It’s all in how you look at things

In other news, I aten’t dead, just … restin’.

Perspective is probably the first thing you notice when you crack open a book. Whether it’s first-, third-, or second-person — yes, I have encountered second-person — it’s going to make an impact on the reader, and of course on the story itself. I don’t usually like first-person stories, though there have been notable exceptions (the Resurgam books by Joan Frances Turner immediately come to mind). Second-person immediately gets jettisoned, unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure story, and I haven’t read one of those since I was in middle school.

That’s a prompt for another blog post, though. There are other kinds of perspective thay matter in a story, and those are the ones I want to focus on today.

Innocence versus experience is probably the one used most in Western literature. You’ve got Wordsworth of course, and then you also have writers like Philip Pullman who prod at the notion, unravel it, and stitch it back together to make something new. Then you’ve got the hero’s journey where a character gets dragged kicking and screaming into caring about other people. There are other shifts in perspective, but usually they can be boiled down to innocence versus experience, or selflessness versus selfishness.

And these are interesting character arcs in and of themselves.

But — and I refer back to my favorite zombie book Dust by JFT– sometimes, using a changing perspective to look on the same event (or using the audience’s different perspective) can be just as interesting, and just as thought-provoking.

In one of the flashbacks, Jessie (our undead protagonist) meets up with a group of other undeads and becomes particularly attached to Joe, a Chicago biker who died sometime in the seventies. At the time of their meeting, Joe has been undead for over thirty years; Jessie, meanwhile, is fresh out of the grave, and was just fifteen when a drunk driver killed her. So we, the audience — as well as Joe, who keeps reminding her of the age difference — know that he has a huge psychological advantage over her, even if she can pound him into a pulp just as much as any of the rest of the undead crew. Jessie, freshly dead and twitterpated, stays with Joe when she has every ability to leave, and Joe of course is perfectly happy with this outcome.

But the main story takes place nine years after Jessie died, and when she narrates this flashback, it’s from a position of experience and disillusionment. “Like I said,” she tells the audience, and we can hear the bitter wistfulness, “I was fifteen.”

It’s that darn verisimilitude at work again. We’ve all had something happen that we feel differently about years after the fact. And if we can identify that same feeling with a zombie? Then maybe the rest of the story will feel real, too.

The trouble with Bad Boys

Aka: the Twilight phenomenon.

Acknowledging that I was a wee middleschooler when the Twilight books first boomed kind of dates me — as either Too Old To Be Cool or Very Much A Young’Un — but hey, I have an insider’s point of view. Yes, I was Team Jacob. Hold on, this is actually relevant.

The fact that Jacob was a werewolf was the main reason I was Team Jacob, but there were other reasons too. (Hold on, I’m getting there.)

My sister was very much Team Edward. One of the mutual friends we had at summer camp was also incredibly Team Edward. And naturally we had big arguments about who was better and, naturally, which of us was right and which was a soppy idiot. Ah, middle school. Preteens are savages.

In fact the main reason I was so firmly Team Jacob and so anti Team Edward was that Edward was a creepy vampire stalker who literally wanted to drink Bella’s blood, but Jacob, on the other hand, Would Never Hurt Bella Ever.

Yes, I believed this even after reading New Moon. You know, the one where Jacob forcibly kisses Bella and she punches him to try to make him stop, and then he tells her it’s her fault her wrist is broken.

So romantic, right?

</sarcasm>

But this whole Girls Liking Bad Boys, whether the boys in question are vampires or leather-studded bikers or powerful demigods hellbent on conquest, is a bit of a puzzler. Loki murders hundreds of people on the screen and girls swoon? I mean, really? I was fourteen and embarrassing once too, but really, younger self?

I think I’ve figured it out, though. Here it is, the Theory of Awkward Antihero Obsession:

“Bad guys are attractive because they have the ability to do bad things to other people BUT, and this is the important caveat, they would never hurt ME.”

Makes sense, mostly. There’s a sense of self-preservation in there somewhere, so that’s alright.

The problem with the Twilight books, while we were mid-craze, is that our definitions of the word “hurt” varied so much. Now, of course, we’ve grown up a bit and we can recognize that both Edward and Jacob are creeps.

But was it a good story?

It seems like most of the movies and books that I like include at least one minor (or major) character that I like, who bites the dust. Well, considering a book like Les Misérables, where only three major characters make it out alive, basically any character you attach yourself to is going to die horribly; the disclaimer is right there in the title. But even regular things like, well, like GotG2 or Wonder Woman, have cool characters that I really like that somehow manage to die. For a reason, yes! For a reason that is consistent with their previous characterization, yes! But still.

I can still remember the first time a character I liked died, because I pitched a fit in the Sears by the refrigerator section and my dad had to calm me down again. What can I say, I was a weirdly emotional seven year old. These days I don’t have melt-downs in public places, I just write fanfiction. A much better coping mechanism, if you ask me.

But when I tearfully described how Rose had been killed in Martin the Warrior, my dad asked a question that made me very reluctant and also very mutinous and also very, very confused: “But was it a good story?”

Uhh, sure, Dad, it was a good story, I guess. But the character died. And I didn’t want that character to die, I wanted the bad guys to die. Only the bad guys are allowed to die. (What can I say, I was seven. I still believed an evil alien was mind-controlling my third grade teacher.) And the fact of that character’s death hovered over everything else. I haven’t read any Redwall books in uh, probably about a decade, but off the top of my head I can tell you that the ones I reread included Taggerung (because it had an otter as a main character) and the ones I didn’t reread had Martin the Warrior at the top of the list.

But was it a good story? Well, that’s the kicker, because it depends on what you think of as the story.

To some people, it’s the plot and only the plot that constitutes the story. The swashbuckling pirates steal from the rich and escape the British Navy and ride away into the glittering sunset. The girl escapes from her evil stepfamily and sews a beautiful dress by hand and marries the handsome prince. Keanu Reeves kills a bunch of people as revenge for Theon Greyjoy killing his pet dog, and the Green Goblin, sorry Willem Defoe, helps his old buddy Keanu out.

To other people, it’s the characters that are the story, and the plot is nice and they enjoy it but it’s basically window dressing. Say what you like about Jane Austen, but Pride and Prejudice is about characters making decisions about themselves and each other. The plot isn’t grand, and it doesn’t have to be, because the characters are strong enough to propel the plot by themselves.

So when my dad asked, “Was it a good story?” and I sullenly answered “I guess,” we were working off different definitions of the word.

It’s pretty difficult to want to return to a story that includes part of the story dying off, unless (like in Les Mis, or Rogue One, or Romeo and Juliet — stop giving me that side-eye, they do have this one thing in common) there’s a big old disclaimer stamped everywhere and really what you’re reading is how and why they die. But meanwhile, people who focus on plot are just puzzled as to why you’re sobbing into your handkerchief in the theater.

Sequels

Usually I read things in chronological order. It makes more immediate sense to me to do so. In certain cases this isn’t what the author intended (The Chronicles of Narnia) and in some cases it isn’t what works best (the Star Wars movies). But usually the creators of the works are on the same page, that a linear progression of time is the most logical way to tell a story.

The second installment of a story has to do two things, and this can be tricky: it has to continue the story from where it left off, and it has to catch up the new listeners just tuning in. Some books try to do this with a little author’s note at the beginning — sort of a “previously on” like in tv shows. This might work or it might not, depending on the mood of the overall story; it’ll probably work better if it’s humorous, or maybe that’s just me. Some books try to do it with carefully rationed infodumps parceled throughout the beginning chapters, little “oh by the way”s and such. And other books just allude to the the goings-on of the first part of the story, and only make them plain as they become relevant to the next part of the story. I think I like the third option best, but I’m finding it a little tricky.

There were seven Harry Potter books, and six of them had to catch up new readers at the beginning. JKR did this with neat little infodumps. There were — are? — God knows how many Artemis Fowl books, and again, most of them had some sort of exposition near the beginning, if I remember correctly. Since I’m planning on the Iron Gentry series being kind of a big sprawling series, I should probably reread those books just to study their techniques. But there are two books in particular that I’ve reread that are, I think, probably the best examples of sequel handling I’ve ever come across.

The Oracle Betrayed series by Catherine Fisher consists of three books: The Oracle (formerly The Oracle Betrayed), The Archon (formerly The Sphere of Secrets), and The Scarab (formerly The Day of the Scarab). (I don’t know why the titles changed. The covers did too, but that’s a less mysterious thing.) I first encountered these books in the children’s section of my public library, I think when I was in middle school. But I started with The Archon, instead of The Oracle.

In a nutshell, public libraries: they had a copy of the first book, but someone else was borrowing it. I was too curious to wait — I read the blurb on the back and promptly checked out books two and three. And so I was introduced to the world of the Oracle. It felt seamless. I knew I wasn’t reading the first introduction of these characters, but Fisher’s writing displayed them like old friends getting reacquainted. It helped that time had passed in-universe, so that every reader had catching up to do and not just the newcomers. (A handy trick, and one that I’m using in my own work.) But more than that, it wasn’t a whole bucket of backstory being dumped into my head. It was gradual and subtle and dang, but it made me fall in love with the characters. The Jackal is still one of my favorite antihero/badguy mashups ever. So, a rousing success, and a great example that I’m trying to learn from. I’m off to reread it again.

Favorite Books

Picking a favorite book is like picking a favorite food. Some people know what it is immediately, and other people agonize over the decision because there are so many wonderful options to choose from. I’m definitely one of the latter.

And people pick their favorite books for many different reasons, too. I’ll expand more later about mine, and the reasons for them, but I’d like you to share yours. What are your favorite books? Why are they your favorite books? And when did you first realize they were your favorite?

Tell me in the comments!

First Sentences

My favorite opening line in a story is from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. “She scowled at her glass of orange juice.” It’s such an immediately unusual thing to read, and yet not very out of the ordinary in terms of situation. I mean, who hasn’t scowled at a glass of orange juice, especially when it’s got pulp in it? And yet, as far as I can remember, Harry Crewe is the only character I’ve read who does it — and McKinley lays out the reason why over the next few pages. It’s a subtle hook but it’s there, and I’m delighted every time I read it.

Another favorite opening line (or lines) comes from Dust by Joan Frances Turner. “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” A lot less subtle than Harry Crewe, but it’s so casual that it becomes funny, and the best way to snag a reader is to make them laugh. I know it worked for me.

Opening lines are pretty hard to write. There are whole Books On Writing dedicated to how much they matter. You have to give some exposition, but not too much or you’ll bore the reader. You have to get them interested, but don’t start the action too suddenly or you’ll overwhelm the reader. There are so many do’s and don’t’s that it’s pretty difficult to navigate. So when you’re trying to write that perfect opening line, what do you do?

Practice and study. It’s all we can do.

And I know that my particular method of writing, at least so far, means that I have to churn out a first draft of a first chapter just to scrap it. I can feel it while I’m working on this new project. It isn’t a bad thing, though. Sometimes you just have to write crap so that you can even get to the good stuff. And once I have the first draft of the beginning done, then when I go back after finishing the whole thing, it will make a lot more sense, and I’ll know how to properly start it. And that’s exciting.

But okay — you practice and practice, but what kind of opening line do you write? It sounds like a platitude to say “whatever fits your story,” but there you go. A lot of writing advice sounds like something you get from a fortune cookie. Still — I suppose the real advice is, write something that would make you the writer want to read it. If you think you’ve written a genius line, but writing it bored you to tears, scrap it. I’m pretty sure that readers can sense when you’re having a difficult time. (I know my editor can.) So write something that you like. Don’t copy, but draw inspiration from the books you already love. After all, reading is what makes a writer.

Mark It Up

Ebooks have a lot of good things going for them, not the least of which is that they are portable. The same library that would be several pounds’ worth of print books, bulky and taking up valuable room in the luggage, is easily stored in my tablet or phone; and if I’ve downloaded them to my device instead of leaving them in the cloud, the books are just as accessible, if not more. I call that pretty useful.

I do like print books. Most of my life I’ve read books printed out in paperback or hardcover, occasionally getting crumbs in the spine when I just couldn’t put them away for a food break. My copy of Good Omens has a cracked spine from the fact that I’ve opened it to my favorite scene so many times (the drunk conversation between Aziraphale and Crowley, by the way). There’s a sensory feeling tied to print books that you just can’t get anywhere else.

But maybe because of that singular sensory feeling, I can’t bear to so much as dog-ear a page. The idea of scribbling notes in the margins of pages, let alone highlighting or underlining, makes me wince. The only non-textbook that I’ve done that to is Les Mis, and that’s because I’ve argued about his characters often enough that Victor Hugo can begrudge me some blue highlighter.

Ebooks, on the other hand, don’t offer that sensory experience — so I feel no compunction about marking them up. I highlight my ebooks in blue and pink and orange, I yell at characters in the notes or groan at puns, I bookmark favorite scenes. And if I’m in the mood for a particular book but I don’t want to read the whole thing, I can skip to the “notebook” function (handily available in the Kindle and Google PlayBooks apps) to reread my favorite parts.

That’s something that I missed, before. It’s an amazing kind of freedom to be able to yell at characters and plotlines and fill a note with exclamation points when I see the foreshadowing in a reread. (Can you tell I’m the kind of person who talks during movies?) Listen, I love interacting with media. It’s all sorts of fun. Whether you scribble in your print book or not, that’s great — you do you. I’ll be over here with my phone and the highlighter tool.

Having published a book, I think being able to read the finished product in ebook form is pretty darn neat. Somehow I know I won’t believe it’s  real until I’m actually holding a print copy in my hands. But I don’t care whether you mark up the copy in print or in the ether of the cloud; just so long as you mark it up.

Frankenstein’s Monster and the Phantom

He was born ugly, and people abused him because he was ugly, so he went on a murder spree. Which character does this describe?

Err … both. Okay.

What about their motivations? The Creature was abandoned hours after his creation, left to fend for himself. He just wanted someone to talk to, right? He was lonely because he was the only person in the world like himself, and even his own reflection frightened him. He learned three different languages to talk to people in, only to hear them screaming at him in three different languages. Even a small child thought he was repulsive. So … he killed the child. Solid logic there, buddy. The next step is obviously to frame an innocent woman for the murder.

And the Phantom, who was stuck in a zoo as a child and grew up being poked and prodded at, who had to wear a mask to get people to stop screaming at him. So escape to the bowels of a theater, blackmail the managers into giving you oodles of money (which you do … what with? do you go out? do you, heaven forbid, buy some company? nope) — and then take advantage of a teenager’s grief at the death of her father to manipulate her into being your student. Yep, sounds good. And when she decides to marry some other dude and escape your clutches, logically the next thing to do is to murder a few people.

Of course, all of this is massive oversimplification. They’re both fascinating stories with really well-developed antagonists. And Frankenstein especially doesn’t have a single handy dandy moral to apply; Frankenstein the character isn’t a good guy either. And you should see all the people who howl that Christine should have picked the Phantom over Raoul. It seems pretty clear-cut that they’re victims … except for the fact that, you know, being lonely and maligned doesn’t exactly excuse the fact that they murder people.

“You’d think killing people will make them like you, but it doesn’t … it just makes them dead.”

The conclusion? Hats off to Leroux and Shelley, because these books are considered “classics” but are actually readable without choking on a torrent of pretension and condescension. I mean, The Phantom of the Opera was so popular it got turned into an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, with a sequel. And Frankenstein has been turned into so many movies, including my favorite, the parody Young Frankenstein. Is it possible that a parody can be truer to the book than the zillion other “serious” movies? Maybe so. How delightful. In any case, these stories really are classics in the sense that after all this time, they still make us think.

Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, and a Hard Boiled Egg

Today is the Glorious 25th of May. For those of you who have read Nightwatch by Sir Terry Pratchett, you know what this means – for those of you who haven’t, suffice to say it’s now an anniversary to remember that writer’s works.

In brief, the 25th of May is a crucial date in the novel, in which a few brave men did the job they didn’t have to do, and died in the attempt. I highly suggest you read it. It’s the single darkest Discworld book, but it has some wonderfully awful puns in there too, and it’ll make you think.

Actually I suggest you read all of the Discworld books. (Don’t start with The Color of Magic, though. Start with Mort or Guards! Guards! or The Wyrd Sisters. There are flow charts. I’m serious.) They’re cleverly written, but not in such a way as to make you feel stupid while reading it. The characterization takes stereotypes and turns them on their heads, with humor and with thoughtfulness. The footnotes are truly hilarious. The plotlines expose the pettiness and awfulness of people, then say, “it doesn’t have to be that way,” and then show how it can be better. In short, the Discworld series is everything I look for in a book.

I discovered the Disc through Neil Gaiman, actually. It’s a funny popcorn linearity as to how. From the Stardust movie coming out in 2007, and reading that book before seeing the movie, to recognizing Gaiman’s name on the spine of Good Omens in my high school library – and then recognizing Pratchett’s name on the spine of Carpe Jugulum, also in my high school library. I was fourteen, and Agnes Nitt was exactly the protagonist I needed. The rest, as they say, is history.

I don’t think I’m the only person who cried when they found out Sir Terry had passed in 2015. He was clever and kind and angry, and he felt like a third grandfather to me despite never having actually met the man. His books have outlined my life for the past eight years, and I expect that they will continue to do so even if there aren’t any more new ones. No, I still haven’t read The Shepherd’s Crown. I know that I should. But it still feels too much like saying goodbye.

As a fantasy/sci fi writer, Sir Terry reached thousands of people. He never talked down to the reader. His characters felt real. There was wit and warmth and kindness in his words. And if I can aspire to a quarter of what he accomplished, I’ll consider it a job well done.

Literary v. Genre Fiction – Fight!!

Sometimes literary works (I mean literary in the sense of “described as a classic in English high school classes”) can be interesting. And I suppose as someone who’s trying to make a living out of writing I should be more defensive of literary works. But I confess: the only assigned book aside from Shakespeare that I really enjoyed in high school was Catch-22, which is about as vulgar and silly as a literary book ever gets. I would much rather read a million books about dragons than ever read The Scarlet Letter again – and, of course, there were precisely zero books in the curriculum that included dragons. It feels like the people who sit around deciding what books children ought to read in school specifically choose them for their dull qualities.

Is that true? Maybe. I enjoyed English classes in college a lot more, partly because I got to choose the type of English class. But I maintain the position that the way we study things as “classics”, and sneer at genre books, is … kind of detrimental, actually. Tolkien and Harry Potter deserve to be examined with the same care as F. Scott Fitzgerald, with regards to the craft as well as their impact on our culture. Does a book have less worth because it appeals to a wide variety of people? Tell that to Shakespeare, who was the very definition of wide appeal in Elizabethan England. His popularity with the unwashed masses is the only reason we still know his name today. To study his work for his literary skill is a good thing; we can learn from him. But to hold him up as the pinnacle of literature! universal! et cetera et cetera ad nauseam! doesn’t make any sense. (For more reading on the “universality” of Shakespeare, I recommend reading Shakespeare in the Bush.)

Literary works have their place on the bookshelf, certainly. After all, I wrote my senior thesis on Les Misérables, which is probably one of the biggest literary novels in French. But I think that looking down on people for reading genre fiction is essentially telling them “no, you shouldn’t enjoy reading, you should wade through this difficult bog of prose so that we can give you a gold star.” It seems counter-intuitive to me.

What books were you forced to read in English class that made you want to throw up through your nose? Or conversely, what books were you forced to read in English class that you actually enjoyed? Tell me in the comments!