Go where you find inspiration: Part 2: Real live animals that should be in fantasy novels

Go where you find inspiration, and go there often

 

My previous post was about the Art Gallery Museum and the intriguing characters I uncovered in the old portrait paintings there. Now let me tell you about the incredible animals I discovered, many for the first time, at the South Australian Museum.

The Mouflon, found in the Caucasus, northern and eastern Iraq, and northwestern Iran

The Mouflon, found in the Caucasus, northern and eastern Iraq, and northwestern Iran

Some of these guys really look like they should be in a fantasy or sci-fi novel, not in the real world. For that reason, I found these animals awakened in me again the desire to write fantasy, a genre I’ve spent many years in but often abandon for “more grown-up” genres like science fiction (haha) or drama.

I spent a few hours over three days walking through the ‘Mammals of the World’ taxidermy exhibit, because I just loved it the first day, but there was so much that I just felt I hadn’t taken it all in, needed another hit.

I was pacing back and forth behind the glass, getting a bit upset that these gorgeous things were dead, just carcasses posed for my viewing pleasure, and most of the living versions were endangered anyway, when it hit me. I wanted to write fantasy animals based on these real animals. Think about it – if I describe an animal to you just using the description, not labelling it by the name we know it, it would be harder for you to imagine, wouldn’t it? You might even think I was making it up.

My first mammal looks like some medieval fantasy writer got really tired of writing ad nauseum about wolves howling at the moon and running in packs and chasing our heroes through the woods, so he elongated the nose and tale of a fox and gave it giant ears, then shrunk it to cat size, and…

The Fennec Fox, found in the Sahara of North Africa

The Fennec Fox, found in the Sahara of North Africa

BAM! Fennec Fox. (Seriously, what’s with these adorable little guys? They’re so darn cute!)

Here are some of the other animals that inspired me:

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Go where you find inspiration: Part 1: Intriguing characters found in portrait paintings

Go where you find inspiration, and go there often

 

I’m in Adelaide this week, and while I’ll save my excessive raving about how beautiful it is for later, I have to tell you about where I went yesterday.

I went to the South Australian Museum and the Art Gallery.

Sounds a little boring, maybe, if you hate animals or history or art. But I have to tell you, I found myself absolutely, 100% inspired there – the most inspired, in fact, that I’ve felt in months.

This first post will be about the South Australian Art Gallery and the beautiful portraits I admired there; my second post will illuminate the incredible animals that I discovered at the Museum.

Ever just see someone on the street and their face just tells you a story that you want to write instantly? They’re such a clear picture of a character that you can imagine. Maybe they look like a character you’ve already begun writing, or maybe they’re one that you’ve never considered before. You can almost hear their voice in dialogue before they speak.

That’s what the art gallery was like for me. I wandered the halls snapping shots of nearly every portrait – faces old and young, faces wise and bewildered, faces engaged and closed-off.

Because of the age of the paintings, and the gorgeous fashions on display, I couldn’t help myself – suddenly I wanted to write a history novel again! Someone asked me just last week to look over their historical romance novel (fun!), so it’s been on my mind. I also wished I could have taken my dress-maker friend through the halls of the gallery, just to gaze at the fabrics and dream of ways to make modern dresses based on these opulent draperies.

Here are some of the faces that inspired me…

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Sting: overcoming years of writer’s block

StingIn March, Sting gave a TED talk called ‘How I started writing songs again’ (http://www.ted.com/talks/sting_how_i_started_writing_songs_again).

As a youth, he lived by a shipyard, and constantly thought of getting free. As we all know, he did, selling more than 100 million albums and earning 16 Grammy Awards.

But something changed – he got writer’s block, stretching on for years. To overcome this, he recently found himself writing new songs by returning to the stories of the shipyard workers he knew as a boy.

I found his talk incredibly moving, as a creator and as someone who remembers a difficult childhood. In his talk, Sting sings songs from his upcoming musical, as well as my favourite of his songs, ‘Message in a Bottle’.

This ties back to my posts about incubation and writer’s block. I’ve written about how incubation of years has helped me to rewrite stories that I first imagined in high school now, as an adult. In Sting’s case, an unwanted incubation period that stretched for years (the writer’s block preventing creation) was solved by returning to childhood stories that had been incubating from even longer ago, bringing new creation.

Have you ever struggled with writer’s block? How did you get past it?

 

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

How not to write a speech

Disclaimer: In this post, I use a real speech as an example of how to write a better speech. If you were at the wedding and heard the speech I’m referring to, you know that it was a beautiful wedding, for a beautiful couple, and that I intend no personal offense to the speech writer or anyone else involved.

I did two subjects in uni that were all about speech writing and persuasive speaking for different purposes. I did well, so I’d happily say that it’s taught me how to structure a basic speech to make an effective effort, at least, to persuade my listeners to my point of view.

Image source: Corey Ann, "How to give a best man speech"

Image source: Corey Ann, “How to give a best man speech”

Then I went to a wedding recently, and I learnt how not to write a speech.

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The power of the spoken word

Reading Aloud - from Douglas School PTO

Reading Aloud – from Douglas School PTO

The one piece of writing advice that’s been most useful to me over the years is very simple: Read it aloud first.

Whether it’s dialogue or description in a short story or novel, arguments in an essay, or jokes at the start of a speech, I’ve picked up many errors just by reading my own work aloud as I’m drafting it.  There’s no way to know if your dialogue is forced or unnatural unless you’re literally speaking out what your characters would be.  If your 5-year-old’s dialogue isn’t right, you’ll hear immediately if it sounds like a 12-year-old when you have to say it.

I can’t imagine a children’s book being written – to be read aloud by parents to kids, or vice versa – without being read aloud first.  Oh, the delight of alliteration, of rhyme!  I may wax lyrical.

Addy Vannasy reads to village children on Discovery Day in Laos

Volunteer Addy Vannasy reads to village children on Discovery Day in Laos

Research has shown that young kids who don’t learn to “sound it out” find it harder to learn to read (sob), to master our complicated English spelling, and to create coherent sentences themselves when reading or speaking.  (See Blevins, W. Phonemic Awareness Activities for Early Reading Success for more detail.)

I will always remember one of my primary school principals, Mr O’Brien, reading out some of Shakespeare’s G-rated sonnets and complaining that no one used the verb “impignorate” anymore (no, I don’t know which one).   I think this “out loud” advice first came to my ears from him, in fact, this poetic principal who roamed the halls teaching poetry and theatre classes instead of filling in his endless paperwork.  I don’t know how efficient it was, but he inspired hundreds of Tamagotchi-obsessed children to read difficult and beautiful poetry – no mean feat.

These days, when I’m proofreading, I often mutter the words under my breath.  It must look and sound weird, but I usually work from home, so nobody sees it anyway.  Reading aloud as I’m proofreading makes sure that I don’t miss anything.  Your brain is happy to fill in the gaps if you’ve [left] out a word, or if you’ve misspelled something improtant [sic], or if there’s no full-stop.  (I simply cannot force myself to do that, even just for an example, sorry.)  But reading aloud makes your brain sloooow down to the pace of your mouth.  And your mouth won’t fill in gaps.  Sometimes it even trips over words, forcing you to reconsider your use of a certain adjective.

On a deeper note, when I think about the most powerful conversations in my life – the most encouraging, and the most damaging – they have all been literal, spoken conversations.  I remember them word for word.  And that says a lot, because I’m a letter-writer, preferring to hand someone my written words than work up the courage to say things out loud.

The “out loud” principle is true in our faith practices, as well.  I was at a workshop this week about conquering sin for women, and one of the most powerful things we talked about – among many helpful tips – was declaring God’s truths (scripture) out loud, and refuting the power of sin out loud.

The spiritual battle we face is real, and odd as it sounds, the devil who’s trying to tempt us doesn’t know what we’re thinking; he can only see our actions in giving in to temptation or hear us when we proclaim Jesus’ victory over ourselves and resist temptation.  James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Drafting your novel?  Start drafting it out loud.  Thinking about telling someone they did an awesome job?  Don’t shoot them that five second email; have that five second conversation face-to-face if you can.  You’ll enjoy it more, and so will they.

 

Did I read this blog post aloud before I posted it?  You betcha.  And I definitely tripped over “impignorate”, but you can bet it’s staying!

 

This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

Do sci-fi and fantasy do what real life drama can’t? Decreasing bigotry and prejudice through reading

I’ve been thinking about how kids books can make a difference for disadvantaged people groups. The poor, the oppressed, the marginalised. Those starving in a third world, or held captive by a regime of fundamentalist beliefs, the homeless, the refugees, those who come here not speaking our language.

But I don’t think the best way to do it is to directly target those issues.

There are many award-winning, real-life dramas for kids that address racism or other forms of prejudice, like the multi-award-winning The Little Refugeeby famous refugee Ahn Do, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, or the more recent The Invisible Hero by Elizabeth Fensham. These are books that many kids read in school; in my day, it was To Kill A Mockingbird for anti-racism, and I Capture the Castle or A Little Princess for accepting poverty.

Wonderful as these books all are at persuading their child audience to be more welcoming and accepting of certain people groups, I think they can never be as successful at persuading their child audience to be more welcoming and accepting generally, as stories told through the from-out-of-left-field genres of fantasy and sci-fi.

An article yesterday on the topic (this one is from Arts Mic; read its other variations in most other major news outlets, e.g. Sydney Morning Herald) discussed a series of three studies of Italian kids who had to read Harry Potter for school. This study showed that kids who identified with Harry Potter had significantly stronger tolerance for minority groups such as refugees, other immigrants, and gay people. The more HP books they had read, the more tolerant they were. And in contrast, kids who identified in any way with Voldemort showed less tolerance for refugees and other minority groups.

It’s simple if you think about it. Harry befriends Hermione, a ‘mudblood’ (a Muggle-born witch); Ron, the son of a very poor family; Hagrid, a half-giant ostracised by non-giants and giants alike; and Neville, who due to no fault of his own shows less aptitude for their magical studies.

J.K. Rowling said in 2003 that she never set out to teach kids anything, but she did say at the conclusion of the series that she considered it “a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry”.

Harry with Hermione, Ron and Neville - from Arts Mic - image source: AP

Harry with Hermione, Ron and Neville – from Arts Mic – image source: AP

This revolution in kids, started by a fantasy book series, reminded me of a powerful sci-fi movement that changed how we think about minority groups in the Western World.

Trek Nation poster

Trek Nation – documentary, 2011

I was recently watching a 2011 documentary by Rod Roddenberry, the son of Eugene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek: Trek Nation. A lot of the documentary focussed on how Star Trek allowed its viewers to feel like it was okay to be different.

No, Star Trek wasn’t written specifically for kids, but a lot of kids watched it. It was clean – very little bad language, violence, or adult themes. And it changed how they grew up.

In one powerful line, Rod said the thing that struck me the most: that Star Trek viewers had been consistently shown to be more tolerant people in general. They were more tolerant and accepting towards other races, other genders or sexualities, and other worldviews, better than the average person.

Part of the reason for this is because the show was, from the beginning, multicultural in its choice of actors. At a time when there were few non-white or foreign roles in American television dramas (the UK did a little better), Roddenberry chose an African woman to play Uhura, a Scotsman for Scotty, a Japanese-American for Hikaru Sulu, and a half-Vulcan alien for Spock.

Do you think books about real-life drama can achieve the same thing in kids through such subtle methods, such subconscious and long-lasting success?

On a faith note, Jesus embraced the outsider everywhere he went, and supported multicultural attitudes and interfaith communication whole-heartedly.

In John 4:7, he talks with the Samaritan woman at the well.  In Luke 10 he tells the parable of the good Samaritan, which basically says, “Who is my neighbour?” “Everyone, even my enemies, people whose beliefs are totally the opposite of mine.”  And what does he say about enemies?  “Love your enemies.”

Then in Luke 9:54, Jesus and the disciples are looking down at a Samaritan village that has rejected the message of Jesus and thrown them out of town.  James and John turn to Jesus and say, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?”  But what does Jesus do?  It says in verse 55, “But he rebuked them [the disciples].”  And this obviously has a huge impact on John, because later, in Acts 8:14, the disciples hear that Samaria has “accepted the word of God”, and as they’re deciding who to send there as missionaries, they choose Peter and John.

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