Do You Believe in Magic?

I wasn’t going to post today, but the thoughts were fresh in my mind, thanks to a conversation with a friend, and couldn’t be ignored. I’m in a rather soapboxy mood, so feel free to tune in or tune out.

Remember in the movie version of The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion discovered the “wizard” hiding behind the curtain? This “wizard” tried to play it off by his warning to them to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

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Too late. He’d already been exposed as a complete sham—a humbug, according to the Scarecrow. He didn’t have a drop of magic within him, and couldn’t really give them what they desired—a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, courage for the Cowardly Lion, and a trip home for Dorothy—except through nonmagical means. But there was magic in Oz. The witches proved that. Later, even the humbug wizard gained magic. You have to read Baum’s Oz books to learn how. Yet the man-behind-the-curtain notion is still pervasive in our day and age.

We live in a cynical age. We’re used to reality TV and news reports that take us “behind the curtain” by debunking magic acts or exposing as frauds politicians and authors who claim they’re telling a “true” story while making up key facts. We’re tired of the lies, aren’t we? If there’s a man behind the curtain, we want to know!

Sometimes we take this mindset to the books we read. As adults we learn to “put away childish things” like believing there are fairies in our backyard or that dogs can talk in order to embrace reality. That’s why we categorize fairy tales and other such stories as stories of childhood, rather than for adults. If we happen to pick up a fantasy book, the use of magic is severely scrutinized, slapped with a deus ex machina label, or written off as “convenient” if it doesn’t seem “realistic” enough to suit our adult sensibilities.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanYou know what? I for one have had quite enough of the search for the man behind the curtain. This doesn’t mean I plan to bury my head in the sand and totally ignore reality or reality-based fiction. It means I’m going to continue to unabashedly cherish those stories that take me to magical places or to ordinary places that seem magical, and then try my best to offer that kind of journey through my own writing. The stories I loved as a child I still love as an adult. Grimm’s Fairy Tales has a prominent place on my shelf, not hidden underneath the bookcase out of fear that someone will check my bookshelves and ask about what I’m reading. I’m a firm believer in story magic. I love miraculous escapes and magical derring-do. And many of you do too. I wasn’t the only adult reading Harry Potter’s adventures.

I love the fact that authors like J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Holly Black, Juliet Marillier, Jaclyn Moriarty, Charles Yallowitz, Caroline Carlson, K. L. Schwengel and many others are unapologetic in the use of magic in their stories. If you haven’t already, you might check out Moriarty’s Colors of Madeleine series; Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere series; Carlson’s The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates series; or K. L. Schwengel’s Darkness & Light series.

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Or consider stories like Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage, The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo, The September books by Catherynne Valente, The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and other books that remind you of the magic (and sometimes sadness) of childhood. Be willing to suspend your disbelief and leave your cynicism at the door as you take a journey through these pages.

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Do you believe in magic? I do. I still believe in the power of stories to transform us and transport us to unforgettable places. Do you?

Oz photo from takaiguchi.com. Book covers from Goodreads.

Harry and Hermione, Sittin’ in a Tree?

When I first heard that J. K. Rowling had second thoughts in regard to the Ron/Hermione relationship (every time I opened my ISP, a link to the story was provided), I felt the burn of frustration. And just before Valentine’s Day, too! I refused to read any article on the subject at first. You see, I had wanted Harry and Hermione to wind up together when I read the series. (I have nothing against Ginny Weasley or Ron.) But I got over my thoughts of Harry and Hermione K-I-S-S-I-N-G. And now that the series is a done deal, to learn of what could have been frustrates me.

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I’m sure I don’t have to tell you who they are, but I’ll do it anyway. From left to right, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger)

Yes, I realize that as the author of her series, J. K. Rowling has every right to do what she wants with her characters—even regret that she did what she did. But this incident reminded me too much of a guy I liked during my senior year in high school who ignored me the whole year (though I tried to get him to notice me when he passed in the halls each day) until the day we cleaned out our lockers. He sidled up to me after saying hi and stood there in expectation that I would throw myself at him now that he was finally declaring himself available. I don’t know what led him to finally take notice, but I was frustrated by that point. “You pay attention to me now?” I wanted to say. “Where were you the whole year?” Too little, too late. At least he signed my yearbook.

Back to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, 479px-J._K._Rowling_2010I finally broke down and read an E! Online article which has this quote:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling, 48, told [Emma] Watson, 23. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

Wish fulfillment. I can relate. As far as the romances in the two novels that I’ve worked on in the last couple of years are concerned, I too had second thoughts. I had developed two characters I thought were cool, and therefore worthy of my heroines. Wish fulfillment? Probably. But two of my graduate advisors saw potential in other characters, characters I hadn’t planned to develop beyond the chapter each was in initially. Yeah, I can admit that now. Following their advice called for a paradigm shift.

I balked at the idea at first. With these two would-be love interests, I would have to work extra hard to make the romance plausible, since I barely knew these characters. Hard work—perish the thought!  Like Rowling said, my reasons for choosing these guys had “little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it.” So, I was tempted to ignore my advisors’ advice. I even wrote scenes between the guys I picked and my heroines. And you know what? There was no chemistry. In fact, there was downright hostility every time these characters encountered each other.

“Whoa, whoa whoa!” you’re probably muttering at me through the screen. “Aren’t you using your imagination? You can make these characters have chemistry.” That’s true in theory. However, once I knew what my characters were like, I realized a relationship between the guys I chose at first and my heroines would never have worked. I needed to get my wish fulfillment out of the way (especially since it dated back to guys like those at my high school—the ones that got away) and pay attention to my characters’ desires. I can’t live out my failed romances through them. They have their own lives to live.

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So, I set off in a different direction—that in which my advisors pointed out. First, I needed to convince myself that each suggested relationship would work. Second, I needed to convince a reader. The jury’s still out on whether or not I’ve succeeded.

Are you a plot clinger? Or, as your story evolves, do you toss aside the plot in favor of allowing what you know about the character to decide the outcome?

Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson photo from hdwallpapers.in. J. K. Rowling photo from Wikipedia. Heart image from absolute3d.net.

How Do You Know You Have a Jewel?

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I’ve talked about diamonds; now I’m moving on to geodes. But I assure you, this is not part of a planned series on precious minerals. It just happened that way.

220px-Geode_inside_outsideEver see a geode? We talked about them in fifth grade science. But more recently I was reminded of them when I watched Hayao Miyazaki’s 1995 animated movie, Whisper of the Heart (directed by Yoshifumi Kondō). The main character, Shizuku, was handed a geode. Geodes contain fragments of different types of crystals—quartz, amethyst, jasper, agate, and others. But the thing is, you don’t know what’s inside until you crack it open.

220px-J__K__Rowling_2010I watched Whisper of the Heart a month ago. But today, after watching the movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (directed by Alfonso Cuarón—one of my favorites of the series; the book as well), and watching an interview with Jo Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe the other day, the subject of geodes returned to mind. (You can watch the interview at Ellar Out Loud.)

250px-Marauder'sMapObviously, I’m not the only one fascinated by the world Jo Rowling created, especially since Harry Potter is an international sensation now in its fifteenth year. But I still get giddy over elements of it. For example, one of my favorite aspects of Prisoner of Azkaban is the marauder’s map. So brilliant! I also love the time turner. There are so many great details embedded in the world. It’s like cracking open a geode and finding it chock full of diamonds. I love a series like that.

Based on the interviews I’ve seen, when the first book was released, Rowling had no idea of the impact her series would have on the world. Of course she was passionate about her world and excited to see it introduced to readers. But holding that geode in her hands, she didn’t really know what the fans would see inside of it—jewels or junk.

What are the characteristics of a world worth exploring? I can think of these:
1. Fullness of scope—The author embraces a 360-degree view of the world and doesn’t skimp on the details, even within multiple environments. Also, the magic system is well defined and compelling. There are real costs. In this whimsical world your sense of wonder goes on overload.
Buckbeak2. Characters—You know you have a great series when you can take any character—even a minor animal character like Buckbeak—and envision him and her as the star of a book.
3. Inventive challenges—All seven books had compelling obstacles that moved us deeper and deeper into the world. By the time the series was over, we were so ingrained, we had culture shock stepping out of the world.

And there are others of course. But I can’t help thinking about the above three as I craft my own world and series. What do I have in this geode? Are there priceless jewels inside (or at least semiprecious stones)? (I can only hope.)

In your own work, do you have a sense of how special it is? Is there anything within you telling you, “I’ve got amethysts in here”? What series have you read recently that made you think, This author has a winner here?

Shizuku looking into the geode image from Screened.com. Geode from Wikipedia. Marauder’s Map and Buckbeak from harrypotter.wikia.com.

We Are the Illusionists

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Because of my expressed preference for animated movies, Netflix suggested The Illusionist, an Oscar-nominated 2010 film (originally titled L’Illusionniste for Pathé Pictures). (Note: This is not the Edward Norton film, which has the same title, but debuted in 2006.) So, I added it to my queue and watched it soon after its arrival. This post isn’t exactly a film review, but I have to tell you about the film in order to get to the point I’m trying to make.

The film was written by Jacques Tati and directed by Sylvain Chomet, who also directed an animated film I love: The Triplets of Belleville. Here is the synopsis from Amazon:

The Illusionist is a story about two paths that cross. While touring concert halls, theaters and pubs, an aging, down-on-his-luck magician encounters a young girl at the start of her life’s journey. Alice is a teenage girl with all her capacity for childish wonder still intact. She plays at being a woman without realizing the day to stop pretending is fast approaching. She doesn’t know yet that she loves The Illusionist like she would a father; he already knows that he loves her as he would a daughter. Their destinies will collide, but nothing—not even magic or the power of illusion—can stop the voyage of discovery.

To view the trailer, click here.

220px-The_Illusionist_PosterAfter reading that synopsis, you might be thinking of Alice in Wonderland by now or wondering whether the film is a mashup of Alice in Wonderland and the Edward Norton film or even Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film about dueling magicians: The Prestige. Uh, nope, though the Alice in Chomet’s film has curiosity and wonder similar to that of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.Prestige_poster

While the film has moments of wonder, the wonder is overshadowed by the bleak realities of life. At one point, the illusionist, whose stage name is Tatischeff, leaves a note for someone that reads, Magicians do not exist. You’ll have to see the movie to understand who or why. But I don’t agree with the supposition that magicians do not exist—the point I’d like to make. (I can hear you sighing and saying, “Finally.”) In fact, the main character’s profession seems an apt metaphor for the writing life.

What is a writer but an illusionist whose literary sleight of hand becomes the stuff of magic to a rapt audience? The skilled writer/illusionist weaves a world of wonder that draws you in and makes you want to stay forever. Oh, I don’t mean the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” kind of shallow storytelling that never caused anyone to be immersed in a narrative. (Yes, that is a line from the movie, The Wizard of Oz. And no, I’m not implying that story is shallow. Glad I cleared that up.) I mean a narrative that makes you believe the world could be real.

imagesRemember how you felt when you read about Harry Potter getting his letter from Hogwarts and finally escaping from the home of the horrible Dursleys? Remember that rush as you followed Bilbo on an adventure with the dwarves? Or, remember how a talking spider named Charlotte captured your heart with her encouragement of a pig named Wilbur? I do. I get giddy just thinking about these stories. That’s magic; that’s the power of a story.CharlotteWeb

So yeah, magicians exist. We just need someone to believe in us, as Tatischeff did. We can start by believing in ourselves.

The Illusionist 2010 movie poster from filmint.nu. Other movie posters and book cover from Wikipedia.

The Fictive Dream

You know that feeling you get when you suddenly realize there’s a hole at the back of your sweatpants, and you’ve just showed the UPS guy more than your signature? Mortified to the point of death is an accurate description. If you know that feeling, welcome to my world. And I truly wish this was a made-up story (it isn’t; it happened last week), or that I had the assurance of never again clapping eyes on this guy. Alas, avoidance is impossible, since my street is within his route.

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If you cringed at my story even a little, you have the right mindset for a fictive dream. What do I mean by that? Take a look at this quote from The Art of Fiction by John Gardner:

In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things—sights, sounds, smells—as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real. (Gardner 31)

Man rides cloudSo, how does one go about creating the fictive dream? Don’t look at me. I really am asking you.

You’re still looking at me. Sigh. Fine. Let’s examine the dream state first. In a dream, we experience the tang of ripe strawberries, the velvety softness of a flower petal, the fulsome beauty of a sky at sunset—as vividly as if we were awake. We solve problems or escape from them. And that in a nutshell is the fictive dream—total immersion in a story. As Gardner explains, “Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind” (31).

Consider the last book you read that gave you the sense of stepping behind a curtain into another world—one in which you longed to dwell. Maybe you think of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, thanks to J. K. Rowling’s vivid imagination, or you think of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels. Or perhaps Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is your drug of choice (I would live in Lothlórien if I could) or you prefer classic books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Zorah Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Coming to the end of that fictive dream was as startling as waking from a dream, wasn’t it?

In the fictive dream, not only are the senses fully engaged, a reader’s empathy is as well. If you feel nothing for the characters or their conflict, total immersion is not possible.

Authors weave their stories to keep a reader (or listener) engaged. As I consider how to craft such a story, I keep this advice in mind: I must be fully immersed in the world. If I’m not fully engaged, how can I expect you the reader to be? If I only half-like my characters or even . . . shudder . . . hate the “bad” characters, as if my role is to judge them, how can I expect you to love, sympathize with, or even come to a place of understanding about them?

What do you see as the key ingredients of the fictive dream? What book have you read that fits this model? Has there ever been a time when your familiarity with a story, or the situation depicted, prevented you from being fully immersed in it?

As you consider those questions, I’ll leave you with this cat, who seems to be living the dream.

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Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1983, 1991. Print.

For another great post on the fictive dream, click here.

Man riding a cloud picture is from anintrospectiveworld.blogspot.com. Shocked smiley face is from shocked free.clipartof.com. Footrest cat is from LOL Cats.