Monday, December 8, 2014

Roadtrips and Rainbows...

In literature I would likely be pegged as an "unreliable narrator" for my tendency to remember ONLY the curious side of things, often overlooking the drearier, duller bits. Take this header, for instance. No, on our recent road-trip, Troy and I did see a rainbow--a shy, frail smirk of a rainbow, to be exact. We also saw rockslides, mudslides, fog, hail, sludgy, slurry-like mud, and ungoodly amount of rain. But who wants to hear about the drab and the damp. Much less relive it. (Though, I will talk about the wild turkeys, California Condors, and the mice in the walls.)

The reason we've taken the trip in the first place was to attend Andrea Brown writing workshop at Big Sur. Hosted by one of the country's most prominent literary agencies, it is a three-day live-in, work-in retreat focused on polishing your work-in-progress while networking with your peers and industry professionals. How could I miss such a chance? Besides, we badly needed a getaway, and the fates graciously aligned their whims to our needs. Or so I like to think. The workshop ended up being a great learning experience. But then, so did the trip.

For one, we've gotten a year's worth of sightseeing in six hours, mostly in the form of various wildlife picturesquely lounging, soaring, or scavenging en plain air. The nature started us up on the hawks, moved us up to the vultures, and then swiftly progressed us to seals, deer, foxes, raccoons and finally, its glorious piece de resistance--California Condors. I had never seen one up close and--HOLY WOW!--the sheer size of it made my jaw drop as I stared at the creature in awe and trepidation. Those things are ENORMOUS! To call them birds is a sacrilege. Bears of the skies is a more fitting name!! Honestly, after seeing the condors, I would've been perfectly content to go back to LA and write them into my latest fantasy, but there was still more to experience--the writing and the revising and the networking, not to mention the driving.

Now, I'm more than ever convinced that the main purpose of road trips is brainstorming. While sampling new tunes and snacking on the gas station-bought treats that for some reason don't seem nearly as objectionable if consumed in a car. Treats, such as pork rinds and vinegar-soaked jerky and squishy egg salad sandwiches cut into perfect triangles. I should probably be ashamed for admitting this, but...these sandwiches are a long-standing staple, second only to 7-Eleven hotdogs as my favorite guilty road trip pleasure.

Big Sur is a quiet, wooded place hugged by the mountains, which are in turn embraced by the ocean. Its cool, damp scent reaches you at the same time you feel a peculiar unmoored sensation of submerging underwater. One minute you are hugging the barren hills, another you are engulfed by the trees. Giant pines, whose leafy branches clung to one another, blocking out the warmth and the sun. For such a solemn landscape, all aspects of it twine together into a kind of low-strung harmony. Moody and subdued, but also lyrically lovely. Celebrated for once being the home to the formidable Henry Miller and for lying close to the picture-perfect Carmel by the Sea, Big Sur is a solitary paradise, ideal for confiding your inner world to paper. The retreat nestled in the woods, taking up the entire Big Sur Lodge, with its rows of quaint, wooden cabins and hills overrun with wild turkeys and inquisitive deer. Shockingly spacious for two people, our cabin was smoky and cranky, rustic and inexplicably charming. It rained through the night, and we could hear mice scratching beyond the walls, the soft sighing of damp wood, and branches slapping the wet palms of their leaves against the glass.

The workshop itself was lovely. The ideal hub for brainstorming, revising, and hanging out with your fellow authors. My only issue was its length. Like most things we come to appreciate and enjoy, it was all too brief. Which in no way detracted from its awesomeness, the thoroughness of its instructors, or the quality of their feedback. If any of you has an opportunity to attend this retreat, my advice is: seize it. The classes were small and intimate, and each of us got the chance to dig deep into our stories' innards, to test our plots for weaknesses, and brainstorm solutions that would deliver on storytelling potential. Three days may not seem like nearly enough time, but by the end I had rewritten my opening, bonded with a group of amazing writers, and gained a deeper understanding of my characters and plot. Also, explored Big Sur's dreamy beaches and meandering forests trails.

After Big Sur, we headed to San Francisco by way of Carmel. The town by the sea is what a fairy-tale would most likely look like if it somehow manages to translate itself into reality. Full of ivy-corseted, moss-strewn cottages with shingled roofs and neat lawns; of tiny, multi-storied art galleries with warm, glowing windows and cozy garret quarters; of brass and iron clocks that tracked the passage of time in far off places; of carved window shutters and whimsical staircases disappearing into mysterious basements; the town is a dream. And like any fairy-place worth its salt, it has a profusion of restaurants and bakeries, delicatessen and candy shops. And dogs. Carmel is delightfully dog-friendly, and if you enjoy the company of furry, shaggy canines of all sizes and shapes, it is definitely the place for you.

This friendly critter at our hotel.

An art installation on the Bay Bridge

To our delight, the animal friendly theme continued into San Francisco. Our trip to Union Square was especially heartwarming, because all the dogs and cats you see in these windows were being placed up for adoption by the SF SPCA, the no-kill San Francisco shelter. While we stood admiring this pretty girl and talking to one of the SPCA volunteers, two sister puppies got adopted into their new forever family. Talk about positive energy. The best part about the SPCA is their commitment to placing terminally ill pets into new homes; and only a very small percentage of these animals is ever returned. As an owner of an epileptic dog, I'm a big believer in no-kill shelters and encourage everyone to support the amazing work they do to ensure all animals find their HEA.

Gorgeous Holiday windows around Union Square.

An unexpected sledding raccoons diorama in an otherwise proper office building.

We returned to LA, grateful to be back home, though reluctant to give up the joy of roaming the roads, bone-weary from lack of sleep and antsy with the travel-borne ideas and the urge to clothe them in words. Full of those peculiar but welcome incongruities, when your body is at odds with your mind, and the friction fills you with restless electric sparks. But ultimately, we were ready to turn the page and see where the new story may take us. 

Well, hello there, rainbow!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving, Shades of Blue, Birthdays, Book Love and Masks

Wishing all those of you who celebrate it a Happy and Thoroughly Delicious Thanksgiving! Taking a day to recognize the blessings you might've otherwise taken for granted or overlooked, while sharing food and conversation with family and friends, always unspools those bright, golden threads of memories woven throughout the year that reel in warmth and laughter. Good thoughts beget good thoughts. Which is why Thanksgiving has always ranked high on my holiday meter. Besides, every so often it lands on my birthday.

It feels as if the universe itself is nudging me out of my misanthropic hibernation, hinting rather transparently that I can't help but be grateful for...well, for being here. On this planet. This side of the world. In my body. A little on the nose, universe. As if I need to smell the turkey and pumpkin-cranberry pie to bask in the glorious joy of existing. Or maybe I do. I certainly enjoy it. As I prep and cook and joke with Troy, the festive, bright feeling slowly sinks in, and by the time dinner is ready, our minds are brimming with the pleasure of each others company. Cooking always reminds me of Like Water for Chocolate, of those parts, where the heroine infuses the food she prepares with her emotions. Only in real life, this happens in reverse order; it is the sensory act of cooking that makes you shimmer and bubble, grow languorous and unhurried, light-hearted and bubbly, depending on your concoction.

For me, Thanksgiving has always been a chirpy, lively affair (and I always sneak in a glass of red wine as I cook); besides, after all these years of making stuff together, Troy and I have synchronized our culinary temperaments to perfection and the whole thing, set to the soundtrack pumped out by Pandora, is pretty effortless. Which reminds me of our very first joint Thanksgiving, when we were still unknown quantities to each other, when our mood was exploratory and our oven in a tiny hole of a house -- perpetually out of order. My hubby surprised me with a birthday trip to San Diego, where we made a proper, many-coursed dinner (turkey, stuffing, baked yams, pie) right in our room (serendipitously equipped with a full kitchen) and realized how well we got along with the spices, sharp knives and each other. I can still see the bewildered expressions of other hotel guests, as they paused in the drab, oatmeal-colored hallways to sniff suspiciously at the roasting-turkey-scented air. Good times! On a scale of effort to gratification, cooking falls just below sitting in a deep chair with a really good read in your lap. Dreaming comes close. Very close.

Love the symbolism of the cover!
And, yes, the crocodile is a part of the plot,
and so is the raven
And while I'm thinking about dreaming and books, I cannot help but rave about a fairy tale-esque, dreamy novel by Sally Gardner -- I, Coriander.  Set in a seventeen-century London during Cromwell's revolution, the story follows Coriander -- a girl who falls on hard times when her mother dies and her father is driven away by his evil new wife. The premise might sound simple, but the story is anything but! It is fascinating and funny and heart-rending and magical, with the added bonuses of featuring two of the most malicious, creepy villains I have seen in a fantasy and delicious pages of gorgeous, lyrical writing. This book is such a delight! The history and fantasy intertwine, showing us now dazzling magic, now harrowing darkness. Through it all, Coriander remains a strong, determined heroine, who fights hard to keep her dignity and set things right.

This book was a birthday gift from my hubby, and I stayed up and up and up, unable to part with its lush, chilling, captivating world. And after I finished reading, I stayed up a  little longer to get more books by the same wonderful author. So far, I've read three of her novels! Sally Gardner is my new hero! Her spirit is as bright and persevering as that of her heroines, and I can't help but admire anyone, who has overcome severe dyslexia to become an award-winning writer!!! I highly recommend I, Coriander to those of you who love fantasy, fairy-tales and romance and are not particularly averse to looking at the darker aspects of humanity. What a great book! And that cover!!! I want to always have it in sight.

And just a tiny birthday bit snuck into a holiday post. I want to share a gorgeous card Kim, my lovely and talented sister-in-law has made for me. Isn't it perfect? It can easily be an illustration to the Land of Joy and Sorrow. It even has a gorgeous lapis-blue feather. Love it so much!!! I think this coming Christmas the color scheme in my house would flow between different shades of blue: ultramarine, and turquoise, and sapphire, and Indian-ink-blue, and iridescent raven-plumage-blue, and deep-Prussian-blue. It will be a landscape of wintry shadows; the brilliance of color punctured only by the warm glow of many candles. Hmmm....Why not!

And now, something bizarre and creepy-delightful I found while researching...Loooove research; odd, little gems of knowledge always fall in my lap. Like this one. A forgotten Thanksgiving tradition. How wild is that!!!

Photo via the Library of Congress

I never knew this, but it seems that a hundred years ago, Thanksgiving was a lot like...Halloween. Scores of kids and adults alike would dress up and go on 'city crawls,' especially in such sprawling areas as Chicago or New York. Makeshift Thanksgiving parades -- fantasticals -- marched down the streets. Many wore garish masks - 'false faces' or 'dough faces' and patched, tattered costumes in a perverse tribute to poverty, rode horses or bicycles. Mischief and cross-dressing ensued.

Boys posing in their sisters'
old, ragged finery.
Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.
The goal was to look as disheveled and wretched as possible. A 1910 book called Little Talks For Little People spelled out the dress code: "Old shoes and clouted upon your feet, and old garments upon you." Children, 'maskers,' dressed as homeless people (a custom stemming from mumming, when men in costumes asked for food and money, often in exchange for music), doused people with confetti and flour, going door to door in ragamuffin packs or begging strangers "anything for Thanksgiving?" Passerby threw them change, spiced jelly gums, tinted hard candy or apples.

 Only by mid 20th century did the masking tradition shift to the more whimsical Halloween.Wild, isn't it?

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Telling of a Dream...

We all know the shimmery feel of a dream, still sleep-warm and solid, slipping from our awakening bodies. Like a silver-scaled fish falling back into the night-water. But what if we could continue to watch it? And not only watch it, but shape and spin and tell it in the process? This is what fantasy writing is to me -- the telling of a dream.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

On the Couch the Coffin

So many writers swear by a special working spot where their creative juices flow effortlessly and abundantly, where their inspiration streams unabashed and the keys of their computers can never match the flying speed of their fingers. Some ensconce themselves in the noisy innards of coffee shops, while others prefer the serene quiet of a farthermost corner of a library (hellooo noise-cancelling headphones!), many require the rigid severity of a neatly organized desk, while many more do their best work lounging in their yet-unmade beds. The common thread marking these very different individuals as a kind of literary kin is their propensity to link their best creative moments to a place. A place which channels the drafts of new ideas, a place which commands the muses. A place too fantastical to truly exist.

I have always thought such stories tall tales in the vein of finding Shangri La, or the end of the rainbow, or the fountain of youth, in other words, all those amazingly blessed places rumored to exist at the crossing of the earth's ley lines, or on the bottom of a wishing well, or in an underground cavern of a crafty, green-bearded leprechaun. Always so conveniently out of reach.

So I resisted the temptation of a perfect writing spot, buckled down and wrote. Surprisingly, I found writing was a discipline that could be trained and honed, much like playing an instrument, riding a bike, or -- yes -- sleeping. I remembered my grandmother's stories of working night shifts as an emergency room surgeon on call. Over the years, she had developed an uncanny ability to sleep whenever and wherever she could and would fall into a deep slumber in a matter of seconds. Day or night. I tried to use her example as a model for my writing. Whenever and wherever. Writing became something that had to be done. A pleasure, but also a task. I wrote on the planes, in the trains, on a France-to-Ireland ferry abling across stomach-churningly choppy waters, while cooking, hiking, shopping and even during a friend's performance of La Traviata.

I still heard echoes of those tales. But, despite being a fantasy geek, I never gave them any thought. Never believed in them. (There's a limit to gullibility even for someone who writes about sentient feathers.) That is, until I discovered a magical spring of creative prowess right in the center of my own living room (now lovingly referred to by my family members as the writing couch). That writing couch, you guys, it's a thing of pure poetry. I kid you not.

It's uncanny, how such mundane a thing as a piece of furniture -- and not a new or imposing one at that -- can make you sink into your inner world, only to emerge with a wealth of ideas. As soon as I plop down on the now much-deflated cushions, the ideas surge. They stampede! Inelegantly, but eagerly. My shabby writing couch works the kind of miracles my good and proper desk could never manage on its (and mine) best days. I suspect that it may, in fact, be standing on the very crossing of the ley lines and rainbow tails or spilling over into a mystical land of whispering muses and wish-granting leprechauns. Whatever magic hides behind its cushions, it works. Of course, it does so in its own, capricious way; the ideas never follow my writerly will, preferring to flutter down the tangling, meandering routes of their own choosing. Which is okay. I am patient and can wait until our paths converge in a synergy of creativity and purpose. I can wait as long as it takes. Or, at least, as long as there's coffee in my cup and sugar in my system. (Or, definitely, as long as a toothy, weary leprechaun grudgingly keeps tossing patinaed wishing coins in the well of my inspiration.)

Sometimes when I find myself jotting ideas on the go, thinking of my lonesome writing couch, I wonder why does a place have such an impact on the writing process. Because the connection cannot be denied. The late poet Robert Creeley once said, "The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in a most fruitful manner." Creeley himself required a "very kind of secure quiet," or, as he put it, "I usually have some music playing, a kind of drone that I like, as relaxation." In a sense, a place becomes a key, able to unlock the writer's inner world. The irony of this is that the place ceases to matter, as soon as the writer walks across the threshold to his imagination.

Of course, not every author found inspiration while sitting at a desk, on a couch or in a chair. Many renowned story-tellers chose the most unconventional places as perches for their literary pursuits. Here are some of the more unexpected ones (from an article by Celia Blue Johnson):

Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita on notecards while traveling on butterfly-collecting trips in the U.S.

D.H. Lawrence preferred to write outdoors, beneath the shade of a tree. He found a trunk to lean against wherever he went, from pine trees in New Mexico to great firs in Germany’s Black Forest. Discussing his predilection, Lawrence noted, “The trees are like living company.”

Gertrude Stein discovered that the driver’s seat of her Model T Ford was a perfect place to write. Shopping expeditions around Paris were particularly productive for the writer. While her partner, Alice B. Toklas, ran errands, Stein would stay in their parked car and work.

Agatha Christie had two important demands for the renovation of her mansion. She informed her architect, “I want a big bath, and I need a ledge because I like to eat apples.” Christie constructed her plots in a large Victorian tub, one bite at a time.

Sir Walter Scott crafted “Marmion,” his bestselling epic poem, on horseback, in the undulating hills near Edinburgh, Scotland. Though one might assume a leisurely pace is necessary for creative concentration atop a horse, Scott preferred to contemplate the lines of the poem at a faster clip. “I had many a grand gallop among these braes when I was thinking of ‘Marmion’,” he recalled.

Dame Edith Sitwell had a ritual of lying down before she set pen to paper. Rather than reclining on a bed or a couch, though, she chose to climb into an open coffin. In those morbidly tight quarters, the eccentric poet found inspiration for her work.

Marcel Proust spent his nights writing in bed. However, the busy Parisian street outside his apartment window began to take its toll on his nocturnal routine: Noise drifted up to his room while he was trying to sleep during the day. Proust’s solution was to line the walls with cork, and it worked. 

Now, what is your magical writing place?  

Not a part of the list, just a fun fact: Margaret and H.A. Rey built bicycles from spare parts to escape from a Nazi invasion in Paris while carrying the manuscript for Curious George.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Mad-Dash to the Pumpkin Pie Patch

Every year we resolve to prepare for the holidays, and every year we fail; the days creep up on us stealthy-like, sending us in a mad-scramble to find the pumpkins, decorate the tree, speed-wrap the gifts, make a gingerbread house, all in the eleventh hour. Perhaps we use our perpetual holiday tardiness as an opportunity to test the limits of our resourcefulness, perhaps we are procrastinators by nature, or perhaps every year, we fall a little more out of step with time. Whatever the reason, I have to admit -- there is a certain masochistic pleasure in rushing around, a mad, cackling triumph to getting things done in the last moment, a wild, adrenaline-fueled excitement to spiking stress.

Light Halloween reading
(and drinking).
This year should've been no different. We got ready to dash and scramble, but when we got to our local grocery store, we noticed a great lack of orange. It turned out the Halloween's staple vegetable had ran out. There wasn't a pumpkin in sight. I hopefully raced toward every speck of familiar color, only to be bitterly disappointed. My attempts to roll away the store's ginormous winter squash display were met with skeptically-raised eyebrows and unconcealed sniggers. Beaten, we searched every grocery store in the area, only to hear more of the same: all the pumpkins were sold out. Who needed that many pumpkins? Were people baking an endless supply of pies? Building orange forts in their back yards? Using them as a misguided sort of currency?

In our perplexed and disheartened state, we forgot to dash, and instead shuffled aimlessly, until we stumbled upon a closing pumpkin patch. Success. Soon, our cart filled up and our resourcefulness bar crept higher with each added pumpkin. Though, to be completely honest, I don't know why we try. Our neighborhood is a Halloween dead-zone, diligently decorated, but for some mysterious reason, stubbornly avoided by costumed folk of all ages. This year, we managed to lure two trick-or-treaters, doubling our last year's record. We were making bets whether or not this record could be surpassed,  when down came the first heavy rain of the season, washing away all potential candy-hunters, dashing our hopes and briefly plunging us into darkness.

The power eventually came back on, but the rain poured harder. What were we to do? Watch an appropriately spooky movie, gobbling up brain cupcakes, of course. 

Brain Cupcakes!
(pumpkin cakes with vanilla frosting)


 and after

After much heated debate, we settled on Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. It was just right and made me wish (in equal parts) to transport to Victorian New York, to write a chilling Victorian haint-story and to find Troy a nineteenth century frock coat and a cravat.

This pearlescent, atmospheric palette sets the mood for the creepy,
haunting tale perfectly + Johnny Depp!!!

Troy and I are ready for trick-or-treaters!!!

Awesome ghoulish gourds carved by Jon Neill at the
RISE of the Jack O'Lanterns

(aren't these fantastic!)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Illusions of Fate

Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White (a part of my Comic-Con horde) is one of those rare, special books you wish you could live in every single day. Yes, it is really that good. Better, even.

I met Kiersten at a Wonder-Con book signing last spring and fell in love with her enchanting, atmospheric In the Shadows, co-created with Jim DiBartolo. Needless to say, when I got my hands on the galley of the Illusions, I inhaled it in one seating. My only complaint about the book was its length. Too short. Too, too short. I would've loved to keep reading. And reading. And reading some more. Because this book is pure MAGIC. Charming, witty, heart-breaking, romantic. It reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle -- an old and true favorite -- with a shade of Jane Eyre, or, perhaps, Pride and Prejudice. The story has it all: a clever, strong, independent heroine; a dashing, tormented hero; a quirky, endearing sidekick (love you, Sir Bird); a creepy and cruel villain, and magic -- lots and lots of curious, strange, thrilling magic. 

On top of everything else, Kiersten has a gift for giving her readers a striking visual experience; as I was reading the book, my fingers itched to illustrate the scenes -- the ball at the lush hothouse of a Conservatory; the sparkling, vivacious symphony; the gloomy, misty park besieged by crows. Each scene set a unique mood, adding color and character to the original, vibrant world of magic, secrets and danger. And the shadows. Swoon. How I wish we could have this happen in real life. 

The story begins with Jessamine, who has left her native tropical island of Melei to attend school in a dreary, proper Albion (reminiscent of Victorian England.) With her dark hair and complexion Jessa doesn't fit in among the pale "civilized"Albions and has to deal with prejudice and harassment, still, she is determined to make the best of the situation. She excels at her studies and works hard as a maid at a ritzy hotel to pay for her school. When a chance meeting with gorgeous Lord Finley draws her into Albion's secret world of privilege, magic and danger, Jessamine refuses to play by the rules of others and sets out to discover as much as she can about the forbidden art of spells. Soon, she is caught up in an ongoing feud between Finn and the powerful Lord Downpike, who wants to uncover the secret of Finn's magic, a feud that threatens to destroy not only Albion, but also Melei. Jessamine must use every bit of her wits to stop her enemies and save everyone she loves before it's too late.

Jessamine, Jessa, is easily one one my favorite YA heroines: she's determined, spirited, witty, intelligent, feisty and brave. She is secure in her own skin, stands firmly by her beliefs (and her friends), refuses to play a damsel in distress, and, all in all, kicks some major magic ass. 

Finn is the perfect hero: selfless, kind, sweet, courageous, loyal. He treats Jessa with respect, understands her, supports her and appreciates not only her exotic beauty, but her intelligence and her personality as well. He cares for Jessa and is deeply protective of her, but never controlling or possessive. More importantly, he lets her make her own choices. Their dynamic is wonderful; Kiersten takes time to develop their relationship, and I love seeing their flirtatious banter turn into a raw and honest expression of real feelings. 

And, of course, let's not forget Eleanor, the girl's all sorts of awesome. She's a gem of a character -- wonderfully scheming and funny and gossipy and surprisingly bad-ass.

Favorite scene:

“You made it to do with her, though, didn’t you?” Eleanor looks pointedly at the ground where my shadow pools at my feet. “Can I see it? Wiggle around or something. I’ve never actually seen someone shadowed before! It’s so romantic!”

“It is nothing of the sort! It’s…” I glance at Finn, who is avoiding my eyes. “ He was just spying, and…” Romantic? Preposterous. But suddenly I am desperate to understand. “What does it mean? He wouldn’t explain it to me.”

“Open your mouth, Eleanor, and I will cut out your tongue and use it as fertilizer for my personal herb garden.”

“But she should know!” Eleanor whines, pulling my back to the couch across from Finn. “It’s adorable.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Stronger, with More Hands...

I would've never pegged comic conventions for places to hear some of my favorite writers speak about their work to an audience of wildly costumed, raptly listening fans. To me, all the fantasy/YA panels, book signings and publishers booths at the recent San Diego Comic-Con were a complete revelation -- why hadn't I heard of such magical things taking place here before? And the book signings, my goodness, the book signings...The one thought running through my mind was -- hands. I needed more hands. Or, at the very least, a sturdier bag. But mostly -- more hands. Because the books were stacked up high, in colorful, author-coordinated towers, the scent of their still fresh typographical ink beckoning me like a heady, familiar savor lured a starving wanderer. So many new books. So many good books. So many unread books.

Getting the shiny, slick galleys (a copy of a book that has yet to go through the final stage of edits) was the unexpected treat: Kiersten White's The Illusions of Fate (I will gush about this particular book in a later post), Marie Lu's The Young Elites, Arwen Elys Dayton's Seeker. So very generous of the publishers to promote their authors with such fantastic giveaways. The galleys found a caring home, and I discovered new writers to love. Well played, publishers. Well played.

My discovery of books made me temporarily forget about everything else: the world faded to a swooshing background noise, the coffee crisis in my cup became a distant concern, the colors of the Thor costume on the fellow in front of me dimmed. Because books. They took precedent above all else. There were book signings with George R.R. Martin (you had to stand in line to enter your name in a drawing just to win the right to stand in a signing line!), with my beloved Robin Hobb, with always fabulous Laini Taylor, with the talented and hilarious Jim DiBartolo, with Lev Grossman, Allen Zadoff, Leigh Bardugo, Rachel Caine, Marie Lu, Arwen Elys Dayton, Marissa Meyer, Ann Aguirre, Kimberly Derting, Kiersten White, Tobias Buckbell and many, many others. It was a lush, book lovers Eden snuck into the chaotic comic book world. Who knew?

The second thought of the day was -- stronger. I needed to be stronger. Troy needed to be stronger. Stronger, and with more hands. Because those books and galleys, they were not feather-light. At the end of the day, my arms felt like aching wet ropes, twisted into intricate knots. Still, this hurt was well worth the pleasure of tucking myself into an armchair with so many new reads that very same evening.

Marie Lu and Rachel Caine
And the panels...My goodness. The panels! The panels were simply AMAZING! I went to Vengeance and Villains and got to hear Rachel Caine, Marie Lu, Arwen Elys Dayton, Ann Aguirre, Kimberly Derting, Kiersten White, Allen Zadoff and Tobias Buckbell discuss their favorite bad guys. Respect to Kiersten White for naming Peter Pan. That selfish flying brat used to annoy me as a child, making me root for the misunderstood, hook-handed pirate (and how can you not root for the pirate?). Yep, to me, Peter Pan was the ultimate bad guy: uncaring, callous, pompous, without any regrets or much of a conscience. It is ironic how the failed good guys often make the best villains! Conversely, the failed antagonists can morph into the perfect tragic heroes.

The panelists also agreed that well-written female villains were perhaps the most terrifying creatures in existence: to see women as destroyers instead of mothers, nurturers, friends would send shivers down the hardest, most stoic spines.  

The signing lines begin behind this fierce couple, see them?
I almost missed the End of Series...or Not? panel featuring Lynn Flewelling (Nightrunner series), Lev Grossman (The Magicians series), Laini Taylor (The Daughter of Smoke & Bone Trilogy), Jon Maberry (the Rot and Ruin series), Ben Winters (The Last Policeman Trilogy), Kresley Cole (Immortals After Dark Series), and Leigh Bardugo (The Grisha Trilogy), and was one of the last people to sneak into the crowded room. So worth the wait!

The first question was whether the writers pre-planned their series to be finite or not? Did they destroy the world or leave the story open-ended? Everyone had a different take on this. Lynn (who has one seven and one three book series) said that it was always painful to end a series, but her gut told her when it was time. Lev shared that he wanted to write about the magicians' life after their eduction. For instance, what was magic for if no one was threatening the world? Once, this goal was accomplished, he stopped. Laini is an intuitive writer. She had no idea how her trilogy was going to end until she wrote it. (By the way, it is unbelievably good. The Dreams of Gods and Monsters is everything you hoped it would be...tripled. A truly solid third book.) Kresley has a fifteen book series and is still going strong. She promised to write as long as people were willing to read. And Leigh enjoyed shorter stories, which could be tricky, as they imposed limits.

The second question asked what kept the readers engaged? Leigh said that authors had two choices for their character: a character who had everything and you took it from them, or a character who had nothing and you took even more. (And keep in mind that the story always trumps world-building.) Kresley liked to introduce secondary characters like a villain or godmother and switch up expectations. In Ben’s first book in the series, the character was young in a lot of ways and had to grow up. What made people stick was that the characters were still growing. Jon mentioned how we always entered a story with a limited world view. For example, his main character in the Rot and Ruin books was angry all the time, and why he was mad was part of his limited world view. But once exposed to a larger world view, it changed his life. World view wasn’t entirely the character’s fault, but as there was more exposure the view adjusted. Laini said she liked a tight narrative where certain questions were answered. Also, if the writing was beautiful, the reader wanted to sink into it.

Lev wrote The Magicians as a stand-alone, because he wasn’t convinced it would be published. But he had to send his characters back into that world. He wanted to know what happened next. Lynn said she also wrote a stand-alone that became two books, and then her editor asked her if she wanted it to be more. She invested so much, and there was more to tell. She writes for herself, as writing is hard, so she needs to love it.

The panel was amazing. Totally worth the wait.

Comic-Con appropriate footwear.

Getting into the Rulers of the Realm was even trickier. My secret to surviving the long, non-nonsense lines? Flats, or -- to be more precise -- flip flops. But even had I been wearing stilettos, I wouldn't have missed this discussion of epic fantasy between George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones), Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle), Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), Joe Abercrombie (Half a King), and Lev Grossman (Magicians Trilogy). Lively Ali T. Kokman of Barnes & Noble MCed. Being a fantasy girl through and through, I found the panel riveting.

Ali kicked off the discussion by asking the writers to describe the ways they tackled world-building in their novels. Joe admitted that he "made stuff up" and suggested you do lots of research or -- in other words -- read. For instance, he read historical non-fiction to lend his works authenticity. Diana agreed with the importance of research, adding that there was still "plenty to steal from real history." George R.R. Martin admitted to borrowing from history and throwing out what he didn't need or want. Lev preferred to deconstruct, or as he put it "defile" reality, and Patrick shared how sometimes he believed he had made things up, only to be questioned by fans, who found historical precedents. "I’m clever, I take credit for accidents." Nice!

After that, Ali wondered what, aside from research, assisted with writing? Joe's answer was -- maps. Yay, Joe. This really resonated with me. I'm a huge fan of fantasy maps because they really help you anchor your readers in your world, give them a real sense of place. Of course, fantasy maps can be tricky. George R.R. Martin called to exercise extra caution when dreaming up the lay of your land -- one day your publisher might decide to create a detailed map and then you would have to face all the disparities between your maps and the events you described in your book. And filling in the blanks could be a real challenge; turned out the author had a real hard time naming...mountains. He also said, "If you want to know where fantasy maps come from, take the map at the front of your favorite fantasy novel, and turn it upside down. Westeros began as upside-down Ireland. You can see the fingers of Dingle. Robin Hobb’s Six Duchies? Upside-down Alaska."

Patrick brought up an interesting point -- a writer should decide whether it is even necessary to create a map for his/her book, especially if they don’t particularly care for maps. Providing maps to the readers is a fantasy convention, true, but it is a convention only because Tolkien did it in The Hobbit -- and he did it because it was part of his story. Patrick also believed that many fantasy writers felt that they had to invent new languages, once again because of the Tolkien influence. "But Tolkien didn’t do it for tradition; he did it because he was a language geek! If you’re a geek for something, and if that’s herbology, or the nature of the night sky, or plate tectonics, revel in your geekery, roll around in it, and make that a part of your world." Don't do something because you feel like you’re supposed to, "I don’t really feel like that’s the best way to enjoy yourself and make a vibrant world." (By the way, Patrick's brand of geekery is currency.) To sum up this part of the discussion: Write about your passions and the rest will follow.  

For the third question Ali asked who was their first reader? "Myself," Diana responded, adding that she also trusted her husband's opinions. Joe echoed her answer, and Lev said that his wife read for him, because "she's way smarter than he is", but that he "is tougher on himself." Martin urged the writers to not simply write to trends (you'd lose yourself), but instead tell the story they really want to tell. His message was loud and clear: always write for yourself first. I cannot agree more. As for the beta readers, Patrick had the most, their number somewhere in the hundreds (he is obsessive about getting feedback from intelligent people), while Joe could only deal with two betas at a time. And Diana stressed the importance of getting feedback from the experts -- for instance, if your character loses a leg, find out as much as you can about the process of amputation.

Next, Ali wanted to know the toughest thing to get through when writing a novel? "Inertia," Diana answered. "The longer you go without writing, the harder it is to start again."She suggested to keep writing even when stuck. A great, wise advice. "That long period between the first sentence and the last," added Joe, urging fellow writers not to be too hard on themselves through the "suck." Another great advice. "Sucks" happen. They also pass, creating space for long, free stretches of writing.

At the end, the audience got to ask a few questions, among them:
How do you explore the unhealthy and healthy relationships in your books?
"Make a lot of mistakes in your life." Patrick suggested. "The earlier you make them, the more useful they will be and the more forgivable from your peers -- and the police." He explained how mistakes give one motivation to evolve. Lev described fantasy writing as "raw," the writing of it involving "sides of yourself that aren’t your can’t lie in fantasy, because everyone will know." Diana agreed that honesty is the key to a successful life (as is finding the right person.) Joe said he’d gotten two great pieces of writing advice: one from his mother, "be honest, be truthful"; "the other one, which I try to live by is -- every morning, get dressed. It can be a problem for writers." Martin challenged this, "I wrote many of my best works in a red flannel bathrobe!" "That counts!" Joe assured him.

The panel was long and lively and ended in such an interesting place that the audience, judging by how long it took people to get up from their seats, was very reluctant to leave.

Elsewhere in the center, Brenna Yavonoff signed copies of her latest book Fiendish at the Penguin booth, Marissa Meyer hung out at Macmillan that publishes Cinder, San Diego Public Library had a booth promoting library cards (libraries rock! I'm a huge fan/ardent believer in library-book-hunting) and around every corner another surprise lay in store for the lovers of books. It was like stumbling onto an Easter egg hunt, only way, way cooler.

All in all, I was surprised and thrilled to see so many authors, book sellers and publishers present at a comic con event. Next to booths of comic books, action figures and various super hero paraphernalia they held their own and drew in legions of fans -- colorful, enthusiastic, bookish, awesome.

Wow, this turned into a long, long post. But my simple going-to-look-at-the-comic-books trip turned into something much larger and greater, and I wanted to give it at least a tenth of the attention it deserved.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

High Echelons of Villainy

"Life -- the way it really is -- is a battle not between good and bad,
but between bad and worse."
― Joseph Brodsky

My first introduction to monsters came when I was four, my brother transitioning from an embryo to a fetus, and my mom dealing with bouts of tempestuous morning sickness and one over-inquisitive child. Hoping to temporarily stem my never-ending flow of questions, she gave me several of her large-format art books -- smooth, glossy pages, finely-printed reproductions, gold embossing, thick, oily smell of ink -- and I was silenced.

One of those books made an especially lasting impression, forever altering the way I saw story tale villains. It featured strange and fascinating art of Hieronymus Bosch -- pages after pages filled with bird-headed creatures and shark-toothed chimeras, leonine warriors and arrow-scaled beasts. Once I lay eyes on these grotesques, I couldn't look away; they terrified me, captivated my imagination, and, for the first time, made me want to fit images with a story. I glanced at the paintings sideways, out of the corner of my eye (to this day, I watch horror flicks askance) and made up my own tales for the strange creatures living side by side with humans. They were the villains and the heroes all at once, valiant and cruel -- I saw no contradiction in this -- a child's imagination is a thing innocent and savage. My monsters had as much claim to my fantasy world as the rosy-cheeked, auburn-locked heroes who often ended up eaten. Such outcome seemed logical. The heroes needed to grow teeth or be devoured. And the villains became the highlight of my stories.

My favorite Mwahaha!!! tee
Later, I discovered gloriously fantastic realms of Hans Christian Anderson, Brothers Grimm, Gogol and Tolkien, became aware of the dark battles in the anthologies of Indian, Celtic, German, Russian Chinese, Finnish and Scandinavian myths. And as I immersed myself deeper into these worlds, I loved their noble, often doomed heroes with all of my heart, but I loved their villains more. Because, as the whetstone  sharpens the blade, so the villains make the heroes more compelling, their struggle truly epic.

There are many types of villains in YA literature -- thoroughly disgusting, vile monsters and sympathetic, misunderstood souls; evil, scheming masterminds and cruel brutes spattered in blood of their victims; clever tricksters who win a sort of grudging respect with the readers and power-hungry tyrants who elicit nothing but revulsion. But the highest echelon of villainy belongs to those striking characters who are able to thoroughly appall us, while secretly, privately sparking a flicker of recognition as we examine our own deepest selves. Because even as we imagine ourselves as heroes, there's a tiny spark of villainy inside us, too. This quote says it best:

"Nobody is a villain in their own story.
We're all the heroes of our own stories." George R. R. Martin

Oh, how I love me a good villain. They are the spice that gives the story its flavor, that makes you sweat with dread, or tremble with tension, or look at the page askance, or whatever it is you do when reading a book with a truly powerful villain. Because, monsters done right are just so good! And so much fun! Not to mention how a well-written villain adds depth to your struggling hero, reflecting him or her like a distorted dark mirror.

Dastardly Raccoon says, "Bow to your dark lord, my minions!"
5 tips for creating a memorable antagonist:
  1. Give your villain a goal.
  2. Make your villain active.
  3. Make your villain compelling
  4. A good villain must be stronger than the hero.
  5. Give your antagonist a human weakness.

A good villain must be stronger than a hero...Well, obviously!

5 totally awesome villains (beware of spoilers):

5. Darkling from Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Source: siderealscion

Ah, Darkling. An ancient sorcerer who plans to bring peace to his land by threatening the world with unspeakable horrors, Darkling is a misunderstood and troubled figure. His followers adore him, while his enemies and compatriots alike tremble at the mere mention of his name. He is ruthless, cunning, powerful and will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. Did I mention he is also devastatingly handsome in that brooding loner boy kind of way?
"Fine,"says Darkling. "Make me your monster."
(Don't mind if I do.)

4. King Leck of Monsea from Graceling

Now, here's a real twisted piece of pure, unapologetic evil that would give Lord Voldemort a run for his money. A sociopath who uses his Grace to manipulate or mutilate others, Leck hurts animals and children and hides his wickedness under a guise of benevolence. He is nearly a caricature of all things depraved, without so much as a shred of goodness in his dark, poisonous soul. A truly monstrous man gone far beyond redemption.

3. Linay from Plain Kate by Erin Bow


A wretched, tragic villain that tugs at your heartstrings, Linay reminds me of Kalevala's Kullervo. He tricks Kate, the book's heroine, into giving him her shadow, which he intends to use to work some very dark, nasty magic, but...his end goal is wrought not out of evil, but of heartbreak and long-suffering. He is an ambiguous, conflicted character with a bitter history and complicated motives for what he does and, at times, almost makes you sympathize with his plight. He is kind to Kate and in his own way seems to genuinely care for her, yet he has no qualms in using her in his quest for vengeance and doesn't mind sacrificing innocent lives to achieve his goals. Nuanced, tormented and flawed in a compellingly human way, Linay is definitely, my kind of baddie!

2. Razgut from Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy by Laini Taylor

Laini deserves special praise for bringing to life some of the most vivid, twisted and memorable villains I've had the pleasure of experiencing in a story. They are deliciously layered -- never simple cardboard scarecrows, but flesh-and-bone beings torn by their desires and ambitions. This book has not one, but several rather memorable antagonists. I don't want to leak spoilers for readers who haven't read the books, so I'm only going to talk about one of Laini's villains -- Razgut. Razgut is a fallen seraph, yearning to bring about the destruction of the world. A creature with a deformed, bloated face, shreds of broken wingbones protruding between his shoulder blades and a tongue he uses to taste others (Aaaaaghhh!), Razgut is creepy, lecherous, crafty and deceitful. Best of all, he is not a mindless monster, but a desperate being, driven by a violent need, whose story is steeped in heart-aching longing for his homeland and unspeakable betrayal.

1. Captain Kennit aka King of the Pirates from The Ship of Magic of Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb.

Oh, Kennit, he is by far my absolute favorite villain. (I do like me a pirate!) Pompous, hilarious, heroic, cruel, vain, selfish, broken, conniving -- the list goes on and on -- Kennit is a study in contradictions. The best bits of novels come, when the self-proclaimed Captain of the Pirates unintentionally shrouds himself in legend and becomes the hero of the people, all through fortuitous distortion of events and gross misinterpretation of his actions by those around him. Brilliantly written!

Villains, aren't they great!

Who's your favorite villain?