Sunday, August 28, 2011

Norton Gulch Beetle

We went to the coast. Camping was smokey, noisy, fun! ('Cause I'd unpacked my adjectives...). At Norton Gulch, we discovered this very large beetle. I think it was a "gold bug" because it looked like the beetles I used to see at Arcosanti. Mark thought that it had gotten blown way off course, and we both agreed it looked bemused at being on the Oregon coast.

More pictures once I wash all the smoke and sand out of my hair.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Dredging Memories with the Ile de France

I'm slightly weirded out. I was looking at this web page about the Ile de France, and I looked closely at a picture of the more modern funnels of the ship.

Suddenly, I'm re-living a memory and I'm seeing black sooty smoke coming out of a grey funnel. Although I would have called it a smoke stack at the time. The stack leans backward, and my memory is of just the top. I don't remember the ship -- or whatever -- it was attached to... although trying to recall more, I have a sense of a pipe railing with three horizontal pipes.

I think this is a memory of a trans-Atlantic crossing in 1967, so I would have been three. It's also connected to a memory of my grandmother's hand, she's wearing a jacket or blouse with turquoise sleeve and some kind of chunky bracelet. Actually, all I can remember is her forearm (turquoise sleeved) and her hand, which is on a round dial on a rectangular box. How do I know it's my grandmother's hand? I don't know, but it is.

These memories make my head feel funny. It's almost as if the engrams live in a space between my temples.  Maybe some day I'll see if I can be hypnotized to recall more about the trip.  Until then, I guess it will have to remain part of a collection of funny stories things I got into when I was three.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Last August Musing

The dog days of August are upon us.  Last night was one of the first nights there wasn't a midnight breeze to blow through the house and cool it down.  This morning the house resounds with the whir of large box fans near the windows.  It feels like being aboard an aircraft -- either a dirigible or a turbo-prop plane -- but it's worth it because two fans have managed to cool the house down by seven degrees down to 72F in about an hour.

Not a whole lot from the Dream Department that I'm comfortable sharing.  This morning I suddenly remembered last night's dream and started laughing.  I did what with who?  At least it's kind of funny instead of icky.  And it was in a cool forest house made out of stones half-set into a hill.  I'm still trying to figure out what the dream means. 

My writing discipline has gone out the window.  This week's goal is to actually finish one of the several unfinished manuscripts I've got in my pile.

But first, the Day Job.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Good Submission Advice

 I think I need to add this to my list of writer's advice:

BOOK VIEW CAFE BLOG � Things I wish I’d known: In hindsight I should have realised then that if I didn’t like any of the stories in a magazine, then that magazine is not one I should have been sending stories to.

It's a variation of "Write what you love; love what you write."

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Go Ask Alice...

There was an Alice in Wonderland themed party. I was going to go as a playing card, but I didn't get my act together; so I went as the March Hare instead.

Monday, August 15, 2011


It's the Season of the Mouse. I don't know why -- either it's the record cold Summer, it's mouse-kit time, or we've been extra cavalier with open doors -- but we've seen a bunch of mice in our garage and our kitchen.

Saturday, we watched a young mouse darting back and forth in the rosemary bed. Then it skittered across Café John, jumped up on the concrete foundation of the house, and ran along the south flower bed. We tracked it by the quivering sweet alyssum, tomato and strawberry plants.

And then the mouse was so bold as to sit there, watching us with one eye as it nibbled a ripe strawberry. Who knew that mice and slugs have something in common?

We've put out some traps in the house. But I'm thinking that it might be time to get a cat. And by cat, I mean a lean, mean, bat-catching machine like Mâtchka was. Muriel was an okay cat, but... well... she was a kind of odd, needy thing. She got points for being able to climb ladders -- but almost instantly lost them for never being able to figure out how to get out of the loft she'd climbed to (at 3:43 AM). And the poor thing had never been taught how to catch mice; in our old rental, she'd just look at them quizzically as if they were curiosities from another epoch.

Mâtchka automatically got cool points for being black except for a small white patch on her chest. She had the hauteur thing down. She could upstage anyone on giving a tour of Arcosanti simply by displaying herself in High Egyptian Cat style. And yes, she was able to catch bats.

Sigh. I know it's wrong to want a new cat just like Mâtchka. We kind of like our cat-free life. Still, sometimes....

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Brief Survey of Faerie

The other day at Wordos, I was going to give a short presentation on Writing Elves and Fairies. I took copious notes from Tolkien's On Fairy Stories. I collected various research books, anthologies, and fantasy paperbacks. Alas, when it came time to give my mini-lecture, I discovered that my notes were not in my bag of Books about Fairies, and so I had to improvise wildly.

I said I'd post my notes.  So, without further ado....

Dwarves, Gobblins, Dragons, Trolls, Elves and Fairies have been written about for a very long time. There are several approaches to take when writing about Faerie, Elves, and Fairy Magic, and each of them has their own merits. Tolkien writes that the words elf and fairy are equivalent, but that fairy is a Tudor word popularized by authors like Spenser, Shakespeare and Drayton. Tolkien makes a distinction between fairy stories, dream tales, and adventure, wonder- or marvel stories. More on Tolkien later.

One early source about fairies are the Child Ballads. The elves in these ballads tend appear suddenly and steal people away -- babes, maidens, queens and poets alike. Some are summoned by blowing horns, like Isabel's Fairy Knight; some appear beneath special trees, like the Queen of Fairy before Thomas the Rhymer; others pierce their victim's hearts with darts, like the Elfking in King Orefo.

Or these stories use the fairies as boogie-men in cautionary tales for children. One example is the Kelpie that takes the form of a horse and tricks children into riding it, whereupon it jumps into the nearest pool or river and drowns them.

The old stories present the folk of Faerie as strange to or unmoved by human morality or desires. They are elemental and tricky like thunder and lightning, or a rip-tide in the ocean.

Then there are the fairies of the Mabinogion, the Arthurian Romances, and the lays of Marie de France. In these, knights summon otherworldly lovers by blowing horns, ladling water out of fountains, or putting on rings. Typically these fairy women aid the knight in a quest or redress some wrong done by a mortal court. Or else the knights camp out in an old haunted castle and risk being eaten (or worse) by an ugly, riddling spirit woman who usually turns into a beautiful bride by the time morning dawns and the knight has solved three riddles.

These medieval stories present fairies as foils to the mortal courts, and even the Courts of Heaven and Hell. The fairies are both friend and foe simultaneously -- dangerous as chaotic beings living outside the walls of civilization and beneficial as magical helpers. Treating with them requires navigating taboos and prohibitions alien to mortal custom. Almost always, the mortal breaks the rule -- they open the forbidden door, they speak the fairy lover's name, they taste the brew in the cauldron -- and bring ruin, wrath and lamentation down upon themselves.

Tolkien theorizes that after the age of Enlightenment, Faerie began to be depicted in the language of rationality and science. Elvin glamour became finesse. This led to a kind of "domesticated" fairy, the Flower Fairy.  He places the blame for teeny-tiny fairies dressed in flower petals with deelybopper antenna squarely on Drayton's Nymphidia.

Between Drayton, Spenser and Shakespeare, the fairies became agents of satire, allegory, and the author's plot needs (the fairies made him do it!).  Sometime around this point, elves and fairies begin to be relegated to the nursery and peasant wisdom. In 1889, this (according to Tolkien) prompted Andrew Lang to complain in the Lilac Fairy Book, "these fairies try to be funny and fail, and try to preach and succeed."

Another rationalization is to explain fairies as "savage" Northern European tribes of pygmies or Picts, long ago driven into the hinter-lands by the Romans or other civilized peoples.

From the flower fairies and anthropological fairies, it's a short jump to Puck of Pook's Hill, and Rudyard Kipling's "Puck's Song." In the song, Puck sings about the rise and fall of human empires and cities. We get the sense that the fairies are long-lived, and will continue to exist long after the last human ruin has crumbled. Kipling's Puck is diminutive and pointy eared, and he appears by accident after some children perform A Mid-Summer Night's Dream on Mid-Summer Night.

Now we get to Tolkien. The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings. On Fairy Stories. In his essay, Tolkien says of the Elves: "Elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered..."

He says of Fairy Magic:
  •  "The part of magic [faeries] wield is power to play on the desires of [man's] body and heart."
  •  Fairy magic satisfies the desire to survey space and time and commune with other living things.
  • Fairy magic enables the realization of imagined wonder.
  • The magic of faerie re-enchants the familiar with its wonder-ful connection to the natural, as opposed to mortal magic which is concerned with willing power over nature.
He says of Fairy Stories:
  • There's a distinction between myth and history. Historical people and places become attached to mythic ones. 
  • Fairy stories are mythic tales.
  • Fairy-tales confound Comparative Folk-lore's list of correspondences and story element concordances.
  • Fairy stories are mystical toward the supernatural, magical toward nature, and the beings of Faerie regard mortals with pity and scorn.
  • Fairy stories contain prohibitions.

And of Faerie in general: Faerie cannot be caught within a net of words.

In Tolkien's works, Elves are so connected with Nature that they appear "supernatural." Their immortality sunders them from humankind, who is given the gift of death. This makes the Elves weary preservers of nature. Tolkien's Elves are also caught up in Tolkien's theme of the One Ring of Power, which is "Absolute power corrupts absolutely"; therefore, Tolkien's Elves have the unenviable choice of watching the nature and world they love and are intimately connected with fade away, or becoming corrupted by power that could preserve it.

Tolkien set the mold for the fantasy genre.

Since Tolkien, there have been a few other approaches to Elves and Faerie.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fairies in The Mists of Avalon (1982) are beings that inhabit a kind of parallel world. Faerie, such as it is, is portrayed as an other-worldly haven for an enclave practicing the old ways of Goddess Religion. It is a mist-filled place removed from the advances of Christianity and male-centric civilizations. The Fairies who do appear seem part-and-parcel of a magical, parallel-realm accessible only to those with The Sight. This realm, or possibly The Sight used to see it, is malleable to observers' expectations or state.

More modern Faerie seems to have pushed the immortality, removal, and indifference so far that it suffers from a kind of stasis or arrested development.
Prince Shadowbow (1985), by Sherri S Tepper, shows a Faerie that is fragile and must seek renewal through the more vital mortal world.

In War for the Oaks (1987), by Emma Bull, the folk of Faerie seem drawn to human music and movies to such an extent that the mortal protagonist asks the Queen of the Unseelie Court if there isn't anything she hasn't stolen from a movie. They seem to not understand love and death.

Patricia C. Wrede's Snow White and Rose Red (1989) presents a renaissance England fairy court, with magical court intrigues. One of the story's arcs concerns the nature of the connection between the Mortal and Faerie realms. "Mortal lands are our stability," says Wrede's Fairy Queen, "Without them we would fade to mist and shadows."

Ellen Kushner, in Thomas the Rhymer, (1990) has the Queen of Fairy tell Thomas that Elves are drawn to Humans because they burn bright, with a kind of fire which sustains them. Later Thomas opines that Fairies are bad liars because living in Faerie has blunted their ability to invent. In one of her last appearances, the Queen reports that she cannot change (and possibly cannot love because that would require change).

These previous four stories share Terri Windling as an editor. All though they they are long-lived or immortal, partake of magic, and have a separate fate from humanity, "Windling Elves" do not appear to have the Tolkien Elves' supernatural connection to the natural world -- their magic stems from their removal from the natural world; their other-worldliness is rooted in by their inability to understand moral emotion.

I'm almost forgetting Charles de Lint -- his Elves of European descent are close to Tolkien's; his expansion on them is to have them interact with Native American nature spirits.

And I've almost forgotten Brian Froud's Fairies. I want to be flippant and call them Muppet Fairies because of Froud's influence on the movies The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. I admit my own ambiguity of feeling toward Froud's Fairies. On one hand, I love Labyrinth for the stunning visuals, artistry, and costuming. But I used to have a friend whom I used to share the tag-line "Love me, fear me, do what I say, and I will be your slave forever" as a joke. I feel the same way about Dark Crystal, only I loved the intricate freaky magic -- even if it was hard to find just one joke in the overwrought melodrama. If I were pressed, I'd say that Froud's art in general is in touch with Faerie as wonder; Labyrinth is in touch with fairy as trickster; and Dark Crystal is in touch with a "wholistic" politics and aesthetic.

Oh yeah, and then there are the D&D Elves.  And Hobbits.   Um... I think these count as humans with pointy ears.  With the copyright filed off.

To summarize, Faerie illuminates our relationships with and attitudes toward nature, civilization, modes of thought, and the human condition.  The Realm of Faerie has ranged from the Elemental, to the Outlandish, to the Preserving Sanctuary.   Faerie magic shows us how we love, what we fear, and how we die.

When I write about Faerie, I want to partake of the Tolkien essence of it.  I want my Elves to shine a different light (and shadow) on the truth.  I want them to reveal the wonder of the connected world.  And I want the reader to risk peril in the hope of transformation.  

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

First-Order Approximation Plots

Sometimes when I look at a manuscript, I find it suffers from what I call first-order approximation plots.  They aren't bad plots exactly, but they're plots that have either stalled out without resolving or they're too well worn.  The language can be beautiful and the words can flow, but in the end, if the plot isn't working, a the result is an unsalable manuscript.  Here's a list of what I see most of.

Wish Fulfillment Daydreams - There's absolutely nothing wrong about imagining nice things happening to nice people, except it makes for a flat plot.  (Yes, I want a star cruiser and cool magic powers, too.)  In most short stories, conflict and the reaction to conflict reveals character, and most wish fulfillment manuscripts have very little (or easily overcome) conflict.  This type of plot frequently suffers from a passive telling of events instead of an active unfolding of action.  Not to be confused with the The Revenge Fantasy.

Driving To The Plot - A big flag word in this type of manuscript is the word "decided," as in "He decided he would go to the store."  ...And then the manuscript spends three or five paragraphs describing the trip from point A to the store.   Getting to the store may seem like a character's problem, but it isn't.  Another flag word is "wondered," as in "She wondered what it would be like to walk on Mars," followed by supposition or a wish fulfillment daydream.  The problem with Driving to the Plot is that the reader has to wade through three, five, or more pages of exposition, back-story or description before we learn what the character wants, or a precipitating event threatens something the main character loves.  Get us there sooner.  Get her on Mars! 

Satire - There's confusion about what satire is.  It's not simply making fun of something.  It's not even being sarcastic about mainstream society (the aim of sarcasm is to hurt someone or something).  Satire aims at fixing a wrong by taking a person's, institution's or society's  quality or qualities, magnifying them until they're way over the top, and then writing  about them.   I think sometimes authors are worried that they're going to offend somebody, and wind up calling a manuscript "satire" as a defense.  Or they are being sarcastic.  In any case, they shouldn't have to call it anything and let the humor and social commentary speak for the piece.

The Angry Young Man Manuscript - Pick a cause, or make one up.  Now have your characters act at low capacity but nevertheless achieve the cause's goals just before dying, or fail miserably in a very un-cheery way just before dying.  I'm trying to imagine Ursula K Le Guin writing an Angry Young Man Manuscript, and the closest work I can think of is The Word For World is Forrest.  If you must write an Angry Young Man Manuscript (and I know you must), try to make it as layered as Ms. Le Guin's.

My Characters Are All Capitalized Stereotypes - "The Business Man stood over The Crone and smiled a wicked smile.  But before he could evict her, The Child rode in on A Big White Horse with a bag of gold."  Okay; I haven't read something this vague in a very long while -- yes, it may be clear in the author's head what The Business Man looks and sounds like, but all I know is that he's a male character somehow connected with a business of some sort.  The problem may be that the author is trying to be ageless and dramatic.  Or maybe they're relying too much on Jung's collective unconscious.  The cure is to remember two things: 1) specific details are your friends and 2) give your characters names as well as descriptions.

This isn't  an exhaustive list - for that you can get lost at Television Tropes or at the Turkey City Lexicon - but it's what I see the most of.