Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Watership Down: Crossing the Fine Line?

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

Easter week - for most it's a time for chocolate, eggs, newly-hatched chicks and fluffy bunnies. So on Sunday, Channel 4 in the UK devoted its mid-afternoon slot to Watership Down, a movie full of cute rabbits and the beautiful British countryside. But it wasn't as straightforward as all that. Anyone who's seen Watership Down knows it is not all cute rabbits. This is a film full of mature content and graphic imagery, and is so controversial that some people refuse to watch it even as adults. So, not surprisingly, Twitter was overflowing with comments from shocked parents reminding the world how traumatic this film was. And, naturally, fans of the film also took to social media to defend it as an important piece of work.

Personally, I stand between the two opinions.

​I remember watching the first 45 minutes when I was a kid on Cartoon Network. When my mum came in and saw it on the TV, she instantly turned the channel over. And even then, when I was only about 7 or 8 years old, I could understand why - I'd already seen the blood-soaked field; the panicking rabbits being poisoned in their warren; Bigwig's violent encounter with the snare. And while I don't remember having explicit nightmares, it did linger in my mind in a very unpleasant way. I avoided watching it again for the remainder of my childhood, and only sat down to see it in its entirety at the urging of a friend when I was in my early 20s. I still felt the same unease as the first time, but I kept going, and when the end credits started rolling, I had to admit I was glad I'd seen it. I acknowledged its powerful storytelling, talented voice-acting, and beautiful (if at times gory) imagery. I couldn't ignore the fact that it was a good film.

But it begged other questions which, in a similar way, I only realised when I was older. When my mum switched the channel, An American Tail started playing, and she had no problem with that. I had no problems with it either; it was one of my favourite childhood films. But look at some of the imagery from it and tell me it doesn't also have the potential to be traumatising.

Scary stuff in kid's movies is nothing new - after all, back when Snow White was released in the 1930s, the scene depicting the Queen's transformation into the old hag caused many grown women in the audience to faint with fear. The old Disney movies were packed with darkness, especially the first three: Snow White, Pinocchio and Fantasia. And as time went by, we entered what I consider to be the golden age of scary kid movies (at least by modern standards): the 1980s. I was born in 1991 and so many of these films from the past decade surrounded me in my childhood, with all their creepy imagery, treacherous plots and dark subject matter. They were the films that a lot of people wouldn't dream of showing to kids nowadays - titles like Return to Oz, The Neverending Story, The Dark Crystal, and practically everything directed by Don Bluth. These were all ones I saw growing up, and while they were undoubtedly scary, I accepted them for being just that.

​It's important to remember that kids are smart. We know, even from a young and impressionable age, that a film like All Dogs Go To Heaven is speaking to us in a different way to a film like Beauty and the Beast. Both have their subtle morals, share of funny moments, engaging characters, and so forth; but we get a different feeling from both of them. And that's okay. Because in that young and impressionable part of our lives, we are learning so much about the world, including the fact that we will face scary things and go through hardship. Movies and books can be almost like a training exercise for our minds; allowing us to feel emotions we perhaps haven't felt before from the safety of a familiar environment, and knowing that despite everything we are seeing, it can't hurt us. So as we get older and experience similar emotions in the context of our own lives, we are more well-prepared to face them accordingly.

This comes back to a statement by Don Bluth, who was behind a lot of these 'darker' children's movies in the 80s: you can show children anything so long as it has a happy ending. And I do agree with that to a point. Children have an intrinsic desire to always see good triumph over evil; that happiness will always prevail. And in the majority of kid's films, that does happen. So their young viewers are more accepting of the darker parts of the story, even if it might scare them half to death, because they truly believe that it will not last. That's quite an inspiring way to view these things, if you think about it. And it's the sparking of those parts of the brain early, preparing them for the real scary moments that life will throw at them, which I believe we as adults can also learn from.

​But, as I just said, I only agree with it to a point. When can you go too far with the darkness?

The key to a great family film is paying attention to both the children and adults in the audience; giving both age groups something within the feature to keep them engaged. In many films I saw as a child, there were a lot of things that flew over my head, but as I've re-watched them again as I've grown older, I can pick up on them, which to my child-self were my parents chuckling at random parts. It gives the films another level of depth so they can appeal to not just the children, which the bright colours and big-eyed characters would have you first think. In short, there is a balance between the 'kid-friendly' imagery and jokes, and the more adult innuendoes or dark aspects.

It's a common misconception that just because a film is animated, it must be kids' fare and okay to show them without thinking about it. A lot of parents made this mistake when South Park first aired - all they saw was its cartoon style and thought it would be good for their children, and how wrong they were! In contrast, when I was a kid, my mum sometimes watched a film before me to make sure it wouldn't scare me too much. She knew my limits and wouldn't subject me to something I wouldn't have been able to handle. If she said yes, I would still be scared, but just enough. They all kept to that balance; perhaps a little closer to the line than the lighter-hearted Disney films like Aladdin, but they never stepped over it.

 think the problem with Watership Down is that it did step over the line.

​It's okay to have some parts of a film go over the young viewers' heads for benefit of the adults, as I said before. It's okay to show dark things, scary imagery; even a bit of violence isn't too bad. But another key to a family film is being able to show these things in moderation. Don Bluth understood this; for as traumatising as his imagery could be to some children, there was practically never any blood or gruesome on-screen deaths. If they had to happen, they were done quickly and smoothly, so you had no doubt about what had happened, but you could move on from it as well. Watership Down does not do that. It drags out the most horrific sections to the point where you cannot look away, filling each one with vivid red blood. And it does it with what a lot of kids believe are one of the gentlest creatures on earth.

​I'm not saying that we should mislead children into thinking that nature is kind or to ignore any of the other messages this film presents. But there is a time to introduce them to such concepts, and it is after they have found comfort in the fact that they can be shown horrible things if there is a happy ending to follow. Kids are smart, but they are still impressionable. Bambi can be a traumatising film, but if I'd seen Watership Down before it, would I have loved Thumper so much?
At this point, I want to draw attention to another film that came out in the 1980s: Grave of the Fireflies by Hayao Miyazaki. Anyone who has seen his other movies, like My Neighbour Totoro or Ponyo, could potentially go into this one thinking it will be cutesy and colourful. Those are the two things it is not. It is the one film which eclipses my feelings of Watership Down once again.

There is death, awful imagery, blood and gore - and it is an animated film. The only difference is that, although this came out in the era of Return to Oz and The Dark Crystal, this was not marketed for children.

​People acknowledge Grave of the Fireflies as an animation made purely for adults - one of the first to do so. For those who have seen it, we know it is not something to show to young children. And Watership Down can elicit a similar response from parents who did see it as children themselves. But there is one major difference, which I still can't get my head around: Watership Down has a U (or G in the US) rating. It has been deemed by the viewing classification boards as being suitable for all. ​So in the midst of all those dark 80s films getting a suitable PG rating, despite having notably less blood and gore, it is more generally recommended that you show your child Watership Down over Labyrinth.

I'm sorry, but that is a load of rubbish.

​I do like Watership Down. I can see how good and important a film it is, but I believe it should be one purely for adults. How its rating hasn't been increased for modern audiences baffles me, because for those parents who don't take the time to check a film like mine did, that is all they will look at. And while it is always possible for parents to simply turn the channel over when it gets too edgy, like mine did, I believe that little green triangle on the DVD cover is one of the main reasons why so many kids become terrified of this movie. It is not a children's film. The book it was adapted from was not meant to be read by youngsters. Just because it centres around bunnies does not automatically make it suitable for children.

​It is important to always be aware of that balance family films need to have. The dark 80s movies I grew up with are still some of my favourites, and I appreciate them for the gutsy things they showed to me as a child. But even back then, I knew I could handle them, because they respected that fine line, and my parents respected me enough to let me watch them. We don't need to only give kids bright and cheerful subject matter, because they will look for the darker things too in order to experience something new from a safe distance. It's important not to deny them that, but the same way you wouldn't start them off with a Jack Nicholson movie, leave Watership Down for the teenage years. And not the mid-afternoon slot on Easter weekend.

Plus, it has a swearing seagull. Bloody hilarious, just not for those who aren't in high school yet. (And no pun intended there!)

Monday, 28 March 2016

Book of March: I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

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Book of the Month: March
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While I tend to prefer fiction books in my leisure time, and my usual fare tends to lean towards fantasy, I also have an affinity with memoirs. But not the autobiography or  celebrity kind - I mean the gritty ones, especially those that tackle issues of mental health. On paper, the general outline of them appears similar across the board: protagonist undergoes a significant psychiatric problem which often leads them to being institutionalised, and the story focuses on their experiences of coping with the new environment and their eventual road to recovery.

But that's a pigeonhole of this genre - after all, no two people, or their illnesses, are the same; a fact which is perhaps made more poignant here because these 'characters' are documenting their own very real pasts. Arguably the best example of an author veiling themselves by loosely fictionalising their story is Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. But there is another book which I want to call to attention: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg. This was a bestseller in its day, and has since been adapted into a film and stage play. But it's not as well known to many modern audiences, and unlike The Bell Jar, you're unlikely to find it in a high street bookstore. However, it's probably my favourite title of this type and I want to draw eyes to it in this post.

The story follows an artistically-talented young woman named Deborah, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to hospital under the care of psychiatrist Dr Fried. In order to protect herself from a confusing and frightening reality in which she has experienced bullying and surgical trauma, she has created the imaginary Kingdom of Yr. Alongside her experiences in Yr and interactions with its tyrannical gods, the novel follows her progress with Dr Fried, as well as the viewpoints of her parents and younger sister, who must alter their lives to accommodate Deborah's illness.

This story is such a strong one that it doesn't need to be compared to Plath's famous novel, but I'm going to do that for a moment. In the same way that the genre can be very easily generalised, it's easy to see how similar these two works are - especially since they were published within a year of each other. They also share many similarities to other books in the genre released before or since. But what sets them both apart is that the protagonists are not our clear-cut narrators; they are not intended to be read (at least explicitly) as the women who penned them in real life. And what sets them apart from each other is that in The Bell Jar, we see Esther's downward spiral and take the journey into hospital alongside her. In Rose Garden, when we meet Deborah, she is already at the bottom of that spiral, on her way to the hospital, and truly encased in her own world.

Originally, that idea of a girl living in a fantasy land is what drew me to this book. Adoring anything otherworldly, it appealed to me not just within the context of its story, but in general. How many of us have dreamt of a better place that we can escape to when things go wrong? Of a place where you can speak with beings more majestic than anything that could ever exist in reality? It's quite an entrancing concept. But this story illustrates how that simple fantasy can escalate into something so massive and utterly controlling of your own psyche, it can cut you off from everything else. However, it also shows how it is possible to come back from such a debilitating illness to a future of hope.

​I have to say that I prefer this book above The Bell Jar. For as beautifully written as Plath's work is, this one strikes a chord with me because of how vivid Deborah's world is, and how painful it is to release it. This is a story that acknowledges something many sufferers of mental illness face: that even if it hurts and restricts your quality of life, there is a resistance to letting it go for fear of being left with nothing at all. Such a concept has rarely been presented in such a great way: as a rich visual metaphor. But the world of Yr is not the only metaphor; that honour also rests with Deborah herself, who is to be more accurately named as author Joanne Greenberg.

Greenberg originally wrote this book under a pen-name to distance herself from the fact that she was institutionalised, experienced the same intense visions, and eventually fought her way through it with the help of a determined yet caring therapist. It is a book which walks the line between fantasy and reality, with both worlds holding the enchantment and grittiness which the entire genre requires to truly resonate with readers. After all, through the ages, there has tended to be a kind of romanticism attached to mental illnesses. So many people are fascinated by the notion of madness, yet also turn away from it in fear. This book manages to capture that, through the multiple viewpoints which show it is never just the patient who is affected by their condition. As noted, nobody can claim to "have a corner on suffering." Neither the real world or the mental one is a rose garden, but that's the beautiful point of it all.

Despite being fifty years old (and the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia now more strictly defined), it's a story as relevant and important today as it was back then. Even if you've never been inclined to read the mental health memoir genre, give this one a try and keep an open mind. You might be surprised what you discover about yourself, and your own inner strength, along the way.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Following Footsteps: The Authors I Admire

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

We all have our favourite authors who we go back to again and again. And sometimes they can do more than simply entertain us; they can inspire us. Sometimes, I’ve had to look up from a book and actually gasp for air because of the hold the author has got on me. It goes deeper than what the words are telling me is happening; it’s the feeling and emotions that are evoked, and which will leave a lasting impression as I type away at my own stories.

So here are some of the authors who I look up to. I’ve read their work more times than I can count, and I honestly can’t imagine my bookshelves without them. In no particular order:…

Marcus Sedgwick
The first Marcus Sedgwick story I ever read was The Book of Dead Days, and I was ensnared from day one. He has a brilliant ability to weave together horror, fantasy, history and atmosphere, and I’m yet to find a book of his which I haven’t loved. Each one is different, which only highlights his writing skills, and the twists in them all are amazing. My favourites though will always be the Dead Days Omnibus. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I’ve made a little tradition of devouring it every December between Christmas and New Year. If I ever get the chance to meet Marcus Sedgwick, I’ll be constantly thanking him for the influence he’s had on me.

Christopher Paolini
I didn’t actually jump on the Eragon bandwagon until around the time the movie was announced, but I read the book first, and I fell in love with it. But something else that really struck a chord with me was that Christopher Paolini had written and published this epic fantasy at the age of fifteen. I was fifteen at the time, and in the middle of writing my own fantasy series. He inspired me to believe it would be possible, no matter your age, to succeed in the writing industry. I started to seek out publishers around this time, and the mountain of rejections helped me to refine my craft all the more. Eventually, I tried pitching a different story, and it turned out to be ‘the one’. But I can say I owe a good chunk of my drive and thickening skin in those early attempts, to the idea of what Christopher Paolini had achieved.

Charles Dickens
Dickens is one of the first authors I became obsessed with. I read Oliver Twist in primary school, fell in love with it, and devoured several more of his books afterwards. I was completely entranced by his writing style, and how the richness of his characters fell so beautifully against such dark and intense stories. I always felt as though I’d fallen back into the 1800s when I had a Charles Dickens book in my hand. Thanks to him, the style and texture of Victorian literature has always been with me, and it opened me up to the other classic period authors like the Brontes, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker. The flowing sentences really had an impact on my own writing, and introduced me to the concept that the atmosphere in a book can be a character in its own right.

Garth Nix
A few years ago, I was going through a very rough emotional time. Death and illness had ravaged my family and friends, and I was finding it terribly hard to recover. I couldn’t actually bring myself to create anything, so I found escape by immersing myself in a series called The Old Kingdom. I was amazed when it started working some kind of catharsis in me. The books revolved completely around death, but dealt with it in a way I’d never really seen in books before, and I connected so much with the character of Lirael that I reread the entire thing as soon as I’d finished it! At a really tough time, Garth Nix’s words managed to break through and give me just what I needed.

Michelle Paver
Where do I even begin with this lady? I’ve read her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series practically every single year. Her writing style is gorgeous and never fails to pull me into an ancient world. This is a coming-of-age story first and foremost, which inspired my own stories; but the biggest thing I’ve taken away from these books is the POV of Wolf. It’s amazing. I’ve never come across an animal POV so good – if animal communication could be translated into human words with no anthropomorphism, then this is the closest I think anybody can come in fiction. I studied animal behaviour at university and I can’t even say how big an influence this story had on my work in that. I even encouraged my lecturers to read it. Michelle Paver has left her mark on me in so many ways that I can’t count them all. I’d love to be able to speak to her personally one day and say thank you.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

I Hate Strong Female Characters

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

Okay, maybe 'hate' is too strong a word, but hear me out. This might seem a bit strange coming from an author whose work does tend to include characters this label could be applied to. Merrin in Blindsighted Wanderer; Bianka, Hanna and Eva in the Tragic Silence series, plus my other works that are yet to make the publication journey. And for a long time - most of my writing career - it hasn't bothered me. Strong female characters are good! They bring depth and another perspective to the story! Right?

I suddenly doubted this when I re-watched The Hunger Games recently. And though it's a movie I've seen more times than I can count, this one moment really grated on me:
Let's put this into context. The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future where teenagers must fight to the death. Every single young person outside the Capitol is aware they could die. There is always one male and one female tribute from each district. Each district's population is skilled in one form or another.

So where does this line fall in? Bear in mind that, in many respects, both the male and female tributes are treated equally - after all, there's an equal chance that any one of them could die brutally at the hands of the others, and all of them are very aware of this fact. So we don't need to be told that Katniss, or indeed any of the other female tributes, is a tough nut. We see it in her mannerisms, the way she carries herself, her ingenuity in the face of obstacles. It occurs naturally to us. But this line almost feels like it's giving us permission to recognize this fact. "She didn't let a man take over! And then it turned out to be a joke anyway! She's a strong female character, see?"

While the joke itself is harmless (and I wouldn't blame these two for trying to get a bit of light-heartedness in the middle of such horror), this just seems so out of place script-wise. It doesn't seem like the kind of joke that would really fly in Panem, where as I mentioned before, everybody knows how to stand up for themselves. While there are still gender differences, it is taken that for the most part, people are just people; tributes are just tributes. There is no emphasis on difference in that respect - because there doesn't need to be.

I know feminism can be a touchy and often misinterpreted area, but it's getting more and more attention in the film industry lately, with one of the headlining advocates being Katniss herself, Jennifer Lawrence. And I feel it needs to be addressed also in regards to novel writing. How many times have you picked up a book with a female protagonist or even deuterogamist who on the surface seems promising, but turns out to just be an empty mess? They tick all the boxes for what a 'strong female character' should be on paper: they're sassy or stubborn, good with weapons, make their own decisions, don't follow the norm, stand up for themselves, etc. So we know they aren't a damsel in distress. But what are they then? Good writing focuses on what a character is, not what a character isn't. And it's this mismatch that has caused the 'strong female character' phrase to become a category; a label trying to prove something to its readers. Instead of presenting empowering characters, it simplifies them, and defeats its own intention.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that Katniss and Peta's roles were reversed; he was the one who was good with the bow and she was better at decorating cakes. That would make people scream sexism - Katniss spends her time in a bakery while Peta goes out and hunts for food. It takes us right back to archaic times, right? And how about this scene in reverse - if Katniss says to Peta, "I'll take the bow... just kidding." Is she being tough, or showing how she isn't willing to move out of a role she has been placed in, that of a submissive kitchen-bound woman? But my main question is, why should it matter?

We never get books or films labelled 'strong male character'. Because we accept naturally that male characters will have more depth to them. They can be physically strong, yes, but not always. They can be nerds, a little bit crazy, bohemian, intellectual. They are interesting. They are not expected to force themselves into a tiny pigeonhole defined by three words. So they are believable, rich, real. Just because you give them a weapon or make them a bit stubborn doesn't make them strong. So why should it be any different with similar female characters?

I feel that the world has realized - and known for a while - that female characters can be more than damsels in distress; prizes to be rescued; eye-candy for show alongside the dashing hero. But in light of that, we still don't know how to write them. A key example of this, in my opinion, can be seen in The Hobbit films. Reading the book, it never bothered me that it was a very male-dominated story. Yet in the film version, a female elf named Tauriel appears. She was an original character created to bring about some gender balance, and she also ticks all the boxes for the convenient 'strong' category. And while she gets a few good scenes here and there, her personality is limited to becoming a love interest for both Legolas and the Dwarf Kili in another typical modern fiction trope: the love triangle. For a character who was brought to life for benefit of the female viewers, there wasn't much that she offered which differed from depictions of women fifty years ago. While I was never a fan of bringing her into the films, it was frustrating to feel like my initial suspicions had been proven correct: that she was simply created to tick all those boxes, with not much thought for anything else that might be interesting. Personally I'd rather follow Bilbo stumbling through a riddle game with Gollum.

Fiction does need embellishment and artistic license to tell its story, but that should not be done at the expense of its characters. And imbuing them with a set of superfluous traits does not change our perceptions of them if there's nothing interesting underneath. Real people aren't like that, so why should fictional ones be?

There is one character who hit this nail on the head sixty years before the suffrage movement even appeared. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and she remains one of the most celebrated and respected characters in all of literature. Is she skilled in weapons? No. Neither is she an action hero, or a wild child, or sassy. She is everything a 'strong female character', by definition, shouldn't be. But yet I would go so far as calling her the poster-child of what those words should mean. She has respect for herself, she's determined, she learns from mistakes, she faces hardship and doesn't let it break her. She does all of this in a relatable way, and she remains interesting throughout it all. She doesn't need anything epic to show her off. She herself is the epic quality. And this quality that is so lauded even 170 years later, is the same that we see in Katniss. They carry themselves, fundamentally, in the same way. They are both resilient and intelligent. They make the best of terrible situations. Take the bow away from Katniss and those traits would remain. Give it to Jane, and those traits would remain. At the end of the day, the weapon or sassiness isn't what defines them.

They are human. And that is what makes them strong.

This needs to be remembered, for both male and female characters. Writing them is not a battle of the sexes, or trying to force empowerment upon one or the other. Both innately have it, in similar ways, if only it is allowed to be seen that way. Making old stereotypes redundant in favour of potentially creating a new one does not translate to equality. We should like a character for who they are, not what they aren't. Strong female characters do not exist for me anymore. There are only interesting, deep, realistic characters. Whether they are referred to as "he" or "she" makes no difference to me, and I don't see the big deal in why it should be to the rest of the world.

And for the record, I think Jennifer Lawrence would play a killer Jane Eyre - no pun intended!

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Holding a Pen in a Paw: The Challenge of Anthropomorphism

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

From 2009 to 2015, I spent practically all of my waking hours in university, devoted first to my BSc Animal Behaviour course, and then to my Postgraduate Diploma in Wildlife Conservation. During the past ten years, I have worked firsthand with over 80 different species, from rabbits to rhinos. So the subject of animals and the way they think has been in my own mind for a while.

Something that was drilled into me during my Animal Behaviour course was to never anthropomorphise. Giving human characteristics or emotions to a non-human animal was a huge no-no. We were told, over and over, that any emotion we thought we saw on an animal's face was just our own emotions reflected back at us. And while I understood the importance of not being biased, I didn't agree.

In science, clean and unbiased data is the lifeline upon which everything hangs. A whiff of anthropomorphism and you would be instantly penalized. But it's impossible to avoid in fiction. Every single story which features an animal character is going to use anthropomorphism, even though some manage it better than others. But how are you supposed to know what is better? If we are human, how can we write outside of human perceptions?

Personally, I think that notion in itself is a blessing and a curse. We have extraordinarily powerful brains that can imagine things very vividly. There are no limits in regards to human mental innovation, except that practically everything comes back to our basic emotions and human experiences. We all know fear, contentment, playfulness, joy, sadness - things that all stories are ultimately built from. But even though it might seem like a stupid question, how exactly can we be sure that animals feel the same way?

To make up for this uncertainty, a lot of animal characters - especially if they concern a large group - are given some kind of culture. This makes it easier for us to identify with them on a basic level, even if it's completely unrealistic. The colony in Antz is roughly based on how actual colonies work, but I'm yet to find an anthill with a bar!

In contrast, most animal characters that I've seen tend to be among the species which are taken to be higher up on the scale of 'intelligence': wolves, dolphins, owls, and deer, to name a few. For this reason, we can arguably find it easier to relate to them on the basic emotional level, and so they need less embellishment from a fictional culture to appeal to us. Trying to project ourselves onto an insect is tough in one respect, yet in another it's actually easier, because a lot more things around them can be built from scratch, and taken at face-value.

But, returning to the point: if we're going to write an animal POV, and try to keep it complex and believable without too much fictional culture, where do we draw the line between human and animal?

The key is to remember that we are animals ourselves. It's often quoted that our DNA is only about 2% different from our closest hominid relative, the chimpanzee. Outside our modern-day culture, we evolved from the same common ancestors as other animals, so even though some complex things we experience are unique to our own species, they can't all have just sprung up out of nowhere for our benefit. We tremble with fear; so does a dog. We get defensive when threatened; so does a lion. The so-called 'fight or flight' reaction is a leftover from our ancestors' lives in the wild. So on that basic level, we're not so different from animals, and by bearing that in mind, we can attempt to look at things from their point of view.

Choosing how to create that point of view is one of the big steps for a writer, because you're going to have both praise and criticism no matter how you come at it. So I think the second thing to bear in mind is the context of the story itself, and weigh the animal POV against that. Are the characters going to be exclusively animal, in an animal world - or will it be here and there, with human characters in their world? If it's the former, more artistic license is needed, because you have to think about other things. Animals don't use a spoken or written language like humans do - how are these characters going to communicate in a way we will understand? Outside of their natural survival, what is their story, and how are they going to stick to a plot that a human reader won't get bored with?

All these nitpicky little questions are the reason why every single animal character we come across in fiction is anthropomorphised. For story purposes, there is no escaping the fact that we need to relate to them as characters, and the only way to do that is to make them as familiar as possible. Because of that, the concept can get pretty tiring, because every single attempt to create an animal character is a complete stab in the dark for us humans. It can be quite rare to find a story that hits the nail on the head - and personally I've only ever found one: The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver. I've even recommended this series to fellow ethologists and zoologists; the animal POVs are that good. It's as close to perfect as I've seen in a work of fiction, and its beauty is in its simplicity. Everything comes down to those basic emotions that transcend all species, and it's been taken a step further in a completely natural way.

Yes, animal POVs can be pretty daunting, but try not to be put off by the prospect of them. Yes, there is a lot to think about when you're planning them, but most of that planning is in regards to the story itself, and exactly what kind of tale you're trying to tell. When everything is stripped back, there are actually more similarities than differences between us and them. And once that concept is seen, the sky's the limit for where our imagination can take us.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Author Interview: Selina Fenech

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First Monday of Every Month

It’s an undeniable truth that Selina Fenech has been lost to the realms of fantasy since she first laid hands on books. Faced with overwhelming heartache that our own world wasn’t so full of magic and adventure, Selina did the only thing she could. She began creating her own worlds of magic by painting and writing.
Then one day, the other children told her that books weren’t cool. Selina turned away from books and writing and submerged herself in her visual art. She became a successful fantasy illustrator, supporting herself with sales of her art that now have a worldwide following. Australian readers will recognize Selina’s fairy and fantasy artwork from bookmarks available in most major Australian bookstores. But the desire to tell stories remained. Because books are cool. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
Born in 1981 to Australian and Maltese parents, Selina lives in Australia with her husband, an unnamed cat, and her cute monster baby who’s far too clever. During her life Selina has found ancient Roman treasure, survived cancer, had knights joust at her wedding, been mugged for doughnuts, made a living as a visual artist, and shared her imaginary worlds in paintings and now in her novels.


Which books have influenced you and your writing style the most?
I love Holly Black and Scott Wsterfeld’s books and was reading a lot of them around the time I was learning to write. I’m not sure if they influenced me, but I certainly aspire to their quality of storytelling.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
I’d love to have Hugh Howey as a mentor. He’s always seemed so down to earth, clever, kind, and savvy regarding all things publishing. Plus, you know, he writes amazing stories and beautiful prose. He’s the full package.

Did any of your characters turn out differently to how you first envisioned them?
I try to have a clear image in my mind of my characters before I start writing them, and mostly they stay that way. I’m very much a planner and plotter and my characters are all very well behaved (for me, maybe not in their stories as much!).

What are the most difficult and the most fun parts of the writing process for you?
I love worldbuilding and plotting, the brainstorming parts. I also kind of love editing. It’s the sitting down and doing the hard yards of writing the first draft that I find the hardest.

How do you research your books?The internet mostly! I’m a bit of a recluse and spend heaps of time online. So when I’m researching, it’s my go-to place for info. And the resources these days are incredible compared to years past. When researching real towns as settings I can “walk the streets” with google maps, or if I need firsthand experiences from professionals like doctors or police there are blogs and AMA threads. I’ve even watched videos of people having their dislocated shoulders being relocated, just to make sure I was writing it right!

What do you think most characterizes your writing?
What I like to write the most is unexpected twists, and I like to try and create stories that are unique. I like challenging expectations. Also some of my books are illustrated (by me!) which I think is a major part of my work.

Would you say that your books have any kind of underlying themes or messages, even if you didn't really intend there to be?
I try to include strong themes in all my stories. Memory’s Wake is about finding family, the meaning of identity, growing identities, self esteem and more. Emotionally Charged is about the responsibilities or exploitation of power and how appearances can be deceiving.

What is the biggest thing that people THINK they know about your subject/genre, that isn't so?
People assume a lot of things about the Young Adult genre, but I think pretty much any assumption is wrong because the YA genre is so incredibly broad. I’ve read YA books that cover almost every topic, genre, style, and issue.

What does your writing space look like?I have a writing and work computer on one side of the room, and my art desk on the other side, and a wall of books across between the two.

Do you have any words of advice for aspiring authors?Just keep (swimming) writing! Writing a book is daunting because it IS a lot of work, but just keep chipping away, and before you know it, you will be done!



Friday, 4 March 2016

5 Tips for World Building

My Advice for Aspiring Writers
First Friday of the Month

This time last year, I uploaded a video to my YouTube channel called 5 Tips for Writing Fantasy. I was shocked by the positive reception it received by aspiring writers, and I toyed with the idea of making similar videos for a while. Well, now I'm doing it.

As of today, Writing Tips will become a regular series, with new videos on the first Friday of every month. In five stages, I will tackle some of the problem areas that writers can face, offering my personal solutions and advice. This will be an interactive series that can involve you too, so if there are any topics you would like me to address in the videos, please let me know.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Show vs Tell: Speaking and Writing Stories

My Thoughts on All Things in the Creative World
Every Wednesday

The urge to tell stories, to create epic tales that explain and entertain, has been with us for thousands of years. It's instilled in us as human beings; we do it every single day without even realizing. Every word that comes out of our mouths has the potential to be transformed into something more, through the sheer power of imagination. Before the invention of the printing press or use of paper, or in societies where oral traditions reign, the emphasis on storytelling is so strong that it has helped to define us as a species.  Authors understand this form of communication so much that they surround themselves with words: they take the stories out of their minds and put it down on paper.

But is the paper route always the best, most foolproof way?

Last year I was given an amazing opportunity to work as a children's entertainer. I loved what I was doing: I enjoyed making them laugh, acting my crazy energetic self who simply refused to grow up. But while I was at it, completely by accident, I managed to rediscover a skill I'd neglected so much, I'd almost forgotten I had it. I told a story.

It's easy to argue I do that every day. "Emma, don't be silly! You're a writer!" But in that very sentence lies the key difference: I wasn't writing. I wasn't showing a story, with physical markings on bound sheets of paper. I was telling it, with nothing more than my own voice. It was a simple fairy tale that I'd grown up with, recited from memory. Before my stint was over, I was telling six of them, including a couple of originals I made up on the spot.

It was quite a shock to me that I managed to do that; usually it takes me at least one month to write a story, as well as the years I can spend researching it. But writing stories and telling stories are two completely different kettles of fish, and it requires different skills to pull them off. Writing allows you to be a bit more introverted, letting the story do a lot of work as you bounce it back and forth against yourself alone. There is a clear distinction of before and after: first you create the story, and then you release it to your audience. Telling, on the other hand, calls for more extroversion. You become the vessel for the story; you must engage and make eye contact with your audience constantly. You are not giving them a page - you are the page, and every word and hand gesture is what fires their imaginations.

So where does that sit with the author?

Just because the main focus may be on showing - i.e. writing - doesn't mean we can't also tell our stories. Many authors have done readings at one point or another. Even though we're reciting what we have already written, we also already have a good idea of what we are going to say and how it's going to come out of our mouths. We wrote every single one of those words, so they strike a few chords! We place emphasis on our audience: yes, they are listening to you, but you are also looking into their eyes, flourishing your hands, taking on characters' voices. The people look up at you, listening, with only your spoken word to go on, letting the story unfold.

That is when authors tell stories. And now I realize, after my initial surprise at still being able to do that with the children, it's not such a big leap to know your story so well that you don't only pre-empt it on the page, but also in your own mind. Yes, they are different skill sets, but they're still joined at the hip, so to speak. And I would encourage all authors, whenever they get the chance, to tell a story rather than show one. Don't just read from your own books; make something up out of the blue and see where it leads you. Watch the reactions of those who listen, and play off what they give you.

It's amazing how much going back to storytelling's roots can sharpen your own modern take on imagination.