Now Hear This – “Spread the Love!”

I knew that there was no way I could go without writing this year. I did not care how much schoolwork I had, how long my classes were, or how little time I had to socialize. I knew that I needed to write. The problem was: how could I fit my writing in with the rest of my schedule? After all, I had essays to write and two jobs to work. It was hardly likely that I would have very much time, or even motivation, to develop my own creative writing.

And then something occurred to me. I had been talking to other people in my program who happened to like creative writing as well. I had been in a creative writing group at my high school, and even been the head of it in my graduating year. As it turned out, a lot of these people had too. We had agreed to swap work, but once the school year started there was simply no time to read what other people had written.

That’s when the divine thunderclap whacked me upside the head: we needed a writers’ group at my college. We needed a place where, once every couple of weeks, people could shut down their computers, drop their textbooks, and taken an hour or so to share inspiration and work. I posed the idea to a guy who had actually founded a writing group in his high school, and together we spread awareness of the new group.

A good few people came to our first meeting, and we listened as a girl read her poetry. We gave her some feedback and talked about our influences as writers. The next week we gathered around a tree outside, thinking up ideas for a mutual project we could do as a club. I thought that we could each develop a character around a phobia, and everyone else agreed that it seemed like a fine idea. I randomly distributed phobias, one per person, and the next week we got together and shared the characters we had developed from the phobias.

It was an amazing experience. Each person had created a character that was completely unexpected. The phobias were rooted in completely contrasting backgrounds to what one might have thought, and they drove the characters’ lives in wild and impossible ways. We felt like we really knew these characters, hearing their authors describe them in great depth and detail. We even joked about how we could get all of these characters to meet. The joke turned into a project, and now we are working on putting them together somehow.

So what’s my advice of the week? Join a writing group. If you are already in one, power to you. A group is a wonderful place to get motivated, get feedback, and get inspiration from other writers your age. They will bring worlds of different experiences to the group, and that variety will show in your writing. All types of people coming together to create something special is how writing can be both a solitary and a social pursuit, and one well worth pursuing.

Now Hear This – “Music hath Charms to Soothe a Savage Case of Writer’s Block”

The blank page has this way of mocking you without being overtly offensive. The winking cursor or the wan blue lines gaze at you with an expectation that you know you can’t fulfill. Or can you? In my extensive years as a young writer, I have figured out a few ways to fill the aimless void of a blank page, and the most effective way I have found so far is listening to music.

Because I seem to be writing a series of get-inspired blogs, I’ll let you in on a little secret about songs: they contain stories. They contain people, lives, and action. All you really have to do is unlock whatever comes to you from any given series of notes. The great thing is that there’s no right or wrong interpretation of a song; you can take or leave whatever you want. You can focus on building a character, or you can focus on building a scene. The choice is yours.

Back in the olden days, when Descartes roamed the earth, there was a theory floating around called “the doctrine of the affections.” It was all about how composers could make the audience feel different emotions through their music. At the time people believed that your ears and nerves connected to your emotions, so when your ears heard fast notes, your nerves transferred energy into emotions like joy or anger. In the Romantic era, music became more about the composer’s self-expression instead of being entirely about the emotions of the listener, but nowadays music is written to work both ways.

Ask a friend to send you a love song you’ve never heard before, or open up your music library and select a song randomly. As the notes come pouring forth, think about the mood or the feeling the music gives you. You can write about how the music makes you feel. You can spin a character from a song’s lyrics. You can create a story from its atmosphere. You can do any combination of the above, plus anything else. There’s no one way to gain inspiration, so you can start with whatever you want.

I frequently use music to help develop characters or worlds. The other day, for instance, I was trying to base a character off a particular characteristic, a fear. The problem was that I only had that one element of the character, with no idea where to go next. So I took out my trusty iTunes and hit ‘shuffle’.  With each new song, I wrote a different little paragraph, based on the mood of the songs. After a few songs, I realized that the character had come crawling out of the notes. It was beautiful.

So give it a spin. The musicians were inspired, and the music can inspire you.  Try an online radio, like Grooveshark, which will play a list of randomized songs based on your selected musical genre. Then just let the music take you from there.

Now Hear This – “The Tears and Joys of NaNoWriMo”

We have now reached week four of National Novel Writing Month, which, if you didn’t catch Dianna’s post, is the mystical month of November in which people attempt to write fifty thousand-word novels. This post is about my own experiences with NaNoWriMo.

2011 is my fourth year attempting NaNoWrimo, but my first year attempting it in earnest. I have started past years with only a vague idea of what I wanted to write about, which of course led me to a complete lack of motivation and planning. Needless to say, I did not win those years. I started to develop some wonderful stories, but somewhere along the way I lost the drive and the knowledge of where I wanted my plot and characters to go. I always start with these wonderfully exciting ideas, but after I work with them for a while the excitement tends to peter out and die. This is naturally one of a writer’s most common ailments.

Last year, I set my expectations a little lower and participated in the Young Writers’ Program. This one was a little more my speed; instead of having to write fifty thousand words, you get the opportunity to set your own word-count goal. I decided on a safe thirty thousand – not excruciatingly long like fifty thousand, but not too short. That year I also spent more time planning where I wanted my novel to go. Because I’d adjusted my goal according to my ability and prepared myself better, I felt a lot more confident about tackling the project, and I ended up hitting my goal by the end of the month. I had tasted my first NaNoWriMo triumph.

The problem with last year was that I had a great start on thirty thousand words, but I only ended up with a third of the actual novel storyline finished. This year I signed up for the regular NaNoWriMo again, and inspired by my previous success, ploughed through the first week at full speed. I planned as I went, and my characters surprised me in wonderful ways. I hit fifty thousand words at the mark of nine days. It was an exhausting sprint, but I hit my word-count goal.

So why am I writing this post? Like last year, hitting my goal did not guarantee the end of the novel. I am still unwinding my story, and I doubt it will be finished before eighty or ninety thousand words. I know I have it in me to finish it up, but I seem to have hit a wall and only written a measly eight thousand words in the past couple of weeks. I have not, however, given up hope for my novel. If I wrote fifty thousand words in nine days, I know I can finish in the time I have left.

Who else wants to take the challenge? There are still plenty more days left in the month, and it is never too late to sign up for NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo website: http://www.nanowrimo.org/

Young Writers Program: http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/

Now Hear This – “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are…?”

Two friends ask each other questions, neither able to find answers. Two characters, lost in their own story. Two men, doomed from the start.

Imagine being a background character in a play: no one takes notice of you; you disappear for most of the story, marking your entrances and exits calmly, but no one misses you when you’re not around. Maybe this is liberating; maybe it’s lonely.  The one certain thing is that you have little choice about what you do. When you’re called onstage, that’s when you come. When you’re propelled offstage…well, that’s when things get interesting.

This is the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, secondary characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, written by Tom Stoppard,tells the story of Denmark’s prince from their point of view. Just to recap the classic, Hamlet gets upset because his uncle Claudius killed his dad and married his mom, making for some great family dinners. Hamlet starts to act like he has gone insane so he can buy more time to get revenge on Claudius. Claudius, worried about his nephew’s behaviour, summons two of the young prince’s childhood friends to see if they can find out what’s wrong. And who might these friends be? Why, none other than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The play starts off showing Rosy and Guild on their way to Elsinore, which is where the royal family lives. They’re completely bewildered, though, because the laws of chance seem to be playing tricks on them: they keep flipping coins, and the coins keep landing on heads.  Upon their arrival at Elsinore, Claudius tasks them with finding Hamlet and getting him to spill the beans about what’s wrong. They try asking Hamlet questions, but his answers just confuse them more. They are shunted from scene to scene, never certain of their purpose or their place in the play. They are left by the wayside, nothing more than pawns.

During the course of the play, our heroes encounter a troupe of tragedians who have been through this whole shebang before, and know what’s coming around every corner, including the deaths of our Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The two friends, however, remain completely oblivious to their impending fate. This is the tragedy of the characters: they have only a marginal importance to the larger plot of Hamlet, and no one cares if they understand what’s happening or whether they live or die.

The play is sad yet funny; all too bitterly relevant to everyone’s quest for meaning and purpose.  The characters’ search for answers almost always ends with the thirst unquenched, but perhaps that’s the beauty of trying.

Now Hear This – “Chek(ov) Please!”

“Do you know who this is?” My professor held up a picture: it was of a man in a suit, rather handsome, with sleek hair, a neat moustache, and the beginnings of a hearty beard. His dark eyes stared out through the sepia veil of time, over a hundred years separating the man in the picture from the students craning their necks to see him.  “This,” said my professor, “is the coolest guy in literature.”

That “coolest guy in literature” was one Anton Chekhov. You may have heard of him; he’s a famous Russian playwright and short story writer. If you haven’t heard the name, perhaps you’ve heard of a few of the plays. Among his most famous are The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya. Now, even if you haven’t heard of him, I’ll present a brief biography to show you just how cool he was.

Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 in a place called Taganrog, which is in Russia.  Chekhov’s childhood was not a happy one by any account, and when the rest of his family moved to Moscow after his father went bankrupt, young Anton was left in Taganrog to fend for himself and finish school. Though he was a teenager left on his own, Anton made things work. He pulled himself through medical school while writing hundreds of short stories for a magazine, and when he joined his family in Moscow, he became the family boss and number one bacon-bringer.  Not too shabby for a young man.

But his high-powered lifestyle couldn’t last forever. Through all his writing and doctoring, Anton became chronically ill with tuberculosis. Until the very end, he denied its severity, preferring instead to keep living his life the way he wanted. This too could not last, and he died in 1904 at the ripe young age of 44. He left behind a long legacy of beautifully-written and very rich stories and plays, which – though critics during his lifetime received some of them poorly – are celebrated today.

My favourite Chekhov story I have read so far and would highly recommend is one called “Difficult People,” about a family with a tyrannical father and a son fed up with his father’s temper. The story is sure to resonate with any teenager eager to get away from the ‘famjam,’ and a story that I think was influenced by Chekhov’s upbringing under an overbearing father. Much of Chekhov’s work is about family difficulty, which readers all over the world can understand. And what good is literature if it cannot tug on something in the reader? Chekhov tugs and plugs away, centuries after his death, at the hearts and lives of readers everywhere.

To learn more about Chekhov, take a look at Brandeis University’s page about him – http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/chekhovbio.html#PersonalInformation – or dive straight into one of his plays or short stories at http://www.gutenberg.org/

Article: Sherlock Review

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“What? A modern adaptation? Sherlock Holmes on a cellphone?” I could barely contain my disgust. “And it’s supposed to be good?” It took hours of prodding for me to grudgingly give it a shot.

To make a long story dramatic, two hours later, I was all but clutching my television and hyperventilating.

Let me first set out some context: I am a sceptic through and through, about both television shows and Sherlock Holmes adaptations. I have never been one to watch the shows of the day like Supernatural, Gossip Girl, Mad Men, what-have-you. As for Holmes, I admired and adored the man, as long as he stayed between pages or behind a quaint black-and-white filter.
Not anymore.

I watched all three ninety-minute episodes of “Sherlock” one week after another, dutiful and squealing. The series is exquisite.

“Sherlock” was created and written by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who both wrote for Doctor Who. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch (of Atonement, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Amazing Grace) as a deliciously sociopathic Sherlock Holmes, and Martin Freeman (Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit) as his faithful sidekick, Doctor John Watson.

The gentlemen are perfect for their roles, flipping the stodgy old men seamlessly into younger ones.  The plotline of the first episode, “A Study in Pink,” begins with the two meeting, brought together in their quest for flatmates. Sherlock is the world’s only “consulting detective,” called upon by the police when the police are clueless. John has just returned from service in Afghanistan (the same place in which the original Dr. Watson fought) and is coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. It quickly becomes apparent that what John needs is not a nice cup of tea, but rather a strong dose of adventure. And who better to provide the thrill of the chase than Mr. Sherlock Holmes? The two join forces and the game is afoot!

Modern technology is incorporated into the series, but in ways that make sense: Watson records their adventures in a blog as therapy for his post-traumatic stress disorder; Sherlock tracks the records on a mobile phone to trap a murderer. The show itself makes use of computer effects to interpret Sherlock’s thought process, flashing symbols, numbers, and words across the screen. This treats the audience to ‘Sherlock-vision’ of sorts, so we can stay involved with the steps of his observation.

The series is true to the books, and the writers have planted hidden references for all the enthusiasts of the original work. “A Study in Pink,” for example, is taken from the story title “A Study in Scarlet.” The episodes are peppered with quotations from the stories, when Cumberbatch’s Sherlock speaks the same words as Conan Doyle’s Holmes. (“‘The art of disguise is knowing how to hide in plain sight,’” says Sherlock smugly to an astonished art gallery employee.) Amusingly, in one episode, the BBC Sherlock quickly rejects a solution which the original Holmes reached at the end of a story.

The modernity of the series opens up a whole new layer in which to explore the characters and plots of the episodes and stories, but still retains the punch and joy of solving the original mysteries. The writers specifically stated that they were focusing on the characters and their adventures rather than the setting, which – while a useful tool – never eclipses the writers’ excellent script and the actors’ enticing performances.

The Sherlock crew is working on a second series of the show, which is due to come out in autumn of 2011.

I can hardly wait.

Article: Kate Beaton

What do fat ponies, Wonder Woman, and Lester Pearson have in common? Stumped? Why, they all star in various Kate Beaton comics. You may not have heard of her, but Kate Beaton is a Canadian artist who draws comics about historical and literary figures. Beaton, age 27, is originally from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She studied history and anthropology at Mount Allison University, and then moved to Toronto to pursue her career in making comics. She has recently relocated to New York.

Beaton’s comics are marked by a simple style and a lack of punctuation in their speech bubbles, not to mention a great sense of humour. Her work is not only about history; she also draws autobiographical comics about her childhood and daily life, as well as a few comics about generally amusing things. The subjects of her comics stretch from all the way from crime-solving teenagers to ridiculously large Elizabethan ruffs.

The characterizations of the subjects in her comics are particularly of note. She depicts Wonder Woman as an apathetic smoker who replies, “Yeah, yeah” to a frantic old lady whose cat is stuck in a tree. It is in Beaton’s comics that Charlotte and Emily Brontë coo over a magazine entitled Byronic while Anne frowns beside them, Jane Austen responds to her Darcy-crazed fans, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe fly in a hot air balloon of bromance, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have a little chat about the unfortunate popularity of Watson’s less-flattering portrayals (“That’s not a clue, Watson. That’s your jar of jam.”)

Some of Beaton’s comics relate directly to our English classes at SCS: Characters from Macbeth stumble into ‘Glam Castle’ by mistake; Cordelia drops her father into a retirement home and runs like crazy; Nick Carraway grumbles impatiently while Gatsby takes his sweet time in the pool. Moreover, her comics are a humorous way to further understand our American, European, and World history courses, and most particularly, Canadian history.

Beaton’s Canadian heritage greatly influences her work. She makes comics about John A. Macdonald, the Battle of Queenston Heights, the CBC, David Suzuki, Billy Bishop, and Jacques Cartier, among many others. Additionally, she makes typical jokes about the Canadian stereotype: the country politely asking for independence from Britain, beavers, flannel-clad lumberjacks, and Québec’s everlasting quest for becoming a separate country.

Beaton’s non-historical comics include ones about mermaids, chimneysweeps, Edward Gorey book covers, and David Bowie. In one series of comics, she creates a hero out of an obese Shetland pony, who beats the bad guys by eating their sweaters and their gardens.

Her webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant, was nominated for a Harvey Award for the Best Online Comic and twice for a Joe Shuster Award. Beaton is also the winner of the 2009 Doug Write Award for Best Emerging Talent.  She has published a book called Never Learn Anything From History, and her work has been profiled in Macleans magazine and published in The New Yorker.

If you like history, if you like ponies, or if you just like to laugh, I suggest that you make a point of checking out Kate Beaton’s comics. You can find her work on her website, http://www.harkavagrant.com.