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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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Battles, Reluctance, and Service to the Sea of Stories

Thursday, May 9th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

We’ve come to the last installment of my review of Writing Fantasy Heroes: Powerful Advice from the Pros. It’s a peculiar book, different in several ways I have talked about before from other books on writerly craft. It’s specialized by both genre and cluster of techniques, and each chapter shows a noted author using examples from his or her own work to demonstrate how to use a particular technique well (or, in the case of early drafts, badly, followed by advice on revision). Although the book is, by design, most useful for the newcomer to writing fantasy, it has something to offer more seasoned writers, and it’s of great value to teachers of writing who specialize in, or are at least willing to engage with, genre fiction.

Paul Kearney’s piece on large-scale battle scenes is just what I hoped it would be. You know all the familiar gripes about fantasy warfare that fails the suspension-of-disbelief test: the army never seems to eat or excrete, never needs to get paid, charges its horses directly into walls of seasoned enemy pikemen, and so on. “So You Want to Fight a War” addresses all those mundane things an author must get right if the fantasy elements of her story are to feel real to the reader, and then Kearney pushes past the gripes into solutions that any conscientious author can learn to implement. It’s that last bit that I found truly refreshing — many discussions of military verisimilitude get bogged down in griping. Kearney assumes throughout that it’s possible for his reader to get this stuff right, with enough good models, research, and practice.

As in Brandon Sanderson’s chapter on “Writing Cinematic Fight Scenes,” the reader is urged to map the combatants’ positions in space. Of course, with at least two armies’ worth of combatants, what one does with the map is a little more complicated this time around:

Keep the map beside you as you write, and as the narrative progresses and the lines move and break and reform, annotate your map. By the end of the battle it should be covered in scrawls, but you will still see the sense within it. It should also have a scale, so that if you want one character to see another across that deadly space, you can gauge whether it’s possible or not. Battlefields can be large places, miles wide. Our ten thousand men, standing in four ranks shoulder to shoulder, will form a line over a mile and a half long, and that’s close-packed heavy infantry such as Greek spearmen or Roman legionaries. If your troops are wild-eyed Celtic types who like a lot of space to swing their swords, it will be even longer.

Okay, that’s a little daunting, but Kearney also offers things like a breakdown of pre-gunpowder tactics into a set of relationships that he likens, persuasively, to rock-paper-scissors. If you can remember how that kindergarten game works, you can avoid some of the biggest beginner blunders in the genre.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Revenge of Son of Writing Fantasy Heroes

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

I’ve been writing about Jason M. Waltz’s Writing Fantasy Heroes: Powerful Advice from the Pros for a couple of weeks now. It’s specialized, far more specialized than most classic how-to-write books, which usually talk about fiction generally, or process generally, or a whole genre at a time. Examining every permutation of a particular technical challenge in a particular genre is a weird thing for a writing book to do. The essays Waltz has assembled here are also structurally similar in an uncommon way: in each essay, the author walks the reader through passages from his or her own work, sometimes in early draft, with comments about choices that worked or didn’t. The how-to-write book is a genre beset by the Problem of Terrible Sameness, but Writing Fantasy Heroes is different from any other writing book on your shelves. While it may not have the universality of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, it will help a great many new writers already know how they want to specialize.

Howard Andrew Jones’s “Two Sought Adventure” details the problems and potentials in stories that have more than one hero. A story with multiple heroes is very different from a one-hero story with a sidekick, love interest, foil, nemesis, or whatever. There are plenty of straightforward techniques for using secondary characters to reveal a single protagonist’s character. Using two (or more) heroes to do this for one another in a way that feels balanced and gratifying for the reader is a tougher trick.  Dialogue is crucial, and Jones offers close readings of dialogue from his own work and others’ that illustrate ways to welcome the reader into the shorthand, in-jokes, and shifting tones in conversations between longtime friends. He also addresses a problem I’ve seen in too much professionally published fiction: the duo that bickers like an old married couple, to the point where you wish they would split up, go away, or get eaten by the monster already. Friends have conflict, and friends engaged in epic heroics may have epic conflicts, but bickering is only entertaining in small doses, and it’s rarely illuminating. Jones offers a variety of specific alternative ways to handle conflict between heroes, and to interweave it with a story’s other conflicts.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: More on Writing Fantasy Heroes

Thursday, April 25th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Writing Fantasy HeroesLast week I began a review of Writing Fantasy Heroes: Powerful Advice from the Pros, Jason M. Waltz’s collection of essays on craft. Most of the authors seem to assume the reader is a newcomer to fiction writing, but some of the advice is sufficiently specialized that many veteran writers will also find it useful. It’s also a pleasure to see the authors pull back the curtain on their own work, walking the reader through passages, sometimes in early draft, that illustrate the particular technique or concern of each chapter.

Picking up where we left off last week, we find Ian C. Esslemont coming up with something genuinely new to say about the old adage, “Show, don’t tell.” For the benefit of newer writers, he goes over the familiar territory: why to avoid infodumps, how to recognize them in one’s own drafts, ways to replace them with opportunities for dramatic action, classic blunders like “As you know, Bob” dialogue. Stick with Esslemont to the end, though, despite the groanworthy title of “Taking a Stab at Sword and Sorcery,” and he complicates the choice between showing information and telling it with a third possibility I’ve seen handled in other ways, but never right in a discussion of “Show, don’t tell.”

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Writing Fantasy Heroes

Friday, April 19th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Writing Fantasy HeroesI’m a few essays into Writing Fantasy Heroes: Powerful Advice from the Pros. The editor of Writing Fantasy Heroes, Jason M. Waltz, was being published in the pages of Black Gate back when Black Gate had literal paper pages and I was just a glimmer in the slushpile. The book has been mentioned on this site a time or three by others, and will certainly come up again, so I wanted to get a look at it for myself. It turns out there’s enough variation among the essays to keep me busy for more than one post, too.

So far, what’s most striking to me is how different the authors’ imagined readers are. The imagined readers all want to write heroic fantasy, of course, but how long have they been writing? How plugged in are they to the traditions and cliches of writing workshops and fiction manuals? How much life experience have these imagined readers gathered? One of the things I’m enjoying about Writing Fantasy Heroes is coming unstuck in time, relative to the writerly life cycle. From the essay I would have needed when I was in my teens, I turn the page to find the essay I need right now, which is followed by the essay I could hand my students next week.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Is This Big Fat Fantasy Epic a Tax-Deductible Business Expense?

Thursday, April 11th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

It’s tempting to come up with some cheap shot punchline about how tax returns are a subgenre of fantasy literature. I’d poke at the puzzle longer, but I believe in the rule of law, so my tax returns are a good-faith attempt at nonfiction. There are times when I wish I hadn’t been drawn up as a Lawful Good character — goodness knows I tried at least to be Chaotic, but I could never keep it up for long.

One of my favorite quirks of private practice as a tutor is the unlikely list of expenses that truly are for work. Yes, some of these books are things I would have read anyway, but not necessarily things I would have bought anyway. I once spent three months rereading and rereading every short story in Garth Nix’s Across the Wall collection, because my students couldn’t get enough of his Old Kingdom, and I had to be a few levels deeper into the book than my students were, no matter what they did with it.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Heroic Struggle and the Taxonomy of Meanies

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

Bedknobs And Broomsticks-smallThe preschool teacher tells me my five-year-old is doing much better at not hurting his classmates when he gets carried away with his pretend play. This might sound like faint praise, but after the week we’ve had, I’m thrilled to hear it. As we cross the parking lot, Gareth says to me, “I hate everyone at my school.”

“Why is that?” I ask.

“There’s too much world peace in it.”

I try not to guffaw. I rarely learn anything new while in the act of guffawing. Instead, I say, “Do you know what world peace is?”

He says, “Of course I know. What is it?”

“You said you knew.”

“What is it, Mom?” He sounds a bit frantic. It turns out he’s been singing songs about this thing, sitting at circle time with his classmates to hear books about it read aloud, and doing little craft projects about it, but nobody has checked in with him about whether he knows what it is. His behavior lately has not been conducive to it, as he has been given to understand. My impulsive five-year-old, of whom his teachers say he’ll probably be running some illustrious lab at Princeton one day unless he lands himself in juvie first, is not a man of peace.

I have told him that meanies are to be resisted, not suffered in silence. I’ve told him stories about knights defeating meanies. The long video that we save for rainy days is Bedknobs and Broomsticks, with its comical/supernatural defeat of a Nazi invasion. It was my first attempt to explain what Nazis are that gave us our taxonomy of meanies.

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Teaching and Fantasy Literature: Taking the SAT? Montag to the Rescue!

Thursday, March 7th, 2013 | Posted by Sarah Avery

When I was my students’ age, the SAT had two sections, not three. The verbal section was heavy on analogies, which the College Board has long since purged from the test. They added an essay in 2005, which to me feels like last week, but to my students, that’s a time when their ages were in single digits.

Read too many SAT essay prompts in a row, and you begin to think your head will explode, even if you’re not taking the test yourself: Can success be a catastrophe? Which is the stronger motivator–conscience or the will to power? Has technology outpaced our ability to put it to good use? Do ends justify all means? What is the good? How shall we construct our civilization? How must we live? There’s a slight tendency toward the grandiose, which I quietly remedy by imagining Scarlett O’Hara working for the College Board on essay prompts–Where shall I go? What shall I do? All the real essay prompts are more entertaining in Scarlett O’Hara’s voice. My students, however, claim never to have heard of Scarlett O’Hara. Imagine being that young. Now imagine that you have 25 minutes to bluff your way through a response in five-paragraph essay form with specific examples, and that your parents have half-convinced you that your entire future depends on how you answer. Twenty-five minutes to put your civilization right, with unfailingly correct use of commas and with diction in the formal academic style.

One way to arrive at the starting line for that sprint is to have a handful of versatile works of literature in your head from which to draw examples. I’ve lost count of how many students I’ve worked with who found ways to use Macbeth, The Catcher in the Rye, and Fahrenheit 451 for every single practice essay, no matter what the prompt was about.

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