Friday, August 11, 2017

New Beginnings!

I'm moving! Not me, but my blog. I've started a website that has some new things for me to explore and am in the process of moving my blog over there. Books & Barbells has a slightly wider focus than what Writing Adventures has had. I feel that writing is something that draws from a wide swath of life, and the study of writing is also a study of living.
There's still more than plenty books, stories, and writing adventures in the new site, and hopefully this adventure will turn out to be a fun one too.
Speaking of stories...

The Viking Story mentioned below has a name, 'Oath Bound'! The first four parts are up on my new site, and part five will be out this coming Wednesday. I'm really enjoying it and hope that you have as much fun reading it as I do writing it.

So come check out my new site, give me a follow, and let me know what
you think!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Book Review: J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century

One of my top ten favorite books is Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century. As I have mentioned elsewhere, Shippey followed in Tolkien’s footsteps in academia, teaching not only the same subjects, but also occupying the same positions. If you enjoy Tolkien, are a writer, are interested in storytelling, or love language, I encourage you to order this book, finish what you’re reading while it’s in the mail, and set aside an afternoon or weekend to read this book when it arrives.
Shippey is so thorough and organized that I cannot presume to review his book in anyway other than to follow the outline he himself used to plan it.
Shippey begins with a foreword. For all you impatient barbarians like myself who like to skip the foreword to get to the action, don’t. It’s good. Really. In the foreword, Shippey begins by establishing his claim that Tolkien is in fact, The Author of the Century. He examines the impact that fantasy has had on the twentieth century, particularly from the pens of what he calls “traumatized authors”, that is authors who were impacted by the World Wars and the surrounding violence of the Twentieth Century in a deeply personal way.  Speaking of Tolkien in the company of Orwell, Golding, and Vonnegut, Shippey writes
“Those authors of the twentieth century who have spoken most powerfully to and for their contemporaries have for some reason found it necessary to use the metaphoric mode of fantasy, to write about worlds and creatures which we know do not exist…”
Shippey goes on to defend fantasy as not only a valid literary genre, but as a valuable tool that Twentieth Century writers used to communicate about and come to grips with the world they saw around them.
In the first of the books six chapters, Shippey explores The Hobbit. He looks at the beginnings of Tolkien’s use of words and names as suggestions of stories, for Tolkien did not merely translate or gloss over the materials he read. He studied them, contemplated them, and tried to make sense of them. Why, for instance, is the name ‘Gandalf’ in a list of dwarf names? The second part of the name means ‘elf’, the first could mean ‘staff’. So, what was a ‘staff-elf’, and what was he doing with a bunch of dwarves?
Shippey looks at how questions like this helped to shape many of Tolkien’s inventions as he attempted to harmonize the old stories. However, Shippey points out that Tolkien was not merely intent on harmonizing the old stories with each other, but with today. Bilbo, living in a shire with grocers and butchers and regular mail, moves in a very different world than Thorin and the dwarves who live in the mountains, are never without weapons, and speak of revenge upon an ancient dragon, and Shippey shows how, though both speak different words and at times focus on different things, they are surprisingly similar.
Shippey’s second chapter focuses on the way Tolkien took inspiration from old stories and poems as he mapped out a plot for LOTR. The best section in the chapter, and the one that taught me most about writing, is fourteen pages on The Council of Elrond. Shippey breaks down the turning point of the series, when it completes its transformation from a childhood lark akin to The Hobbit to a heroic epic. “The chapter…breaks…most of the rules which might be given to an apprentice writer” Shippey writes, “…though it is fifteen thousand words long, in it nothing happens: it consists entirely of people talking…it has an unusual number of speakers present (twelve) the majority of them (seven) unknown to the reader and appearing for the first time. Just to make things more difficult, the longest speech, which takes up close on half the total, contains direct quotation from seven more speakers, or writers, all of them apart from Butterbur and Gaffer Gamgee new to the story, and some of them (Saruman, Denethor) to be extremely important to it later on.” The Council of Elrond is a committee meeting, and it could easily have become one of the most boring sections in modern literature. Shippey examines, in detail, how Tolkien uses narrative structure and linguistic trends to keep interest and show story. The jockeying between Boromir and Aragorn for example lays the groundwork for the end of the book and the end of the series, while Gloin speaks in very different ways from Gandalf, who speaks differently from Boromir.
Shippey’s explanation of how these verbal cues work and how Tolkien uses them is fascinating and demonstrates one of Shippey’s great strength: He is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his craft that his writing is enjoyable and instructive. Like the committee meeting it dissects, this chapter could easily devolve into a dry dissection of syntax and word order, but Shippey’s explanations of what is communicated and how that occurs makes this easily one of the most important passage in my writing development.
In chapters 3 & 4, ‘Concepts of Evil’ and ‘The Mythic Dimension’, Shippey examines how Tolkien built the themes of heroism and despair, good and evil, and wisdom and rationalism into his story. The wonderful thing about these chapters is that it is not just an exploration of Tolkien’s writing, but an exploration of what lay behind what Tolkien wrote and how it influenced him. From the pacifism of T.H. White during World War II to the conflicts between Boethian and Manichean explanations of evil and how they shaped Tolkien’s conception of the ring wraiths. The holistic approach is highly instructive and shines a light on just how much detail and study Tolkien had gathered over his life time.
In Chapter 5, Shippey seeks to provide something of a guide to reading The Silmarillion, and if you have ever attempted the Silmarillion and been lost among the names and histories, this is the section for you. Any one of the stories contained within the epic are worthy of great praise, from Turin’s battle with fate, to Gondolin’s desperate search for security, to the valiant love story of Beren and Luthien each one tells tales of the struggles and trials mankind has endured and caused since the first stories were told. The way in which Tolkien brings them together, each enlightening and building on the others, is truly astounding and worthy of greater recognition. Shippey helps clear some of the fog that the vastness creates, and explores how Tolkien used his epic work to provide narrative depth to his works.
The explanation of narrative depth was exceedingly instructive for me as I tried to develop my own writing. A story that shows only those people and places who play a main role can seem shallow, or two dimensional. Tolkien’s constant use of names, asides, and casual references serves to create in the reader the impression that they are passing through a small part of a wide, wide world rather than a narrow path lined with card board cutouts. In Middle Earth, there is always another story beyond that forest, under those mountains, or across that river.
In Chapter 6, Shippey explores Tolkien’s shorter works; Leaf by Niggle, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Smith of Wootan Major. Shippey’s commentary on these works is made all the more valuable by the shared knowledge that he has with Tolkien. Since they taught many of the same works and served in many of the same university departments, Shippey understands not only many of the ancient references but also many of the private jokes that Tolkien included in his shorter works. Farmer Giles of Ham was written shortly after Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings, and is a light-hearted tale. In contrast, Leaf by Niggle and The Smith of Wootan Major were written towards the end of his life. Leaf is in many ways a self-critique, and an expression of Tolkien’s misgivings about how much he had accomplished through his life. The Smith is, to me, one of the saddest stories I have ever read, for given the time of its composition, it seems almost to be Tolkien’s farewell to Faerie Land and the stories in which he had spent so much of his life. Shippey’s explanation and excavation of these stories adds so much to their reading, for Tolkien filled them with asides and references to old stories, tiny translation problems with ancient texts, and private jokes that few of us have found the time or expertise to discover.
From Pinterest
The Afterward, (yes, you should read that too), is a final conclusion to many of Shippey’s arguments about Tolkien’s relevance as an author, his skill as an author, and his wisdom as a professor. In doing so he attempts to answer many of the criticisms of Tolkien from his more eloquent critics, and in the process, demonstrates that the point of contention comes less from their objection to The Lord of The Rings. Rather, much of the distaste stems from a deep disagreement about the fundamental truths that underpin Tolkien’s writings. Professors and critics who have spent their lives preaching pacifism, denying the existence of real evil, and ‘seeing through’ any reasons for hope find Tolkien’s work in violation of everything they have fought against and thus must denounce it. Shippey finishes with a brief look at the impact Professor Tolkien has had on his successors in fantasy, and imagines how the pipe wielding philologist might smile at what he started.

You can find Shippey's book here on Amazon. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 
If you're not following me on Facebook,  head over to my page and check it out. I'm getting ready to announce my next story series here on this blog and you don't want to miss it!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


The results of the poll are in, and the Viking was the narrow winner. Thank you so much to everybody who voted, and if you were hoping for one of the other characters, fear not! There will be more stories forthcoming. Lots of ideas with dragons, Romans, Celts, and magic forests have been carefully filed away to be ready for use in the very near future.

I'm in the process of picking out the specifics of what the story will revolve around, I've got a couple of ideas that I'm trying to pin down and see how they fit together.

One of the things that I want to do with my writing is make it a story that the people it's about would recognize and feel familiar with. I want to make a 'Viking story' instead of a story about Vikings. I want the feel of the story to fit the beliefs, superstitions, and views of the vikings themselves. The next few days will be full of research and plotting (MUAHAHA) and hopefully I'll have a mostly formed idea I can tell you all about this weekend, or soon thereafter.
If there's any specific ideas or thoughts you've got, or something specific you'd like to see, let me know in the comments. Can't wait to get this story started!

Friday, March 10, 2017

March Author Spotlight: Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper is the author of The Dark is Rising series, a combination of time travel, alternate worlds, historical creatures, and one of the deepest worlds I've ever seen. For me, Cooper's draw focuses around her ability to evoke a sense of time, place, and history as she draws in characters ancient by the time the stories take place.
Her most famous series consists of five books, Over Sea, Under Stone, followed by The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree. The series' title book, Dark is Rising was made into a terrible movie made watchable only by Christopher Eccleston's performance as the Rider.

I'm ashamed to say that I've only read The Dark is Rising series and haven't yet had time to get to her other works, but hopefully that will change in the near future.
Like Sutcliffe, Cooper's prose is incredibly tight and readable as well as vivid. Her stories range from the camp of Arthur prior to his last battle, to the hills of Wales, to forests on other worlds and each has its own unique sense of time and place.
One of my pet peeves is reading a story that leaves  locals half finished and feels like it speeds through things, leaving days half finished or shortened. Cooper's stories don't do that.
Herne leads the Wild Hunt

The "Old Ones", Cooper's heroes are able to walk through time in their battle with the Dark (personified in the Rider, though he is by no means their only enemy), and it is perhaps the most perfect use of time travel I have ever seen. It is used sparingly, yet still fits seamlessly into the narrative as the Old Ones essentially use it as a fourth dimension in their fight.
As wonderful as Cooper is with it all, I still think my favorite part is how she pulls in ancient characters like Herne (pictured), the Greenwitch, the Grey King, Arthur, and others. Like Tolkien's works, Cooper's stories make me want to go learn more about these legends (Herne is now one of my favorites of all time).

Additionally, there are a couple of other interesting things about Cooper's work that struck me as I was working on the Tolkien series. First, Cooper's evil, while it is unquestionably evil, doesn't wear it's evil on its sleeve. The Rider makes appearances as a friendly jeweler or business man, a theme of evil hiding it's nature under a fair cloak that Cooper continues through the series. It is also worth paying attention to how humans both assist and resist the Dark through their every day actions even as they remain ignorant of the struggle taking place. There are not a lot of obvious, epic clashes, as most of the conflicts are played out in quiet struggles that serve to emphasize the way that every character can influence the outcome.

Cooper is one of my favorite writers, check her stuff out (ignore the movie, please) and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Let me know some of your favorite writers in the comments, maybe I'll do a spotlight on them in the coming months.

One last note, I'm currently getting ready to try something new: A story told here, on this blog, just for you. And since it's for you, I'd like you to let me know what kind of story you'd like to see. It will be a fun exercise for me, a chance to show you a little of the process that goes into how I write, and hopefully I can give you a story you'll enjoy at the same time. Just go to this survey, and let me know what kind of protagonist you'd like to read about, and then don't forget to follow my page on facebook so you can see all the updates I post on the project as I prepare to put the first installment on this blog.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

New Story Idea

Over the last couple of months, I've been working on just one or two projects and I'm ready to try something new. I've got a couple of ideas, but I'd like to hear from you.
I've put together a very short poll here, so you can pick what kind of protagonist you'd like to read about as well as give me some more feedback on what you'd like.
If you've got more input, feel free to comment here, or follow my page on Facebook, where I'll be posting updates on the project and sharing some of my thoughts as I start work. The story will be posted here weekly in short installments, so it will be a good exercise in consistency for me. I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes.
Can't wait to hear from you all!

Take the Poll here!
Check out my Facebook Page here!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Why I was an English Major

My freshman year at Texas A&M, I arrived about a week before the start of classes with about six hundred other young students. My long-term goal was to be a lawyer, but my short term goal was to make it through freshman year in the famous A&M Corps of Cadets. I was in the Corps because I wanted to learn leadership, and I was an English major because I wanted to be a better writer. Before long, the two merged.

Writing can be taught in almost any subject. The best professors I sat under would return my papers overflowing with carefully explained, well defined corrections. My leadership classes assigned fiction books and had us watch movies like ‘Moneyball’, where I got the chance to not only read great books, but learn from them as well.

Meanwhile, my English classes seemed desperate to make themselves meaningless.

When we weren’t analyzing the minutia of a play about people with more money and time than they knew what to do with, we had to ‘deconstruct’ the ‘artificial constructs’ of good and evil, day and night, man and woman, to show that these distinctions were merely created by words. Professors taught us that every book must be examined apart from its author as a living text. We bring our own interpretations to these stories, I was told, and we cannot allow knowledge of the author to contaminate our experience.

However, early in my junior year I took a Chaucer class taught by Dr. Brett Mize. We read The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde and spent a lot of time unpacking what Chaucer was trying to say in each work. And there is a lot. Chaucer was a genius and, properly taught, his writings are hilarious, insightful, and instructive.

I enjoyed the class so much I signed up for whatever classes by Dr. Mize were available, along with others on King Arthur and Shakespeare. Classes on books like Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory claimed to offer some commentary on the world, to pass on wisdom the authors gained through their lives. Mallory and Chaucer were very similar, they saw aspects of their culture that they liked, some they did not, and wrote praise and warnings, respectively. They both believed that the evils they faced were correctable, if not defeatable, and believed that by writing about them, they could have an impact on their readers.

However, when Dr. Mize began our class on Beowulf, I was blown away. It functions a lot like the old cartoons, like Animaniacs, except with leadership and wisdom lessons instead of humor. There are lots of asides to the tune of ‘do this, so when you’re older you’ll have good friends’ directed at younger audiences, but there are also deep messages on wisdom that I don’t doubt the older men debated among themselves.

Take for instance the juxtaposition of Hrothgar and Beowulf throughout the poem. As Dr. Mize pointed out, both have early successes, both become king largely as a result of their martial prowess, both face terrifying monsters in their old age, and the death of both results in the swift destruction of the kingdom they preserved.

The difference lies in how each responds to the terrifying monster; Hrothgar realizes he can’t win, so he waits until a hero arrives to defeat the beast and then rules Hrothgar for several more years before his death. Beowulf, in contrast, goes out to fight the dragon, is abandoned by all but one of his men, and dies even as he slays the dragon. He thus frees his people from the curse of the dragon but dooms them to be destroyed by the enemies he has held at bay.

Dr. Mize presided over several heated discussions on what was the proper course. There are a lot of different things to consider, the fact that we don’t know of anyone of young Beowulf’s caliber who could have come to his aid, as he did to Hrothgar’s. Would the dragon have continued attacking or gone back to sleep after burning a village? Beowulf is clearly aging toward the end of the poem, how much longer could he have protected his people if even if he had survived the dragon?

Much like some of the discussion exercises I participated in for World View courses, the answer for this specific scenario is less important than the values being discussed. How much does pride or timidity play into our decisions? Do we think far enough ahead about the unintended consequences of our actions? How do we set ourselves up for success in the future by how we build relationships with others? All of these are as important today in our modern world as they were for the ancients.

Unlike today, with the myriad of theories and explanations about why literature is meaningless, or what the green light in Gastby means, the purpose and message of ancient tales was clear. Stories were told to exemplify proper behavior and to teach wisdom. Poems like Beowulf were the original YA fiction, told in halls and around fires to young men and women to teach them not only how they should act, but just as importantly, why. They allowed wisdom and experiences to be passed from generation to generation so that as the old men and women passed away, the lessons they had learned would not die with them but would be passed on, hopefully saving their children from their mistakes and providing some guidance for the difficult decisions of life.

That is the true purpose of not just all fiction, but especially YA fiction. Young people growing into adulthood are becoming aware of the complexities and challenges of the world from which they were sheltered when they were children. Fiction allows us to learn by experience, without the pain of actual experience. It allows us to interact with those older and wiser even if they lived centuries in the past.