Archive for January, 2009

Tiring Colors

January 29, 2009

Here’s something that may interest all you visual artists. I’d heard that there was a different aesthetic sense of color in America and Japan. I mean, I’d noticed some intriguing things over the years: for one, when kids in the States draw the sun, what color crayon do they reach for? It’s almost invariably yellow, right? Possibly orange. From what I’ve seen in Japan, kids almost always perceive the sun as red. Are they getting that from the flag? Or is dawn the default aesthetic over here? Most of us in the States, unless we’re given reason to do otherwise, think of “sun” as the midday sun, don’t we?–a big yellow ball directly overhead. But . . . is it yellow? Isn’t it more of a blinding white? Why don’t kids reach for the blinding white crayon, and then finish off with the invisible but dangerous ultraviolet crayon?

When I was a kid, if I drew a lizard, a dinosaur, or Godzilla, I used a green crayon. Most kids I’ve seen drawing those things here color them brown. (I know there are exceptions on both sides; I’m talking general tendencies here.)

And then there’s the famous issue of traffic signals: though the colors look pretty much the same, in Japan, traffic lights are red, yellow, and blue. When the light turns blue, you can go. Also, a person who is “blue” is inexperienced, a rookie — like one who is “green” in the U.S.

In Japan, white is the color of death and the supernatural. In the world of manga, if a character has white hair, you can about figure that he’s a demon or a ghost or something not quite human.

So anyway, I did an experiment. This was back in the days when I used a 35mm camera that took pictures on film — remember that stuff? So I shot up a roll of film, and I had it developed, and I had prints made from the negatives, first in one country, then in the other. The photos came from the very same set of negatives. And what do you suppose I observed?

The photos printed by an American developer used distinctly warmer tones: oranges, yellows, reds. . . . The ones printed in Japan used cooler shades: blues, greens, etc. Granted, this was just one set of data — not enough to base a research paper on or anything. But I would contend that the same phenomenon is evident in paintings and graphically-designed items in the two countries. Interesting, huh?

Anyway, wrapping up this little rant on colors, and circling back to the title of the post: I often amuse myself by jotting down phrases that I think would make great titles. Tiring Colors is one such. I think I scribbled it on a napkin — “Tiring Colors — a novel.”

So here’s the point of discussion I toss out to you: imagine that Tiring Colors is an acclaimed new novel, hovering at the top of the bestseller lists. Write a few lines telling us what it’s about. Is it a literary work or a genre story? Is it for adults, children, or something in between? You don’t have to write an elaborate book report, but in a sentence or two, give us an idea of the setting and the plot. If you want, you might even tell us who the author is (a real writer who just might write such a work, or an author you just dreamed up on the spot).

Tiring Colors: A Novel. What do you think?

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A Green and Ancient Light

January 27, 2009

So far, so good: my agent reports that he’s read the first 50 pages of The Star Shard and likes it. Says he has some notes about fairly minor stuff, but overall, he says he hopes this will persuade the interested publishers to “open their checkbook.” So — thanks be to God! — that sounds very good indeed. The first 50 pages are critical, since they have to hook the reader. I’ll keep you posted with any breaking news.

One more news item: my friend and fellow writer Nick Ozment has an exciting success to announce. One of the many, many “hats” he wears is the hat of a humorous fantasist. He’s written a number of stories featuring the exploits of Smoke, an unconventional dragon who has a phobia toward knights — not the rational fear that they might skewer him with their bright swords — but an honest-to-goodness phobia, like Indy’s fear of snakes, like Anya’s fear of bunnies. Nick’s Smoke stories have been accepted for on-line publication as a series, culminating in an inclusive print edition — yes, a BOOK! (Confetti, confetti! Congrats, Nick!) He’d like to invite anyone interested to stop in at:

http://knighterrors.blogspot.com

You can read all about it there, and you’ll make Nick happy if you leave comments to help generate a buzz for the book.

Since this here is my blog, I can boast that I suggested “Knight Terrors” as part of the title when Nick was clawing around for titles and asking people to suggest them . . . but Nick claims he had thought of that title first, so I don’t get any prizes, accolades, remuneration, or children named after me. Bummer. But anyway — go, Nick!

And now for the main topic of this posting. (Oh! — Should I say Grrooinnk?) 

The light green and ancient.

The light green and ancient.

Back in the summer of 1990, when I was a young lad newly-arrived in Japan, I had an idea for a book that I called A Green and Ancient Light. For me, summer, sunlight, trees, and the imagination are all bound up together. The green glow beneath the canopy of leaves on a hot summer day is the very essence of freedom and story. It was often in treetops and at the feet of trees that I loved to read books as a kid. I had a favorite “reading grove” in the corner of our front yard. So that’s the meaning of the title: the emerald radiance under the leaves of summer is something timeless — something enchanted. There’s no better lamp under which to read a good tale, or to dream of tales yet untold. I remember writing a lot of my first,

the site of the writing of the Dragonfly-meets-Sylva scene.

Foreground: the site of the writing of the Dragonfly-meets-Sylva scene.

unpublished novel The Threshold of Twilight outdoors, on a drawing board placed across my lap, on yellow legal paper with a very soft-leaded mechanical pencil that smudged like crazy if you so much as looked at it. I also remember writing the scene in which Dragonfly first meets Sylva outdoors in the tree-light, on a card table, using my Smith Corona word processor. See this picture? This is just about where in the yard I wrote that scene, ending with Mr. Snicker snipping the cobweb. Oooh, Historical Glimpse! Heh, heh.

The light is “ancient” because — I’ll wager — dreamers have been sitting in and under trees since time immemorial. (Writer Paul Darcy Boles said of writers, “We are all storytellers sitting around the cave of the world.” Storytelling is a primal, fundamental human activity. When we tell or hear a good yarn, we are participating in something as old as our race — and far older, since the Word was in the beginning, before all else.)

The concept of the book was to take a whole list of things, places, and activities from my childhood and to arrange and describe them in dictionary form. But it wasn’t just a straight reporting of things I did: it was those things and places filtered through memory and the imagination — through the veridian murk under the summer leaves. Well, here, I’ll quote you the frontispiece of the little handmade book I eventually came up with:

“As if pursuing a mysterious, dancing flame among twilight trees, the reader of A Green and Ancient Light undertakes an unusual, often haunting journey into a strange world where the faces, feelings, and facts of remembered childhood merge with its dreams and fears in a landscape that never was, that will always be . . . revealing to us the weird and fantastic beings and settings of boyhood summers when ghosts walk and days are forever.”

Yes, I know it’s overwritten — but this was 1990, remember — I was practically an infant! — well, practically. . . .

So, from time to time on this blog, I will likely subject you to entries from A Green and Ancient Light. For now, I’ll wrap up with this poem, also from the book:

The evening forest glimmers, deep on deep

With fireflies its welkin, and its moon

Ignis fatuus. Crickets weave the rune

Of summoned secrets, time past time, and sleep

Hangs heavy in the nebulae of leaves.

Somnambulary hedgehogs are aware

Of something quite invisible in the air

Between the burrows and the mistlight sheaves

Of dream, that draws them out — (Some miracle is

In morning, too) — which calls the wanderer

Far from the road, amid dissolving night —

(Is whispered in crystal webs of dew) — his

Breath is hushed in secret shining here,

Where God has hung a green and ancient light.

If you’re frowning over the grammar, STOP it! I was a kid, all right? That’s a good stopping place for now. Until next time!

It’s Away!

January 19, 2009
"Behold, the Argonath! The Pillars of the Kings!"

"Behold, the Argonath! The Pillars of the Kings!"

Heh, heh — they’re actually maneki neko, which means “inviting cats.” But I couldn’t resist pointing out the similarity to a certain mighty landmark in Middle-earth. I’ve never seen maneki neko in a paired set like this before. Maybe as the economy gets bad, more cats are getting jobs as inviters, sitting atop roofs. . . . Seriously, in Japan, the “come here” gesture is made that way, with the palm forward and brought

"They are Isildur and Anarion, my forefathers of old."

"They are Isildur and Anarion, my forefathers of old."

 down in a scooping motion — just the opposite of the Western upward scoop for “come here.” So these two cats are beckoning wealth: they’re positioned atop a booth that sells lottery tickets. People often have smaller versions of them in their homes or shops to call in people, good fortune, and prosperity.

Anyway — grrooinnk! (the sound of my changing subject) — it’s often pointed out by history buffs that the Persian Gulf War  was the first war that the general public could see unfolding before their eyes, through the “miracles” (?) of television and modern reporting. Through the miracle of a blog, this is the first time I’ve finished and submitted a manuscript “with the world watching.” (Delusion of Grandeur: $25 fine.) Okay: with a few people watching, which is way more than usual. Usually writing is the most solitary endeavor in the world.

So, The Star Shard is off to my agent. That’s always a good feeling, to send something out the door. Here’s your handkerchief and your lunch, little manuscript. Take care — send a postcard! Make us proud! And yes, you can always come home. If you come home all torn and coffee-stained and sadder but wiser, we’ll welcome you back with open arms and tend to your wounds and nurse you into better health, and you don’t have to leave again until you’re ready.

Grroinnk #2: Cricket had a poetry contest in which they invited readers to write poems inspired by their favorite Cricket covers. Three of the winners wrote poems based on the September cover, that hauntingly mysterious image of Cymbril on the high ledge outside the hatchway on the Rake’s prow. You can read these and all the winners on Cricket‘s Web site (www.cricketmagkids.com). I am totally impressed by the quality of the poems these kids write! My favorite of those three is one by a girl named Amanda. (Well, I’m assuming “girl.”) I can’t post the poem here, but I can quote you some snatches of it: “A cat by her side, eyes bright and green, / Sees what the girl thinks cannot be seen.” And how about this? — “A stone to her forehead, magic inside; / An elf on the other end, linked to her mind.” Very cool stuff — and so humbling to think about the reality of it: young readers drawing artwork and writing poetry based on Emily’s illustrations of my story. “Who am I, Lord?” Again: Soli Deo gloria!

By the way, that picture (Cymbril on the high perch, with the night mists and the swooping owls) is available as a poster in two sizes through Cricket‘s  Web site. Yes, I have my own framed copy!

Grroooiiinnk #3: Thanks to the engaging discussions you’ve all taken part in, the blog has broken its own record for visits in a single day this past week — thank you all for being here! A blog is the one aspect of the writing life that isn’t lonely! (Maybe that’s why everyone recommends them….)

Grrooinnk #4: Awhile back, a good friend recommended to me a film called Cannibal, the Musical. I finally got around to tracking down a copy and watching it. Oh . . . wow! I have not laughed so hard in a good, long while. It is absolutely hysterical — brilliantly done, and probably not like anything you’ve ever seen. A few warnings are in order: as you can gather from the title, it’s probably not for most children. The guys who made it are the guys who also did South Park, if that tells you anything. There is some language, some simulated gore, and . . . well, some cannibalism. But anyone who grew up with Monty Python will laugh so hard at Cannibal, the Musical that s/he’ll have tears streaming down his/her face. (Whew! What an awkward sentence!) Just to give you a hint of what you’ll encounter: in one scene, the prospectors and the fur trappers nearly come to blows over precisely what key a song is in. And you’ll see the most suspicious Indians you’ve ever seen: “What? Don’t you think we are Indians? But loooook at all these teeeeepeeeees! We have teeepeees because we are . . . Iiiindiaaans!” (They’re actually extremely Japanese, with names such as Junichi and Tomomi.)

And one more warning: you’ll have some catchy songs stuck in your head for about a week. But I’ll say this: this is one worth owning, not just renting, because you’ll want to watch it over and over.

Okay, that’s it for now — talk to you soon!

Encouragement

January 13, 2009

Yes, it’s a lame title, I know. But good titles are hard to come up with, aren’t they? Just a little while ago I was complaining to a friend about the trouble I’ve had finding a title for one of my works-in-progress. I was calling it The Fires of the Deep until an editor told me I’d better change it so that no one would confuse it with Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Recently, I thought I had it all figured out: I was going to call it The Twilight. Beautiful, right? But what is every girl and her mom in America reading right now?–yep, a little something called Twilight. Sigh. Anyway, titles fascinate me. (Back in the early days of this blog, I asked readers what some of their favorite titles were. Anyone else want to ring in on that? I still say the current reigning champion is The Pillars of the Earth. I’m not talking about content, mind you: just sheer titular awesomeness.)

But anyway! I’m overwhelmed with thankfulness this week for the letters that continue to come in, either to Cricket (which Cricket very kindly forwards to me) or on the Web site (www.cricketmagkids.com/corner/frederic-s-durbin). Now, to keep things in perspective, not 100% of readers like the story. On the Web site, in some of the discussion threads, there are a few readers who say they haven’t read it — that they’ve avoided reading it — which is understandable. As a kid, I was put off by continued stories. I disliked them in comic books, I disliked them on TV, and I disliked them in magazines. I much preferred stories that ended inside one cover. Long was fine, but I never wanted to see “to be continued.” So I understand where those readers are coming from.

There are also some readers who say “What’s all this fuss about ‘The Star Shard’? I don’t like it.” Those always upset me, and that’s human nature, I suppose: no matter how many kids say they love it, when one comes along who says s/he doesn’t, I’m all aargh and ouch. I walk around for the rest of the day with one of those smoldering cartoon balloons over my head — the kind that are just full of dark scribbles. The worst was one who said she didn’t think Cymbril acted like a real girl. Coming from a real girl, that hurt! Another wrote that she didn’t think Cymbril really wanted to escape from the Thunder Rake — and actually, that’s quite a fair and astute observation. Cymbril does have mixed feelings about escaping, and that’s an important part of the story for me. It explores the true nature of happiness. What is the difference between a blessing and a burden? Is there always a clear difference? Can there be an overlapping of the two? What is the nature of freedom? “Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage.”

Most often, though, the naysayers then go on to rip on the illustrations — and if anyone starts ripping on those, which are breathtakingly gorgeous and perfectly appropriate to the story, then I know the commenters are just plain out to attack, and I don’t feel as bad. It’s like how, if someone starts spouting racial slurs, for example, you know you don’t have to worry too much about that person’s opinions.

(To be clear: most readers are saying good things about “The Star Shard” — I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a controversial story. To the best of my knowledge, the response to it has been quite good.)

But to speak of the illustrations brings me to another point: I am fully aware that a lot of the enthusiasm readers have for “The Star Shard” is on account of the pictures. Some readers have said, “I love this story — especially the pictures!” I can tell that some love Loric because of the way the artist has drawn him. If this story were published without the artwork, I don’t think it would be nearly as popular. One of the funniest things is how Cymbril’s dresses have built up a fan base among younger teen and pre-teen girls! That’s something I certainly didn’t think about when writing the story, but the fact that her Master dictates exactly what she wears at each of the markets is another significant part of the character’s development . . . and the artist has made the costumes all look so good that we get letters and fan art centered on Cymbril’s wardrobe! (If the series ever does well enough to generate a line of action figures, we’ll have to have Pink-Dress Cymbril, Green-Dress Cymbril, Puffy-Sleeves Cymbril. . . .)

Three letters this week have been particularly encouraging. One reader wrote: “I wanted to tell you that I am totally hooked on ‘The Star Shard’ (April 2008-2009)! It is one of the most incredible continued stories I have read. . . .”

Another was from a young person whose life was completely turned on its side recently when she was diagnosed with diabetes. Now she has to endure daily injections, and everything is different; but she says Cricket and “The Star Shard” have been a source of fun that she really looks forward to. When you hear things like that. . . .

Finally, just today I read a letter that said “The Star Shard” made the person start reading Cricket! She had always considered Cricket to be her sister’s magazine. One day she picked it up idly and read Part V of my story, and she was so captivated by it that she went tearing around the house digging through National Geographics in search of the earlier installments in Cricket! She went on to say that if this becomes a book, she’s definitely going to buy it.

And a great many fans have said that — they’re clamoring for a book. One wrote that it’s the sort of story one curls up with on a rainy day and reads even though one has read it many times before — wow!

So it continues to be an overwhelming, humbling experience. I never dreamed I’d be in this place as a writer — even a year or two ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. Soli Deo gloria — “To God alone be glory”!

By about the end of this week, Lord willing, I’ll be delivering the novel-length version of The Star Shard to my agent. If he finds no problems with it, he’ll pass it along to the editor who has expressed a significant interest in it (and whose detailed notes I used carefully in the expansion process). This is a critical phase: will the story stand up without the illustrations? Have I successfully built a novel — or rather, helped a novel to grow — around the more streamlined version? I feel good about it and would certainly appreciate the prayers of anyone so inclined that The Star Shard will find a publisher as Book One of a series — and that readers will embrace the book as they have the magazine story!

Okay, on a humorous note: my computer’s grammar- and spelling-checker cracks me up! It always goes nuts over my fiction, griping endlessly about my use of commas. It hates all reflexive pronouns, even when they’re used correctly — like photocopy machines made after about 1990, it thinks it knows better than any silly human what needs to be done. Again and again, my grammar-checker says to me, “You can’t be serious,” to which I reply, “I’m deadly serious. Now back way off.”

This is the hilarious part: this evening I was making a worksheet for my academic writing kids. It was a whole sheet of sentences with no punctuation whatever — my students will be adding the commas, colons, and semicolons needed. By force of habit, I ran the spell- and grammar check — and the computer instantly gave the green light to the whole page. No problems at all!

So there you are. If you want to be really correct, just don’t use punctuation. Don’t use any. None. Just don’t use it. Let your sentences run on and your clauses commingle.

It’s just like how our society believes that “I” is always more correct than “me.” Always, in every case. “Me” is for unschooled cretins. And every single “s” should have an apostrophe in front of it. In fact, I think they’re teaching the alphabet that way in schools now, aren’t they?

. . . O P Q R ‘S T U V. . .

On that note, until next time — many ble’s’sing’s!

Golden String

January 7, 2009

The title (above) comes from the William Blake lines I quoted in the previous posting. Here they are once more:

“I give you the end of a golden string

Only wind it into a ball:

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,

Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

He’s talking about the imagination.

I saw some fairly good films over the holidays:

Charlie Wilson’s War was better than I’d expected, as was The Spiderwick Chronicles. I really enjoyed Hairspray — anything involving Christopher Walken is worth watching. I didn’t care for The Prestige. But the movie I want to talk about that really impressed me is one that I’m guessing a lot of people missed — which is partly why I want to talk about it:

Tideland (2005) was directed by Terry Gilliam, and it was written by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. It’s based on a novel by Mitch Cullin.

I have no intention of giving away the plot here, but one reviewer referred to it as a gothic Alice in Wonderland (and in fact, in the opening moments, we hear the lilting voice of a young girl reading from Alice in Wonderland in a Texas accent — there are all sorts of deliberate, conscious references to Alice in this story).

Another reviewer described Tideland as “a poetic horror film,” and I think that’s accurate. Warning: although it has a child protagonist, the film deals with extremely dark subject matter and adult themes, so don’t go gathering your kids and popping Tideland into the DVD player to watch with them. Unless you have some pretty sophisticated kids.

What I like so much about the movie (aside from the haunting musical score, the skillful use of the stark, rural Texas landscape, and the brilliant writing, direction, and acting) is that it’s essentially a story about the imagination — particularly childhood’s imagination. It’s a fascinating study of how a child’s imagining transforms the grim circumstances she’s in, and how it makes them — at least for a short while — not only bearable, but eerily beautiful.

As we watch the film, we worry about the main character, Jeliza-Rose (who, I understand, is 11 in the novel, and the actress playing her was born in 1994, so was about 10 or 11 when the film was made — though I had the impression while I was watching it that she was several years younger than that). We are terrified for her — we hold our breath as she innocently makes her way through the unthinkable situation life has thrust upon her, as she interprets reality in her own way.

But at the same time, we can’t help but be drawn into Jeliza-Rose’s world; we can’t help but recognize its haunting, aching, restless, nostalgic, wistful beauty. Though most of us had childhoods a lot tamer and safer than hers, the filmmakers manage to capture something intrinsic to all childhoods, something universal about being eleven.

If you’re not too squeamish, and if you have a stout spirit, I recommend Tideland. It’s one of those films that leaves you not quite the same as you were (in a good way). It makes your canopy of experience a little richer — and may deepen your understanding of the role of imagination in helping us along on life’s journey.

Nor does imagination necessarily involve a complete break with reality. Although Jeliza-Rose is the most imaginative character in the story, she is also the most clear-headed and sensible: in an early scene, she prevents her father from burning down their apartment building.

Anyway, I think we can expect great things of Canadian-born Jodelle Ferland, who plays Jeliza-Rose.

Follow the golden string! Keep winding it into a ball! And thank Heaven for the capacity to build worlds of our own choosing — and for the child that is still, on good days, within us all.

Poetry and the Imagination

January 3, 2009

“Poetry has this power of getting straight through to the deeper level. . .  every time it happens, you become aware of the same splendid truth: that headache and the worry and the ‘thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to’ are not an inescapable part of human existence.”

                                                   — Colin Wilson in Poetry and Mysticism

 

I’m using “poetry” here in the larger sense: not just poems, but created art in whatever form you do it, whether you’re a poet, a fiction writer, a teacher, a violinist, a weaver of baskets, a good parent, or whatever you do that requires art. I contend that the practice of our art is the one way of dealing with the world — of getting through this life.

William Blake wrote:

“Prayer is the Study of Art

Praise is the Practice of Art.”

 

He also wrote:

“I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than

the liberty of both body & mind to exercise the Divine Arts

of Imagination.

I give you the end of a golden string

Only wind it into a ball:

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,

Built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

 

I don’t know what you’ve found. I find that my only way of making any sense of life is in putting words together. Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire said, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.” I think that certainly applies to us writers — or to you in whatever your Art or Poetry is, be it nursing or homemaking or volunteering.

Blake once more:

“As in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven

And Earth, & all you behold, tho it appears Without it is Within,

In your Imagination of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow.”

See? The mortal world is the shadow. Without our capacity to imagine, where would we be? God made us in His image, and His image is the Creator, Who called worlds into being with “Let there be.” Tolkien wrote of sub-creation: our rearranging of the building blocks God gives us to create our little otherworlds. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s when I’m happy: when I’m using my gifts to build something . . . when I’m living in the world of the imagination.

Anyway: Daylily (regular participant in this blog) readily answered the sonnet question last time, so let’s focus on her suggestion of the theme of gifts. You have a choice here, anyone who’d like to join in — you can:

1. Tell us about a wonderful/memorable gift you received.

2. Tell us about a gift you longed for, but never received.

3. Write your own version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” with a unifying theme (and please tell us what the theme is). (What would the song’s “true love” send to . . . a fantasy fiction writer? A teacher? A cyclist? A student? A musician?)

I’ll start us off with a trivial little example that will be easy for you to top:

One of my fondest memories of a childhood Christmas present is receiving a boxed set of Ray Bradbury books. For me at about age 10 or 11, that was the perfect Christmas present — all those stories packed in one little box, lavishly and intriguingly illustrated.

To this day, whether it’s Christmas or my birthday, no present makes me happier than a book. (Or booksssss!)

Quick childhood memory: at our family bookstore one year, we arranged letters on the electric sign in the window to read, “It isn’t Christmas without a book.” I was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old, and during that holiday season, my parents actually encouraged me to sit in the store window, on the triangular wooden stage, doing nothing but reading a book. (I was advertising, see? — “It isn’t Christmas without a book,” and here’s this life-sized kid sitting there avidly reading . . . see?) Well, more than once, I shifted positions slightly, and window-shoppers shrieked and jumped back. I guess they’d been thinking I was a mannequin. . . .

Happy New Year!