Now Entering a World of Rabbits and Whimsy

Last week I took a trip to The Morgan Library to see an exhibit on Beatrix Potter and her picture letters. I have always been a fan of Beatrix Potter. I was a young child who wrote many stories about animals and their various adventures, and in third grade I did a presentation on Beatrix Potter and her life. I also own the movie Miss Potter with Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, and took a Children’s Literature class in college where we discussed Potter’s works.  So in a way it was required reading for me to visit this exhibit.

photo from themorgan.org

photo from themorgan.org

Many of Potter’s story ideas came from picture letters that she wrote to children that she knew. She predominantly wrote to her nanny’s son Noel, who was frequently sick. This in particular is how The Tale of Peter Rabbit was created. In the letters she had a knack for writing to Noel in a serious way about topics that a young child would understand – such as the adventures of a bunny, or the ships that she saw when she was on a trip. These letters were strewn with drawings of various detail to add whimsy to her tales.

The exhibit also features many illustrations of Potter’s – some of which were included in her final books, and some which weren’t. There was a drawing that Potter gave her fiance and publisher Norman Warne. The illustration shows a Cinderella like scene with bunnies pulling a carriage on a city street. The picture itself is not very big, but the amount of detail and atmosphere that Potter was able to put into her small drawings is impressive. Beatrix Potter grew up drawing and making up stories about the animals that she saw during summers at the lake district. Both Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit were real rabbits that Potter took a liking to at a young age. These rabbits were frequently used for drawing practice.

Beatrix Potter  was amongst the forefront of children’s authors. The early 20th century was not as focused on children as today’s society is. There were no Children’s or YA book genres, no New York Times Children’s Best Seller List,  and many of the stories written for children were moralistic and didactic in urlnature. Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland, written in 1865,  is thought to be the first book that breaks away from this tradition, and even mocks it with its nonsensical logic. Edward Lear, author of the poem The Owl and the Pussycat is somewhat of a contemporary with Potter as well, but the genre of children’s literature was still limited at this time. Potter’s stories follow along the same path as Carrol’s in that they are not didactic. As my Children’s Literature professor pointed out, if Potter was trying to teach a lesson about being good to children, she would have made Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail the interesting and desirable characters because they are good little bunnies and do not venture into Mr. McGregor’s garden. Although Peter does get sent to bed without dinner after his adventure, he is the more exciting character in the story. Also, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail all look the same and the reader can not distinguish one little bunny from the rest, while Peter’s blue coat sets him apart from the rest.

Potter’s books were all published with small bindings that are perfect for children to hold and read themselves. This too was rare in publishing at this time, and goes back to the adult focused world of the early 20th century. These books were clearly for children in every way.

The exhibit at The Morgan Library has since closed (it ended on the 27th), but I am so glad that I was able to go and enter once again the world of Beatrix Potter and her animals.

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On Self Doubt

This past Sunday I curled up on my couch to watch The Golden Globes. I always seemed to miss The Golden Globes in the past, and just read about them online or in the paper after the fact. So I was pretty excited that I knew when they were this year. I also seemed to be more invested in them than in years past, because of the current Les Mis obsession I am going through (mentioned here). I was also hit pretty badly with the flu this weekend which left me asleep in bed for about two days straight, so watching The Golden Globes gave me something to do. I am feeling much better now, thanks, and I am happy to say that Les Mis came out on top with both Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman winning awards for their perspective roles, as well as a win for best musical/comedy. I wasn’t too worried.

There were a lot of good quotes from the night, mostly from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s banter, but my favorite quote, or at least the one that I remember the most comes from Anne Hathaway’s acceptance speech when she said,

Thank you for this lovely blunt object that I will forevermore use as a weapon against self doubt.

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The quote made me think of Anne Hathaway using her Catwoman skills and new Golden Globes award to fight intruders, murderers, thieves, and general evil doers in the world. It was nice to know too that the princess of Genovia, Catwoman, and Fontaine have self doubt as well.

This made me think of my story. A few weeks ago everything was going swimmingly. The antagonist, Augustus Moragin, practically created himself with motivations and all. The whole “the key to beating writers block is to keep writing” was working like a charm. For a while. But then I didn’t do anything with it for a few days and working on it became very hard.

In my list of questions and notes, I started jumping ahead and worrying about things that will come together as the story continues to develop – things that I really didn’t need to focus on right now. Like what is the genre of the story. It seems to fit in well to the YA genre. If it is YA does that mean that there has to be a love triangle? I don’t really want there to be a love triangle. Romance maybe, but I feel like love triangles are overdone now a days in YA fiction, and I would rather work on some other aspect of the story. These are not important questions for where I am in the story. If I don’t want a love triangle – there will not be a love triangle. It’s my story  that I am in control of.

That is one of the reasons I like writing – its like a puzzle. You make a character do something and then you have to go back and fill in things like motive or what happens next. Everything fits together somehow the way you want it to, things happen that you didn’t plan on, and then it becomes a story. That you yourself create. It is yours and yours alone.

Another hurdle I had to deal with was the fact that my story takes place at a school. Probably a college, although possibly a grad school. It is still in the works (and this would affect the genre mentioned before). My first thought on writing a “school story” was that it shouldn’t look like Hogwarts. What? This isn’t even a magical story. There is time travel and fantasy, but not magic. No wizards. No wands. It’s not even in England. Scenes might take place in England as they time travel back to World War I, but the school itself is in America. None of the schools that I went to looked like Hogwarts, so what am I so worried about? I am writing this for me, not for anyone else. I can make it what I want it to be – that whole complete control idea again. It’s a nice feeling. And its much easier to create a world when you are not worried about it looking like anything else. Just make it your own. I don’t know what their school is going to look like, but I can make it whatever I want it to be.

To counteract my bouts of self doubt that are not conducive to story writing, I started making a list of good quotes to go back to when I am stuck. Things like Hemmingway’s ever famous “Write drunk, edit sober.” I keep them in my notebook along with the few scenes and lots of notes that I have. I don’t see myself winning a Golden Globe that I can use against self doubt, so in the mean time I will use the quotes of others to get me through and to keep me original. I’m pretty excited to see how everything turns out!

Fire by Kristin Cashore: Companion to Graceling

Over the summer I read Graceling by Kristin Cashore, and I just finished the companion novel, Fire. I love book series, but I frequently don’t read them back to back. I enjoy variety in my reading life.

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Fire takes place in The Dells, the neighboring country to the seven kingdoms of the Graceling novel. In The Dells there are humans and various monsters in different forms – humans, bugs etc. The story follows Fire, a human monster whose monster father was an advisor to the previous king. Fire lives with her friend Archer and his father, Brocker, who acted as a surrogate father to Fire as well. Monsters have the special power of entering into other people’s minds. Fire’s father, Casrel used this power for evil, so for most of her life Fire has purposefully ignored her powers, and works to live as a normal human being. However, when people start trying to attack Fire, she is forced to go to the King’s city to help them identify the perpetrator.

The kingdom is also on the verge of two wars that Fire could be a huge help with. Cashore really gets into what she calls a “palace intrigue” story. Fire finds her place in the palace and really becomes friends with the different members of the royal family. Cashore also fulfills the “coming of age” aspect of the novel by having Fire figure out how to use her powers for the good of the kingdom without becoming a clone of the man her father was.

This novel, which is considered to be a companion novel to Graceling, as opposed to a sequel, has a distinctly darker tone to it than Cashore’s previous book. Fire has had a very dark and complicated past, between having two distinctly father figures, and the fear of her power. This, combined with the rush of an oncoming war from both the north and south of the kingdom gives the novel a darker more adult feel to the novel.

Over the course of the novel Fire makes decisions that ultimately change her character in major ways, as is with many coming of age and young adult novels. Some of these decisions however, I thought, could have have been done with more of a build up. Some of them just pop into her head. One way of looking at it could be that this is more realistic, that many are decisions are made without a big hoop-la, but I thought for the sake of the layout of the novel, there could have been more of a build up for the plot reversals.

Despite this fact, I really did enjoy this novel. Kirstin Cashore has done an excellent job yet again of creating a strong female lead without making it overly done or cliched. I definitely recommend it.

Thoughts on Les Mis: Amazing Movie; To Read the Book or Not To Read the Book?

This past weekend I went with a friend of mine to see Les Mis. I had seen the play while I was in London for a semester in college, and was familiar with the music. I have always thought it was an amazing play, but I never got too immersed in it. Well, seeing the movie blew me away and now I consider myself completely obsessed. I haven’t really discussed movies on my blog before, and I thought I could give it a try now and again.

I saw the movie on Saturday night, and since then have bought many of the songs that I did not previously own, and have had them continually running through my head. I have also been looking at interviews on youtube from the actors etc., and seriously debated the best version of each song to get on itunes. What can I say – when I get into something I really get into it. I would watch it again, and I do want to eventually, but I’m not sure if I have the emotional capacity for two viewings so close together. I didn’t cry during the movie, but it was hugely emotional which came across very powerfully on screen.

I was impressed with the camera angles, especially during solos when the camera was right in an actor’s face. In interviews Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius, talked about how each actor had intensive voice lessons, not only to improve their singing voices, but also to develop specific muscle control in their throats to sustain the amount of singing they had to do. The whole thing is singing after all, which is hugely impressive in the first place as a play, and even more impressive when you think about all the different cuts and takes that a movie goes through before the final product is put together. Especially when the singing is being done live while filming, rather than having it prerecorded to play back during the filming. That is a lot of singing, and a lot of work for one person’s voice. They also had to learn how to sing while showing intense emotion. There was one shot of Anne Hathaway while she is singing “I Dreamed a Dream” where she looks absolutely terrible after being thrown out on the street. She looks terrible, but the fact that there was so much emotion in the scene (where her face took up most of the screen) was really beautiful. There were tons of scenes like this throughout the film, and the same could be said of any of the actors. The emotion just came off the screen really well, and the extreme close ups made the songs and scenes much more personal. Both Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway lost 25 for their roles so they would look drawn, thin, bedraggled, and like a prisoner or a prostitute. But that is a lot of work and dedication within itself. Also, I was not really aware that any of the actors in the film could sing to the extent that they can before I saw it, and they all were amazing. I later found out that Samantha Barks, who played Eponine, was also Eponine in the London production of the play, and was in the 25th anniversary concert of Les Mis as well. (I did think that her voice sounded familiar at one point – On My Own is one of the songs that I owned before seeing the movie) Eddie Redmayne also took singing lessons when he was younger, and Hugh Jackman has been in musicals before.

Anyway, since I am now completely obsessed with all things Les Mis, I have been debating reading the book. Of course it is hugely long and rather intimidating, and the play/movie is a much abbreviated version of the book, but I feel like it is something I want to do eventually. Once again, I’m not sure it is something I have the emotional capacity for, but it is worth thinking about. The friend that I went to go see it with starting reading Les Mis in August with the intention of finishing it before the movie came out on Christmas, which she was able to do. I have read the first page or so and it is well written, which I knew already. It is also dense at times, and I have heard that Victor Hugo likes to go on and on about details in the book, such as a minor character and why he is there at that particular moment doing what he is doing, or the Battle of Waterloo. That sort of thing is interesting if you are in the right mood for it, or tiring if you aren’t.

There is also a version of Les Mis on sale at Barns and Nobles at the moment for $5. The only problem is that it is a rather large hard cover book, and although it is surprisingly light will I want to carry it around with me on the subway etc? These are the things I need to think about. If I do read it, I might read it while reading something else as well – maybe something lighter and cheerier. Les Mis is also available through Goodreads, which is probably the most convenient method of reading such a hugely long book, but I prefer not to read things on a screen. I am willing to try it though. I feel like I have a lot of thinking to do before I embark on this project. In the meantime, I think I will listen to some more songs from the play, and wait for Les Mis to win lots of Oscars come February.

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Story Update – Nice Notebooks and “Historical Fantasy”

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a good holiday season, and is getting accustomed to writing 2013 in the date. So far, 2013 has turned out to be a fairly productive year for me in terms of writing, all two days of it. The story idea that I have been working on slowly but surely is becoming more real and concrete, which is always exciting. I have two scenes, a few pages of writing, and lots more notes. The notebook I am using also doubles as a binder, so I am able to move pages around which means I can take notes and write in the same notebook without worrying about running out of space. It makes me happy, saves a lot of stress, and I am surprised I have never used one before.

I have talked briefly in the past about what my story idea is – its complicated but there is time travel, college life, and New York City.

I have really been enjoying the planning process of this story. Every new idea or question leads to more questions which is frustrating at times, but is also interesting. It’s like I am creating a puzzle for me to solve in my own way. I have never really viewed writing like that before, but it is true. I am currently reading Fire, the companion book to Graceling by Kristin Cashore (review to come). She wrote an essay on world building , which I have been talking a lot about lately, and have been working on myself. I found what she had to say interesting, and thought I would share it here. There are many details that have to be thought of in order for a story to become real, many of which the reader doesn’t see. Most of the questions that I had for my story weeks ago are no longer relevant, but they had to be thought of for my story to happen.

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Lots of pages – I was actually recopying things here