Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Nostalgic Top Five

Hey everyone, been rather incredibly busy this month -- aside from all my Halloween partying, I've recently begun working as a writer for The Indie Game Magazine, plus there's school -- so unfortunately this post will be fairly brief. Normally it's against my code to work on All Hallow's Eve, but I just couldn't let the holiday go by without a single post. Sooo, I present you with the five stories that, in my humble opinion, most perfectly embody the time and place that was my childhood Hallowe'en. (If you didn't grow up with most of these, I offer you my most sincere condolences -- and a gentle reminder that it is always better late than never.) It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown gets an honorable mention, because I can't stand not to mention it. Happy Halloween, dear readers.

#5: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

Really now, no list of this nature would feel complete without good ol' Tim Burton. This 1993 stop-motion masterpiece was and always will have one of the best Halloween themes -- thank you, Danny Elfman -- and Jack and Sally are still one of my favorite couples. And honestly, what could ever beat the perfect combo of two of the most fun holidays ever? (Well, except for maybe Talk Like a Pirate Day.)

#4: "Thriller" by Michael Jackson

Back when TV music channels still played, you know, music videos, I remember seeing this one a lot around the end of October. Another classic Halloween theme, "Thriller" is as much of a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes. Zombies, werewolves and Michael Jackson, oh my! And it comes with a universally loved dance that's just... to die for. (Yes, I really had to.)

#3: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

I don't even remember where I first heard of this, whether it was the Disney animation or the Wishbone version or some verbal reincarnation of the original Washington Irving short story. In the end, it really doesn't matter. For as long as I can remember, the story of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman has been a part of Halloween tradition. My favorite incarnation is, unfortunately, not one that I can share, except as an anecdote: My fifth grade teacher gathered the class around him, legs crossed and sitting on the floor, and sat down to tell us the tale in his best creepy elderly man voice. He then told us about how he and his son went to the place the story was based on. (Here, he held up a paper bag with something bulging inside of it.) While they were there, his son discovered a strange, spherical object just off the road... At this point in the story, he yanked the strange round something out of the bag and tossed it into the crowd. The boy next to me caught what appeared to be a disembodied head, and we all had just enough time to yelp and start to scramble away before the boy pulled the Halloween mask off of the basketball and started to laugh. The moral of the story? Playing terrible tricks on small children ultimately makes for the best Halloween memories. Also Washington Irving is awesome.

#2: Hocus Pocus

There are so many good things in this movie it's difficult to decide where to begin. Both Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker witch about in my favorite roles of theirs to date, and Jason Marsden provides the voice for Thackery Binx, the first talking black cat -- protected by magic, thank goodness -- I ever loved. Billy is one of the very few truly likeable zombies that comes to mind, and the film teaches kids a valuable life lesson: NEVER LIGHT THE BLACK FLAME CANDLE. At least not until after you have sex.

#1: Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree

Neil Gaiman put it perfectly when he said that Bradbury was the author who truly made Hallowe'en a place you could visit whenever you wanted, not just one magical night of the year. And for me, the first chill of autumn, that first golden afternoon of fall will always have the same glow as that of the jack-o-lantern filled Halloween Tree. It's hard to say which is better; Bradbury is a master of prose, but in the film you get to hear him basically read his story aloud to you as the narrator of the film, and bonus: Leonard Nimoy is Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, possibly the coolest cloaked old dude to ever fly backwards in time. It's a little bit of history, a little bit of mystery, and everything I loved first and best about All Hallow's Eve. My pumpkin this year, a copy of Pipkin's in the movie, is dedicated to the man whose voice is forever linked in my mind with bags of candy, carved pumpkins, and the red and gold of the leaves that change in the north.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Delicious & Fictitious: The Culinary Art of Storytelling

With Halloween right around the corner, I thought I would give my readers (both of you) a brief, lighthearted break from my usual morbid tendencies. Last week, as I was trying and somewhat failing to follow an online recipe for lembas bread -- to celebrate Hobbit Day and Tolkien Week, of course -- it occurred to me that food is not just a basic human need. Sometimes it serves a decorative or social purpose, such as impressing dinner guests. Sometimes it tweaks our chemical balances and comforts us, like a flavored security blanket. And sometimes, it tells a story.

The Nostalgia Factor, AKA the Obvious

It's become a mark of civilization, or at least post-caveman development, that our food serves a purpose beyond immediate consumption. We dress it up with frosting and garnishes, we give it away as a friendly or romantic gift, we buy it and leave it in the back of the fridge and forget to eat it until the expiration date has passed and we have to throw it out.

Most of all, we make memories with it. We celebrate holidays by eating (often too much), sometimes assigning specific foods to specific days. For me, Thanksgiving will always taste like turkey and my mother's homemade bread -- which, for your information, happens to be the best damn bread in the entire universe. We celebrate birthdays with presents and cake, and as Jim Gaffigan says, "Hope it's chocolate for me!" And it brings us together -- we bake cookies with friends, go out on dates to fancy restaurants, and the highlight of every wedding is the reception, even if most wedding cakes do taste terrible. Two of my clearest childhood memories are kneading bread dough with my mom, standing on tip-toe to reach the kitchen counter, and making s'mores for the first time with my dad in the backyard one summer night.

It's no surprise food memories are strong ones. Smell, arguably the second most important element of a meal after taste, is the sense which is most directly connected with emotion; just a whiff of a dish associated with a strong emotion, good or bad, is often more than enough to trigger a vivid memory.

Food as (Sort of) a Family Heirloom?

OR: "This method of choosing a favorite food has been passed down the Armstrong line for generations!" (Kudos to my fellow Fullmetal Alchemist fans who got that.)

Aside from another obvious food fact -- it has specific cultural and religious associations, not the least of which being communion -- there have been studies that show food preferences can be passed down, somewhat, matrilineally. Many infants exhibit preferences for flavors related to the meals their mothers ate while pregnant. On the other hand, food in the form of family trade and business is often (though not always) passed down patrilineally, from father to eldest son. In Japan for example, where this is a traditional practice that remains popular, master sushi chef Jiro Ono, founder and owner of the Michelin 3-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro, has been training his eldest son Yoshikazu for decades to take over the restaurant when he retires. This story was featured in the recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which brings me to my next point...

"I Love Rocky Road": Food Entertainment

Nope, I'm not talking about how mashed potatoes can be your friends (that could be a whole article by itself); this form of food fun is a little less literal, but possibly even more popular. Think of the Food Network. Think of Gordon Ramsey and Ace of Cakes. Think of all the TV shows and channels and documentaries and books and blogs (like Bittersweet, food for thought, and Stickyrice) dedicated to the creation and criticism of all of the most delicious concoctions we can conjure up. Food isn't just edible -- it's entertainment.

And beyond the world of nonfiction, food has surprising narrative potential as well. Just look at all the books -- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dandelion Wine, James and the Giant Peach -- and films -- Ratatouille, Chocolat, Julie & Julia -- that feature eatables as a central plot point. Many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies connect the action of eating with sexual appetites and psychology; Psycho's Norman Bates, for example, can be repeatedly spotted munching on Halloween candy, reflecting both his stunted emotional growth and the horror aspect of the story. Everyone who saw Disney's Lady and the Tramp (and lots of people who haven't) remembers exactly what they ate on their doggie dinner date, and the song from the famous "Be Our Guest" sequence of Beauty and the Beast was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. Oliver!, the 1968 musical adaptation of the Dickens novel Oliver Twist, opens with the catchy number "Food, Glorious Food," followed by possibly the most memorable food-related quote of all time: "Please, sir, I want some more!"

Food is often played for a laugh: in 1993, Weird Al released a compilation of his most delectable hits, called The Food Album, and Bill Watterson's masterpiece of a comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, often featured Calvin's seemingly endless supply of alternately disgusted and disgusting reactions to unknown food substances at the dinner table. Food is also just as often suspicious, if not outright dangerous. Almost everyone (including Jefferson Airplane) is familiar with the numerous "eat me" and "drink me" food tags Alice encountered in Wonderland, and of course anyone who has read or watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (or the September 26, 2012 episode of The Colbert Report) is familiar with the evil temptations of Turkish delight.

The list goes on and on -- the possibilities, it seems, are endless.

"What About Second Breakfast?": Fictional Food and Reality

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual storytelling aspect of food is how it transfers from page and screen to the (real) third dimension. Countless food products and recipes now exist that reference memorable treats and dishes from popular stories. You can walk into many Muggle-owned snack shops now and buy a bag of Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans (at your own risk), and thanks to the internet, you can pick almost any fictional food or drink you can think of -- be it sniggers, miruvor, or sunlight souffle -- and you're sure to be able to find at least one real-life recipe for it. Or you could make up your own.

I celebrated the release of Alice: Madness Returns with cupcakes.

Most of these can be used for any occasion, whether it's an awesome birthday party, a premier or book release celebration, a holiday dinner, or just some good, random fun. Regardless of situation, the underlying motivation is the same: it allows us to connect on a deeper (read: gustatory) level with our favorite stories and characters. As Crystal Watanabe of Fictional Food said in an interview earlier this year, "When Harry is on the train to Hogwarts and has money to spend on treats for the first time, you can almost taste those pumpkin pasties with him. It's as though you share that moment of joy with them." By bringing a little piece of that other world to life, we get to close our eyes and pretend, if only for one mouth-watering moment, that we're actually there.

It's even better when shared in good company. A friend and I once made a transmutation circle birthday cake for a mutual buddy of ours; not exactly a canon recipe, but any excuse for chocolate cake and an FMA reference is a good one.

Ed Elric would be... unimpressed. But he'd eat it anyway.

Another time, a bunch of us got together one time and attempted to recreate the sea salt ice cream that Kingdom Hearts misled us to believe would be totally delicious.

Teal is SUCH an appetizing color.

The ice cream was pretty horrible, actually. But the memories were sweet enough to make up for it (awww) and last a lot longer than any frozen treat. Especially in July.

Have stories, trivia, or fictional food recipes you'd like to share? Comment away! The more delicious, the merrier! :)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

O Teacher, My Teacher: A Story About Mentors (One, in Particular)

"If there's nothing you're willing to die for, what the hell are you living for?" -David Menasche 

Today, instead of just talking about stories, I would like to tell one. This story is about a personal hero of mine, a teacher who has spent the past six years of his life fighting to stay alive.

Now and then, when we get lucky, a stranger walks up to us and ends life as we know it. It is not usually a sudden, meteor apocalypse sort of thing. It creeps, slow and sinuous, the way cats do (especially the talking, protected-by-magic kind). Just the moment of realization is abrupt; we blink, look up, look around, and only then do we understand that the landscape of life has changed around us while our attention was diverted. It is the same principle that makes a talented magician's sleight-of-hand trick so convincing.

I am lucky enough to have met several such strangers over the years. One was my 11th grade AP English and Composition professor, Mr. David Menasche. While, as I said, change is hardly ever instantaneous, I knew from the beginning that his class would be something special. I have one of my high school journals sitting in front of me as I write this (yes, I keep diaries; no, you can’t read them), which is filled to bursting with memories. Towards the top of my entry for August 24, 2007, in big, bold letters, I see the words, "HE IS THE COOLEST ENGLISH TEACHER EVER!" Yes, I was (?) a bit of a nerd.

There are so many books (like Freedom Writers), shows (like Glee) and movies (like Dead Poets Society) about awe-inspiring, stick-it-to-the-man type professors who challenge the status quo and teach their students important life lessons that it has almost become clich̩ Рand in fact, such characters in fiction are their own literary archetype known as the Mentor, sometimes also referred to as Wise Old Man/Woman. (TV Tropes, as always, also has a detailed section about this archetype.) From Mr. Miyagi and Obi-Wan Kenobi to as far back in history and fiction as Merlin and the original Mentor of Greek mythology, there have been teachers for as long as there have been would-be heroes and heroines in need of them.

Well, I'm no Harry Potter, and Mr. Menasche is certainly no Dumbledore – he hasn't got the long, white, old wizard beard, for one thing – and he never taught me how to raise phoenixes, brew Felix Felicis, or cast the perfect Patronus charm. Even so, his lessons were nothing if not magical; he made every day of junior year an adventure, and every day since, a little bit richer. It was in his class that I raised my hand willingly for the first time. I was always the shy, quiet kid, and I hardly ever spoke in class except practically under pain of death. He made me want to speak up, reminding me always that I had a voice worth hearing. Anticipation for the next lesson kept me coming to school even on the days when I could barely convince myself to crawl out of bed. The one time I did commit the mortal sin of being absent, it was only for one day, and only because I had been afflicted with the worst kind of flu, the kind that left me curled up in a fetal position in the middle of my bed wondering if I had the strength left to write down my last will and testament. When I dragged myself back the following day, he told me that since my fever broke around noon, I should have made it to his class.

By the end of the first week of school, I had already decided he was my favorite teacher of all time. It made the news I discovered during the second week that much harder. My late-night entry for August 30th, 2007, began with the following words: "I just found out the worst secret – the absolute worst news I've ever heard in my life... the best English teacher in the world... has a brain tumor."

Mr. Menasche was diagnosed with brain cancer the day before Thanksgiving of the previous year. In retrospect, I suppose the large scar on the side of his shaven head should have been a pretty good clue, but I believe my very naive theory at the time was that it was from a skateboarding or rock-climbing accident, or something else with an equally interesting story. He certainly did not seem sick. He has always been one of the liveliest people I know, and by the time I met him he had already perfected the art of hiding his condition, like making grand gestures or casually stepping out of the room for a moment to conceal minor seizures. He very rarely missed work. I can remember only a handful of days when he left us for testing or treatment. Last year, regardless of rigorous chemotherapy treatments, he managed to have a perfect attendance record, something even completely healthy teachers seldom achieve.

He always said that he would keep teaching as long as possible, until the day finally came when he simply could not do it any longer. That day arrived much sooner than any of us wanted; last year was his final year teaching at Coral Reef Senior High School. He was still undergoing chemotherapy this summer when he suffered from what turned out to be a seizure that robbed him of much of his eyesight and functionality on his left side. The man who I have always believed could see through any lie and anyone (myself included) now has a field of vision so restricted that he can no longer drive. He is the strongest person I know, and now he walks with a cane.

Yet somehow, he endures, and deep down I cannot help but believe – I have to believe – he is still the same man with the same attitude, the same self-proclaimed strut, that he has always been. For the lost little girl I was when I first wandered into Room 211 five years ago, he was a compass; he gave me direction when I needed it most. To this day, even when I feel the most lost, I no longer panic because his lessons still guide me. I recall when I asked for advice at the end of my senior year, he told me: "Don't look back... Go forward, always forward. Like a shark. You stop moving, you die."

Mr. Menasche and I, on my last day as a high school student in 2009.

After all that cancer has taken from him, it is his turn to move forward in search of a new direction.

As always, he has chosen the most interesting (and in this case, most literal) method in which to do it. On November 2, 2012, he will be setting out for a grand adventure he has fittingly dubbed his Vision Quest. He will be traveling across the United States from the east to the west coast to set his eyes on a sight they have yet to behold: the Pacific Ocean. However, the journey, not the destination, holds the most significance. Along the way, he will be visiting many of his former students who, within hours of receiving news of his expedition, generously offered up their spare rooms and couches for his use. As he said in a recent Facebook post: "Please know that although I would like to see the Pacific, that is not the point of this Vision Quest. The point is to find them and redefine me."

Since he can no longer lecture in a classroom, he searches now for other means of teaching. He will keep us all up-to-date on the Quest via blog entries on the official Vision Quest Facebook page. He hopes to turn his journey into a full-length documentary – not just a video scrapbook or memoir, but something substantial that will bring new meaning to his life and help others find the meaning in theirs. With the help of close friends, he is currently running a Vision Quest GoFundMe page to collect donations. As I am writing, so far there have been over $16,000 in donations, largely from former students (myself included) and their families. Many of the donations are tagged with loving messages of optimism, nostalgia, and most of all, gratitude

With any luck, he will have raised enough (about $50,000) by the departure date to cover pre-production costs for the film, so that this incredible journey can be shared with the world. If you are interested in helping out, please head over to the donation page link above right away – any and all support would be greatly appreciated. Even if you do not donate, it will only take a few seconds to share the story and the links with others.

If you would like to know more about David Menasche and his Vision Quest, take a look at the official pages mentioned above. You can also check out several interviews: Jennifer Reeves of NBC6 posted an article about him online, Tonya Sholz and Maria de Los Angeles of "Social Chats" conducted a radio interview with him on August 21 (you may have to scroll through a few more recent ones to find it), Summer Knowles interviewed him on CBS4, and a story by Lidia Dinkova appeared in the Miami Herald. If you or someone you know would like to conduct an interview or write an article or blog post about the Quest, please do not hesitate to ask!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reflections (Double Feature!): Limbo and Slender

Ever play a creepy video game in the dark with headphones on in the middle of the night? Here’s a tip: don’t do it.

Unfortunately for my mental health, I travel down that rabbit hole a bit more often than I should (I give myself very good advice, but I seldom follow it). Recently, I found myself playing indie games Limbo and Slender far past even the most ungodly hours of the night, when all the good little boys and girls are asleep, and all the rest of us are staring at screens with bloodshot eyes and wondering how the sun managed to come up without us noticing. (And whether or not we’ve developed fangs yet, or perhaps severe allergies to garlic, sunlight or crosses.)

Generally, when I write reviews (which I will refer to as “reflections,” since I am neither an expert nor a proper critic of anything whatsoever), I’ll be writing them in a rather more conventional manner: one at a time. But in this case I simply couldn’t choose, so I’ll be writing a bit about both Playdead’s Limbo and Parsec Productions’ Slender. However, I want to emphasize that these games are two very different animals, and therefore my goal here is not to choose one as being “better” over the other. I am simply comparing the ways in which elements like vagueness and the creep factor function in these two fantastic games.

Also, I got lazy and didn’t feel like writing two separate posts.

Presentation Points: Fancy versus Free

I'd like to start off by mentioning the fantastic presentation of the recently released Limbo: Special Edition, which happens to be the particular copy of the game I purchased. The hardcover box is nicely done, with awesomely gruesome cover art that just makes you want to smile and twirl your twisted (possibly imaginary) black mustache in anticipation. The extra goodies are nice as well: it comes with several delightful little art cards (perfect for decorating any room you don't plan on sleeping in anytime soon), a sticker of the main character's silhouetted head, a digital copy of the short but haunting original soundtrack, annnd (drum-roll, please)... a pair of blue and red 3D glasses. Yep, you can now experience the morbidity of Limbo in Stereoscopic 3D! Of course, anyone who remembers that kind of 3D knows it's pretty hard on your eyes (what kind of 3D technology isn't?), but it's definitely an interesting way to play the game, and I highly recommend trying it, at least in small doses. The game itself is pretty short (I played it through to the end in one sitting), but also pretty satisfying, and a good game with neat extras is well worth the $24.99 price tag. (You can also buy a downloadable full version of the game, sans bells and whistles, from the official site for an even cheaper $9.99.)

Slender, on the other hand, is available only as an internet downloadable, with no hard-copy releases that I'm aware of yet. However, this is only fair, since the game is also completely free. You can download the latest version of it for PC or Mac from the official site, or from various mirror sites floating around the internet. And really, the last thing any Slender player needs is a pair of 3D glasses; if two dimensions nearly gave me a heart attack, three would probably make my soul implode. Or explode. Or something else extremely and violently unnecessary.

Putting the "Fear" in "Atmosphere"

One thing that the two games have in common is a nice and creepy atmosphere. As I mentioned earlier, my edition of Limbo came with a digital copy of the soundtrack, which I think would make for fantastic use as ambiance at something like Halloween Horror Nights. It's not melodic in the sense that most movie soundtracks are - there's no particular theme, and it would be rather awkward to hum along to. But it achieves exactly what it's meant to, subtly adding to the player's sense of eerie isolation and of being utterly lost in a strange, unwelcoming land. The industrial effects in "Rotating Room" are particularly well-suited to the latter parts of the game, where the wilderness of the woods begins to give way to what appear to be the remains of man-made buildings and machines. Even if you were to play the game with the sound off, however, the imagery alone is still likely to do a number on your brain. There's no color whatsoever, just silhouettes, shadows, and the occasional (usually quite small) light in the darkness, making the whole game a sort of shadow-puppet play, giving your mind more free reign than most games do to impose your own personal fears and interpretations on the game as you play. There is also a foggy feel to everything, especially the background - and, as anyone who's ever seen The Mist or played a Silent Hill game knows, fog is never a good sign. (Of course, the prospect of a gruesome death following a single wrong step or foolish mistake generally doesn't make for comforting thoughts, either.)

Slender, once again, is more simplistic in this respect. There is no soundtrack to speak of, but this works for the game, not against it: not being able to hear Slender Man pursuing you, but knowing he could be anywhere (like RIGHT  BEHIND YOU) is one of the scariest things about the game. What you can hear is the crunch of dirt and grass under your feet as you walk around, and your in-game breathing as your stamina begins to run low (especially if you panic like I did and start running about blindly like a crazy fool). And, unlike a lot of games where it's somewhat comforting to die (since after you've done it once, you know what happens), finding out for the first time how abrupt and horrible it is (without knowing when it will happen) actually might make it even worse to try and play a second round. The setting is pretty basic: a dark forest, with lots of trees and the occasional abandoned car (there's also a terrifying tunnel and a horrific and oddly labyrinthine bathroom), but like Limbo's silhouettes, this lets your imagination run wild, and you begin imagining your dear friend Slendy waiting behind every tree and around every corner - and don't even think about looking back.

With Great Vagueness Comes Great Interpretability

Aside from the creep factor, something else these games have in common is the ambiguity of their respective stories, though the effect achieved by this differs. Like everything else about Slender, the plot is pretty straightforward: you're lost in the woods, and you must collect eight notes while avoiding running into the enemy that is pursuing you. (Sounds a lot like Hide, by the way, though I do believe Slender is the better of the two.) This leaves a lot for the inquisitive mind to wonder about (like why you would get yourself into this situation in the first place), but these questions aren't likely to come to mind until much later. During the game, the sparse details and lack of exposition only work to heighten the tension, as there are no plot twists or nagging mysteries to distract you from your fear.

On the other hand, Limbo is anything but simple. Sure, the basic idea is plain enough: a boy searching for his lost sister. But there is a definite depth to everything in the game, a sense that everything has a meaning, though some of it may be difficult to discern. Having played it through twice, I'm still not sure exactly what was going on, although I have a pretty good idea of what I think happened to the boy and his sister. According to Christian Nutt's interview with the co-founders of Playdead, Arnt Jensen and Dino Patti, the game was purposely designed to be as ambiguous and open-ended as possible: they find it "scary" when gamers come close to correctly interpreting the original idea, "because," as Jensen says, "then there's too many clues." For me at least, being lost in terms of the plot just added to the feeling of being lost in the world of Limbo, and it sure makes for some interesting post-game reflecting as well. (I have notes on what I've figured out so far and everything. Yes, I am that much of a nerd.)

Final Thoughts: To Play, Or Not to Play (Hint: It's the First One)

The main point of all my rambling and meditating on these two games is this: if you haven't played them yet, you darn well should... unless you're prone to night terrors or have a preexisting heart condition, in which case, stay far, far away from them. Slender will make you jump and/or fall out of your chair (and possibly scream like a little girl), while Limbo leaves you with more of a lingering, haunting feeling afterwards (though there are a couple of at least minor jump moments in it as well). Limbo is a creepy good time, even if the trial-and-death method of solving puzzles can get a bit frustrating at times, and Slender is one small step in gaming, but one giant leap for the terrifying creepypasta genre. I highly recommend both, although I'd also recommend you keep a box of kittens close by for comfort afterwards.

Also fun: watching Tobuscus' and PewDiePie's "Let's Plays" of Limbo and Slender, respectively, on YouTube. Just be ready to turn the volume down when necessary; they both have a tendency to scream. A lot. :)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fanfiction as a Legitimate Literary Tool (Not an Instrument of Torture)

I admit it: I write fanfiction.

Not only fanfiction, not all the time, and certainly not always well. I've also read my fair share, and ogled more fan art than I dare to contemplate. I love it - it's fun, it's rewarding, and I usually manage to entertain at least one or two other people in the process. But when I tell people in person that I write fanfiction, I always end up tagging it on the end of a sentence or story like a footnote or the butt of a bad joke. It's not because I look down on fan-works or the people who create them - it's because I know there are so many other people who do.

But today I am going to do something different. Today, I'm going to defend fanfiction.

Fairy Gold: Why (Some) Fans Hate Fanfiction (and Why They Shouldn't)

A lot of people who have come across fanfiction on the internet will want to rant and rave and pull their hair out if you mention it to their faces. (Like the author of this blog post.)They will tell you that it is a waste of time, both to write and to read. They will complain about the arrogance of amateurs who claim to "fix" the ending of a story. They will groan over the innumerable sins fanfic authors have committed: two-dimensional characterizations, non-canon pairings, a deus ex machina swooping in at the last moment to magically prevent a canon death, and an overindulgence in sex, violence, and melodrama, to the point where even a soap opera writer would be rolling his/her eyes and snorting derisively. And the list goes on.

The sad thing is, they would be right. Some of the time.

I should know; I probably (definitely) wrote some pretty terrible fanfiction in my day. I've also read (and gagged over) a lot of fanfics by other people that manage, almost impressively, to live up to every single one of these accusations and then some - the wince-inducing sort that would probably fail The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test, and make good additions to The Terrible Crossover Fanfiction Idea Generator.

But I think it's a mistake to dismiss fanfiction in general, and to make the generalization that most fanfic authors have their noses up in the air and their heads up their arses. Personally, I never pretended to be better than the original authors. I admit that in the past I have carelessly claimed I was going to "fix" canon events, and I apologize now for the heresy. But like me, I think most of the time when people say this it is more a failure in phrasing than an honest boast. What I really meant was: "This plot point upset me deeply enough that I felt like I needed to create an alternate universe." It was, like most fanfiction is, a labor of love. Trying to save canon characters (probably the most common "fix")  means that character pulled some serious heartstrings. This does not necessarily make for good writing, but it can be a valid form of venting frustration and grief... and hey, if someone else happens to enjoy reading it, bonus.

Furthermore, hating fanfiction because you were exposed to your worst literary nightmare is like hating music because you feel that if you hear Katy Perry's "Fireworks" on the radio one more time you might just blow a fuse. Not all fanfiction is literary gold – many are fairy gold, pure wish-fulfillment which at best leave readers wanting and, at worst, make them feel an urgent need to take a shower (or several). But there are just as many formally published authors whose works which have the same effect, yet they are rarely (and should never) be denied their right to write and share their stories. Just because it's out there doesn't mean you have to read it.

Invasion or Ovation?: Authors' Opinions

I can only imagine what it's like the first time you read a fanfic based on your work. It must be an odd moment, seeing your characters, your worlds, your stories pouring out of some stranger's fingertips onto their keyboards and, subsequently, onto the internet. If it happens to be of the "Worse than a B-Movie" variety, I can easily see revulsion (and possibly rage) as a first-instinct  response. (Orson Scott Card and Anne Rice, for example, violently oppose fanfiction.) While some authors just plain don't get it (how does fanfiction pose any threat whatsoever to one's livelihood?), I do understand some authors’ qualms. Yes, writing original works would be more productive, and I can easily imagine how frustrating (even creepy) it could be to watch strangers take your beloved, original characters and twist them into something you never intended. Ursula K. LeGuin (as quoted in this list of several authors' attitudes to fanfiction) once described it as "an invasion" of the worlds she has created. This isn't surprising; after all, the stories you write always contain bits and pieces of you, and to see those bits and pieces in someone else's (usually less capable) hands could be quite discomfiting.

But again, I have to emphasize that fanfiction (and any fan-labor) is largely a byproduct of the fans' sincere love. And the point of publishing is to share a story... so share it. Let the fans do what they will; after all, without them, an author would have no livelihood to be concerned about in the first place. As long as fanfiction remains nonprofit and informally published (except in the case of the original author’s sanction – or if it’s based on something so old both the copyright and the author are deceased), it does no harm, but a world of good... both for fans (letting off steam is a good thing, believe me) and authors. Fanfiction and fan art, especially the good kind, can be a fantastic form of viral marketing, if you simply sit back and let it work its magic.

But don't just take my word for it. Lev Grossman (best known for writing The Magicians) wrote this article about fanfiction for Time, in which he not only defends fanfiction but also touches on some interesting tidbits about the history and evolution of fan-works (they've been around longer than you probably think - Grossman mentions examples dating as far back as ancient Greece). He talks about the origins of the term "slash," the difference between fics that follow canon versus AU (Alternate Universe) fics, and the various (largely false) generalizations and stereotypes that have developed over time. Not all creators of fan-works, for example, are hyper-hormonal pre-teens with no talent: Grossman makes a nice point of mentioning that Darren Criss of Glee fame, for instance, got his first break in a fan-production called A Very Potter Musical. (If you're a Potter fan, by the way, you haven't lived until you've seen it.)

Grossman is not the only famous person who has come out in support of fanfiction. Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones, D.J. MacHale, Stephanie Meyer, Tamora Pierce, Terry Pratchett, and J.K. Rowling all give their fans the green light, and Anne McCaffrey has an entire page on her site listing the rather lengthy (but relatively fair) rules for creating fan-works based on her stories.

Joss Whedon, who has openly voiced his support on several occasions, puts it perfectly: "That's why I made these shows. I didn't make them so that people would enjoy them and forget them; I made them so they would never be able to shake them. It's the way I am as a fan. I create the shows that would make me do that."

Consider: A Final Note on the Subject (and Recommendations)

Not everyone loves, or even likes, fanfiction, and not everyone needs to. Even amongst the fans, there are always going to be differing opinions, and that's not a bad thing. But to dismiss fanfics entirely because of a few misinformed stereotypes and a handful of terrible examples is at best lazy, and at worst, ignorant and prejudiced - especially if you are a storyteller who is lucky enough to have fans that have been so moved by your work as to make something of their own from it. Also, while producing original work is, of course, preferable in the long run, fanfiction can be great practice, especially for beginning writers, and, occasionally, can even be inspiring in its own right.

My attitude is pretty much the same as Whedon's. If I ever do manage to finish and publish a story worthy of generating fanfiction, or any other kind of fan-work, I can guarantee that my first reaction will not be to dash to the phone for an immediate conference with my agent about the copyright implications. At first, I would be stunned: just the idea of it produces a slight nervy, tingly emotion in my stomach. But then I think I would pull a Cheshire Cat smile, and I would be thinking something along the lines of, "Best... day... ever." Consider: if I manage to write something interesting enough to incite a complete stranger to create their own interpretation... I've clearly done something right.

In the spirit of support, I shall finish this post off with a (relatively) brief list of a few of the best fan-works I have come across thus far, whilst gallivanting across the vast (and occasionally terrifying) landscape of the internet. (The Very Potter Musical is not included here only because I already linked to it.) Enjoy.

* * * * *

Amnesia, the dark descent - Fantastic fan art in which the protagonist of the PC game (of the same title) is imagined, rather well I think, as being played by Ben Barnes.

Bad Intentions, Reading Room, and Truce -  Three one-chapter fics which have nothing much to do with each other, but are all written by the same author. The first two are based on the show Lost; the first one is stronger, but "Reading Room" is one of the better examples I've read of meta-fanfiction. "Truce" is a great little fic about a Cat and a certain Parrot... the bird which belonged to Cotton in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Born of Hope - A brilliantly executed fan film about Aragorn's parents, and certain events which took place prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings.

Girls Next Door - An ongoing fan-comic, inspired by another fan-comic called Roommates, based mainly around the characters Jareth and Sarah (from the Jim Henson film Labyrinth), and Erik and Christine (from Phantom of the Opera). Crossovers and comedy are plentiful, and the art, though it started out a little rough, is pure pro at present.

Gone - A short fic about Severus Snape (from Harry Potter, of course) being offered a wish granted by fairies, in return for a favor he has done them. It's not perfect, but it's an interesting and beautiful idea.

Hands Off - One of my favorite satirical fanfics, this one takes a shot at all the fluffy romance fics about Rorschach that flooded the internet when the Watchmen movie was released. It's short but sweet, in a beautifully brutal sort of way.

Harley Quinn - Here's a lovely, creepy fan art for the Harley Quinn and the Joker fans. This artist does a LOT of fan art, but her original work is even more amazing. Make sure to check it out.

One Man Disney Movie - A Pixar animator named Nick Pitera, who has a voice like multiple angels, sings various Disney songs as heroes and heroines, villains, and supporting characters... all in one glorious video that is nearly as much fun to watch as it is to listen to.

Portrait of a Phantom - A stunning fan art of the Phantom of the Opera. Definitely be sure to check out her other artwork (which includes a lot of original work in addition to fan art) as well.

Sunny Disposish - An impressively well-written (and ongoing) fanfic somewhat inspired by another fan-comic, When Curiosity Met Insanity (also a great, fun read, though it suffers from long hiatuses on a fairly regular basis), which in turn was inspired by the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. Since the copyright for the original Alice story is long dead, I'm hoping this one gets published once it's finished.

Technically Dead - A short and delightfully disturbing fic written from the point of view of the character Barry the Chopper, from the anime and manga, Fullmetal Alchemist.

There is so much more I have seen that was worth checking out... but if I listed it all, the internet would likely break. Also, please be aware that some of these fan-works I've listed may contain adult content and/or spoilers.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Begin at the Beginning: Or, What Exactly IS a Story?

First of all, in order to truly begin at the beginning, I suppose I should start by saying: Hello, and welcome to my blog!

All right, enough with the formalities. Time to write! Generally, a blog's historic first post tends to be a description of what's going to discussed on the blog, who the author is, and all that jazz. But if you've read the introduction (on the right side of the page), you already know what we're here to do. In case you missed it, or are too lazy to glance up and read it now, the gist of it is: this is a blog about stories and storytelling.

Sounds simple enough, no? (Not to mention broad enough that I shall never run out of post ideas... Muahaha.) So rather than go on and on about how stories (like friendship) are magic, and how a good yarn can change a person's life, or even the world... I'm going to start with the most basic question of them all: What, exactly, is a story?

Diverse Definitions

According to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "story" can be a noun or, apparently, a transitive verb. ("See you later, Ma, I'm off to go storying!") Although verbing words weirds language in a fun way (thank you, Calvin and Hobbs), let's just focus on the noun.

The origin of the word seems to be linked to the Latin historia, and indeed, you can't spell "history" without "story" (or "hi," for that matter). However, stories aren't just about the past, and they aren't all true, either. A "story" is defined by the dictionary as both "a statement regarding the facts" (the term can be applied to history as well as news articles) and "a fictional narrative." Stories about the future float somewhere between the two categories until the future becomes the present. (Orwell's 1984, thank goodness, turned out to be just fiction. But Robertson's Futility, Or The Wreck of the Titan, written fourteen years prior to the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic, resembled the incident so closely it bordered on prophetic.)

If you head over to Wikipedia and look up "story," you can be redirected to either the entry for Time or the entry for Narrative, along with many other slightly less relevant pages - including, interestingly, a tennis player and a doctor/astronaut. If you look up the word on Google... well, you'd probably get even more results. (Only a few billion or so, and at least one billion of them are probably useless.)

The point is this: there are a gazillion and three ways to look at the meaning of story, 99% of which are valid. (The other 1% come from people who write about sparkly vampires, and whoever is responsible for reality TV.) The real question is: which ones apply to this blog?

The Fruit of the Epipha-tree: Story as a Found Object

According to Stephen King (as interviewed by Neil Gaiman), stories aren't made, but rather found. A lot of writers probably disagree with this, but they are all wrong. (Just kidding; to each their own. After all, a lot of people also don't think Stephen King has any talent as a writer... of course, they actually are wrong. They're just jealous.) I personally couldn't agree with King more; I'm not saying that writing is a walk in the park, or that plagiarism is okay - that's a resounding NO - and neither is the master of horror. What it means is that a story, at least as I see it, is not something that is forced out of your brain, but rather something more like a small epiphany, an "A-ha!" moment which is born of external influence and inspiration as well as internal thought processes and creativity. The hard part, no matter what kind of story it is, is actually putting it together and making it work.

More than the Sum of its Parts: Story vs. Plot

Thomas Grip of Frictional Games offers up another interesting point on the subject. In this post, he discusses the common mistake of using "story" and "plot" interchangeably. According to Grip, the difference between the two is that plot refers purely to a sequence of events, whereas the essence of a story actually depends more on the feel of the story - such as the emotions a story conveys to or instills in the reader, or the locations (and, perhaps more importantly, the atmosphere of those locations). While I do think plot matters (especially if we're talking in terms of written narratives), it doesn't necessarily have to be complex to be intriguing, and I agree with Grip that story and plot are two very separate things, and the more vital of the two is the story. This is the reason why remakes work (or don't work); the idea with these isn't to perfectly replicate the original, but rather to retain the essence of the story while creating something new and different with it. It's like trying out different recipes for the same dish or drink; the chain of events (and even some of the ingredients) may be changed, but in the end you're still making butterbeer. (Or whatever else you want to make. I just picked butterbeer because I have seen about a hundred different recipes for it, and so far only one has come out decently for me. But that's another story for another day.)

So... What is a Story?

So what is a story? It is something which encompasses a moment, or many moments, in time, and is comprised of at least one event, one character, and one location. A story can be captured with words, images, sounds, or even textiles (remember Pat the Bunny?), scents, or tastes. Regardless of medium, a story is something which makes us feel, and think about our emotions and how we feel, whether those feelings are as simple as, "Hey, cool, I learned something different today!" or something as complex as la douleur exquise, the emotional agony of loving and longing for someone you cannot be with. Just as humans are often part of the stories they create, stories are also part of human nature; we cannot help but coexist, and either one would be lost without the other.

Stories are also almost always the product of some sort of collaboration, and so I will wrap up this post (and most likely many more) the way it began: with a query. (Only this time, you get to do the work of answering, and I get to sit back and read at my leisure.)

Do you agree? Do you disagree? (Violently? With the passion of a thousand flaming suns?) What do YOU think a story is?

Comments and commentary (not to mention back-links and sharing) are forever welcome, along with any questions you may have... I will do my best to reply when needed. Keep an eye out for poll questions on the right-hand side of the page; the plan is to have a new poll question every month. Blog updates should also be just about monthly; sometimes they will be more frequent, but once again the plan is to have at least one post up by the end of each month.