Monday, January 31, 2011

Originality Can Be Like Cover Songs

Alex Cavanaugh's Music Blogfest last week got me thinking about music... and particularly about cover songs. It was interesting looking at people's lists, and interesting, sometimes, to see that people liked different versions of the same song. Yet, really, they're the same song - what's the difference? What separates them?

In the end it can be quite a lot. And it struck me that this is sort of the same for writing, for stories and narrative ideas. It is possible to write something totally original, but it's challenging. But it's also possible to take something familiar and do that, but it only works if you can transform it, if you can add something unique and wholly yourself to bring new originality to old familiarity.

Video illustrations! Check the original, and then check the cover song...

Same song. Same notes and melody. But it's utterly transformed by the voice and vision of the artist. And this is so much like writing. There's something unique in each voice, and as writers we have to find and use this. What do we bring to make something new? Pace?

Check the original, and then check the cover...

Take an already fast pace... and then crank it up even further. But it's also about tone and pronunciation and voice. It's about seeing through something to a new world beyond. It's about turning left when everyone has always turned right.

This, I think, is how familiar stories are reconstituted, are made new again. Why are basic formulas so strong in stories, endlessly reused? Why does a love triangle work? It's because such concepts are open, available to be transformed by each and every unique voice.

Yet it's easy to fall into simple imitation, grasping at the familiar, following the well worn path. How do we move beyond that? How do we see something new in the familiar?

What about you? How do you find your way through the rabbit-hole of the familiar?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tears Like Ethanediol - The World in Miniature

by Jessica Bell


I was half awake when she opened my door. From a half-squinted eye I saw her dark silhouette, her breath a shadow on the floor. Framed in sunlight, a femme fatale lost in absence, bound in smoky decor. With her red hennaed hair, waving like a flag, she lifted her fag to her mouth. In slow motion she parted her deep bronze lips, her face enamored with smoke, cigarette pinched between forefinger and thumb like a bloke.

I watched, clutching my sheet to my chin, smoke floating above my bed, lethargy looming like lead. I only closed my eyes for a moment when I felt the pain in my head. Like freedom. Mind frozen. Numb. I dropped to the floor when she pulled my hair, flung my arm against her shin, crawled along the carpet, and out my bedroom door. I locked her in.

I heard an hysterical scream. Glass being smashed, booming sheets, words inexplicably abashed. Then silence traced my feet, like cold air through teeth. Tap, tap. Scratch, scratch. Knocking wood? A desperate groan. I held my breath. Will I ever be left alone? Crash.

Fingers trembling I pushed open the door. Perhaps she’s dead on the floor? No. In her hand, a mirror, a shattered edge, a reflection of cherry lace, blood smeared across her face, through her hair, negated grace.

She stood still, a possessed china doll, dried mascara-tinted tears like ethanediol. My mother, a breathing shell of hate, reached for me, her daughter, her bait. Has she come to claim me too?

I closed my eyes tight, but she only cupped my head in her hands. Her pulse throbbed through my temples, fingers wet, cold—dark with disgust. She lifted my lids. Dug her jagged nails into my skin. I whispered, “Empty”. She’d engraved it in the wooden frame of my bed. I began to cry. My tears stung. “Now you’re like me,’ she said. “You may live, but within … you’ll feel dead.”

Monday, January 24, 2011

10 Favourite Songs? The Music Blogfest Kills the Inkman

Like everyone else, I'm sure, I find this is hard. Bloody hard. Almost Screw you I'm not doing it hard.

But I shall succeed! Or, at least, do the best I can and know it is simply incomplete and impossible. But also fun! I'll focus on that part. 10 of my most favourite songs:

Bonus Tracks:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Corpse Who Loved Shakespeare - The World in Miniature

by Bryan Russell

The Corpse Who Loved Shakespeare

The woman pushed the elderly man in the wheelchair up to the airport counter. She smiled. The old man’s head was slumped back. He was wearing a hat and sunglasses. A little blanket was pulled high up his chest. A book was propped open on his lap.

“Here’s our tickets,” the woman said. She was still smiling. “For my father and I.”

The woman at the counter took the tickets, but she was looking at the man in the wheelchair. “Sir?”

“Oh!” the daughter said. “He’s sleeping. Ha ha ha!”

“Sir?” the woman at the counter asked again. “Sir?”

“Ha ha ha! He’s sleeping!”

“He looks very grey.”

“He’s old! Ha ha ha! Liver problems, you know. Travel will be good for him!”

“Is he dead?”

“Ha ha ha! That’s a good one! He was just reading a few moments ago. See?” She pointed at the book on the old man’s lap. “Right, Dad, you were reading?” She spoke very loudly, without looking at the old man.

The woman at the counter leaned over a little speaker. “John, could you and Mike come up to the front, please?”

“What’s this?” the daughter said with a smile. “What’s going on?”

“Just routine, Ma’am. Do you have your passport?”

“Oh, somewhere in here, it’s always so hard to find…” The daughter fumbled inside her purse.

John and Mike approached. They wore airport security uniforms. They eyed the old man in the wheelchair, and huddled with the woman at the counter, whispering.

John looked over and smiled. “If you’ll just come this way, Ma’am. We’ll check over your documents. Just a few questions for you and your father.”

“Oh, yes, yes, ha ha ha,” the daughter said. “Hear that, Dad? Just a wee delay. Ha ha ha.” She pushed the wheelchair forward, the two security officers on either side. The old man’s head slumped forward. The sunglasses were very dark, and now hung askew from his face. His eyes were open.

Mike was frowning. “Are you trying to smuggle your dead father onto a plane to avoid the transport fees?”

“Ha ha ha! No! My father was just reading, see? He loves Shakespeare. He falls asleep all the time reading it!”

Monday, January 17, 2011

They Dreamed of Stories

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Actually, being Canadian, this isn't a holiday for me, but I like it anyway. It's important, though I sometimes regret its need. There's something appealing about the idea I've heard expressed, that we shouldn't have such markers because they highlight separation, and black history should be integrated entirely within general American history. There is, in such a thought, a powerful sense of arrival, of equality. But do we live in such a society yet? A society where minorites, and their histories, have their proper and honest representation within our history and cultural self-definitions? Where these voices, and stories, won't be lost beneath a white tide?

I don't think so. We're not there yet. And so it's important to have such markers, such signposts to memory and, I hope, future action. I wanted to do something on the blog, and so I thought I'd focus on some great black authors. These writers had a dream, too, and their dreams are made real in the words of their stories.

First, the classics. It's hard to look at black writers in America without looking at Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Both of these writers are important to me. Ellison's Invisible Man is a thoughtful and brilliant evocation of the forced invisibility of a black man in a white world. Wright's Native Son reveals life in black Chicago, simmering with rage and the power of a voice being found.

Both books should be read. First, because they are great literature. Second, because they are important, both for the dreams they make real and for the cultural impact they've had.

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Chester Himes is another writer who is important to me. His prison novel Yesterday Will Make You Cry is an impressive work dealing with race and justice in America, and it deserves wider recognition and circulation. Himes left America, feeling that it was too difficult to be both free and black there, but he returned to it in his writing, in particular with his series of crime novels, in which he set mysteries in a Harlem under the eye of his two black detectives, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

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James Baldwin was one of the great intellectuals of the Civil Rights Movement, and the honesty and incisiveness of books like The Fire Next Time helped shape me, and helped shape the way I viewed the world, showing me how a human lens was always needed when peering at any ideology.

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The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, is a novel about slavery. It's not an easy book, uninterested as it is in pat conclusions and easy moral summaries. It's a look at the human stories of slavery, the all too easy choices at the heart of devaluing others for your own gain, and the cultural patterns of power that enforce such choices.

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All these books are great. All have affected me in the way that great literature should.

Yet, if days such as this are to be more than mere markers of remembrance they must help shape who we are and who we want to be. They must shape us going forward. They must shape our dreams and actions.

There are great novels by minority writers coming out all the time, yet we need to keep reading, and supporting, them. There is a disparity in the publishing world, the field still tilted away from minority writers. All that uphill running...

We can all do something, even if it's something as simple as reading. A simple choice, a step forward. It would be great, I think, if we could all pick a book by a black author (or another minority) and read. And talk it! Share it! Blog it! Tweet it! Facebooker it! Word of mouth, the voices of individuals coming together to form the voice of a community, can still help flatten the playing field.

As for me, I'm going to read Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas.

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

The City - The World in Miniature

By Bryan Russell

The City

The village often seemed lost in the jungle: no one could find it who didn’t live there. And no one who left ever remembered the way back, except for R.

The jungle seemed a little closer, a little darker, each year. The young people slipped away in the night. Out to the road. And then down the road to The City, though that was far away. The people heard The City on the magic of the radio, but in the real world it was just a rumor, though always a convincing one.

A few of the young people didn’t sneak off, back in the beginning. They said they were leaving. Off to The City. There was a celebration with dancing and music to send them on their way. So beautiful! the people said. We cried so much! And they will come back with great stories! With learning and money and machines!

But the people who left for The City never came back, except for R. They left. They called, sometimes, on the telephone. For awhile. But even then their voices were like rumors, less real than the radio. And, soon and always, the calls stopped.

The people in the village, mostly the old, cried less and held more grimly to the young. They grabbed the children and held them, squeezing tight so the children would not grow, would not leave. The older children started sneaking off in the night.

The younger children waited.

The old villagers could not squeeze hard enough, and the children grew, and in the night they left, never to return, all but R.

R. was different. He came back, and the people were happy to see him, but, really, it was not a happy story. It was hard to recognize him. He talked different, looked different. And he came back only to flaunt what he had become, all that he had gained in The City. It was a pilgrimage of vanity. He brought his car, drove it along the rough road and into the village where it could be admired. People came and looked at it. The car was old, though, and the engine died and R. kicked it many times, yelling and cursing. His grand return seemed less grand.

R. did not stay. He left in the night, walking out on foot, leaving his car behind.

The car stayed. It was very heavy, and hard to move, and the old villagers were wary of it. Keeping a distance seemed wise.

The car sat, rusting in the moist jungle air. Grass grew up around it as it lay sleeping. A vine curled through the windows. A tree grew up through the trunk. It waited, gaunted and grim and silent, its eyes shuttered.

And yet sometimes, at night, when the villagers were asleep, the engine rolled over and a hum, as of some vast insect, filled the air. The engine whirred, exhaust leaking from the crumbling tailpipe as the car dreamed of The City so far away, and a world it had once known. Lights and cars and factories, shining so brightly, but always the dream faded and the jungle returned, the thick and heavy air settling on the car.

Memories rusted quickly, and it was easier to forget.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Choosing Our Stories - A Choice at All?

How do we choose the stories we write? And is it a choice?

It's an odd question, I know. Of course it's a choice. We can write it, or not write it. Simple.

But is it? I've been thinking about how many people were surprised I wrote fantasy novels (even more than I expected), and I thought I'd write a bit about that, because I think it has larger connections beyond me. Or, at least, I'd like to find out if it does.

One of the reasons I write fantasy is becasue fantasy was first. That's what started it all for me, my mom convincing (read: forcing) me to read Tolkien's The Hobbit. This, of course, led to The Lord of the Rings, and entire worlds beyond that.

Fantasy was my first love. I read other stuff as a child, too, moving quickly from the Hardy Boys to Agatha Christie and Dick Francis. And some Sci-fi and horror, of course. And smatterings of other things. But it always revolved around fantasy, particularly of the epic sort. Magic, monsters and swords. And towers. No fantasy novel is complete without some sort of tower. (yes, I have a tower in my novel, I admit)

And maybe this doesn't seem like much, but I think it's important. First things, especially if loved and deeply invested in, are important. Indeed, they're influential. They create patterns and imprints in the mind, and this was certainly the case with the young reader I was.

Fantasy novels became part of how a growing mind conceptualized the world, how I framed and interpreted it. It influenced, subtly, how I understood the story of my own life. My values, my experiences, my wants and needs, my desire for replica swords (or real ones - you know, just in case).

These stories were what first inspired me to write, first set stories of my own circulating inside my head. And this genesis of a creative interest is hard to leave behind, I think. My creativity is, in some sense, tied to these stories, these patterns woven through me. My reflections and thoughts on the world are still somehow reflected through a mirrror of the fantastic and strange.

Certainly, as my reading tastes expanded my choice of stories to write expanded as well. I read more literary now than anything else, and I've written a lot of that. But I'm still drawn to those original stories, the sense of the fantastic, and, yes, to magic, monsters and swords. There's such a pure sense of creation, of wonder. They activate, in a sense, the child's imagination within me, that need, that demand, to explore, to find and devour the strangeness of existence.

These stories are part of me. I don't think I could escape them, even if I wanted to. And I don't.

What about you? What did you start with, and what kind of an imprint did they leave? Do they still influence your writing?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Book Greed. And Peanuts.

Hey folks, The World in Miniature should be back next week. And, yes, I did write a flash fiction this week, but it was for a wonderful little publication called Abe's Peanut, a postcard zine for children (and adults!). Every month a different artist and writer collaborate on a four part postcard story, one postcard being mailed out each week. Do you have a child interested in stories and art? A burgeoning imagination ready to explore the world? Would they be excited to get their own collectible art and fiction in the mail? Consider Abe's Peanut. The world needs more such creativity!

I also wanted to touch on book greed. You all like me? Ravenous for books? Because Christmas is the time, you know, for books. Plus holiday cheer and all that. But mostly books.

Now, when I was a kid, Christmas was all about the presents. What did I get? What did I get? What did I get? But as I got older this has changed. I become much less interested in getting and more in giving... and more in just gathering family together and having a wonderful time.

But the one area where I fail miserably in this is with books. I mean, I'm happy to get clothes. I love music. But, hey, I'm okay one way or the other. But books! Gimme gimme gimme! The obsession rears its ugly head. And rather than resolute and try to halt this addiction, I've decided, hey, what the heck, let's just run with it.

Books! And I'm guessing lots of other people picked up great books over the holiday season. So I'll show you mine if you show me yours! :)

Christmas gifts:

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The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud.

Bought with Christmas money and giftcards:

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Snagged at the used bookstore:

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And what about you? What did you stock up on over the holidays?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Men With Breasts = Strong Female Characters?

I want to talk about a couple books as a lead in to my subject. First, because they're great books, and I read them after my post highlighting some of the great books I'd read in 2010. And they deserve a shout out! Second because they got me thinking on a particular subject, which I want to explore today. Topical lead in! Yes, I've written too many academic papers in my life. And, yes, it's ruined me for most other things.

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The first book is Far North, by Marcel Theroux, a post-apocalyptic novel set in the far north of Russia in an area settled by Western pilgrims looking for a harsh new utopia. The apocalypse that struck the rest of the world led to an influx of refugees and conflicts that doomed the way of life the pilgrims had created.

The story follows Makepeace, the last peace officer in a town without people. She leaves in search of others, but is eventually betrayed by those she finds and enslaved. Yet the slavers need people to search through plague-struck ruins for the technological remnants of the powerful civilization that once was.

It's a wonderful story, and I see why so many people compared it to The Road. It's only natural, I think, after reading it. They share a bleak view of the world lit only faintly by hope and possibility, and yet a beautiful humanity still exists amidst the darkness, burning embers in the ash and dust. It lacks the vibrancy, perhaps, that comes from McCarthy's prose (but then who else has that?), but it is beautifully written - a great "voice" novel, a first person narrative that leads you firmly along, a mix of rough lyricism and the ever so practical common sense of Makepeace herself.

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The second book is True Grit, by Charles Portis, a sort of literary western in which a fourteen-year-old girl, Mattie Ross, hires a U.S. Marshal to catch her father's killer... and decides to go on the hunt herself.

As the title suggests, it's a gritty novel, but also an extremely funny one. You have to be careful while reading, as some of the lines are sharp enough to cut. This, too, is a "voice" novel, a captivating first person narrative driven by the perfectly pitched tone of Mattie Ross, offering to the reader this captured sense of a true human voice.

(And, no, I haven't seen the movie yet! But looking forward to it, certainly.)

Both books are worth reading. But after my own exprience with them I started thinking about female characters and what makes them strong. I started thinking about the Men With Breasts Syndrome.

The heroic male is still a high convention across many forms of literature, but I think there are a lot of writers seeking female heroes as well, and in so doing they're trying to craft strong female characters. And yet I sometimes find this idea of strength problematic, because what I often see is a female character who gains "strength" by rejecting traditional feminine roles, habits, hobbies, beliefs, experiences, histories, etc., and adopting traditional masculine ones.

Now, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with this in a specific, individual sense. Gender constructions can be varied and can certainly run against the grain of the norm. But I find it a little troubling as a trend (and by trend I'm merely going, of course, on my own subjective experience - I'm broaching a topic for exploration, rather than trying to provide answers. Hopefully everyone will bring their own view to the discussion). What it does is place the idea of "strength" firmly within the masculine norms, and denies the possibility of strength within the feminine. For a female character to be strong, in this sort of construction, she must in fact become masculine.

Now, this masculinizing trend is often disguised by having the female character aggressively heterosexual. Sexual orientation adds a whole new layer to the discussion, but is probably too much to go into here. So, with a straight heroine, we have someone overtly hetero, often with passionate love affairs with men, and thus overtly feminine in the traditional sense. But beneath that mask lies a gender skew toward the masculine - it's the only way strength is available, to out-patriarch the patriarchs.

There's an element (particularly among male writers, I think) of a sort of male fantasy in all of this. The ol' We can drink beer, watch sports, bash a bad guy -- and then have sex! Yippee! The strong female character who is seamlessly one of the guys... and yet so often denies female contact. No female friends, no traditionally feminine hobbies or interests. This would reduce "strength"; this would be "soft". It's the kickass heroine who also happens to be eternally full of sexual smolder. Sexual relations can either go further in showing the gender skew, with the woman taking on the dominant and traditionally masculine role, or it can subvert it at a base level: yes, she's a hero and can kick ass, but, you know, she still does what I want her to do in bed. Oh yeah. Who's the man.

Power is appropriated by the masculine. To be "strong", you have to be like "us", the men. It's the old patriarchal structure, only with a twist: we'll let you in... if you meet the criteria. If you're a woman who's man enough for us.

Obviously, this idea of strength is fraught with problems. Strength has many forms and human patterns, and this denial of possible forms can't be good for the richness of characters, of literature. We don't necessarily need more Men With Breasts, but strong female characters. Characters who find strength on their own terms.

I think both the novels I touched on are interesting for this reason. In True Grit Mattie Ross is fourteen, and forces her way into a manhunt, bringing her father's old gun. And she's willing to use it. And yet one of the wonderful things about her character is that she's not predictable. She certainly confounds traditional gender norms, and certainly some of the things she does would be considered "masculine". And yet she's not trying to be a man. She's not secretly yearning to be a U.S. Marshal herself, to be as manly as the men. She has a purpose -- to avenge her father. She doesn't care a lick about guns or any of this outside her purpose. After that, she's going to get on with her life as she sees fit, bound by her own ideas of self.

Makepeace, in Far North, is even more masculine, in some ways. She often tries to hide her own sex, though this is partly for safety, or lets others misjudge her without correcting them. Many of the things she does would be considered traditionally masculine, and yet her actions are based on the specific influences of her own life -- trauma in her past, the need for survival, the practical bent of her own nature. And there are contrasts, her love of metal-working (learned while making bullets) played out against her love of gardening. There's a depth to her character that makes it hard to pin her down within simple gender constructions, and this is wonderful.

What is immportant, I think, about both characters, is how their strength does not come from an adopted gender role, but arrives as a result of their own unique natures and the pattern of their own unique experiences. Their strength is personal and individual. They can both shoot a gun... but this isn't what makes them strong. They are strong because of their conviction, their sense of their own place in the world and what they want, and their willingness to risk and sacrifice to reach their goals.

Reading these books I had the sense that this was important, the idea of finding a character's unique strength within him or her, rather than merely grasping at biased cultural notions to prop up character actions. Strength is not something defined by external props, by a created facade, but something interior and personal.

Yet this certainly isn't easy. I think of my own characters, and wonder how many of them meet this criteria. Do I avoid "weak" female characters? Do I avoid them only to make Men With Breasts? Do I have to do a better job of finding and understanding female strength in my own stories? Or perhaps I simply have to find what's uniquely human in each character...

I would love to hear some thoughts about your own writing, your own struggles and successes with characters. How do you navigate strength? Power? What is it to be strong and female, particularly in the context of literature?

Edited to add: I had this in the comments, but maybe it should go here.

"And I should add, as an addendum, I was a little nervous of the Men With Breasts thing - it's a fun bit of rhetoric that summarizes the point... but it could also be misapplied as a slight against a certain gender construction. Which is not what I want, obviously. Traditional male actions are certainly valid within a female identity - even a solely masculine gender performance. The person may not be any less female for that, which is why I'm leery of Men With Breasts - which could be construed negatively in that situation.

Hopefully its use as a bit of verbal rhetoric is clear. If not... mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Biting and Scratching

Happy New Year!

Even though New Year's and I get along like this:

Get too close, New Year's, and I won't be paying the medical bills.

So! Yes! We shall enter this newest of years biting and scratching! In honor of said bites and scraches there shall be resolutions!

1. Reduce coffee intake. Your excessive caffeine vibrations are damaging the furniture.

2. Finish editing WIP. At least to the point where some paid professional has further advice.

3. Finish revising sequel. Which is better than the original, so it would be a terrible shame if no one decides to publish said original.

4. Finish revising Lit novel. Okay, I'm already getting tired.

5. Rewrite other Lit novel. Keep awesome parts. Add more awesome parts. Cut the shitty parts, particularly the ones that don't make any sense. Keep cool chapter titles. Ignore growing weariness and fatigue. Up vitamin intake. Perhaps start disregarding resolution number 1.

6. Write new novel. Oh the glory! I like writing first drafts of novels. One must be done this year. Or... piranhas will eat my head. *piranhas must pay for all travel costs and accomodations and arrive on their own convenience and the writer of this blog will hold no responsibility for failure of said piranhas to arrive and eat his head in a timely manner upon failure of meeting the demands of resolution number 6

7. Occasionally get off chair and run, so as to prevent complete atrophy of all major muscle groups outside the fingers. Do Terry Fox run in autumn. Lie to self and pretend that self will one day run a marathon.

7. Do not ignore children for too long. Check for spores, molds and fungi at regular intervals.

8. Read more fantasy this year. The time has come. The prophecy foretells the coming of a voracious reader in old sweat pants...

9. Read more crime novels. Dead people are strangely soothing. Go figure.

10. Keep writing flash fiction as an attempt at stopping uncontrollable wordiness. Try to actually meet own flash fiction standards of length as posted. Let yourself drink one (1) coffee every time this is accomplished. Bunches of one-word "stories" whose sole meaning of existence is to garner mugs of coffee shall be disqualified.

Let us now sound the trumpets, bare our claws, and meet the new year head on. Hamstringing it from behind is also acceptable behaviour, so my cats tell me. Go forth. But multiply, you know, only if you want to.