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1 Nov

Four years ago, I set out to write a 50,000-word-novel within the month of November.

I failed.

That depends on how one defines failure, but I certainly lost the challenge known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I did not attempt it again until this year, mere hours ago, and I am already ahead of today’s minimum word count. They say the initial great feeling wears off, but presently, I relish it. I took a small break just now to stretch and to remove my eyes from my laptop’s glowing screen, which reads “2,965” right now for my word count, and now I am on WordPress, taking a very brief respite from writing and focusing on – you guessed it! – writing.

I hereby promise that I will, to the best of my abilities, continue posting my thoughts on here, along with regular updates on my NaNoWriMo progress. At the moment, the plot remains shrouded in mystery; word counts should suffice. (For those who want a brief summary of the novel’s plot and genre, my NaNo username is danielphelan1667.)

Future topics on here might include Ender’s Game boycotts; the nature of stupidity; peaceful anarchists; a time when ignorance might actually be useful for something; Myrddin Wyllt; a closer look at the “jack of all trades” saying; the anxieties of modern scientists; the objectivity of humor; our largely-dwindling immune systems; polyamory; ghost stories; Iceland; bokkens; the human attention span’s impact on productivity; a case for public nudity; pagan rituals; prejudices against fat people; sword-fighting; theories of truth behind Beowulf; methods to raise one’s own intelligence; Vlad Tepes; and questions about using base ten when counting.

This month I am working mainly at night in order to avoid the potential distractions known as other people, and I intend to reach 8,000 words by tomorrow afternoon. Think I can do it? There’s only one way to find out, because I have neither a time machine nor a crystal ball. Tonight, before 11 pm EST, I aim to reach 5,000 words. That, too, remains to be seen, so I’d better get cracking.


Standalones, Sequels, and Series

8 Oct

As a fantasy writer, I used to dream of “the epic series I’d finish one day”. The intended quantity of volumes was seldom constant, varying from day to day, but it usually ranged from a trilogy to ten books. This sort of thing is not inherently bad, but it sends me warnings of a story that stretches out too far, or one that does conclude but whose world is reopened excessively for sequels. Sometimes these are fine, but all too often, they feel recycled or drawn out. There seem to be several possible reasons, and here I intend to explore some of them.

One big thing I’ve noticed in young-adult fantasy series (broadly including actual, “pure” fantasy as well as science fiction, horror, dystopians, and even the endless slew of paranormal romances) is what anyone with a critical eye can spot in Hollywood today: monetary gain. There may be other reasons behind Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and the Star Wars prequels, which I will identify in a bit, but the reason is often money. As if the writers, directors, producers, actors, and so forth were starving…. Money, to me, seems to affect many people as if it were a drug: the more one receives, the more one craves. Mother Theresa once said, “Live simply, so that others may simply live.” Most simple lives do not require millions upon millions of dollars, even in Southern California or New York City. Am I mistaken?

Another reason for endless familiarity in books and films, according to the late Blake Snyder in his screenwriting reference book Save the Cat!, is not the greed of the makers but that of the consumers. Audiences sometimes cannot bear to part with certain characters or settings. Honestly, I understand the desire for more Captain Jack Sparrow, more lightsaber duels, more Middle-Earth – and it seems we will receive all of those and more, in the years following this entry’s publication.

When I was thirteen, I wanted my own saga to be long because I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my characters, my settings. Seeing as I was younger and relatively inexperienced, I begrudge my past nothing. However, many people today haven’t the time to invest that sort of time into such things while still reading other writers’ work. In time, I came to realize this truth and decided to begin with standalone novels (perhaps even short stories, poems, or essays) before attempting anything huge. Brandon Sanderson’s advice comes to mind here: “Write a standalone, but with series potential.” In doing so, one allows for flexibility rather than depending on the next installment. One writer I admired as a child was actually very derivative in his first series, and yet I think he has potential to do better in the future. Indeed, when I met Christopher Paolini last autumn, he told me he planned to write a science-fiction novel before returning to the fictive universe of his Inheritance Cycle with a fifth novel set in the same fantastical land of Alagaësia, but intended as a standalone. Christopher has improved greatly as a writer by his prose’s quality, but his series was still unoriginal. (That being said, I  enjoy reading them.) Even so, I think he has potential. Each book in his series at least ends with a decent conclusion, if not a total resolution. Some things rely on cliffhangers to entice audiences to await the next installment. I do not care for cliffhangers as I once did. They should be used sparingly, if at all, and usually only before the final installment. More than one ending attempting to draw consumers back just seems excessive. Granted, there are some good ones, such as The Two Towers (book); The Subtle Knife (book); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (film); and The Empire Strikes Back (film). Being used well on occasion does not excuse excess.

Brian Jacques was a wonderful writer. His novel Redwall contained some of the most beautiful imagery I’ve ever read (apart from those by Rachel Neumeier and Margo Lanagan). The feast scenes and the mild nature settings were among my favorite descriptions to read. However, I had two issues with his numerous sequels, prequels, and other books set in Mossflower Wood. One was racism: rats and foxes and stoats were almost always the villains, while mice and badgers and squirrels were seen as heroic. But the more pertinent issue was that more often than not, his novels had nearly identical plots. All the ones I’ve read so far (RedwallMossflowerMattimeoMariel of Redwall, and Loamhedge) involved very similar quests spurred by rhyming riddles. And three of the primary antagonists were rats. Cluny the Scourge, Gabool the Wild, and Raga Bol made interesting adversaries, but this sort of repetition forms both racism (speciesism?) and plot recycling combined. Besides, Slagar the Cruel (a fox) takes the cake for me as a villain. And Jacques’s final installment, published posthumously and titled The Rogue Crew, totals the series to 22 novels, plus picture books and a cookbook and a few guidebooks. Still, I find myself going back to his stories every so often out of short-term nostalgia (I initially listened to the first three audio books in 2011, shortly after the author died). Much as I love Brian Jacques’s work, repetition is a flaw, especially when done over twenty times. But to end on a more decorous note, I now say: Rest in peace, Brian; I love your books, and I would have loved to meet you. I’m glad you had such a happy life.

If I ever write a series – it’s certainly an idea – I will try to avoid “sequel bait” (as Christopher Nolan called it in reference to the films in his Dark Knight Trilogy) and try not to exceed three books (four if I do a prequel). Seven at the most. And now, I must go write a bit of my short story and possibly plot either my novel or my screenplay. Loads of balls to juggle!

Darker Beauties

6 Oct

While I do not care to conform to societal standards, I want to reread some of my favorite tales of the macabre, especially Dracula, Frankenstein, and a couple of Stephen King novels: ‘Salem’s Lot and Pet Sematary. Additionally, I need to finally get around to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Shining, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft. (Actually, I’ve read a couple of Lovecraft’s early tales, but that’s it.) Am I suddenly in a horror mood due to the approaching holiday of Halloween? Probably, but not because of any strictly conventional norm. I simply love horror, and the impending thirty-first day simply reminds me of what was already prevalent.

OK, so my favorite genre overall is actually fantasy, but I also love its neighbors of horror and science fiction. In fact, my all-time favorite novel – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – could be viewed as all of the three, though it is mainly considered horror. Right now I have a copy and will try to reread it and Dracula soon, provided I can slog past all this schoolwork first. Another great resource for horror fans is the Podcast known as Pseudopod, which consists of audio narrations of horror short stories. The main host, Alasdair Stuart, is awesome. Recently I’ve listened to “The Crawlspace” by Russell Bradbury-Carlin, “That Ol’ Dagon Dark” by Robert MacAnthony, and “The Strange Machinery of Desire” by Justin A. Williams – all great, especially “That Ol’ Dagon Dark”. And I believe Dagon is something related to Lovecraft, though I wouldn’t know firsthand just yet.

Why do some people hate horror? Perhaps they dislike being frightened, which is understandable. I do not spook easily, but even if I did, I would appreciate horrific fiction as an art form. Scaring is more than bloody and startling images; when done well, it needs neither. True fear stems from the mind, and from candor regarding human nature. Stephen King is great at it. And that is why I love this genre, whether or not I am joined by the masses.

Thoughts on Education

6 Jan

Imagine eating a cupcake – that is, assuming that you like cupcakes. But imagine that you are eating something lovely. Now proceed to imagine that I walk onto the scene and shove the cupcake down your throat, causing you to gag on half-chewed fluff and possibly choke on icing. It’s no longer pleasurable, now is it?

Such is how I view education. In the words of Mark Twain, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” A friend of mine has an excellent post on the subject of schooling and how many people insist that it is the same thing as education. A vast number of people claim that those who do not attend formal schools “don’t want an education” or are “throwing away their lives.” Nothing could be further from reality, but one cannot force people to think for themselves, as demonstrated both here and in schools. One who seizes an opportunity for liberation from schooling has thrown away not one’s life, but a great obstacle to living it. Schools may teach a few trivial facts, but they ultimately teach us to be mindless and dependent, and to lead dull, miserable lives of conformity. Due to my parental situation, I must attend a public high school, but I loathe every minute of it, not only because of the dreary setting and curriculum, but because so many of my peers are “sheep in the herd.” It is not easy trying to regain lost time and learn on my own spare hours, to resist what these people are doing to me. It is extremely difficult when even my own parents turn their backs on me. (They are of the sort who believe that they know what they are doing – I think they are sincerely convinced this sort of thing is helpful – but they really are clueless about the way the world works, and too stuck in their ways to even consider that they may not always be right.) They, like many people who may read this post, jump to the conclusion that I am “too young to appreciate what favors I am receiving” or that I will “be thankful in the long run.” They may even say that I am just some lazy punk who doesn’t like work.

Well, I read loads of books, I write in multiple mediums, I have taken various classes and lessons for things outside of school, and I am currently in a play. I value knowledge more than most schoolers do, but people don’t like to be wrong. Countless individuals are probably still saying “Fine, be uneducated!” This does not hurt me directly, but I feel sorry for those folks. Truly, I do. The problem is not merely how school is managed: the problem is school itself on a basic level.

Recently I passed by a shelf at Barnes & Noble and glimpsed a title about fixing America’s broken schooling system. I only partly agree with this statement. We don’t need to fix the system. We need to dispose of it! The problem is not with schools. The problem is school, on a very basic level. The whole idea is to force-feed us things and tell us that we are lesser beings who must grovel before our alleged superiors. The way children are treated and undervalued is disgusting. I was a young child, and I hated having to ask permission to do everything, to address teachers as “sir” or “ma’am,” to have my accounts of truth declined because an adult is obviously more honest than a child. Again, I am all for education. People just need to take their heads out of the earth (or wherever the heads have gone…) and see with eyes unclouded by the desire for acceptance. There are certainly other, better ways to learn things.

Thoughts on YERT

19 Sep

Our education system here is faulty, to put it mildly. Students are left to deal with the numerous slip-ups of the board and are sometimes even blamed for its inadequacy. For years I mentally raged against our joke of an administration, resigned myself to a wary truce for a couple more years, and now – finally – my own school is potentially starting a club called Youth Education Reform Team, or “YERT” for short.

I know little about this affiliation at the moment, but I am fully in love with the idea of it and shall fully support it if I find myself able. It’s ironic that we students – that is to say, those of us who remain intellectually inclined – know more about what ought to be done than most adults do. Yet I have a pretty strong conviction that if we attempted to make suggestions to the system people, they would disregard it as they do so many of our sayings and doings. While this nation is meant to endorse freedom of speech, “minors” (as people tend to refer to those under the age of eighteen) are not only ignored: they are sometimes silenced. Simply being young is enough to turn off many older people’s attention, as we are seen as inferiors. Why else do we have to address adults as “Sir” and “Madam” but for their self-styled sense of superiority? While I do acknowledge their greater amounts of life experience, many people grow cocky with age and like to exercise their so-called greatness for no reason other than that they can. There are some very wise and intelligent adults out there, to be sure; there are also children and teenagers who are equally so. The same applies to stupidity – I know of some very dim people who have been hired for prodigious titles, one of whom was the President of the United States from 2001 until 2009. I will not attempt to deny the fact that there are some very slow-witted youths, either. Plenty of them attend my school. These idiots see me as a figure of insanity, and perhaps I am for thinking outside the proverbial box. But whenever I use a “big word” in English class or elsewhere – even one which is not a rare term – I receive stares of stunned awe bordering on admiration, maybe even fear. Brawn can be useful, but given a choice I would pick a healthily-growing mind over giant muscles any day. Besides, I would not be shocked to discover half of the meatheads at my school use steroids. Unfortunately, tossing a ball from player to player does actually earn revenue for some, even if it does not accomplish much else. But the people who change the world are those who know how to read and write, how to calculate, how to think. And thinking is something people just do not seem capable of doing anymore.

If I worked for the Wake County Public School System, I might well be fired after an hour or so for my eccentric ideas of how to better serve our younger friends. Despite the technology given to us by thinkers, and perhaps even partially due to it, we are in a social dark age of ignorance, arrogance, and above all, stupidity. My ideal education would not involve being daily imprisoned on a campus filled with mind-numbing, droning lectures. Given the chance, I would be allowed to visit truly academic places across the globe in order to learn (as opposed to passing the final exam and forgetting everything needed for it). I would learn what is truly necessary for me; not everyone needs to know everything. I could prepare my own lunches, fresh ones, or eat out on occasion. Laboratories and workshops would be my learning places, as opposed to stuffy boxes of despair and boredom. Instead of being categorized by a college major, I would be a person.

Many of the aforementioned people with closed minds would retort that I am simply a child who does not yet appreciate all that school does for one. My reply to such a claim would be that I am in fact an adult by law, and that there are indeed adults who would agree with me. Anarchy is not what I suggest here (although that would be interesting); my silent suggestion is that children be communicated with, taught personally instead of being shipped off to school to relieve their parents’ duties, and above all, heard.

It may seem that young people do not have a voice, but the truth is that people will hear them if they just listen.

School essay on BEOWULF – “Fate and Faith”

19 Sep

            The name of the original bard to tell the story of Beowulf has been lost to the ages. Most information about the epic poem and those who passed it down over the centuries is pure speculation based on its content as well as known history. The primary faiths at work in Beowulf are Christianity and Paganism, which both seem to exist without one negating the other. The Christian figure of God is alluded to several times throughout the epic, such as His protecting the throne of King Hrothgar. Wyrd, or fate, seems to share authority with God, guiding Schild’s funerary vessel across the sea and governing who lives and dies.

Fate is unbiased and impassive: Beowulf is depicted as a strong, heroic figure, yet he meets his end with a fire dragon. To be sure, he was no longer in his prime at that point, but that goes to further illustrate that fate keeps things in balance, as opposed to taking “sides.” Grendel was a threat to the human population, and so wyrd allowed him to be slain, and after that, his vengeful mother was also dispatched. The dragon seems to have been a device to rid the world of Beowulf – not because he posed a threat to the demonic population at this point, but because his time on this earth had all but run out. The dragon was destroyed, too: it appears to have been a “use and discard” method of fate, similar to a modern water bottle or a dissolving pill.

God’s grace could also have been at work in the final stand. As previously stated, He seems to be working alongside the pagan fate rather than opposing it (as many others would have Him do) – He seems to have been involved in Grendel’s mother’s spawning as well as that of Grendel himself. Grendel is said to be a descendent of the Biblical villain Cain, the first murderer. Fallen beings, such as Lucifer becoming Satan, often physically transform God’s transgressors into grotesque creatures. While many people can somewhat picture a Western dragon, the forms of Grendel and his terrible mother are left largely to the imagination as “things from Hell.” Art has generally depicted them – mostly Grendel – as being like trolls or ogres: large, brutish, vaguely humanoid monsters, sometimes with scaly patches or horns or cloven hooves. While appearances are not everything, people often do judge others by them. In this context, however, it may be advisable as these beasts are clearly not of the Heavenly sort.

To this day, Christianity spites paganism as being associated with witches or demons. There may be more tolerance now, and hanging is not as common a thing as it once was, but as long as there are humans, it seems, there will be those who judge other beliefs. That being said, God and wyrd are in cahoots in this epic. It is not unlikely that there was a shift in beliefs from bard to scribe: the original poets may have been pagan, and the story may have reached monastery ears and been given Christian elements. If so, it seems to have worked out for the best, as it is a well-known tale which is read to this day.

This illustrates that two or more different faiths may cooperate to achieve great things, such as preserving one of humanity’s oldest recorded writings. Disputes constantly break out between cultures, often due to contradictory religions, but it is not rare for people who are different to work toward the same goal. God worked with wyrd; why should their followers not do the same?

Trilogies and quadrilogies and so forth

9 Aug

Although there are several exceptions to what I am about to say, it often rings very true: many novel series and film franchises simply do not know when enough is enough. While I acknowledge that many stories require more than one installment to be told, some just go on and on without cessation or any sign of a nearby conclusion. Perhaps this is why we have more series on television and HBO nowadays. Harry Potter is a good exception, but many claim that the new “two-parter” thing applied by Hollywood to Deathly Hallows as well as Breaking Dawn, The Hobbit, and possibly Catching Fire is simply a means of obtaining two (or three) times as much money from audiences. While this is doubtless true in many cases, certain sagas simply cannot be told through one movie per book. Sometimes, though, one story can be complete without a dozen follow-ups. I think the limit of standalone installments ought to be three. Christopher Nolan has done this beautifully with his Dark Knight trilogy, which I dearly hope will not be “fourthed” by Hollywood. Prequels to a trilogy can at times be acceptable – they made two for X-Men, which seems a bit much, but the films I have seen in that franchise have been out of order and thus I do not know the whole story.

In the realm of comic books, filmmakers often have to take a string of weekly cheesy serials and form one coherent storyline with them, making connections enough to form one straightforward plot. There are many villains in the Batman comics, from what I understand: the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, and Bane, just to name a few. Then again, it must be here confessed that I have yet to read the graphic novels. A movie generally contains one broad plot with subplots, but not twenty mini-stories strung together. The same applies to a series I’ve been devouring of late, A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. The first three books – short and concise things – were slightly altered in 2004 to form one movie with one plot. And they did a decent job, other than leaving it open for The Sequel That Never Came. I often wonder if they’ll make a movie or three of the hit BBC program Doctor Who. It’s possible, but my standards would be high. One of the movies could have Daleks as villains, the others perhaps featuring The Master or perhaps a horde of Cybermen or Weeping Angels. Just thoughts.

One more thing to note here is something many people complained about Sam Raimi’s 2007 conclusion to his Spider-Man trilogy: too many villains. Whether they are working together or it’s a three-way battle, two seems to be the limit. A third antagonistic faction in the same movie tends to throw people off, I’ve noticed. In the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which have some truly awesome scenes but are going too far, there is the British Navy as the more constant villains throughout the franchise, but each movie has another bad guy, usually a rival pirate, who is the main focus of conflict. But even though I can appreciate certain aspects of these movies, they’re stretching it pretty thin for something based on an amusement-park ride – even if I enjoy them as guilty pleasures.

Comments on this post are not mandatory, but I welcome and appreciate them. What do you people think of my views?