Archive for the ‘fantasy fiction writing’ Category

Madeleine Stories

May 10, 2008

Today my editor and I were swapping our Madeleine L’Engle stories, and it occurs to me this is something worth blogging about.

I met Madeleine on three different occasions. The first two were at the Blooming Grove Writers’ Conferences in Bloomington, Illinois, when I was a junior-high and then a high-school student. In fact, the inspiration for what would become my first novel manuscript came while I was sitting in Madeleine’s workshop. As I listened, I was doodling in my notebook. Without thinking much about what I was drawing, I sketched a dense grove of trees, and then for some reason, I superimposed an iron-bound door floating in the air in front of–or against–the tree trunks. It was standing open, and I later began to think about why a magical doorway would open in a grove of trees. . . .

Anyway, that first time I attended Blooming Grove, I was enrolled in Paul Darcy Boles’s fiction workshop. (An excellent quote of his that I gleaned then, which I still use every year with my writing students, is: “We [writers] are all storytellers, sitting around the cave of the world.”) Mr. Boles was a great encouragement. I’d written a little Tolkien-derivative story called “Where Lies Adventure,” and he told me the Dwarf in it was “a really good Dwarf.” “You don’t poke fun at your characters,” he said. “This Dwarf isn’t Disneyfied.” He recommended the movie Dragonslayer to me, which I’d seen, and which made him all the cooler in my teenage eyes. And perhaps best of all, he signed his wonderful book Night Watch for me with the words, “For Fred: A fine writer who knows about enchantment.”

But I digress. The conference was scheduled so that I could sit in on both Boles’s lectures and L’Engle’s, which I did.

The second time around, I enrolled in Madeleine’s young-adult fiction workshop, so I was able to submit a manuscript which she critiqued for me. I’ll never forget her wise, diplomatic comment: “I suspect you’re one draft away from being able to send this around.”

Heh, heh, heh! Isn’t that funny, if you think about it? I took it as great encouragement, which was what she hoped, I’m sure. High-school kids who want to write are to be encouraged. But that comment could be made honestly about the very worst pieces of writing. Anything could be “one draft away” from being a work of Shakespeare, if enough were changed in the rewrite.

Finally, the third time I met her was when she did a book-signing at a bookstore in Chicago, when I was a college student. I waited through the line, and when she was signing my book, being the over-eager, excited young idiot that I was, I asked if she remembered me from the Blooming Grove conference. (I would never ask such a question today, and the mere memory of it makes me blush!) Again, ever diplomatic, Madeleine answered, “Probably, probably.”

Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh!


A Slovenly Source

May 4, 2008

Because of my book Dragonfly–okay, and because of stories such as “The Bone Man”–I’m sometimes considered a horror writer. As such, the editors of Erebos: Journal of the New Darkness asked me, not long ago, to write a piece for them about the most important horror book I’d ever read. What follows is, in part, what I wrote, with slight modifications for this blog:

The assignment is, of course, impossible. What is the most important fallen leaf in the forest, among all those leaves that fall each year and become part of the rich compost from which new life springs? Can any writer choose one single book? I guess I could name any one of dozens and commend it as eloquently as possible. I could make any number of choices, and as Kipling said of the ways of doing the tribal lays, every single one of them would be right.

Mind you, I’m talking specifically about horror here. My selection, then, which must stand as the representative for all the fairy tales, all the grand and dark adventures, is an unlikely one in that it’s not a story at all: my choice is Der Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffmann.

Titled Slovenly Peter in English, the book is a set of cautionary tales designed, supposedly, to teach children how to behave (or perhaps more importantly–how not to). The children in the stories–just like us, except that they’re more German and wear clothing styles of long ago–all get fair warnings. Don’t play with matches. Eat what’s on your plate. Don’t torment animals. Watch where you’re going. Don’t tip backwards in your chair. And whatever you do, Conrad, don’t suck your thumb! Not only do the children receive instructions–in some cases, they even hear the dire consequences of ill-advised behavior.

Do they listen? Yeah, right. As I said, they’re just like us–that’s what makes the book so effective. The lucky ones just get dog bites (which, in the illustrations, spew bright blood), lose their satchels in the ocean, or take a lump on the head. The less fortunate ones are burned to cinders, waste away to nothing and die, become grotesquely disfigured . . . or, in one of the most traumatic dolings of punishment, have their thumbs snipped off by a very frightening stranger.

I’ll never forget that image: little Conrad, happily sucking away on his thumbs while his mother is out of the house–the door flying open, and the “great tall red-legged scissor-man” bursting in. This cruel-faced intruder (with his long, streaming hair, his flying coattails, and his twiggy limbs) is a tailor, we’re told; he certainly has the giant scissors to prove it. He doesn’t deliver ultimatums, doesn’t offer final chances: he’s just in through that door (at a dead run, judging from the picture), SNIP, SNIP, and out again–and Conrad is left with stumps for thumbs. Stumps which, yes, spout blood in two neat fountains to his left and right. He looks unhappy.

I’m not sure to what degree Mr. Hoffmann really intended his book to correct behavior. I don’t know, of course. But if I had to speculate, I’d be tempted to think he knew he would fascinate and delight his young readers as much as he would terrify them. As a child, I was afraid of the scissor-man, but he held an undeniable appeal. I came back to the book again and again, just as we all always go back again and again to the campfire where the scary stories are–as we always climb to the dark attic or descend the cellar stairs.

Der Struwwelpeter hit me at an impressionable age. It didn’t sugar-coat the horror. The horror’s consequences didn’t dissolve in the morning light. In its gross hyperbole, the book also delivered honesty. The dangers do lurk; they’re out there. Accustomed patterns can dissolve at any moment. We live in a world of trapdoors. That scares us, but enigmas that we are, we also celebrate it.

Anyone who’s read both Dragonfly and Der Struwwelpeter will know exactly where the villainous Mr. Snicker came from: he’s lifted whole-cloth from Hoffmann–he is the great tall tailor, with a haircut and a few extra pounds around the waist.

There’s a little bit of Der Struwwelpeter in every horror story I write.

Writing Space

May 2, 2008

Writers tend to love their tools. As a kid, I wrote with a certain type of very soft-leaded mechanical pencil. When my pages were stacked together, the graphite on them would smear, so that in time, the words became almost indistinguishable on the sheets of uniform, cloudy gray. (This problem was exacerbated by being left-handed, with my writing hand always dragging across what I’d just written.)

I loved my IBM Selectric typewriter in college. When I got a Smith-Corona word processor the summer before I came to Japan, I thought it was the greatest invention ever. My first computer was a PowerMac, and I ended up collecting six different keyboards for it. Keyboards are the tactile interface between writer and machine. I relished the differences among them–some big, some small; some standard, some ergonomic; some with firmer resistance to the keys, some with softer; and each with its unique, satisfying click-click-click. The old Mac gave up the ghost after ten years of faithful service, and now I have a laptop PC starting its third year on my desk (with only two keyboards besides the one built into it).

A few years back, Jill Krementz came out with a book and related calendar, The Writer’s Desk, which offered glimpses into the places writers worked. I really enjoyed seeing the austere, converted boathouse in which E.B. White wrote…the comfortable clutter around Stephen King…the long table with Isaac Bashevis Singer ensconced at one end…. I’ve long been fascinated by the actual, physical spaces and conditions writers choose for themselves. (I see that the book is still available on-line.) So I thought you might be interested in seeing my current writing space.

Here it is! I like a full-sized keyboard, so that’s a Microsoft ergonomic laid on a wooden plank I bought at a hardware store. The plank rests on four wooden spools from my mom’s sewing drawer. It’s fitting that an artifact of my mom’s is present to hold up my keyboard, since it was Mom who taught me by example the process of writing stories and sending them out, submission after submission.

The picture was taken in February of this year. I was keying in line-edits to my novelette “Lucia’s Quest”–that’s the manuscript you see to the right of the computer. In a way, though, it’s misleading to call this my writing space: I do a lot of writing here, but I do just as much on a kitchen table, using an AlphaSmart Dana. I do write almost entirely by keyboard now. Gone are the days of gray graphite hands!

Looking from a Certain Angle

April 29, 2008

“There is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.”

–Hope Mirrlees, Lud-in-the-Mist

I’m about a third of the way into the extraordinary book quoted above. It was recommended to me by four different friends, and I’m finally getting around to reading it. It is truly wonderful. Most definitely it belongs on the “small shelf” of the most treasured books in the library of a serious lover of fantasy. It was written just shy of a century ago, but don’t let that discourage you. Ms. Mirrlees wrote in a clear, elegant, uncluttered style that makes for smooth, pleasant reading. Moreover, she knew how to tell a story; I found myself drawn in at once to the lives and adventures of the Chanticleer family and their associates.

Like so many of my favorite writers, Hope Mirrlees was clearly as enchanted by the natural world as by any fantastical elements of a fairy tale; or rather, she rightly understood just how numinous the created world is, in and of itself. What, she asks, is more magical than a hawthorn tree coming suddenly to life in the spring?

Anyway, her words that I quoted above express, I believe, one of the fundamental concepts upon which any discussion of writing fantasy fiction should be built. Tolkien said essentially the same thing in his essay “On Fairy Stories.” And Leonardo da Vinci reportedly told his art students that they should stare at the cracks in the walls until they saw whole worlds pouring out of them.

Where do ideas come from? How can we write about Faery when we’ve never been there? The ideas are all around us, and I’d contend that we live all the time with one foot in Faery. It’s a matter of knowing how to see, how to listen. Lilacs are blooming just now in the northern hemisphere. Go out and press your nose into their twilight-colored clusters. Drink in that fragrance like none other on Earth. If you would see fairies, they’re dancing there, among those dusky, heart-shaped leaves.

We knew this well as children. Were we not all experts at taking “homely things” and making of them the equipment we needed for our adventures, no matter how fantastic? I recall the rusted wreck of a bicycle that, overturned and stood upon its handlebars and seat, became the wheelhouse of my imaginary “shark-fishing boat”: the bicycle’s tire was the ship’s wheel, and the kickstand was the throttle (its rusty resistance so mechanically satisfying when it was shifted up or down with a grrooiiink!). The bike’s pedals were the winch-crank for raising and lowering the anti-shark cage.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, English teacher Mr. Keating has his students stand, one by one, atop his desk in order to view the classroom from that vantage point–an angle from which they’ve never seen it.

So we, too, if we set out to write fantasy, must stand in places we don’t normally stand. We must look around, and listen to the quietness and the whispers of leaves. Let us remember what we knew before we ever opened a textbook: that the wonders are here, more than any book can contain. Grab hold of one and write about it!

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night….

April 23, 2008

….Toward the end of April 2008, and as the wind howled around my apartment, splattering the windows with rain, I was up much too late, making my first foray into the realm of Blog. So far, so good–the image at the top is a view of the landscape I grew up looking at in Illinois–the road in front of my house. Tolkien’s character Bilbo Baggins famously commented on roads, how the grandest adventures begin just beyond our front garden gate; how the path that leads through Mirkwood and to the very feet of the Lonely Mountain begins here: it’s this same lane running past our doorway.

Here we go, then, with our walking-sticks and our knapsacks! Come with me along this road. We’ll journey through memory, speculation, dream, and reflection. As we march, we’re sure to talk about fantastic occurrences, mysterious folk, fearsome monsters, unforgettable characters, and great stories. For you see, mostly what we’re going to talk about is fiction–the craft of producing it–the writing life. Which is, of course, a much bigger topic than most of us guess…so we may be on this road for a good while. I hope you packed a lunch!