Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Fiction Wing, Edition 2

I've been told I need an "attention-getting sentence" to sell my story, Atterwald, to an agent or editor. I have a draft of that sentence:

"Among the shape-shifting hal'ryth'kei, a sweet, sad story unfolds, of a heartless wizard, his invalid son, and the captive fiddler girl who must find a way to heal him -- or else."

If that doesn't sound anything like what I've been sharing with you, well, just wait. And now, without further delay, I present the second section.

He couldn't sleep. He had thought that a shape-change might help him relax, but in his mouse form his fur had stood on edge and his blood had run hot. His heart had felt several sizes too large for his body, as if it had refused to transform with the rest of him. After an hour of this discomfort, he'd given up, shifted back to human, and reached for a book he kept hidden under his pillow.

It was called Forms of Magic Among the Tribes. He'd found it tucked away in the back of a shelf of what served as a library in their village, and he'd checked it out and brought it home hidden under his coat. He'd been racing through it hungrily, but just now he cared to read only one particular section, the entry on owl-magic. An owl-magician was a useful friend and a deadly enemy. He could bless the villages of those who pleased him with the rains needed for a bountiful harvest, but he could send the mightiest of storms to obliterate the homes of those who angered him, or else curse their villages with a crippling drought.

As he read, he envisioned his Verina gliding over a little town, her wings stretched to their full span. As the wind passed through her feathers she cast a cool, gentle breeze down on the folk below. They never looked up -- never realized that an angel was blessing them.

He cast a glance toward his window and noted the blackness that preceded the coming of dawn. Verina would be settling down to sleep now. She would light upon the ground and stretch herself back into her human shape and rest her golden head upon her pillow. Unlike most tribes owls slept in human and not animal form. What treasured possessions did she surround herself with? And what thoughts drifted across her mind as she closed her eyes?

The lettering on the pages blurred, and his hands lost their hold on the book. Thinking he must be drifting off to sleep, he shifted shape, then wrapped his long tail about him, his usual slumbering posture.

His teeth chattered as if he were shivering, yet his fur and skin burned. His heart swelled to bursting. The scent of owl enveloped him. Her spirit permeated the very air he breathed.

The walls were changing, brightening to a soft, muted white. The straw-stuffed mattress beneath him was softening to moss, then to cloud. As he gazed at the vault in the strange ceiling above him, he floated upward to meet it. Closer he rose, until he thought he would collide with it -- and it dissipated like a curtain of mist. A bright blue day-sky stretched above him, dotted with voluminous clouds. His head spun with giddy delight, and his hands reached out to clasp the nearest cloud...

His hands, yet not his hands. They were woman's hands, with long and graceful fingers. This dizzy intoxication, this glory in the day-sky, was likewise not his own.

The white hands tore off a ball of cloud just large enough to hold; then the fingers began to shape it. Gently, carefully, they lengthened it, then smoothed and spread it, until at last it bore the semblance of a pair of great white wings: the wings of the Guider. The fingertips shook, spreading a glimmer-dust over the wings.

The hands drew back, and the cloud-wings began to beat, to rise until their glow filled the sky. His heart/not-heart grew fuller still, and he let out a laugh -- a girl's laugh. The part of him still himself tensed in recognition.

This is her dream. I am in her dream.

A thrill of horror racked him. He was trespassing where he had no right. Should she find out, she would loathe him forever.

How was he to extricate himself? A wave of queasiness swept through him as he floundered. Silver-white feet stumbled on the cloud where they were treading. He drew a breath through his teeth. If he tried too hard to pull himself down from the day-sky he might drag her with him, compounding his crime.

The feet halted. He -- no, she -- looked around, sensing something amiss. She's found me, his mind cried. Guider, your strength!

Her face rose before his eyes, yet he found no anger in it. Her gaze was bright but gentle, her mouth set in the familiar pensive smile. "Good morning," she said, with a nod.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hey, Mainstream Hollywood: I've Had It

I have to be honest with myself. I know I drive my hubby, my family, and my friends crazy with my perpetual complaints about depictions of women on the Silver Screen and the increasing (it seems to me) scarcity of decent movies with female protagonists. They tell me to stop beating a horse that's long dead, buried, and decomposed. I have to tell them with a sigh: I wish I could. I would dearly love never to utter a word of dissatisfaction about the portrayals of women in the movies again. And on occasion, I resolve firmly to do just that, to convince myself that when all is said and done, fictional characters don't matter. But my resolve never sticks, because mainstream Hollywood keeps supplying ample grounds for my ineffectual protests.

This summer, for instance. Mainstream Hollywood has given us a child's handful of movies with female protagonists, but they've been losers with critics (e.g. Salt, Sex and the City 2, Killers) or at the box office (Ramona and Beezus). Where's this year's Mamma Mia? some might cry. Hopefully, nowhere -- since that movie's box-office triumph didn't stop it from being a painfully bad film.

I've just read James Berardinelli of ReelViews' take on the latest "women-will-flock-to-see-it-because-we're-too-stupid-to-tell-the-difference-between-a-good-movie-and-a-bad-one" schlockfest Eat, Pray, Love. Apparently this story makes every effort to turn a shallow, selfish woman who breaks her unoffending husband's heart into a "heroine" worth admiring and even emulating. I put that together with what I know of the other female protagonists we've seen this summer -- the neurotically passive Bella Swan of Twilight: Eclipse; the shrill, screaming harpy-ditz of Killers; the fashionistas of Sex and the City 2; the butt-kicking but inscrutable and painfully fetishized Salt -- and I can't help thinking that mainstream Hollywood has been taken over by screenwriters, male and female, who construct their female protagonists after the pattern of Jack Nicholson's cynical writer in As Good As It Gets: "I think of a man, and then I take away reason and integrity."

I have never cared much for As Good As It Gets, but that line has stayed with me. Reason and integrity -- two very basic human virtues. It's difficult to admire or even care about a character who lacks either quality, let alone both. So they are now my watchwords when it comes to any fictional female I encounter. She doesn't have to kick butt. She doesn't have to save the world. She doesn't even have to have much education. But at significant points in the story, she must display reason and integrity.

My own writing must follow this principle; if it doesn't, I've done very badly indeed. In my story Atterwald, my heroine is asked to choose between saving the man she loves and saving the village where she grew up. She rejects this choice and resolves to try to save both. (To know whether she succeeds, you'll have to check out the novel when it's published; hopefully it will be, before I reach that point in my "Fiction Wing" posts.) Of course she's motivated by emotions, her love for her sweetheart and for the family who raised her. But she understands instinctively that to choose one over the other would seriously compromise her integrity.

The female characters in this summer's mainstream films have not been completely without reason and/or integrity. Both Barbie and Jessie display it in Toy Story 3, as does the smart, courageous character played by Ellen Page in Inception. But in neither film is the female the protagonist. These worthy ladies are supporting players in stories that center on males. Nothing wrong with that -- except that the female protagonists we do see are so irksomely lacking in those important qualities that often we may find ourselves sympathizing more with a supporting (male) character: the put-upon assassin husband in Killers, the forsaken husband in Eat, Pray, Love, and just about every poor soul who has the misfortune to get involved with drama queen Bella Swan.

Frankly, I've had it with these women, and I've had it with the Hollywood that keeps feeding us these bimboes and expecting us to like them. It's enough to make me boycott Hollywood product altogether until the mainstream Big Screen gives us a good movie with a decent female protagonist. The trouble is I'd have to wait so long for such a film that I might miss the next Pixar movie. I'm not sure I can risk that.

I guess I'll have to content myself with complaining -- and many apologies, in advance, to those who love and care for me who have to put up with it.

(NOTE: I have frequently used the word "mainstream" because limited-release, independent films have been known to invest their female characters with reason and integrity. Winter's Bone, by all accounts, is a very fine female-centric story. Foreign films are also off the hook; some of the best female characters of the past decade have come from films with subtitles.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Fiction Wing, Edition 1

An excerpt from Chapter 1 of Atterwald, a novel I am preparing (at a distressingly slow rate) for possible publication:

This is a tale of the hal'ryth'kei, the people of the second skin, creatures who are two beings, with two natures in one. It begins with an enmity between two tribes, a difference beyond reconciliation...

For as long as he could remember, Brendis had loved to watch the owl-people parade into view at sunset, riding proud and tall upon their deer. Lately he had a special reason to stare.

He laid his hoe down at his feet, licked his upper lip and frowned at the stinging salt taste of sweat. He looked up and out, toward the rim of trees on the horizon. He held his breath and tensed at the clop of deer's hoofs.

"Back to work, Bren," his brother snapped. Arne was still busy with his hoe; Brendis knew from the crunch of turning earth beside him. "You know how Mother bellows if she catches you idle."

"I don't care if she bellows."

The first owls emerged from the wood -- silver-haired gentlemen in top hats and stiff, sharply tailored frock coats, nodding with regal condescension at the mouse-people at work in the field. Why they did that, Brendis could not say, for the mouse-folk paid no heed to the parade. Only he seemed to know the owls were there.

More owl-folk appeared, all in neat frock coats, all with slim, bolt-straight figures. A tiny part of him hated them and their beauty and aristocratic mien. He hated finding himself enthralled by them, helpless to look away.

His stomach spun as his special reason cantered into view. Unlike the others, she wore a riding-suit of pale gray, with a white kerchief about her neck and a gauzy veil streaming down her back. But even without these odd color choices, she would have stood out from the rest. Some of them might wear their honey-gold hair in ringlets; some of them might be blessed with skin like white rose-petals; some of them might boast soft oval faces with bright, clear gray eyes; but all of these beauties combined in her alone. Even they might have added up to nothing, were it not for her smile, so wistful and pensive that he constantly wondered what she might be thinking.

Brendis had to think of the golden maiden by some name or other, so he had invented one for her: "Verina," the Glory of All Owl-Kind. But this invented name did not satisfy him. He would only feel content when he could present himself to her and ask her true name.

But his kind did not speak to their kind.

He remembered asking his mother just why this was. She had sniffed a non-answer: "Because it isn't done. All we need know about them is that they're there."

Brendis had vowed then and there never to ask his mother a serious question again. In the five years since, he'd kept that vow. Hundreds of serious questions plagued him without mercy on a daily basis, but he kept them to himself and sought answers on his own.

"Pick up that tool now, Bren!" Arne huffed.

Brendis reclaimed the hoe and went through the motions of pawing the earth with it, never taking his eyes from Verina. His breath caught in his throat. Now came the moment that had stirred him for years.

The leader of the parade -- the tallest and proudest-looking of the silver-haired gentlemen, mounted on a six-pointed stag -- folded into himself. His shoulders shrank and his arms and limbs retracted, and suddenly, where a man had been, a wide-winged gray owl hovered in mid-air.

On their leader's signal, the other owl-folk transformed simultaneously; Brendis, his gaze locked on Verina, saw her melt into a ball of bright snowy-white feathers. She stretched her wings, and with the others she rose and soared over the jagged tops of the trees.

Watching them vanish into the horizon, he heard his brother grumble, "Don't see why you stare at the owls. It's not as if they're doing anything remarkable. They're only changing shape."

"It's beautiful when they do it."


"Because they take wing. Imagine what it'd be like, to be bound to the ground one minute and then take to the sky the next."

Arne responded with a grunt and a shake of his head.

Brendis turned his eyes from his brother to the deepening sunset sky. Where had she disappeared to? What might she be looking at right now? Sometimes, when he thought very hard about her, he could imagine himself flying with her, the wind brushing his toes. He could even catch the sharp green scent of the pines below.

Such imaginings were generally fleeting, but lately they'd been growing clearer, more intense, giving him hope of a time to come when he might linger in the air long enough to for him to tell himself he wasn't dreaming.

In the sky with her -- the place he most wished to be. Something strange growing inside him whispered it might not be impossible.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why I love Looney Tunes

It's difficult to put into words exactly why something is funny. Descriptions don't manage it. We know funny when we see it. And funny, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I prefer The Simpsons to Family Guy, but legions of fans take the opposite view. I once showed my DVD of The Princess Bride, a hilarous parody of fantasy/adventure movies, to a group of college freshmen, and I could count on one hand the number of laughs I heard. So writing a good explanation of my love for the cartoon shorts released by Warner Brothers during Hollywood's Golden Age isn't as simple a task as it might seem. "Because they're funny" simply won't do, and a detailed explanation of how and why they're funny might fall flat. I know a good number of people, some in my own family, who don't find them funny at all.

Perhaps the best place to begin is this: I love them because when I watch them, I understand the value of caricature -- the exaggeration of a single character trait to ridiculous extremes.

In live-action entertainment, caricature annoys me in the extreme, hence my dislike for most live-action sitcoms. (Monty Python gets a pass; I have a weakness for British accents.) When caricature elbows its way into an hour-long drama or adventure, I resent its intrusion. My husband and I are currently watching our DVDs of Due South, a series I mostly missed the first go-around. The show's two central characters, the compassionate straight-arrow Canadian Mountie and the cynical, tough-talking Chicago cop, seem like caricatures on first acquaintance, but as we get to know them, we see them in depth and dimension that persuades us to make an emotional investment in them. An episode we watched the other night, however, gave me an unpleasant surprise: a guest character, played by Jane Krakowski of Ally McBeal fame, who proved to be the most infuriating type of caricature (for me), the Dumb Blonde Who Won't Shut Up. All the danger and conflict in the episode stems directly from this dimwitted chatterbox's unwillingness to listen when someone else is talking. I kept waiting for her to "get better," to show some dimension, to swim beyond those shallow waters; she never did. The result was an episode nearly as irritating as the character herself.

Yet in animation, caricatures don't make me angry. If they're detailed enough, they can be as endearing as the most well-developed and complex live-action heroes. The best cartoon shorts from the Golden Age, particularly Warner Brothers releases, understand exactly what a caricature should do: inspire us to laugh at ourselves.

All Looney Tunes enthusiasts know that two distinct Daffy Ducks exist: the wild, no-holds-barred Daffy who first bounced across the screen in "Porky's Duck Hunt" in 1937, and the impulsively greedy, calculating Daffy popularized by Chuck Jones in shorts like "Rabbit Fire" and "Ali Baba Bunny." Each Daffy takes an element from the human blueprint and exaggerates it to a raucous extreme: longing to break rules in the first, the drive for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement in the second. They have in common yet another human trait, the desire -- nay, the need -- to win. As we watch him frustrate poor hunter Porky Pig's efforts to apply the laws of basic logic to him, we root for him to continue pole-vaulting over those laws and only wish we could follow; in some way, his victory is ours. Even when we're not rooting for him, we understand him because we sense his presence inside us. When the world is after us with a gun, what more sensible option could there be than to persuade it to aim at someone else? Of course, Daffy's efforts at this, just like our own, are doomed to failure. He gets the gun-blast in the face every time. Blam! Take that, Us!

In almost every Looney Tune character I can find some part of myself. I can identify with Sylvester as he gazes hungrily at that annoying little bird in his precious gilded cage and longs to take him down. Like Foghorn Leghorn, I'd like to have a voice loud enough to sound right even when I'm wrong. When I'm screaming at my frozen computer or waiting an age for a website to load, I'm Wile E. Coyote, fuming at yet another technological failure. Yet these caricatures share a distinctly admirable quality: they never give up.

Then there's Bugs Bunny. He's different from the others because he isn't like us. Rather, as Chuck Jones has pointed out, he's what we would like to be. Who wouldn't want to outsmart hunters, gangsters, bulls, opera singers, gamblers, witches, and Martians with as much panache as he? Because we wish ourselves into his paws, we can imagine his triumphs (for a little while) as our own.

Adult animation fans are often asked a Rorsach Test kind of question: "Are you Disney or Warner Brothers?" My answer is very simple: I'm both. Each one meets a need the other can't quite reach. When I want to get misty-eyed, when my heart needs to latch onto a beautifully-told sentimental tale, I look to Disney. When I want a good, hard laugh at what is best and worst in myself, I look to Warners. I treasure them equally, and I'm very grateful I don't have to do without either.

Now, a short list of favorite Warners cartoons, with a favorite line from each:

"Robin Hood Daffy": "Actually, it's a buck-and-a-quarter quarterstaff, but I'm not telling him that."
"What's Opera, Doc?": (sung) "Yes, magic helmet -- and I'll give you a sample!"
"Duck Amuck": (sung) "Daffy Duck he had a farm, E-I-E-I-O, And on this farm he had an igloo, E--I -- E... I... Oh."
"Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century": "Gad, how do I do it?"
"One Froggy Evening": (sung) "Please don't talk about me when I'm gone..."
"Bugs and Thugs": "He's not in this stove!"
"Rabbit Hood": "I will probably hateth myself cometh the dawn!"

These lines won't make a bit of sense tho those who have never seen the cartoons. But my fellow Looney Tunes fans are probably having a good chuckle right now.