Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Jerry Jenkins on New Writing

From time to time, I read other writers' blog posts. Sometimes, I even post them here! Today is one of those days.

from - a very enticingly named site!
"Why write if there's nothing new under the sun?"

Yesterday, Jerry Jenkins answered this question. At first, it seems that "You know what makes your message unique? You do!", feels like a cross between self-help literature and stating the obvious. In the following points, though, a great list emerges:

1.  Because your take will be one-of-a-kind and will appeal to people like you.

There's a new spin for everything.

A huge aspect of this is when you write. Sure, Shakespeare may have had some things to say about the human condition, but surely something else can be said now that four centuries have passed. Having had the experiences you had growing up, the surroundings you have now, the expertise that makes you knowledgeable, and the life that inspires your writing gives you that new perspective.

2. Because there’s more to say on the topic.

When will any topic ever truly be exhausted? I like this attitude. Even as seemingly a hackneyed setting as medieval-themed fantasy could use more character intrigue... or a drastic setting change. Even I'm doing something very vaguely similar. As much as humans have said over the millennia, we haven't said everything. The more we've read, the more we know what's necessary to fill the gaps.

3. Because last time, no one was listening.

This is probably the least common of the three but is probably still happening everywhere. Find your favourite old style is forgotten or was never read? Sometimes our favourite works are obscure... or sometimes we even think we can improve on them. I've been talking about this since the early days of this blog in 2012!

Jenkins's full version, sadly without my commentary, is in the bolded link above.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

August's Book: Dead I Well May Be

Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty
Crime (2003 - 306 pp.)

Dead I Well May Be is Northern Irish author Adrian McKinty's first published novel. The narrator is Michael Forsythe, a 19-year old Northern Irish gangster fresh off the boat in New York City, in 1992. Although Irish-American gangsters were more 1920s fare, events in late 20th-century Northern Ireland give an impetus for renewed gang warfare. McKinty presents the NYC of the period as a tough, ruthless place where Forsythe fits into Darkey White's Irish gang. Colourful characters like Sunshine and Scotchy take up commanding posts in the gang.

Unending action is the main hallmark of the book. Every few pages, someone is getting shot, or some new fact comes to light, or a relationship is made or ruined. Some of it gets unrealistic to the point that the reader wonders if Michael is an unrealiable narrator, such as Michael's journey through the American Southwest, but it always entertains. Violence-wise, there's a Belfast six-pack, a near-beheading, various gang scuffles, and so many betrayals it becomes nearly impossible to tell who's loyal to whom. In keeping with my general rule against spoilers, I'm not giving page citations for any of those.

McKinty also has a great sense of humour. During a childhood flashback, Michael and his brother visit their neighbours the Millers for a haircut, which leads to Michael gawking at a calendar model (137) and eventually talking back to Mr. Miller. (140) Semi-frequent interactions with Michael's neighours in NYC like Ratko and Danny the Drunk lead to funny events, such as when Ratko's wife serves "sausage so undercooked an bloody I was sure it was a chastisement". (196) At one point, Michael blames the violence in Northern Ireland on poor weather. (61) I occasionally broke down laughing while reading, which was awkward both in that I was clearly reading a crime novel and most of my reading was on public transit.

Dead I Well May Be occasionally overexplains. Early in the book, Michael takes half a page giving the reader miscellaneous bits of information demonstrating that it is indeed 1992. (8) That said, McKinty is adept at using sidebars to flesh out Michael's opinions of his surroundings. Characters who die are frequently referred to in the present tense, talking about who they are at the time of Michael observing them rather than who they were in memory, making many deaths surprising. Even when Michael jumps ahead hundreds of pages, saying things like "[X] happened [Y], but I'm getting ahead of myself", it doesn't spoil the future events. Sometimes the asides are insightful, such as when Michael comments on the luxury of certain prison cells (107) or conversion rates for the brutality rates of different countries' prisons. (110) A description of Michael making Ulster fry (270) makes me want to try it myself.

Something I lost track of after the first few pages, but enjoyed throughout in a campy way, is Michael's almost constant use of the word "wee". I smiled whenever I read it. Even a barracks is at one point called "wee". It makes me think of the famous scene in The Simpsons when Groundskeeper Willie retires mid-afternoon for "a wee nip and a wee nap". By the end of Dead I Well May Be, all the surviving characters could really use exactly that.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 2

ASIDE: When's the movie coming out? I'd love to go see it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I Have a New Profile Picture!

The old one was one of my favourites. It was taken at the Royal Ontario Museum on New Year's Eve 2012, by one of my best friends. It survives on my Smashwords page.* However, I was 25 when it was taken, and I'm 29 now. People occasionally see that picture, then they meet me and are surprised at how old I am.

The new picture is again of me in downtown Toronto. I have a way of ending up in that place. This time, it's at the harbour, just west of Yonge Street. I found a round lookout-style area in the middle of a spiral staircase so I thought I'd make it home for a few minutes. Here's a stable shot:

It comes from my page.

How long it'll last, I'm not sure. The last one went from 2013-2016, which is a nice run. This one would need to last until at least April 2020 to match it. What I'll be doing on this blog by then, who knows?

*The shirt I'm wearing in that picture is from English Laundry, which worked extensively with Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland on shirt design. I assure you the tributes last December were fitting. RIP.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Shakespeare and Me: The Tempest, and All the Rest

This was well done, my bird.
Thy shape invisible retain thou still:
The trumpery in my house, go bring it hither,
For stale to catch these thieves.
(The Tempest, Act 4)


Yesterday, I finished reading The Tempest. It's the first Shakespeare play I'd read since 2010, which is the longest I've ever gone without reading one except from birth until age 14. I've spent the intervening years doing a fair bit, including a lot of reading, so I don't feel like I've cheated myself. It was just a nice time to return.

It's pointless and unfair to review a Shakespeare play the way I would review a more current and less already discussed book. What am I supposed to say? That it's great, which would be stating the obvious? That it isn't, which would be impossible to defend?

What I can say are four things:

  1. Much like Twelfth Night, the first Shakespeare play I ever read, The Tempest is a great play to introduce to students reading Shakespeare for the first time. The story is simple, there's a good dose of humour (thinking of the zany Caliban/Stephano exchanges), and it's a comedy. As culturally impactful (which, yes, needs to be a word) as plays like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are, happiness sells. There's a reason people don't go see stand-up tragedy shows, although the concept would be interesting, and arguably political humour is tragic.
  2. The relatively few settings result in very few scenes per act. The Tempest only has eight scenes, with no more than three in any given act. Acts 4 and 5 take place in the same jail cell. The idealist in me says Shakespeare's ability to use language instead of adventure to move the plot is on display here, such as when Prospero and Ariel trick Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo into seeing dog and horse apparitions at the end of Act 4. I've cited some particularly moving language at the top of this blog entry. The cynic in me says this must have been an incredibly cheap production to release. 
  3. Open-source technology may be the most viable way to maintain the public's interest in Shakespeare. Although the MIT link I included at the start of this blog entry doesn't have hyperlinks, I'd love to see a noted-up Shakespeare play with hyperlinks to the relevant references that readers may not get. It'd be a fitting replacement for the books that have Shakespeare on one side and annotations on the other.
  4. I found The Tempest an easier read than any other Shakespeare play, even though I'd gone the longest since reading the last one. What that tells me is that reading of all kinds reinforces other reading. This is why I think it's so important for fiction authors to be well-educated: it's about transferable skills. In my case, all that industrial relations prepared me for some reading, and law helped too.

Semi-related, I have a plush tiger I've owned for the vast majority of my life (since I was 8 or so?) that I named Tempest. He doubles as a puppet. Here's a picture of the cute little guy:

I took it just now. Yes, he's posing with May's book. He's also posing with an elephant-shaped bookend, recalling last May's book. If I'm Calvin, he's my Hobbes.

A full list of Shakespeare plays I've read (13 in total, or 15 if you count the two I mention at the end):

Twelfth Night (2002)
Julius Caesar (2003)
Romeo and Juliet (2004)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (2004)
Hamlet (2005)
The Merchant of Venice (2005)
Titus Andronicus (2007)*
Henry IV, Part I (2007)*
Antony and Cleopatra (2007)*
King Lear (2007)
Macbeth (2010)**
Othello (2010)**
The Tempest (2016)

I also read some of his sonnets in 2009. I vaguely recall reading Coriolanius* in 2007 and Measure for Measure in 2009, but their contents elude me to the point that I wouldn't feel able to discuss them.

Fun fact about me: Titus Andronicus is my favourite Shakespeare play.

*This is what happens when you take a course entitled "Shakespeare's Tragedies and Histories". Bizarrely, none of King Lear, Macbeth or Othello were on the syllabus.
**I read these within a couple days at the start of August. Loyal readers of this blog know my birthday is August 3, so imagine this: every year, right before my birthday, I try to accomplish as much as I can while at my current age. When I was 22, that apparently meant reading as much Shakespeare as possible. It also means that even though my Shakespeare drought lasted barely more than six years, I read The Tempest at 29 but the ones before it at 22.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mysticism over Magic: Approaching the Fantastical from a Different Perspective

Fantasy literature comes in many forms. It can be high fantasy, set in a fantasy world, or low fantasy, introducing the fantastical into everyday life. It can be set in a historical or historically inspired setting, or it can be set in a futuristic setting. It can feature non-human races, such as the canonical dragons and elves, or it can feature humans doing things humans shouldn't be able to do.

What tends to bind all these subgenres together is the existence of magic.

According to Wikipedia, "Magic or sorcery is the use of ritualssymbols, actions, gestures, and language with the aim of exploiting supernatural forces."

The American Heritage Dictionary is more detailed. Its three-part definition is:
Magic: 1. The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural. 2. The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or to control events in nature. 3. Sleight of hand or conjuring for entertainment; the use of premeditated deception or concealed equipment to produce baffling effects. From Persian magos, or "priest."
Writing-World has a comprehensive list of magic types and magic users here. For subjects like the difference between a sorcerer and an enchanter, it's a good source. It shows how diverse authors' conceptions of magic and magical people have been over the years.

Magic, as defined here, is understandably a cornerstone of almost all fantasy fiction. From some of the earliest modern fantasy, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice books, through to 20th-century classics like Narnia and Lord of the Rings, all the way up to more recent canon entries, there's magic.

Whether magic is strictly necessary for fantasy is debatable.

In my upcoming fantasy series, set in a fantastical version of early modern Central Europe,* I've gone the Gormenghast route by having a fantasy setting without the usually accompanying magic. There, the then-nascent tropes hadn't been truly codified, so it's tough to say they were ever inverted. I haven't gone quite so far.

What I've done instead is to embrace mysticism. There won't be a single wizard casting a single fireball, although more realistic innovations may appear. What there will be instead will be meditation, fortune-telling, (possible) mind-reading, and communication with the dead. How they aren't magical in this setting is a technical distinction: there's no "ritual, symbol, action, gesture or language", only a sometimes-experienced innate ability.

Back to the American Heritage Dictionary (same link as above) - it describes mysticism as
Mysticism: 1. a. A spiritual discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or trancelike contemplation. b. the experience of such communion, as described by mystics. 2. Any belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension but central to being and directly accessible by intuition. 3. confused and groundless speculation; superstitious self-delusion. From Greek mustes, or "initiate" [in Mysteries] from muein, meaning "to keep mouth closed."
My markedly areligious setting works in this context. Characters seek out spiritual experiences through being able to communicate with the dead, through raking local populations to find those who can, and through constantly questioning what goes on beyond the grave - and in each others' minds. "Deep meditation or trancelike contemplation" describes everything beyond this world they do.

This mystical focus doesn't deviate from the core of fantasy. If it happened in a contemporary urban setting, it might... but then, it could simply be considered speculative or "weird" fiction. In a traditional-ish high fantasy setting, moving the focus away from wizardry toward mind-reading allows an author, in this case me, to do two things:

  • Engage the political, social and economic possibilities created by the historical civilizations upon which fantasy worlds are based, introducing aspects of alternate history without adding too many topics to the book
  • Move the special forces away from the tangible (fire, water, lightning, ice, and so on) toward the intangible (the mind, thoughts, emotions, and so on), which, in turn, accomplishes two things:
    • Allows me to make any horror aspects more Lovecraftian, and also to make it easier for characters to lie about what they see
    • Makes physical weapons more powerful! Removing the Harry Potter-style technological backwardness among wizards because of their over-reliance on magic allows for technological progress in construction, healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing, the military, and in every other way
The addition of mysticism gives the characters an ingrained belief system that lets me make them spiritual without having to invent a fantastical church. It also makes the horror elements more realistic. Zombies and vampires have devolved to the point of being kitsch, but the human mind can always be terrifying.

The removal of magic is addition by subtraction, which is where I become a fantasy novel heretic. By limiting characters to non-magical means of building civilizations and destroying each other on the battlefield, I can make inventions from the tractor to the dip pen to the needle gun matter more to the world. To state the obvious, a gun is a lot more important when you don't have a wand that shoots fire.


*Really, it'll be more of an intentional anachronism stew ranging from about 1667-1918, in order to take inspiration from these civilizations without having the audience read too much historical interpretation into any one scene.