Sunday, March 29, 2009

this cake is great

Let me paraphrase a recent conversation with my sister.

RUTHANN: …and it wasn’t until I was working on that rough draft that I realized this character is kind of an arrogant jerk.
RUTHANN: I was so surprised when he and his sister started fighting in every other scene! I said, “I thought you guys got along really well!” And they said, “Well yeah, usually we do, but he’s being such a jerk right now!”
BECCA: ...What?
RUTHANN: What do you mean, what?
BECCA: You are talking like your characters… like they’re… you just told me about a conversation in which they talked back!
RUTHANN: Well, yeah.
BECCA: …Well, I guess you wouldn’t actually be part of the family if you were normal.
RUTHANN: What did I say?

I guess I knew that writers think a little differently than others. What I didn’t realize is that the others aren’t as aware of it as the writers are. I just assumed that my sister would take it in stride that I treat my characters like they’re actual people, even though she has never experienced anything like that herself. Somehow, even after all this time being in the same family as a storyteller, she never caught onto the fact that this is how writers and their stories interact. I don’t know how that happened. I thought I talked like that often enough (usually with much crazier scenarios than the conversation described above) that people in my family would be used to it by now. But maybe I’ve only talked that way with other writers. Is this a secret we keep among ourselves? Should I just not bother trying to talk about it with others?

I’ve talked with enough other writers to know that the way my characters can sometimes grab the steering wheel away from me in the middle of a story, flashing me completely unrepentant grins as they push me aside, is not at all unique. I’ve even heard people suggest that if this doesn’t happen, the story is too flat. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that some of the very best story elements come from characters doing things their “creator” never saw coming. My effort to communicate this to my sister was something less than sophisticated.

RUTHANN: I’m not the only one!
BECCA: Did the voices in your head tell you that?

Maybe I’m breaking some kind of writers’ taboo by talking about this where people who don’t tell stories can see. Nevertheless, I am here to reveal the truth about stories. You see, people who only read stories see them as the product of the writer, constructed and controlled by them. Writers, on the other hand, know that stories are alive.

I don’t mean something like Dr. Frankenstein’s, “It is alive!!” I’m talking more like Genesis, when God breathes life into his creation. That’s what writers do with their stories (albeit on a much smaller scale). And like Adam, the stories take on their own life, complete with free will. Have you ever heard a writer talking about the need to keep a story outline flexible? They don’t mean, “in case I come up with something better later.” They mean, “because I have to be ready for the characters to take it in a different direction.” Because that is what characters do. It’s not the exception; it’s the norm. Good thing, too; we can only be so clever on our own power, you know. It's not just good to get that help. It's necessary.

Now you may either express your dismay at my crumbling sanity or reaffirm my belief that all of that is actually true.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

somebody take us away

I just got off the phone with my mother after an interesting conversation. She was looking for some good books to give to my youngest cousins, ages ten and twelve. The twelve-year-old in particular is the same kind of reader I was at his age - which is to say, he reads a ton, gets easily absorbed in books to the exclusion of most other activities, and loves fantasy.

Did I say the same kind of reader I was at his age? I probably meant the same kind of reader I have always been and still am to this day.

Researching YA books with my mother brought to my attention once again something that I've been noticing more and more recently: YA fantasy is really big right now. I hear it over and over again, and the evidence is right there in libraries and bookstores. Young people are reading a lot of fantasy. I don't know enough about reading trends or marketing to tell you why that might be, but it does seem logical to conclude that lots of young people developing a taste for fantasy now will lead to lots of slightly older people looking for more fantasy in another few years. Of course, to really keep them hooked, the books they're reading right now - and the books they find when they go looking for more - need to be good quality.

I'm sure a great deal of the YA fantasy out there is good quality. I'm also sure that a lot of it isn't. I've read just enough YA recently that I was able to give my mom some good recommendations for my cousins, but it made me wonder what else is out there. I started thinking about the books that led me into fantasy when I was younger, and the ones I somehow missed. And then of course there's this whole new batch of YA fantasy that I've hardly touched. I wonder which current authors have the unfortunate habit of "writing down" to kids, and which ones challenge them to expand both their vocabulary and their thinking. I wonder which stories are written with enough skill and depth that the kids reading them now will look back at them with fond reminiscence instead of mild embarrassment in ten or twenty years.

Well, I don't have the answers. I haven't read a whole lot of YA lately. I'd like to read more, though - both new material and older books I may have missed when I was younger. So here are my questions for you (and don't think you have to limit this to fantasy): What books did you enjoy when you were growing up that you would still enjoy today? What are the common elements in those books? If there are books you used to read that no longer impress you quite so much, where did they go wrong? Can any of you recommend some good recent fiction geared to a younger audience? What are some areas in which the current YA fiction is falling short?

Yes, that's right. It's an interactive blog post. Get used to it, because there are more on the way. :)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

welcome to my secret lair

Wow, I haven't posted in a really long time. Sorry about that. I do want to post here more, and I've been thinking of a few things I could write about, but tonight isn't the time to get into all that. This post isn't much of a comeback, but I wanted an excuse to put this song, Skullcrusher Mountain, on here. :)

Today in an effort to distract myself with hilarity, I began listening to Death by Cliche, a podcast novel by Bob Defendi that I've been meaning to check out for several months. I'm enjoying it quite a bit so far, and I think some of you would, too. A bit of gaming experience goes a long way in appreciating the humor, since the story is about a man who finds himself somehow inside of someone's badly-written RPG. The other members of the party are actually playing at the gaming table with their dice and think he's an NPC (non-player character, for those of you who aren't geeks - that means the Game Master is controlling the character). His presence there is somehow "waking up" the actual NPCs in the game, and the results as each of them begin to consider their motivations and situations in life for the first time are varied and quite funny.

My favorite character so far is the villain - of course. :)

Anyway, Skullcrusher Mountain is the song that plays in the ending credits of each episode, and as soon as I caught the lyrics I couldn't help laughing. I just wanted to share it with others. Some of you will likely find it more funny than others, but I hope you all enjoy it at least a little. :)

I'll try not to be gone so long in the future.