Victory!: A Writer’s Tale

“He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!”
~Emily Dickinson

What a week! Weddings going viral (and purple) in Westeros (no really, I’ve been waiting for that GOT moment for far, FAR too long), Winter returning (and departing again) to Michigan just to make sure we didn’t miss it too badly, and a lot of serious progress made on As Feathers Fall. I’ve hit some roadblocks on that path in the last couple months, but I think I’m finally getting my footing back. I’m in a good place, and the scenes that are coming from that place are making this little writer downright giddy.

Speaking of writing, though, I’ve some rather serious news for my fellow blogophiles out there.

Monday evening, about 10 o’clock, I was sitting around the old apartment when I got a mysterious phone call. Private number and all that. When I pick up, who does it turn out to be? The good people at the Dyer-Ives Foundation.

What is Dyer-Ives, you might ask? They are an organization in Michigan dedicated to building grassroots, neighborhood organizations and fighting poverty and isolation, with a particular focus on my fellow Grand Rapids residents.

What might they want with me? Well, Dyer-Ives also happens to host an annual Kent County Poetry Competition—this year will mark their 46th year doing so. After consideration, my poem “Grand River” was selected as the winner of their adult competition!

Yet after some serious hopping, skipping and jumping for joy, the turn of phrase comes with certain other rewards as well. In addition to publication (winning poems and poets—that’s me!—will be posted online at dyer-ives.org later this Spring), the foundation will also be hosting a poetry reading at the Michigan Urban Institute for Contemporary Art, at which I have been invited to give a public reading of my poem.

Glee, I say. Sheer, unadulterated glee in this update!

Stay tuned for future posts on the when details, in addition to the above where, for the reading—and thank you all for the support that has helped me grow to this point. I wouldn’t be the poet I am today without you all.

Purposeful Literary Cruelty

While it is true that writers are, essentially, lying liars who lie (an article of great fun, by the way), another fact of life is that writers can be really quite cruel. Truly, we have a way of putting our characters through hell.

I should know. My name’s Chris, and I am a cruel little man. Minus the little.

I remember the first story I read where there is some true, authentic suffering going on. As a child, I had read Lord of the Rings and any number of other little fantasies and classy hist fics. of the day, but as much agony as that ring lays on Frodo’s head, it still doesn’t quite fit the bill of character torture. Change pace to something like Flowers for Algernon, where you get to see the height of a man’s bliss, only to watch the tortured, tragic fall, as his own mind degrades around him, and even memories begin to fail—and then, you shall truly know the horrors of what a writer can unleash.

In The Hollow March, my own first addition to the literary world, I have been told that I don’t just pick on my characters—but that I have a penchant for it. But between a raging war, a vengeful son, and a daughter that had her father burned alive, there’s never really a question of whether it’s going to be a dark world. It is at the core of my setting, my plot. The distance between people, and the horrors we unleash upon ourselves—it’s one of the core human elements I seek to explore in my writing. In reality, almost everyone has some burden they bear, some torture they must struggle with and to overcome—and I seek to bring that reality into my fantasy world.

Oh, Eddard. (Care of Game of Thrones wiki)

Oh, Eddard. (Care of Game of Thrones wiki)

In another fantasy work, the popular Game of Thrones series, pain likewise doesn’t seem to be the exception, but the rule. The whole nation seems a nest of vipers, all looking to kill one another from anything from familial to religious and the ever-so-key political woes. Everyone is a tortured character. Everyone has their burdens. It also makes for some of the most gripping cliffhangers you ever did see in literature…painful as some of these can be for some readers to stomach.

One of the big questions in the writing community is simply: why? Why are these sorts of “dark” and “gritty” tales gaining such popularity? What happened to the good old fluffy days? We certainly don’t want to go out on the streets and do this stuff ourselves—let alone have it happen to us—so why do we find it so enthralling?

Contrary to some’s belief (I’m looking at you Shades of…bleck), it doesn’t stem from the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but whips and chains excite me.” Nor is it that we are globally, psychologically fubar’d.

Rather, I feel it’s more of a matter of realism—of balance. In the past, you’ve had your irredeemably evil. You’ve had your glittering good. Never shall the twain meet, save in a battle for the world’s souls. A lot of this pain and agony we see nowadays is due to us getting more into the villains’ POVs, and stripping our heroes of that purely heroic trait. We’re making humans, and humans are, at their heart, flawed creatures. We’ve seen it enough in reality to know that—in things like fantasy, we’re just now getting around to asking: what happens when you take an all too human character, and simply add all those other magical/mystical/etc traits to the world around them? How would that impact an individual’s mentality—a world’s, even?

We dig into the dark side of the human psyche because, at heart, we want to learn. Why, why, why we ask, would they want to do this? What drove them to it? It’s not the action the captivates, but that great, almighty why. Getting into villains’ POVs improves a story. That is my opinion. I will always hold to it. I don’t want to just see evil for the sake of evil—to see why the villain did it, well, frankly, this interests me as much as the struggle against.

Oh, hey Sauron, how are y--OH, GOD! ((c) New Line Cinema and Wingnut Studios)

Oh, hey Sauron, how are y–OH, GOD! ((c) New Line Cinema and Wingnut Studios)

Will the bad guy still sometimes be as crazy as a cat on the nip? Well, yes. But getting in their heads—especially hearing them justify their actions (yikes)—can make for some truly atmospheric, emotional, and downright creepy scenes. Furthermore, showing us those villains that aren’t straight up crazy, or straight-up wretched, but forced into the role, or doing the wicked because of what they think is the good—these are always characters that strike a chord. That engage.

A dark lord is great every now and again, but if he exists for nothing but the nasty, at all possible times, and the hero nothing but the good, what do I gain from the experience? There is no learning. There is only the “oh no, he’s bad,” followed by the inevitable defeat. A certain sense of repetition and dullness seeps into the cracks between.

What’s more, struggles like these modern shadows bring us an opportunity to question and engage morality. Will motivations, justifications, and ethics themselves be flawed? Of course. But we get to see how they play out, how they interact, and why exactly they are the way they are. We don’t simply split the world down the middle and say: “Black and White,” if you please. We are forced to confront the shades of grey.

Inevitably, some people will do a drive by of such a work though and label it the downfall of western civilization. Or a sign of your own inherent wickedness. Don’t scowl. Don’t sulk. At that, I say: laugh. It should be expected, but you shouldn’t take it to heart. It’s not wicked to think, and to ponder different natures. Nor are you promoting them. You’re simply delving into the world and stripping away the colored coating so often applied.

As ever, if a scene doesn’t need to be there, it shouldn’t be—but you shouldn’t water down your work simply for a fear of potentially snarky reviews. Embrace your style, as it was meant to be embraced. All writers face critique. Don’t let it break you.

(And if you like what I’m preaching, I encourage you to indulge with my fantasy series, including The Hollow March and its sequel, At Faith’s End. Or if you’d like something a little more sci-fi for your afternoon sortie, have a look at short story “New Frontiers,” published in its entirety on this blog. Hopefully, you won’t be disappointed.)

Hero and Villain

“So Dawn’s in trouble…must be Tuesday.”
~Buffy (of the Vampire Slaying variety)

Forever (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Buffy and Dawn. “Forever” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Heroes. Villains. The great ones live on in our hearts and minds for decades after the pages have grown still in our hands. They give us something to root for and rage against—reflect hope and terror and keep our eyes glued long after the shadows have crept into our dens.

But what do the good stories need from these figures?

Personality, first of all. If TV is to be consulted, the world is filled with megalomaniac villains bent on destroying the world (which they live on, mind you) simply because someone ate the last pizza roll. Or snubbed them too many times in the theater. Just as it is filled with Mary Sues there to stop them because it’s what they were born/trained/facebooked their way into doing. And we’ll love them for it because they did what no one else would. Well. That’s a thing.

Pizza rolls appetizer

Pizza rolls appetizer. People have been killed for nomming less. (Photo credit: Burger Baroness)

In fantasy in particular these days, such simplistic stereotypes seem to be getting moved away from. While good vs. evil can be at the heart of the story (it’s at the heart of some of the very best stories!), characters are windows into the world, and to one another. Give them layers. Give them neurotic tendencies, intricate motivations, hopes, fears, reasons—there’s no reason they can’t have heroic traits, or evil superpowers, but give them at least a little ground as well. Hell, give your hero some naughty leanings (oh you smuggler you—always shooting first). The anti-hero is ever popular. Why? Because he’s layered.

Conflicting personal, religious, or political motivations can add all sorts of layers. Such could put limits on them, or just the opposite. A member of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, is not exactly likely to shy from a bit of bloodshed to achieve what they think a greater good. Because it’s what they feel their faith commands. A chivalrous knight, however, might refrain from torture, because he would see it as a sully to his honor—or his lord’s honor.

People turn to fantasy for an escape, often enough, but to truly draw them in, we need a living, breathing world—and that means characters that are more than the central goal.

Daenerys Targaryen

Oh, hello Khaleesi! “Daenerys Targaryen” (Photo credit: tr.robinson)

Daenerys Targaryen (or most characters, honestly) from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a wonderful example of this philosophy. The woman is driven, almost relentlessly, by her desire to return to Westeros and crown herself queen. But she is distracted often. The duties of a khalasar bind her as well, while the safety of her dragon children binds her to otherwise illogical action, and her hatred of slavery pushes her to root out those that would push it forward. She is learning.  She is growing. But she has clear morals, a layered personality, and conflicts that result from both.

Intelligence. Far too often I’ve found myself screaming at main characters for some of the…well, stupidest decisions I’ve ever seen. Those moments you cannot help but think: who would ever do this? Characters, like people, need to think, and this means both the good and the bad. So Melvin the Dark Lord wants to take over the world. Fine. That’s great. But how? And why? He has to know it won’t be easy. Likewise, if he knows there’s a hero out hunting for him, why would he think monologing over a slowly moving chain-prison is a great way to off the fellow? Have the intellects clash between your characters. Play them off one another. Make them adapt—not one-trick ponies.

Struggle. Be it with their own inner demons, or with one another, the hero and villain should struggle as much the notions and outcomes of their conflict as with the conflict itself. Each should be working toward a resolution. What will they do to achieve? What will the struggles force out of them? Does morality factor in?

They, and their struggle, are what should be moving our story along.

Book Review: The White-Luck Warrior

If you know anything about R. Scott Bakker, it’s that his writing is not about to pander to his readers. After the success of his enthrallingly bleak series, “The Prince of Nothing,” we shifted twenty years into the future with The Judging Eye, as the opening of “The Aspect Emperor” series. Though it continued his history of quality literature, even for fans, it could come across a bit dense.

Yet if The Judging Eye stoked fears this upcoming author had stumbled, The White-Luck Warrior puts us right back into the mind of one of fantasy’s best and brightest. It’s a thick, philosophical, and highly intelligent read (and if “A Song of Ice and Fire” is dark, I’d say Bakker’s works are borderline nihilistic) that can make for an information overload at the outset, but an incredibly thoughtful and rewarding experience for those who stick with it.

For those who aren’t familiar, The White-Luck Warrior is a fantasy novel following numerous characters across the mythical “Three Seas.” Mimara, stepdaughter of the Aspect Emperor, teams with Achamian, the world’s only lone sorcerer, in a quest for vengeance and understanding. Sorweel, a captured prince (made king with the murder of his father) and hostage to the Aspect Emperor’s grand northern march, struggles with whether to believe in the Emperor’s quest to avoid apocalypse, or to kill him for the gods and his own sense of revenge. Esmenet, the Emperor’s wife, struggles to hold together a failing empire, while her son continues to manifest dark tendencies, and all the while the White-Luck Warrior trudges closer to an endgame none may predict. Through these, and dozens of well-thought-out side characters, the Three Seas comes together in all of its unsettling—and crudely satisfying—glory.

And that is where we begin: world-building. Bakker is a master of detail, and his world comes together in rich and engaging imagery. It breathes history, and while the previous novels gave us a Middle Eastern-style setting for a welcome change to most Europe-centric fantasy novels, this one takes us into the north, a primeval and wild place, made of ruins, dust, and trees. The narrative moves with force, and for all the history ground within its pages, it never slows in that regard. The depth with which Bakker writes leaves one wondering how many pages of notes he must have dedicated to this particular world.

For me, Bakker’s distinctly philosophic style makes for a unique bent in a genre stifled with stereotypes, but it can trip some people up, particularly in the pacing. That said, it does wonders for fleshing out the characters—as all have their particular codes, their views, their joys and fears, which allow Bakker to stretch his mind to its utmost. As well as many people’s moral codes.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—these aren’t series’ for the faint-hearted. Characters are complex, layered, and driven as men and women often are, but even the best have their dark moments, and with Bakker, they’re guaranteed to be dark indeed. There is a lot of evolution here in this book, and you may begin to see characters in new lights—and I daresay a few will certainly surprise. But villains and heroes certainly will still blur. Plus, here we get to see even more of that wacky Anasaurimbaur family—in all it’s crazed, homicidal glory.

Backtracking to the topic pacing now…I daresay that could be the book’s one issue. Certain portions of the book are quicker than others, and Achamian/Mimara’s sections in particular can suffer through a bit of a slog (haha, yes, I made a funny—readers will understand), largely due to the prevalence of thought over action. Until the end of course—and what an end! Hope you’re in the mind for cliffhangers, because you’re going to be handed a doozy of one—leaving readers with about as many questions as answers.

If anything, though, I do question the name of the book. Certainly The White-Luck Warrior is an influence to be felt behind the scenes…but while he does have an important moment, I don’t think he’s quite at the level yet to earn the titular. His parts are few, far-between, and decidedly fleeting. A touch off-putting I suppose, but minor as far as complaints go.

That said, I wouldn’t back down from labeling this one of the best books of the year, and certainly a fine way to be kicking off this decade. If you enjoy fantasy, I highly recommend it.

Game of Thrones Season 1 Review

Thrones, Dragons and a whole lot of scowling.

(In case you’d like the audio version: Game of Thrones Review)

If you weren’t hiding under a rock for the past year, chances are you’ve caught the hype revolving around HBO and its touted adaptation of popular fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” – by George R.R. Martin.

Well, the season’s done now, and I think I can safely say any viewer’s anxiously awaiting Spring 2012. This first season certainly took us on an action-packed romp through Westeros, delivering us fast-paced storytelling, sound acting, and the usual quality of HBO writing. Sure there were only ten episodes, but the sheer breadth of what they covered would leave any sane man gasping for more.

Through this season we’ve scrambled through the twists and turns of revenge, medieval politics, and war, and all through the eyes of fascinatingly layered characters. It’s not your fantasy of Elves and Dwarves, no sir—this is your high class modern fantasy, by which I mean dark, brooding, and bloody. It’s all humans, save the looming threat of some undead nasties, and that honestly helps to endear it. The characters don’t rely on fantastical gimmicks or endless hordes of CGI to make us love them. They are raw humanity in its purest (and often ugliest) form.

Yet to be honest, going in, this was one of those shows I wasn’t sure if I would love or hate. I’m a fan of the books. I’ve read them all (and am waiting rather anxiously for the fifth book to FINALLY come out). I’ve seen a lot of books turned into terrible visual pieces—so I had my reservations. But while 10 episodes left a lot the finer details rushed, the show executed itself well over all.

For starters, the production values were top of the line, as we’ve come to expect from HBO programming. The men behind the cameras knew what they were doing, and the cinematography is spot-on. The locales of Westeros were distinct, as were the people in them, and the breadth and culture of a world breathed rather effortlessly through the screen.

As I’ve already mentioned, the characters themselves were beautifully rendered. Sean Bean, of course, was at the top of his game as Eddard Stark, patriarch of the Stark family, and Peter Dinklage shone as everyone’s favorite sassy “ Imp” Tyrion Lannister. But one would expect the big names to do well—it was the smaller names that really set the bar. The Starks—Maisie Williams as Arya, Sophie Turner as Sansa, Michelle Fairley as Catelyn—all delivered spot-on performances in that regard. I think I can safely say it was Emilia Clarke’s breakaway performance and traceable growth as the indomitable Daenerys Targaryen that really takes the cake (and made silver hair look damn fine too). Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) also was startlingly delivered, here, particularly because they got one hell of a creepy kid to play him, with an act that was no less than menacing.

The series, like the books it shadows, didn’t pull any punches, either. Much as you might gasp for Ned not to go through that door…the finale makes it very clear he’s not coming back from his wrong guess. Blood and sex were the order of the day (including one rather overt lesbian scene that I can only attribute to producers screaming “Look at me, I’m edgy!”), and the cameras didn’t shy away from the nasty.

The book fans have been waiting for…

But speaking as a fan of the books, there were some adaptations I didn’t quite agree with, and I’ll freely admit they color my perceptions a touch. First of all—Cersei as a sort of sympathetic character? Where the bloody did that come from? If you know anything about the books, you know the rather sinister queen is about the farthest one could get from “sympathetic”—power-hungry, arrogant, and utterly self-consumed. Yet the show often toned down the evil in her, playing up a mystery lost child, one-time love for her husband, and a hearty dose of respect for her rival that seems…off. To each their own interpretations, I suppose, but she’s certainly not the Cersei I know.

And where the hell was Rickon? The youngest Stark child never had a big to-do in the books, but he certainly had more than a couple cameo shots. Given, you can’t give equal screen to everybody, but one would be hard-pressed to recall the child until the final episode.

While most of the crucial scenes literary fans would be looking for were there—and delightfully pursued, if I might say so—there were a lot of other scenes you might have expected that simply weren’t. Flashbacks, for example. In the books of course, we get to spend time in the characters’ heads, so pursuing a few leaps in time is a little easier…but even so, I would have liked to have seen some of the history up close on the screen. The battle at the tower of joy, for example. The whole sub-plot of Ned’s sister. Even touches of the battle on the trident that…you know, guaranteed Robert’s kingship and all.

Some of the added scenes, while useful, were also less than thrilling, coming off as little more than fluff pieces. It’s perplexing just how many characters chose to give us self-insight through whores, for example. No, seriously.

But hey, the series also developed a few arts of its own, which we can all take a lesson from in the future. Like the art of censoring via dragons. Personally, I think it’s an art form that doesn’t get enough attention. I blame the media.

In conclusion: it’s not the book, but I don’t think it really set out to be. What Game of Thrones does, it does very well, with high production values, solid acting, and a wealth of characterization, culture, and dialogue. While fans of the books will find flaws to harp on (as I did), and the series can feel a bit rushed at points, overall it delivered the quality we would hope for, and delivered a healthy shot in the arm for the visual fantasy genre—because let’s face it, fantasy’s popular as literature, but we’re sorely lacking on the TV scene.

Putting it to the stars, I’d give the first season a 4 out of 5 in the end. Hopefully the second season will maintain the momentum.

Lord knows the blood pool’s going to deepen.

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Winter is Coming

The day may still be a year away, but HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular fantasy novel series A Song of Fire and Ice has never felt closer.

Last week, a new teaser trailer (the first) was released, showing several scenes from the show and getting all trippy on us. It doesn’t reveal much, just a few glimpses here and there of things we can gleefully anticipate.

The first season will revolve around the first novel in the series, and all seasons thereafter will follow the same theory. Martin has seven books planned for the series (though fans are still biting their nails over a five-year wait on the fifth book: A Dance with Dragons).

The story takes place in the mythical land of Westeros, and follows the story of the noble but intensely unfortunate Stark family, who become intricate parts of the gathering intrigue and drama of the land when the King draws the Stark patriarch, Eddard (played by Sean Bean) in to be his closest advisor. People squabble for the throne, characters fall, and in the midst of it all, the once semi-peaceful land devolves into war-torn madness.

The script for the show is written and produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, with Thomas McCarthy (at least at present) directing. The cast will also play host to a number of fairly well-known names, including Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey, amongst others.

The series is going to be filled with necessary pretties, and some serious cash will have to be invested in visual effects—given that we have got dragons, magic, and even giant wolves running around Westeros, all waiting for their moment on the screen. The show is said to be more “character-centric,” but we’ll see how that turns out.

The series is set to premiere in Spring, 2011, barring setbacks. And by god, there better not be setbacks.

(And yes, I know, geek points for me, since I posted this on both my blogs. I’ll live.)