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K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Category: Resources

Sometimes A Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Happy New Year! It must be time for me to post on my blog.

What I Did with My Winter Holidays

First, why do I hardly ever post? It’s not just “time,” because, let’s face it, we make the time for the things that we want to make the time for. I was telling folks in class today, I had “Watch Netflix” on my to-do list over the break, and as a result, I didn’t even, because putting it on a to-do list made it into work. (Hey Matt, the one thing I did watch was In Bruges, though! Thanks for the tip.)

Instead, I played video games and read books. I mostly only play one game. Final Fantasy VII. I played it when it came out in 1997, and I am too old to learn anything new, and I don’t really play games enough to justify buying anything else anyway. Plus, though I do have the original game and console somewhere in my basement, there’s an iPad port, and I always have the ol’ iPad with me.

There was absolutely no good reason for me to spend my precious leisure time playing Final Fantasy. This was just absolutely classic procrastination, with a strong hint of dopamine. I mean, sometimes it seems you are just SO CLOSE to earning a W-Summon in the Battle Arena, but then it takes another five hours for some reason. But to compensate for this phenomenal waste of time while pretending to be a little cartoon dude wielding a sword bigger than he is, I also spent some time reading a Very Serious Book which has itself been influential on storytelling in, among other things, games: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Hero’s Journey

Oh, yes. I have been trying to read this book on and off for years, as I find it a bit of a slog. I’ve made better progress this time around, but I’m still only maybe a third of the way through, and man, I sort of want to punch him, except that he is dead and also may have been a nice man.

You can’t study screenwriting (or novel writing or game writing or comic writing or whatever) without hearing about The Hero’s Journey, ever since Christopher Vogler’s influential book on the subject in 1998. Vogler, who was a story editor at Disney, based his book on Campbell’s theory, applying it to story structure for screenwriting.

Campbell basically says that stories from around the world follow the same patterns, and then elaborates on those patterns. Which I’m willing to go with him on, because saying that you should recognize pattern in storytelling is kind of another way of saying that you should read a lot and learn from what’s successful in what you read (or consume in other media, too, but no matter what medium you want to write for, if you want to write, you need to read).

Vogler acknowledges the problem of the inherent maleness of the “hero” in the narrative journey, and the model he presents is flexible enough that the gendered nature of the journey didn’t seem like a big stumbling block to me when I read him. Not ideal, but it was something you could take and mess about with.

But now I’m reading Campbell, the legendary man himself. I’m paraphrasing here, but he says stuff like the hero needs to get past competing with the father in order to become “master of the world,” but that, if the character in the story is a woman, she has to similarly get past competing with the mother to become “the world that is mastered.” If I’m reading that right, he’s saying that the woman is the prize. People who defend this kind of thing will go all “you’re not meant to take it literally,” but if you’ve been paying attention you should know by now that language and symbols and stories matter and change the way that we see ourselves. (See Rebecca Solnit’s as-usual-excellent recent essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” )

The best part of the Campbell book for me, so far, is all the examples of stories from around the world, which he cites at length– the comparative mythology part. But he pulls the whole comparison through the filter of psychoanalysis (the book is from 1949), relying heavily on the traditional family as the be-all and end-all of human existence and leaving no room for anything other than a straight, male, cisgender hero.

Much more can, and has been, said about this, not by me. In Vogler’s nod to the topic alone, he cites a number of feminist takes on the hero’s journey. But my frustration with Campbell so far has just been one of those moments for me, you know, when you go WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE, IF THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN CONSCIOUSLY BASING HOLLYWOOD MOVIES ON THEN NO WONDER!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIDN’T YOU NOTICE?????? DON’T YOU CARE????

Sometimes a Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Which naturally brings me to Star Wars. George Lucas famously used Campbell in crafting the original series. A good article in the New Statesman the other day cited Campbell in a less than flattering way while discussing the seeming rise in female heroes lately (Rey, Furiosa, Jessica Jones). Let’s hope this rise is not a blip, because we’ve been here before. Thelma and Louise (1991) was supposed to usher in a whole new era. Did it? And that’s just at the edge of my adult memory – I’m suspecting there were moments like it before.

I’m a Buffy gal from way back. Reading Campbell has given me a new tingle of appreciation for a certain last-season episode in which Buffy gets transported back in time, to a mythic time, to meet the men who created the first Slayer, so they can basically give her a power boost for the final battle against evil. Thing is, it turns out that what they did to create the Slayer, and what they want to do to her again, is kidnap her, chain her to a rock, and force a demon on her to imbue her with demonic essence. Buffy says, no way, old dudes, I’ll find some other way to fight evil, and kicks their asses.

At the end of the series, of course, Buffy figures out how to fight evil by sharing her superpowers with others—she rejects the whole lone hero thing. My point? This mythic structure stuff can totally be messed with in a satisfying way. Buffy’s heroism still follows the pattern – descent to the underworld, fighting both inner and outer demons, encountering shape shifters, guidance from a wise mentor, death and resurrection, using her powers to change the “regular” world, check, check, check, check! Even her sharing of her superpowers fits the “return with the elixir” stage of the journey – the elixir being, in this case, heroism itself, which is the real twist on the structure.

Anyhoo. Enough Buffy talk. A casual glance at current Star Wars fan chatter does reveal some people commenting on how the essence of the Kylo/Rey conflict is potentially very gendered – not just, hey, a female hero! But, hey, a different manner of heroism! I’m not totally getting that yet, since there’s an awful lot of emphasis on daddies and light sabres. There was some interesting sexual subtext in the mind reading scene, though. (I’ll be murdered for likely misquoting, but is the line something like, “You know I can take from you anything I want?”)

It’s Late and I’m Tired Now

I also wanted to talk about Outlander and Game of Thrones. See, now I have something for next time. All part of the plan.

Back full circle: why I don’t much like blogging, and don’t do it often. Clearly, one reason is that I haven’t mastered the form. I’ve now been noodling about this topic for three hours (nearly four hours after a couple quick read-overs) and am at about 1400 words.

Also: I really put off making known my circuitous thoughts, because I feel like there’s no point in saying anything unless I’ve done a cartload of academic research to back up what I am talking about. Or at least, you know, finish the darn book before I shoot my mouth off about it. I’ve just committed all sorts of sins, not only in potentially misquoting Star Wars, but in, say, making sweeping generalizations about psychoanalysis without ever having studied it.

I’m basically reluctant to commit my informal noodlings to publication. I think I just have to get over this, because, heck, at least I’ve written something, and maybe someday with time and motivation aplenty, and after having finally achieved that W-Summon in the Battle Arena, I’ll take up Buffy scholarship and feminist comparative mythology and write an awesome paper.

But not today, and not on a blog.

Interview with Anita Daher

I interviewed Anita Daher, today’s CreComm guest speaker and Winnipeg writer extraordinaire, by email just before classes started–but decided to save it for when she arrived to speak about her extensive experience as a children’s writer. Note carefully her point about grammar and how editors roll their eyes!

1. What’s the fastest you’ve ever written a book (Describe – how fast, how many words in the end?)

Earlier on in my writing career I wrote much more quickly than I do now, however the fasted by far was Two Foot Punch. Because of an incorrect file transfer and a crashed hard drive I no longer have my draft manuscripts, so I can’t give you an exact word count. It wasn’t a long book—probably around 42,000 words. With an ok from my editor I began writing it in May of 2007. With great relief, I handed it in before my end-of-June deadline…only to be asked if I could rewrite the book from 3rd person to 1st person. I did, and still made the print deadline of August. It was published in October.

2. Your #1 top book recommendation for someone who wants to write for young readers.

Just one? Can’t do it! We all learn from reading others, and so I recommend we read books from other authors, particularly authors we admire, particularly authors who are writing in the genre we are most interested in. Beyond this, I must make three recommendations:

General reference: How to Write a Children’s Book and Get it Published, by Barbara Seuling. The material is well presented, touches on picture books, novels, and non-fiction, and offers guidance on query letters and submission packages.

General skills: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. This book is meant for any writer, fiction or non-fiction, and offers terrific guidance on pacing, dialogue and originality.

From the department of “too often neglected”: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty. This guide developed over time from the author’s web site, and is a quick and easy read—enjoyable, even. Too often we let our basic grammar skills slide, or maybe there are areas we were never 100% sure about to begin with. Make a few pages bedtime reading, and increase chances for publication. Stupid mistakes can cause editors to roll eyes, and we want to avoid that whenever possible.

3. You’ve become a horse person. What is so compelling for you about horses?

I love spending time with horses. They are reactive animals, which means when I am with my horse I need to have my mind completely on him so that I don’t miss subtle body language telling me that he is nervous about a scary bush, or annoyed (though my boy is rarely annoyed), or distracted in a way he might step on me. If my mind is completely on him, it is completely off the 24,000 other things going on in my life on any given day. It’s like a vacation. Also, I’ve learned contrary to what I thought when I was a teen, there is a lot more to riding than hopping on and saying “go.” It’s been a rush taking lessons (at my advancing age), and training my body to work all parts together in order to communicate well for a better riding experience.

4. What is your favourite brand and flavour of potato chip, and why?

Oooh…love hate relationship. I love potato chips, and I hate it that I love them. Right now I’d love to hate myself for snacking on (with love) Dutch Crunch kettle Cooked Jalapeño and Cheddar chips. Each one is an experience: loud, and bites back.




Writer-in-Residence David Elias

David Elias will join us at Red River College Princess Street as Writer-in-Residence from November 8 to December 10. He will be available to read and comment on students’ creative writing.


David Elias

David Elias


David is the author of four books of fiction. His work has been nominated for a number of awards, including The Books In Canada First Novel Award for Sunday Afternoon and The Journey Prize for his short story, “How I Crossed Over.” His short stories and poetry have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies across the country, and in addition to writing he spends time as an editor, writer-in-residence, mentor and creative writing instructor.

A veteran mentor of the Gemini Retreat program, David’s guidance has received rave reviews from past students. His services as Writer-in-Residence are open to students in all programs, whether they are working on major creative writing projects, class creative writing assignments, or extracurricular creative writing.

David will comment on poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction manuscripts. Students interested in submitting their work to the Writer-in-Residence should follow the guidelines below.

A welcome reception will be held on Tuesday, November 9: more information to follow.

Submission Guidelines

If you’re interested in submitting material for David to consider, please follow these guidelines.

    It should be typed and double-spaced on white 8-1/2 x 11 paper. Include your last name and page number at the top of each page. 

    Maximum length: 15 pages, or one chapter of a novel, or up to six poems.

    Limit of one manuscript per person.

    Please send a copy and retain your original manuscript.

    Include a cover page with a few words about your writing. Include your name and email.

Manuscripts can be dropped off to David’s mail slot in W-302, or sent by email to David will contact you to make an appointment to discuss your work.

My So-Called Second Life

I’ve been on Second Life, but I don’t completely get it yet. I mean, I get the potential, but I haven’t had an ah-ha moment. And I understand why I haven’t. I don’t know anyone there. Like a really, really elaborate social networking platform, SL has pretty much no point if you don’t interact with people.

Here’s my avatar:

Image of Karen's avatar

"Karen" lounging in The Story Mountain Center for Writers. Maybe we can hold the Gemini Retreat here.

My avatar is lame for several reasons. First, I went and named her “Karen.” Second, I tried to make her look like me, only to discover that you have to be skinny in SL or the clothes don’t fit you properly. Third, she is, in this screen cap, trying to read a cup of coffee, because I couldn’t figure out how to make her hold a cup of coffee while also reading a book.

I became interested in SL at a conference on Technology and the Arts a few years ago, where I was introduced to the Cedar Island virtual community. On Cedar Island, a benevolent 3D developer lets out his land for free via a competition for research, artistic, or educational SL projects. (To build your own customized space in SL, you need to buy virtual land.)

The conference presentation featured an SL panel discussion with artists from around the world, during which time the pianist in Italy played for us, streaming live from his studio, while his avatar played away on a custom-made virtual piano. He sometimes played whole concerts this way, advertised in the SL media–but taking real money at the end selling his music online.

I’m only starting to explore the resources and communities for writers. The Story Mountain Center for Writers (it’s American, that’s why the spelling), pictured above, is just one of them.

All sorts of educational institutions have embraced SL, both for promoting their programs and for teaching. The Linden Labs site features several case studies, one of which is Ontario’s Loyalist College.

In general though, SL hasn’t taken off in Canada the way it has in the States and elsewhere. The vast majority of my students had never heard of it before. Does anyone know why?

Writers-in-residence are your friends

… and mine.

Every so often I get someone, maybe a student, maybe a friend of a friend, maybe just someone who found me on the internet, write to me asking: Please, please, can you read my manuscript?

Photo of Maurice Mierau

Your friendly neighbourhood writer-in-residence, Maurice Mierau.

The answer is, usually, no. Obviously, if I’m your supervisor, I’ll read it. But reading and commenting on manuscripts takes a lot of time and effort, if you want to do anything like a good job. There was a time when I did a bit of work reading manuscripts as a freelancer. If you’re working for a publisher you make peanuts reading manuscripts (the “gatekeepers” are the lowest of the low–interns, assistants), but I did research back then on what professional, private manuscript reading services for writers were charging.

The answer: usually a hefty minimum charge (like $200 to $300) plus something in the area of $2 per page, for which you’d get a multiple-page report. So a 200-page manuscript? $600 please. Of course you’ll find people doing it for less, but a service specializing in this does not come cheap.

This brings me to the point of this post–that you should make friends with your local writers-in-residence. These are writers, with good writerly credentials, hired by institutions like libraries, universities, colleges, and sometimes bookstores–I’ve even heard of a hotel doing it–to read manuscripts. Usually, anybody’s manuscript.

Right now at the Winnipeg Public Library, Maurice Mierau (who has published both poetry and non-fiction books, and is a fiction editor for a local publisher) will read your manuscript and tell you what he thinks. He’s a great guy. He’s your friend. So, if you need another opinion on that IPP project, or the novel sitting in your drawer, what are you waiting for?