why snatch one more joy away from us as we enter an increasingly alienating, joy-parched world? Just go out with some friends and wear a party hat and let them give you a present or two. It’s not the end of the world.

mythadapted · reviews

Mythadapted: The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston

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Tolly spends the holidays in a castle with his great-grandmother, the castle’s caretaker, and the sound of children’s laughter in the halls.

 

 

Summary

From Goodreads:

There are three children: Toby, who rides the majestic horse Feste; his mischievous little sister, Linnet; and their brother, Alexander, who plays the flute. The children warmly welcome Tolly to Green Knowe – even though they’ve been dead for centuries. But that’s how everything is at Green Knowe. The ancient manor hides as many stories as it does dusty old rooms. And the master of the house is great-grandmother Oldknow, whose storytelling mizes present and past with the oldest magic in the world.

Preliminary Impressions

I didn’t go into this book expecting much. In all honesty, it was meant to fill up a slot on the Popsugar Reading Challenge: “With Your Favorite Color In The Title.” I scanned Hoopla’s audiobook selections under “green,” fought through a lot of Graham Greene, Tim Green, and Jane Green (whoever the latter two are), and eventually saw The Children of Green Knowe. It sounded similar to other kids’ ghost stories I’d read or heard of before, nothing particularly fascinating, but it was less than five hours long. I could clear it up, if it was worth finishing, in a couple work commutes and a crochet session.

It was worth finishing.

The Writing

This section is going to be a bit short, because I listened to Green Knowe on audiobook. I try to visualize some passages while listening, to get a feel for the writing as if I were reading it, but, obviously, I can’t do that for almost five hours of audio. Not to mention I just have a hard time with tracking the finer points of audio storytelling, anyway.

(I feel like I start at least one paragraph of every review with a disclaimer.)

The first thing I noticed about the storytelling was that it felt more like The Secret Garden than, say, Goosebumps. It sinks into atmospheric details and leads the reader (or listener) on a slow walk around a snowy garden, rather than barreling the reader/listener along on a crash-course of child-ghost antics. Boston takes her time with setting up Green Knowe (or Green Noah, as it’s now known) and its long tapestry of history and stories. It’s a necessary yet underutilized aspect of worldbuilding for ghost stories like this, where the ghosts in question come from centuries ago, rather than years or even decades, and I appreciated the deep feeling of being inrather than just watching, Tolly explore the castle grounds.

Instead of being a wacky kid’s story where ghostly quirk is the story’s raison d’être, Green Knowe tells a sensitive tale of history and time, with the paranormal aspect being a function of that theme rather than the theme itself. Tolly is a very small child who, through gradually making the acquaintance of three child-ghosts, becomes more aware than usual of how time passes: sometimes quickly, sometimes very slowly, always inconsistently. Storytelling is the main way Tolly learns of Green Knowe’s history, and he grows closer and closer to Toby, Alexander, and Linnet – but when Boggis, the caretaker, tells him stories of his father, Tolly goes away feeling distanced from his own family. It was the small observations, the unexpected kernels of individual experience, that set Green Knowe aside, marking itself as somewhere more substantial than most kids’ ghost stories I’ve known.

Characters

I want to talk about the ghost-children themselves, but they were a significantly pleasant surprise, so I won’t say too much about them, to preserve the element of the unexpected. But Boston wrote them in such a skillful way, so that they were poignant and pleasant rather than cloying or gimmicky. I really loved the children and the things they had to contribute to the story.

Tolly, too, was unexpectedly delightful. I tend not to enjoy very young protagonists, but, again, Boston’s grasp on how to write a little child is exceptional. She makes him, if not perfectly realistic, then at least authentic; she doesn’t patronize him, but she doesn’t make him a paragon of youthful perfection, either. He’s very well fleshed-out, for such a little boy; he has his childishness along with a certain wisdom that grows throughout the course of his friendships with Mrs. Oldknow, Boggis, and the Green Knowe ghosts.

The relationship between Tolly and his great-grandmother was similarly wonderful. It was calm and natural and kind, the kind of relationship that, even if your heart is as inoculated against schlocky sentimentality as mine usually is, makes you want to bake homemade pies and sing to the birds outside your kitchen window. At least in the audiobook – it has an excellent narrator, by the bye – Tolly and Mrs. Oldknow are a sweet, understanding pair, perhaps even soulmates in the way that family members might be in a book like this. Just thinking about their shared experiences and the way they interact with each other brings a smile to my face.

This is the book I think I’d refer to for how to write a sweet story, a safe story, with very little conflict, just characters and their friendships. The slight tension of mystery is rarely unpleasant, just suspenseful, and any unhappiness is really a sort of bittersweetness, a truthfulness that only heightens the sense of joy when Tolly enjoys himself, has fun with the ghost-children and the birds and the old toys he finds. Maybe the effect would be different if I read the book, rather than listened to it, but I hope not. I’d like to think it would hold up no matter how I encountered it.

This brings me to my final character point, an unfortunate caveat to the rest of my excessive praise: the rather racist plot point of Roma travelers (not the term Boston used, of course) who came to Green Knowe sometime after Toby, Alexander, and Linnet had died. It’s such an unpleasantly stereotyped story that I almost skipped through it, filled with horse thievery and conniving and badly-rhymed curses as it was. This subplot fueled the only real source of external conflict towards the end of the novel, and, to be honest, I think it was unnecessary. It was the only part of the story that felt tacked on,  inorganic to the themes Boston had been developing. Truly a disappointment.

Writing Lessons

External conflict isn’t necessary to a good story. Internal conflict tends to be necessary, but it doesn’t need to be overwhelming or overpowering; it needs only a good sense of set-up and then a few powerful moments to be effective. Instead of focusing on conflict, try to focus on building relationships, and see what gets said.

Lack of conflict might mean a greater appreciation of setting. Conflict-light stories might be more focused on the beautiful and the pleasant, which means you need meaningful imagery, evocative details, and a sense of the alive, even in what isn’t. While high stakes are enough to engage readers in high-conflict stories, lower stakes means you need to put more work in engaging the reader. (It’s a worthwhile fight.)

Newsflash: racism never tells a good story.

Conclusion

At this very minute, I am looking up copies of Green Knowe on Thriftbooks. I’m genuinely fascinated by how it might read if I read it normally, rather than listen to it.

Will I lose some of the magic in reading it myself, rather than having it told to me? Is the magic in the narrator in the words or in some mix of both? I don’t usually use words like ‘magic’ to describe kids’ novels, usually because the “magic” is so overstated as to become lifeless, but this one was special, marred and imperfect by That One Plot Point as it is.

Will it lose some of the magic now that I know its secrets, the pleasant surprises and the unexpected bits of food for thought? Is my imagination inferior to what Simon Vance made it in his narration?

I’m not sure. But here’s what I’ll suggest for you: see if your library offers Hoopla, check out The Children of Green Knowe, and give it an hour. I don’t want to rob you of a potential magical encounter by suggesting you might as well read the story as have it told to you. There’s something special about having a story told to you out loud; it takes some of the pressure off you and lets you immerse yourself in it, hear the mouth-sounds of the language.

I’ll let you know when I’ve read the book for myself.

writing

An Interlude: I Finished A Book

I took an unannounced week off after finishing the Responsibility of Storytelling series, and I’m still tweaking some ideas to harangue about next. (Suggestions are always welcome!) So, for the time being, an announcement:

I finished the third go-round of rough drafting for my fairy/ghost story, Bitter Magic!

Yay! A relatively infrequent marker that proves I am, in fact, a Writer!

If I’m being honest, it’s been hard in the past few years to celebrate the occasions when, after months of writing – or, after months of the following: three days of butt-in-chair persistence, followed by three days of the melodramatic casting of myself, face-down, on my mattress, claiming that I’d never write again – I finally wrote THE END at the bottom of a page. (Because writing THE END, while aesthetically unnecessary, is the only way I know to gain closure from the act of writing a draft.) I finish a novel draft once or twice a year, after all. It’s like the phenomenon of having a birthday in my 20s: it’s a cool day, and some people congratulate you on Facebook, but it doesn’t merit presents or noisemakers anymore, and after a while, it gets embarrassing to mention.

But, for me, it’s been a strange few months of writing. Last year, for the third time, I started rewriting the story of a fairy changeling duking it out with her own worse impulses as well as a homicidal ghost. I picked it up almost directly after winning NaNo with another novel. Bitter Magic is much shorter than the NaNo winner – shorter by over 100,000 words – but, since it’s the third time I’ve shaped and written the story with distinct differences in plot and character arcs, it was even messier and more frustrating. Bitter Magic has been in my life since the beginning of 2011, ish; it was, in the beginning, a very personal story, and though Rae, the protagonist, has grown less like me as the story evolved, I still have a lot of emotional baggage wrapped up in this relatively short little book. And, to exacerbate matters, I did very little outlining or planning before setting out on this third rewrite.

I won’t pull punches: Bitter Magic 3.0 is an unmitigated disaster.

But I wrote most of it within three months. I certainly did less writing than I did during NaNo, but I still got down about 70,000 words in a few days short of three months. Did I get perilously close to tears on a few occasions, because it’s a ridiculous novel, essentially unsalvageable? Yes! But 2017 was a turning point, and I am carrying its lessons into this brave new year, weaponizing those lessons against the melodrama and the self-flinging and the impulse to put all my writing folders in the little computerized recycling bin.  And, on February 23th, I finished my first novel of 2018. And I refuse to let the day pass without celebration.

Purpose-Driven

(I’ve never read anything about purpose-driven lives, so please excuse my theologically uncertain pun, made in blissful ignorance.)

In the past, writing was difficult. Like most writers (unpublished, anyway), I did very little of it. I wrote in my notebook almost every day, and I talked about my characters, and I daydreamed, and I wrote little drabbles about the characters, and sometimes I even outlined a few chapters. My Pinterest boards were to die for. But I didn’t put in the work.

For one thing, I hadn’t yet learned to let first drafts be unmitigated disasters. For another thing, I hadn’t bothered with committing. My whole life has been colored by this one simple understanding: I love to tell stories. But doing something about that understanding – turning it into art, into life, into practice – was something I had never, even in college, thought about, at least not to the extent that it affected the way I told stories, the physical butt-in-chairness of my storytelling.

I believe that hurt me. For a long time, I went through periods where I avoided writing altogether; I would have only one or two characters out a hundred, a story or two out of dozens, that I could consider without aching inside. I didn’t believe I was good enough to write them, didn’t believe in a meaning for my writing any higher than that I could create myself. And if I couldn’t even write a simple fairy/ghost story well, how could I create enough meaning to mean something, to others or even to just myself?

Last year was the year I truly needed meaning – a purpose. I had to reexamine my one, simple understanding, taken for granted for so long: did I love to tell stories enough to believe that that love meant something? I had to say yes, and settle on that purpose, at some point, or that love would never result in anything but frustration and lack of fulfillment.

Sometimes, I still question. To say, “I believe my love of storytelling was given to me by God himself” still feels like a delusion of grandeur, generated by a special blend of hubris and espresso shots. But I have two options. One: believe the ridiculous delusion, chasing it always with a sizable mug of warm, bland humility. Two: disbelieve it, put the onus on my own motivations, and get lost again, unable to come up with a convincing reason to put myself through the humiliation of rough drafts and beta reads and three hours of piecing together a single sentence, word by word. And, thus, let go of one reason I get out of bed in the morning: to tell stories.

Practice

I’m going to say something very cliché, very obvious, and very, very hard to accept: writing makes writing easier.

Writing is hard. It’s fun, and it’s fulfilling because it’s what I’m here to do, but it’s hard. And when I don’t have a sustainable motivation, it’s not the good kind of hard. You know, the kind of hard you see in humble farmers in ranch dressing commercials: you dig a row in the sunshine wearing a straw hat and a red-checked handkerchief, you wipe your forehead, and you go inside to cool off with lemonade and a crisp salad utterly annihilated by store-bought ranch. That’s not the kind of work I was doing without proper motivation. What I was doing was a poorly animated mimicry of Bob Parr at the beginning of The Incredibles.

There’s something to be said for, if not reaching rock bottom, then realizing that you’re lower than you’ve ever been. It’s at that point that I had nothing to lose in making a definitive choice. Though, of course, it’s not like choices are made overnight. My choice to take writing seriously – to treat it as a mission from God, even if it’s not, rather than treating it like a self-glorifying hobby – was, in part, putting a daily word-count task in my bullet journal. It was training myself to do the unglamorous, the embarrassing, the part of writing that didn’t make me look particularly good at the whole “mission” thing.

I didn’t do well in the beginning. Especially during college, it was hard to fit novelling into a schedule already filled with writing. With sufficient motivation, though, you arrange to make sacrifices, from the significant (sometimes sleep suffers to make it halfway to your wordcount goal) to the petty (“but scrolling through Netflix without actually deciding what to watch is my thing“).

As it turns out, the old saw holds, sort of: practice makes better.

  • It makes me better at structuring myself. Last November, as I mentioned, was NaNo. The deadline is a glorious thing, and I wrote 6k words on the last day. Then, lacking that externally imposed structure, December was taken up with a conspicuous lack of writing. Little journal task-boxes were unfilled, or just touched with color. It was a sour feeling, after such a productive November. I had to structure myself, had to discipline myself, had to bully my free time and stay loyal to my writing.
  • It makes the act of writing easier. Last week, I sat down with half an hour to write before I had to leave the house. I turned off my phone, my radio, iTunes, and played with words for a bit. When I checked my word count about halfway through my allotted writing time, I already had a thousand words. It’s an extreme example, but I couldn’t have done that a few years back – physically and mentally could not have done it.
  • Does it make my writing better? I’m not the person to ask. But that’s something else I have to take on faith. I mean, what’s the point, if it doesn’t?

Conclusion

Is this sounding like a motivational post? It probably is. I didn’t set out to write a “three steps to writing success” post, most significantly because I am not a successful writer. I mean, not by any sort of measurable rubric. (Also, I don’t have three steps. It’s kind of a squishy one and a half steps, if anything.)

No, this is supposed to be a celebratory blogpost: a bit of oversharing, and then a rousing cheer for my current writing progress, with a hint of the humblebrag. It’s obviously not a declaration that I think I’ve got writing figured out, or that I think I’ve reached the end of my writing journey. It’s the opposite, actually. I’ve finished a book (the very rough draft of one, anyway) and realized that it’s the beginning.

Seeing my passion as a mission – a sacred duty of sorts, if you want to get really dramatic – is not a magical cure-all for the writing blues. It doesn’t make writing easier. The thing it helps is my mindset. Before I even open my laptop, I’m thinking about writing from a different perspective: not as an intellectual pastime, or as conversation fodder for my writer friends. It’s my purpose. And this purpose demands love without romanticization, self-awareness without egoism, hard work without drudgery. The intentionality that comes from this kind of mindset makes every difference in how I sit in my desk, how I type, how I tell the stories I have to tell. I think it makes me better.

So, to conclude: I finished a book, and I’m happy about it. I’m going to take a few days off and, on March 1st, start the process over for a new story. I don’t know what that story will be, but writers need their own little adventures, right? Like little mercies, but with more indecision and existential uncertainty.

Really, it’s the best mission I could ask for.


Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

mythadapted · reviews

Mythadapted: House of Names by Colm Tóibín

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A retelling, ostensibly, of Clytemnestra’s story, from the sacrifice of Iphigenia to her death. But is this book really, as it’s marketed, about Clytemnestra?

 

 

Summary

From Goodreads:

From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra—spectacularly audacious, violent, vengeful, lustful, and instantly compelling—and her children.

“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.

Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to these bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigenia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child.

Preliminary Impressions

Let it be known that I’m a fan of Clytemnestra.

When I was in the Honors class at my university, we read the Oresteia, then split into two groups: the Athena group and the Furies group. The former had to defend Orestes, the latter had to condemn him. I crossed my fingers so hard to be in the Furies group, I almost broke them. I just wanted Clytemnestra to be avenged. She got the short end of the brutal revenge-cycle stick. (I did end up in the Furies group but we didn’t win. Still bitter about that.)

So last year, when I did my “2017 books to read” search, I was so happy to come across a Clytemnestra-centric book! I wanted her to avenge the death of her daughter and not end one more literary creation as a hackneyed, overwritten villainess. I was ready for House of Names and the justice it would have for Clytemnestra.

I probably should have lowered my standards a bit.

The Writing

House of Names is told by three players: Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. The women get first-person POVs, while Orestes’s section is told in third-person.

Tóibín’s writing style is distinctly literary; it’s distant, doesn’t explain much, and presents cold, hard fact without elaboration. As with most “literary” styles, that can sometimes work well, but it frequently sounds either inelegant or pretentious. The thing is, though, that it works better with Clytemnestra’s and Electra’s narrations. They are inherently dramatic and emotional in their retelling of the story’s events. They have to be. It’s Greek mythological drama; these events need intense narration. The two women have radically different perspectives on the same story, and it only makes sense that they would be theatrical in presenting their cases, so to speak. The pretentiousness of Tóibín’s style isn’t the problem here so much as the distance the style affects; I’d argue that Clytemnestra and Electra would have worked better if they had been more histrionic, more invested in the airing of their emotions.

Where the narration really fails, though, is Orestes. For one thing, Orestes spends the first whole section of the story imprisoned and far from home by Clytemnestra, a fabricated plot point in which Clytemnestra holds dozens of elders’ sons hostage to keep power, and sends Orestes away as well so he isn’t there when she kills Agamemnon. So, for 70 pages, Orestes is held prisoner, witnesses a few murders and brutalities by his guards/captors, escapes with two other boys, and hangs out at an old woman’s house. That’s 70 pages of Orestes that have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story. He and one boy, Leander – I suppose the New and Improved Pylades of House of Names – become friends, sort of. The old woman they stay with rambles about her lost family and her empty house which was once full of names, giving the novel its Very Literary name.

But nothing has to do with Orestes or his resolve to kill his mother. Those are 70 pages of distant, almost dehumanizing prose, in which the main character does nothing to advance the plot or reveal his character.

The New York Times’s Book Review for House of Names argues that the “restraint” of the writing is what gives it its power. I have to very humbly disagree. House of Name‘s restraint hobbles it, especially in regards to Orestes – more on him shortly. It’s a story inspired by Greek dramafor goodness’ sake. Instead of larger-than-life people on a cosmic stage, Orestes and most of the novel’s characters feel paper-thin and self-conscious, too pale to be poignant…

Characters

…which leads me to Orestes!

Despite the Clytemnestra-centric marketing of House of Names, Orestes gets far and away the most page-time of the POV characters. (Clytemnestra gets roughly 75 pages, while Orestes gets roughly 150.) It’s a problem, then, that he has the most boring narrative quality, and the most boring plot points. His first section has very little to do with the mythological elements that you’d expect from a story about the murder of Agamemnon; Orestes spends most of the next section without even knowing that Clytemnestra was responsible for Agamemnon’s death.

This might have worked with some amount of dramatic irony, except that the writing style just doesn’t allow it. It might also have worked if Orestes had been developed as a character in these sections, but he really wasn’t, again because of the writing. Orestes is already the flattest character in the Oresteia; if that’s the character you’re giving half the novel to, why wouldn’t you take some time to develop him? But Tóibín doesn’t. He tells us what Orestes does, and occasionally why, but Orestes receives no character arc. As a result, his sections are boring. If he’s doing very little except what other characters tell him to do, and if he’s not growing as a character himself, why should I be interested in him? Answer: I’m not.

It’s made worse by the treatment of Clytemnestra. In her first (and only significant) section, Clytemnestra is compelling and complex. She has gone through a torturous experience at the hands of her husband; she’s not only watched her daughter led to become a sacrifice, she’s also been mistreated by her husband’s soldiers. Her anger and desire for revenge, in that Greek tragedy way, is fully justified. Her voice is well-written and her personality, post-Iphigenia, comes through loud and clear. I would even call some of Clytemnestra’s passages “chilling.”

It’s a refreshingly complicated view of Clytemnestra, which means I’m all the more disappointed by Orestes’s and Electra’s depictions of her, which turn her into a clichéd and inconsistent villainess, without redeeming qualities, nuance, or reasons for her behavior. On the one hand, this makes sense; both Electra and Orestes, eventually, become convinced of the need to kill Clytemnestra for her crimes. Of course their narrative voices would, in the end, condemn her. But their views are so one-dimensional in their hatred, there’s eventually no room for the reader to see her as otherwise. It’s also troubling that we never see Clytemnestra after her first section in the actual act of ruling, with Aegisthus alongside her. The angry, determined, and intelligent woman from the first section is gone, replaced, apparently, by a powerless would-be tyrant and the man who really runs things behind her back. There’s such a disconnect, not only between Clytemnestra’s view of the situation and her children’s view, but between Tóibín’s actual depictions of her, that it’s impossible for me to feel anything for Clytemnestra after that first section of hers.

Electra is compelling in her own way, and is possibly the most consistently complex character in the story. She’s also, surprisingly, perhaps the most powerful, in the end. But she only gets so much attention – a short section of her own POV, along with some taking-charge action afterwards. I liked her, but she wasn’t enough to distract me from the severely lacking characterization all around her.

Writing Lessons

When writing a retelling of such famous mythological characters as Clytemnestra and Orestes, examine what made them enduring in the first place. If their claim to fame is their bombastic personality or presentation, think twice before taking that away from their characterization; if it’s their hunt for vengeance, think twice before eliminating that hunt and replacing it with placeholder action for a good 80% of their pagetime.

Learn the difference between authentic restraint and inauthentic pretentiousness.

Don’t flip-flop between totally different characterizations of a character just because your POV changes. Characters A and B seeing Character A differently is authentic, but you almost always have to give your readers a consistent thread to follow so Character A makes narrative sense.

Conclusion

House of Names disappointed me, both on a writing level and on a characterization level. It wasn’t a story about Clytemnestra; it wasn’t even really a story about Orestes. On some level, the distancing style of the prose should have clued me in to what the story’s really about: nothing.

It’s not that it’s plotless or purposeless, but that it’s just about… nothing. It’s about aftermath and what’s left behind after revenge and tragedy, and the answer tends to be “nothing.” Well, maybe “nothing worth getting excited over.” Clytemnestra finds no peace in revenge or in death, and Orestes finds no peace in revenge or in life. There’s a slight flicker of hope in the very last page, but it’s preceded by such unrelenting meaninglessness that I’m not sure I can believe in such a pointless idea as hope for these characters. Maybe the survivors will live, but they sure don’t seem happy about it.

Which is fine. Such an ending might work in a more complex story, with more nuanced characters. But the last few pages just made me think of cardboard cutouts, sitting in a slowly-filling bucket of water, waiting passively to be submerged and ruined. With characters who made more sense, I might be more pleased with any faint chance of hope and redemption, or touched by lingering sadness, but with these versions of these characters, I just can’t be bothered to feel anything but frustration.

responsibility series

The Responsibility of Storytelling: Craft + Excellence

Tragic Backstory

My childhood guilty pleasure was Eragon. By my rough count, I read the first book of the Inheritance Saga five times, Eldest four, and Brisingr twice; my reading experience of Inheritance at the dawn of 2012 was the subject of one of my first blog posts.

I was in an online writing community from early high school and on, and, I won’t lie, the vitriol against the Inheritance Saga got a little personal at times. It didn’t get the level of spite which some popular YA got – like, say, Twilight – but still. The social scorn was real. For every person who liked it and wanted to talk about how hot Murtagh was and how they really wished Eragon would just get over Arya and leave her alone, and omg, isn’t Angela random??, there was the user with the Lord of the Rings avatar reminding you that Eragon was a piece of derivative and badly written garbage, why don’t you just go read The Hobbit and stop embarrassing yourself and the speculative YA fiction community?

I still have fond memories of the Inheritance Saga. I want to give the series a reread sometime this year (though I have never, besides the first time, read Eldest without skipping Roran’s sections). Still, it’s not like the critics were wrong in their assessment: Eragon and its sequels are not spectacularly written, plotted, or planned. Many are the one-star reviews I’ve read with impeccable logic, and I’ve been forced to nod sadly in agreement. My fav is, in fact, problematic.

But why? It’s not as if Eragon has blatant moral problems, such as the “romantic” situations which were actually abusive in popular YA books at the time, like Hush, Hush. Books like 13 Reasons Why have been criticized for glamorizing suicide and discouraging teens with mental illness to search for help. To my knowledge, there was never a campaign against the books for spreading misogynist or racist ideals.

Christopher Paolini’s one crime, despite awards won and best-selling status achieved, was this: he just wasn’t a great writer.

Craft

Personally, I think there are a handful of Nice and Good messages to be gleaned from the Inheritance Saga. None of them are particularly incisive or life-changing, but I’ve said it before: we all need the truth over and over, and learning about it through an arguably (arguably) OP self-insert isn’t the worst way to go about it. So… why the cascade of peer-level hatred from the 2000s-era nerds?

Paolini was 20 when Eragon was republished by Knopf in 2003. I, personally, am not aware of how much professional editing went into the republishing effort. But, as a 22-year-old, I want to emphasize how mediocre my 20-year-old self’s writing was. Not with grammar and syntax necessarily, but with plotting, creativity, and just plain sense-making. It was worse when I was 18, and it was abysmal when I was 14, which is the same age when, according to Wikipedia, Paolini started writing Eragon.

Let’s be clear: there was no way (barring the plot twist that Paolini was the Mozart of YA high-fantasy writers) that Eragon was going to be full of sparkling prose, creative situations, and well-developed characters. Heck, most adult authors can’t write those things. You can’t ask a 20-year-old who just got off a half-decade’s worth of a spec-fic bender – Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Ursula K. Le Guin, David Eddings, the list apparently goes on – to write something new and great and “worth” all those awards, all those copies sold.

For 99.99% of all artists in the world, craft is something that takes time and work. Hard, occasionally humiliating work. (If you’re one of those people who goes, Oh, but your art should be the happiest thing you do! and such, sure, I’m picking up what you’re laying down. I love writing, too. But take the first fifty pages of your Happy Project to a group critique and see how it feels when you come out. If ‘humiliating’ isn’t on your list of feelings then, get an editor. Either you need help or you need a publishing contract.)

No one is guaranteed an absence of one-star reviews, no matter how exquisite and well-displayed their craftsmanship is. Books I’ve read and loved every time I pick them up have not only angry reviews, but something potentially worse: blasé reviews. The “it was fine, but I’ll forget about it by dinnertime” reviews. You may not be Eragon but you may be… I don’t know, I’ve forgotten all the books’ names I might have used here. You get my point.

Despite all that, craft makes a difference. And it has everything to do with your audience, and nothing to do with them whatsoever.

Be Excellent

Have you read The Book Thief?

What did you feel when you read that title? Did you get that frisson of excitement down your spine? Did you remember how you felt when saw the first page, noted the strange formatting, the contrast between normal type and bold, justified text and centered? And the chapter title: “Death and Chocolate.” That lovely angst-drenched combination that screams 2007 and your MCR phase.

I didn’t have an MCR phase, too sheltered, but I remember all that. A lot of people I know had that experience with The Book Thief, too. Some of them probably recall it as vividly, too.

If I can be subjective here – and talking about quality in books is always, past a certain point, subjective – The Book Thief‘s first page is craft incarnate. This is not just the first page of a novel. It’s a carefully constructed hook: a visual assault on your innate skepticism, and a calculated enticement for your curiosity. Does it seem a little angsty, a little dated, a decade after its publication? Maybe a little. Does that alter the fact that this:

First the colors.
Then the humans.

…is still as intriguing as all get-out? I don’t think so.

What The Book Thief had that Eragon didn’t – what left us unscarred by our adoration for Zusak in our tender years, while Paolini got shamefacedly lowered Goodreads ratings and a one-way trip to the annual library sale – was craft.

Markus Zusak, in a phrase, knew what the heck he was writing. And though we didn’t know we knew it, we still knew, on some level, what the heck we were reading.

Till We Have Excellence

According to my professors, C.S. Lewis’s favorite from among his own stories wasn’t any of the Narnia books, but Till We Have Faces. As foundational as Narnia has been for so many of my generation, especially in my religious demographic, I can understand why he’d feel this way. The C of N is far from being poorly written. When he said that thing about good books for children still being interesting when they’re adults – of course it applies to Narnia.

But consider Till We Have Faces. It’s one of those experiences that you don’t forget. It’s just that: not only a novel, but an experience. Again, read the first sentence:

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods.

Till We Have Faces is a tour de force. It’s Lewis at his most narratively, creatively, thematically, emotionally sound and true. This kind of excellence is not the middling skill that fades into the background, allowing the story to be read without seeing the author’s hand in it. It’s the kind of excellence you simply cannot ignore, an elevating element of its very own; you’re not brought out of the story by it, but you’re brought to the author as well, forced to acknowledge the brazenly effortless craftsmanship and the craftsperson behind it.

Craftsmanship is audacious. To attempt that kind of excellence is to reveal not only your story, not only your characters, but yourself as well.

Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” which I also referenced for the previous post in this series, discussed this at length: the best stories are the ones which tell the most complete truth that the storyteller can manage to tell. So craftsmanship is nothing more and nothing less than the art and technique of communicating the most truth possible. It’s a skill that can and should be honed, if you want to be a responsible and ethical storyteller.

And you can’t stop at getting your nebulous themes and “messages” right. Please do that – don’t become the next 13 Reasons Why storyteller, I beg. But it can’t stop there, or you’ll risk becoming one of the milquetoast Lifeway Christian Bookstore bestsellers, preaching and preaching without backing it up with craft and conscientiousness. For one thing, a lack of technical skill or concern sends a bad message to your readers: you just don’t care enough about them to learn your freaking job. As a writer, specifically, your one task is to know how to construct a story; every novel element, from characters and theme to word choice and grammar, is your responsibility. The simple act of putting a story out there for people to spend money and/or time on means you’ve claimed to know how to do your job well.

Beyond your audience, though, which is uncertain, perfecting your craft is the most honest thing you can do for yourself. That’s someone you’ll always have to deal with.

Conclusion

Not all stories are meant for widespread audiences, or even for the effort of getting to those audiences. Some stories are just for you. But you are still your own audience. What comes from your own head may surprise you.

That’s why you owe it to yourself, if to no one else, to be honest.

In so many instances, bad writing is timid writing. Sure, a lot of bad writing is just beginner’s writing, but you can usually tell the difference. After a certain amount of time spent in front of a filling word document or a stack of sheet music or a handful of filled-up sketchbooks, you have to make the decision: be simply okay, or be recklessly, ostentatiously honest.

Craftsmanship comes from wanting to set a thing inside you loose on something outside you, in a way that can not only be understood, but in a way that cannot be misunderstood. If you so badly want to say the things you have to say, you’ll learn how to say them to the very best of your ability, not only by message but by technical skill. You’ll practice, you’ll find inspiration and innovation in all kinds of unexpected areas, you’ll practice, you’ll broaden your horizons to enrich your work, and you’ll practice.

There are very few universally enduring stories that have endured based solely on their message, in spite of a shoddy storytelling vehicle. Your story is probably not one of them. Even if it was, don’t you owe it to yourself to be more honest than that? Don’t you owe it to yourself to work harder than that?

Don’t you owe it to yourself to be, to the best of your ability and strength, excellent?

mythadapted

Mythadapted: Every Heart a Doorway

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When the girls and boys (mostly girls) vanish away through strange doors into stranger worlds, most of them come back. And that, as Nancy Whitman is about to find out, is not the easiest transition to make. But that’s where Eleanor West’s Home For Wayward Children comes in.

 

 

 

Summary

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.

No matter the cost.

Preliminary Impressions

Admittedly, I’m cheating on this one. I read it for the first time in one day, December 3, 2016 – probably in one sitting. It’s very short, so I could manage that, but it’s also one of the most fascinating and delectable books I’d ever read (or have read since). Gulping the book down becomes a bit of an imperative once the action really starts up.

I was expecting to love it just as much going into it the second time, about a year later and after having read and adored Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the second Wayward Children book and a prequel. And I did – the premise, the execution, and the writing are still some of the most engaging and well-employed that I’ve read in the area of YA/Adult speculative of this nature.

It’s not perfect; some of its flaws are much more noticeable the second time around, when you’re not drawn into the unexpected storylines and the equally startling characters and writing. Still – especially comparatively speaking – t’s excellent, and it’s heart-wrenching.

The Writing

The writing style was, for me, the first thing I noticed about the book. It’s intentional. It’s a bit overwrought, leaning towards the purple side, but it’s intentional. In a story about the aftermath of lives lived briefly like fairytales, there’s a weight to the otherwise melodramatic style, flowery and heavy at the same time.

“Because hope is a knife that can cut through the foundations of the world,” said Sumi. Her voice was suddenly crystalline and clear, with none of her prior whimsy. She looked at Nancy with calm, steady eyes. “Hope hurts. That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left. Ely-Eleanor is always saying ‘don’t use this word’ and ‘don’t use that word,’ but she never bans the ones that really bad. She never bans hope.”

One of the most off-putting things about the writing – even on the second time around – is the POV swaps. Sometimes it’s in close(ish) third-person, mostly with the novel’s sort-of main character, Nancy. At other times, it hops to omniscient. A handful of other side characters get a few turns at the narration. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t crazy about it, if only because those characters get one shot at POV position, maybe two. The transitions felt scattered, if only because the POV was close third, and to suddenly be in the head of a side character as if we knew them as intimately as we know Nancy is a bit jarring.

Nitpicking? Yes, though I do argue it interrupted the flow of the story sometimes. But that’s all right. Because that style.

Doorway is under 200 pages long with fairly big type. The writing has to do a lot to tell a story in such a condensed space, and that’s, I think, what McGuire does with panache. The writing is useful because of its weaponized floweriness: it gets across big feelings and big ideas without much time for slow characterization and plot development. Where a longer novel might build concepts and characters with a steady stream of small bricks, Doorway makes do with a stack of cinderblocks, chucking them at the reader’s head every handful of pages.

If the above quote sounds a mite hysterical, that’s just how Doorway rolls. These are teenagers experiencing the nightmarish reality after years of happy-story lives, not only faced with ostracism at home but now horrifying tragedies in the last place they thought they could be safe. If you have a list of three elements that can, if done right, earn borderline purple prose, “teenagers,” “fairytales,” and “murder” are probably on that list.

Characters

The main characters in Doorway are essentially bigger, badder cinderblocks. I’m tempted to say that they’re not so much characters as they are concepts. That would be selling characters like Nancy and Kade and Jack Wolcott short, but it would also get at why they’re so successful. I am also confused at the way I am presenting this, and it’s because I’m still mystified by the way McGuire works her characters in this book.

Nancy is “girl who went to the underworld and loved it.” Every significant characteristic we know about her stems from this experience and the person she became because of it. Her mannerisms, her dialogue, her likes and dislikes, all come from this concept of a girl. But she still feels real and breathing, because she, as a character, is so deeply informed by these experiences.

Jack, the resident mad scientist and twin sister to Jill, is “girl who was apprentice to Dr. Frankenstein and loved it.” (Not really, but the comparison is quicker than a full explanation.) She is, potentially, my absolute favorite female character in 21st-century literature ever, but she’s not particularly deep; she’s just very deeply herself. Everything important about her stems from her experience in the Moors (the world past hers and Jill’s door), as it does with Nancy, but the way McGuire writes her is so delicately human. Jack might seem like a stock character, but she is never a static one.

I wish the consistent and clear characterization that characters like Nancy and Jack, along with other minor faces like Christopher and Eleanor West herself, had been universal. Kade, who I loved, could have been even more lovable if it had just been a bit easier to get a handle on who he was. His treatment wasn’t quite so refined and precise; he was, for the most part, consistent, but consistently vague, too. Sumi was a crucial character who had, for the most part, two modes: Alice In Wonderland and Uncomfortably Serious Cynic (the quote from above is definitely from the latter mode). It was difficult to see her as a person and not as a stereotype of “high Nonsense.”

I don’t have much more to say about the characters, but I don’t want to end on a negative note. So here’s one of my favorite Jack Wolcott quotes:

“I think the rules where different there. It was all about science, but the science was magical. It didn’t care about whether something could be done. It was about whether it should be done, and the answer was always, always yes.”

Writing Lessons

Let the writing style match the subject matter and the tone. It might not be for everyone, but adjusting syntax, word choice, sensory detail, and even, yes, saturation of the purple variety is your main way to create the mood you’re going for. (As long as it suits the subject matter and the characters, of course.)

Shortening a book until it contains only the bare essentials can sometimes, if you write it well, make it pack more of a punch. If your story is amenable to a pared-down narrative, each plot point will have to jump out fiercer and hit harder than it would given more space and subplot padding.

Stock characters and stereotypes aren’t bad. They’re just streamlined, fully-stocked characters waiting for you, the Ethical Storyteller, to give them human backstory and some deeply informed character quirks to bring them to a fresh new life. (Kind of like Jack Wolcott.)

A story filled with disappointment and heartache and struggle will have earned a happy ending. Don’t sugarcoat but don’t fritter away genuine emotional closure in order to be “realistic.”

Closing Remarks

Every Heart a Doorway is a beautiful book. It’s about alienation in your own world and from your own world. It’s about the search for a place where you can be free. It’s about hope and whether or not you should have it, even when it lets you down.

It’s also about kids who go to Fairyland or Frankensteinland or Spiderland. Let’s not forget the real draw of the story. If it weren’t about ex-fairytale lives instead of normal lives, about 98% of its charm would be gone.

Tolkien had that famous remark about fairytales, escapism, and jailers, and this novel feels like both a refutation of that remark and a wholehearted embrace of it. The care and art that went into making the impossible feel real, even likely – bringing out the lives and cares of these children who went into their perfect worlds and then had to leave them – doesn’t result in a tale which “demystifies” the fairytale, or make it less beautiful. That’s indeed the story’s problem, ultimately: the fairytale life is the ideal life, no matter how strange or horrifying or beautiful, so what do we do with… our life?

The answer the story gives, even in the midst of tragedy and blood and betrayal, is this: we hope. Sumi is wrong; hope for the future and hope for the best isn’t “bad.” Whether you hope for your fairytale or hope to make life better for someone else or even hope to get what you want by any means necessary, hope is what a fairytale gives us. Sometimes we get what we hope for, and sometimes we don’t. But we hope anyway. We can never stop hoping for our door.

mythadapted · reviews

Mythadapted: The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

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This is the story of Izanami, the Goddess of the Realm of the Dead, and of Namima, the mortal who became her priestess in death.

There’s also this section about fishermen, and how Izanaki’s not actually such a bad guy… I think. Maybe.

 

 

 

 

Summary

From Goodreads:

In a place like no other, on a mystical island in the shape of tear drop, two sisters are born into a family of oracles. Kamikuu is admired far and wide for her otherworldly beauty; small and headstrong Namima learns to live in her sister’s shadow. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is chosen to become the next Oracle, serving the realm of light, while Namima is forced to serve the realm of darkness—destined to spend eternity guiding the spirits of the deceased to the underworld.

As the sisters serve opposite fates, Namima embarks on a journey that takes her from the experience of first love to the aftermath of scalding betrayal. Caught in an elaborate web of treachery, she travels between the land of the living and the Realm of the Dead, seeking vengeance and closure.

Preliminary Impressions

I was excited to read this book – a book inspired by Japanese mythology, by an actual Japanese person, translated from Japanese! What are the chances here in small-town USA? Then I found this quote in a Goodreads review:

“A human life means nothing to a god and can be taken away at will. But for you… you’re human, and that makes you hesitate. Gods and humans are different. My suffering and yours are different.”
“Then, Izanami-sama, why do you suffer?” I asked, without thinking.
“Because I am a female god.”

Yikes. So it’s going to be that kind of goddess story.

Writing

First off: The Goddess Chronicle is, as I said, translated. When I critique the writing itself, it’s with the asterisk that I’m only picking at the translator’s words, not Kirino’s. The blame or praise for characterization and construction of the story, I think, is more half and half, split between Kirino and Rebecca Copeland. I have no idea how much was improved or lost by the act of translation.

On a basic level, the writing is awkward. I don’t know if it’s meant to mimic Kirino’s, or if Copeland just isn’t particularly adept at the stylistic side of translation, but this kind of writing is what I expect to find in second-rate MG novels, not adult literary mythology retellings.

I continued to weep and wail, but my father and brothers set off down the path, refusing to turn back. I stood beside the gate until the break of day. I was terrified of the burial ground. …Now I had been thrown into this unfamiliar world, held there by a formidable gate.

It’s just awkward. Stilted and formal, the writing holds us at arm’s length, reciting the facts of the story without bothering to come down to a personal level, elicit real emotions, or build the story organically. At the same time, the characters’ reactions are very dramatic. The emotions we’re told about are Big Emotions, but it simply doesn’t – for lack of a better word – translate.

At some points in the story, this works. For example, Izanami is an inherently dramatic character – she’s a goddess, so of course, at some points, she earns the melodrama. Izanami is the scene-stealer. And, towards the very end of the novel, in the last twenty pages or so, the writing fits the tone of the action. But even in those cases, it’s a case of the story transcending the mediocre writing, not the writing ascending to the level of the story. And outside of a handful of scenes, the writing is, at best, a hindrance to enjoyment.

Translating is hard, but I really wish this story could have been told more deftly.

Characters

Picture this: you’re summarizing a story about a literal goddess and the dead woman who’s become this goddess’s only handmaiden and confidante. But when asked, under oath (don’t question it), who the most fleshed-out character is, you are compelled to say: “The goddess’s deadbeat god husband.”

I wasn’t especially thrilled that this novel looked ready to fall into Memoirs of Helen of Troy-level woman-worshipping, but it’s almost worse that its female characters turned out to be so heckin’ boring (besides, as I’ve said, Izanami).

Namima is a glorified frame story, though her frame story section takes up a large portion of the novel. Granted, her family and Izanami’s do come together in a mildly interesting way towards the conclusion, but there’s still really not much to Namima except as – you guessed it – a betrayed wife, a baby-maker, and then as Izanami’s aforementioned confidante. Namima’s sister, Kamikuu, has almost no characterization; she’s defined solely by her religious station, which is, judging by the novel’s content, praying baby-maker! Yay!

Nearly all the other women in the story are romantic objects; usually it’s their beauty that made them desirable. Spoiler alert here: most of them died, victims of Izanami’s jealousy.

I’m so tired. I expected better.

Izanaki has his own full part of the story, in which his third-person narration takes the reins from Namima’s first-person one. Like I said, he is, probably, the most fully fleshed-out character, which is weird, given that a lot of his memories of early godhood are hazy, and he doesn’t remember Izanami that well (charming). He’s not a good person, either. He has, however, the most compelling and the most complete emotional arc, even if it did rub me the wrong way, and, believe me, it did. It’s just a whole unsettling situation.

But let’s talk about Izanami. Izanami is powerful and terrifying. Her bitterness is her crowning glory. Usually, I don’t enjoy a negative attribute when it forms a character’s whole deal; I don’t like that kind of romanticization. But you can play with that concept when you have gods on your plate, and what Kirino did with Izanami – extending her power from just “taking dead people to the Underworld” to this constant, cosmic comeuppance for Izanaki’s sins against her – is really impressive. It could have sent chills up my spine if the translator had been better (or maybe had better text to work with). Her characterization is consistent and godlike, and she, alone of the main characters, has a solid, emotionally resonant reason for behaving the way she does. To be honest, I’ve never (or at least rarely) had an experience where I read about a deity like her – cruel and remorseless, yet somehow understandable and even, almost, justified in her actions, the way Mother Nature is justified – and was truly affected by it.

Izanami deserved better than this novel and this translation.

Writing Lessons

If you ever get published internationally, cross your fingers and pray for a good translator.

Try not to make one of the most morally questionable characters the most emotionally fulfilling one as well.

There is something to be said for bitter endings. Not for all stories, not all the time, but a well-placed turning of a character’s back on being “happy”? That can show authorial guts, and can bring the story to a satisfying close. It all depends on theme. Tbh, I don’t know how a story about the Goddess of Death’s thousand-year grudge against her dirtbag ex could end otherwise.

Closing Remarks

I read The Goddess Chronicle in three sittings for this blog, all today, which is why I am very late. But I hope it proves how dedicated I am, that I slogged through a bad translation with sketchy characters to write this review.

None of the few books I’ve read taken from Japanese mythology have been winners, but I’ll keep trying! We’ll find one someday! It’s one of my new quests, along with “start that Funny Series” and “do some podcast reviews.”

But for now, give The Goddess Chronicle a skip, unless you’ve got a Goddess of Death craving after Thor: Ragnarok and you just can’t find it any other way.

responsibility series

The Responsibility of Storytelling: Reading + Reminding

Drive

I am a very good driver. That sounds like a braggy thing to say, but it’s not. It’s kind of a more ego-accommodating way to say that I am a very careful, slow driver.

I blame this on the things I remember. I remember my highschool driver’s ed class and the reasons given to be considerate and to take it slow, or at least only reasonably fast: “…or you’ll die! Or owe lots and lots of money!” Which are equally horrifying and effective reasons not to go too much over the speed limit and to use your blinker and to brake soon enough so that you still see the road between your hood and the wheels of the car in front of you.

I also remember horror stories. I remember the motorcyclist who was decapitated while driving on the Mobile interstate. Decapitated. When I heard that story, my brain immediately coughed up a dozen possible scenarios of how that looked at the time of the impact, and to this day, at least two years later, I still remember that man every time I drive up the interstate. That story makes me slow down and pay attention, maybe turn my music down a bit if I have it (as usual) up to eleven.

There are stories that cling in my mind and terrify the living daylights out of me, and I have never gotten a ticket in six years of driving because I remember them.

Starting Afresh

If I can be real for a moment, 2017 was less than ideal for me. It was hard for a lot of people, for many, many different reasons. I wasn’t living particularly well in my situation or my emotions. But towards the end of last year, I decided I wanted to do better – not necessarily to change much about my situations, but to change my attitudes and reactions and spiritual headspace in general. All that jazz.

In November, I started listening to the unexpectedly engaging DnD liveplay podcast The Adventure Zone. It has 69 hour-plus episodes, and I blew through it in a little less than a month. It’s not something I can recommend willy-nilly due to the constant language and let’s-call-it-suggestive dialogue, and since that’s not my general vibe, I don’t even remember why I kept at it at first, except for the fact that it has some beautiful fanart and my best friend strongly rec’d it. (And I wanted to be in on the inside jokes. So maybe I am, on occasion, affected by peer pressure.)

I wasn’t expecting The Adventure Zone to be exactly the story I needed in my life as The Worst Year wrapped up, as I readied myself to take the stereotypical plunge of weaponizing the new year against my passé, outmoded, wearyingly unattractive self. It was, though. Each arc made me a little more aware, through the f-bombs and such, of the je ne sais quoi you can always, always suss out in those rare and beautiful stories that will end up being one of your stories. One of the stories you remember.

And that’s almost too appropriate, given how much of The Adventure Zone’s themes are wrapped up in the significance of both memory and story. To me, it makes some cosmically individual sense, a sense too on-the-nose to be mindless coincidence, that this is the story I’d find to close out my Worst Year and help me usher in something, I hope, better.

Ew, emotions, don’t look

It’s the mantra of Symma: stories matter. Not to the same degree from one person to the next, but they do. The themes matters, the characters matter, the technical quality matters. Everything matters, because we remember, and what we remember is what carries us through.

When I was a kid – a painfully introverted and shy 11ish-yo kid, who gelled more with books and animals than most of my peers – the TV Land channel started playing reruns of Star Trek. The originals, obvs. I’d never seen Spock before, but of course I knew of him. I loved that he could be cool and heroic without all the stereotypical trappings of the heroes I was used to – vivacious, quirky, outgoing, popular; in other words, all the attributes I didn’t have. Spock was influential not in helping me love reading and knowledge-gathering – I already did – but in accepting that love as a positive part of me.

When I was in high school, as a kid who always felt vaguely (and, yes, often irrationally) othered, I found Sherlock. It’s come under fire in the past years but I still remember how much the friendship between Sherlock and John meant to me, as I became closer to my own best friend. It’s not that the two fictional men were singlehandedly responsible for helping me accept the possibility that I could be someone’s best friend. But they certainly didn’t hurt. And Sherlock came at a time when I needed, once again, some reassurance that someone would love me in spite of my own personality.

Sam Winchester was instrumental in getting me through freshman year of college. Supernatural has been, again, panned pretty thoroughly by some populations on the internet, especially during the later seasons, but Sam in seasons 6-8 were and are unimaginably important to me.

And there’s 2017, nasty old ’17, which gave me Taako and Lucretia as a rather tidy little Christmas-slash-makeup gift (I accepted with the stipulation that we will never speak to each other again). Lucretia, again, has been a quiet beacon of self-acceptance, guiding me to recognize that I do, in fact, have good qualities; Taako (somehow) helped me start shoving down barriers between myself and the changes I’ve been wanting – needing – to make for a long time.

Are you tired of reading about me? Probably? Yes? Definitely? Good, because uncomfortably real personal testimony time is over. That’s my point, though. Stories are intensely personal and important. They’re super fun and you should, in general, have a good time with them and a story should never get so important that your love for it trumps your charity towards the flesh-and-blood people around you. But stories shape everything on some level, including, sometimes, your charity towards the people around you. Maybe even how you drive.

So it’s important that you surround yourself with the right kind of story.

The Right Story

This isn’t where I tell you what constitutes the Right Story. I mean, it kind of is, but not as legalistically as that. The Right Story can be of any genre, of any style, of any age, of any subject, of any level of popularity. You could make an argument for ‘of any quality.’ I mean, yeah, I’ll give you that. I don’t like it, but since my favorite Sam Winchester moments do come from seasons 6-8, I’ll give it a pass. I don’t know your life.

There’s a moment in the last Adventure Zone arc where a minor character gives a message to the three protags. I can’t repeat it, because hecka spoilers, which does diminish this particular example. But every time I remember that moment, I get chills. My heartbeat probably speeds up a bit. And, frankly, I feel like I can take on the world.

I remembered that moment a few days back, when I went in for a job interview. Guess what? It helped.

If you’re reading this blog with any kind of interest whatsoever, you’ve probably found that moment before. You’re watching or reading or listening or otherwise interacting with a story, and something happens in that story, and without warning, you have this realization that you’ll remember this moment. Sam takes Lucifer to the Cage. Gandalf comes back. Beatrice and Benedick admit they love each other. Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day. Something happens – something good, something that makes you scream or shout or beam at the sky or sink back into your chair and let out a great, overwhelmed breath – and you know you’re going to carry that something with you for a long, long time. Maybe not word for word (I certainly don’t have the right kind of brain for that), but that feeling will remain.

The Right Story is the one that empowers you.

There’s a place for the sad stories. Shakespeare’s greatest triumphs, according to some, are his best tragedies and sad-ended histories and such. (To cut through all the classification issues I’ve realized exist, I like to call the Shakespearian bad endings, collectively, his Bummers). Catharsis, realism, consequence, self-education, even just a need to mix it up sometimes – those are all valid, good reasons for reading sad endings. I’m not even saying that the Bummer stories of the world can’t also be the Right Story. Far from it. Couldn’t you call Till We Have Faces a pretty sad story, all told? And it’s a Right Story for countless people, myself included.

But the Right Story reminds you, and, in doing so, it empowers you. It reminds you of the good of the world, working, often so quietly, behind all the bad. It reminds you that people, most often, occupy the gray area between the good and bad, and that everyone has the same choices that you do to as to what you’ll contribute, good or bad. It reminds you why you, personally, should be part of the good, and push against the badThe Right Story tells you what heroes are so you know how better to be one. Even if, for today, you’re only a hero to a shy kitten in a shelter, or to that other person in the street, or to your own self. I mean, you’re a savvy reader. I don’t have to remind you that there is no ‘only’ to the everyday heroism of simple, basic, functional, human decency. It’s the cliché that you might be the only decency some person meets today.

The Right Story is the one that, when you remember it, helps you behave as the most good-doing version of yourself.

Conclusion

I love stories. I love good storytellers. I love telling stories.

This will be the first part in a probably short series on the morality of stories, which sounds pretentious. I think it’s a necessary discussion, though. It’s something that I’ve seen discussed a lot in the form of diversity and inclusion pieces, which is good, but more knowledgeable and deserving people than myself are covering that in detail, and that’s not really my driving passion re: storytelling morals. I’d like to go more basic and essential than that.

At the same time, though, for this series I’ll try to get into the nitty-gritty of storytelling, especially how and why to do it right. If this goes as I have it roughly planned, there’ll be more specifics than there were in the Thousand Faces series, with fewer generalities about the universal cycle and whatnot (obvs). I’ve already had a few revelations re: my storytelling philosophy this year, so, in part, this series will be me putting that down into words. I’ll try to read some writing books and memoirs so I’ll bring more to the table than my own opinions, though, because that’d suck for all of us. It’s just going to be a big storytelling series, friendos. It’s gonna be great! We’re all going to care a LOT more about how we tell our own personal stories at the end of however long this takes!

Anyway, this blog post has gone on long enough. So, to wrap it up: I’m excited to start the new year out this way, I’ve got a lot of side projects to develop and outline while I’m doing this Responsibility series (including a project on podcasts and that demmed elusive Pimpernel humor series), and I’m working on a setlist, so to speak, of mythy/fairytaley books to revive Mythadapted. So check back in soon!

And until then, may your magic always be sympathetic. Or something. I’m working on a closing-out catchphrase. YMMV.


gorgeous photo credit to Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash