Stories Within Stories

This is my 40th post on this blog, and today is also the day we will reach 2,000 total hits. Thank you all for stopping by! With one more follower we will also reach the impressive number of 70 followers, if anyone wants to help out with that.

All these big numbers make today a good day for reflection. I originally hoped to finish Wanderlust by the end of the summer. Ha! Summer is definitely gone, and my book is not completed. I need to update both the “Grace” and the “Wanderlust” page with some more realistic goals. I would love to give you a solid status update on Wanderlust right now, but it’s just not that easy. I’m sort of on Chapter 7 of my 12 chapter book in the last round of editing—you know, except for all those things I skipped in chapters 4, 5, and 6, and all those pieces of information that need to be inserted back into chapter 1. It’s coming along, guys, and I’d  love to spend all day working on it, but I have to spend most of the day house-painting for money so I can afford tomorrow’s harp lesson (these are very reasonably-priced lessons but that’s just how broke I am) and pay some bills and start saving for christmas presents and, after that, for my very own harp. I do feel like I’m in some sort of final push on Wanderlust, though. I believe the last half of the book will fall into line more quickly that the first half because most of the last half is relatively new material, and therefore more malleable and not so set in its ways. Still, I can’t see clearly enough right now to give you a definitive when. I am, however, still gonna do this. I’m telling you because I must tell myself, each and every time I balk at how much work is still before me. I’m going to do this. I will.

One of the things that’s been getting me down lately is how to handle stories-within-stories. When I started this this thing I was all “Won’t it be cool if I base it on Irish Mythology?” That was me in high school. I then had to go find the Irish mythology, which I proceeded to skim over and take from what I needed. Five (or so) years later I’ve actually read all the source material, and I know too much! The issue now is paring down the full stories, and conveying them in such a way that they support and enhance my narrative. I’m very concerned that every time I switch over to Irish-story-time, my readers will get bored. It’s not that the stories themselves are boring, but when you’ve been doping along reading about Vanya and Taniel and suddenly they’re gone from center-stage and you have to concentrate on new characters from an Irish-myth story that you haven’t met in the novel yet, well, won’t you get frustrated? My impulse is to skim over the story and get back to Vanya and Taniel as soon as possible, but if I do that I think it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy and the myth-stories really will be boring because I’ll expect them to be.

And sometimes I Illustrate the stories in the story!
Illustration © me

I probably need to give my readers more credit. Story breaks are fairly common in fantasy literature, after all. I didn’t stop reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree, for instance, when the narrative took a break to convey the tragic story of Lisen. The story itself was beautiful, and it explained the hostility of Pendaren Wood, which threatened characters in the novel’s present tense. Far from skipping over the poems about Tinuviel and Nimrodel and Gil-Galad and Earendil in The Lord of the Rings, I’ve spent countless hours committing them to memory. (“Gil-Galad was an elven king/Of him the harpers sadly sing/The last whose realm was fair and free/Between the mountains and the sea.” (Aaaand I just noticed that the first poem I ever memorized from LOTR mentions HARPERS. A sign?)) So the story thing can be done. I think part of the issue is that I’m too perilously close to the manuscript just now to know whether I’m doing it right—although I have some hope. I believe that, in this draft, I’ve made it more apparent to the reader through foreshadowing and other means that these myth-stories are important to the actual narrative of my book. I hope I am tying them in better, and I hope my readers will both be able to see how the stories connect to the current plot, and find them interesting enough in themselves to keep reading. That’s the goal, anyhow. I will continue to muddle through, and then, when I am finally comfortable enough with a draft to show it to other people, perhaps my first readers will let me know whether I am successful or not.

Have you read any books that feature a story within the story? Can you think of any authors that do it particularly well? Has a story within a novel ever made you so bored that you skipped past it, or put the book down?

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Bookstore Treasures

Store: The Bookshop of Chapel Hill, North Carolina

http://www.bookshopofchapelhill.com/shop/chapelhill/index.html

Purchases:


Treason
by Orson Scott Card

Used, paperback, $2.99

A stand-alone Card book that I haven’t read yet. One of his earlier works. This is a version he went through and revised, post-Ender’s Game. I’m at about page 30, and so far it is a compelling read with some fascinating concepts, which is exactly what I look for in a Card novel.

Digression: I am aware that Orson Scott Card has been politically vocal in ways that myself and many of my colleagues find incompatible with our perception of the world. I still read his books, however, because I admired his writing long before I knew anything about his politics, and I have been both lifted and broken by his words too many times to cast them out of my life. Even when we disagree with people, isn’t it okay to still love them for the beautiful things that they are? Shouldn’t we try?

High Wizardry: The Young Wizards Series, Book 3 by Diane Duane

Used, Paperback, $3.25

I’m reading through this series very, very slowly—I began them in middle school, and read book 4 last spring. Book 2 (Deep Wizardry) is my favorite; the themes run powerful and deep. Book 4 (A Wizard Abroad) really lagged near the end. I’ve actually already read book 3, but I am collecting specifically this edition of the series, and it’s a little hard to find because they’ve recently been re-released with new cover illustrations. This purchase completes my collection through book 4.

Cover Talk: I feel like I really should prefer the new covers, as they are much more painterly and illustration-y, which is supposed to be my thing. With covers, though, it really comes down to what you read first. Also, something about the photographic quality of my favorite edition of covers really works to enhance the seriousness and real-world aspects of the series, whereas the new covers are just too cutesy and stylized to take themselves seriously (http://bowjamesbow.ca/images/young-wizards-1-3.jpg). Also, I just want all the books on my shelf to match.

The FinderFinder by Emma Bull

Used, Paperback, $2:50

Emma Bull does urban fantasy. I really enjoyed War for the Oaks. I couldn’t get into Territory, but maybe I didn’t give it enough of a chance. I’ve been meaning to read more of her stuff, and I’m hoping this will be a good one. Already, the first few pages were exciting.

Irish Myth and Legend: The Names Upon The Harp written by Marie Heaney and illustrated by P.J. Lynch

Large size paperback (8.5×11), used, $3.50

It’s about Ireland and it has the word “harp” in the title. Need I say more? Also, the illustrations are incredible, and Heaney re-tells several of the Irish tales that I am struggling to re-tell in Wanderlust. I didn’t bring any of the scholarly source materiel for these stories with me on my trip, and I’m hoping that reading someone else’s retelling will help me figure out how I want to do it, or at least give me some inspiration to get started again (I don’t have my marked-up manuscript with me either, but I recall that most of the story sections just had a big note next to them saying something along the lines of TELL THIS BETTER).

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North Carolina is lovely, and in a few days I hope to tell you about the trip south and driving through mountains and getting to know family members I haven’t met in years and how much fun it is to say “y’all” un-ironically. Some other time, soon. Sometimes I get caught up in what this blog thing should be and forget that all it can be is what I have to give, at any given moment. Today, this is it.

-Grace out

P.S. Have you bought anything exciting at a bookstore lately? Feel free to share in the comments.

Editing: Round One Complete

I did it! I read through all 138 pages of my printed manuscript, 52,968 words, and absolutely destroyed them with a red pen. It looks a little like this:

Now, I can begin Round Two, where I’ll integrate all those comments into the computer file. In some places, I’ve actually written out all the changes needed in a scene, and it will be a simple matter of transcribing those notes onto the computer in their proper place. In other places, though, I’ve circled things and squiggled lines and written notes like, “Sloppy!” “Fix this!” and “Clarify!” In these places, Editing Round Two will be a much more involved process, where I’ll have to actually go in and fix all those things. I do plan to fix as much as I can this next time around, and I plan to keep a comprehensive list of anything I skip over. I anticipate that Round Three will entail forcing myself to tackle everything on that list, and then maybe—maybe—I’ll be ready to turn the manuscript over to some outside parties for further advice.

Wanna know what three things I found myself writing in the margins the most during Round One? Here you go:

More DRAMA! This is for moments where something goes down that is fairly important to the story, but, rather than showcasing the event or detail, my prose glosses over it too quickly. One doesn’t want one’s novel to be over-dramatic, of course, but you still want to draw attention to the right things, and use exciting prose to do so.

More Space! Leftenant Weatherby told me the story felt a bit rushed back in May, and I wasn’t certain I believed him; it’s a YA novel, after all. Fast-paced is good! Reading through this time, however, I think I knew what he meant. In my writing, I have a tendency to move on to the next thing without a proper lead-in or introduction, making the action feel stilted and too soon. “More space” means I need to take more physical space on the page to get there, and use description or character interaction to create a more believable illusion of the passage of time.

Tighten! This means the prose is sloppy. It’s mostly good, it mostly says the right things, it’s mostly doing what it needs to, but it needs to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb and tightened up until it sounds professional, and until it shines.

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Thank you, readers, for sticking with me this far. I’m really excited for the next part of the process, and I hope you’ll read along to see how it goes. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the Wanderlust Facebook Page if you haven’t already. I’ve started to post a few extras over there that might not necessarily show up on the blog.

When you’re editing your work, what three things do you have to tell yourself the most?

-G

The Harper Boy, and How He Began

A few nights ago, during a family game of Citadels, I said, “Now I’m going to spend all my gold and build a library.”

My mother said, “That’s just like you!”

My own harper boy, Vanya.

One of the September projects I am undertaking is to sort, weed, and organize my personal library, so I can finally get all my favorite books out of boxes onto my shelves. In the process, I’ve been finding a lot of old treasures. Most interestingly, I found some forgotten evidence of how my conception of the wandering Harper Boy began. These books (and song) clearly had a direct influence on my creation of Vanya, the harper boy of Wanderlust, and on the formation of my own life-dreams as well.

First, Adam of The Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, and illustrated by Robert Lawson (pictured cover by Neil Truscott).

It’s all there in that lushly illustrated cover: the traveling Boy with his Harp (and dog!). Please note that the harp is strung incorrectly; it’s the only thing wrong with an otherwise lovely cover. Adam of the Road is a medieval adventure story about a boy who loses his minstrel father and his dog and must find his way through the dangers of medieval England alone. I’ve penciled the year 2001 inside the cover, alongside my name, so I read this book over ten years ago, in about sixth grade. Given that, the clarity with which I remember parts of it is surprising. Late in the book Adam reunites with a close friend. They find each other during a church service, however, and must contain their joy, keeping it close and secret and spoken only by their jostled elbows and shared smiles, until the service is over. I just re-read that scene, and it is so brief, barely half a page! It left such a large impression on me regardless; it’s cool how memory works that way. I also remember strongly the deep pain of loss when Adam’s harp is stolen. I remember the loss of the harp, and not the loss of the dog, though Adam himself cared more about the latter. At any rate, the dog is recovered, and the harp is not. At the end of the book Adam is offered a place to stay and become a scholar, but he says, “No, thank you. I am a minstrel. I want to be on the road (Gray, 320).

Next, a picture book: The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark.

Again, I barely need to say it. It’s all there in the cover: The slight-figured blonde young man walking through a green world with a harp. (And a dragon; how cool!) This is a charming little book, well-illustrated and containing more words than the average picture book. I first encountered it as an excerpt in a Cricket magazine, and happily found the entire book in hardcover at a discount store not long after (I think this was Middle School). The book is all about the Minstrel and his Dragon, of course, but it’s set within the archetype of the wandering minstrel, the harper who never stays in the same place for more than a few days. As a further parallel to Vanya, this minstrel even makes a sort of magic with his harp to gain the king’s trust at the end. Reunited with his dragon, he says, “Now we’re going home. Home to the open road, you and I” (Sutcliffe, 42).

There are a few other books that honed my image of the wandering harper, notably The Riddlemaster Trilogy by Patricia McKillip (which I somehow never quite finished, even though I loved it) and even Tokien’s The Hobbit, where Thorin Oakenshield is brought a harp that first night in Bag End when the dwarves weave a magic Far o’er the misty mountains cold…  Yet I think the third largest formative influence in my conception of the Harper Boy, the conception that led to my own Vanya, is the song The Minstrel Boy, written by Thomas Moore (full lyrics and some history here). The version I knew was by the celtic rock band Enter The Haggis.

The Minstrel boy to the war has gone

In the ranks of Death you will find him

His father’s sword he hath girded on

and his wild harp slung behind him.

The Minstrel boy has a ‘wild harp’ slung on his back, a harp he has taken to war, which further cements the image of a boy and his harp as fearless travelers. This song, which I discovered in early high school, is where the boy and his harp became distinctly Irish, and also where they became noble and tragic. The minstrel falls, and before he dies he “tears asunder” the chords of his harp, so that it will “never sound in slavery.” This, perhaps, is where Vanya acquired the haunting sadness that runs deep in his bones.

Adam of the Road, The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup, and The Minstrel Boy. All of these contributed to my conception of the Harper Boy archetype, and subconsciously led to the creation of Vanya, my own darling Harper Boy. The harp itself is a very feminine object (I can share my essay that touches on the erotic connection between a man and his harp at a later date), and a woman playing a classical harp is an archetype of grace and sophistication. The woman at her harp is an aristocratic image (like this still from Disney’s The Artistocats), and it is a stationary image. The woman and her harp sit in the parlor, to please and be worshiped by the society and menfolk around her. But a boy with a harp? He slings his wild harp on his back, and he travels the world. If (when? When) I learn to play the Celtic harp, I will, of course, be a foxy harper lady—yet I want to embody the archetype of the traveling harper, of the Harper Boy. The dream breaks down somewhat when I consider the logistics of carrying a harp on my back in addition to a pack containing my laptop and other life necessities, but I’m not convinced it’s impossible. Vanya is my darling boy, and I say that like a mother; a title I claim because I crave, so badly, through my work and words, to give him life. He is the culmination of all the influences that created my myth of the Harper Boy, but he is also that lost and wanting part of me that needs to strike out, brave and wild, and fill my beating heart with faraway skies and the music of distant roads. It’s a romantic notion, but long-term traveling, or any traveling, is a thing people do, a real thing I can aspire to and plan towards. And if my inspiration is partially fueled by the idea of the wandering minstrel, by that boy and his harp, who will blame me? We all come from somewhere and, as much as he comes from the influences I’ve listed, Vanya also comes from me, and wherever I go, whether I learn to harp or not, I’ll carry him too.

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Leave a comment, if you like. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post. Have you had any similar experiences, where you didn’t realize what books or songs influenced you until you found them again later on? What characters and archetypes have informed your life? Does my archetype of the Harper Boy agree with your own mythology?

More Breadcrumbs: A Review

I found most of this review in my drafts, and thought it was too good not to post. It’s been almost two months since I actually read the book, though, which I first mentioned in this post.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

When you read books as a writer, there are some books that are very encouraging because you think, hey, I could do that. And then there are books that just make you want to cry because how could I ever write a thing so bright? You know you have some grasp of prose and rhythm, a certain understanding of words that allowed you to get this far, but could you possibly write a thing where nearly every sentence is the kind that pierces and burns?

These are the thoughts I had while reading Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. At least three sentences per page are absolute gems, or daggers. In Breadcrumbs Ursu references many favorite books for young people that the main character, Hazel, has read. Usually these sorts of references in a book make me cringe, because the book has not earned the right to talk about its betters. I feel that Breadcrumbs actually earned those references. While reading this book, I thought about reading it aloud. I thought about reading it to my children (after reading them Tolkien and Narnia and Wrinkle in Time and Potter and all those things it references).

The thing with Breadcrumbs is it’s exceptionally literary. It has all those connecty-bits, all those symbolism-things, all those deep-truthisms about childhood and growing up. It has… breadcrumbs of all the above, little pieces, interwoven thoughout everything.

In the interest of a fair review, I checked out some amazon.com reviews (if I ever get to be a famous writer, I am going to obsess over my reviews. I already read reviews of books I adore and get all angry at the bad ones). It has many many positive reviews… and a few really bad ones. The bad reviews’ main complaint seems to be that Hazel herself, and all the characters, aren’t very likable. Okay. Honestly? The words were so goddamn pretty all the time that I wasn’t thinking too much about Hazel and whether I liked her. The reviewers complain that she is self-centered, but isn’t everyone at that age? Isn’t everyone, ever? And I did like Hazel. I like Hazel in the narrative voice, loved it every time the narration switched to second person to portray her thoughts. I do think the most beautiful thing here  is the way Anne Ursu handles words, but for me that beauty extends generously, and is more than large enough to fill the main character and cover her thoughts and words.

Profanity in Writing (among other things)

Yesterday, I said a lot of my poetry was too personal to share. I stand by that, as it involves other people, but here is a beautiful blog post by an author who shared the most personal thing, the scariest thing. She writes this thing incredibly well, and it is absolutely worth a read—and I suspect this blogger is someone worth following. The Scariest Thing on Chalk the Sun

Another interesting thing about yesterday’s post: it didn’t even occur to me until much, much later that I had posted a poem containing a swear word. The third word of the second line, if you didn’t notice. It is the only word that can go there, and I’m not apologizing. I just find it interesting that it didn’t even occur to me that the word might offend certain audiences. It’s not something I even considered, probably because I know the words to this poem so well that they are a part of myself, and how can a part of myself be offensive?

Profanity in writing, however, is something to consider, especially as an aspiring author of Young Adult Literature. At what age level in books is it appropriate to include characters who swear?

We are, as writers, going for realism. I believe Stephen King said something to the effect of, if your character wouldn’t say “Oh sugar,” then you should write them saying the other thing. Authors writing in a fantasy world have the luxury of making up a swear word or two for their characters to use vigorously. My book is not set solidly in the real world, but the characters come from the real world, so that’s not an option. I’m aiming at the 14 and up crowd, and here’s the solution I’ve reached:

I have one character who swears, and one character who doesn’t. This isn’t an arbitrary decision; it comes directly from the essence of the characters and helps define who they are. The swearing habit actually says a lot about the character. It shows that he is more attached to this world than his friend, and it shows his tendency to fling words at things when he’s angry. When he takes the Lord’s name in vain, it’s even a clue about religious upbringing, though possibly not in the way you’d expect. The swearing is actually a major way that the characters are differentiated from each other in dialogue, especially in those life-or-death type scenes, and I hope this will help the reader get a handle on the characters, and on who is speaking when. So, yes, I let my one character swear freely—but never excessively. He swears when that is what he would say, when that is the only thing he would say, and when the situation warrants it. I never put swears in for the intention of shock value, or to make it seem “edgy.” They are what they are. Would I edit them out if someone who wanted to publish my book asked me to? I honestly don’t know if I would; I think the dialogue would seem artificial without them.

I have completely refrained from using the F-word in my book. I feel the use of that word would cross a major line, one that my guy occasionally saying, “Oh shit,” in a really tricky situation or “dammit” in a moment of emotional duress doesn’t even approach. Would you agree?

I’d love to hear comments on this one, I think it could be a great discussion.

Oh, and I drew this last night (this morning? I couldn’t sleep). Maybe later I will finish it. Did you know Vanya could smile?

Smiling Vanya Sketch

-Grace out