It’s Not James Richard Randall

It’s John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. And he was born January 3, 1892.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1916

Quick: how many years ago was that? Right, 121. (Okay, so I used my calculator to double-check my math. It’s not exactly my strong point.)

At the beginning of the school year, the kids and I read The Hobbit and loved it. My husband took us all to see the movie. It was great, except he didn’t tell me what everybody else in that theater already knew.

What? I thought, as the scene at the eagle’s aerie faded and the credits rolled. Is this a joke? I looked around me and saw moviegoers beginning to stand. I looked at my husband and said, “Where’s the end?”

“It’s the first part.”

“The first part!? Of how many?”

“Three.”

I sat there dazed, arguing, “But The Hobbit is only one book!”

Then I understood why the dwarf-gathering at Bilbo’s house took up nearly half the movie, and why I had to sit through Richard Armitage’s sonorous crooning that—I admit this—I questioned to be his own voice. There were a good many additions in the movie. Would Tolkien have approved? Who knows? I think Peter Jackson made the plot much more dramatic. And that’s good.

I’m celebrating Tolkien’s birthday by posting the link to my one and only attempt at writing Tolkien-style. It’s a one-shot called, “The Fate of the Ents.” If you’re curious and love Middle-earth tales, take a look.

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Learning from First Impressions

I’ve been reading tons lately and writing very little. There are ten chapters written on the sequel to Dragonfly Prince. I don’t want to call it writer’s block. You see, I’ve had trouble with sequels before, and that’s why this is making me nervous. When I completed my first novel-sized story (a modern crossover fanfic drawing from Austen’s Persuasion/Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera) – I had this exciting idea about merging Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice with Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel for the sequel. I named it Florid Impressions. (Austen’s P&P was originally entitled, “First Impressions.”) It would follow talented ballet dancer, Marguerite (or ‘Meg’), as she joined a newly formed troupe begun by a young, accomplished choreographer, P. Darcy-Blakeney. He would be like Orczy’s Blakeney in style and attitude and Austen’s Darcy in true personality and noblesse oblige. He and Meg would not see eye-to-eye; but she would learn to respect his impeccable taste for interpretation, and he would find himself taken with her vivacity, wit and, ultimately, her determination and loyalty. I had these great ideas for following international conflict and constructed two daring rescues and a wonderful escape finale. I totally fell in love with it, eavesdropping in on my characters’ conversations in my head.

To prepare I immersed myself in researching the art of ballet. I hunted for advisers and sought their advice. I read and watched all the documentaries I could study. I have notebooks stashed away scribbled back to pulp with terms and practices and personal reflections of dancers. Through my research I came to the conclusion that my first impression of a ballerina was completely wrong. It is truly an art of illusion. Its disciples are always in pain, always pushing their physical limits.

While gathering the information, it struck me as strange that I didn’t know the names of any current danseurs or ballerinas. The programs do not garner the same breathless anticipation of the Super Bowl, or even Wimbledon. Yes, I’m comparing ballet to a sport. It requires intense athleticism, but that is coupled with emotional expression. It’s quite an incredible craft.

Where once it had claimed a regal, astral sort of beauty for me, the earthy reality ruined it. I became disillusioned by the line of work I’d chosen for my main character. I’m rather sad for her. Still, it taught me to stick with what I know (and to give my characters jobs where they had more to wear than a kerchief and tights). And that’s where this sequel scares me the most. It’s all about what I know, and I’m intimidated. I’m more conscious of its flaws and less attuned to how it communicates its meaning to someone who hasn’t been in my shoes. Can I let my guard down and *gulp* give it the vulnerability it needs? Ten chapters are just a knock at the door.

Which Way Is Ever After?

by A. Ashkanani, flickr.com

It’s the mushy month. Love and all that… And I was thinking, ‘I should find a good love story to celebrate Valentine’s Day properly.’ Nyah, nothing with a sappy name this time. They bother me. I know there’s something wrong with a Gaskell’s North and South/Austen’s Pride and Prejudice fanatic who doesn’t devour those confectionary titles like a big goblet of dark chocolate mousse, but I have difficulty reading a book that’s embarrassing to name aloud. (“Oh, I’m reading, ‘Love’s Endless Flowing Tragic Quest of Angst,’ you?”) It reminds me of Gilbert’s down-to-earth remark to Anne Shirley about her flowery romances. He tells her, “Nobody talks like that in real life.”*

Still, I believe there’s nothing like a good love story, and romances aren’t necessarily good love stories. Take Tolkien’s Return of the King as an example. It wasn’t a romance, but the love stories are mint. The relationship dynamics are what intrigue me most, I guess. Whatever my current writing obsession, I find myself watching my protagonist develop, placing certain situations before him or her to see what the reaction will be. As a reader, I like book characters that give me the impression I’ve met them before. I’m the Bildungsroman sci-fantasy sort, add a side of love story.

Because of this, a tale about a woman who is thawed into falling in love with some non-confrontational, gorgeously handsome man, who waits all through the book for her to notice him, has no appeal. I think I prefer reading about a confrontational, ugly guy who goes through his own metamorphosis. (Have I been conditioned to correlate male attractiveness with spineless drooling? Hm…)

How about the male love interest who makes the heroine eat her words? Well, he ought to be gentlemanly about it when she does, of course. But I’m not completely a Taming of the Shrew fan because it lends itself to the opposite extreme, toward berating or abusing womankind.

Why do so many love stories belittle the intelligence of either gender to make the relationship work? I think the romance genre often finds its writers in difficulty over how to keep that balance. And what about original endings? Wedding bells ring, a thrilling account of what happened on the honeymoon, or hints of a baby’s arrival often conclude the tale. Jane Austen fared just fine leaving her characters to pledge their troth and… Here’s an epilogue. Cue the orchestra, roll the credits. What are some other ways to end a love story without being cliché? The only other endings I can think of are the ones where one, or both of them, dies. The Hunger Games (Spoiler! Spoiler!) used a tactic which I found both realistic and depressing. Kat just deals. She ends up with the one she loves best, but they are too scarred to really be happy. Call me an idealist, but I don’t find death and despondency very inspiring in a society where love comes and goes like a hobby and no one seems to know which direction to ride off and find ‘ever after,’ much less ‘happily.’

So, any book suggestions, or have I thrown out the lot?

*from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series

When Tolkien Met Ivanhoe & Turned Me into Doctor Frankenstein

When I began writing Dragonfly Prince, I was recovering from an abysmal first attempt at fantasy. I was 25 chapters into a story set in a medieval times alternate universe sans Catholic influence. (Ever tried omitting Catholic influence from the Middle Ages? Ha!) My challenge was to merge the Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel, and Rapunzel archetypes into a seamless tale of tragedy, mystery, sorcery and heroism. My mission was to follow multiple male and female protagonists of different races who would discover their strengths and rise above their harsh circumstances, forming alliances to bring a new era of peace. I named it, “Daughters of the King’s Forest.” I fed the story with a caboodle of research, and it grew and grew to epic proportions. Then it wanted more.

Colin Clive and Boris Karloff - Frankenstein (1931)

It wanted created languages and descriptive background stories. It wanted clever riddles. It was like Tolkien meets Ivanhoe, who saves Little Red Riding Hood. I even developed a renga for the dwarves – which were giants because that made them more intimidating to the Snow White character. If you’re not familiar with a renga, it is a genre of social poetry; it requires more than one participant. And there I was, writing a poem by myself that relies on the filters and experiences of multiple contributors to make the transitional passages unique. I was becoming Doctor Frankenstein, mad in my drive to make my story-monster live.

I pushed back from my desk one day and realized I was not enjoying the story anymore. So, I quit. I think it’s okay to quit. Mainly because I did it. And you can do it, too. (This is the motivational portion of my blog today.)

Then I panicked. I’d just devoted hours and hours of my busy life to what I’d planned to be my magnum opus, only to find it was epic alright: Epic fail. I couldn’t even read through it myself, so you know how bad that is. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, I was staring into the sluggish, burping pit of Mordor, watching the story I’d been lugging around for months melt away. I was painfully aware of the emptiness it left behind; my mind kept returning to it out of habit. What could I do to make it go away? Give up writing?

It was around October when I went back to the drawing board to revamp my goals. For this I am very thankful because most of the writers’ forums were ablaze with “Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year?” Thank you, NaNoWriMo, for existing because, though I’ve never participated in writing a 50K story in one month, you gave me an idea. I decided to try my own NaNo-like challenge. I thought it would be more reasonable for me to try for 40K by writing a 5-7 pages twice a week for 2 to 3 months. My story was going to be set in an author-created environment – no research required. There was to be no background story. My main characters were going to be normal people – no valiant knights and magic-wielding witches. Immediately, I thought, “I can handle this.” The challenge was to keep it simple and hit my goal, forget about that greatest-masterpiece-ever-composed stuff. I just had to write, like the NaNoWriMo site advises.

To keep myself accountable, I posted it in a generic category on Fanfiction. Those who contributed to the 400+ reviews for the rough draft chapters of Dragonfly Prince know what happened. And if that’s all the recognition my story ever receives, I’m really okay with that. Some of the most intelligent, supportive reviewers picked it up and ran with it. I started seeing traits in other stories in that category, obvious spin-offs of the environment I’d introduced. How cool is the influence of being a writer? Very.

So, the moral is: If at first you don’t succeed, you might be overcomplicating things. Consider a quick check in the mirror for telltale signs. Have you been sporting the mad scientist look lately?