Reading is a Need

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I need to read.

I know that sounds like some kind of exaggeration, like, “I need to buy that set of geeky solar system glasses” or “I need that pint of ice cream” or “I need to see that movie in theaters.”  We might joke around, using the word “need” to refer to things we merely “want,” but sometimes I seriously wonder if reading should be filed under the list of requirements for mental health.

Recently, I wasn’t able to read for about two weeks.  Okay, that’s not entirely true.  I had been reading piecemeal from various nonfiction books for some time, namely The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman, Royal Romances: Titillating Tales of Passion and Power in the Palaces of Europe, and now I’m working on Using Medicine in Science Fiction: the SF Writer’s Guide to Human Biology.  That technically counts as reading.  But I hadn’t immersed myself in a fictional world for some time, and it was starting to wear on me.  I felt tired, unfocused, lethargic, irritable.

Then the weekend arrived.  I looked at the pile of dirty dishes and unwashed laundry, glanced around the empty house, said “Screw it,” plucked one of my library books off the shelf, and flopped down on my window seat to read Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine.

I spent almost four glorious hours suspended on an airship between Earth and Mars and loved every second of it.  Afterwards, I felt awake and aware in a way that I hadn’t been for days.  Rejuvenated.  Renewed.  Resurrected.  The list of synonyms goes on.

Point is, we need to read.  Not just nonfiction for research or personal edification, but also poetry, short stories, essays, and, most especially, fiction.  And as writers, we REALLY need to read.  For inspiration.  For relief.  For sanity.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to pick another book from my shelf.

What I’ve Learned (so far) About Writing Steampunk & Romance

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''When you're last minute revising and you realise how fucked you are'' Upshout.net

”When you’re last minute revising and you realise how fucked you are…”    (from @MedievalReacts)

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Hi folks!  Sorry I missed posting an entry last week, but I was in the final stretch of editing the second draft of All’s Fair and could not be derailed for anything. Let me just say that it’s been a trip, and it ain’t over yet, but I’m enjoying this slight breather.  Back in February, I sent All’s Fair through it’s first round of beta readers. This resulted in a major overhaul for my manuscript: 1/3 had to be cut entirely, 1/3 needed extensive reworking, 1/4 needed to be moved and/or have minor editing, and 1/12 could be kept as it was.  And Draft 2 is easily 100 pages longer than Draft 1 due to all of the stuff that was missing during my first attempt.  Needless to say, it’s been quite the learning curve, especially since I have never written in these two genres before; normally I stick with high fantasy.  So, what are some of the things that I learned at this juncture?

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Breaking Ground

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I love the TV mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune, and recently got to watch its bittersweet yet still enjoyable sequel, Children of Dune.  However, when I read the book version of Dune, I found it to be (pardon the pun) rather dry.  The world-building, the politics, the futuristic science of it… all of that was solid and interesting.  But I found that, as a story, it fell flat.  I didn’t really care much about the characters while reading the book, but the mini-series brought them to life.

As writers, we are always told to “show, not tell,” but there’s almost too much showing going on in Dune that clogs the book with description.  And Dune isn’t the only one; plenty of other old-school speculative fiction works have this problem.  That made me ask: why?  Why do so many early science fiction and fantasy stories go heavy on description and world-building, but light on character development?

This is only a personal theory, but I think it may be because early science fiction and fantasy writers were trying to lay the ground work and describe things that had never been seen before.  They have to establish what their world looks like and how it operates in order for it to make sense, which leaves less space for characters.  Today, if you say “orc” or “Arrakis” or “Star Destroyer,” most people will have an idea about what those things look like.  There’s no need to go into great detail describing interstellar travel or how a stillsuit works because it’s already been established in our minds by years of cultural absorption through novels, comics, and film.  We have hundreds of examples of spaceships, aliens, and fantastical landscapes to mentally choose from.  It’s a kind of short hand that only requires writers to choose a few choice descriptions rather than verbally building every little detail from the ground up.

The framework is already in place, but that doesn’t mean that we writers should be lazy about our descriptions.  We must be vigilant and make sure our creations are original or put a new twist on an old theme rather than merely recycling.  We must reshape, embellish, and tweak to make it our own.  The next time you find yourself getting a little bored with the heavy descriptions of science or magic in a novel, check the publication date.  The descriptions you are so casually dismissing may have been the first of their kind.

"Dune Sandworm 3" by ollycb

“Dune Sandworm 3” by ollycb

 

Houseboats in Space

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At the beginning of the July 2016 Camp NaNoWriMo, I was in the mood for some old-school anime.  During Camp NaNo in July 2013, I’d inter-spaced bouts of writing with episodes of an anime called Black Jack.  Every so many hours, words, or pages, I would reward myself with an episode or two.  It got me through the month and it was an enjoyable show.  This time, I decided to start watching an anime I’d been eyeing for a while.  It’s called Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and I cannot express how hooked I currently am.  It’s got that gorgeous old-school look that only anime from the late 70s and early 80s have.  The drama is totally over-the-top, the science is out of whack or non-existent, and the plot lurches around like a drunken sailor.  But the characters are so endearing and the adventures are so fun that I don’t even mind it.  That’s just part of the experience.  In fact, I’ve actually had to stop watching it for now because it makes me want to write about pirate ships and space operas, not steampunk or romances.  (Oops.  Wrong choice for this project’s inspirational material.)

Captain Harlock

Still, as I was watching the first several episodes of Captain Harlock on Crunchyroll, I started thinking about all of the other science fiction anime and TV shows that heavily feature nautical themes and emphasize the tight-knit family unit that the crews of these ships become.  In Captain Harlock, this takes place on board the Arcadia.  In Last Exile, the first anime I ever watched, it’s the Silvana.  In the original Mobile Suit Gundam, we have the White Base.  (The power of the Bright-slap compels you! …*ahem* Yes, well, moving on.)  In Space Battleship Yamato it’s… er, well, the Yamato.  (Yes, I know that was redundant.)

Then you have all of the English TV shows and films, like the Enterprise from Star Trek, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, Serenity from Firefly, Battlestar Galactica from… um, well, Battlestar Galactica. (Yes, yes, I know, more redundancy.)  And to top that off there are good old-fashioned ocean-going vessels: the Defiant, the Albatrossthe HMS Surprise, and Captain Nemo’s submarine the Nautilus, to name a few.
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Rejuvenating “Freedom”

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Freedom is a word that has been bandied about to a point where it’s become almost meaningless.  It’s used in political rhetoric, as a banner to shield bigotry, and, ironically, as justification to take freedom away.  Using a word too often, too freely, too ambiguously, drains it of significance.  The concept of “freedom” is already so vast and amorphous that it’s difficult to define, even at the best of times.  Words like “love” and “change” and terror” are tossed around like common ingredients in a salad rather than as carefully chosen seasoning.  Some definitions restrict “freedom” to a carefully regulated nanny state while on the opposite side it becomes a free-for-all of Darwinian anarchy.

Freedom is both very broad and highly personal, so I’m not going to attempt to define it when far wiser and more experienced minds have written whole volumes discussing its nature.  But I think we need to keep that in mind and be very specific when we talk about freedom because it means so many things to myriad people in disparate circumstances.  I do think that the majority of people agree than an important component of freedom is the ability to strive and improve one’s lot or one’s self uninhibited by artificial societal or cultural constructs.  That doesn’t mean it will be easy or that one will succeed, but we should all at least get the chance to try.  We should each be able to establish our own independence.  So as this Fourth of July comes to a close, I recommend going to YouTube and watching the TEDxConejo talk with Erin Gruwell, founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation.  The best place to start planting freedom’s seeds is within the garden of one’s mind.

Happy Independence Day.

The Wellspring

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Some time ago, I read an article in The Guardian that Neil Gaiman wrote about his friend, Terry Pratchett.  In the article, Mr. Gaiman said that fury was what fueled Terry Pratchett’s writing.  I was reminded of this when I came across a more recent article posted by the Los Angeles Times, which held an interesting addition:

“Terry [Pratchett] was many things, but he was not a jolly old elf. I think each of us tends to take something and use that as the place where you begin making your art. If you’re going to make good art, it’s likely that you’re going to go to the place where things are dark, and use that to shine light into your life and, if you’re doing it right, into other people’s lives as well. For Terry, it was always anger. There was a deep rage in him that allowed him to create. For me, it tends to be sorrow or loneliness or confusion.

The pat answer that I’ve often seen given by writers, either in person or via books of advice, is that their art comes from joy or curiosity or wonder or passion.  The emotions referenced are often positive or at least neutral.  This seems to be the more socially acceptable answer.  It’s a little more unusual, even slightly morbid, to hear someone say that their art, regardless of the tone of the end product, stems from a darker source.  Usually we think that your emotional state should match the emotions evoked by your creation.  I mean, really, would you have guessed that the hilarious absurdity of Discworld stemmed from a man’s rage?  It certainly surprised me.

That surprise made me stop and reflect on what emotional core drives my own creativity.  While all emotions are necessary to craft a convincing piece of fiction, I was curious to know what the wellspring consisted of.  Did my writing come from joy, sorrow, anger, loneliness, despair, amusement, fear, cynicism, or some other emotional core?  Was this consistent or did it vary from project to project?

I’ve turned the question over in my mind, and as I trace down the central emotional motivation for characters in my various works-in-progress, I think that the answer might be fear.  The main characters in Ravens and Roses, All’s Fair, Astral Rain, Rinamathair, Jewel and the Skyrunners, Moon’s Fire/Moon’s Water… almost all of them are all driven by fear of something.   For many of them this fear is about losing something or someone, and almost all of them are in denial about it.  Some of them manifest this by being shy and adverse to risk while others become bold and abrasive in an attempt to hide what they see as a weakness.  A good portion of their narrative journey is spent recognizing that fear, admitting it to themselves or to others, and then working to overcome it.  Some succeed; others don’t, at least not completely.

I don’t generally share the same specific fears as my characters, but the sensation is the same.  Even though I prefer to write while feeling happy or content rather than angry or depressed, the underlying motivation is fear.  It’s a little weird, since I’ve never run into anything truly dangerous in my life so far.  But the sensation, be it a small, niggling sense of unease or full-blown panic, is always there.  And as I think about what Neil Gaiman said in these two articles, I think that might be my fuel, the part that gives the stories and characters I create that little extra push into realism.  The soul-spark that makes them come alive.  Because fear, like anger or loneliness, is a universal human emotion.

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Original artwork is by Amuria on DeviantART

 

“Bright Sunshiny Day!”

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I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) bright (bright) sunshiny day


— Jimmy Cliff, “I Can See Clearly Now”

And so it is!  Actually, these last two weekends have been ridiculously productive, mostly because I’ve been able to sit out on the front porch (like I am now) for hours at a time.  (I just LOVE my Chromebook!)  It’s astonishing how much something as simple as the weather can have such a massive effect on one’s psyche.  While I don’t really consider myself and outdoorsy person (since I like, never go camping or hiking or boating or anything like that), I do gain great satisfaction and pleasure from being outside.  And even if I have to hide indoors during the summer because it is too hot or humid out, I am still more productive, simply because there is sunshine.  I think I may be part lizard and part sunflower.

At any rate, I am very pleased with my progress on All’s Fair.  My characters are talking to me again, I’m filling in plot holes, uncovering motivations… it’s all coming together and that’s a good feeling.  Granted, since I had to rip out or severely alter over two-thirds of the book, I now have no idea how to end the darn thing.  I suspect something will occur to me after my subconscious has a chance to mull over it for a while.  I plan on participating in Camp NaNoWriMo in July, since they have come up with a system to represent editing and not just vomit-typing.  For Camp NaNo, an hour of editing equals 1,000 words, so I’m setting a goal of editing for at least an hour each day, which would be 31,000 words.  I don’t think I’ll do LeNoWriCha this time since I’m not really generating new content.  My ultimate goal this year is to have All’s Fair ready for the submission process by October.

Speaking of time… did you know that The Cat’s Cradle is now five years old?  Yep, I started this blog back in June 2011.  At the time I was just shouting into the ether from Blogspot without a clue of where I was going.  Now I’m here on WordPress with a far more streamlined and professional webpage design.  I update more or less every other week, I’m on Twitter, I offer editing services, and I’ve added the Audio Editions for people to listen to and download.  I try not to look at stats because that way madness lies, but I’m ecstatic that, as of today, 138 people follow The Cat’s Cradle.  Whether anyone reads it or not is another story, but I’m very grateful to everyone who has chosen to read, like, share, comment, or listen to these entries.  I’ve learned a lot over the last five years, and I hope to continue improving so these entries remain informative, interesting, or at least entertaining for you.

ThankYouBlogReaders

The Good (Short Fiction), the Bad (YouTube), and the Ugly (Editing Process)

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As you probably guessed from the title, this entry is a mixed bag of news.

(CAUTION:  This entry also contains strong language!)
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THE GOOD:

I’ve been derping around with the Submission Grinder, a wonderful tool created by Diabolical Plots to help writers weed through the mountain of online magazines without having to check every single one on the net personally.  Just fill in some parameters for the story you are trying to sell and BOOM!  There’s a good chance something will come up that will be useful to you.  I’m still playing round robin with my pair of short stories, and while I know I should be writing more, nothing has really come to mind.  However, I stumbled across a book called The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.  I’d seen the term pop up before, but hadn’t really looked into it.  (It’s possible that “flash fiction” sounded too much like “slash fic” for me.)  Apparently, flash fiction is a term for “short short stories.”  Although the lengths vary from publication to publication, flash fiction is usually less than 2,000 words.  So, I decided to try my hand at it, since there is apparently a huge market for it.  It’ll be an interesting challenge, but I actually already wrote down a rough draft for an idea and will work on refining it.  Wish me luck!
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Inferior Origins

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Kira at the Gelfling Wall of Destiny (screenshot from The Dark Crystal)

Kira at the Wall of Destiny

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Who doesn’t love a good origin story?

Whenever I get into a fictional universe, be it books, movies, TV shows, or video games, I dig deep.  Those characters with shady or mysterious pasts are the most intriguing; we want to know how they became the person we know now.  If you’ve read (and enjoyed) The Symphony of Ages series by Elizabeth Haydon, you probably want to know Achmed’s full backstory more than anything else.  We get tantalizing hints, but no more.  Tolkien’s book The Silmarillion explores the history of the elves and Middle-Earth in almost excruciating detail.  People clamored so much for more stories about Drizzt Do’Urden that R.A. Salvatore gave them the drow ranger’s backstory in the form of The Dark Elf Trilogy.  Amazing RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age cover the history of their worlds, the aspects of the places explored there, and the characters you encounter.  And isn’t that what a lot of modern RPGs are all about?  Exploration?  How was this world created?  What happened before the story that we see?  A good origin story is a fascinating and rewarding journey.

Of course, the key word here is “good.”  Not knowing parts of a universe’s history or the origins of a character leads to all kinds of juicy speculation, head canon, and fan fiction.  Sometimes the creators even deign to answer those burning questions for us.  That’s fine and dandy, but there is a dark side to it.  No matter how much I may want to know, “What happened?!” a part of me is always a bit wary when official works drop in to fill the gaps.

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Book Review! “Before Mako Came Yoko: A Comparative Study” by Natacha Guyot

 

This entry is part of “Natacha Guyot’s Blook Blog Tour!”


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I don’t usually care much for summer blockbusters, which usually have more explosions than compelling emotions.  However, Pacific Rim is one of those rare “popcorn movies” that I felt gave a layer of depth to its characters.  I confess that I was surprised to see Mako, a female Japanese Jaeger pilot, get as much screen time and character arc as she did!  Women as primary main characters is becoming more prominent, albeit slowly, and there is still a dearth of women of color in such roles.  Pacific Rim provided a step in the right direction, even if it fell short on certain points.  But I was unaware that a long-running 1970s comic book series from Belgium had already allowed a female Asian character to step into the spotlight.  Natacha Guyot’s brief but engaging treatise Before Mako Came Yoko: A Comparative Study Between Pacific Rim and Yoko Tsuno elaborates on how the title character of Yoko Tsuno and Mako of Pacific Rim share many key traits.

The book is divided into three parts that explore these similarities, as well as a few of their short-comings.  The first part, “Women of Color as a Female Lead Character” explores the history of the two characters as they developed through their respective media.  While Yoko has four decades of story to draw on and develop from, Mako only has a single film.  Yet both present strong, well-rounded, engaging characters who aren’t reduced to eye candy, exotic tokens, or inevitable love interests by the presence of male associates.  (However, like Ms. Guyot, I would have preferred Mako as the main character and focus of Pacific Rim, since I found her origins and presentation far more interesting than that of the male lead!)

The second part is “Combat, Science, and Compassion,” which looks at the skill sets Yoko and Mako possess that helps make them real people and helps solidify their importance and relevance to the plots of their respective stories.  Scientific knowledge and martial arts are a shared skill set, although Yoko Tsuno touches on religion and spirituality in a way that has little to no place in Pacific Rim.  A big difference is that Yoko faces danger on a more or less regular basis throughout the comics.  Mako doesn’t have the opportunity to fight her enemies, the alien Kaiju, until well into the film, and even then, only for a short time.  Visually and narratively, Mako and Yoko break the mold in progressive ways.

“Composite Family and Inner Circle” comprises the final section.  Yoko and Mako share many similarities in their creation of a new “family” outside their blood relations.  With so many years of development, Yoko has far outpaced Mako in this area.  This may be a necessity of the medium, but there is hope that future installments of Pacific Rim will expand on Mako’s role in the story and her circle of friends.

Before Mako Came Yoko is an intriguing look into the world of representation for female and minority characters in media. It draws connections between modern cinema and classic comics to show how progressive some of these characters are… and how far we still have to go. Be sure to check out Ms. Guyot’s website for other books and articles discussing similar topics in Star Wars, Farscape, and more!


 

natachaguyotNatacha Guyot is a French researcher, author and public speaker. She holds two Master’s degrees: Film and Media Studies (Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle) and Digital Culture and Technology (King’s College London).

Her main fields of interest are Science fiction, Gender Studies, Children Media and Fan Studies. Besides her nonfiction work, she also writes Science Fiction and Fantasy stories.

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