Raised On Potter: Give the People What They Want?

Monday, April 21st, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

864751637_bbb406661f_zAs I mentioned in a recent post, I just finished teaching a creative writing course. Most of my students were college sophomores. None were creative writing majors. To cut a successful swath through my class, they had to write a short story, a poem, and a short play — and then revise each one multiple times. In order to bring a proper perspective to their efforts, I forced them (at dagger point) to read a great many examples of each form.

Thus ends the exposition. Now for the drama!

At the tail end of the semester, I asked my students to rank each reading on a five point scale, with one being exceptional and five a yawner. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that without exception, it was the fantasy and horror offerings on my syllabus that drew the strongest responses.

What can account for this?

My answer: J.K. Rowling.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Worlds Without End

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Fourteen years ago, I taught my first college-level writing class. Let’s face it, I was verySO-2 green, an adjunct hired to fill an unexpected gap in the wake of a fast-departing faculty member. Whether I did well or poorly I do not claim to know, but of my eleven students, two had their final projects subsequently published, and one went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing (which means he’s now flipping burgers in your local Mickey D’s, so next time you’re there, be nice).

The other fact of which I’m sure is that my toss-the-feathers syllabus mixed fantasy and literary readings. Yea and verily, it’s a wonder I wasn’t burned as a heretic – but perhaps the resident firemen, Montag & Smaug, Inc., were extra busy that season.

I’m now on my third go-round as a writing teacher, and while my reading selections remain whimsically mixed, I do have one fresh challenge on my plate: for the first time, I have a student invested in writing out-and-out science fiction. And not just any sci-fi, we’re talking guns-a-blazing space opera.

By the glowing rings of Saturn, what am I to do?

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Passive vs Active Heroes

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013 | Posted by Alex Bledsoe

Ask any established actor, and s/he will always say something along the lines of, “it’s much more fun to play a villain than a hero.” It’s no wonder: villains tend to get the best lines (“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!”), certainly their share of the trophy companions, have a higher standard of living, enjoy life more, and many go to their eventual demise laughing.

There’s another difference, though, that strikes at the very core of the hero/villain dynamic. The villains get to be pro-active. That means that traditional heroes are always re-acting.

It’s in the nature of heroes to simply sit around and wait to be needed. The most vivid example of that is in Batman Returns, when Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is shown sitting alone in the dark until the bat signal calls to his alter ego. Superman can’t act until Lex Luthor unveils his nefarious plan. Philip Marlowe has to wait for a client to walk in the door.

Just chillin' wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

Just chillin’ wit my batz waiting for yur signal.

And this goes against one of the great Rules of Writing, which is to never let your hero be passive. But it’s in the very nature of heroes to be passive, to wait until the villain makes a move, to respond to a threat. After all, how do you act like a hero pro-actively?

Well…ask Conan.

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Look Over There, See the Pretty Castle?

Friday, October 18th, 2013 | Posted by Violette Malan

pretty blue castle-smallI have very little visual memory for places and possibly even less visual imagination. One time, I needed to know the type of paving in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor – you know, the stuff you walk on? Keep in mind that I’ve been walking on this stuff regularly since I was six. I drew a complete blank (no pun intended) and had to ask my husband, who, at the time, had been there exactly once. He was able to tell me that it’s cobblestones, by the way. Unless you’re under the arcade, where it’s flagstones.

Last week, I talked about describing characters and particularly the difficulties of describing point-of-view characters. But as writers, we’re far more often required to describe places and spaces, both interior and exterior. For fantasy writers, this often means versions of places that exist (or existed) historically in our own world. If you’re the kind of person who, like my husband, can call to mind the descriptive details of things you’ve seen, this will mean a certain degree of ease in your life as a writer.

If you’re my kind of person, alas, you’re not going to be able to tell your friends what colour their living room is painted, no matter how many times you’ve been to their house, let alone describe the halls of a castle or the streets of a town.

So, what do you do? Since that Plaza Mayor episode, I’ve tried to remedy my poor visual memory by taking and collecting photographs. Lots and lots of photographs. While I’m travelling, I take photos of anything and everything that I think might be useful in terms of exteriors or interiors. In The Sleeping God, I use the interior of a restaurant in Trujillo in western Spain, in The Soldier King, the punishment square and prison in Elvas, in Portugal, and the cistern system from another Portuguese town, Monserrat, in The Storm Witch. I also used the map of Elvas to lay out my characters’ escape route, but that’s not really the type of description I’m talking about here.

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Campbell’s Reheated Mythopoetic Soup

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 | Posted by Alex Bledsoe

In the fall session of my teen writing class at our local library, I’m planning to teach Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey. I’ve avoided this for several sessions, because personally I’m sick of its influence.  It’s been the default setting for epic fantasy, certainly since 1977. But if nothing else, it’s a structure that presents easy examples and will hopefully prompt some good discussion on why it’s popular and what writers can do with it.

But it’s also got me thinking about how it applies to my own stories, particularly those in the heroic fantasy genre. Because although it might sound counter-intuitive, the Hero’s Journey is really the antithesis of heroic fantasy.

"It's perfectly reasonable that all your fantasy epics for the foreseeable future will be based on my work. And yes, I rock the plaid."

“It’s perfectly reasonable that all fantasy epics for the foreseeable future will be based on my work. And yes, I rock the plaid.”

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Low Adventure: Clasp-knives and Fortunetelling in Carmen

Friday, September 27th, 2013 | Posted by eeknight

Prosper Mérimée Carmen-smallWhy does it have to be the days of “high adventure?”

Low adventure can be extraordinarily riveting, as I recently found when I revisited Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, the novella that inspired the Bizet opera. I’d read it once before, after seeing the (definitive, to my taste) Rosi film of the opera in the early 80s. Thanks to that film, I was so enchanted with the light and color of Andalusia that on my first trip to Europe I spent the better part of it there, on the coasts, in the alleys of Gibraltar, and especially in the stony mountains of Spain’s Sierra Nevadas. Thanks to a stay at an Andalusian cortijo (estate-farm) I was able to see some of the more remote areas on horseback, dragging a dutiful, saddlesore (need I say “ex”?) girlfriend behind who would have much rather been sunning on the beaches of Marbella or examining the wonders of the Alhambra.

Spain is a country of regions. The differences you might notice between northern Italians and southern are trebled in the expanses of Spain, divided as it is by mountains and joined by indirect routes reaching back into the dust of antiquity. There’s something of Robert E. Howard’s Zamora in Andalusia. Rome, the Caliphate, Catholicism, and for the history-minded traveller with a good guidebook, traces of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Napoleon can still be found. Each province has its flavor, industrious Bilbao, pretentiously bustling Madrid, historic Toledo, artistic Barcelona, leaving a distinct impression. The Andalusians are famous for just living life. Every meeting is an excuse for a party, every parting as one between old friends. Visiting Spain revised my personal definitions of “courtesy” and “hospitality.”

I see I’ve imitated Mérimée in framing these notes, elaborating the circumstances of my acquaintance with Carmen and Don Jose and the search into their origins. So enough about me.

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The Tales of Gemen the Antiques Dealer: From Idea to Publication

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013 | Posted by markrigney

free-standing-dry-stone-archAs of Sunday, August fourth, the last installment of my Gemen trilogy is up and published right here on the Black Gate site.

It’s a curious feeling to have these three closely linked tales “on display” at last. I wrote the first entirely on a whim back in 2004, but the storyline itself had actually evolved decades before, in 1986. How Gemen got to where he is today — that is to say, fictionalized, and available for public scrutiny — is a tale that will perhaps be instructive to rising writers, and hopefully of some interest also to those readers who’ve kept pace with my hero’s travails.

Yes, Gemen is the love child of Dungeons & Dragons (possibly too much Dungeons & Dragons, although that, I hope, will be left to the eye of the beholder), but consider this: in all the literally thousands of hours of role-playing in which I immersed myself from approximately 1980 until 1989, only one idea, one small glimmer of a scenario, presented itself later as worthy of being translated to fiction. Lucky Gemen: alone among my endless sword & sorcery imaginings, he has stumbled into a literary afterlife.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: All Hail the Library of Congress

Thursday, June 13th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Until the end of the summer, this will probably be my last post at Black Gate. I’m moving, and that’s a good thing. Strenuous but good. My teaching schedule is almost entirely emptied out now, and the loose ends my students and I are tying up are all about foundational stuff, grammar and vocabulary. Tomorrow the house I’ve lived in for thirteen years starts emptying out, too.

Should it have been enough to stuff all my books into boxes, number the boxes, and write the tally down on my list of household goods? For a sensible person, a non-writing person, it probably would have been. Instead, I catalogued almost all my books on LibraryThing before packing them, because the thought of losing the research materials I need for my fiction filled me with existential terror. If my books on cavalry warfare, tapestry weaving, and small sailing craft disappear in the big move and can’t be replaced, who can I possibly be when I arrive in a new house? Unless I’m writing my stories, about my characters in my own nonexistent city, requiring this particular background from the world I actually live in, I’ll be fundamentally de-personned, right? Apparently the solution to existential terror is a bar code scanner for ISBNs.

Why yes, obsessive-compulsive disorder runs in my family. Why do you ask?

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Or Should That Be Teaching Versus Fantasy Literature?

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

The Woman Upstairs Claire MessudTeaching and writing can feed one another.

My students needed me to articulate how I work, so I had to examine my own processes. My writing processes didn’t serve all my students well, so I had to learn other writing processes, ones I might never have considered for myself otherwise, deeply enough to help my students try them.

As a student, I could get away with not revising, until about three years into grad school. My students couldn’t get away with that, and I learned to revise from watching their successes when they followed the advice I’d been hearing all along, and passed on to them, but had never put to use.

Above all, my students made me fit, as a human being, to write fiction. All the characters I tried to write when I was in my teens and in college were either my own doubles or cardboard cut-outs.

Only when I had to think my way into my students’ experiences and thought processes did I develop the imaginative empathy to write a character fundamentally unlike myself. There are days when it’s hard to remember all that. It is worth remembering.

Teaching and writing can tear at one another.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Or Maybe It Can’t Be Toned Down

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

I got my first taste of Greek mythology from D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths. Later, when I was old enough for Bulfinch’s Mythology, I thought I had graduated to the real thing. Homer came to me by way of a dusty turn-of-the-century book with a title along the lines of The Boy’s Own Homer, with glorious color illustrations. D’Aulaire gave me the Norse myths, too, though I didn’t get The Ring of the Niebelungen until a friend gave me a mixtape that included Anna Russell’s brilliant twenty-minute Ring cycle sketch.

When my parents realized I knew nothing whatever about the Bible — I was ten — they rectified my cultural illiteracy with Pearl Buck’s two-volume The Story Bible. Of all those beginner versions of classics, only Buck’s biblical books kept all the sex and violence in. Imagine my shock when my mother handed me Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Mandelbaum’s complete and very faithful translation. I was twelve. What was she thinking? If the Metamorphoses were a blog, every post would have cut text with PTSD trigger warnings.

Mark Rigney’s post on how old a kid should be before reading or watching The Hunger Games touched on a problem I face often as a teacher of teenagers, some as young as 13. Since I’m a freelance teacher, making house calls, my students’ parents are sometimes directly involved in the question of how old is old enough for which book. Other times, especially when the parents don’t speak much English, I actually wish I could involve them more directly than the language barrier allows.

I’ll face the age question all over again, differently, when my own kids can read on their own. Inevitably, I come at the predicament through my own history as a reader — which stories I was denied too long or permitted too early. As a maker of stories, I’m fascinated also with seeing what of a story can survive the translation into the consciousness of the young, either through the efforts of adult writers who reinterpret the stories, or through the efforts of kids themselves when they try to make sense of them.

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