Yes, it's true. I feel luke-warm for Harry Potter and his wizarding world at best. Which isn't to say it's a bad book series. It's fine. Please, feel free to enjoy them. But they never gave me the magic escapism that I think they provided for a lot of people.
Maybe it was because I was slightly too old when the books were first published. I read The Sorcerer's Stone in the 8th grade, and quickly read the next two, which were already out. But then I had to wait a long time for the 4th book, and by the 5th I was already getting a little old for stories about teenage wizards (and pretty sick of Harry's self-absorption). When the 6th and 7th books were published, I could tell I was only reading them to hear the end of the story, not because I was that interested in any of the characters or conflict. The long gaps between books also made it hard for me to keep track of characters. I wonder if I had started reading the series after it had been completed whether I would have been able to hold onto the thread of the story better than I did.
I think another issue was I never found a character to fully inhabit and experience the story. You'd think Hermione would be my girl, but her type-A, grade-driven personality is way too similar to mine. I see in Hermione the things I dislike about myself, so she's the last figure I want to escape into.
Harry was boring and rude. Ron was fine, if a bit goofy. And the rest of the cast were supporting players who get very little face-time, certainly not enough to develop them into characters that really interested me. Even poor Hagrid got the brush-off after the first three books as Rowling focused more on the Death Eaters conspiracy. Snape is the one exception. I'd much prefer to read the series from his POV, but it was hard to get too into his character when he was always being framed as Harry's nemesis.
I think Rowling's real genius was the world-building. The idea of a parallel wizard universe is a great concept and I can see why it appeals to so many people. But a good world with only basic character sketches works better for fanfiction or theme parks than it does as an story that stands on its own.
Just my opinion of course. Feel free to disagree.
Course, I also dislike Tolkien, so maybe my disinterest in Harry Potter has more to do with my issues with the fantasy genre in general.
Yesterday was the kind of day that makes you wonder whether the world really has gone crazy. Now we can add the Belgian terrorist attacks to a long list of awful things that seem to happen on a weekly basis. When you look at the big picture, it really can seem hopeless.
I had to escape the news cycle. You can only hear so many sad and depressing stories before you reach your limit, knowing you're powerless to help anyone. So I put This American Life's most recent episode on my podcast app and listened while I worked on my reactor.
If you're a writer, or you just need to hear a story about how humans can be amazingly kind, you should listen to this week's episode. It's about a young boy who back in the 80's ran away from home in order to find the fantasy author Piers Anthony, and ask if he might live with him on his small farm in rural Florida. Anthony's response was maybe not what the boy was hoping, but it was exactly what he needed, and it was by far the kindest thing he could have done for this poor stray kid.
I used to read a lot of Piers Anthony when I was in middle school, and it was an escape for me too; escape from all the mean girl bull shit and isolation that I think a lot of us experienced during those early teenage years. The author notes at the end of many of Anthony's novels were a fascinating glimpse into what life might be like to be a professional writer. I knew that I'd like nothing better than to write all day, comfortable in in my quiet country life as Anthony seemed to be. That's still my wish today.
Anyway, like I said, if you're in need of a happier story to remind you that people really aren't so bad, or if you're a Piers Anthony fan, take a listen to This American Life episode #470, "Show Me the Way." It's really good.
You're in luck kids! I've got three more short stories I'd like to recommend. All three are science fiction/fantasy and all three are really good. Two of the three I listened to via the excellent Fantasy Scroll podcast. If you're not listening to your short stories via podcasts, you may want to give it a try. It's a nice change-up from endless NPR in the car.
(How to listen to podcasts: download or stream them directly onto your phone using the Podcast app if you have an iphone, or the Stitcher app if you have an android phone. It's easier than it looks. Use the search function in the app to find the podcast and then either subscribe or select which episode you want to listen to. Just think of it as on-demand radio.)
Hand of God by Erika Satifka, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
Some years ago, a massive hand appeared over a small town. It hovers there, doing nothing, yet it blocks out most of the sunlight and isolates the citizens from everything. Sounds weird. It is, but I think it works because the premise is cleverly balanced with the hyper-familiar as well: families, school, bullies, bikes. What happens to this Mayberry-esque town under the hand of god? It involves mushrooms, drugs, survivalism, and monsters. Loved it. So, so weird, yet you don't question what's happening. You're just like, oooh, tell me more about the little girl's drugs.
When the Dead are Indexed by Gary Emmette Chandler, Fantasy Scroll Magazine
This story is about a guy who goes to a museum exhibit. It's set in a future where there's a superior race of people, called the "SHI," which stands for "super high intelligence," and it's the SHI who have put on this exhibit. The narrator is not an SHI. He's just a normal guy, very humble, but excited to see the show. Unfortunately, he finds it completely disappointing. It's a little hard to explain this story because it depends almost completely on the narrator's arc: how his perspective of the SHI and himself changes after experiencing the exhibit. It's a great example of using narrative voice. I also liked the ending.
Broken-Winged Love by Naru Dames Sundar, Strange Horizons
A mother dragon hatches an egg and finds that her baby has a birth defect. Although she cares for the child, protects it from harm and harassment, she seems herself disgusted by the thing, repeatedly saying,"I didn't love my baby." This mantra keeps the story from getting soft or sentimental and provides instead a character study of a mother doing everything right even as she apparently feels no love for her offspring. Is she lying? Is she telling us the truth? Her offspring seems to feel love; clearly reciprocates that love. But maybe, she was only doing what he needed, regardless of what she felt. A sad, sweet story about the complexity of being a mother.
Hope you enjoy these!
Another week in the books! Unfortunately, my husband is going out of town for a week to attend a conference so I'll be all by my lonesome this weekend. Guess I'll use the time to clean up my garden for Fall and work on my chemistry book (which is coming along nicely).
Hope you all have a great weekend planned with as little cleaning and as much fun and creative time as possible. Meanwhile, here are some reading links to get you through the rest of today. Enjoy!
Frodo, most meh character ever? (Tor)
This November, it's all about NaNoWriMo. But did you know there's a summer version as well? I didn't. (Fantasy Faction)
This is what Haruki Murakami's desk and office look like. Here's mine. I am desperately wanting a better chair. The one I have is"ergonomic," (it's not, it hurts my shins), from the 80's, and used to belong to my parents. What's your writing desk like? I hope you at least have a good chair. (The Guardian)
The science fiction and fantasy books that converted these writers to the genre. I think it's interesting how many people cited the Song of the Lioness Quartet and McCaffrey's Pern novels. Also, how many of these writers attributed their love of science fiction and fantasy to their parents' library, which was definitely the case for me. (SF Signal)
"What [characters] choose to do is going to create the plot. Why they choose to do it will create the stakes." Good point. (Janice Hardy)
Have you heard about this unusual star which has a mass of unidentified objects orbiting it? There could be plenty of natural explanations (comets, debris from a massive impact)...or maybe its evidence of an alien civilization? Ehhhh, doubtful. (The Atlantic)
What was Bill Gates's first job? Gates is one of those people whom we made fun of a lot when I was a kid (for creating the horrible Windows OS), but now I sort of love him in the way I love Bill Clinton. Both of them represent an era to me that is deeply evocative of my childhood in the 90's. So excuse me if I irrationally fangirl. (The Atlantic)
Add "paleo-sleeping" to the list of pseudoscience? I think maybe we should stop assuming that all paleo-cultures and lifestyles were uniformly alike, and therefore we should stop making health recommendations based on questionably sourced information. (The Atlantic)
Since it's throw back Thursday, I thought it would be fun to do a short review of a fantasy series I loved back in the day, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patrica C. Wrede.
In the past I've been a bit disparaging of high fantasy (after it frankly peaked with The Chronicles of Narnia), but The Enchanted Forest books circumvents this judgement entirely with its fun take on the genre. On top of its novelty, it's a well written middle-grade book with excellent female role models that avoid the tired and unrelatable strong woman = warrior trope.
The setting of the The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is almost comically on point for high fantasy, so much so that the series often borders on satire. There are princesses, knights, dragons, witches, wizards, talking frogs (you get the point), which could sound really boring, except Wrede is very talented at turning fairy tale convention on its head. She's also quite good at maintaining the spritely, yet somewhat stern tone of the story.
The series begins (chronologically anyway) with Dealing with Dragons, in which we are introduced to the Princess Cimorene, a young woman who'd rather learn fun skills like latin, fencing, and cooking than mope around waiting to marry a prince. On the advice of a frog, she runs away with an ample supply of handkerchiefs in search of a dragon to work for as a sort of housekeeper/librarian. She meets such a dragon, the great Kazul, and finds that she's quite good at the work. As she makes new friends, she also helps uncover a conspiracy by a society of wizards to take control of the dragon kingdom.
The subsequent books in the series focus more on Cimorene's future husband, the king of the Enchanted Forest (a land that is made of magic itself), her good friend, the witch Morwen, and finally her son Daystar, who returns back to the Enchanted Forest after it has been taken over by wizards.
One of the things I always liked about The Enchanted Forest Chronicles was the series's emphasis on being polite and practical. In Wrede's universe, you don't really get ahead by being smart, or powerful, or brave. You mostly have to remember to offer your handkerchief to that troll so he might be thankful enough to not eat you. I guess common sense and decency isn't something we see valued very often in literature, but those traits are what distinguishes the most fundamental rules of The Enchanted Forest. It's not a heavy handed lesson, but it's still a good message. Want to get ahead in life? It pays to be polite.
I also enjoyed the range of magic systems, which were simple and varied enough to be quite interesting. Dragons have their own intrinsic magic that can't be learned by anyone else. The Enchanted Forest is magic itself. The King of the Enchanted Forest can see this magic as a collection of interconnected threads and webs that he can tug and pull to make things happen. And the Wizards are always trying to sneak inside the Enchanted Forest, because although they can't make magic, their staffs can physically absorb it to give them powers. Unfortunately, this absorption property sucks the magic dry from the Enchanted Forest, physically killing it. Morwen and her magician friend, Telemain, use magic in the Harry Potter sense; they learned it at school.
Anyway, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles are fun, different, and well-written. I started reading them when I was in the 4th grade and I think that was a very age-appropriate time to read them. I picked them up again, a few years ago, and they still held up really well because of the strength of the fantasy concepts.
I think girls, ages 8-12, would enjoy these books the best. With Christmas approaching (!!!!!!!!!!) I may give this set to a friend of mine who has a young daughter. They read voraciously together, and I could see it as the perfect set of books for them to share.
Did you read The Enchanted Forest Chronicles when you were a kid? Were you as obsessed with those books as I was?
A quick post.
I slush read for a science fiction and fantasy magazine (I'm not going to say which) and I've been noticing some reoccurring patterns in the short stories I read that tend to get rejected. I wanted to share a few of those problematic themes I keep seeing. Maybe this will help you get published? I figure it can't hurt.
So here they are, things I think you should avoid in your stories so you can avoid getting rejected:
1) Your protagonist dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by suicide.
2) Everyone dies at the end of the story, particularly if it's by mass-suicide or mass-murder.
3) Your characters have hard made-up names (i.e. Hyiliawpha, or Wjusta), particularly if there are a lot of characters. I don't think it's a coincidence that the characters in Game of Thrones tend to have modern derived names (i.e. Joffrey vs Jeffrey/Geoffrey, Margaery vs Margery, Jon vs Jon). It helps the reader keep track of so many people.
4) The Apocalypse has happened and there's no hope for the protagonist. I think we amateur writers (myself very much included) tend to confuse emotional depth with despair. To be honest, despair is really not that much fun to read. I mean, where do you go with it? I'm not saying there's never been a great story about the end of the world, but I feel like the good ones rarely start at the end (Cormac McCarthy's The Road is the only example I can think of that contradicts this "rule.")
5) The speculative elements of the story are marginal. This rule really only applies to genre submissions. Here's an example: if your story is about a family in some kind of conflict, and the family happens to have a magic broom that sweeps the house while they fight, but the broom has basically nothing to do with the characters or the story, then I'd say there's not enough speculative elements to warrant publication in a science fiction or fantasy magazine. This comes up a lot in the stories I read for the magazine.
Anyway, I hope these are of some help to you. I'm not going to say these are hard and fast rules; a lot of it depends on execution. But I've yet to read a story I liked where the character committed suicide (you'd be surprised how often that comes up in these submissions).
Alright kids, in keeping with tradition, I'd like to highlight two books in a series and make an argument that the second, less popular book is superior to the first (see my earlier defense of Speaker for the Dead in favor of Ender's Game).
I don't know why I do it. Maybe it seems unfair that such great books are overlooked just because they weren't written first? Or maybe, as I believe, after the author has gone through all the hard work of building a world in the first book, they can at last write the story they really wanted to tell in the second book, resulting in a far better story. Just a theory.
I want to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle; a fantasy series that begins with the eponymous A Wizard of Earthsea. The series started as a trilogy, and you'll sometimes see it incorrectly described that way online, but Le Guin had since expanded it into a quartet with the publication of Tehanu. (Edit: Writer Janet Ursel was kind enough to alert me that there's actually a fifth book as well! The Other Wind.) Strangely, I've only read the first, second, and fourth books, but not the third (Edit: or fifth...). Guess I need to put them on my list.
A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favorite fantasy books. I love the world, which had a more mythological tone than high fantasy. I thought its concept of magic was cool when I was a kid, and then when I learned about semiotics in high school, the significance of Earthsea's magic system blew my mind. The idea that you can control anything as long as you know it's one true name (when sign = signifier), well, that just makes sense to a bookworm (or a fantasy minded linguist).
Our hero, Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, studies this magic of words and mistakenly believes he has mastered the language. That hubris almost kills him when he summons an evil spirit into the world that he cannot control. He spends the rest of the book sailing about the archipelago of Earthsea to understand this dark magic he has unleashed, simultaneously hunting it and running from it. It's a beautifully written story, short and sweet. The world-building is particularly strong, as you'd expect from Le Guin. I found it a lot more interesting than the Tolkien-imitations that tend to dominate the fantasy genre.
But A Wizard of Earthsea isn't perfect. It touches on this great sense of evil, but I always found its shapelessness to be slightly unsatisfactory. The book also meanders, especially towards the end. To be honest, I can't even recall the conclusion beyond the most basic plot. It was just a little too abstract for me.
Regardless of these shortcomings, I enjoyed the book, and as soon as I could, I used my babysitting money to purchase the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan (I was probably around 13 or 14 when I first read them).
As the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan does a lot of things that tend to annoy readers, which probably explains its lack of popularity. First, it introduces a totally new character, Arha, who is unrelated to anyone in the previous book. Arha is the current and reincarnated priestess of "The Nameless Ones," an almost forgotten religion of ancient gods who existed before the world had a form.
Second point against this book? She lives in an isolated nunnery with other novices, old virgins, and eunuchs. I'm sure every boy who ever picked up this book read that setting and put the book right back down again. Maybe I'm stereotyping, but I've found that boys don't like to read books about girls, not at least until after they've grown up a little.
Then it takes Ged almost three quarters of the book to show up. No one who thinks they're reading a direct sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea is going to push that far through the story to find out whether their original hero reappears.
But that's the trick, Tombs is not really a direct sequel to Earthsea.
Despite everything that is working against it, I don't remember struggling with The Tombs of Atuan at all. The opening chapters were strange enough and the writing simple enough to pull me right into the story. I liked Arha, who was spoiled and haughty, but also lonely and increasingly frightened. I was interested in the mysterious tombs of the ancient ones, and the modern temples of the god-king and other cults. Where did these religions come from? Why was one dying and the other thriving? And like Earthsea, Tombs is a coming of age novel and has a school-ish air to it, which I always enjoy. Arha spends her time learning the rituals of the high priestess and the secrets of the labyrinth that lies buried deep in the earth beneath the tombs. How can you not enjoy that?
You could read Tombs all by itself, having never read Earthsea, and I don't think the story would suffer at all. Ged is a catalyst in the novel, practically a plot device, but the story is really all about Arha. What do the Gods mean to her? And what does she mean to them? That's part of the mystery and it takes a while to really understand her.
Just because Ged isn't the star of Tombs doesn't mean it isn't good, if not better without him. Throughout the Earthsea cycle, I don't know if we even understood Ged. What motivated him? Why did he feel compelled to fix his mistake? But I felt like I knew Arha by the end of Tombs, and felt for her.
I've subsequently loaned this book out so many times and people never return it, so I've had to buy it again and again to ensure I always have a copy ready to reread whenever the mood strikes me, which is fairly often. It's a great book, overlooked, but special.
What do you think? Have you read The Tombs of Atuan? Did you like it? Or is the classic, A Wizard of Earthsea better?
Well kids, I did it. I submitted a short story to a science fiction magazine. My first submission! Now I see that the process wasn’t too awful, I’m wondering why I didn’t just go ahead and do it before. Why had I put that off for so long? The editing only took a few mornings of my writing time (though it did help that it was practically flash fiction and only ~1500 words). I learned how to use standard manuscript format. Again, not difficult, and now I have a template I can use. And the cover letter was quick and painless. Now that it’s written, I can adapt it for any subsequent submission (just as you do for real job applications). I’m really happy that I submitted, regardless of the rejection letter that is sure to follow.
Of course, now I’m totally obsessed with hitting refresh on the electronic submission form, watching my number in the slush pile queue slowly descend. It reminds me a lot of checking for fanfiction reviews, back in the day. Clicking again and again, getting so excited when the number of reviews shifted from 0 to 1, and then the disappointment that followed from getting responses like, “I didn’t understand this,” or “More please!”
Did you ever read or write fanfiction? I went through phases where I read a lot of fanfiction and eventually I would get so annoyed at the amount of time I spent looking for the story I wanted to read that I would just end up writing it myself. Really awful stuff. But then again, most fanfiction is pretty lousy. There were some rare exceptions, but as far as I can tell, they’re almost all lost now to the purge.
Eventually, I got to the point where I couldn’t read fanfiction anymore. I just got too old for it or I lost interest in the comic or show on which it was based. And then I stopped writing fanfiction altogether after I heard George R.R. Martin’s opinion on the matter:
"Write every day, even if it is only a page or two. The more you write, the better you’ll get. But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those “literary muscles,” you’ll never develop them."
I think that’s very true. Fanfiction is good when you’re young and haven’t learned all the skills you’ll need to write new stories; original from top to bottom. But eventually you have to learn how to develop your own characters and settings. You can’t piggy-back on someone else’s ideas forever.
I’ll never condemn fanfiction. I had too much fun with some of it to say that it was worthless reading and writing material. It’s a good place to practice. But it can’t replace the struggle of writing your own stories. (One caveat: fanfiction is fine...as long as you're not making money off other people's ideas.)
Did you write fanfiction? Or were you original from the start? It’s taken me literally fifteen years to begin submitting my own work. I’ve always been a bit on the slow slide.
Update: As expected, story rejected. On to the next journal.
Writing, editing, and doing science when I feel like it. Just a book without a genre.