The Girl Who Drank The Moon, by Kelly Barnhill

GirlWhoDrankTheMoon

My reading log entry for this book has notes scribbled in the upper left corner: “read this again, read more Barnhill.”

Sometimes I have the pleasure of finding something that feels like it has wafted in through my window, a strangely whole remnant of a dream. It tantalizes, and though it obviously operates on a logic I only comprehend on that precipice between slumber and wakefulness, it holds together. Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank The Moon is one of those books.

This is not to say that The Girl Who Drank The Moon is confusing or inaccessible. Rather the opposite. It is seductive, and it pulled me in as one might fall into reverie: never losing consciousness, but slowly melding from one reality into another without any clear boundaries between the two.

I admire this book.

I love the dreaminess of its fantasy, I love the elegance of its language and the way it presents its stories within stories. I marvel at how well Barnhill has tied conflicting accounts together, like strands of rope twisted against each other until they bind and form a stronger whole. Perhaps most of all, I love the ways in which this story eludes the expectations of a fairy tale while still being a fairy tale through and through.

I did feel that—at the very end—this story lost a little of the breath-taking elegance it had carried so effortlessly throughout. But that cannot detract from the story as a whole for me. It remains too good, and I know for a fact that any semblance of effortlessness is a beautiful lie made of hard work and considerable skill.

That’s why I’ve set this one aside to read again. That’s why I want to read more of Barnhill’s work. That skill, that sense of story, is something I admire and covet. I want to let it soak into my skin, let it become part of me as well.

I strongly recommend this book, especially if you’re looking for middle grade fantasy or fairy tales. I think you could probably delight younger children by reading it aloud. I know that it delighted me.

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Ignite the Stars, by Maura Milan

IgniteTheStarsCover

I struggled my way into this book. Not because the characters or setting didn’t compel me, but because the writing clashed with my expectations. The language of the text did not reliably flow for me, and several early conversations felt stilted or unnatural. It was jarring and distracting where I wanted it to submerge me completely.

But I persevered, and I’m glad that I did. It was the characters, the setting, and their underlying tensions that kept me going. Though it’s clear from my early jarring experience that Maura Milan and I don’t communicate on the same wavelength, her story is marvelous. I happily finished Ignite The Stars, and by the end I felt none of the disjointed language I’d experienced earlier.

Now, I haven’t re-read the start. I don’t know whether there’s simply one piece of the text that is written differently, or whether I became used to Milan’s writing and stopped noticing what had been difficult for me earlier. Other books I’ve read (like Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series) are certainly an acquired taste that take a great deal of work to access and appreciate—and while I know that about them, I’ve lost track of how hard I worked to access them the first time. It’s not clear to me whether I’ve lost track of my difficulty accessing this book as well.

Regardless, I admire what Milan has made here. Few YA sci fi books I’ve read recently do as good a job of incorporating stories of oppression, hate, and exclusion, let alone deal with the consequences of hegemonic expansion or intolerance against refugees and ethnic groups. When they do incorporate these elements, they rarely feel as honest as this—like they’ve been tacked on to add some socially conscious edge to a story, instead of existing as part and parcel of this story’s world. Milan has done the second.

Moreover, she’s done the second while making a good story. Yes, there are some very specific genre story beats that you’ll see coming. If you’re already familiar with the particular tropes, you won’t be surprised (no I won’t spoil them). But Milan has made something that feeds all my genre expectations while still incorporating everything I mentioned above, and I admire it a great deal.

Honestly, I hope that I could do half as good a job as she does.

So yes, I recommend this book. That goes double if you want YA sci fi with a school plot and light romance elements. If you have language trouble early on, stick with it—there’s good story worth reading on the far side.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

shipbreaker1

I like the one on the left more.

I’m a sucker for a good cyclical story, for plot elements interwoven early and revisited at the climax. That’s part of my love for Die Hard and Hot Fuzz. This book is neither of those movies, but it does many of the same structural things.

My feelings for Ship Breaker are slow and warm, less the quick shine of delight than the steady glow of admiration. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I was particularly impressed by the way in which Paolo Bacigalupi built up the feel of coming full circle, and filled it with excellent foreshadowing as he established the struggles to be faced. I also appreciated the book’s explorations of family, loyalty, and love, how they felt etched deep in the text, part of the world that seeped out through every pore. Despite their omnipresence, I never felt as though the book was beating me over the head with its themes; I even ignored them for a while simply because of how completely they merged with the characters and text. Like a shot from a skilled pediatrician—medicine delivered amidst pleasant distraction—they were slipped into the rest of a seamless whole, the needle unnoticed until it was gone. Not perfectly slick, but very well done.

This book is easy to read as a hero’s journey, but Bacigalupi avoids the wish-fulfillment capability-fantasy that periodically crops up in genre stories. People struggle and strive through difficulty and danger, people learn and grow, but they never feel superhuman; the main character’s most fantastical accomplishment is quickly learning to read. This preserves a rough and prosaic taste that grounds everything, making the moments of higher tension even more piquant in contrast. It’s something I like a great deal.

I haven’t even addressed the setting or characters, the way Bacigalupi enmeshes the reader in the world without explaining anything, without needing to explain anything. It’s another thing I admire and aim for in my own stories, and I want you to discover it for yourself if you haven’t already. I wasn’t surprised to see Tobias Buckell thanked in the afterword, and if you like Ship Breaker or its ilk I’d strongly recommend Buckell’s Arctic Rising and Hurricane Fever.

BE HUNGRY: Building your own Buy-in, Quick Thoughts

So many of the stories we tell, so many of the stories we read, are about reluctant heroes and passive adventurers. But those character tropes are woefully misleading and destructive when it comes to driving collaborative story-telling. Characters like that work in fiction because the creators of that fiction spend a tremendous amount of time finding ways to force the characters into action. That’s time and effort that you don’t see or recognize when you look at the story as a consumer. It’s time and effort that can suck energy out of gaming groups.

This is about defying those tropes, and having fun while doing it.

You don’t sit down at a diner counter and demand that the waitstaff convince you to buy food; you’re there because you’re hungry. You picked that place because 1) you already know they have something you want, or 2) you want to try something they have.

Besides, insisting that waitstaff Continue reading

Scope, Scale, & Stakes in Genres: Detective Noir

I wrote about Scope, Scale, and Stakes recently, but I didn’t give clear examples of how they shift during the course of a story. I’ll try to give a more concrete account of that here, with a focus on one particular kind of story or genre.

Let’s try the genre of detective noir. Continue reading

Setting Work for Swamp Gangsters

I did some thought exercises and prep work for the setting I developed for Latour and their friends, back around the time that I wrote the first story in that setting. I didn’t share any of that work with an audience when I wrote the first stories, but climate change has been eating up most of my brain space today and this seems like an appropriate time to share.

Yes, Latour and Ren and the Pats and Cap all exist in a loose version of our world. No, I haven’t ever decided exactly what year it is.

But there’s a reason that everything in those stories happens on boats and floating structures.

When I was first thinking through the setting for that group of stories (I have more that I haven’t posted, due to wanting to be paid for them at some point) my thoughts were as follows… Continue reading

Scope, Scale, & Stakes, Longer Thoughts

While Mattias was telling me about a game he’s preparing for, and the layers of growth and reveal that he has planned, he reminded me of terminology I’d first learned in Kenneth Hite’s 3rd ed. GURPS Horror sourcebook (this links to the 4th ed.). Page 71 of the 3rd edition book introduces “scope” and “scale,” two narrative concepts widely applicable to stories beyond horror-gaming. They’re not necessary for good narrative construction or fun gaming, but they’re extremely useful for both analysis and planning. They’re also likely to show up regardless of whether you intend them to or not, and manipulating them is a straightforward way to change tension in a story.

It’s worth noting that scope and scale are related to but separate from stakes. I’ll cover changing scope, scale, and stakes to affect tension later.

First, I’m going to roughly quote Hite’s definitions of scale and scope, and then follow up with a definition of stakes.

In Hite’s usage, scale is “the level at which protagonists are interacting with the world, and the results of their actions upon it.” Characters operating on a prosaic scale are struggling for their lives and hoping to simply get by, while characters operating on an epic scale are larger than life and deciding the fate of countries or worlds. Scale is a measure of the grandiosity of a character’s actions, and it’s possible to operate on multiple scales simultaneously, or to change scale rapidly without detracting from a story. As an example of multiple simultaneous scales, a hero might struggle to survive the onslaught of a demon (prosaic), knowing that if she can withstand it and defeat it she will change the fate of her world (epic).

Meanwhile, Hite defines scope as “what the PCs can see,” meaning the boundaries of their awareness or the perceived importance of their actions. If a story’s characters only know about the spread of a dangerous cult in a small town, or a single person on the run from one person who wants them dead, that’s a fairly narrow scope. The scope is broader if the story’s characters know that this dangerous cult is the latest outgrowth of a wider group bent on finding a potent mystical artifact in the town, or if that person on the run holds a larger power which might ultimately defeat the nation which sent their hunter to murder them. Furthermore, it’s useful to distinguish between a story’s visible scope (what we’d usually just call scope, and what characters are aware of at any given time, like “there’s a cult in this town”) and the story’s actual scope (what the characters might discover, like “this cult is just the tip of the iceberg”).

Stakes, meanwhile, are whatever is in jeopardy, at risk, or to be gained by a course of action. A story’s stakes inform the scale and scope, though it’s possible for them to operate independently. For example, the life of that person on the run is relatively small stakes, and a story about keeping them alive might have a prosaic scale. But as the characters’ visible scope expands (through gaining more information about the world) and the characters recognize their position in a larger story, the stakes increase and the scale at which the characters are operating may take on multiple levels. In that above example, the characters’ struggle to save the person’s life is prosaic, but may ultimately have epic consequences.

Not every story needs scale, scope, or stakes to change. Sometimes we just want something picaresque, episodic, or repetitive. But I think those repetitive stories are less popular than ones in which scale, scope, and stakes change and grow.

And even within those more repetitive stories, there are often changes to the characters’ visible scope: the characters recognize that “X is bigger than we’d thought,” and thus the stakes (and tension) rise. This change in visible scope can happen for characters and audience simultaneously or separately, but it most often happens for characters shortly before the story’s climax. In the denouement following the climax, the visible scope often recedes once again, as various plot threads are tied up and completed. Characters may still know that something greater is going on, or that events are operating at a larger scale, but their access to that broader scope usually diminishes with their part in that larger story.

So, expanding stakes and visible scope are straightforward ways to heighten tension. Focusing on the prosaic scale is also useful for heightening tension, even as it often expands alongside scope and stakes. Remember: expansion of scale is okay, because characters can operate on multiple scales at once… and can feel more relatable by struggling in prosaic conflicts despite possessing epic powers.

Because variation in tension is considered de rigueur in most adventure and dramatic genres, those stories generally thrive on changes in scope and scale. This is especially true of long-running stories that involve character empowerment, or which cover new ground; without that variation in tension, and believable changes in characters’ scale and visible scope, audiences lose interest. Similarly, arbitrarily or too-frequently returning to prosaic scale and stakes will eventually rob that technique of its tension. The eighteenth time Batman fights a dangerous baddie isn’t as tense as the first time.

What does that mean for us as writers or storytellers?

We can plan for expansions of scale, scope, and stakes. And when I say plan, I really mean “have a very general idea of what might change.” If you’re making stories collaboratively, e.g. playing RPGs, it’s best to leave little hints and clues for you to pull on later and tie into something bigger for the players to discover. It’s not necessary to know how those things will work, or what they’ll connect to when you put them there! You could do all that work, but then you run the risk of never having players discover anything you made because they wanted to go elsewhere or follow other clues.

If you leave little hints and tidbits lying around, and have general ideas of what the larger scope, scale, and stakes might look like, it’s easier to put everything together when the time comes and players finally follow those leads. A villain’s ties to a larger organization or their correspondence with an unnamed person are useful here. Likewise, when the PCs learn the specific modus operandi for a particular group and recognize that elsewhere in a new situation, they’ll often connect the dots and identify the relation between the two. It’s all about building up the skills and world-knowledge of your players (or audience), and letting them draw the connection and feel that frisson of understanding (and maybe dread).

This has gone longer than I’d anticipated. I suspect there’s more material here. I may revisit the topic.

Character Connections & Motivations, Longer Thoughts

I recently ran an impromptu game of D&D 5e for some friends. While I was asking the players for their character’s connections to the other players and the world around them, one person said (I paraphrase) “I don’t have any connections. I live alone in the woods and don’t know or care about these people.”

I was a bit short with the player in response, and pushed them to come up with some connections, even if they didn’t feel like close ones. The player did.

Reflecting on that moment…  Continue reading

Characters’ Emotional Arcs, Quick Thoughts

I had a frustrating but informative (and helpful) experience this afternoon while attempting to fix my plotting problems for the sequel to Barium Deep. After I had resolved multiple problems with my plot arcs, charting them out for my own clarity and future reference, I couldn’t plot one of the emotional character arcs that I wanted for Cesium (the POV character for the second book).

I wasn’t doing anything very complicated, just tracking some of the beats for the specific section of storyline that I wanted to follow. That made my struggles all the more obvious.

Minutes before, I’d plotted out a parallel series of arcs for a totally different story; they’d flowed easily, and made good sense. They were simple, straightforward, and very formulaic—which felt fine for the first pass on an idea that came to me last night. I’m sure that they’ll change and become more interesting once I’ve worked more with that story. If they don’t, I might discard the story or put it on ice.

But those arcs, with their clear points of conflict, transformation, and growth, had come so easily that my difficulty with Cesium was glaring.

A brief aside: the idea that came to me last night dealt with using magic (or something similar) as a manifold metaphor for anger, and perhaps war and military service, with weaker connections to violence and abuse.

The physical plot for Cesium felt simple and straightforward. It fit neatly within the expected bounds of adventure fiction and other upper middle grade stories. Even though I know I’ll change it in a heartbeat if I find something else more emotionally and thematically compelling, it feels good to have laid it out. The problem with Cesium’s emotional arc was that I was (and still am) unsure of what approach I want to take, or how to zero in on Cesi’s changes in ways that will feel rewarding without feeling too neat or pat.

I think it comes down to disliking the pattern of total character transformation that I’ve seen in some middle grade stories. I find incomplete transformation more rewarding, because of how it allows individuals to face their struggles as slightly modified versions of themselves rather than as different people. This fractional shift of self is less important when a story covers a long period of time, as more shift can occur without seeming too abrupt. But when I want a reader to follow a character’s emotional shift from A to B, I feel it helps to highlight the ways the character is still uncomfortable / unfamiliar with their new experience at B. At some point they’ll feel comfortable in the new experience, and that will be cool, but if the story is about them facing that experience I want facing it to be dramatic, tense, uncertain.

The upside of all this is that I think I’m closer to a working draft of Cesium’s story. But I clearly still have more work to do.

In Transit

InTransit

This is a documentary by Albert Maysles (and others), covering people traveling on the Amtrak train Empire Builder (which travels from Chicago to Seattle or Portland, OR). It’s really good. Like, emotionally stirring, inspiring-as-a-piece-of-art-and-otherwise good.

Some of my appreciation for it comes from being a writer and knowing the struggle to create believably human people in media with limited resources. In Transit feels like an effortless skim across the surface of many people’s lives, but each one feels real, deep, often emotionally compelling, and always very human. Which in turn means that the editing was spectacular, because they turned disparate piecemeal vignettes into something that feels whole, and they did such a good job that it feels *natural.*

It’s a textbook example of character construction done right. But the team that made this did so many other story construction things right too, and the emotional impact was incredible and… In Transit is overwhelming, but in a good way.

When I say that the film is overwhelming, I mean that there are so many brief moments of intensely believable humanity that feel honest and wonderful and often bittersweet… so many of these moments that it’s difficult to know what to think as you leave the theater. I felt almost stunned as I walked home, and I still feel awe when I think about the movie.

In the skillful ways in which it reveals humanity with such economy of time and focus, In Transit feels like what a storyteller ought to aspire to. I would strongly recommend watching it, especially if you are in the practice of creating characters that you want to feel like real people.

If you are not in the practice of creating characters, I would strongly recommend that you watch it anyway. This movie is marvelous and moving in many unexpected ways.

The film’s site can be found here: http://www.intransitfilm.com/.

Sadly, it seems that Albert Maysles died before this was released. More details on that (and the uncertain future of the film due to rights disputes) here.