Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Book Review: The Magician's Elephant

Title: The Magician’s Elephant
Author: Kate DiCamillo
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Rating: 5

The Magician’s Elephant is a short novel about hope, a mini masterpiece. Peter is an orphaned boy raised by an old soldier who is making Peter into a brave soldier himself. But Peter still dreams of his little sister Adele, the sister he lost when she was born. A second class magician is conjuring flowers in a theater when he decides to use a secret old magic taught him long ago. Instead of the perfect flower, an elephant crashes into the English theater and the consequences are tragic.

Told that an elephant will show him the answer he is seeking, Peter does everything he can to see the exotic creature, hoping to find the truth about the sister he’s sure he once held.

A striking cast of characters inhabit the dark, mystic realm DiCamillo shows us. But the darkness is overthrown by little bursts of light as Peter and his companions seek to save the elephant and rediscover what they’ve lost.

This little book, beautifully illustrated and more beautifully written, bears the trademark quality of DiCamillo’s style. You can taste the words, and the pictures she draws from the imagination are more like emotions than anything else. I’ve always admired writers who choose their words with such care that they say more with a single verb than most writers do with an entire book. DiCamillo is one of these writers. Her voice is like poetry and the precision in the rhythm of each syllable is perfect.

I highly recommend this splendid book to readers of any age.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Casting a Novel~ Faceless Figures

We all know that a main character is essential to a story. We need their viewpoint. Sometimes there are multiple MCs. We usually surround these viewpoint characters with friends, family, and opposition characters. Heroes, Helpers, and Antagonists are all commonly spoken of.

But what about the characters we never see?

There are several reasons for having a character that never gets any face-time in the story realm. The most prevalent of these reasons is that the character is from history and is no longer living—this can be an ancestor, old hero, ancient foe, or random uncle to whose estate your MC is suddenly made the heir to.

In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, we hear about several of these characters: Belladona Took and the Old Took, several of the ancestral dwarves, some of Gandalf’s contemporaries.

(Radagast the Brown, who earns a face in the movie An Unexpected Journey.)

In Lewis’s Prince Caspian, King Caspian IX is a relevant and extremely interesting character.

Imagine these stories without those characters.

Andrew Peterson’s On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is filled with mentions of interesting people we never meet, some important and some decidedly less so, but none less remarkable for all that they are invisible.

Without the explanation of that little bit of wildness in the Took clan, we couldn't explain Bilbo suddenly feeling the urge to run off on a grand adventure. Without the great and regal history of the dwarvish kings, who cares if they get their mountain back? With the knowledge of the elder Caspian invading Narnia and all that he did and what his character was, Lewis displays for us a picture of what the old king's son might be. And without all the literary ghosts of Oskar's past, well...Oskar simply wouldn't be Oskar.

Characters who are never actually seen in the tale can be absolutely vital and color the story in ways the characters at the forefront cannot. They lend a depth to the tale that makes it feel real.

This character type has a lot in common with Scenery Characters, which I’ve already devoted a long post to. (You might be able to tell that the more detailed aspects of casting have lately been on my mind.) But they are also in a class entirely of their own. After all, some of these characters might be the most important bit in the entire story. The pirate that buried the treasure. The inventor that inspired a success. The hero that dictated a quest.

Try employing such characters into your story world—whether fantastical or modern: People good and bad, important and minor, seen and invisible. ‘Historical’ or faceless characters add interest to your story and often you don’t have to spend a great deal of time developing them, while they can be great for developing the characters which stand in front of them and are at the focus of the tale.

As a writing exercise, be on the lookout for different types of characters, particularly minor characters, in the stories you read and the movies you watch. Try to label them and find their significance: What do they add to the story being told? What would be lost or gained without their presence?

Use what you observe to aid in your writing, helping you to cast the perfect guest-list of your tale.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Backward Approach to Writing a Novel

(A rather lovely portrait I found which sparked the idea for my MC, Reise, by artist Charlie Bowater)
Thursday evening, I finished editing the epilogue of The Last Storming, my NaNoWriMo project from this past November. It was quite an accomplishment. Now, I’m working on the final chapter. No, I’ve not gone batty; I really did finish the epilogue of this draft. Eventually I’ll work on the first chapter, and then end with the prologue.

You see, I’m editing backwards.

TLS has been lying almost untouched since December, and I promised myself I would have the NaNo draft—which is pretty much a ghost draft that, in the end, doesn’t count for a whole lot—polished into an official ‘first draft’. (When working on another project once, my little brother asked me “So are you going to be doing like, two thousand drafts?” And, while it sometimes feels like that’s the case, I’m really hoping it’s not.)

I began the rewrite of the first chapter and could not get it right. Since my writing friends have charged me not to ever delete anything, I have multiple copies of that first chapter lying around. Maybe they’ll come in use one day, but I doubt it. I wrote, and scrapped, and wrote, and scrapped again, growing more and more frustrated with each fail. I finally just let it go and have abandoned the project over the last few months. However, I plan on writing the sequel for NaNo this coming November, and if that’s the case, a more clear background and solid foundation is needed. So I made a deadline for myself: September. I wrote out a to-do list for writing this year, things I felt I had to get done. (Although finishing Carousel, another project I promised would be done by July, is looking less and less likely.) TLS was at the top of the list, even though it’s ‘due date’ is later in the year.

So it has become my summer project. Ongoing stories projects (such as Carousel which is receiving some minor critique and read-through work by fellow writers, and Island of the Kahts, which I’ve been posting online at apricotpie.com) are being put on hold, or at least not getting as much attention, now that summer has come. September looms only four months away and work on TLS, to quote Andrew Peterson, is like ‘pushing a semi uphill’. Difficult, to say the least.

TLS is my first steampunk project and one of my favorite stories; I’m especially excited to begin work on the sequel come fall. (Even more so now that the first try of the epilogue on TLS turned into the first chapter of its companion, a useful but frustrating result. Is that even legal in NaNoWriMo? Oh well.)

Avoiding spoilers in case, by some miracle, the story is ever released upon the public, I hope to be giving updates as I near the deadline. (I’m not very good with deadlines. NaNo is the only one I’ve successfully met with, to date.)

This all makes me curious: Has anyone else used such an atypical method in their writing as going about it backwards? What helps you get through those tough chapters—whether they are in the beginning, middle, or end?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Five Glass Slippers~ A Contest

Hullo, one and all!

I take pleasure in informing you about a new writing contest available for all you fairy-tale lovers. It's taking place over at the blog of Anne Elisabeth Stengl (link below) and it's taking place now.

The idea, Five Glass Slippers, is to have five different fairy-tale retellings of the classic Cinderella we all know so well. Once the five original tales have been selected, they will be published in the book Five Glass Slippers just about everywhere and winning the contest not only comes with publication but also some neat goodies for authors.

The contest is open 'til December 31st and I'll likely put up another post near closing time, but I thought I'd let you all know now. Stengl is a current leader in the realm of Christian Fantasy and a wonderfully gifted author, so I encourage you to head over to her blog to check it out and get further details about the contest. Good luck one and all!