The Joy of Writing: Robbed and Regained

Like many fantasy writers, I get a ton of inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien. The more I read his work, the more quotable he becomes. He has left quite an impression on my work and imagination, even in the reasons I write stories.

This will just be a brief instance of that procrastination known as “writing about writing,” before I finally return to the long-neglected bliss of rewriting that fantasy novel and bringing out what I pray will be the story it was meant to tell.

When people began trying to equate his stories of Middle Earth with contemporary events or themes or hot button topics, Tolkien bristled at the notion that he was writing commentary. He was fine with applicability, but current events were not the point. Tolkien had what he described as a cordial dislike for allegory. “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

That’s largely my perspective as well. He weaved together this world of Elves and Hobbits and noble Men, and made his stories about the characters and their situations. Not about “the dangers of power” or “relationships” or “self-sacrifice” or the other themes some writers will obsess over. Fiction loses something important when it angsts more about theme/meaning than what its particular characters go through. You can’t quite escape from this world when that happens. Fiction loses its intended illusion of reality.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but the fact is my jaw sets, and my enthusiasm and imagination begin to shrivel, when fellow readers and writers spend more time discussing the “themes” or “meaning” of a story than they do discussing the tale itself. I had far too much of that in college, where nearly every professor read ideologies into the text, coldly dissecting it and scrutinizing it like a crowd of microbes in a petri dish.

And then I fell into the creative deathtrap again with too much time on my hands after graduation, taking to the blogosphere and reading deconstructions of movies that only served to rob my enjoyment of the movies themselves. I got fixated on the themes and elements and meanings and cinematography techniques when I wanted to focus on the story. Maybe it’s a side effect of ADD. I don’t know.

Thank God this doesn’t happen to everyone, however! One of my friends told me about how this same practice of dissection and examination can enrich his enjoyment of a story. And more power to him for that!

Being a writer, I still have the responsibility to study the craft of storytelling, and knowing how to tell good tales in satisfying ways. For some reason I enjoy that part of the process.

When I’m learning how to improve my own stories, and when my reading of fiction is done not to scrutinize but to enjoy, I get inspired rather than frustrated. That diminished capacity for joy begins to regain its life and color, and its roots plunge deeper. That frame of mind reminds me how much I love creating new worlds and characters.

Don’t ignore the components of a great story, though. If you are a writer, don’t skimp on technique or think that inspiration is all you need. That’s not what I mean to convey. I only mean to say this: Don’t forget the joy of escaping into another world and making new friends through the pages of a book.

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The Hobbit: Get Ready for Smaug to Desolate

The trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is finally here. Only question is, Why do we have to wait another six months? I can’t get to the theater fast enough for this.

Radagast returns. Smaug is terrifying. Giant spiders and Beorn are finally on our doorstep. Even Legolas is back, and seemingly has a huge role to play (which is awesome!). The cast and crew are bringing a bigger, more epic story than the original book ever could. And even as a Tolkien devotee, I have to admit, I am absolutely delighted with that decision. Everything about this is shaping up into something incredible, and I couldn’t be happier.

Victims of Abuse, Easy Labels, and Fiction

Rant warning.

Are we getting too eager to be seen as victims? What happened to brushing the dust off your shoulders and going on with life?

“Nowadays, we are conditioned to see ourselves as potential victims of numerous groups, races, organizations, institutions, chemicals, climates, and people. It’s almost humorous the degree to which some will go to apply the label of ‘victim’ to themselves, despite the harm it does to those who genuinely have been victimized.” ~ Mike Duran

Yep. Totally agree. He’s talking about abuse in churches in particular, but I’ve seen the terms “abuse” and “victim” getting tossed around every which way. Even in situations where it’s clearly not a case of victimization.

There is real abuse, and there are real victims. But I make it harder for them if I throw labels around like a troublesome student tossing paper airplanes in the classroom. And the real victims and abuses are cheapened, easier to ignore and marginalize, when everyone’s claiming to be a victim of abuse.

Chik-Fil-A, anyone? Don’t like their owner’s stance on gay marriage? Then don’t eat at their restaurant. By all means, complain. Write letters. Boycott. However, the owner’s opinions don’t translate to gay couples not being allowed to eat there, or being forced to drink from separate drinking fountains. Why slap the label of abuse onto his words?

I’ve also seen it a lot in talks of “sexist” or “racist” or “homophobic” content in fiction writing.

And it’s getting exhausting.

[Side note: I’m looking right at you, io9.com. Why must so many cool or interesting articles be buried under all the ridiculous, completely false character assassination? To be fair, that last link is from Jezebel, but io9 shared it. Close enough.]

Do those attitudes sometimes pop up in fiction? Of course they do. Heck, H.P. Lovecraft still makes people shake their heads with the clear racism in his writing.

But a book isn’t racist just because all of its good characters are white. There are lots of white villains in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, too. Remember? A lack of strong female characters in a TV show isn’t enough to charge the writer with chauvinism. (On a related note, it’s sad to see lots of people arguing who is or isn’t a strong female character on Doctor Who, but then writer Steven Moffat is accused of being a sexist pig. Cut it out.)

Maybe he/she just grew up around white people and they’re writing in a mode of existence that is “default” for them, or he/she can’t write strong female characters well, and they’re playing to their strengths.

Variety in fiction is a beautiful thing, and if political correctness has its way, authors will write books that all have the same feel, cater to the same hot-button topics, say the same things, seek to satisfy the same audience in the same way, and they’ll never be allowed to go anywhere unusual or dangerous.

If authors are frowned upon every time they take a risk, or we try forcing them to focus on aspects of life they don’t feel qualified to write about, are we really allowing authors to be themselves? I don’t think so.

But, back to the overall topic about abuse and victimhood making easy labels. Again, please be careful in saying who’s a victim and who’s abusing someone else. These trigger words have wrecked reputations and lives without adequate cause, and that…well, that does qualify as abuse.

Tolkien vs. Jackson: An Open Letter to Orson Scott Card

Sigh. All right, one more Tolkien related post before it’s back to business as usual. I swear. Just one.

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite authors. I admit to not having read a lot of his work, though. I do remember reading The Memory of Earth, Ender’s Game, and a few of his short stories, as well as a truckload of essays he publishes in the Rhino Times. His writing advice is solid. I like the way he says things.

But that makes it all the more disappointing when he keeps harping on a particular issue. Every time I’ve seen him refer to Tolkien’s body of work, he feels compelled to throw a tantrum that Jackson “ruined” Lord of the Rings as he brought it to the silver screen. And now the same accusation has been flung against the first Hobbit movie. These films do happen to be my favorites of all time, but that is not why I’m disappointed in his Grumpy Old Man routine; it’s the fact that he keeps going back to it, like the proverbial canine returning to its regurgitated meal.

I don’t expect him to pay me any attention. He’s a big-time, talented writer, and here’s little me, shaking my head on the sidelines. But someone needed to say this, and I didn’t see anyone else calling him out for it. So, without further ado:

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Dear Mr. Card,

We get it. You like to attribute movies you don’t appreciate to dumb Hollywood executives and incompetent directors, following the wrong formulas taught in screenwriting classes. I have heard this complaint over and over and over again. But does it really apply to Jackson’s accomplishment?

I remember from one of the DVD featurettes a teary-eyed John Rhys-Davies — who played Gimli, and was therefore heavily involved in the trilogy’s production — giving his thanks to the whole crew and cast, saying of their love and dedication to bringing Tolkien’s work to the screen, “You won’t find that in LA.” If there is any big-budget movie series that wasn’t subjected to the all-too-common incompetence and cynicism of Hollywood, it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everything from the dialogue to the props was crafted with the care of a historical epic and the passion of people who had been in love with Middle Earth all their lives. And now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings us another movie that is a similarly excellent labor of love from the same people. Even that doesn’t stop you from parroting the myth that The Hobbit was padded out into a trilogy purely for financial reasons. And doesn’t the accusation of padding fly in the face with the complaint that so many “vital” parts of the trilogy were cut out from Lord of the Rings? Too short, then too long. Are you going to have your cake or eat it?

I understand that you appreciate Tolkien in a very particular way, and have spent decades enjoying the story as only you could enjoy it. And maybe the differences between the original books and Jackson’s interpretation felt like a betrayal to the vision you had cultivated and examined and appreciated for so many years. But that should be a matter that is stated once or twice, and then left alone for the opinion and private reaction that it is. It gets under people’s skin when you go back to the same complaint time and time again.

Take as an example the Scouring of the Shire. How Peter Jackson changed the ending made it work better as a movie, even if the book’s ending worked perfectly as a novel. If he’d kept the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King, it would have dragged out the story past the central conflict: the danger and destruction of the Ring. Which, again, works fine in the story’s original form, but drags a movie out even more than the myriad endings we already got. I would have left the theater disappointed and more than a little upset.

Granted, I have learned much about storytelling since then, and am in more of a position to appreciate the Scouring of the Shire and what Tolkien was accomplishing with it, but even now that is all I can do: appreciate it. Not love it. Not find it quickening my imagination. And it undeniably would be a frustrating, dour note to conclude a movie on. But because Jackson left the Shire blessedly intact, I walked out of that theater elated, thinking “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a fantasy writer.”

Some of us were inspired toward fantasy, toward becoming writers, toward the wonders and treasures of Tolkien’s world, because of Jackson and company’s tireless efforts. I should know; I’m one of them. And in honesty, ever since I read the trilogy and The Hobbit, and then saw the movies, I admit to liking Jackson’s Middle Earth even more than Tolkien’s. That’s partly because of personal taste, and partly because of the necessary differences between novels and movies. I’m beginning to think that it isn’t Hollywood’s fault, but yours that it has taken so long for an Ender’s Game movie to finally get made. Clearly you don’t get along well with the movie business and have been far too lacking in cooperation or trust with people who care about storytelling just as much as you do, only in a different medium.

A writer of your talent and sophistication dragging out the same misguided complaints amounts to little more than eloquent trolling. I will still be reading your work, but will stay firmly within your fiction, where I don’t have to hear this bellyaching anymore. And I do look forward to seeing Ender’s Game in theaters, hoping I don’t find myself saying it was a violent betrayal of your own novel. Because I’ve had my fill of writers saying movies ruin the books they’re based on, and don’t want to fall into the same trap.

With sincerest regards,

John K. Patterson

Was J.R.R. Tolkien A Racist?

…Or “The Coincidental Christmas.” Coincidental, since I was working on another blog post, detailing the races of my own fantasy world, when this little chestnut slithered back into the light: “Was J.R.R. Tolkien a racist?”

Um…no. No, he decidedly was not. In fact, he wrote an eloquent letter to the Nazi party calling the race doctrine “pernicious and unscientific.”

He certainly had races which thought themselves above the others, like Elves and the men of Numenor. Problem is, as soon as they started forcing themselves on the other races, calamitous consequences were not far behind. This little nuance is often lost on those who consider Tolkien a bigot.

Some will never give up on tarnishing one of the 20th century’s greatest storytellers with racist accusations. Today, on this blessed and sacred holiday, I tripped across one rather shrill blogger, who has decided ahead of time that Tolkien’s racism can be recognized by any rational human being, and that the writer’s defenders are immature, angry little white supremacists. Normally for the sake of objectivity and letting the reader reach their own conclusion, I link to pieces I disagree with. In this case, I will neither do this nor mention him by name. This man is getting no more views or attention on my account.

But I’d like to offer my refutation to his all-too-common accusation in the form of someone else’s words. They put it better than I ever could, and you’ll find the whole excellent piece by Michael Martinez here. This paragraph was especially neat:

“Unfortunately, though many people rise quickly to defend J.R.R. Tolkien against the absurd arguments that his critics raise against him, they fall quickly into the trap of replying to silly provocations — a trap that is designed only to control the conversation. Trust me, I have walked that treadmill more than I want to recall. You cannot win an argument with someone who declares blindly that J.R.R. Tolkien was a racist. At best you can write your own thoughtful explanation of what Tolkien was doing and not respond directly to these sensationalists. That is, after all, what they crave: a passionate response from you and as many other people as they can provoke.”

The accusation will always be around, no matter how ridiculous it is. Never quite goes away. Maybe I’m dropping right into the aforementioned trap by replying at all. But since the accusation is finding more ears in the wake of the Hobbit movie, I thought someone’s insights might be offered against it.

Thanks for your time. And Merry Christmas!

My Return to Middle Earth

Well, I am back from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. What did I think of it?

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Run like the wind to the cinema! Go! Now!

Peter Jackson and company have taken us back to Middle Earth, which of course is already a compelling reason to go see it. But they also fulfilled my hopes and dreams, doing justice to Tolkien’s timeless book while adding layers to the story. I was grinning through most of the film, and was completely enraptured. The performances are astounding, especially the main three: Martin Freeman is Bilbo Baggins, Ian McKellen is back and amazing as ever as Gandalf the Grey, and Richard Armitage holds his own as the charismatic, intense king of the Dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. Andy Serkis delivers a Gollum that is even more convincing and remarkable than the one in the trilogy, if that was possible.

Of course, the special effects and landscapes are beyond beautiful (New Zealand is proof that there is a God). The Dwarves are by turns hilarious and rip-roaring awesome. Howard Shore delivers a terrific musical score that stirs the heart and puts visions of dragons and fires and grand adventures in your mind. Really, must I go into detail? It felt like going back home. I could hardly be happier with the result. In fact, I have to confess something that might be blasphemy: I liked it more than the book. There are fewer times when Bilbo is saved by “sheer luck.” He has to rely more on his own wits and the assistance of the Dwarves or Gandalf to get him out of sticky situations. Plus, all of the extra stuff they’re pulling in from Tolkien’s appendices gives the movie a greater epic quality, and heightens the stakes of the main adventure to the Lonely Mountain.

Of course, it seems as if some aren’t nearly as delighted about it. Critics and nerds across the world are in fidgeting rage over this film. Did they kill Gandalf at the end? Nope. Is Smaug the dragon wearing a tutu? We don’t see much of him, but I didn’t notice any pink lace.

Evidently, the reason everyone’s tying their undergarments in a slip knot is the deliberate pace of An Unexpected Journey. Yup. A deliberate pace. All right, if your heart attack is over, I’d like to calmly explain why this shouldn’t earn the movie a paltry 65% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth movies require an audience who is in it for the long haul. The beginning of this film does require a little patience. And the scene with the three trolls around a campfire, though fun and funny, might have benefited from a bit of extra editing. I grant that much. But why should these count so heavily against the film, when Jackson has made it clear that he will be spinning a much larger tapestry than what Tolkien’s children’s book alone could hold? He is fleshing out Middle Earth itself, casting light on the milieu of Tolkien’s astounding creation.

Given such circumstances, I find a nice slow beginning not only acceptable but arguably necessary. It’s the same reason I didn’t object in the slightest to Return of the King having “too many” endings. I’d just seen ten hours of an epic story unfolding through three movies and dozens of characters. There had better be a lot of endings, so we can be satisfied that each character and subplot gets some kind of resolution even as the larger tale slowly draws to a close.

I’ve been going through Orson Scott Card’s book Characters and Viewpoint (which I highly recommend), and one of the latest chapters I’ve read devotes several paragraphs to showing how Tolkien is a storyteller who focuses on the world, fleshing it out to show us a place so convincing and detailed, you believe it might actually exist. Tidy narratives and compelling characters do sometimes find a place in the setting, but the attention is on Middle Earth itself. This is even true of The Hobbit as a book, which is a shorter adventure tale. Even here, where the plot is much more reined in than Lord of the Rings, Tolkien takes his time to show us the people of Dale, outline the customs of Hobbits, flesh out the family line of Bilbo Baggins, and makes us feel the anguish of the Dwarves whose mountain and treasure has been cruelly stolen by the dragon Smaug. Even here, Tolkien makes the world as much a character as Gandalf or Bilbo or Thorin.

The director and writers are taking their time to set the stage for a grander story, a story I can’t wait to see unfold. I have come to trust this crew of people, given what they accomplished with Lord of the Rings. If they want to tell a larger tale through this new trilogy, they are more than welcome to do so.

Well done, ladies and gentlemen. You have delivered one of the greatest movies of the year, and you captured my imagination all over again.

The Next Big Thing

I was quite honored to be tagged by Jackie Hames at The Spidereen Frigate for a blog chain called “The Next Big Thing,” which gives readers a snapshot of your own work-in-progress.

I’ll give it my best shot. Hope you enjoy!

What is the Working Title of Your Book?

The Wolfglen Legacy: Revived

Where Did Your Idea for the Book Come From?

I started drawing maps in 2004 of a fantasy world I wanted to create, and that eventually morphed into a couple of projects, including The Wolfglen Legacy. After watching a lot of movies like the Star Wars prequels, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean, I wanted to tell a big, adventurous, save-the-world kind of story. Plus, I wanted to try giving new(ish) versions of various fantasy cliches like elves, dragons, wizards, dark lords, and see if I could set them up in a somewhat original framework.

What Genre Does Your Book Fall Under?

Primarily epic fantasy, with some tones of dark fantasy, adventure fantasy, and a dash of science fiction.

If Your Book Became a Movie, Which Actors Would You Pick?

I have a large cast in mind for this

Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian) as Morent Wolfglen. He’d do a good job of looking ferocious and desperate, playing the conflicted wizard who is trying to save his family while keeping his conscience intact.

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Jennifer Lawrence would be terrific to play Princess Sathra Wolfglen. She excelled as Mystique and Katniss Everdeen, and I’d like to see her play the role of a vulnerable young woman who learns how to become stronger and more in control.

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Andrew Garfield really impressed me with his interpretation of Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man, so I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the role of Josh Kingston, a young man from another time who is awakened from stasis into a distant future ruled by magic and wars, and is catapulted into one of the most dangerous conflicts Earth has ever faced, all while trying to learn his new surroundings and run from mistakes and tragedy in his past.

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Those are the three main characters. But I did have a couple of others in mind. I tend to dream big.

Christian Bale as King Rishtal Wolfglen, brother to Morent and father to Sathra.

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Rachel Weisz as Empress Kilfira Lundill, an ally of the Wolfglen family.

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Sam Neill as General Streynel Halthrin, and David Tennant as Myrickin Schtahl, both of them people who have different goals than everyone thinks they do.

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Tennant

Okay, I could go on, but I think that’s enough of my pipe dream. For now. 🙂

What is Your Book’s One-Sentence Synopsis?

A young man outrunning his past, a princess trying to go on after her mother’s death, and a wizard desperate to save his family all find themselves caught up in a secret war against their country, driven by an ancient supernatural enemy.

Will Your Book be Self-Published or Represented By an Agency?

I’m definitely going to try traditional publishing first. More than that, I want to see how high I can go with this series. If Random House or Tor or HarperCollins picks it up, terrific! If not, that’s perfectly okay. I still want to try it because I don’t want to spend my days wondering how far up the publishing ladder it could have gone.

How Long Did it Take You to Write the First Draft?

After writing off and on while trying to balance school and work with my writing goals, it took me about five years to finally have a complete first draft. Now that I’m graduated, though, it won’t take nearly as long to write the series’s next book (there will be four Wolfglen books in total).

What Other Books in Your Genre Would You Compare Your Novel To?

Hmm. Kind of stumped on this one. Maybe it would be a good fit for readers of Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn, the latest Wheel of Time books), James Gurney (Dinotopia), Christopher Paolini (The Inheritance Cycle), George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), and Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game).

Who or What Inspired You To Write This Book?

In December 2003, as I left the theater after watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, I was blown away by the story I had just witnessed. Given the staggering quality of Peter Jackson’s trilogy and how it affected my emotions and imagination, I knew one thing for certain stepping out of that theater: I wanted to be a fantasy writer.

From there I pieced together bits of worldbuilding, character development, and the clockwork of a plot, and the most developed result is The Wolfglen Legacy.

What Else Might Pique a Reader’s Interest in Your Book?

Possibly the ways I have revamped given fantasy cliches (elves with flintlocks instead of bows, a villain driven by his conscience instead of evil for its own sake, etc.).

Moral complexity is one of the big goals I have in mind for this series. I am striving to get a good balance between the black-and-white conflict in Harry Potter, and the frustrating ambiguity in Game of Thrones.

Dinosaurs join the book’s dragons to give my world plenty of big scaly beasties. When was the last time you saw a Triceratops in a fantasy novel? Seriously, they could instantly improve a lot of books.

And I am working hard to make the story satisfying on all fronts, not only attractive for its worldbuilding or characters or descriptions.

Tagging

To keep this chain going, I’d like to tag four of the coolest writers I know: Janden Daniel HaleRob “The Brain Hamster” Killam, Aaron Ritchey, and Courtney Schafer. All are terrific storytellers, and I recommend you check them out right away.