A blog about reading, writing, and the nerdy life. Also superheroes, pop culture, science fiction, fantasy, magic, explosions, fur-bearing animals, and anything else that crosses my mind. Supposedly it promotes my writing, including my serial, MASKS. Actually it just lets me run off at the keyboard. Be afraid. But visit me on Facebook and read MASKS on Pocket Coyote while you're at it.
Monday, April 29, 2013
A blog for Mrs. Neese
I’m neck-deep in
two books right now, so here’s a blog entry inspired by my eighth-grade English
teacher, Mrs. Neese.
If you knew Mrs.
Neese, you’d be really excited by that sentence. From second through eighth
grade, I attended a school that I’m still convinced was actually an outer ring
of hell. I was miserable. Mrs. Neese
was one of only two teachers I had during that time who had the good sense to
take a highly self-motivated low-level genius and, rather than making her sit
still and do what everybody else was doing, just let her run. One of those
teachers put me in the school spelling bee so I got my longed-for chance to
show everyone that I really was good for something (albeit not sports or being
pretty or having rich parents). Mrs. Neese just let me write.
I was in middle
school by then, and she made clear early on that she was totally fine with my
writing stories in her class as long as I also did the homework. And she was
surprisingly flexible about the homework part. She let me write weird takes on
her in-class assignments, like a love story with only one onstage character in
it (he dropped dead at the end) and a legend in which the god of dreams was
really a frustrated actor. The very first sentence of the very first story
about Rae—which happened to be the very first story in what became the Masks universe—was written in her class.
I even remember the seat I was in that January day: in the back row, the seat
on the far left as I faced the chalkboard, the northeast corner of the room. I
remember looking up and seeing her glance my way as I scribbled frantically in
the notebook I’d stolen from the supply cupboard at home. There’s no way she
believed I was doing eighth-grade homework in a 300-sheet three-subject spiral
notebook. But she didn’t stop me.
So when Mrs.
Neese (a fan of Masks on Facebook,
because she’s awesome like that) suggested recently that I blog about writers
who have inspired me, I couldn’t exactly say no, could I? Here, then, is a
by-no-means complete list of five authors who have something to do with who I
am and what I do today …
1. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – All right, nobody’s ever going to accuse
me of writing fantasy in the style of either of these two men. My writing is
about as far as you can get from the plummy Oxfordian tone of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or the lyrical high
fantasy of The Lord of the Rings.
These two make the list, and make the list together, because their books are
some of my earliest memories. My dad read me The Hobbit and Farmer Giles
of Ham when I was four years old, and the Narnia books followed soon
after—in their published order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, not the stupid retcon order
beginning with The Magician’s Nephew.
And say what you will about Lewis’s many shortcomings as a novelist or
Tolkien’s bouts of academic logorrhea, they didn’t matter to me when I was too
little to be reading tiny print by myself. Those stories showed me what was
possible—that kids could wander into alternate worlds through mysterious
objects called wardrobes, that animals could talk, that a creature called a
hobbit could find himself on an adventure with dwarves and a wizard but keep
worrying about his kettle and his pocket-handkerchiefs. Even though I didn’t go
into fantasy writing as an adult, and I don’t even read much fantasy now (I
joke that Tolkien set the bar so high that no one else will do), that baseline
informs much of what I write now. If you ever wonder why Rae talks to figures
of legend and why I think it’s totally okay to have a zombie arrow sitting next
to the death ray at a supervillain auction, it’s because somewhere in the back
of my brain is a five-year-old who knows that dragons exist, and that their
scales can be pierced by arrows and by lion claws …
Best jacket photo EVER.
2. Timothy Zahn – This author made the list because where
Tolkien and Lewis were the foundation of my childhood reading, he formed the
basis of my “grown-up” reading life. I got into Zahn the same way most of his
fans probably did—I read his first Star
Wars tie-in novel, Heir to the Empire.
I was ten years old and had just seen the original Star Wars trilogy, and I was starving for more Luke/Han/Leia
action. But two things stuck out to me in that first book and never really went
The first was
that Zahn wrote one-sentence paragraphs. Heck, some of his paragraphs were
sentence fragments. And it worked for
him! I’d never seen anyone do that before, but for him it worked perfectly.
He’s to blame for every one of my
sentence-fragment paragraphs since then. The second standout point was the
way he ran multiple plotlines simultaneously—something I hadn’t seen done much
up to that point—and more importantly, several
of those plotlines were intensely emotional. I was used to stories that
painted human emotions in broad, melodramatic strokes; things like rage and
grief and joy all served to advance the plot. Zahn used subtler emotions to
color his scenes, to move his story along without requiring those emotions to
spur an action, and occasionally to gut-punch his readers. For example, after a
plot-heavy scene where a ghostly Obi-wan Kenobi tells Luke some plotty stuff and
then says his final goodbyes, Luke’s reaction really stuck with me: “For the
third time, he’d been orphaned.”
I admit, my ten-year-old self hadn’t thought
about the situation that way; that sentence hit me like a wave. Suddenly the
story wasn’t about space battles and laser swords anymore; it was about a kid
who’d lost his family three times over. Lightsabers,
hell; I read the next three books looking for more of that feeling. As soon as
I finished that trilogy of novels, I tracked down every other Zahn book I could
find, hunting for that thread of human emotion tangled up in his knotty sci-fi
plots. And more fragmentary sentences, of course. (I also listened to several
of his more action-oriented books over and over on audiotape, so he’s probably
had a bigger influence than anyone else on how I write fight scenes. I even
hear his readers narrating them in my head.)
Also the best author photo ever.
3. Terry Pratchett – Good Sir Terry is a more recent addition
to my list of influences, but he’s an important one thanks to my years-long
battle with insomnia. Not long after I discovered Pratchett’s brilliantly
satirical Discworld books, I began to have trouble sleeping at night, and my
doctor advised me to set a rigid bedtime routine—the same actions repeated at
the same time, every night, to cue my body and brain that it was time to power
down for a while. The doctor recommended that I include reading in the regimen,
as most people find that a relaxing activity. However, I tend to get really intensely excited while reading,
so perhaps in hindsight it wasn’t such a great bit of advice. For several
nights, I lay awake thinking anxiously about whatever I’d been reading before
bed, wondering how the story would turn out. I finally decided that I’d have to
read something so familiar, so utterly predictable, that I could go to sleep
without thinking about it. I grabbed the nearest Discworld book, which I’d recently
read two or three times, and started reading a few pages a night.
I want to
emphasize that the works of Terry Pratchett, lyrical and innovative and
side-splittingly funny as they are, don’t actually make a very good soporific
for most people. But when you’ve read them enough times to know most of the
jokes by heart, they at least won’t keep you up at night. Over the next several
years, I read almost every book in the Discworld series, except for a few of
the earliest volumes that I didn’t like so much, over and over and over again. There are about 20 Pratchett
books on my shelf that just rotate across my bedside table. Right now I’m
probably on my tenth reading of Monstrous
Regiment, averaging 20 to 30 pages per night. That much exposure has to
seep in somewhere, and I’m beginning to notice little signs: more absurd
situations creeping into my stories, a certain renewed interest in wordplay, and
an awful lot of British slang that I have to delete on the rewrites …
4. Spider Robinson – Where I grew up, “hippie” was a dirty
word. All that peace-love-dope stuff was for cowards and sissies. In my town,
the most important social events were all held at the local shrine to Richard
Nixon (it had a topiary effigy of Checkers in the garden and, at least when I
was a kid, no mention of Watergate anywhere). Consider, then, the effect of
Spider Robinson, a proud self-identified hippie best known for a series of
witty and unexpectedly touching humorous SF stories set in a Long Island bar.
The short stories in his Callahan series made me giggle, and then immediately
made me think. While I won’t claim to agree precisely with Robinson’s views on
everything (we will always differ in our opinions of the Beatles), he never
stopped impressing me with a) the speed and subtlety of his wit and b) the
breathtakingly human heart that beats in every sentence he writes. I don’t
think I’ve ever read a more human writer,
and I mean that in the best possible way. When he’s not writing about drinking
games, punning contests, and intergalactic insanity, Robinson likes to wrestle
with Big Ideas. He doesn’t always win, but how can I not love a man who defines
what it means to be human as “to live forever or die trying … to strive in the
face of the certainty of failure … to persist”?
I freely admit that I stole his
definition of personhood—that a person is anyone who voluntarily says or
otherwise communicates, “Excuse me”. (Thus, several dogs of my acquaintance are
people, and a great many humans are not.) Robinson taught me not to shy away
from the big stuff.
He also taught
me that talking dogs are always funny
if you write them right. (You’ll see what I mean by the end of Volume 2, if I
can keep that bit about eggs from getting cut …)
5. Peter S. Beagle – This is the most recent addition to the
list, but he has to make it just because I’ve spent the last couple of years
tracking down every book of his available in every local public library. He got
me into fantasy again, pretty much, because he wasn’t writing Tolkien wannabe material. Instead, Beagle’s stories
focus on the liminal spaces where ordinary life interacts with the
extraordinary bits of fantasy. His most famous book, The Last Unicorn, combines the familiar tropes of fairy tales with
a very modern schlemiel of a wizard and a breathtakingly alien force in the
unicorn herself. For my money, though, it’s his short stories that are
best—like “The Rabbi’s Hobby”, in which a rabbi and a 12-year-old would-be bar
mitzvah take on the case of a mysterious young woman appearing in old
photographs, and end up unwrapping a tale of ghosts, and regrets, and unexpected
uses for antique keys. Or there’s “Oakland Dragon Blues,” in which a dragon
(loosely based on the dragon cut from early drafts of The Last Unicorn) comes to life in Oakland, California and goes
looking for the author who stopped telling his story before it was done. And
for my money, “Mr. Sigerson” is one of the best Sherlock Holmes pastiches I’ve
ever read, focusing as it does on the exiled Holmes, now a violinist in a tiny
backwater orchestra, becoming involved in a tricky local mystery and learning
an unexpected thing or two about his own long-denied humanity.
While I’d like
to cite Beagle’s glittering, lyrical prose as an influence on my own, I’m not
that good (yet—I hope!) and he’s really on this list for two other reasons.
First, his stories gave me the guts to write poetry for the first time since
high school, and that’s something I desperately needed for Teh Novel. And
second, the very fact of those stories’ existence—the way they shine like
perfectly cut jewels—makes me want to write, and write better, and finish
things well. I’ve met Mr. Beagle twice at conventions, and both times he has
been a faultless gentleman and a warm, wonderful human being. For all I know
it’s a clever act and he’s really a total jerk, but at least when I talk to
him, he makes me want to be a better person and a much better writer. He’s over
70 years old, though, and you never know with older authors and their health,
so I’m hammering away at my current projects, hoping to finish something worthy
of being presented to him someday, before I run out of opportunities. I want to
thank him for the lessons he’s taught me with his stories, and for the
encouragement he’s given me when he didn’t have to do any such thing. Peter S.
Beagle and his writing make me want to create something worthy of them both; I
hope someday to hand him a copy of a published novel with his name in the
acknowledgments, or even the dedication. Even if he never reads it. Even if he
never opens it. I just want to thank
him properly. Some people are like that.
There are more
than a few authors who didn’t make the cut—Jim Butcher, for example, whose joke
about his writing motto being “Suffer, Harry, suffer!” inspired my own joking
mantra Suffer, characters, suffer.
And I can’t go too long without mentioning Homer’s Odyssey, my favorite work of Greek literature, or the original
Sherlock Holmes stories, or Neil Gaiman’s Neil Gaiman-ness, or the glorious
pulp adventures of Johnston McCulley and Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Michael A.
Stackpole’s short story “Peer Review,” which taught me that prose stories about
superheroes were a thing. And Stan Lee? Oh, yes.
But for now,
these five will do. And I hope I’ve done Mrs. Neese proud, sentence fragments