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Here's a familiar scene: It's a Sunday afternoon, and I'm in my bedroom crying my eyes out. Note that I am past the age when this generally happens at random. Nope, it's not a medley of hormones that's making me cry like a little girl. I'm reading Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and the misery is so poignant that for the last quarter of the book, I give up trying to choke back the tears.

Okay, maybe not so familiar. It's a different book every time, and it doesn't happen super often, but when it does I always marvel that the authors of these novels can rip through me like that. I spend hours puzzling out how a book can make me feel the way it does, hoping I might one day have the power to get to a reader like that. Not to produce tears, necessarily - I levitate to lighter stuff - but to call up deep emotions in a reader, to make them forget the particulars of their own lives because they're so lost in mine. It's pretty ambitious, I know!

What creates this poignancy? Understatement, for one thing. I have a tendency to explain and explain what a character is feeling, but I don't think that's the way to go. Two or three words can say more than a whole slew of them. Maybe the clever portrayal of a few strong relationships that keep a character going, just like strong relationships keep real people going. Confusion about how a character truly feels about another is another thing that tends to draw us in and make us really feel the story. Yet a lot of these things can work in the opposite way as well. When an author is vague on what a character feels, I sometimes find I can't relate to the protagonist. When I was reading The One-Armed Queen by Jane Yolen, the lack of insight into Scillia's thought processes kept me distant. It's a thin line and I don't know where to draw it when I'm writing, but I can feel it when I'm reading.

An ever-so-slightly less complicated issue is the issue of investment. (No, not the financial kind.) What makes us decide that we should invest in a character? I'm a relatively easy reader this way - I pick the main character's side quite quickly as long as the main character is semi-competent and well-intentioned. Still, not everyone's that easy, and even I have trouble caring about a character now and then. For instance, when a character is too badass/perfect (yes, it's a common problem) I just get fed up with that character. I was reading Lynn Kurland's Star of the Morning and its sequels last month, and I just couldn't get past the fact that the main character Morgan was the most beautiful woman most of the characters had ever laid eyes on, yet somehow also the best swordswoman in the land (and a powerful mage to boot). How am I ever supposed to like this girl? Contrast her with Tamora Pierce's Keladry of Mindelan (Protector of the Small) and it's easy to see what's wrong with Kurland's protagonist. She's much too perfect. She hasn't had to compromise between being a fighter and being a beauty. Kel had to balance being a knight with being a woman, and that's what made her so dear to me. I've never had her problem, of course, but I've had to compromise between plenty of other things: friends and family, school and a social life, fitting in and being true to myself. We all have. We're real readers, and we need real conflict - even if it's in a fantasy world.

So: in order to feel connected to a character we need to have conflict within and around the character. The sooner this conflict is introduced, the better. In Juliet Marillier's Child of the Prophecy (another of those books I cry shamelessly during), the main conflict is Fainne's isolation from the normal people around her (among other things). The second paragraph of the novel is as follows:

"There was a pattern to it. There were patterns to everything, if you knew how to look. My father taught me that. The real skill lay in staying outside them, in not letting yourself be caught up in them. It was a mistake to think you belonged. Such as we were could never belong. That, too, I learned from him."

BOOM. In one short paragraph, we've stumbled across the crux of Fainne's problem: belonging. We see her jaded father, her obedience, her intelligence - without very much mention of anything at all. This is why some books are magic, and others are not. Winter term of this year I took a fiction writing class (WR 224 at Oregon State University, from Tanya Katz) and we kept coming back to this issue: how to say a lot without using very many words. A short introduction to the problem is all we need, but we need it before we've come too far into the page count. A consistent theme is worth more to me than an amazing plot.

In summary: invest, invest, invest! Anyway, that's just my favorite flavor. What really gets you to fall in love with a story? I'd love to hear what others think.

When life happens

Wow. You know all those times when you start something new (a story, a hobby, a blog, or something similar) in the summer, and it seems like the best idea ever, and then as soon as the year starts you forget all about it?

Story of my life. I can't keep up journals, and I write so slowly any progress I make can be dismissed easily. That being said, periods of inactivity are generally a good sign for me, because it means I'm having a good time in real life.

Is the internet a place to go in between good times? A rest stop where you recover between destinations? It seems as if a lot of people have the same problem I do. You're bored, or going through a rough spot, and the internet is your best friend. You start having a good time in real life - boyfriend, exciting new school, active social life - and suddenly the only pieces of the internet you really see anymore are facebook and e-mail, because that's where you can organize your events. Places you used to spend hours on end, like fictionpress, livejournal, fanfiction.net and deviantART, suddenly fall off the radar. I'm sure there's been research on this, and I'd like to find it. What's your experience? (This is to anyone who reads this. I know. I find it creepy when people breach the wall and say "you" in a blog post, too.)

The past few months have been amazing, more so than I ever expected. I used to feel a kind of despair that childhood (the best time of anyone's life, as far as I knew) was over, but recently I've been feeling as if being an adult isn't going to be so bad, after all. I started college at Oregon State University last September, and I love it. My major is microbiology (with an automatic minor in chemistry) and I was lucky enough to get into the honors college, so I get a lot of the perks of going to a private university while going to a public one with in-state tuition.

I'm boring myself. The long and short of it is, I found someone special - a real Oregonian who wears shorts and T-shirts all year long, but I love him nonetheless. No, having a new boyfriend isn't the only reason for my happiness, but it's definitely a contributing factor. I'd forgotten how nice it was to have a relationship, and to an extent, I think I never knew. (My first and only previous "serious" relationship was kind of dysfunctional.) I feel pretty optimistic, and not just for myself. If I can find someone that suits me this well, I feel like everyone can - if they want to. Maybe not within a certain time frame, but it should be possible.

This entire blogpost might just be the jetlag talking. I'm in Scotland for Christmas, spending time with family, and today's the first time I've made it past nine without falling over dead. Anyway, drop me a comment and tell me what you've been up to. And whether the internet is an in-between place for you, too.

(On a side note, livejournal's spellcheck does not recognize the word "blog". Fail!)

Mythology and perfection

There's a little "Booktique Bookstore" here in LO where old library books end up, priced so low that they're virtually free. When I went there one or two months ago, knowing not to look for any specific novels, I decided to indulge myself and see if they had anything on life in the desert or Greek mythology, two interests that have gone largely undiscovered so far. I was unable to find anything useful on the former, but there was plenty on the latter. Eventually I chose Edith Hamilton's "Mythology" after reading a few pages and enjoying the style. It cost me 50 cents - a true investment, I know.

I've been taking my sweet time to read said book, but I do enjoy it every now and then. Yesterday evening I came across a passage that really got to me, about "The Two Great Gods of Earth", Demeter and Dionysus. I quote:

"But he was not always a joy-god, nor was Demeter always the happy goddess of the summertime. Each knew pain as well as joy. In that way, too, they were closely linked together; they were both suffering gods. The other immortals were untouched by lasting grief. "Dwelling in Olympus where the wind never blows and no rain falls ever nor the least white star of snow, they are happy all their days, feasting upon nectar and ambrosia, rejoicing in all-glorious Apollo as he strikes his silver lyre, and the sweet voices of the Muses answer him, while the Graces dance with Hebe and with Aphrodite, and a radiance shines round them all." But the two divinities of Earth knew heart-rending grief. (49)"

Wow. If it weren't for the fact that the ancient Greeks thought it folly to feel true affection for women, and that hygiene was probably pretty poor in those days, this passage would make me want to backtrack and live in the place and time that conceived these ideas. I was stunned by the beauty of the contrast Hamilton describes. The Olympians lived in a place quite devoid of things that symbolize unhappiness or strife, and the Earth gods lived in the midst of horrid wind and weather. Still, I wonder. Would it be all that great to live up on Olympus, where all is fine and dandy? The gods there may not know great grief, but I doubt they know great joy, either. I'm not sure I could live like that - as my friend Chaney once said: "Life is stark. It's beautiful. But I'm not sure it's happy." Light and shadow come together, and that's what creates beauty both in life and in art. Allow me to be a complete dork and quote Kingdom Hearts: "The closer you get to the light, the greater your shadow becomes." Now, in Kingdom Hearts this mostly seemed to be an excuse to throw in some dark enemies, but it can be a meaningful thought, too. The more joy you have, the more you have to lose. At least, that's the way I see it.

Continuing with the Olympus idea, I've always wondered what utopia would look like, and how it could even exist. In my mind a utopian society would have little to strive for, and I can't help but feel that the overarching feeling in such a place would be boredom, not happiness. This was one of the many problems I had when I tried to visualize heaven as a child. People talked about this place that was perfect, but all I could imagine was a blue-white area in the clouds with millions of people stuck in some kind of static existence with no excitement whatsoever. It wasn't somewhere I particularly wanted to go. (Maybe that's why I slipped off the altar and into agnosticism - the only belief I can wholeheartedly agree with.) Either way, I can totally imagine how the Greeks must have felt much more kinship to the gods who knew loss and pain like they did: Demeter, who lost her daughter every fall, and Dionysus, who was ripped to shreds each year when the grapes were harvested.

I love Greek mythology. It's great food for thought - and I'm still hoping to come across some epic novelization of Persephone's fall into the underworld. (Please let me know if it's out there.) Now if only Zeus would stop cultivating children in random parts of his body, I could totally eat these myths up... oh well, nothing's perfect. Thankfully.

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