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Monday, 31 October 2016

Opening A Story

If there is one tip about writing I have tried to teach my students at school it is this: writing is about thinking. While some writers might drift along unconsciously, writing is very much a conscious art. Different writers have different methods of writing and the thinking that goes into that writing. 

Some authors write out all their plans of how their novel will run from beginning to end and then flesh that novel out. Other authors begin with a key character and follow the journey of that character. Still other authors simply have a simple concept or question and begin writing from that point - allowing the world of their story to write itself into existence.

In short, all writing begins with an idea. If we look to the Bible at the very beginning it says: Genesis 1:1-5 
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
God himself started with a single word, a word that had the power of infinite concepts. He knew exactly what He wanted this 'light' to be and He spoke it forth into existence. J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that as an author he was a 'sub-creator' under God. That is what writing is all about: creating.

One thing I have been considering recently is where you should begin writing. In my previous blog post, I indicated that I had been wanting to begin with a prologue. However, I removed that prologue because I realised that while it felt incredibly descriptive and powerful, the entire story did not benefit from that prologue. 

So how did I begin my story? I went back and I wrote in a new first chapter that begins with a simple statement about children. I used this as a slight hook to introduce my main character as a child and demonstrate an event that happened to her. This will form the frame for the subsequent events which take place when she is an adult.

However, opening a story is something which can be incredibly difficult for me. I have the ideas, but I do not ever want to.

The following is an opening paragraph for the first book in a young adult series I thoroughly enjoy, Throne of Glass
After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment—though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side—as there was now.
While this paragraph may have its issues (although the writing grows stronger as the series progresses), what appeals to me about this opening is that it begins with A) our main character, B) she is in chains and C) she has been in slavery for a year. This directly leads the reader to realise that the main character is not precisely ordinary.

One of my other favourite books in Mistborn: The Final Empire begins with a prologue. The prologue does, however, introduce a major character of the book and it begins with the sentence: "Ash fell from the sky." This again is drawing because it highlights that there is something unusual about the situation or scene in which the story will open.

The first paragraph of yet another book that I enjoy (Theft of Swords) opens as follows: 
"Hadrian could see little in the darkness, but he could hear them - the snapping of twigs, the crush of leaves, and the brush of grass. There were more than one, more than three, and they were closing in.
I enjoy this opening because of how it deliberately includes information as needed - you are provided with the main character's name, what his current activity is (listening) and the fact that some things or people are after him. Yet the writer does not reveal who the 'them' is.

Normally it is considered bad practice in writing to practise using large amounts of pronouns or adverbs. However, as seen here the use of a pronoun in 'them' is highly effective. Also, it is worth paying attention to the fact that J.K. Rowling uses plenty of pronouns, and Harry Potter is now one of the largest literary fiction series of all time.

So however you choose to begin writing, choose to write in a way which 1) draws the reader in, 2) includes interesting detail or ideas and 3) is relevant to the overall story you are trying to tell. 

Next time I'll write on characters over setting and the arguments for why characters are more important and the arguments I also hold for why setting might be more important.

P.S. - Two excellent sites on writing opening sentences are here as follows: 

An Abandoned Prologue

The following is a prologue to a story I am currently writing. I took the prologue out however, because it did not introduce the main character right at the beginning. Have a read and let me know what you think. Some part of this may make its way back into the book, but for now here it is:


Permit me the luxury of a brief and tragic tale. A tale in which our hero ultimately becomes our greatest villain. It begins after the Great War laid waste to the world, wherein the Fae people were driven to destruction and humanity’s greatest saviour became their ultimate doom.

A solitary figure strode across the ashen and desolate plain, a tattered grey cloak billowing behind him. He was a tall man and strongly built, with matted, silvery hair, a scar-lined face and the grizzled complexion of a warrior. His attire, scorched armour made from gears and machinery whirring and whistling together, spoke of a man possessed of a strong temperament and wholly together. Yet his left arm was stripped free of any covering, the skin burnt and twisted into a darkly scaled mess that ended in five sharp claws. And in his crystal clear eyes roared the fires of madness and bloody death.

All around him lay fragments of what had once been men and women, taken in one single blow from the world. Now they were ash heaps, “ dust,” muttered the man gutturally, never breaking his stride. His voice was low and mellow with a hint of treble to it, a voice dripping with charisma and effortlessly listenable. Assuming one was not distracted by the madness in his eyes. Further, assuming anyone existed on the plain to listen to his speech.

He was hunting, hunting for something. No, for someone. His nostrils flared, as if he were a purebred stallion - not a stallion, a hunting dog. I am a great dog of war. His perceptive eyes narrowed, looking beyond the swirling ash and charcoal heaps dotting the landscape. Here and there tongues of fire licked up through gashing wounds - the earth itself hungry to devour the remnants of battle. And yet, despite the light from these flames the landscape was incredibly dark and colourless - all shrouded in grey mourning cloth spun from cinders and black, choking soot.

Conqueror, he thought to himself, I am the conqueror of the dead. But no consolation, no solace, was to be found in this line of interest. Conqueror of the dead and a hunting dog of war. And like a hunting dog he stopped for one moment and then inhaled, one long and deep breath.

A scent, familiar and pungent, blasted through the noise of conflicting odours: ash, dust, smoke and blood. It roared through his nostrils, awakening instincts honed to perfection by unique combinations of chemistry and sorcery. This was the scent he had been searching for and as his eyes rolled back, breathing in the thin trail of vapour, a menacing grin spread across his face, detailing a set of sharply pointed teeth. In that moment, one could have been forgiven for believing they observed a wolf or a shark and not a man - yet no one stood upon the scorched plain to observe this phenomena.

No….no one stood. But several crawled or rolled themselves around onto their sides now as he raced past. Living corpses, grotesque and decorated with the outcomes of war and violence - moaning in agony as they slowly burnt. They were already dead and yet did not recognise this fact: refused to die as they burned, their limbs and torsos blackening and turning to charcoal as they fought the inevitable. They were few in number, these living dead, perhaps only twenty odd bodies dotted the fire-swept land. Yet, for their few numbers they seemed to be an endless sea of lost souls.

These men and women the hunter stumbled at, momentarily, for they had been his friends...once. But he shook his mane of silver hair and snorted irritably. Friends, no more.

He had no time for friends, or for enemies. No fear, no love, nothing but the wild lust of power drove him onwards. Nothing would stand in his way and his quest for salvation. Saviour, he thought with that grim smile flowering once more on his face as he strode, I am the saviour of humanity.

He started and stopped suddenly, the sheer stench of his prey awakening him from his routine running. Now where are you? He sniffed again, inhaling that foul - yet sadistically pleasant - odour once again. Ah, just to my left.

He turned, faster than humanly possible, dodging a weak sword thrust, headed towards his midriff. His clawed hand swung at that same moment, catching the blade and knocking it from the hands of its owner. A slow chuckle gurgled from his throat as he perused his adversary - the target of his hunt.

She was robed in a shimmering cloak which had once been blue but was now a stained purple at the hem, washed as it was in the scarlet pools beneath her. This cloak was as askew as her short shorn hair, a rough blowing straw-coloured mess riding above her childish face like a bird’s nest atop some lumbering bull. Her nose was bent in a broken mess, yet her eyes glared out furiously, arguing against the desecration of her face.

“You truly are a monster,” despite the anger in her eyes she stated this calmly, softly, with only the hint of a sob rising from the back of her throat. This sob melted into her lilting accent, “Why?” Her body shook with tremors of silent grief, her anguish spoken not through words but in shudders of voiceless pain.

He cocked his head, observing where she lay like a newborn filly, her legs trapped awkwardly beneath the weight of her body. A gust of wind flicked her cloak aside, revealing the dirtied, plain breastplate she wore beneath. His gaze scanned across her, witnessing the remaining and battered armour covering her arms and legs. Did I truly love her once?

Disdainfully he spoke, “It had to be...I,” he paused briefly, “I am the saviour of humanity and if I must be a monster to accomplish this, then a monster is what I am.”

He crouched before her, reaching out his left hand as he extended one black claw to stroke the side of her face. The stroke was soft, caressing as it began. Then maniacally it cut - one sharp and long slash down across the woman’s cheek. The wolfish man pulled back the claw, a single crimson tear dripping on it. Raising the claw to his mouth, he allowed his tongue to travel along its length, drawing the bead of blood into his mouth.

“The taste of freedom is full of pain and loss,” he mourned. “You were, as ever, my greatest victory and my heaviest defeat.” He paused, taking a deep breath, “Yet the price of victory - the cost of salvation must be paid. In full. I do what I do now, in order that others can not, will not, pay the same price.” A tear rolled down his face. “You...understand. You must understand!”

He shouted these last few words directly into her face, as she stared ahead, looking somehow beyond him. Then, sensing the lapse in his monologuing she retorted harshly, “Go to hell!”

He flinched, as spit flew at his face, mingling with the tears that poured down his brow. “I am sorry. I truly am.”

The claws of his left arm curled into a fist, the darkly calloused skin throbbing and beginning to glow with a deep, hot orange. Steam rose from the skin along the arm in gentle puffs as the orange deepened further in the centre - the entire length of his arm glowing with a red-hot light. Within seconds - within half a second - his left limb held more in common with a branding iron than any human appendage.

He extended one claw and with a spurious movement and a flurry of motions, etched a line around the woman sprawled before him. A line that began to blaze and burn with tongues of fire as he drew, until his victim was surrounded with a golden circle of flame.

“I wish this had all been under better circumstances. Another while. Another world. Another war. But all I can suffice to state is that this, truly is the end for us. A new dawn must emerge and you no longer have any part in that. Farewell.”

Faster than the woman could even think to reply, the man lashed out with his burning touch, striking her across her cheek. The single cut he had made previously, lit up with a flash of white heat - as if her blood was turned to fire from the inside. She froze at the touch, her body crumbling and disintegrating into ash, as she screamed a single word, echoing upon the still air, “NERO!”

As the word carried upon the wind, the circle of flames rose in unison, joining into a solid bar of white-hot light racing toward the heavens. The flame extended for one brief moment and then instantaneously vanished - dissipating into the still air. The woman was gone.

The throbbing heat in the man’s arm began to cool, the colour leeching away. White-heat, changed to red, turned to sunset orange, again returning to the black carapace of skin that marred an otherwise normal body.

The man remained crouched before the spot where the woman had previously continued to exist. A sense of regret and sudden shock seemed to overwhelm him and he covered his face with both hands as he freely wept.

Falling onto his back, he released his hands, allowing them return to his side. Tears flowed from bloodshot eyes and he gazed up into the sky as it began to prepare itself for the arrival of night - twin moons floating merrily across the sky.

“I loved you,” the man whispered, pain singing in his words, “Mara…”

And his words drifted endlessly into the void of eternal loss.

My Writing Journey

 In this past year I have seen God work in incredible ways in my life. I have seen Him move me four hours away from friends and family to the country, I have seen Him provide the right accommodation, free electricity for three months, a church with newfound responsibilities and spiritual family, and of course a beautiful wife in Jeanille. In that same time I have had people in my life pushing me and reminding me about my writing gifts and talents.

I am not simply referring to my students. While they do keep telling me that I should write a book (which I jokingly refer to as Mr Terrington's History of the World in 1001 Pages) I have had the desire to write long before. It is for this reason that I also began blogging, in a quest to find some outlet to write down my thoughts and practice my word-smithing.

Currently I have two stories/novels on the burners, one is a science-fiction/fantasy set in a world of superhuman individuals. The novel will tackle the idea of authority, power and leadership, and I am four chapters (over 10,000 words at present) into the writing. I also have another story which is simply in the idea stage, which will be another science-fiction/fantasy hybrid set in a mythical world. This is a novel which I intend to be more allegorical in nature, focusing on a 'magic' system and struggle between good and evil which will be representative of how I see the spiritual struggle between the same things on Earth. 

Writing is something which takes time, unfortunately. Which means I have been putting aside time each day to push through and write my story. I have, through the process been learning many lessons. Some are purely literature lessons. Others are life lessons. However, I have been left considering what it is that I want to convey to others through my words (both in novel form and through this blog).

For this reason I have decided to unite both my blogs under the banner of this one blog. I will continue writing my reflections on life. However, I have also created a separate page with links to reviews of anything creative (novels, films, games etc.) which inspire me and will be posting some blog posts which are reviews of those fictional works. I will also post some thoughts about the process of writing and literature in general. 

In short follow my blog: if you are interested in writing, reading, my life, God, Christianity, spirituality, thoughts, opinions, or any combination of these!

The Literacy of Empathy

From my other blog: 15 May 2015

I felt the need earlier in the week to begin a new blog given that my other blog is primarily focused around my thoughts on spiritual ideas that I am learning. I recognised that I also had many literary or education based thoughts that I wanted to write down (for my own benefit if no one else's). So here is my first blog post on my Ironic Contradictions Blog.

Empathy is a topic that we have been considering in one of my educational units at university. The point of this consideration revolving around the ability to think from student's perspectives and the fact that empathy is an important social skill that all teachers should be aware of. This concept was put into practice for me when in another task I created a resource for teachers to be able to teach on pop culture in the classroom: This resource enabled me to reflect on the idea that a teacher should, where practical, be able to think from the perspective of their students and come up with ways of teaching material on a level that engages with and reaches them. From my perspective, true education is not about grades and numbers. It's about leading a student to a point where they take on board the lesson for themselves (kind of how preaching should lead individuals to personal revelation on spiritual ideas).

I wanted to call this concept the literacy of empathy, given the amount of focus placed on literacy. Literacy being the practical use of language in essence - and being literate revolving around: social skills, reading, writing; and analytically or critically thinking etc. So for me the concept of a literacy of empathy is being able to practically think in another person's shoes. It doesn't mean that the shoes have to fit you or agree with you, it simply means that individuals should learn to think about how another person might view their actions. As a teacher I believe this means planning lessons so that students' interests are reached. As an individual I believe it means moral responsibility for ones' actions.

I suppose one thing that sparked my thinking on this issue was a comment I received on an essay recently. I felt that I had engaged with enough reading material and references for this essay, however I was told by the marker that I should have used more of the readings. And this made me stop and reassess. I wasn't told to use more referential material (although maybe they did mean that full-stop). I was told to use more of the specific, unit reading. And I thought to myself 'how closeted is that?'

It's not the first time I've been told off for going outside of the assigned texts either. Once I was told off for using J.R.R. Tolkien and the essence of the reasoning was that he was too Christian and I should use a secular point of view for the same point (Particularly ironic because we were undertaking a unit on the Philosophies of Heaven and Hell).

You see, being told that I have to use specific course materials is fine every now and then, but I have an issue if they don't accept my use of wider reading material that says the exact same thing. Is the goal of education to promote a systematic brainwashing whereby students all use the same texts and provide the same answers and get the same marks? If so, by all means insist that only course material be used. If however, you wish for personal education on the student's level to take place, then you must allow students to use wider resources that they connect to on a personal level.

I suppose if I saw two essays of a similar standard and one drew solely from the text provided while the other incorporated texts and materials of interest to that student, I would be more inclined to respond to the second essay with more enthusiasm. To me that is what an empathetic individual should do: encourage the healthy interests of others and try to see those interests as they do. I know that I have several friends (and one girlfriend) who don't quite see why I love superheroes and sci-fi on the level that I do. However, they still try and take an interest in those things when I talk about them - that is empathy. They don't act in a sympathetic surface level of 'oh that's nice for you', it's a genuine interest because they are interested in me as an individual.

This is my reflection: we should become literate in empathy. I feel that it has so many practical implications from understanding how characters in fiction work through to understanding your friends and family on that deeper level. Empathy is about looking deeper and too often people become trained in a literacy of sympathy: to feel sorry and understand on a surface level, but they rarely delve deeper. I know I want to train/educate students in the future to become deep thinkers - to be empathetic and not sympathetic. I know I want myself to think in the same way and truly care about people and who they are and how they see the world. I think it holds spiritual, emotional and practical applications for a healthy life. What about you?

Persuasive Writing

From my other blog: 2 June 2015

I'm currently helping Jeanille prepare for some English testing which will help her as she continues to follow her dream. I'm very proud of her for chasing her dream, much as I am proud of anyone who chases their dream (I'm just especially proud of her for the obvious reasons). As part of this English testing she has to learn how to write better persuasive pieces. This is something that I've often worked on with students during my placements and so it's something I wanted to write a blog post about.

Obviously it's important for me to note that there are plenty of other and better resources for you to learn how to write persuasively. I merely want to share my own unique methods of constructing arguments.

1.     The first step for me is to always consider my intended audience. This revolves entirely around the idea of empathy. I want to use empathy to consider how my audience will respond to what I am saying. I would estimate that ninety percent of the time if you hit your audience with the right emotional tugs you can manipulate them to feel the way you want them to. And persuasive writing is essentially that: manipulation of the heartstrings. It's something that the persuasive writer must enjoy and attempt - reading the audience and then working out a series of arguments and counter-arguments that will target them more closely.

2. The second step is to consider what type of style I should adopt. This involves considering the question of whether I am writing a persuasive piece on the internet or for friends, creating a mini-essay, or writing academically. Each of these involves different methods, registers and lexicons that I need to be using in a calculated method (i.e. I would not be as colloquial in an academic essay as in this piece).

3. The third step involves actually writing the persuasive piece once all the thinking about how to respond has been considered. Trust me, however, most writing is all about the thinking and pre-planning. Even something as spontaneous as writing of this sort is the result of half-cooked ideas which have been marinating in the brain until they are baked to perfection.
This is where you structure your piece clearly, working out the techniques that you want to use (I tend to find simile, metaphor, alliteration and allusive, emotive language the best myself) and creating something that flows together neatly. No matter what you are writing about, the best persuasive writing (or any writing) flows in a polished fashion. This is also the reason why it is best to edit your work when you are finished. Even the best authors edit their work thoroughly once finished.

4. In short, persuasive writing is all about appearing as if you have the most reasonable idea to say in any discussion. The question of whether you truly have the most reasonable argument is another issue. It's about bluffing your audience, manipulating them to agree with you and to suspend their cynicism. This of course is why there is one final thing which I must point out to you about persuasive writing. The key element of persuasive writing is to be self-aware and self-informed even before you begin writing. You need to understand your own points of view on various issues, and you need to be able to shift that point of view to argue for issues you may not agree with through empathy. Until you understand an issue from both sides you cannot properly argue the issue. And so, as with most writing, it is understanding that plays a key role in the final product.

Challenging the Norm in Writing

From my other blog: 11 June 2015

There's this interesting concept which is all the rage in modern literature: subversion. Essentially it's the idea of challenging the norm (hence the blog title - isn't that obvious!) in writing. You see it in popular fantasy for instance, which is a genre I do read plenty of, whereby new authors attempt to make their work stand out from the mass of 'Tolkien clones' (read: Eragon, The Sword of Shannara, The Wheel of Time etc.) that all follow a kind of Joseph Campbell's 'hero's journey' concept. What I would like to touch on, therefore is that there is this idea that doing the subversive is somehow equivalent to strong writing. And I wish to insist that this is certainly not the case.

It's an amusing concept because every so often there are fantasy books that come out where a whole bunch of readers go 'oh that's new and different' because of one key fantasy trope or archetype that is subverted. For example how Game of Thrones has most of the main characters killed off at different stages or how Prince of Thorns (to use an obscure example) has a villain as the main protagonist. Or again how some authors like China Mieville write fantasy fiction which is just weird. But these subversions do not equal a great novel. If they did then all anyone would need to do to write a great, new, unique novel is research all the common archetypes and simply write a novel that does precisely the opposite. I expect that such a novel would last a mere ten pages before the protagonist falls off a cliff and the dark lord (who was actually the supposed hero) conquers the known world because no prophecy about the chosen one who would stop them by discovering their weakness (and by the way this dark lord has no weakness) came true.

I have read novels which subverted common ideas in their genre which were terrible. I have read novels which did the same and were terrific. I have read novels which were mediocre subversions. The one thing which separated these novels regardless of whether they used ideas which were 'the norm' in their genre or not was the quality of the writing and the storytelling. Novels like The Lord of the Rings, Mistborn and The Name of the Wind all follow a kind of 'hero's journey' archetype in a sense and while Mistborn subverts some key fantasy ideas it is still a kind of formulaic plot at its core. What made those novels stand out to me, however, is the fact that they all were beautifully written or told a story in a manner which was so thrilling or enticing. What readers want is not some superficial 'new idea' that will hold them for all of twenty seconds, they want depth to a story, something to hold onto and remember - though I do not like Game of Thrones I will admit that G.R.R Martin has done a great job of holding on to a large audience with some deeper qualities.

I feel that any new or aspiring authors can learn from this and need to know this before they write. Know your target audience and write a good strong, enticing story. If the story cannot be enjoyed by individuals outside of your target audience then it's probably not the greatest story. If your story is too fixated on one particular idea then it's probably not a strong story. However, if your story has heart, soul, a great plot and characters that people will care about then you are onto something,

What Is A Worthy Text?

From my other blog: 13th July 2015

Today in my first week of uni for trimester two, we looked at the English Education VCE text list. One idea that was presented is that texts for selection must be found: 'worthy'. Or else:

"-have literary merit and be worthy of close study
-be an excellent example of form and genre
- sustain intensive study, raising interesting issues and providing challenging ideas 
- be appropriate for both male and female students 
- be appropriate for the age and development of students and, in that context, reflect current community standards and expectations."

I further ran into this Stephen Fry quote on the worth or value of particular texts today: “I will defend the absolute value of Mozart over Miley Cyrus, of course I will, but we should be wary of false dichotomies. You do not have to choose between one or the other. You can have both. The human cultural jungle should be as varied and plural as the Amazonian rainforest. We are all richer for biodiversity. We may decide that a puma is worth more to us than a caterpillar, but surely we can agree that the habitat is all the better for being able to sustain each.”

This is in essence the problem with considering certain texts to be worthy - it inevitably creates a dichotomy in which other texts are not. And texts encompass a whole range of media: invariably anything you can read and analyse with your eyes from recipes, to films, to t-shirts become a text. Who am I as a critic to say that one individual may derive less value from Twilight or a Nickleback t-shirt than I do from Great Expectations and a dinner suit? 

Here we encounter a tricky literary idea. One further expounded upon by a discussion of critical literacy. Critical literacy being the analysis of the ideas that lie behind language and texts. The idea that language works to shape reality and promote particular relations of power. Texts may be constructed (photographs are a great example) as one particular snapshot that the author wishes to convey and so they speak through as much as what is being left out as what is being left in. A film is an edited work with sound (or lack of it), VFX or practical effects, different camera angles and a whole array of directorial decisions in how the scenes are arranged to tell the story. A novel like a poem or short story uses 

So what provides a text worth? What makes it worthy? Here I think you must take into account the cultural and social context in which the text is found. If we talk about clothing as text then it is not appropriate for someone to wear the aforementioned Nickleback tee in a fine dining establishment. Much as it would be odd and jarring for a dinner suit to be worn to a rock concert. But each text in their corresponding environment is worthy. 

This to me is most likely what the VCE guidelines are aiming to establish: the notion of worth across cultures, genres and individuals. And it is here where critics of films and novels must be able to consider whether the text has worth outside of the environment of their own personal preferences. Does the text promote morals which are healthy to a wider audience? Is it a great example of its format? Is it well written? I love The Hunger Games but were I to decide upon a text better exemplifying its themes then I would suggest any of Brave New World, 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Yet were I to pick out what The Hunger Games is worth I would suggest it is a valuable example of writing with pace, imagination and of giving a form of entertainment which challenges as much as entertains. It may not have the same worth in one context but it may have greater worth in another. 

This to me is what a worthy text should be about: how worthy is a text across multiple contexts? And I believe critics should judge texts on both levels: on worth within its own context (genre etc.) and worth in other contexts. 

Dealing With Worldbuilding

From my other blog: 23rd July 2015

I have been contemplating the following quote recently and come to decide upon my own stance in regards to it which I wish to share with you.

"Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid."

- John M Harrison

I am, and have been, a huge fan of the concept of worldbuilding. I like nothing better than to sit down and enjoy a film or a book with a fascinating universe or different world to explore. Works from Tolkien to the Marvel superhero universe to television shows like Doctor Who fascinate me with their expansion and exploration of mythical or fictional places and ideas. So to read from an author who says that worldbuilding is a problem is in itself problematic to me. I feel that he misunderstands the very concept of worldbuilding. Maybe because of the problems listed in the following article:

The issue is that worldbuilding often becomes an excuse to focus on the setting rather than on the characters, If you went to a stage play and the background was fantastic and the set pieces, lighting and music yelled WOW at you but the acting stunk and the plot was terrible you'd feel rather let down. The same goes for fiction and worldbuilding. It cannot be all about the worldbuilding, but to that matter neither can you just focus on the story in a fictionalised sci-fi/fantasy setting without setting down some kind of worldbuilding rules. It just doesn't make sense if you're mentioning fictional places without explanation or rules etc.

So it's not worldbuilding that is bad but it is how worldbuilding is often used that can be very bad indeed and I fear this is what John M Harrison has encountered as an author. My response is that I think readers (and film viewers) deserve a touch of worldbuilding. What would Lord of the Rings be like without the setting of Middle Earth? What would fans think of Harry Potter without Hogwarts? Or Doctor Who without the various alien races of Daleks, Cybermen, Time Lords etc. What would any fantasy novel be without its magical rules? The problem in dealing with worldbuilding therefore lies in utilising it in moderation. But using anything in moderation, in balance, is in essence the art of quality writing and makes all the difference. Leave your reader wanting more, but not too much.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Magic And Dr Strange: A Review From A Christian Perspective

This time, every year, Christians around the world have to make an interesting choice. To engage, or not to engage, in the costume parties and trick-or-treating of Halloween. For myself I choose not to contribute to the funds of companies which use Halloween as another commercial gimmick. I also recognise that the history of Halloween lies in the Celtic festival of Samhain, during which participants would ward off evil spirits with masks and bonfires. Hence where the traditions of parties and Jack O'Lanterns stem from.

Many modern Christian celebrations have come from festivals appropriated from pagans, however, and Halloween falls around the same time as All Saints Day. Indeed, the word Halloween comes from two words meaning together 'Holy Evening.' In other words, Halloween has roots in both pagan and Christian traditions.

Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead, further occurs on November 2. This is a day in which many countries remember those who have died, following the events of Halloween and All Saints Day. For many this is also known as All Souls Day.

Why did I include this information? In order to consider the true meaning that is often lost on those who want to enjoy Halloween as a 'fun' time. This has been a time in which traditionally it was believed that the veil between the supernatural world was weak and where ghosts, ghouls, witches, wizards and all kinds of undead beings would walk the Earth. It has also been a time in which people gathered to pray for the Saints and for the souls of all loved ones. It has many deep and spiritual connections and meanings.

I am a mega-fan of fantasy and have been from the moment I first picked up The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings. I have devoured hours of time reading widely in this genre and as a result have views that differ from what is widely believed to be the best fantasy. I currently hold the position that Brandon Sanderson is the current king of epic fantasy for instance. It is a genre in which I myself hope to write and publish a novel. Yet, like with Halloween, fantasy is a genre that many believers can become wary about. And like Halloween, I believe it is an area in which we can be redeemers. All of which forms the great prelude into my review of Dr Strange.

Aside from fantasy I also love science-fiction and superheroes, so today Jeanille and I went to watch the latest Marvel film Dr Strange. Unlike the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dr Strange is the first to feature proper magic, albeit with an interesting and mysterious explanation due to the entire theoretical idea of multiverses.

It is a film which begins much like Iron Man: the reader witnesses an arrogant and brilliant individual caught up in an incident which leads them on the path to becoming a hero. Unlike Iron Man, the film utilises set pieces which belong in Inception, with the worlds twisting and turning around the characters. The music was likewise incredible and the entire cast added to the feel of what is perhaps the best standalone Marvel film outside of The Guardians of the Galaxy (and with far superior visuals).

Yet, it was the message of the film which touched me the most. I am always looking at films for the positive message, in particular for the ever permeating truth of the gospel. I was reminded last night of the truth that the gospel never changes, try as people have across centuries to change and dilute its message. Interestingly, I found a highly powerful thread of the gospel contained inside the film. Which is explained in this other and better review HERE.

After the film I asked Jeanille if she enjoyed it and she said that she did. She then turned to me and said, "You know I believe that there is such a thing as sorcerers." To which I replied: "So do I." And I do, because they're mentioned in the Bible. Look up Simon the Sorcerer for an example. Or look up the story in Acts 16 about Paul with the demon-possessed slave girl with 'magical powers.'

The demons in these Biblical stories gave people the power to do some simple tricks. Yet read the story in full and you immediately see the greater power of the gospel - the power of God and his Holy Spirit in us to cast out demons and heal the sick. Read Ephesians 6:10-20 and you will see how the Bible clearly reminds us that there is a spiritual dimension in which angels and demons war for souls. A dimension in which, though we live in the natural, we are conquerors because of the gospel of grace - not because of us, but because of God. It is this element of the supernatural and gospel which I found Dr Strange conveyed in a fascinating way.

When it comes to magic, I fully agree that there are individuals out there who practice the occult and dabble in real and truthful magic. However, in media (books, films etc.) the idea of magic has become so synonymous with the ability to do the unusual that I do not take it to necessarily have the same connotation. C.S. Lewis used the concept of magic (good magic and bad) to explain the two sides of the supernatural. J.R.R. Tolkien also wrote similarly (without necessarily calling it magic) and both men were strong and influential believers. I believe the idea of magic when taken and used to describe impossible powers is a great metaphor for the two sides of the supernatural (good and evil).

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:  "19 Though I am free of obligation to anyone, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the Law I became like one under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law), to win those under the Law. 21 To those without the Law I became like one without the Law (though I am not outside the law of God but am under the law of Christ), to win those without the Law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some of them. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings." I see this in the same way in fantasy - that there is an excellent metaphor that can be used to spread the message of the gospel to those who might otherwise not encounter it.

So should you watch Dr Strange? As an individual who enjoys fantasy and science fiction as art forms and vehicles with the capacity to carry the truth of the gospel I fully recommend it. However, if you have doubts in your faith I also would not recommend something that would potentially weaken that faith. The same thing goes for Halloween. Participate in it if you feel you have a reason, but do not expect others to see it the same way. All have differing levels of faith for such occasions.

Paul also writes in 1 Corinthians 10: 23 '“Everything is permissible,” but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible,” but not everything is edifying. 24 No one should seek his own good, but the good of others.' The context of this passage is highly important. Paul was telling believers not to eat food sacrificed to idols if it would affect other people's faith. He stated that there was nothing in eating food sacrificed to idols - it is after all still just food - but that the real importance is in what it does to people's faith. In the same way, whatever you choose to do my encouragement would be: 1. to look for the ways in which you can spread the power of the gospel in whatever you are doing. 2. to not participate in watching or doing something if it negatively affects your faith. 3. to look for the gospel in everyday situations - you might just be able to learn something to grow other's faith.