A Simple Little Flow Chart

I was thinking a lot recently about cliches and how hard it is to avoid them.  Romantic cliches are particularly tricky.  In order to illustrate this, I decided to create a nice, little flow chart that explores some (but not all) of the common romantic plot lines that can be found in books and movies.

You’re gonna want to click on that image to make it bigger, obviously.  Don’t worry — it’ll open in a new tab.  You should also be able to click on it once it’s open in a new tab to zoom it in even more.  I think you’ll be happier with it then.  Have fun!

Boy-Meets-Girl-Flowchart

Please note the disclaimer in red in the lower left corner.  I just couldn’t cover everything.  This process was exhausting enough as it was.  Hell, the computerized version wasn’t even my first draft.  I did it all on paper first.

See?

I threw my ruler on there for a size reference.  I had no banana for scale.  (Very few people are going to get that reference, I fear)

I threw my ruler on there for a size reference. I had no banana for scale. (Very few people are going to get that reference, I fear)

But the reason I did this was to show you that avoiding cliches is hard, and you shouldn’t be expected to do it perfectly.  That’s why I talk about taking a cliche and making it your own.  At this point there aren’t many more options.  You’ll note I didn’t really have examples for the “They’re both gay” storyline.  That could use some exploring.  And, of course, my own novels — Hellbound, Grotesque, and The Dreamcatchers — can be found in there.  Because I am not above these cliches at all.  I just try to make them as fresh as possible.  You will also note that many titles appeared multiple times.  That just serves to further illustrate how complicated something as seemingly simple as a relationship between two people can get.  It might also help you to develop some ideas for your own characters and stories, I hope.  Try exploring multiple story arcs at once, or turning a cliche on its head.

Also I did not include the following story line for what I hope are obvious reasons.

Boy and Girl Meet —-> They do not develop a relationship —-> They never see each other again

In a story, if you bring up two people meeting, it has to be relevant somehow.  So….yeah.

I want to talk a little bit about the art of criticism next, so that’ll be coming up.

Ta ta for now!

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This Isn’t Even My Final Form

Today I thought I’d diverge from the usual patter about books, writing, tearing my own hair out, moving woes, and Taylor Swift in favor of a different sort of review.  Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame would call this a “Retro Review” because I’m going to talk about something that is so old it’s not even in print anymore.

You see, moving in to my new place has given me a chance to get all my books out of storage and put them on the bookshelf I bought.  And once I filled up that shelf I had to run to Target to buy another one because honestly how did I think I was going to get away with having only one bookshelf?  Anyway, I’m going to be reviewing a Manga.  For those who don’t know, “Manga” is Japanese for “comic book.”  Also for those who don’t know, admitting to reading Manga immediately causes other people to staple a very specific label to your face.

I know it’s cliche to say this, but I’m not into labels.

Hippy-Bex-Full

I took Japanese in college because I wanted to learn a non-Romance language, and I thought attempting to learn Mandarin would lead me to insulting someone’s mother, due to the fact that Mandarin is intonational.  So I took Japanese.  Later I found out that this made me a “Weeaboo” in other people’s estimation.  A white person who desperately wants to be a character from an Anime, and who fulfills this fantasy by learning Japanese (the wrong way) by watching Anime, going to Comic Con dressed as a cat/human hybrid, buying posters of Sasuke from Naruto to murmur sweet nothings to, and writing abhorrent, self-insert Fan Fiction.

This is not me, I’m afraid.  In fact, to date I’ve only read three Manga series.  I liked two out of three, but I only love one of them enough to review it here, because the story was so engrossing.  I have, admittedly, watched an Anime or two.  When I was younger I watched Dragonball Z and Cardcaptors, and I’ll admit I’m still a fan.  But that’s about it.  Never even wrote a Fan Fic, although apparently that’s where the money is these days.  (That was a dig at E. L. James.  Yes, I am petty.)

So, the manga I like.  The only manga I own.  Fruits Basket.

Fruits Basket

Clicking the image will lead you to Amazon.com

It may be a weird title, but I will tell you that when you find out the reason for it, your heart will disintegrate.  At least mine did.  If you’re curious and don’t care about spoilers, I will write out the explanation below this post.

Fruits Basket follows Tohru Honda, a high school girl who just recently lost her mother in a freak accident and has nowhere to live.  (Her father died when she was a toddler)  Through a series of ridiculous events, which tend to typify the genre, Tohru ends up being invited to live with a schoolmate of hers who belongs to a powerful and mysterious family.  Through another series of ridiculous events, she finds out that the family is cursed by the thirteen animals of the zodiac, and when they are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into those animals.  Sounds ridiculous, right?  It’s supposed to be at first.  It’s funny and kooky and you find yourself thinking, “Ha.  I see.  This will be a funny and kooky story that will make me giggle and forget I am an adult for a while.”

Then the story sucker punches you, apologizes for that with some more fun kookiness, and then punches you again.  That’s pretty much how reading the whole series goes.  The author, Natsuki Takaya, somehow managed to seamlessly intertwine serious psychological pain, lighthearted ridiculousness, and real hard-hitting emotion.  The cast is an ensemble which grows considerably as more members of the cursed family are introduced, but not one character feels incomplete or two dimensional.  They are all completely fleshed out with their own personalities and their own demons.

For those who are aware of the zodiac, you will notice I said there were thirteen animals, not twelve.  That is because the cat is also a member of this family, though there is no cat in the zodiac.  The reason for this, the story will tell you, is due to the rat’s trickery.  But there is still a member of this family who is cursed by the cat’s spirit – Kyo – and he is shunned by all others, treated like a freak and a pariah.  Ironically, since they’d all be treated that way if other people found out about their condition.

Kyo’s personal growth is captivating, but the fact of the matter is that there are layers of pain and hurt underneath all the family members’ facades of indifference or, in the case of Momiji the rabbit, relentless perkiness.

It is hard for me to put these books down.  They really grab you, and the ending, while satisfying, still left me in tears the first time.  It is so well written, yet most people would not pick it up because of the stigma attached to reading Manga.  The fact of the matter is that American or British literature wouldn’t be able to get away with a silly story about people who turn into animals when hugged.  My argument is maybe they should give it a try.  Ridiculous as the premise is, it’s also safe to say you’ve never read anything like it before.  The market is inundated with vampire novels, romance stories that involve a plucky heroine and a mysterious hero, teenagers coming of age while surrounded by a miasma of angst and high school drama.  There is a cry for true originality, yet if it comes in the form of a Japanese comic book, people want nothing to do with it.

All I’m saying is, give something new a chance, and don’t worry about the labels, man.

That’s all.  Scroll down to see the story behind Fruits Basket.

Fruits Basket – After Tohru has been established as a character, you come to understand that she is the type of person who refuses to let life get her down.  Even in the face of tragedy, she finds a way to smile.  She has a strength of spirit to her that other people misconstrue as stupidity sometimes.

Then she tells a story of when she was in elementary school, back when her mother was still alive.  The kids would all play a game called “Fruits Basket,” which is something like tag.  Everyone sits in a circle and gets assigned a fruit – apple, banana, etc. – and when that fruit is named, they get to stand up and join the game.  When Tohru played, she was labeled an onigiri – a Japanese snack that is made with rice and seaweed.  She recounted the story of how she sat in her little chair and watched other kids join the game as apple, banana, and melon were called out.  But she was never included, because “there is no onigiri in a fruits basket.”  There is a picture of little Tohru simply sitting and waiting, watching the game unfold without ever being allowed to join in.

So yeah, Fruits Basket is a weird title, but I completely understand why it’s called that.  Even though this scene, this memory, was so incidental, it encapsulates so much of the story.

Children can be so cruel.

Okay, that’s it for real.  Thanks for reading!

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Aquatic Interlude

So I drew a mermaid.  And that is all this post is going to be about.

A little context:

1. Somewhat recently I drove from New York to North Dakota to Texas, so I had a lot of time to think.

2. One of the things I thought about was mermaids.  I don’t know why.  But I do know that I always struggled with the concept of the archetypal mermaid (think Disney’s version) because of, um…sex reasons.  Like…fish reproduce outside their bodies, but human beings don’t.  Mermaids have breasts and uteri (never thought I’d need the plural of that word), but no um…vaginas.  So…you know, how does giving birth work?

2.5 While we’re on the subject!  They have knees!  Like even though their lower halves are cartilaginous and fish have no knees, animators and artists always put mermaids in sitting positions where their fins are bent like there’s a knee in there.  As long as people do that, mermaids are always going to look like human women who put on half a fish costume and tried to pretend they were mythological beings.

3. Yes, this absolutely needed to be in list form.

4. No, I don’t expect a cartoon for children to explore mer-vaginas and how they work.  We can leave that to romance novels like this one, written by P. C. Cast.

4.5 Please don’t ask why I know about this book.  Please.

4.75 Cartoons for children can explore mer-knees if they really want to.

5. I started to try to come up with a concept that would work by merging fish and woman and also allowing for more mammalian reproduction.

5.5 Look, I’m not obsessed with mermaids or mermaid sex, okay?  I don’t even know why it bothered me so much.  Probably because it was a really freakin’ long road trip.

6. Obviously, I drew my concept.  I waited until I was settled in my new home.

7. What I came up with looks a little like Mystique from X-Men.  Whoops.

8. First, just a rough sketch on paper:

Mermaid

9. Then I filled in the blanks with Photoshop Elements.

Mermaid copy

10. That’s uh…that’s it.  The above mermaid can have sex and give birth.  And she has knees!

11. Wooo mermaid sex!

12. Sorry for the partial nudity.  NSFW maybe?

12.5 I probably should have done the whole NSFW warning earlier.

12.75 Too late for that now.  The list is set in stone.  It is unchangeable.

13. Okay, I’m done now.  I swear.

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The Storymatic

For my birthday I received a wonderful gift from my friend, Micah.  It’s called The Storymatic, and it’s essentially a card game/writing exercise generator.

storymatic

This game can be found at a place called Marbles The Brain Store, which may or may not have a location near you.  Click that link to go to the website and explore around.  Click on the picture of the Storymatic to get a link to its page so you can order one for yourself!

The rules of this game/exercise are simple!  And there are many variations in the rulebook so you can include other people, or just write a little story for yourself.  In this case, I went with the go-to method of story prompting.  The box contains a set of gold cards and a set of copper cards.  First you choose two gold cards.  Those two cards become your main character.  Then you draw two copper cards which set up the story you’re going to tell.  The two “rules” are that you can’t kill your character (because that’s too easy!) and you have to have your character change in some way from the beginning of the story to the end.  In other words, give him/her an arc.

So let’s begin!

My first gold card…

aging clown

And my second gold card…

pirate

Uhhh….okaaaaay….

Let’s uh…let’s see what the story prompts are.

First copper card…

fever

Second copper card…

hospital waiting room

So I have an aging clown who is also a pirate.  An Aging Clown Pirate.  And the story has something to do with a fever and hospital waiting room, which fortunately fit together a lot better than clowns and pirates do.  Jeez, they didn’t make this easy on me.

Okay.  Story time.

Gorkel the clown’s arthritis was acting up again.  It was compounded greatly by his omnipresent seasickness.  When he’d been kidnapped as a child from the island of Lorgane, he never thought his pirate captors would be so entertained by juggling.  It was this skill that had kept him alive, and yet now it was beginning to hurt more and more to toss swords and twirl batons.

“Gorkel!” the captain bellowed from within his quarters.

Gorkel winced and nearly dropped the apple he’d been doing tricks with.  His real name had been Gordon, but the captain didn’t think that sounded clownish enough.

“Yes, Cap’n?” Gorkel said.

The ship had changed hands twice since Gorkel had been kidnapped.  The original captain had retired to the Bahamas, and his successor had been killed by the current captain to whom Gorkel was now speaking.

“I’m thirsty,” the captain rasped.  “Fetch me some water.”

Gorkel obliged, gritting his teeth.  For years, decades even, he’d dreamed of escaping.  But he had always been too cowardly to try anything.  He ran to fetch a cup and dipped it into the water barrel.  Then he hesitated, staring at his watery reflection as it wavered beneath him, as surely as his confidence wavered whenever he thought of escaping his life of servitude.  There was a way he could…but no…he couldn’t…

Could he?

When he returned, the captain was visibly red in the face. 

“What took you so long?” he barked, snatching the water from Gorkel’s hand.

He tipped his head back and downed the drink in one gulp.  Then he slapped the cup back into Gorkel’s chest.

“I’m bored.  Go find something to juggle.”

Gorkel left with the cup and returned with his crate of juggling supplies.  The captain looked on with mild interest as various objects flew through the air.

“You know, I thought my predecessors were crazy for keeping you on board,” he mused, “but I have to say, I’m starting to see their reasoning.  Nothing like a loyal clown to liven up the…the…”

The captain’s words died as he swooned in his chair.  Gorkel let the batons he’d been juggling clatter to the floor.

“Cap’n?  Are you all right?”

He ran to the captain and steadied him.  Sweat was beading on his forehead, and when Gorkel tentatively touched a hand to his face, he drew back quickly.  His skin was burning.

“Set sail for a hospital!” Gorkel called out to the men.

It took them hours to reach a hospital, as ships were not the most expeditious modes of transportation. 

After explaining the captain’s condition to the nurses, the crew was forced to sit in the waiting room while the doctors did their work.

“I’m gonna go out for a pack of cigarettes,” Gorkel said after a few minutes.

“But you don’t smoke,” replied Briney Joe, one of the crewmen.

“Maybe the captain will want some when he gets better,” Gorkel said, knowing full well he wouldn’t.

He strode out of the hospital, took a breath of fresh air, and started walking.

By the time the doctors discovered the poison in the captain’s system, he’d be long gone.

The End

Well that was supposed to be a silly story, but it didn’t turn out that way did it?  Still a darned fun exercise.  I recommend the game to anyone who has a creative itch that needs scratching, or a way of entertaining a moderate number of house guests.

Cheers!

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

About a hundred million years ago, my mother loaned me a book entitled The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  Written in the original French by Muriel Barbery, it was translated to English by Alison Anderson.

Hedgehog

Click for a link to the Amazon page

I started reading it a long time ago, but I stopped after a while.  Probably because I felt incredibly stupid.  This book has a way of addressing philosophy, culture, politics, and life in such a way as to make one feel very simple.  Not to mention that I am not so good with the French.  I will eschew all pretense of humbleness and say that I have quite the knack for languages.  Never French though.  It always eluded me.  The pronunciation, the conjugation, the extraneous letters.  Sometimes I even think they throw in extra accents on some words that are completely superfluous, their only purpose being to make sure the reader is still paying attention.

Anyway, I was unpacking in my new home in Texas (yes, I’m living in Texas right now if you can believe it) and I came across this book with my hologram bookmark still inside it, marking where I left off.

When you tilt it back and forth, the horses gallop in place.  Kinda cool actually.

When you tilt it back and forth, the horses gallop in place. Kinda cool actually.

I took this as a sign that I had done enough work for one day (read: no work at all) and sat down to give it another go.

That was a couple days ago.

Today I finished it, and I am sitting here now to recommend it to you.

This book follows two stories.  That of Renée, a middle-aged concierge and widow whose job it is to cater to the rich snobs who make a habit of looking down on her or right past her.  And that of Paloma, a twelve-year-old prodigy who is desperately trying to figure out the meaning of life and her place in it.

Despite how it might sound so far, the book manages to get away with a great deal of profundity and intelligent discourse without losing the reader because it is written completely without pretension.  The two main characters simply observe the world in their own particular capacity, and you, the reader, find yourself following along without feeling a sense of condescension from the author.

It’s brain food, to put it simply.  I find the book is best read the way a jacuzzi is enjoyed.  Immerse yourself as much as you feel comfortable, and just relax.  Sometimes as I was reading I found my mind glazing over, not really focusing too hard on the words.  And that was okay.  The great thing about this book is that something is bound to pique your interest, and if a particular section doesn’t, you can simply float through it.

For example, I was particularly taken by a passage on adolescent behavior, which I will quote below for you.

And secondly, a teenager who pretends to be an adult is still a teenager.  If you imagine that getting high at a party and sleeping around is going to propel you into a state of full adulthood, that’s like thinking that dressing up as an Indian is going to make you an Indian.  And thirdly, it’s a really weird way of looking at life to want to become an adult by imitating everything that is most catastrophic about adulthood…

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, pg. 192

This quote struck home for me because I grew up around kids who bragged about how drunk they got over the weekend, who threw parties in their parents’ empty mansions while mommy and daddy were away in Bermuda or whatever.  It was a cry for help and attention, and all the while they told themselves they weren’t just doing it to look cool or to rebel.  That they were doing it because they wanted to, because they just didn’t care, because they understood the consequences of their actions, when none of that was true.  I know I sound high and mighty, but I didn’t partake.  It frightened me how desperate my peers were for an escape.  Hell, in high school I wanted to escape too, but I coped by closing myself off from my family, lashing out at anyone who tried to help me, and burying myself in books and video games.

Hm….on second thought, maybe I should have tried the drugs.

But anyway, the writing is beautiful.  Barbery, through Anderson, has produced a piece of artwork with sentences like strings of pearls.  I could never produce anything like this.  For one, because I have not memorized the OED, and for two because if I attempted it I would just end up flailing through a piece that dripped with pretentiousness.

What really sealed the deal for me was the dry wit, the humor.  Leaving you chuckling, understanding the source of it, and wanting more.  It’s not overused either.  The book is perfectly seasoned with it.

So go down to the bookstore or the link above and give it a try.  It will be well worth it, and at the very least you might sound smart while talking about it, so you can lord your intelligence over those undereducated paupers you call friends and family.

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