“Above all, I delight in listening to stories, and sometimes in telling them”
In the last post I wrote about my influences (which are as numerous as they are varied). Today my aim is to cover the actual substance of the stories I put on the page. What are they about? Who are they for? Why should you care?
(In the interest of full disclosure, I might not have an answer for that last one.)
To this point in life, I’ve written five novels (which clutter my shelves and computer files in various stages of “completion”). They are all pretty distinct from one another, even those that belong to the same series. They all have more than a few things in common, as well, and those are the things I will focus on today.
First of all, each of my stories falls into the category of fantasy.
The long explanation for this: I love being taken to far-flung, fantastic locales. I love the freedom the genre gives to my imagination. I love the endless possibilities. I love the inherent wonder. I love finding the similarities between made-up worlds and the real one that we live in. I love it as a unique way of exploring human nature. I love it as a meaningful and entertaining tool for shedding light on the most important facts and questions of life.
The short explanation: I really, really love dragons.
Second, all my work so far would be judged by most to be for the young adult audience.
I have mixed feelings about this, as I don’t’ care for pigeon-holing. My first book, though I will present it to the world under the YA banner, is perfectly appropriate for younger readers, as well. I’d like to believe it will appeal to all ages.
Says George MacDonald:
My desire is to attain a similar kind of universal appeal. This is not because I believe everybody is going to enjoy what I write. My style and content are obviously not going to appeal to the whole world. What I don’t care for is the notion that age must be the deciding factor.
That said, when it comes down to publication time, we have to make these distinctions. I distinguish my stories as YA. The main reason for this is the average age of my heroes and heroines.
All of my protagonists at least start out as teenagers. Why, you may ask? It’s not something I put much thought into starting out, I’m sad to say. It just… happened. Adolescence is such a peculiar time of life. It’s a period of learning and transitions, of challenges and growing pains. This is my best guess as to why it makes such appealing fodder for writers, and why it became my own natural choice.
Third, all of my stories are character driven.
I never begin by sketching out a detailed plan for my plots and worlds. After the initial story-spark* emerges, the characters come next. I have to get to know them a little bit, and everything else takes shape around who these people (or dragons, et al.,) may be.
It might sound silly to those who aren’t writers, but I have little control over the characters themselves. Not unlike real children, they tend to grow and act quite on their own once they’ve been given birth. The best I can do for a character, as William Faulkner put it, is to “trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” The best I can do is try to translate the characters onto the page, so that the reader might see them and know them as I do.
On a related note, and to make my final point, my stories, like my characters, aren’t mine.
What kind of sense does that make? None, maybe. Call me crazy. You might be right.
Crazy or not, I feel as if the origin of my stories begins somewhere outside my own imagination. It is as if the story already exists, and I am merely the conduit through which it enters the world. Tolkien expressed similar thoughts, saying that his stories “arose in my mind as ‘given’ things”.
If I am crazy, at least I’m in good company, right?
*What is a story spark? For Tolkien, it was a simple line scrawled on paper to distract his mind from the drudgery of grading papers (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…”) For Lewis, it was an image of an umbrella-carrying fawn and a lamppost in a snowy wood. For me, it usually starts with the question, “What if?”
The spark for my first completed novel, Men & Dragons, ignited when I was considering the many stories in which a person is transformed into something else. A dragon, say, like Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. “What if,” I thought, “it happened the other way around? What if a dragon was turned into a human?” A very specific scene dawned in the wake of this question, and the rest is history.
And that’s what a story spark is.