Friday, December 13, 2013

We Need Fanfiction: An Analysis of Hitchups and More

Second post on fanfiction and partly an opinion piece inspired by this StoryDam prompt.

Most published authors will not read fanfiction of their work. They do not avoid fan works because of arrogant sentiments or feelings; authors have legal issues to worry about. Tamora Pierce, YA fantasy author and  puts it best on her website: 

"Sometimes in the heat of the battle with a book, we grab any idea that surfaces, without necessarily knowing where it came from. I've since gone back to find things I've fitted to my use in books and movies I read years ago. I can't take the chance that someone else's ideas might enter the stew where my creativity happens, to surface years later: that's how writers get sued for copyright infringement/theft. It's nothing against fanfics or their writers, and everything to do with me covering my behind."

Tamora Pierce also encourages young writers to write fanfiction to gain writing experience, but one can learn more than structuring a plot the way that I did. One can also learn how to ask the tough questions, to disrupt order in an established world.

One can make characters extremely imperfect and have them go through personal changes. That's what one epic, famous fanfiction did for the film How to Train Your Dragon.

What Hitchups Taught Me

Hitchups is an HTTYD fanfiction, an epic adventure of Tolkien length and Alternate Universe of what happened in the movie. Do not read past this line for spoilers of Hitchups, or for the movie How to Train Your Dragon. You have been warned.
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Fanfiction for particular works of fiction can have subcategories, variations of the same idea; HTTYD fanfiction is not exception. These subcategories do not define HTTYD fanfiction rigidly, and I know I haven't followed them, but they ask similar questions regarding the narrative. Hitchups follows one question that the movie couldn't have answered: "What if Hiccup had run away during the third act?"

My former screenwriting professor Tom Musca always talked about "tyranny of the narrative," a constraint upon the characters' actions and the consequences they face within two hours of screen time. The movie format imposes this "tyranny" by forcing the protagonists and antagonists to make decisions that will tell a story. Not all films follow such a format, and art films make a point of ignoring conventions, but most adventure stories have to conform.

Because HTTYD is an adventure story, it must conform to tyranny of the narrative. This creative obligation comes to full force in HTTYD's third act, when Hiccup nearly leaves his home, the island of Berk. His love interest Astrid comes in on the scene and grounds him, leading to one of the most hilarious Toothless moments and a romantic flight through a cloudy sky. The audience knows that he won't run off with his dragon Toothless because we have twenty minutes of film left, but fanfiction has explored what would have happened without that tyrannical narrative.

"Hitchups"was one of the first "what if Hiccup ran away" variations, and it remains the best that I have read so far. I will outline my reasons below, but these reasons are based on the following facts that writers can learn:

1) No story is perfect, especially a story that sacrifices characterization for plot necessities.

2) It is all right to acknowledge that a story is imperfect, while enjoying it thoroughly.

3)  Fanfiction can help us address a story's imperfections, and to correct them with the written word.

"Hitchups" first addresses one of the pressing issues in HTTYD: female character development. The movie has two notable females: Astrid Hofferson, Hiccup's rival and love interest in Dragon Training, and the Village Elder Gothi. Gothi only has a few minutes of screen time, but her decision to choose Hiccup to slay a dragon impacts the third act. Astrid also impacts the third act by changing her mind about dragons, after going on a wild ride with Hiccup and Toothless. Nevertheless, the characters exist in only how they determine Hiccup's subsequent actions.

The movie limits Astrid's character  by delegating her as the love interest who keeps Hiccup on Berk. Astrid, who at first surpasses Hiccup and the other teens when battling dragons, starts offering advice on how to save the island, so that Hiccup can be the hero in the climactic battle. Before, she was more concerned about competition and coming out on top in Dragon Training, and she loses that aggression after seeing Hiccup as a romantic partner. AvannaK has written numerous analyses on HTTYD and its characters; in a telling post about Astrid, she emphasizes that her dislike is that Miss Hofferson's "purpose is to better Hiccup, to act as a reward or punishment" as opposed to achieving personal growth on her own.This purpose persists through subsequent animation projects in the HTTYD franchise, except for one television episode where we witness the reason for Astrid's competitive spirit. 

In "Hitchups," both Gothi and Astrid receive more notable screen time; in Gothi's case, she helps shape Hiccup's path without him realizing for about thirty chapters. Mentors matter as much as love interests, and Gothi also guides Hiccup into understanding his bond with Toothless better, the price that boy and dragon pay to live together. Gothi sees hope for Berk, and for the Vikings in this unlikely pair, and thus serves as mediator and guide between them. Her presence helps the pair survive a few close calls; when Hiccup sacrifices himself to save Toothless from a lethal axe blow, Gothi's connection to Hiccup allows her to surpass the laws of life and death.  

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Although Astrid remains competitive and aloof in "Hitchups," she remains an independent character who undergoing necessary development. Instead of a focus on Hiccup, AvannaK focuses on Astrid's loyalty to Berk and commitment to Viking war tradition, while inside she feels empty and unfocused. After revealing Hiccup's secret to the village, and becoming the temporary hero for a few weeks, Astrid pushes herself to fight against dragons harder, to prove herself and serve Berk. She quickly rises to the top of the village pecking order, able to choose a betrothed if she wishes, but soon doesn't know what she desires when the dragons may wipe them out. As Avanna writes in "Without a Hitch," "Astrid wanted her wants to matter, but they didn't. Only Berk mattered." 

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 Because Astrid has time to realize her lack of purpose, and her fears of not living to the war's end, she thus can handle Hiccup's return with more realistic, conflicted emotions. Two years also makes a difference when the two have an argument:

"Hiccup bared a passion in his expression that Astrid was unprepared for, and the first wisps of guilt began to fester. She stamped them out, holding onto her arguments, refusing to play the bad guy to his choices. Her own righteous anger was no longer enough to fuel her belligerence, so Astrid thought of Stoick, of the defeat and grief that poisoned the rest of their village. She thought of the way Hiccup hurt the classmates that looked up to him—Fishlegs, especially." 

Astrid's commitment to tradition conflicts with her desire to help Berk by using unconventional, almost treacherous means to end the war between dragons and Vikings. She hates Hiccup for choosing a dragon over the village, for violating tradition, while ignoring her part in his departure, her unwillingness to listen. Hiccup only convinces her to ride Toothless when, after their argument, he pursues her and asks for her help. He does not force her to get on, and Toothless does not intimidate her into an apology; Hiccup merely sits on his dragon and lets Astrid make the choice, treating her with respect. Astrid after the ride understands what he had protected, her full role in his exile, and how she can help the village change. As they utilize dragons to protect Berk from the raids, and they have a chance to end the war, Astrid sees herself fulfilling the leadership role that Hiccup never wants, to become chief of Berk, and regains her purpose. Hiccup spends too much time traveling to spread knowledge about training dragons or to lead the village, Snotlout and the twins are too grounded on Berk to become proper teachers, and Fishlegs concerns himself more with dragon-related statistics than with practical application. Astrid not only has the courage to face such creatures, but also the willingness to seek them out and explore uncharted waters.

I must emphasize, however, that Astrid does NOT take that role out of guilt for getting Hiccup exiled. She takes Hiccup's place to both improve Berk and to ground herself within changing world, to gain a solid footing as Vikings befriend dragons. She explains in "Without a Hitch" why she decides to leave Berk and assist dragon expert Fishlegs with gathering more knowledge: "She had to separate herself from her nearly crippling desire to please her village and find a solid understand of what she wanted. She experienced too much war in too little time and not enough of life." Astrid recognizes that she wants to have control over her destiny, and managing Berk ensures that control till the end of her days, even at the cost of civil war with the heir Snotlout.

"Hitchups" thus far is the only HTTYD fanfiction that explores such character depth, especially for the two most significant women in the story. I do not include Ruffnut, the female twin who serves as comic relief, because she does not impact the plot despite having more than a few lines. Nor do I include Phelgma, Stoick's second in command, because while she serves best in battle with STOICK, she has few interactions with Hiccup. Very few "what if Hiccup left" fanfiction focuses on empathy for those left behind on Berk, and thesecond-best contender, "Truth and Reconciliation," features too much Stoick hatred for my taste, and not enough sympathy for the characters on Berk. That's a rant of Tumblr worth, however, and we are not talking about variation fics.

I have to confess one thing, however: it took me months to get into "Hitchups," because the opening chapters made me cry when showing Hiccup's departure and the consequences that result on Berk. One consequence, all the Kill Ring dragons getting executed, was a punch in the gut because we get to know those dragons better in the show and cartoon shorts, but it was also necessary to drive home how Hiccup hurt his village by leaving. I dived into the story in the middle, when Hiccup was recovering from a near-death experience. Then I read backwards, so that I could handle the sad bits and enjoy the adventure in full. It's only by reading Avanna's Tumblr posts and analyses on Astrid that I can see the value behind such a story, that it needed to be written.

HTTYD is a boy and dragon story depicting a boy's world, but that does not mean that we have to drop in a new female character to make it a girl's world. A woman wrote the original book series, after all, with strong women featured within it. "Hitchups" takes the same approach; despite focusing on Hiccup and Toothless's travels returns to the two most important women in the plot and define them as people, not love interests. We do not need to accept the limitations that canon imposes, and we should play with such limits. That way, when we write our original stories, we can learn to surpass those limits and write sympathetic, powerful characters.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

One-Year and Three-Month Anniversary: Why I Started Writing Fanfiction Again

This is the first in a series of blog posts about fanfiction. 

One year ago, on October 10, 2012, I started updating fanfiction for the first time since 2003. That was because that year, a new show had started airing in the fall: Dragons: Riders of Berk. The show was based off the film How to Train Your Dragon, which in turn was based off a book series, and promised to bring one of the books' greatest villains to the screen: Alvin the Treacherous. Alvin didn't disappoint in his first appearance, where he succeeded in invading the island of Berk and taking a hostage to find the "Dragon Conqueror," who turned out to be little Hiccup. Even though a skinny teenager kicked his butt with a few dragons, Alvin decided that he would recruit Hiccup to train dragons for him after seeing how Night Furies and Gronckles changed the playing field for battles.

"They ride dragons! We get that boy, and WE'LL ride dragons!"
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I asked myself a question after seeing that episode: "Alvin knows that the dragons protect Berk, and Hiccup. Invading again would be a waste of effort for him. Why doesn't he just put a bounty on the Dragon Conqueror, and let other dishonorable Vikings wear out Berk's defenses?"

The result was updating my journal on Deviantart two or three days a week with eight hundred words of prose, centered on that idea. In "How to Protect a Dragon Conqueror," Alvin's men riddle Toothless with poisoned arrows and incapacitate him for two-thirds of the story. Hiccup has to learn to defend himself without a dragon, while realizing that he will injure enemies in cold blood and that Alvin has smeared his reputation in the Archipelago.

This was actual fanart for "How to Protect a Dragon Conqueror", from the opening scene with the arrows impaling Toothless and Hiccup fleeing the scene.
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I am an obsessed HTTYD fan, hence why I wrote several blog posts about the movie, and the themes that it presented. This idea of a bounty on Hiccup's head, when I was so obsessed with the show that I'd rewatch my favorite episodes and analyze them, stayed with me, and I finally wrote it down and updated it on my Deviant journal. Then, with my commitment to finish every story that I could, including ones that suddenly gained an influx of readers that wanted to murder Alvin for hurting Toothless.

As it turned out, canon didn't go that far with Alvin. I won't spoil the plot details for those who wish to explore the show for themselves, but the show writers decided to focus on him getting defeated more often than obtaining what he wanted, though he had a few temporary ones and a permanent victory. For each victory, I incorporated them into "Dragon Conqueror" and made the blows against Hiccup and Berk more powerful. The more that I wrote, the more canon disappointed, to the point that my obsession with the show started to wane. A new villain has kept me interested, as has the teaser trailer for the sequel, but I no longer live, breathe and eat fanfiction the way that I used to, though I still write for the HTTYD fandom. That is both a relief and a disappointment, for reasons I'll explain below.

When you use someone else's prose without claiming it as your own -- and if you do, you will find yourself in oodles of legal trouble-- you don't have to create a new world, or new characters. More often than not, as I was, you'll be writing about your favorite characters and espousing their virtues and flaws. I had a major crush on Hiccup, for example, because he was snarky, brilliant and impulsive. With original fiction, the creator has less admiration for her character, more a need to render them as living breathing beings, discovering aspects of their personality as the writing progresses. Original fiction requires rendering shapes and figures on a blank canvas, while fanfiction allows one to merely add brush strokes to a finished canvas.

I learned this lesson while switching back to original fiction for a few days, after writing "Dragon Conqueror." The words felt emptier, less unsure of themselves, like blobs of paint. As a result, I started writing another short HTTYD fanfiction, as a contest entry, in December. Come January, I was writing the sequel to "Dragon Conqueror," which I called "How to Court a Dragon Prince." By the spring, I started an "HTTYD Easter Special" which soon climbed into the 90,000 word count, almost novel-length. "Dragon Prince" concluded in October of this year, and I have only written short one-shots, some pure fluff and some pure drama. The thrill from writing prose with well-defined, established characters did wonders when I exited my comfort zone and practiced world building with different characters.

Writing fanfiction also taught me confidence, that I could write well and earn readers; I learned that action and conflicted characters snag readers, as do action scenes and lots of peril. After I finished Dragon Conqueror in December and started interning for a local theater, I found the courage to rewrite my fantasy wolf novel and to pretend it was fanfiction so that I could revise it with the same vigor that came from writing about Hiccup and Astrid and the Berk gang.  I also made it a personal goal to submit one short story a week this year, after learning that people wanted my prose. So far I have sold about five short stories and have received payment for two of them, so I remain confident that I'm going down the right path.

Let me reiterate one element: you will never, and SHOULD never make money writing fanfiction. Another writer already crafted the territory in which you have made your mark, and he or she will hunt you down for trying to stake a claim on it. I will write another post on plagiarism, and on famous examples that have landed authors in hot water, but I hope that you take that message to heart.

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I didn't write "Dragon Conqueror" expecting to make a penny off it. I knew I never would, and so I wrote it for myself. I wrote a story that would never work with the twenty episode format, and probably would never fly with the Cartoon Network censors. I wrote the story that I wanted to see on the screen, with characters undergoing personal changes and exiting their comfort zones. I was just lucky that other readers and Riders of Berk fans wanted to see that story as well. 

Neil Gaiman put it best: "Writing isn't all about pleasing other people. You've got a story to tell, and you're the only one who can tell it."  I can proudly say that I'm the only fanfiction writer who has written about putting a bounty on Hiccup's head, but I would never try to make a profit off that idea.

Next post, I'll talk about the purpose that fanfiction serves for readers, about the gaps that the fandom prose fills with imagination and logical questions. It will probably feature a long discussion on one of the best HTTYD fanfictions out there, "Hitchups," and the gaps that it filled for unsatisfied readers.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

One Drop of Inspiration: Eeks and Greeks

Thanks to Storydam for this prompt, about  stories that start with "one drop" of inspiration or perspiration, whichever of the two came first. Probably could write about the short stories I'm typing up for Nanowrimo, but they are still in the virgin stage and not ready to talk about.

I'm going to be honest; rewriting fairytales and folklore offers easier prose for this writer than crafting a personal mythology. For the example, I'm going to use my story "Ferry" as  the story that started with a drop. "Ferry" is a modern take on the Greek ferryman Charon, who takes undead souls to the Underworld by boat, so that they don't have to go for a freezing swim to reach the judges who determine their afterlife. The dead have to be buried with two coins, one for each eye, so that they can pay Charon for their passage. If not, they either swim or stay on the docks, waiting for their turn.

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This fact is all fun and dandy, but then I discovered a fairy tale where the ferryman was a side character. He hates his job, hates rowing people to and from places, and wants to know how to quit. When he learns that he just has to hand his oar to the next would-be passenger to resign, he heads off and sees the world. The next passenger happens to be a greedy king, whom no one would miss, so everyone is happy that he gets such a fitting punishment.

"Consequences" is a theme I like to write about, people reaping the consequences of their actions. Charon was good at his job, under a boss like Hades, and he had experience. A newbie ferryman would fail the job miserably, perhaps on purpose. Hades would not like the slacker, or the foolish Charon who hired the slacker in the first place. He's make sure that Charon would stay and enforce serious punishments.

My story, "Ferry," shows the title character after several thousand years of this forced labor, albeit with some variation. He's gotten used to taking people to where they die, and he wonders if he would ever hand them his truck keys, for he's upgraded his boat to a truck to fit modern times. "Ferry" answers his question with an unforgettable passenger.

"Ferry" is one of the few stories I've only had to revise twice. The rough draft had no real ending, just a resignation to the status quo, while the published version has the ferryman making a conscious decision to give up his job, for a good reason. I believe that because the idea was simple and intact, it required few changes, in contrast to some of the stories I'm rewriting for Nano.

A simple idea goes a long way. I am using complicated ideas to challenge myself, but sometimes take a breather to revise a fairy tale. At least one of my characters deserves a proper happy ending.

Saturday, November 16, 2013


Thanks to StoryDam for suggesting this prompt. Ten minutes on the topic of gratitude, and what the idea means to us.

I find the word "gratitude" a pet peeve in real life, because parents have always used it in a context to "be grateful" in a tone that immediately makes one's hair prickle. "Gratitude" implies that we have to appreciate what we have, not that we have a choice in the matter. Complaints become the vermin of the household, the cockroaches that must be stamped out during stressful times. If it were up to me, I'd rather count my blessings on my own rather than have a parent remind me to count them. I have a planner for a reason, so I can write down my reasons to be grateful in there. 

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Fiction offers a different take on the idea of being grateful. If not for luck, and perhaps a bit of help, most protagonists would not survive past the first page. Some authors even have fun playing with the idea, like Lemony Snicket in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Although the Baudelaire orphans in the books have their fair share of bad luck, from the fire that kills their parents to the different circumstances that lead each of their guardians to die or abandon them, they also have enough luck and time to foil Count Olaf's latest scheme to obtain them, or they'd have disappeared in The Bad Beginning. The siblings also stay together, and while their allies and enemies meet untimely, creative ends in each book, they somehow manage to resolve their conflict with Olaf and grow up into normal people.

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People also don't like complaining, self-degrading heroes. One has to look at the frustration with Harry Potter in Order of the Phoenix or the dislike for Bella Swan from Twilight to see this self-degradation in action. Heroes suffer, and protagonists have issues, but one peep of discontent and the readers pounce on it, even if the complaints are legitimate. Harry spends most of the book suffering PTSD, for example, and thus lashes out at the people around him for not understanding why fighting Voldemort traumatized him. The next book featured him overcoming the trauma, accepting his fate to take Voldemort and knowing that he will probably get killed.

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Heroes need to feel grateful in fiction because they receive chances that they wouldn't receive in real life. Had Harry not received his Hogwarts letter, for example, as well as the dangerous adventures that Hogwarts provided, the Dursleys would have confined to an abusive, dreary existence in the Muggle world as a neglected orphan.  Rowling cannot help but poke fun at this situation; when Harry's Aunt Marge says she would have sent him to an orphanage if it were up to her, Harry thinks that he would have preferred an orphanage. Even so, he manages a polite goodbye in book seven, considering the circumstances, and stays in touch with his cousin after the series concludes. Living with the Dursleys saved his life, even if they didn't treat him like a surrogate son, and he lets go of his animosity towards the wizards and Muggles who have made him suffer. 

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So there are my ten minutes and more on gratitude, on my preference for heroes who acknowledge that their lives suck but deal with the villains and monsters, knowing no one else will.  Now I'm off to prepare for Thanksgiving, by getting my end of the semester work out of the way.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Winter is Coming: A Discussion of Samhain

Blogger friends inspire the most creative and connected blog entries. The verbose and gentleman scholar Matt Anderson, after doing a wonderful Halloween countdown on his blog, wrote about the pagan summer festival Beltane/ . Matt happens to live in Australia, so it's technically not time Samhain in the land down under, or the harvest festival that precludes Halloween and inspired it.

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We Americans, unless we practice Wicca, do not have Samhain. We have trick-or-treating, Halloween specials, haunted houses and costumes. These aspects are not bad things, because we no longer have a reason to fear winter. Americans, and most of the Western world, have access to food and shelter all year round. I for one live in Florida, where we have vegetables and fruits growing in the middle of December, and my family is lucky to have food and an insulated house every day. Not because of the cold, but because of the rodents that would take nibbles out of our tomatoes at night, and they would freak out my mom and older sister. Also, we had to watch our tomatoes and bananas more carefully.

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For civilizations that lacked preservatives, refrigeration and mass-production of food, however, winter was a scary time. People had to fight for their lives, and witness the world dying around them. Food would become scarce, blizzards would bury villages for weeks, the cold could freeze over cattle's nostrils, and people would huddle in their homes while listening to monster tales. Rats and mice would huddle with them, stealing whatever food they could find. It was a time when ordinary people feared Grendel the monster storming their homes in the dead of winter, eating the bravest warriors and taking no heed of weapons. Even if Grendel was no more real than the dragon that St. George fought, or the Headless Horseman, but nature was not friendly with ice and snow.

Samhain in the olden times meant preparing for the winter, celebrating the harvest that would feed villages while offering deference to the wild, natural forces. People would light bonfires, set cattle bones ablaze as a promise of life in the cold, and take a portion of the flame home to enliven their hearths.

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In addition to warmth that battled the cold, people prepared for fae, or ancient spirits, to cross over into our world. For this day, October 31st, people would leave out food offerings to feed the spirits and make room for dead family members at the dinner table. Others would wear costumes and go from house to house, to imitate the spirits in their demands for food and treats. Imitation was apparently a form of flattery, for the spirits encouraged this sort of behavior each year.

Samhain makes for an interesting holiday because it begs one fascinating question: how has our fear changed, and how did changing fears change this festival into a secular holiday? As noted above, though people still go hungry each year, most Americans don't and in fact suffer the opposite problem with obesity. Parents now worry about sugar highs and crashes, if their kids can handle haunted houses and horror movies.

For me, Halloween is having a secure net of fear. We invite scary things when dressing up because we know that they can't hurt us, and in this way we court death, treating our worst fears like playmates. We get to change into other creatures, to entertain our friends and walk into the night.

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On that note, I didn't wear a proper Halloween costume this year. That won't stop me from planning for next year, for dressing up for one day as someone else. Perhaps I'll find a fairy spirit to imitate, or a Disney princess to emulate.

But for now? I'll just sit back, await the green winter to come, and enjoy the darkness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Writing Zone

Hi all long time no see. There's loads of news, however, that I will reveal. First, on November 1 Indian SF is publishing my short story "The Lion in the Wave," on their website; be sure to check it out and to give the magazine your support if you can provide anything, from readership to funds. "Lion" is an ocean story, about my fear of large waves and how their crashes sound like lions' roars, and it's my first successful attempt at a literary style.

The reason I've been AWOL is because I've been working on a novella for an editor, a fantasy horror novella expanded from a short story that I finished in the fall. The time that I would have spent crafting a response to a StoryDam prompt instead went into reading about Tarot, studying the language behind Ray Bradbury's novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, listening to my new beta reader's comments on the story, and writing about twenty thousand words in a week and several days. The editor is reading the novella this week, so I have my fingers crossed.

"Carousel" is about a haunted orchestra conductor who fears a strange creature called the Piper, a humanized force of chaos that steals children with his magic flute. He suddenly makes reappearance at her university, first taking the sound away from orchestra rehearsal. She has to become someone she hasn't been in a while to confront the person who summoned the Piper, as well as to get rid of him.

Novellas typically start at twenty thousand words, which is roughly one hundred pages double-spaced, with Times New Roman font sized 12. I have written three thousand words a day, every other day. With that track record, I thought adding twelve thousand words to an eight thousand word short story would be a cinch. I'd set up my computer at night, or during two hours I had free in the morning, and type away. I even had a day off I knew the story's plot, what I wanted the characters to do. All I had to do was write, write write, which is what I enjoy doing! Surely nothing could be easier!

I couldn't have been more wrong. See, the times I had been writing three thousand words a day had involved some form of having three or four hours a day to write freely, or when I had been willing to stay up till midnight putting in the work. They were also part of fanfiction, which I have always found easier to write than original fiction-- that will be another blog post's subject. Original fiction requires the brain to produce more description, in terms of picturing the world and how the characters act. I had to borrow liberally from my university campus, and then memoirs of driving to Miami Beach at night for the new climax.

To immerse myself into the novella's world, to be able to expand, to explain, to make deeper characterizations, I had to swallow the necessary language, research, and suspension of disbelief. Something Wicked This Way Comes inspired part of the story, including the title, but only in terms of how a fun place or object has creepier implications, that you have to cling to joy and laughter to fight the darkness that threatens your soul. Bradbury's prose also emphasizes that not all parents fail their children in times of crisis, and that sometimes an adult can provide wisdom that the children lack. I consider it one of his more uplifting, nostalgic tales about the wandering carnivals that don't appear any more these days.

I also had to answer a lot of questions. My first beta reader had complained that draft four hadn't held enough back stories. Beta reader two didn't complain about that, but rather about how the protagonist let weeks of time go by before taking action, and that the climax did not satisfy him. A male love interest had no personality or motivation, and the Piper wasn't threatening enough. Both readers went on a long rant, which meant that they liked the story and were frustrated by its shortcomings.

The story had to change. I ended up throwing out the old ending, which had survived six drafts, and crafted a new one. That took four hours to write, on two separate days. Only then, sweaty and relieved, did I email the draft to the editor, who was gracious enough to accept my submission and who let me resubmit it with correct formatting.

"Carousel" taught me many things: one, a story can always get longer. Sometimes it will stretch like an anaconda, demanding that you count every scale on its body till you reach the end, sweaty and exhausted. Sometimes you have to let that anaconda grow, and grow, so that you can get the best story possible.

Two, always answer a readers' questions. Though Stephen King likes to write short horror stories that have no explanation for the supernatural causes, we cannot all be Stephen King and the age to abruptly blame haunted laundry machines on nightshade and mandrake root has passed and gone rotten in the grave. When two readers want back story, even if you dislike flashbacks, provide back story. Connect characters that were previously drifting like bits of seaweed in an ocean current.

Three, write what you know, and what you only know. Not every writer has played in an orchestra like I have, and not every person noticed the clock tower that played melodies at noon on my university campus.

Next post will be about Halloween, and I promise it will be on time, maybe on Thursday. We'll see what I can write this week.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Beloved Books on Banning: Fahrenheit 451

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"There is more than one way to burn a book." - Ray Bradbury

I was originally debating whether or not to review my experience in rereading the story behind Ray Bradbury's iconic work, or to discuss a tome with more modern concerns.  As it were, since I forgot that I had signed up for Friday, not Saturday, I am going to write my unorganized thoughts on the book, as well as my experience in rereading it as an adult.

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"It was a pleasure to burn."

Fahrenheit 451 was THE book on how pervasive censorship could become, while finding new employment for firemen in the future. With houses that wouldn't burn down, even in the event of wildfires, what are you going to do with those athletic public service agent? Pay them to enforce the law. Make sure the kids aren't thinking for themselves. 

This Bradbury yarn enthralled me as a kid, not the least because it featured a world where the written word was forbidden. Fahrenheit 451 also features a grown adult stuck in a loveless marriage, changing for the better because he meets a young girl. Clarisse has ideas about responsibility, living in the moment, and trying a new thing once or even twice. The young, idealistic me immediately sided with Clarisse and her whimsical games, opening her mouth to catch raindrops and rubbing flowers under her chin. And like Montag, her disappearance surprised and shocked me out of the established world this novel had set.

The power of words also stayed with me. When Montag saves a book from an old woman's scorched library, he reads out the poem "Dover Beach" to his wife's friends on a whim. They're just as shallow as she is, and yet the words touch them. Having never had such an experience with poetry, the idea was foreign until I read some of Bradbury's verses and recited them for a middle school contest. The fact that words have so much power when assembled together made their mark on me, and I can only strive to do the same with my own craftsmanship.

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As an adult, the power that oppression gives to a law enforcer also has a delicious thrill that the hero Guy Montag feels. The first line admits to that pleasure, to seeing organized destruction in the air. The human race bans books for a reason, after all; books provide the gateway to learning more about the world, about its harsh realities and potential for strong communication. We see how a man like Commander Beatty revels in his job as head fireman, why he laughs about the history of how books entered the incinerator.

Is the book still relevant, regarding books, censorship and book burning? Heck yes! We live in a world where Pakistan tried to execute a girl for burning the Koran, where school libraries fire employees for bringing book challenges to the press, and where several states in the United States want to erase evolution from the science curriculum. Humans desire to destroy access to powerful words, to crush others seeking to rise with knowledge and opportunity. Selfish individuals and fearful souls wish for happiness and will sacrifice the questioning mind to do so. That is a fact, that we intellectuals have this ongoing battle with censors, with the books that offend us -- A Song of Ice and Fire for me-- and with ourselves, understanding why reading is a liberty that we should allow for our fellow men.

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There is only one thing we can do to persist in this battle: draw attention to the fire departments. Use the words they seek to burn to rebuild new pages and minds.

Note: first person to comment here receives one of my original comics, seen here, as well a a free watercolor of their choice. That is the giveaway for Banned Books Week!