Monday, January 31, 2011

Books I Wish I’d Written: Sudan

While I most often write speculative fiction, I read a wide variety of genres. Recently I came across Sudan, a fictive story portraying the very real issues of slavery and genocide which have defined Sudan in recent history.

Sudan follows independent journalist Ron Wolfson as he attempts to document the slavery-rings on film. The book also pulls the reader into the journey of a simple Dinka farmer, Idris, as he tries beyond all hope to find his daughter Akin, who was taken by raiders.

Difficult to put down and equally difficult to endure many of the torture and rape scenes, Sudan tells an effective story. A few contrived and convenient plot points are the only weaknesses in the novel. (The weak points are similar in tone to Kite Runner if you’re familiar with that novel.)

If you’re at all interested in current world-events told in compelling fiction, go and pick up Sudan by Art Ayris and Ninie Hammon.

Four out of Five Stars.

Available at most book-sellers and also an affordable $5 PDF version over at Wowio.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

How I Learned... #2: To Be Objective

Leave the Fan!Crazy Behind


Objectivism in Fandom


How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Crappy Phantom Sequel (Musical) (Mostly)

Note: There are spoilers in this post! For all things Phantom! Spoilers spoilers spoilers!

About a month ago, I had the chance to almost briefly discuss The Phantom of the Opera and a love of all things related. I say 'almost' because we were total strangers to one another and 'briefly' because my new acquaintance was in the middle of preparing for the holiday party that I'd been abruptly invited to by the friend of a friend.

But I was doing my best not to be unsociable, and as her living room was fairly decorated in Phantom paraphernalia, I saw an opportunity during a lull in the wine-mulling and asked what she thought of the new 'sequel' musical. "Ugh," she said in my paraphrased version. "I liked the book better."

For those not in the know, a quick tutorial:

  • 1911: Le Fantôme de l'Opéra published.

  • 1986: Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera premieres. Also the premiere of the phangasm.

  • 1999: Frederick Forsyth's 'sequel to the musical' novel The Phantom of Manhattan published, and is almost universally reviled.

  • 2010: Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'sequel to the musical' musical Love Never Dies, sort of based on Forsyth's book, premiere. The response is a resounding "...wait, what?"

I have to point out that long ago in my imprudent youth (which continues to this day) I, like many hormonal and 'misunderstood' teenage girls (and boys, for all I know), once had a very intense obsession with this story. I collected editions and merchandise, I listened to the soundtracks until I drove my mother insane, I wrote fan fiction, and dressed up as the Phantom for more Halloweens (and not-Halloweens) than is wise to confess to. I wrote my college entrance essay on Phantom of the Opera. I once presented a paper on the subject at an academic conference, which was even reviewed *gasp* online:

" paper in particular, which drew a connection between C.S. Lewis' Til We Have Faces and Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, drew literal gasps from the audience." (linky)

I've always thought those gasps were actually politely-concealed yawns, myself.

My point being, I was once a nutty nutty phan and I still have a pretty decent grasp of what makes Phantom Phantom. And like many phans, I loathe the Forsyth book with a passion usually reserved for evil chemistry teachers.

So when I got the soundtrack (the actual show is not yet being performed in the US), I was fully prepared to hate Love Never Dies. And I did! first. Then I had to step back and look at why I hated it. And when I did that, to my surprise, my opinion changed.

I have to repeat: I have not seen the show. It's not yet being performed on Broadway, and I'm currently lacking in funds to travel to London solely for the purpose of seeing a musical. (Stupid government salary...). What I have done is listened to the 2-disc soundtrack several times (4x in the first day), a soundtrack that basically contains THE ENTIRE SHOW in audio. So even though I haven't seen it, I was still able to focus on the story.

It's very, very similar to Forsyth's book, except the focus is on the main characters rather than having a bunch of peripherals tell the story. In fact, none of the new characters that Forsyth introduced appear in the musical, for whatever reason (legal or story). But I don't care. I approve. For me, the story was always about the relationships between the characters.

I felt that the triangle, not just a love triangle but the triangle of mind, body and soul, that was formed in the original story between The Phantom, Raoul and Christine, was the central point of the story. It did not appear as such in The Phantom of Manhattan. In fact, Raoul was barely present at all. And although eleven years ago I couldn't articulate why I felt the book was horrible, I realize now that it was this lack of interplay between the three main characters.

The phenomenon of Phantom of the Opera is intensely personal for thousands (possibly millions) of people, and everyone put their own interpretations on the characters and what motivates them and what's out-of-character and what's not. And that's perfectly fine. It's that huge gap between author intention and audience reaction. I'm not out to attack anybody's thesis as any more or less valid than anyone else's (except Dario Argentino's film version. Messed. Up.).

But I've grown old older in the service of this gothic version of Beauty and the Beast, and become very disillusioned by the fact that, hey, the Phantom wasn't really the romantic hero the last twenty years have made him out to be, so I'd like to think that I'm wiser than I was, to the point where I'm able to say, "I don't personally like how Love Never Dies unfolded or how it ended, but it still works and is actually not that bad."

No, it's nothing like Phantom of the Opera, but it isn't meant to be. Phantom of the Opera was a fairy tale. Love Never Dies is a completely adult story. The characters have grown up, and all the veils and masks are gone. There is no place left for anyone to hide. Everything and everyone is ugly, vulgar, sordid, and uncompromising, and everyone is exactly what they appear, even the Phantom. Phantom of the Opera is a story about impossible romance. Love Never Dies is a story about the things we do for love and for the people we love; a quiet, tragic and incredibly painful story.

And I had to stop being a die-hard phan to realize it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reasons why I’m not a journalist

Whenever I tell people that I like to write, they wonder why I’m don’t become a journalist. I’ve recently reconsidered the career and decided that I made the right choice in college stopping at Journalism 1. So here, in no particular order, are the reasons why I’m not a journalist.

1. I don’t like talking to people. That’s right, I’m shy. So striking up the nerve to interview people is not my strong suit. While I’ve certainly improved over the years I’m not interested in a job that offers me the daily possibility of going into a panic attack.*

2. I hate the news. True story. There I am in Rome, at a Catholic journalism conference and staying with a friend. She tells me the only English channel on TV is BBC news and the first thought that pops into my head is, “Ugh. I hate the news.”

3. The news is boring. The most important news surrounds issues like politics and economics, things I hate to think and talk about. Why would I want to write about them?

4. I’m too polite. I’m not the kind of girls who’s going to shove a camera in someone’s face, stake out a source or take sneaky pictures in the name of the people’s right to know.

Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people's lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself as an investigatory journalist, no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?

5. I’m unambitious. I’d like to think that the best reporters are like Lois Lane, with an inner drive to find compelling stories and change people’s view on issues, and expose the truth. If I were a reporter the only thing I’d be compelled to expose the truth about is that the McDonald’s pancakes are microwaved.

6. I don’t even call my friends. Seriously, I’m terrible. I’ll probably only call you if I want something, but to be fair, if you called me needing a kidney or help moving I would 100% be there for you. The point is, if I don’t even talk to people I like why would I want to spend time networking and building relationships with sources?

7. Writing fictional narratives is completely different than journalism. Granted, much about writing is the same, and I’m not saying that people can’t do both kinds of writing. Many do, very successfully. But there are several people I know who really need to understand that we’re dealing with two different animals here. When I say I’m writing a novel you shouldn’t automatically think I would love journalism.

*Note to future employers: I’m exaggerating. I don’t really go into panic attacks and I have no problems answering phones, ordering things from Staples, asking people for things, etc. Ask me about the time I was Betsy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Writing Religiously: Months without a word . . .

For fifteen years I have labored to find an audience for my fiction. Just recently all my hard work has shown signs of paying off. I had a short, full-cast audio drama produced and one of my short stories was featured in a book. Additionally I have a (small, small, small, small) publisher actively interested in a novel I’m working on, and a deal to write about three more hours of content for future audio dramas. With these budding signs of success, however, I have one major problem.

I haven’t written anything* for months.

I know, I know . . . some of you are reading this and you’re ready to reach through your fiber-optic cable and beat the ever-living snot out of me. I don’t blame you. I feel the same way about other procrastinating authors, and myself. So what happened?

Life. Life happened my friends. I’m a full-time student working on my M.Div., while simultaneously serving full-time as a pastor at a large church. On nights that I actually get home at a decent hour, I’m exhausted, and let’s be honest, writing is hard work.

I find myself wondering, “Well, Nathan, if you’re too tired to write, maybe you’re not really a writer.” And believe me, I’ve tried to kill the writing bug numerous times. I’ve immolated the bug, burying it in the backyard of my soul, only to find it resurrected in the form of depression which can only be sated by writing some form of fiction.

So I guess I’m a writer.

I want to tell you all that the laziness of the writer’s-bug can be overcome by better time-management, or treating your writing time as a holy rite, or by lighting a candle to signify to you and those around you that this is “writing time” and it should not be disrupted by anything. I want to tell you that I’ve found the answer, but I don’t think there is one.

So, I’ve decided not to feel guilty about my months of non-writing. I’m still a writer. I’ll always be a writer. And one day . . . one day in the far future, I might come back here and give you the secret to overcoming the busyness of life. Until then . . . any suggestions?

*Excluding, of course, the pages upon pages of sermons, and reports on the eschatology found in the book of Daniel . . . but those don't count.

Friday, January 21, 2011

How I Learned... #1: About the Meaning of Writing

Why My Writing Doesn't Mean Anything


Author Intention


Why is Ray Bradbury Flipping Me the Bird?

Of all the useless things I learned in high school and college writing classes, the crowning gem in that collection of cliches is without a doubt the idea that fiction has to have a meaning—or even better, a hidden meaning. The concept of subtext has been a godsend to many an undergraduate groping for a thesis.

Anyone who's ever sat through a creative writing class or attended a book discussion group or read through a pretentious blog has probably heard these questions before:

"Why does this character symbolize?"

"What is the significance of this scene?"

"What is this choice of words/quotation/drapery color meant to tell us?"

And the biggest wallbanger of them all: "What does this story mean? What message is the reader meant to take away?"

So for this, my first offering of knowledge unto ye masses, I've decided to let you in on a little trade secret (if you've been paying attention, the first title of this post should have given it away):

It doesn't matter.

That's really it. The symbology, the significance, the messages—none of it matters.

I exaggerate, of course. Naturally, all that stuff has screeds of meaning to You, The Writer. But to You, The Reader... not really important.

In the 1968 Mel Brooks film The Producers, Franz Liebkind insists maniacally that "You are ze audience. I am ze author. I OUTRANK YOU!" It's been one of my favorite quotes for years, but with great reluctance, I've finally had to let it go. Because what the writer wants to convey during the composition of a novel or a short story or a screenplay or a comic book script no longer matters once the work is complete.

That's why when people ask me what a story means or what moral I was aiming for, I usually say "You tell me. What did it mean to you?" For me, that's the important thing. I already know what the book means to me. I need to know how it affects someone else.

To use a personal example: I vastly prefer the movie version of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta to the graphic novel version. It's not a question of technical brilliance or improved story. Like any movie adaptation, the story had to be modified and slimmed down, and in a lot of ways suffered for it. Cramming a 12-month story into 2-1/2 hours of screen time is not an easy thing to do. But to me, the story and the message of the movie was much more powerful, because it was more personal.

The story of the graphic novel deals with anarchy, but the underlying thread of the movie was a condemnation of censorship. To me, the movie is about freedom of speech, probably the one thing a writer values above everything else. I know that wasn't the intended message of the novel and probably wasn't what the movie was going for, but I paid full price four times to see that movie when it was in theaters, so I doubt my misplaced interpretation will cause the studio any grief.

Sometimes it's not an entire book; sometimes it's just a character, one who no matter how often you try to explain one way, some readers will insist on explaining him/her/it in a completely different way.

My sister-in-law is a huge Harry Potter fan. Over the holidays, we got to talking about the books any the movies, when a surprising revelation came up: she refuses to accept that Dumbledore is gay.

Our conversation went something like this:

"Dumbledore's gay."

"No, he's not."

"Yeah, he is, Rowling said so--"

"No. No, he's not."

That's right, my SIL was trying to strike down The Word of God (warning: TVTropes link!). I was genuinely pissed, and just as genuinely shocked. As students of literature, we're often taught that the author's word it law, but how true is that? My SIL was sincerely upset at the thought of Dumbledore being gay—not out of any homophobic tendencies, but because that was different from what she'd been imagining for the last thirteen years. If Dumbledore had been portrayed as gay from the beginning of the series, she'd have been fine with it, but as it stands, she's struggling with the revelation. It's as though her grandfather just came out of the closet, and it's too much for her to handle... so she decided not to. She doesn't want the character to change, so it never happened.

And nothing J.K. Rowling ever says will convince her otherwise.

Still don't believe me? Here's a famous example: Ray Bradbury has college students tell him that Fahrenheit 451 doesn't mean what he thinks it means. (Scroll down to #5; Mostly Not Safe for Work)

The art of storytelling is a finicky, subjective animal. One story means many things to different people, and the author's intention often has very little to do with that. As authors, we have no control over what meaning our readers assign to our work or what may happen when that work is adapted into something new. We can only do our best to craft our words in such a way that the message me want to convey, if we have one, comes across intact. Because if a reader wants to take away something quite different from what you intended, there ain't nothing you can do about it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The First One

Yes, this is my first blog post here at Eventyr. A momentous occasion, one requiring memorable prose delivered in the non-condescending pomposity of Alistair Deacon.

What words of wisdom will I shower on the masses? What pithy platitude will mark the opening of this blog?

None, actually. Because let's face it; no one reads the first blog entry. I mean, how many times have you come across a blog and then went back all the way to the beginning? I'll tell you. Once. Because that was all it took for you to realize that the first entry always sucks.

It sucks because it's usually nothing more than "Welcome to my blog! I'm going to write things to you!" It's also horribly written because the author hasn't pinned down his or her style yet.

So instead, I'm going to address this entry to the one person who will read it: my mom.

Mommy, I love you. I love how you taught me how to read and play. I love how you talk my ear off when you get home from work. I love how you'll come to me anywhere if I need help. I love how when we watched Morning Glory and Rachel McAdam's mother tells her to forget her dream of running The Today Show, you leaned over to me in the theatre, squeezed my hand and said, "You follow your dream, Angel. Don't give up."

Thanks Mom.

And to my fellow Eventyr-ers: Kanicktustale!
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