Whisper of the Heart

I know I said this was gonna be about books, but we're going to discuss a movie this time: Whisper of the Heart. It's a good movie for lots of reasons. The gorgeous animation, obviously. Snickering at 1995's cutting edge technology, like huge laptops and actual physical library cards. Wonderful music (as long as you have a tolerance for "Country Roads" by John Denver). And the conflict is entirely person versus self, so there's no sad parts. It's just honest joy the whole way through.

But the reason I want to talk about it is because this movie is the only I've ever seen that captures what it feels like to be a young creative.

Let me back up a little bit. The main character is a middle schooler named Shizuku. She's well liked by her friends and family, but she also feels listless and unsure of herself. Her only interest is rewriting the lyrics to "Country Roads" to fit her middle school graduation ceremony, as well as checking out every fairy tale book ever written from her local library. Otherwise, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life, and so she compares herself unfavorably to people she considers more driven and talented, like her mother, who's putting herself through college while working a full time job.

This all changes when she meets her love interest, Seiji. At first they don't get along, but as she gets to know him, Shizuku realizes Seiji is another driven and talented person. In his case, he wants to make violins and go to Italy to study under a master for a few months. As Shizuku falls for him, she decides she needs to improve herself, so that they can both inspire each other. 

So Shizuku starts writing. Again, this is 1995, so she writes everything down longhand in a series of blue composition notebooks, and when she needs to research, she has to go to the library and look things up in actual books. (I mean, Google is the best thing that ever happened to writers, but longhand research is still pretty amazing.) A good chunk of the third act of the movie—when other films might be featuring epic battles or romance—is just Shizuku sitting in her room, writing. We get little flashes of Shizuku’s novel, but for the most part, it's just the actual work of creation. Shizuku loses sleep and skips meals to finish her story before Seiji returns. She gets cramps in her hands. It’s amazing.

And for the first time in her life, Shizuku feels alive. The words on the page are more real to her than her family or friends, and she can't wait to share it with other people, even if she's nervous about how they'll receive it. She no longer worries about her place in the world or compares herself to others because she's found her purpose.

I cried when I watched this movie, because Shizuku was me at that age. I noodled around with a lot of things creatively in middle school, but my best friend at the time was a naturally talented artist, so I never felt like I measured up. I didn't have anything driving me. Everybody kept telling me I had a bright future ahead, but I couldn't figure out what I wanted that future to look like. So mostly I just read books.

Then I started writing stories. I'm not sure when this happened, although it's probably around the time I discovered fan fiction. (For context, this was around 2001, so we're talking dial up, forums, and Fanfiction.net.) And it was like my whole life changed. I finally knew what I was supposed to be doing. Stories poured out of me like water—I never went anywhere without a notebook, and most of my free time was spent online, reading other people's works and getting comments on my own. (Again, this was old internet, so people were nice. I know, hard to believe.) Throughout high school and at the beginning of college, I had nothing to do but write since I didn’t have a life, so I produced a lot. 

A lot's changed since then. Real life, I guess. Writing isn't as easy anymore. Part of it is time—in school, I never had to pay much attention in lectures, so I spent that time writing instead. Part of it is just that my view of the world is more complex, so my stories have gotten more complex to reflect that. And part of it is now it's not just a passion project, something to squeeze in around my job and school; it is my job, so I have to figure out what I'm writing and how I'll make money with it. On one level I'm glad this has happened. My writing's improved, for one thing, and I finish projects more quickly. On another, I mourn the freedom I felt, like everything was just waiting for me to discover it.

That's why watching this film was such a joy for me. As I watched Shizuku, I remembered that initial rush, when the only thing that mattered was getting things out of my head and onto the page. When I spent almost all my free time writing or sharing my work with others. I wouldn't go back. But I don't want to forget it either. 

Brick by Brick

If you are looking for a book that will teach you to draw/write/juggle chainsaws while singing Ave Maria in a perfect soprano, Brick by Brick is not that book. It’s the only creative advice book I’ve ever read that has no comments on technique or an introduction to the basics of the craft. This is important, because Brick by Brick is a comic book written by an artist, so the language is skewed toward painters and graphic artists and all those other lovely eccentric people who sold the pot brownies in the college courtyard that you swear you never tried. (You’re a liar, and we all know it. The only reason I never got one is because I wasn't cool enough to be allowed in the art building. I had to settle for sniffing old books in the library.)

Most creative advice books assume you know how to sit down and motivate yourself to actually create, which is a really big assumption if you consider it for more than a second. After all, if everyone who said they wanted to write a novel actually wrote one, libraries would have long ago transformed into black holes, and we’d all be stuck in a Chris Nolan movie. Chuck Wendig wouldn’t have to waste valuable interwebspace to yell at you to write every day. NaNoWriMo would not be a thing, because aspiring novelists would not need the hand up to get started on their projects. Et cetera. 

Most creative advice books also assume you know how to see a project through to its end. Except that for every three people who say they want to write a novel, there’s one who started but then gave up because they realized—OMG—writing is actually work and not skipping through flowers holding hands with a unicorn. (Don’t ask me how you’re holding hands with a hooved animal. You don’t want to know.)

Brick by Brick is a welcome relief. It admits that we creative types are master procrastinators. We all know exactly how long we can dick around on our phone before we have to get started on our term paper/painting/reading of the ancient grimmerie to prevent the rise of the Elder Gods.  (You really need to get on that. I for one don’t want to witness the tentacled apocalypse.) 

Other creative advice works admit this problem too, but they only offer surface solutions—goal-setting, finding rewards or punishments, etc. Not that those are bad things, but they ultimately don’t solve the problem. We don't procrastinate because we don't enjoy the work or because what we're doing doesn't matter enough that we require some trinket as a reward when we're done. We procrastinate because, in general, creators are smart people, and at some point we learned we could get by with ignoring a deadline until the last minute. Maybe in school or at a shitty job, we found out how to get the least amount of work done for the least amount of effort and the greatest amount of reward. Then we turn this practice toward our creative lives… and suddenly it doesn’t work. We don’t finish novels. Sketchbooks never fill up. Cthulhu rises from the deep and we are sucked into the howling void, screaming voiceless for eternity. (Seriously.  Set a reminder on your phone or something.)

Simply putting our nose to the grindstone doesn’t help. It makes creating into a chore, just another thing to check off the task list instead of a practice to make life worth living. A mindset change is required, and Brick by Brick shows you how.

The best line from the book, in my opinion, is when the author talks about procrastination. As he puts it, “In college, I had perfected the skill of putting things off—ignoring tedious homework until the very last minute. But now in the real world I was cashing in that skill at the expense of my own dreams. I’d never learned how to work, only how to avoid work, and now I couldn’t even do what I wanted to do.” How many of us are stuck in that same trap?

The author also points out that the traditional idea of setting rewards and punishments to motivate ourselves isn’t the best approach, either. He used buying himself an MP3 player as a reward for finishing his graphic novel—but shouldn’t the work of finishing his graphic novel have been its own reward? Nothing someone else made can ever measure up to the fulfillment you can get from your own work. 

The book is full of wonderful insights like this. There’s also more practical advice, like how to break your plans down into the smallest goal possible. Writing a novel doesn’t start with writing 1000 words. It starts with sitting down in your chair and taking out your tools—whether that’s starting up your computer or opening your notebook. That seems like nothing, but it’s still an achievement. It’s still more than a lot of other people will ever do.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves

 Look, if you’re a writer, you probably know something about punctuation. I would assume you’re at least literate enough to type out a sentence, if only to leave a scathing comment on my blog. You probably know what a question mark is good for, and you may have a deep and abiding love for the exclamation point or the semicolon. All very good.

But let’s be real here. Do you think a comma splice is an unfortunate back injury? Would you be lost in a game of “pin the hyphen on the appropriate phrase?” Do you hesitate when using anything more complicated than a period or a question mark?

If so, you should invest in a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. The book takes a mark-by-mark tour of the world of English punctuation. The book not only contains the rules you need to know in order to send your story out into the world with its hair combed and its shoes polished, but also provides some delightful backstory on each mark to explain why it behaves the way it does. 

For example, if you read Alice in Wonderland or Pride and Prejudice, you might notice an abundance of hyphens, like in to-morrow, that look weird today. Lynn Truss discusses this at length, as well as the origins of the comma and the period. Not things you need to know as a writer, but let’s be real here. If you like to write, you’re interested in this stuff. If you don’t have strong feelings on the semicolon, then frankly, there’s something wrong with you. (It’s awesome, by the way.)

I don’t know if they make the delightful edition I have, which came with a set of punctuation stickers. But if they do, you should buy it, if only to baffle your friends. There’s also a children’s version for those of you who wish to make your friends concerned about you.

And yes, we do pay people for this. (Not as much as you think. Proofreading is a freelancer’s gig these days.) But publishers don’t pick up books based solely on the strength of the work within. Big surprise, I know. In a world glutted with written content, publishers want books they know will sell and that require the least amount of effort on their part. It doesn’t matter if your book is the next Harry Potter if it’s also a nightmare tome littered with extra apostrophes and run-on sentences. Ain’t nobody got time for that. So brush up on your rules. Your book will thank you.

(Note: I’m not addressing anyone who already feels comfortable with the vagaries of punctuation. I know my kind. You’ve already got a copy of this book. If you don’t, you’ve read it, and if you haven’t read it, you’re looking it up. You’ll enjoy it. Trust me. And you’re probably already typing a screed to tell me how I’ve mangled something you love, to which I say: Bring it.)

Fridays Are for Writing Resources

Reading writing books is either an exercise in navel-gazing, or an opportunity to read something just so you can mock it, like binge-watching the Twilight movies. 

(Only at least reading writing books, even shitty writing books, does something for you. Twilight just makes more of your brain dribble out your ears. I want to remind you that time is a particle, just like mass or gravity, and each instant continues to exist on a level beyond our perception. Therefore, every moment you spent watching Twilight is still out there, screaming forever into the void. Think about that before you go to sleep tonight.)

I say this because writers are a capricious bunch. We have opinions on everything, and since most people don’t appreciate our work, we tend to jump all over the things that propagate ideas we don’t like. We blame every stupid writing book for all the wrongs of society, as though that will somehow make publishers pay us for content. Some people will chase you down with torches and pitchforks for questioning the idea that you should write every day. Others will shiv you over the Oxford comma. I’m just saying you should bring a pocket knife to your writer’s circle, that’s all. Being prepared never hurts. Getting stabbed does.

The point is, every writer has an opinion about writing—how to do it, why to do it, what phase the moon should be in before undertaking a new project, what sacred oils to drip over a query letter to get a yes, what breed of chicken you should sacrifice in exchange for actually making money from your writing. You know, the basics. 

Not all of those opinions are good. I personally want to smother anyone who tells me I have to make an outline for every story that pops into these here brain parts. Stephen King has a particular hate boner for adverbs. And I'm sure George RR Martin has a hit out on every person who ever says you have to finish a book in a certain length of time.

But not all those opinions are bad, either. I personally agree with the adverb thing, though perhaps without as much vehemence. And Martin's dichotomy of architects versus gardeners helped me make sense of my own writing. (Although in general I believe all dichotomies should be killed with fire, BUT THAT'S ANOTHER POST.)

The problem is, it can be hard to tell dross from gold at a glance. Writing books are an investment, both in time and money, and most of them aren't worth your time. I want to talk about the ones that are. 

And no, this isn't just to justify my habit of buying writing books compulsively. I'm insulted you think that.

No, actually, I'm here to argue there is a good reason for reading writing books.

Writing can be a draining task. It's a paradox noted by a lot of authors: the same thing that makes life worth living can also be as much fun as getting your teeth pulled without Novocaine. By that dentist from Little Shop of Horrors. Who isn't even played by Steve Martin this time.

And the truth is, you can never keep this feeling at bay completely. It happens to everyone who loves their work. Sometimes you just come to the keyboard feeling lousy about something else, and no matter how deep you get in the words, you can't forget it. Or maybe you got a nasty review on the internet, which at this point I am certain is 95% Youtube comments. 

But you can take steps to mitigate that feeling. Don't read Youtube comments, for one thing. I thought everyone on the internet these days knew that.

There's another way, though. Writers are a needy bunch. Sometimes we need a way to recharge. Writing books—and other things about writing—can help you out of that rut. It might be by reminding you that others have been in the same place. Or by giving you a swift kick in the ass. Or reminding you of the joy you feel in the creative process, that reason you're chasing this crazy dream in the first place.

At least, I hope you're chasing it 'cause it makes you happy. If you're in this for money, you're screwed.

It's Wednesday, So Let's Talk About Avatar

On Wednesdays we write about Avatar: The Last Airbender. (What, did you think that would be a Mean Girls joke? Everybody does Mean Girls jokes. Give me some credit.)

Every piece of media has something to teach you, even if it’s just this is how to write a crappy story. My interest is not just general series recap and review (there are better sites for that) but to illustrate what these stories do well. Or what they suck at, depending on the situation. (I’m looking at you, Legend of Korra.) 

I’m starting with Avatar: The Last Airbender for two reasons. First, it’s the greatest cartoon ever, and I will fight you on that. There are a million things to learn from Avatar, and I’m going to talk about them. Second, I’ve never seen all of Legend of Korra. The show was a great betrayal to me for reasons I’ll discuss at length when we get that far, and I’ve never made it past the end of season one. I think it’s time to bite that bullet, if only for purposes of understanding how to do something well versus how to fail at it. Third, the show is over a decade old now, and everyone has basically accepted it as a classic. Which it is, but every classic has its flaws, and we need to talk about them just as much as we need to discuss its accomplishments in representation and animation.

Some miscellany before we begin:

A) As I said before, I think Avatar is the greatest cartoon ever made. Legend of Korra… less so. We’ll see how I feel as we progress. I was a really intense fan of Avatar, so I’ll probably drop some stuff about fandom history as we go on.

B) I’m a Kataang shipper. Don’t expect much sympathy to Zutara here. I’ll probably pick apart the appeal at some point in the show, because I like poking sleeping bears. On other shipping matters, I’m neutral. I ship everybody.

C) I have a bias against Zuko. He has the most amazingly well executed redemption arc in the history of ever, but by the time we finally got that redemption, he had already earned my eternal enmity. This has improved with time, but I’ll still make fun of him a lot. Especially since he’s actually a fail whale instead of the sexy sex beast fandom makes him out to be.

Why Write About Tamora Pierce?

The short answer is that I like analyzing writing, and I don't think Tamora Pierce gets enough attention in these kind of blogs. This will be a close read of her Tortall books, starting with the Song of the Lioness and going forward in order of publication, the better to track her development as an author.

***

The personal answer starts when I was eleven years old. I was in fifth grade and just coming around to the idea that I wanted to be a writer. That summer I'd read The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter book, and I read and reread the Chronicles of Prydain. That winter, I went to see the first Harry Potter film and Fellowship for my birthday. I discovered fandom through forums and fanfiction.net. 

But this was also the first time I up a Tamora Pierce book, First Test. It was published in 1999, but I read it in 2001. I had never read the Song of the Lioness, so many of the callbacks and references were lost on me, but it didn't matter. The book had me from the first page, describing a world different from any other fantasy I'd immersed myself in.

After all, those classic fantasy series I was just beginning to love were boys' clubs. Lord of the Rings breaks out in hives whenever a woman shows up on the page (except for Eowyn, but she's the exception that proves the rule since she hates and fears her femininity). Harry Potter has great strong female characters, but the main character is still a guy, led by a male mentor and confronting a male villain. 

And since the main characters of these books are all men, the women are the ones learning lessons from them. As much as I love Harry Potter, there's a quote from the first book that will always drive me crazy. After solving the logic puzzle that guards the sorcerer's stone, Hermione tells Harry that books and cleverness are nothing compared to bravery. Never mind without Hermione's brains they never would have gotten anywhere.

First Test threw that all on its head. Kel's world is shaped and designed around women. Her greatest hero, the Lioness, exists only on the sidelines of this story so that Kel can shine, but it hardly matters. Kel might be the only girl in her class of young knights, but a female warrior teaches her hand-to-hand combat. Her friends from the Yamani Islands, delicate and demure court ladies, carry fans as weapons and wield polearms better than men. Kel admires the quiet dominance of her mother and the elegant beauty of the queen. She discovers that strength comes in many different forms through the example of her shy maid, Lalasa, who learns to defend herself without sacrificing her gentle nature. And the entire plot of that first book is about a girl overcoming misogyny: from the obvious stuff like slurs written on her things and pee in her room to subtler barbs, like men who urge her to be gentle and kind, who tell her she could be pretty if she let her muscles soften. 

And Kel is the moral center of these books. She believes in the system of chivalry and the country she was born in, but she also never hesitates to speak up when the system is stacked against people who need protection. She refuses to compromise on her beliefs: the strong protect the weak. If you see something wrong, you speak up. You fight for people who don't have a voice and listen to them when they talk. And if the rules are wrong, you change the rules. Tammy's other leading ladies are great and all, but Kel is the one I want to be.

At this point, I wasn't old enough to interrogate the systems I lived in. I just accepted the fact that most of the protagonists of the books I read were boys, even the ones written by women. I identified with them and changed and grew as a person because of things I read in those pages. But when I thought of my favorite author, or the one I wanted to most be like, I thought of Tamora Pierce, of the women who kicked ass and loved and laughed in her stories. And when I was ready to take a closer look at the subtle ways women are shut out of the fantasy landscape, Tamora Pierce was there for me, a reminder that women have always been fighting to change the world, even if men don't acknowledge it.

***

The systemic answer goes like this. Right now, trope-smashing fantasy is really popular. Everyone jizzes in their pants reading Game of Thrones the first time, even if they already know what happens. It's incredibly refreshing to see those stories turned inside out and inspected, followed to their real conclusions instead of their ideal ones. They don't flinch away from the horrors of war or romanticize combat. They speak frankly of sex and interrogate the way women are treated in a system that's designed to marginalize them. 

But... dude. Tamora Pierce was already doing that in the eighties. With a female protagonist.

Obviously, these are very different stories. Pierce's books are still technically marketed at young adult readers. But there's just as much sex and death in Tortall as there is in Westeros, and it never feels like sexposition. And Pierce's books have never flinched away from the realities of combat or the fact that people don't stop having bodily functions just because they're in a fantasy novel. For one thing, women have periods. In some stories, it's a plot point: Alanna despairs of her changing body; Kel doesn't at first understand why her uniforms don't fit and why she's having cramps. And in others, it's just a fact of life. In a later book, Kel casually mentions to her maid that she's started her monthlies and needs to bring pads with her. 

Also, characters urinate a lot. They acknowledge that food in that time period was apt to make you leak at both ends. Characters void their bowels when they die; they don't survive gut wounds or stabs to the shoulder. Characters discuss birth control and makes sure both parties know whether they're ready for children before they have sex. 

I'd even argue that the Tortall universe is set up more realistically than Westeros. Tamora Pierce has serious issues with diversity, but there are still a lot more black and brown and Asian faces in Tortall. And unlike in Westeros, they don't live half a world away. (There's still a white savior narrative, but. Yeah. We'll get to that.) The people in Carthak are black and brown; the Yamani and K'mir people are Asian. The borders of empires shift and change, and rulers constantly jockey for position. Leaders deal with famine, disease, and shortages of soldiers. After every great battle, characters must cope with the burial of bodies, the destruction of crops, the revolt of peasants who only maintain fealty to their lords because of a promise of safety and peace.

Basically, I don't think Pierce gets enough credit for her fantasy writing. People who know about her are like, "Oh, yeah, she's a great feminist author," and that's great and probably how she'd choose to be remembered. But she's also written a series of 14+ novels and short stories covering approximately thirty years in a fictional universe that is very well described and thought out. Her characters continue to grow and develop, even when they're only minor characters making a cameo in someone else's story. They age realistically, complaining of aches and pains from old injuries. Her fantasy universe feels like a living and breathing place and features fully rounded systems of magic and religions. It has enough basis in human history to feel grounded, but at the same time it acknowledges the gaps in the way we talk about the medieval period, how we try to pretend that women and people of color just sat on their hands or something for all of that century.

And this is all just focusing on Tortall without acknowledging that she has a second universe, the Circle books, that are equally well thought out and interesting. (I'm not sure if I'll talk about those yet. They're really good, but I'm not sure if I can mine them as deeply because, for the most part, they're just excellent adventure stories.)

I want to really look at and show off the ways that Tamora Pierce uses the genre, how she writes in a way that's not like anyone else. 

***

The third reason is that my fav is problematic. Tammy does a lot for the portrayal of women in fantasy media, and her writing has evolved and changed thanks to fan criticism and commentary. But that doesn't change the works that already exist. As I see it, there are two main blind spots in her work.

A) The portrayal of people of color, thanks to a recurring white savior narrative and probably other issues that I haven't yet thought deeply enough about. I am Whitey McWhiterson, so I will probably link off to what other, smarter people have said about this topic since my job as a white writer is to amplify the voices of POC and try not to make the same mistakes in my own writing.

B) The portrayal of queer people. This one I will talk about, at length, since I am queer and queer characters have always been in Tammy's work. Yes, these books have been typically marketed at children and teenagers. But they speak frankly of birth control and heterosexual desire. They don't gloss over the workings of women's bodies or the gross mess a human being makes when it dies. And yet the queer characters who appear in the books are not allowed to be openly gay or express themselves as such, even though their relationships with their partners explain their personalities and behavior. And also Tammy gets some stuff flat out wrong and falls into some really bad tropes (*cough*killyourgays*cough*). SO WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT.

***

The point of it all is this: Tamora Pierce is a wonderful, talented author who deserves to be studied and critiqued. And also I want to reread these books for the five millionth time and pretend it's for research instead of self-indulgence.