“Postlude to the Afternoon of a Faun” published in F&SF + Some featured Jazz

My story has been published in F&SF for the March/April 2019 issue. I’m so happy about that.

An old jazz-playing faun has the chance to get back everything that was taken from him a hundred years ago, if he can take it from his only student. The story has Jazz, Mentoring and Hope as themes. It also asks the question: how do you change your own life?

My two characters, a young college football player who wants to become a jazz musician, and an old faun who just wants to be a part of the world again, struggle and fail and attempt again this massive turn in their lives, together. At one point, one of the characters says, “I feel like I’m this tiny tugboat trying to turn this massive life around.” And that’s one of the questions I wanted to pose–how do you do that? I hope you find these characters as inspiring as I did.

Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program

I mention an organization I used to work for in my twenties when I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program under the Missouri Folk Arts Program. An example of their work is here–pairing two musicians together, a master and an apprentice, much like Mr. Dance and Eric in the story.

Continue reading

Young Sherlock Holmes vs. Harry Potter: If Chris Columbus doesn’t bring claims against JK Rowling, No One Should

Yes, this should ease JK Rowling’s mind and set a new standard for anyone pursuing copyright claims against her.  If they can’t get as close as the Barry Levinson directed, Steven Spielberg produced, Chris Columbus penned, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), then they have absolutely no case.  If Chris hasn’t pursued a claim, no one should.

Young Sherlock Holmes was a fantastic movie for its time.  But it could never have been made AFTER Harry Potter.  Let’s look at it through Post Potter eyes.

Taking place in a boarding school, it involves two boys and a girl who uncover magic mystery that involves the duplicity of one of their teachers.  A beloved, befuddled mentor figure dies.  One of the boys is short and has glasses, looking very Harry Potter.  A lot of running to the library to figure out what teachers and detectives won’t tell them, and Holmes is the most famous kid in class, whose rival is the rich, pompous Dudley, every bit the Malfoy look alike.  His hair is even died ice blond as Holmes’ revenge.  The young Watson, who looks too much like Potter, is called a Weasel at one point, and his character works like that of Ron Weasley, comic relief, loyal buddy, and always trying to get out of adventure.  The girl, Elizabeth, is no Hermoine, but then Rowling admitted that Hermoine is herself in the Harry Potter series.  The kids spend most of their time with a retired schoolteacher, WaxFlatter who serves as both Dumbledore and Hagrid.  The kids are threatened with expulsion for all their snooping around.  A cult is the culprit and the villain is their own professor.  Magic, in the form of hallucinations, is the staple of the film.  Many of the scenes are set as they would be on Harry Potter–including an identical Great Hall scene, though cramped, and a Professor of Chemistry that reminds me of any of the professors from Potter, especially the Potions room (though I imagine many are typical boarding school sets).  There is a Diagon Alley full of shops and crowds of consumers. Even a shopkeeper who closely examines their blowpipe reminds one of the wand seller.  The set up in this movie is that Holmes’ nemesis Moriarty will continue to plague him, even as the Potter/Voldemort must occupy the series.

This is NOT to say that Rowling copies anything or even saw this movie, but that Chris Columbus, her first director knew this kind of film intimately.  Though Wikipedia claims that he was selected based on Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone, no one can miss the Harry Potterness of Young Sherlock Holmes.  Spielberg, who was in negotiations, it is said, to direct Potter 1 ultimately wanted to make it animated–according to this source.  Why would he say that?  Young Sherlock Holmes does everything that Harry Potter did–except the story and casting are weaker–he could have just rinsed and repeated.  Rowling had a better story, but the sets and the structure would have been very familiar to Columbus and Spielberg.

If you see the film, you’ll realize this could not have been made post Harry Potter–too many elements are the same.  Columbus wrote the script for Holmes, so it was conceived as a movie first, which means that it was built to be filmed not read.

My biggest question is that when Potter came out as a book, then a film, people asked themselves–why did this strike such a chord?  And my question is why didn’t Young Sherlock Holmes grab that same audience in a film first.

It could be that Holmes and Watson were already established characters–they had no freshness to them.  But a boarding school mystery with magic and the occult—with two boys and a girl.  It’s the formula that wins in Potter.  One can’t merely say that it was that combination that finally became a hit with audiences and children.  ONe has to look at the execution of that kind of story.

Inevitably a huge nod in Rowling’s direction must be given for taking a combination that had been seen before and making it fresh and more complex.  Whereas Columbus was restricted by Doyle, to a certain extent, on the way he could craft the characters of Watson and Holmes, Rowling’s development of the main three characters, as well as a believable world is to her credit.  Columbus was good in his writing of Young Sherlock Holmes, but Rowling was amazing with the same elements in Harry Potter.

So when I hear of silly people who think Rowling copied them–one can point back to an earlier model for all of them–and say that it’s not the material you have, it’s not the little elements that add up because no one beats Columbus for more elements.  It’s what you do with it that’s important.

Rowling is not in the set pieces; Rowling is in the writing.

Morgan Whibley Shot Me in the Alley and All I Could Say Was This: An Essay on Writing Genre

Morgan Whibley, Alley Series #44Some stunning work by Morgan Whibley, a Whitehorse based photographer.  The Alley Series.  (Yes, it was stunning and fun even before I was a subject.)  His rules are simple:

One alley from sidewalk to sidewalk.
Ambient light only.
A different person everyday.
Seven days a week.

He’d been doing this for 43 days in a row when he ran into me.  Follow the link, get stunned by his work.  All Yukoners, all beautiful pictures, wonderful, fun people.  They are our stories.

______________________________

But my story got me to thinking about being a writer of genre.

Morgan tells me to come into his shop, Photovision, and when I get there he cuts a piece of cardboard from a box, slaps down two markers and says, Draw.  What do I draw?  He’s made a speech bubble.  “Whatever you want to.”  I have NO idea what to put there.  He wants the first things I think of.  I hem and haw a bit.  Suddenly, I just sketch out a design and draw Mr. Spock with a latte from Baked Cafe there.  We shoot the photo in the alley.

And then, it’s over, so I think.  And I’m halfway back to my truck and I think–“You fool!  You could have said something important about the value of words.  That words can be healing, or words can be explosive and destructive.  And what did you do?  You did something frivolous.  And stupid–and highly derivative.  Are you just a Trekkie? Is that all you are?”  These were the voices in my head.

So I ran back to Morgan, grabbed him by the shirt collar.  “We have to do it again!” I said.  Okay, maybe I didn’t grab his shirt collar, but I was insistent that we do it again because I’ve thought of something more important to “say.”  So he patiently carves out another speech bubble for me, and I draw out the symbol for Medicine (you know, the two snakes wrapped around the staff with wings–started by Moses, so long ago)–cause I’m going for “Healing Words”….

Yeah.

So, we go out into the alley so I can get shot again.  And we’re both thinking the same thing, and we’re talking…maybe we’re overanalyzing, we both say.

And we take the shots.  And they are highly thought out…  and they say the “right thing.”  But they seem orchestrated, forced.

I think, later, that THIS is the argument that every writer has with him/herself.  Especially writers of any genre: humor, science fiction, romance, fantasy, western, children’s, young adult, gay, hairy monster, etc.

We think that we must say something IMPORTANT with what we write.  That we have to use our considerable talent, and all writers have “considerable talent” with words, and say something like “WORLD PEACE, IDIOTS!”  or “Stop oppressing us!!” or “Global Warming is REAL!”  or “Whales don’t deserve to be SHOT!”  And who can argue with these messages?  Certainly they are important.  We all know that.  And certainly other people will consider you a much weightier writer, a writer with HEFT, if you can tackle Global Warming, or Teen Pregnancy, or something important, in your writing.  They often give awards in that direction (and they do it in film too….).

But who’s to say that the person who laughs at my first photograph won’t be healed?  Who’s to say that you can’t heal someone with words without broadcasting that you are HEALING them?  Who wants to be hit over the head with a message?  And why can’t REALLY good genre do everything that you need it to do–be a damn good story, with a subtle message and a lot of entertainment?

I think, as writers, we all balance between these two photos: the need to say something important, and the need to say something fun and frivolous.  And we see them as two different categories.  That we can’t be fun and important.  We see this in many other areas too (religion, politics, leadership), but for me it resonates as the battle I fight every day:  What value, I think, is Fantasy writing? How does it help the world?   Shouldn’t I turn my skills to Environmental Literature?

No.  You should only do that if you are called to do that.  If you try to write Environmental Literature and you were born to write Children’s Books about Rockets and Squid–then you will be a very frustrated Environmental Literary Writer.  Where is your passion?  If you find your passion, I think you get the package deal.  You will affect people in important ways by being yourself.

There is no real dichotomy between writings—there is only being true and not being true to yourself.  The truth is–we need comedy, romance, westerns, mysteries, radio dramas, children’s picture books with gorillas in them–we need to laugh to fight the absurdity, we need to feel hope in the face of injustice, and we need to fantasize about escape.  We need it All.

Write your part of the All.

Deadline Nov 30 for Tesseracts 14: Canadian Sci-fi and Fantasy Stories

from Woodleywonderworks on FlickrA reminder to all those thinking about submitting your short fiction (limit 7500 words) to Tesseracts 14, the latest in the series of anthologies featuring Canadian science fiction and fantasy.  It doesn’t have to be about Canada, or about the north.  Basically they are anthologies of Canadian writing.  (Okay, and a few stray Americans or other Nationalities who have immigrated to the fair shores of Canada)

Personally, Brian Hades, publisher of this series, would love to see greater representation of Canada in the anthology.  So, the Yukon needs to put out!  Haha.  Seriously, if you have fiction that strays just outside the everyday reality, consider submitting to Tesseracts 14.  Let’s wow Brian with Yukon writers!

More information at my previous post here:  Tesseracts 14 Open for Submissions

Steve Parker, Yukon Author, publishes Skrelsaga

 

Steve Parker looking pretty satisfied next to his book, Skrelsaga.  He lives to autograph!
Steve Parker looking pretty satisfied next to his book, Skrelsaga. He lives to autograph!

Good friend and Fantasy writer, Steve Parker, known to many of you as the man who holds the downstairs desk at Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore–ordering your books, being pleasant, being Welsh–is the proud author of a new book, Skrelsaga, now available at Mac’s.  Here are a few photographs of his signing.  

 

This is, I think, the first Fantasy novel published in the Yukon.  Yay, Steve!  

More on the book in a review that will come later. For now, we celebrate the achievement!

 

IMG_0425IMG_0434

IMG_0435IMG_0440

Writing Advice from J.K. Rowling

I came across this nugget of writing advice from JK Rowling in an article from the Toronto Star. It’s simple, but important.

Of the “universal appeal” of her books, Rowling said, “I’ve been asked that question a lot. I’ve always found it very difficult to answer. I feel there’s an expectation that I should know what the magical formula was, but in truth I wrote what I liked reading.

“I wrote about characters I was deeply interested in.”

And that is probably the most profound writing advice you’ll get–the part we forget sometimes. Have you ever been writing along on some short story for a contest, a journal, even working on a novel, but you don’t really care about the characters? In fact, you would find them boring if you met them in real life? Or tiresome, or annoying, or bland, or one-sided, or pitiful.

It matters to your readers if you care about your characters. Sometimes, like scribbling gods, we are interested in our Plots–how we can mess up the quiet lives of our characters, or how interesting we can make their situations—but the characters may not matter as much because they are being propelled by the plot. They are riding shotgun to the plot that’s really driving. They can react, white-knuckle the door, scream, maybe even fling the door wide, but they don’t get to drive, and partly because they just aren’t as interesting as the cool plot we’ve given the keys to.

I read that article and interview with Rowling and I left thinking about my own stories, and how many of those characters–on the stories I was working on–were those I wasn’t “deeply interested” in? You could say that for short stories you only have to be mildly attracted to them–it’s a 10 page affair after all. But a novel, you might say–or even a Potter series–you’d have to be interested in the character. Yet, I think we all want memorable characters to follow as we read. As we write. In short stories and in long ones, and in series. Because if we’re interested, then readers will be too.

Time to revamp some of my characters–the ones I’m not currently deeply interested in–and find out how I make them more interesting on the page–so that even in a small story, the characters linger in a big way.

The City of Ember: Clever Assignments For Everyone

Doon and Lina looking worriedThe City of Ember is a great fun family film, full of clever, unlockable mysteries. It comes with a map, all torn up and faded; it comes with a “ticking clock”–the fear that the city will wind up in the dark; and plenty of menacing obstacles. The ending leaves you wishing to be back in the more colorful Ember, but the movie enjoys itself and the city while it is there.

City of Ember is strongest when it is working within its world. Jeanne DuPrau is an excellent world-builder, trying to make a city buried beneath the earth believable. What would you do to make a nuclear bunker livable and expandable? The city is quirky and interesting and what I’d expect from a city slowly running down. Ramshackle, apartmental narrow English-looking cobblestone streets. No bad fumes down there–one would assume, with no cars–but then no oxygen either. True, the whole idea that the air and water are replenished–and yet not infected by radiation–is hard to swallow. But I’m willing to suspend my disbelief.

Opening sequence: I was getting ready for an infodump–but this is brilliantly constructed. If you’re gonna have to have an infodump, make it interesting. Tolkien does it with the history of the Ring in Lord of the Rings, and here, DuPrau talks about the Countdown box with the papers on how to Exit Ember. The directing on this scene focuses in on the hands of each successive mayor as they pass the box to each other in a line. So we set up our story’s inner problem, as soon as that line of succession is interrupted. Ember, like every other constructed engine, will fall apart. The city will go dark. The food will run out. And without the instructions, no one will escape. It’s up to two plucky teens to figure out how to escape.  It was a great way to start the movie/story.

I found the world so interesting–that unfortunately, I was disappointed when they escaped.  So let’s talk about the world of Ember.

High school graduation is not about living your dreams, but about getting an assignment to start working on keeping Ember going.  What a great idea!  Who needs years to find themselves?  Or following pursuits where there is no market?  (Where is the art down there?)  Lina wants to be a messenger; Doon wants to fix the engine, but on Assignment Day, they draw their jobs out of a hat (no more School Counselors with their aptitude tests!).  We start this movie with two people wanting something so badly, and they don’t get what they want!  Fantastic.

We see the city falling apart and the parents tell the kids not to worry about it.  This is the part that you feel resonating in today’s society.  There are several things we can do to make society work better and we better encourage our kids to work on them…or maybe we can do them.  Anyway, the city is falling apart–the kids join in the maintenance of Ember, but also want to fix Ember.

I was delighted by the cleverness of the plotting and worldbuilding in Ember, all the nooks and crannies we get to uncover.  In the movie, yes, we don’t get to spend enough time with Lina nor Doon’s past and their characters….so this is a plot-driven movie, as movies are wont to become.  But I still enjoy Lina and Doon.

Once their drive to exit Ember kicks in, though, they are consumed with that idea and we lose who they are.  They could be any two kids leaving the city.  It would have been nice to see more of heir characters shine through in their escapes–what they worry about, what they accidentally do.   But this is a MOVIE problem, not a story problem, likely.  The movie gadgets and Indiana-Jones style thrills take over to get the kids out of Ember.  And I liked the hidden “magic” inside the city–as if the city had been just a half-turn away from showing all its secrets.

Truly, I would have liked to have seen a whole movie about Ember BEFORE everything breaks down…but the plot moves them out of this nifty created world into, eventually, our own boring world with sunrises and prairies and mountains. Ahhh…landscapes.  They are nice.  But Lina and Doon, um, escaped the plot too, or forgot that they have no way of surviving on the surface.   The movie reminds me of a great carnival ride—a lot of action and joy and cleverness in the construction, and a sad sigh at the end when it’s over and the world has been “lost” and you have to exit the ride.  Not the sigh of characters you don’t want to leave–but the sigh that the cool part of the plot and story are gone.  For a discussion about movies that end with a “healed earth” as a trope, even when it’s looking more and more unlikely that the earth will just heal itself, click here.

I hear there are two sequels in books.  Both of them take place in a post-apocalyptic/new Earth in the US… but it is the idea of that buried, constructed city that sparks imagination.  If you’ve ever built a treehouse, ever put a sheet over tables and chairs as a fort in the living room, or marked up a cardboard moving box as a house–City of Ember appeals to you as the coolest underground fort can.  I hear that The Prophet of Yonwood is a prequel–and that will be cool to see how they built the city of Ember. I think DuPrau is hinting at some larger themes here and I like how she’s doing that.  We are all on Assignment Day–but we don’t have to draw ours out of a hat–but we need to pick them soon and get busy.

Rent the movie, enjoy the ride!  Or Read the Book, enjoy the characters!  Choose your assignment, fix the world!  That ought to cover it.