Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Super Stories

In case you're new to this blog, I'm a total geek when it comes to superhero stories. It's one of the signs that I will never be a true high-brow writer. But, that's okay, because I'll be ridiculously happy and people may even read my stuff. Sorry, that was a low blow to the high-brow writers. So, let's go back to where I started: I love superhero stories.

Over the weekend, I watched the new Spider-Man movie and several cartoon episodes, also Spider-Man. As I write I am listening to "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog", brought on by a middle-grade book titled "The Mad Mask" by Barry Lyga, sequel to "Archvillian", a book about a twelve-year-old who gets superpowers and uses them to fight against Might Mike, a superpowered alien boy who saves the day. Think Superman on this one. It's quite a fun book, and I love the antihero Kyle (aka, the Azure Avenger/Blue Freak). Lyga did a great job creating a character who is flawed and takes a little too well to the whole "supervillian" thing, but still is a good person who saves people from real danger without ever receiving glory for it.

I'm not the only superhero geek in the world. Marvel has ten new movies planned, at least, since the success of The Avengers and the lead-up-to-The Avengers movies. Superheroes have hit a stride recently, and while I am not complaining (there are more people to talk to about geek things! Yay!), I also wonder why.

Here are my thoughts: superhero stories have some things in common, regardless of origin story or costume color. Things like hidden identity, humanities of science, good/evil, nature of good and evil, secrets, and, to refer to the book I recently read, not receiving glory. That last one might be one of the reasons I like Spider-Man so much: the news is out to get him, and he looks like a flake to his friends, but still he saves NY.

I think it's interesting that while superhero stories are on the rise, dystopian stories are also big money-makers. What does that say? What's the link? I think that, as a people, right now we are interested in the ramifications of science and in human nature.

Superhero stories usually have crazy science, and I think we kind of love that about them. But science almost never has reliable consequences. Nine times out of ten, it's a scientific accident that gives the hero his/her power, especially in the Marvel universe. Then, the bad guys are almost always mad scientists, making death rays and hovercrafts while the hero relies on physical force - which bugs me, but that's a post for another day. But I think this speaks to human anxiety about new technology. We root for the guy who punches out the skinny genius and crushes his laser gun like a dried leaf.

Today, technology and science are rocketing forward, faster, perhaps, than human ability to use it wisely. Dystopian stories show what happens when that science is put to evil use. Perhaps superhero stories are popular because they show the human triumph over science, or complicate the issue enough to show how science can be used for good. Steve Rogers became Captain America through careful, calculated science, for example.

In relation to this, I think human nature is a big deal too. Who cares how much technology we build, if we use it all wisely? But we don't. As soon as some marvel is built (Ha! See what I did there?), someone figures out how to abuse it. Dystopians are built on this. We figure out how to keep track of criminal activity, we can now track all human activity and suddenly Big Brother is watching. Dystopians deal with the dark side of human nature. The weak, the oppressive, the cruel.

Superhero stories deal with the same, of course. But they also show the powerful side of humanity. The strong, the kind, the self-sacrificing. When it's so easy to see the evil and corrupt in the world - just open a newspaper - it makes sense that we would be drawn to the good, even if that good is fictional. Superheroes save the world because it is the right thing to do. With the exception of Tony Stark, they do it anonymously. They often have to make the decision between what is right and what is easy, and put their own desires aside for the greater good.

Lately, the superhero films have depicted their protagonists as human, with human fears and flaws. Gone are the days where Superman never doubted himself or Batman never wavered. I like this. I think it reinforces what we want to believe: that everybody, as self-doubting or flawed as they might be, has the potential to step up and become the hero. Maybe I read and watch too many superhero stories, but this rings true for me.

At least, it's something to think about.

Monday, April 22, 2013

I Now Know What I'm Doing

Yes, I know it's been two weeks since my last post. I hope I haven't disappointed anyone. I have a good reason for my lapse, though: finals. I have been up to my chin in research and term papers and revisions. But now, the semester is over, and I can stop all the reading and writing to...read and write. No, seriously. I went to the library today to check out all the books I've been waiting until I had time to read, and I'm starting to brainstorm my next novel. Ah, well. It's the curse of the writers. Which reminds me, I got my sister watching Doctor Who and now she's addicted and I'm proud. I'm also going to draw tally marks on my arms tomorrow. If you're into Doctor Who, you understand. If not, look it up.

Anyway, my motto this semester has been, "I have no idea what I'm doing." I was a fiction writer taking no fiction classes, but nonfiction and poetry. I started the semester not knowing how to write competently in those styles, but I think I've learned my lessons well. So, as the title of this post says, I now know what I'm doing. Allow me to share my wisdom that I've gleaned over the semester with you.
  • Never say "allow me to share my wisdom." It sounds pretentious.
  • The power of poetry is in being surprising: surprising images, emotions, juxtapositions.
  • The bias seems to be against poetry that rhymes, unless you can make the rhymes almost invisible.
  • It is possible to go a winter with one glove, if you have deep coat pockets.
  • It's also possible to go a winter with one glove and completely forget the spare glove in the closet.
  • Doctor Who is awesome!
  • As is BBC's Robin Hood.
  • In nonfiction writing, you will bare your soul. And that's okay.
  • Too much baring, however, can make readers feel dirty, like they're at a peep show.
  • Teaching is awesome. Grading is about as fun as injecting fire ants into your eardrums.
  • The music of words is, in poetry, more important than meaning. Listen.
  • In nonfiction, music and meaning must combine.
  • Also, nonfiction can be very rambling. It takes the writer's skill to control the rambling and end when the piece is complete, not when there is no more to say.
  • Excellent writing can cover a multitude of sins. Like bad plotting, or logical gaffes.
  • So, if I write fiction with beautiful language, I might get away with more.
  • All words are words. Even "treewhippery."
  • Poetry and nonfiction seem to be art forms where the right brain acts first, and the left brain refines, as opposed to the other way around.
  • I make a mean Milky Way cake.
Best I can do now. Writing is such a slippery subject, particularly poetry and nonfiction. Fiction has more rules: rules of craft, rules of storytelling, etc. Poetry and nonfiction, not so much. Nonfiction must not be fictional (though some made-up stuff needs to happen), and poetry must avoid cliches. These are the only "rules" I can think of for these forms, and even then, I bet they can be bent or broken as needed. I'm looking forward, however, to applying what I've learned to my fiction.

Maybe I'll write a character who likes British television and loses her gloves!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Master's Program

Again, sorry for the delayed post. I am still in the throes of final papers, but it shouldn't continue for much longer. I do have a post for y'all today. First, in news, one of my friends (male, believe it or not) tried to convince me that Stephanie Meyer was a better writer than Tolkien. I don't mean to disrespect Ms. Meyer, but Tolkien created a world with multiple languages. He managed interweaving plot threads and wrote into his story morality, philosophy, dialogue on the good and evil in all mankind. It's hard for ANYONE to be a better writer than Tolkien.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I want to get to the main theme of this post. I had a comment asking me to talk about my experience in the Master's program for creative writing. Since I needed a topic for this post, the question was extremely helpful. Anyway, here's my experience.

Applying was stressful. I gave myself a stress cold over the GRE, although I shouldn't have since most MFA programs only look at reading and writing scores. The worst, for me, was coordinating letters of recommendation because it was the one thing I had no control over. As for the creative submission, I sent my best work, a science fiction retelling of the King Arthur legend. After that, I learned that genre fiction isn't generally welcome, although, that story recently won second place in a big creative writing contest, so I feel justified in using it.

As for the program itself, it's great, but it isn't like undergraduate work. For one thing, classes work differently. Because students are here pursuing education a level beyond, professors assume they will do all the work. There is little to no hand-holding, and homework tends to get handed back with a check mark at the top rather than a grade. I had one class last semester in which I had no idea what grade I would get. I hadn't received any all semester, so I had to speculate based on how much work I did and who the professor is.

For another thing, everything is geared to the thesis and continuing on to either teach or study in a PhD program. At the beginning of my grad experience, I had to fill out and submit a program of study listing the classes I plan to take in order to fulfill program requirements and write my thesis.

As an MFA, workshopping is a big deal. It's a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's no fun sending my stuff to everyone and getting all its flaws pointed out. More often than not, I hear a majority of bad things. It's like volunteering for the firing squad. On the other hand, that firing squad really is for my own good. I've learned, somewhat, not to take critiques personally and use what I hear to write better fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. By the way, I recommend, if you can, taking at least one class outside of your chosen style of writing. Taking poetry, even though I'm fiction, has been a big help, as has nonfiction.

The master's program is awesome for letting me work with professors who can help me learn how to write better, and the workshops are like coached critique groups. If only for that, it's worth all the stress. I've become a better writer in the past year than I have in the four years I spent as an undergraduate, writing and visiting conferences. The classes really help.

So, yeah. Different experience. Very hands-off teaching, and lots of workshopping. Expect growth, sometimes painful, sometimes exhilarating. May the odds be ever in your favor.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fantasy and Literature

Sorry that this post is a little later than usual; I did warn you about the end of the semester. I've been swamped with homework to the point that I was panicking over completing it on time, but since then, I've been diligent and now I have everything under control. That, of course, still means I'm going to have to work like crazy, but at least I won't have to stress.

So, in the midst of the term papers and essays, I haven't had time to plan a blog post for today. So this might be short. But I DO have material. You get to read about what I'm writing my term paper on: can fantasy and other genres be considered literary fiction? Yay for you!

Basically, literary fiction is the dense, character-driven, poetic writing that is smiled upon in college classrooms and tends to win awards. Genre fiction, like fantasy, is more plot-driven and isn't considered worthy writing by experts. As a fantasy writer and a major geek, this annoys me.

I can see where the professors and literature experts are coming from: lots of fantasy is bad writing. And, because fantasy only has to have a good plot to interest readers, the writing can be bad and the characters stock figures from myth. Yes. This happens. But I think a blanket ban on fantasy is a bad idea. One, because it inspired poor writers to write what they think "literature" is, namely, a story about a character's inner thoughts while doing mundane, daily chores. Some writers do this well, making the writing and character the main interest. But many do not, and it becomes dull.

Two, because there are many examples of excellent fantasy. The Lord of the Rings, for one. I think Sarah Addison Allen has written literary fantasy well. And who can forget Holes? Sachar's YA book is character-driven, uses language expertly, and incorporates themes and motifs that could easily be discussed in a 8-10 page college paper (and yes, I have written such a paper on this book). But, because of its curses and eerie coincidences, I would agree that is, in fact, fantasy.

Michael Chabon's Summerland is another book that is literary and deep, but clearly fantasy. The protagonist goes to another world, where he encounters mythical beings and magic. Fantasy, pure and simple. Except not. The writing is clever, the characters deep and 3-dimensional, and the crafting of the plot goes beyond paperback supermarket fantasy.

Personally, I think writers should write whatever they want and not get penalized for it, as long as it's good. The conventions of fantasy are different than realistic literary fiction, but I think that's no excuse for bashing on one or the other. I think a fantasy can be literary. Holes and Summerland have something about them not every fantasy has. When I finish a typical B-level fantasy, I'm pleased. I have read an entertaining story, and I do not feel like my time has been wasted. But then there are the fantasies that leave me feeling like I've been fed something more than just a story. I hear music in the words, and I'm left with the feeling that there is a meaning to this story. That somehow all the pieces came together to form a tightly woven tale where the items are symbols, and while the characters may also be symbols, they are still relatable people with flaws and quirks that make them and the way they see the world unique.

This is the kind of fantasy I want to write, someday. I'm still young and learning, and I think the best I can do now is tell an interesting tale. But if I hone my writing skill and focus on character as well as plot, I might be able to craft a story that leaves my readers feeling like I do when I read a literary fantasy: like they have also been touched by magic.