Monday, September 24, 2012

The Storytelling of Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick

I write this with a bias toward the first half of the book, which frames this apocalyptic story in a wilderness survival story, a hiking endeavor that’s tense and harrowing even before the electromagnetic “zap” fries all watches, phones, pacemakers. I’m a fan of wilderness survival stories. Growing up, I loved reading The Cay, My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon was my first Stephen King (and I’d bet money Ms. Bick has read it). 

Why set a zombiepocalypse story in the wilderness? Wouldn’t a city have more advantages: the contrast between the advanced civilization of city life gone to ruins, masses of people who can run about and devour and advance shock factor, Interstate crashes, etc.

From the wilderness, “the apocalypse” emerges more quietly and spookily. (Some slight spoilers ahead!) At first, Alex thinks the zap happened very locally, in a place with few people: The damage is horrifying, but not cataclysmic. From that vantage, the damage broadens like a cancer: From the mountain, to the mountain and the valley. From the mountain and the valley, to an 80-square-mile segment of mountainous Michigan. From the 80 square miles, to all of Michigan. From Michigan to half the United States.

The wilderness characterizes the horrifying extent of the zap’s power like no other setting possibly could: It is not a dropped bomb with a radius of radiation, or a virus to which one could be miraculously immune. It is not escapable. Even 25 miles out from the nearest ranger tower, it kills and infects.

That said, I've got just one more comment on Ashes' storytelling: I’ve heard numerous writers comment that smell is an underutilized and neglected sense in our writing. Naming how a place smells can bring it to life for a reader more than its colors ever could. Bick maximizes the olfactory, and I lahhv it. Exploit that competition’s weakness!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

What I Learned About Storytelling from Karsten Knight's Wildefire

The story of Polynesian volcano goddess Ashline Wilde is sublime and sublimely underrated.

I've found myself coming back to it again and again. Here are some of the things I admire it for.

3. Humor. I can never forgive character flaw so easily as when it's delivered in a funny way. Got snark? "Do you two need to be alone? I'm suffocating on testosterone."

Got a blind girl who makes everybody uncomfortable? She should point out the window and say, "Look, a moose!" then crack up.

2. Wildefire condenses its huge scope & maintains a point-of-view character by using Ashline's visions. The story crosses time and continents, but it never leaves Ashline Wilde's perspective. Through visions, she understands the backstories of her friends and distant dangers heading her way.

1. Knight draws upon a vast number of mythologies, and it creates a sense of the epic in story with relatively narrow scope. To be technical about it, I mean, holy crap. We rediscover the Polynesian stories of Pele, the legends of the Hopi Native Americans and Shintoism, Zulu and Norse gods, Egyptian Isis. Greek mythology's sirens and blind prophets converge with Christianity as a little girl sings hymns about Immanuel. These dominate plot and inform characters, but little references find their ways in all over the story:

"Hello, Pandora's box," when the power goes out.

"'Colt Halliday?' she repeated, but ignored his outstretched hand. 'Sweet name. Isn't there a stagecoach somewhere you should be robbing?'"

In a note:

Sleeping Beauty,
We knocked for several minutes.... But you did not wake. We leave you now; however, please follow the marshmallow trail to Turtle Rock in the woods when you wake. 
J, D, and the Seven Dwarves

And of course, in reference to the emergence of more recent religious mythology:

"This is kind of like a really shitty version of The Breakfast Club, huh?"

Friday, September 21, 2012

What I Learned About Storytelling from The Unchained Tour

Where to even begin? The Unchained Tour was off the - Fine, I won't go there. It blew my mind. How's that?

Stalker shot of the Unchained bus
The Unchained Tour seeks to promote "the art of the raconteur - the telling of unscripted, personal, porch-style stories" with some musical setting.

Rachel Kate and Joel Hamilton

Unscripted but well-practiced, the stories were gripping.

Every storyteller - Dawn Fraser, Peter Aguero, Neil Gaiman, and Edgar Oliver - made fun of himself or herself: the ways they were in the past or even at the present moment.

Edgar Oliver
Every story centered upon a critical moment in their lives. None of them were frivolous anecdotes. They told of almost dropping out of high school and college, the meetings of spouses, and most important of all, animal rescues.

All of them kept their eyes focused toward the back of the room, with occasional sweeps across the crowd. The whole time Neil spoke, he looked like he was about to cry.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What I Learned About Storytelling Reading Svetlana Chmakova's Nightschool

Nightschool is an American-published manga by Russian-Canadian mangaka Svetlana Chmakova, most famous for Dramacon. 

A normal school by day, The Nightschool teaches vampires, weirns, mermaids, etc. The coarse, homeschooled Alex Treveney tries to track down her sister, Sarah, a teacher at the Nightschool. She also has a slight tendency to black out and leave slow, brutal death in her wake. 

Across the four books, I had fun picking apart some of Chmakova's storytelling tricks.

6. Delving into different types of pessimism and optimism is a fun way to develop characters/contrasts. The cheerful Sarah Treveney is pessimistic about the ball-busting Mrs. Hatcher, who in turn offers her optimistic support. Instant synchronized character dynamism!

5. The storytelling emphasizes slow moments. On pages 154-155 of volume 1, for example, back-to-back panels are almost identical, showing very gradual change. A door, a portal, slowly closes. If the door were "the clock" of the story and we had a protagonist racing through it like Indiana Jones, it would build suspense. But this slow-motion-ization serves a different purpose. It creates a sense of finality. It clues you in and braces you: The person who has gone through the door will not come back.

4. I like how to book handles cursing. It's @#*%ing good at it. I wish this kind of censorship were acceptable in YA formats. It's not an entirely distracting compromise. It allows for the maintenance of a little realism.

3. Magic always has a recognizable relationship to technology. A street gang fights with a combination of pistols, crossbows, and poison. The process of tracking spells is tantamount to hacking computer systems. Magical pills stabilize psychological dysfunction in Seers. Astrals are like iPhones combined with pets. They provide passcoded hiding places for files, remind you of the time, sound security alerts, and beg for treats.

2. The story asks, and sometimes even answers, good questions about death. What is the difference between death and existence? Nightschool answers, Memory and evidence of life. What is memory's relationship to death? Without memory, death achieves something greater than itself. The dead becomes nonexistent. And finally, how is a slow death both crueler and kinder to loved ones? At the story's turning point, most characters have braced themselves for the death of their friends - but one cannot stand for it and seeks revenge. Unanswerable questions always seem to be the strongest, don't they.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What I Learned About Storytelling Watching Breaking Bad: Episode 1, Pilot

A quiet, scientific high school teacher is Breaking Bad and cooking up meth. He has cancer, and he wants to leave his family with financial support. He’s also kinda vibing on the thrills of the dangers of the meth world. In his underwear.

In the first episode, I noticed three key storytelling tricks. 

No scene is too dark for comic relief. Committing suicide before the cops reach you? Lose your pants. Just find out you had cancer? Shock should make you underreact so profoundly it’s funny. 

Characters’ perspectives lie in their reactions. Did tons of gore just fall through your ceiling? You should be a smartass about it. Understatement is powerful In so many scenes, what isn’t said is more powerful than what is. 

There are unconventional ways to raise the stakes. Most thriller writers refuse to tie their protagonists to families, but this show sure makes it work. Walt doesn’t just have a wife and child - he has a pregnant wife and a disabled child. (Dexter also maximizes this intensity.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What I Learned About Storytelling from Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

We already know, from the Demon's Lexicon books, that Sarah Rees Brennan can write a fantasy. Here she comes with something a little more contemporary, with some downright poetic paranormal tilting.

Kami Glass understands her destiny. She's going to be a highly successful investigative reporter, starting in her British nowheresville hometown. As long as she can keep her own secret, her imaginary telepathic American boyfriend.

This story twists every adolescent girl's wish fulfillment fantasy - well, I think most of us keep an imaginary ideal boy in our heads for lonely days - into a relationship that vacillates between intimate hope and intimate hate.

Don't let the "Gothic" label frighten you - Sure, the story has scary moments, but more often, it's hilarious. Kami is an anime-character brand of enthusiastic with a disorientingly blunt brand of wit.

What I learned: How to write something unforgettable.

3. Humor always helps, especially in the form of understated snark.

"Show me to my napping sofa."

"My current verdict would be: Crazy eyes. Nice ass."
"I think I want that on my tombstone," Kami said.

"Are you going out on a date?" Dad asked tragically. "Wearing that? Wouldn't you fancy a shapeless cardigan instead? You rock a shapeless cardigan, honey."

Several times, I was giggling so hard I couldn't read, and I had to put the book down until I stopped. I don't forget books like that. They're often the ones I want to share with friends the most.

2. Stunning cross-cultural magical imagery. An electric blue heron standing flamingo-style against the night. Fragmented glass hanging in the air, getting caught in the enemy's hair. Brennan draws Japanese legends into Western lore. I love combinations like this, and I'm not alone in it. (Tangent time: Charles de Lint is the master of this technique, I think, with his combos of Celtic lore and Native American legend.)

1. Magical realism that builds up slowly, through contemporary scenes. The first undeniably real bit of magic occurs around page 50. It builds to a crescendo across the next 190 pages. That's almost 250 pages of chipping away at rocks that look like pieces of ruby, maybe, a little, if they're not just quartz. Then we hit the vein. Bedazzlement tends to be pretty unforgettable, too.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

What I Learned About Storytelling Reading Venom by Fiona Paul

I'm forcing myself to write this review despite the impulse to look up anything else Fiona Paul has written. I wasn't planning to read Venom until October, but I took a peek at the first page and then I couldn't stop.

Cass's childhood friend has passed away. Grieving and restless, she visits her friend's crypt that night to find the door ajar - Liviana's body is gone, replaced with the bloody corpse of different girl. Also skulking in the graveyard is a lewd young painter with blue eyes and a crooked smile. Well, here we go.

I'd like to present the storytelling elements that seem worthy of dissecting (whipping out a scalpel): 

4. The horror, the horror, is comprised of the following:
  • Sound. Sound, sound, sound. Onomatopoeias creep me out. Examples to come. 
  • Falco's fascination for anatomy, and the quotations from the Book of the Eternal Rose between chapters, kind of develop creepy empathy for a Ripper-style murderer.
  • The constant possibility Cass is lusting after the murderer. 
  • The Venetian setting. A sinking city whose people struggle to communicate and even move because the streets ARE FREAKIN' WATER. Ahem. I like Venice.
  • The sheer number of suspects: Almost every single man in the plot draws suspicion. 

3. I like to think cliches are cliches for a reason. They work. It's just, you know, well - we get sick of recognizing them. They mark predictability. Here are some cliche's that Fiona Paul steered off the driven path:
  • The story starts with a funeral - the funeral at which she meets said blue-eyed artiste. 
  • The story ends with a wedding - including a completely unwilling type of "wedding night."
  • Falco does have blue eyes and a crooked smile. He's a Jack Dawson-like artist. But by the time I realized this, I didn't care. I think this might have to do with his tendency to vacillate between blush-inducing flirtation and graveyard-haunting, scalpel-toting, blood-streaked creepertude. He somehow always manages to remain sexy, even when you think he's the killer: At points, I almost found myself hoping Cass had indeed fallen for a Venetian Ripper. 

2. The writing is cinematic. Fiona Paul writes with sentence structures that clue you into the way she'd shoot this as a movie. Frame placements of many images, along with the the camera's angles and movement, are implicit. Examples to come. 

1. Oh, how we crave strong female characters these days. On the first page, Cass bonds with a friend over criticism of a fearmongering priest with eyes like volcanic glass. Instantly, the simmering potential for revolution in this character tugged at me. There's one scene I don't think I'll forget. Cass rows a gondola - something she doesn't think another Venetian woman has ever done before - and laughs with the freedom of it. In her excitement, she removes the stifling stays she's been complaining about since page one, and throws them to the canal. 

She has an Antigone-like loyalty to her dead friend and longs for her to rest in peace - partially because her own parents died abroad and their bodies were never found. And like every great dynamic character, by the end, she does something she never, ever would have done in the story's beginning. 

Once the book comes out, I'll close this review with the priest's line in the first chapter - the line from which the title comes. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What I Learned about Storytelling From Third Grade Angels by Jerry Spinelli

I got this signed ARC at BEA. I grew up on Stargirl and Maniac Magee, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to meet Spinelli himself. And so this is how a 21-year-old college senior ended up reading Third Grade Angels for fun.

(The art inside the book is precious. The expressions of the
characters and facial shapes are manga-like. Love! But I don't think
this style transitions to color well. Doesn't Suds look kinda creepy?)
This is the adorable story of obsessive perfectionist George "Suds" Morton and his quest to be the first kid in his class to receive the teacher's coveted award: a cardboard halo. But what does perfection become in the face of selflessness?

Reading this was a delightful 45 minutes. For anyone remotely interested in Spinelli's writing or in the third grade paradigm - parents, teachers, friends - Third Grade Angels cannot possibly be a waste of time.

As for what I discovered of storytelling:

2. Characters' names say a lot about them and their relationships. Labels change when characters are within the classroom & beyond it. Suds' little sister Zippernose is the best example. Even as her relationship with her improves, we don't learn her real name.

1. An organic, complex, unusual character is always refreshing. Even going back through some of my old elementary school books, I could find no protagonist quite like the neurotic Suds - at least not one who was male.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What I Learned About Storytelling from Carnival of Souls by Melissa Marr

Melissa Marr conquered the YA market with the Wicked Lovely series, and she’ll be expanding her horizons on Tuesday, September 4th when Carnival of Souls hits stores. 

The first few things that happen in this novel are:

A demon woman sacrifices everything to a witch in the human world, for help protecting her child. 

Another, Aya, matches against her ex-fiancee in battle, to further her aspiration to make a statement about women's equality and their right not to be impregnated against their wills.

A teenage girl of human sensibilities, the protected baby demon of the mother above, whines about how her father won't let her date. 

An odd juxtaposition, since strong women dominate this story, especially Aya. Which leads us to what I've learned about storytelling. 

1. Aya does not steal the show - she demands it and earns it. She comes off the page and grabs you by the throat, but you know it's just a threat. You know that if she were going to kill you, she'd make it rapid, brilliant, bloody. I'm not sure I've ever had the pleasure of fearing, and falling for, such a strong female character. Most plotters characterize though everyday interaction. They often build toward the most difficult decision that character will ever have to make. Marr, however, starts Aya off with this choice. Brutal. 

"Aya touched her fingertips to the claws, talons, and teeth she wore like pearls."

2. The threads of the storylines braid in fascinating patterns, then twist into a strong rope toward the end. Some intersections are predictable, others squee-inducing. In a land of three races - humans in one world, demons in another, witches in between - every dynamic develops through these intertwining threads. Much in the captivating tradition of Harry Potter, the characters' feelings shine against hateful societal backdrops - "a prolonged argument for tolerance." About fifty pages from the end, the humans' and demons' value systems reflected in the characters' conflicts started to feel real in a reality-transcending way. This is the kind of cultural conflict I'd expect to study in a cultural course at school, but delightfully accessible via story.

3. Also like J. K., Marr spoon-feeds the reader nothing. Inference, context clues, detail selections learn you the world before you've known it.

"Hi parents had abandoned him, so he survived as a street scab, too low to even have a caste. Most such demons died; Kaleb hadn't. He'd fought, killed, and endured until he had the strength and power to earn respect on the streets." The social stratification system of the daimon world quickly unveils through character experience.

The intro line: "The man - witch - who'd summoned Selah was nothing like what she'd expected. In truth, he looked no different than many daimons she'd met..." We get hints about the dynamics of all three races in line one: Human, witch, daimon. Boom.

4. Marr writes action with sentence structure that reflects the content; she illuminates the dynamics of fights so clearly, movies would have to resort to shifting-camera slow-mo (techinical terminology here, yo) to create the same effect. 

"She let the momentum of his action spin her to face him - and then she shot him. She only got off one shot, but it was a good shot. The bullet pierced his chest, and at such close range, the splatter was enough to make her feel sick."

Line one: Not a word wasted or an action out-of-order. A hyphen marks Mallory's transition from passive to active initiative.
Line two: Slowdown, but we can see where the bullet - and the fight - are heading.
Line three: The bullet completes its path and sends its bloody and emotional ripples.

A seemingly effortless capture of a rapid-fire moment:

"He moved so quickly that the clatter of the revolver hitting the asphalt was simultaneous with a cuff to her head."

5. She uses the "every teenage girl ever" trope in a different way. Mallory appears to be your run-of-the-mill Bellarific protagonist:  Innocent to violence and sexuality, clumsy but lacking in any strong passion or dangerous character flaw, passive to the advances of boys as well as to the rules of her overprotective father, obsessing about ways to get her cake and eat it and not hurt anybody about it. 

But she evolves as the story goes on. The real Mal shines through cracks in the trope. After all, the trope almost perfectly matches the mold which her father has forced her into for her protection. 

If that's too spoilerific, I apologize. It's just fascinating.

What are we doing to our characters when we tropify them? What passions are we suppressing? What flaws are we overlooking, which we could help them overcome? What fearfully beautiful, Aya-like demon are we suppressing?

I stood in my longest line at BEA to get this ARC, and I'm happy I did. I even got a stalker shot of Ms. Marr, see?