favorite books, revisited

Let’s talk about formative influences. I can natter about books all day.

The Discworld series of course is a given. I’ve mentioned before that Carpe Jugulum was the first proper Disc book I read, back in ninth grade along with Good Omens (another big one – I met my best friend through Good Omens), and Carpe Jugulum has a special place in my heart. Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats is a pretty minor character in the sprawling Discworld canon, but he and Agnes Nitt were the perfect protagonists for ninth grade me to meet. I can’t really pick just one Disc book as a favorite, though. Unseen Academicals might be about football (or soccer to us Americans), but it’s also about rejecting the status quo, and about overcoming prejudice, and a lot of other things. AndNight Watch, the darkest Disc book but honest and painful and still hopeful for the future; and Reaper Man which taught Death how to be something like human; and Monstrous Regiment, and Going Postal, and The Truth, and, and, and.

The Animorphs and Guardians of Ga’Hoole series were pretty much the basis for my childhood, which explains a lot about me if I think about it; morally ambiguous alien centaurs and a kingdom of talking owls gave me a definitive taste for big character-driven plots in fantastic worlds.

Les Miserables is another huge one, and I’m not just talking word count. I first read the Denny abridged translation of Les Mis as a lark in fall 2011, after having seen the 25th anniversary concert recording (with a surprisingly apt Nick Jonas as Marius) and reading a webcomic about Javert and Commodore Norrington living down the hall from Goblin King Jareth and the Phantom of the Opera. (Yes, it’s on DeviantArt. Yes, I was in high school. Yes, the webcomic is still ongoing.)

The Denny translation is a good starter translation for them as are intimidated by the Brick, so named because even the abridged version is big enough to do serious damage if you hit someone with it. But the Denny translation is not The Best translation; Denny took a lot of liberties with the original text; I personally stand by Fahnestock and MacAfee, or Hapgood for some of the phrasing. Charles Wilbour’s English translation is the one F&A based theirs off, and it’s pretty solid, if slightly archaic; it came out the same year the original French was published, as far as I remember.

Yes, this is what I wrote my senior thesis on.

I have this big old Brick to thank for a lot of the things in my life. I made some really good friends through the online Les Mis fandom, and because of those friends I was introduced to the Silmarillion fandom and made other friends – my editor among them, actually. And the Brick is why I decided to major in French in the first place, and if I hadn’t majored in French, I probably wouldn’t have studied abroad in France – learning linguistic theory for the first time in a foreign language is fun – and I probably wouldn’t have read Huis Clos (aka No Exit) either. It’s kind of amazing to see how the dominoes line up.

Harry Potter and the Death of the Author

I promised I’d talk about Pottermore and touch on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, so … here we go.

As someone who grew up with the Harry Potter books — in first grade one of our field trips was to see The Sorcerer’s Stone in theaters — I pretty much live and breathe this stuff. It’s not so much something that I actively seek out as something that I know like the back of my hand; it’s as familiar as a beloved stuffed animal, and the series grew along with us. You could probably call millennials the Harry Potter generation and we wouldn’t really protest that much.

Before the Pottermore site ever went live — I want to say this was around 2005 — a piece of fanfiction was written called The Shoebox Project. It centers on the Marauders, James Potter and Sirius Black and their little band, and it’s over two hundred thousand words. Now, say what you will about fanfiction, but even without having read it you’ve got to admit that 200k of anything is a great deal of time and energy to spend on something you’ll never get paid for. Having read it, I think the writing is pretty darn good, and it tells an engaging story. A pair of writers sat down and wrote this Project, and included drawings and photographs, and it was a labor of love.

The reason I was aware of the Shoebox Project — long before I ever felt the interest to read it — was because within that story, one of the plot points is that James Potter’s parents are murdered by Death Eaters.

J.K. Rowling went to the media to say that no, that was incorrect, James Potter’s parents died of old age.

… Which is … great, I guess, except that none of the actual Harry Potter books that were out at that point mentioned the fact that Harry’s grandparents died of old age.

And I remember being ten or so, watching the Today show before heading to school, hearing about JK Rowling saying, very seriously, that James Potter’s parents died of old age and it was incorrect for these fans to write a story in which they didn’t survive to old age.

Ever heard of a concept called “Death of the Author”? It means that once you’ve written something and published it, as long as people are drawing their conclusions from the text, they can draw whatever conclusions they want. You, the author, cannot force them to come to a particular conclusion, nor can you prohibit them from coming to a conclusion you do not like. What’s in the published work is all there is. If you want to write a sequel, then write a sequel; but whatever you write, once you’ve released it into the wild, you can’t control what other people think about it.

It’s the old English Major Maxim: As long as you can prove it with textual citations, you can argue for it.

So JKR, the author, had this idea about James Potter’s parents. She didn’t write it in the books. The fans aren’t mind readers. How could they know? How could she expect them to know? And how could she get mad at them for coming up with a perfectly logical idea with regards to what she had already written?

That incident in ’05 (or ’04, or ’06; I’m hazy on the dates) is JKR saying “Death of the Author doesn’t apply to me.”

Pottermore is that incident magnified, and prettified on a website.

And yeah, it’s neat to be able to Sort yourself into a Hogwarts house (Hufflepuff forever) and see what the website thinks your Patronus should be (polecat?), and it’s neat to have a message board for other fans.

But she’s continually coming out with new content about books that were published … over a decade ago. And treating it like it’s just as canon as the published books.

Sorry, lady, but at this point those are just fancy headcanons, as the fans call them. Ideas that are nice to think about, but that can’t be read as law within the fictional universe, because they only exist in your head. If you want us to think a certain thing about this character, then publish a short story or a sequel or a separate series. Don’t dump snippets on a nice website and then get your nose out of joint when people ignore it.

— which leads into the next subject, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Flogging the Dead Horse.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the Maybe Quit While You’re Ahead.

Also known as, Harry Potter and the You Actually Wrote A Blue-Haired Daughter of Bellatrix Lestrange And Voldemort? Did You Take A Minute to Maybe Think About This First?

Sometimes — and I would count having your own theme park as one of those times — it’s okay to step back and let a series be finished.

classics

For those who haven’t seen it, the My Cousin Oskaar video is an annual classic when it comes to Daylight Savings Time. I’m a few days late, I know, but it’s one of those videos that just never gets old. Please go watch it and then cackle over Stallone with me.

Speaking of classics …

It’s funny to me that in high school I enjoyed the language of Shakespeare but very much hated the language of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote in much the same linguistic era – the linguistic in/formal thee vs you dynamic is one of the things I remember – and the descriptions were florid, and the emotions everyone had were dramatic, and it was a big thinky piece about Sin and Blame and Revenge, and yeah, they made a modern film based off it with Emma Stone so apparently it’s still relevant today. Cool. Neato. If it were rewritten today using modern language, I might like it very much, because the themes are interesting and the characters are interestingly flawed (except for Hester, who … didn’t … do anything wrong? At all? if I remember correctly. She just slept with the wrong man). But the language is so excessive that it interfered with the reading experience for me. I haven’t read it in years but I remember it felt like wading through hip-deep mud just to get to the dang plot. And given that a lot of my classmates reacted the same way, I’m led to believe that if the novel hadn’t been branded as a classic, it would probably fall to the wayside.

Not so with stories like The Crucible. I read The Crucible in the same class where I read The Scarlet Letter, and while I didn’t like the first act at the time because I felt the plot was moving too slowly (that turned out to be a Bored Teenager lens; I think the first act is pretty interesting now), the rest of the play practically reached out and grabbed me. Abigail was one of the most compelling antagonists I’d come across, and the messy complicated nature of John Proctor was something I could sink my teeth into. I remember picking one of Abigail’s monologues to do an audition for the high school play that next year. The language is just archaic enough to remind you that the play took place in the 1690s, but it’s fluid enough to still appeal to a modern audience (and, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be translated heavily like Shakespeare sometimes is).

Whereas The Scarlet Letter was written in the 1850s and … hmmmm … doesn’t really have much of an excuse? Especially when you take other books written in that same time frame like Les Misérables (published 1863) – which, while astoundingly verbose, still managed to be compelling and not clogged up with archaic language.

Honestly, sometimes I think the board of education sits down and determines the reading requirements based on what makes you sound snobby and pretentious, rather than what’s actually enjoyable to read. And before you start bemoaning the Uncultured Youth for their Potter and Tolkien, maybe take a hot second and think about whether you’d rather force someone to read something practically illegible (and enforce reading as a chore), or have them read something fun and thought-provoking (and encourage reading as a hobby).

Oh, and Tolkien’s been a little more of a cultural influence in the past fifty years or so than Hawthorne has, I’ll bet. Take that, elitists.

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.