The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers GrimmThe Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm by Jacob Grimm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for the authentic Grimm’s Fairy Tales at its most gruesome and grisly, this is your book. While the Grimm brothers published seven editions of their fairy tales, each revision tamer than the last, this collection contains the original two-volume Kinder- und Hausmärchen (1812/1815). This first edition, compared to any of the others, is raw.

Translator and editor Jack Zipes says it best in his introduction: “Many of the tales in the first edition are more fabulous and baffling than those refined versions…, for they retain the pungent and naïve flavor of the oral tradition. They are stunning narratives precisely because they are so blunt and unpretentious” (xx).

This blunt and unpretentious quality of the fairy tales makes them charming, straightforward reads. Their moral themes are clear, and the diction, in taking after oral storytelling, is simple and accessible. I was cast back to the days of my childhood by the fantasy of kings and queens and talking birds and frogs, and I enjoyed breezing through a few tales each night before bed.

Of course, in addition to being comforting classics, the Grimm’s Fairy Tales are brutal. And even though I knew this, I could not stop my surprise and revulsion at each new act of brutality. The tales incorporate violence into the narratives without any embellishment or fanfare; the violence is so mundane it is chilling. Truly, this thread of horror is why the first edition of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a worthwhile read.

However, with that said, this collection also has a few shortcomings. For one, a disappointing number of typos litter the text. I would have expected a higher standard of quality for this book. For two, many of the tales are similar, and some are near copies of each other. Numerous times I backtracked in the book thinking I had lost my place and was rereading stories, but in fact there is a lot of duplication. For three, there are a few tales that are more like nursery rhymes with repetitive verses and little to no plot or theme, and I couldn’t see the point in these.

Although the Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a bit of an undertaking thanks to its volume of tales and repetition, it should be on everyone’s to-read list for its striking simplicity and horror.

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Happy New Year 2017 Update

Wow, some time has passed since my last post: two months and a whole entire year! Now that the mandatory New Year’s joke is out of the way, I can say that I haven’t been exactly diligent in posting new content on a regular basis. And that’s the understatement of the year.

Lame and predictable jokes aside, you might be wondering where I’ve been for the past little while. Between landing a new (contract) job, fighting off unlawful eviction, vacationing in Costa Rica, socializing with new friends, and drowning in Christmas chocolate and goodies, I have been far, far away from reading and writing.

For example, I just finished reading The Grimm’s Fairy Tales last night, the modest collection of short tales I started back in August. That’s right, five months ago. I promise that it doesn’t take me five months to read almost five hundred pages in normal circumstances.

But these past few months haven’t been my usual circumstances—and I can’t complain about that fact. The stress, the frantic pace, the busyness, the exhaustion, the simplicity of breaking from routine all have re-energized and reinvigorated me. Trying something new and saying yes where I’d normally say no has been liberating, freeing me from the normal, the comfortable, the safe. It’s been good. As they say in Costa Rica, pura vida!

Does that mean writing has been far from my thoughts? Not at all. Guilt has nibbled away at my conscience for neglecting my writing. I’m a perpetual sufferer of writer’s guilt, and that’s not something to be proud of. I’ll get back to writing in my own time—when I’m writing not out of guilt but out of a genuine desire to write. And if that desire fled me some time ago? It’ll come back; it always does. I’m determined.

In the meantime, I will write up my review of The Grimm’s Fairy Tales for you in the next few days so that I can move on to reading Hans Christian Andersen’s The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. Now that behemoth of more than one thousand pages will take a couple months to get through, guaranteed. While that will slow down my book reviewing, I’ll try to get back to posting more often. I can be pretty disciplined when I want to be 😉

And that’s the closest to a New Year’s reflection and resolution you’ll get from me (because like many, I think we should reflect and resolve whenever we need to, not just at the New Year, but that’s another post and something you’ve heard too often anyway).

Happy New Year! What are your 2016 reflections and 2017 resolutions?

Write My Story

There are those months when we lose ourselves in our writing. Nothing else matters but following our creative energies until all possibilities are exhausted and the momentum that carried us forward is depleted. Other hobbies and interests, relationships and responsibilities fall behind, neglected. As though life is in waiting.

And then there are those months when we lose ourselves in life. Too busy experiencing the world’s wonders, or just catching up on our to do’s, to snatch a bit of inspiration and steal some time to write. The less we write, the easier it is to forget our burning desire to write—or at least, the easier it is to ignore it. Getting that drive back, and acting on it, is a persistent and familiar struggle.

September and October have been those months for me. My writing has been in waiting—waiting for the desire, waiting for the time, waiting for the just do it already and write. The trouble is, though, that I do want to write, and I can make the time, but I don’t want to work on any of my current projects.

My novel is stalled out in its infancy. My short story collection is stuck in my head. My works to be rewritten are skewered by perfectionism. Yet beyond these problems lies an even bigger deterrent: I don’t want to write in my genre right now.

Breaking from My Genre

I’m a spec-fic writer through and through, and all my work sits somewhere on the spectrum between fantasy and science fiction and weird. Normally the creative possibilities of spec-fic inspire me, capturing my imagination and love of the what-if. With a little mental energy, spec-fic provides a way to both escape from and reflect upon life; it’s self-reflective escapism.

Escape is not what I want at the moment. I don’t want the far out, the weird, the unreal, the impossible. For once, I want the real. And not just standard fiction—I want my real fiction. I want to write my story.

But first, let’s go back to the start for a moment: those months focused on writing versus those months focused on living. I’ve felt a need to bridge the two and join them into a more cohesive unit so that writing and living don’t have to be disparate things. I want to live and I want to write together. One shouldn’t have to suffer (too much) for the other to thrive.

Spec-fic can’t be the bridge I want it to be because it is too far removed from life, from the real, to join it with writing. At this point in time, my mind and creative energies cannot rally behind the speculative. I am too engaged in the present and being and doing to get lost in my head.

To bridge writing and living, then, to be engaged in both, I am going to write my experiences. Short stories, flash fiction, first person, third person, whatever the form, I am going to make stories out of…well, my stories.

To Fictionalize Me

I am excited to fictionalize parts of my own life because I can jump right in. Think of all that is ready and waiting for the writing: plot lines with surprises and challenges, characters with flaws and motivations, settings with history and detail, and of course a protagonist I know everything about. With all these elements taken care of, I can experiment and focus on the writing itself.

Instead of struggling with what comes next and fighting the plot block, I can turn to characterization, narration, and voice. Did I capture the mood of that romantic date under the stars? Does this character sound like my friend with the Nova Scotian accent? Can I picture how my fishing lure got stuck in a tree?

It’s all about the nuance, and that is a writing challenge I am eager to tackle.

Of course I won’t be producing any material for publication—I’m not writing my autobiography here—but writing my story is that bridge I need between life and writing. Fictionalizing me is not an abstract, speculative, or escapist endeavour that will pull me away from life and wrap me in a writer’s bubble. If anything, fictionalizing me will engage me more with life.

Hopefully once I’ve found a good rhythm between writing and life, I can maintain the bridge between the two while transitioning back to my spec-fic genre. The end goal is to incorporate writing into my life more naturally. I still do love the what-ifs and I am not abandoning them by any means. I am just exploring what if I write my story. What if you write yours?

Happy Labour Day

Happy Labour Day!

If you’re like me and setting out on a power writing session this day off, you might need some far-out inspiration. Enjoy my pictures from a Chihuly exhibit I visited last month. Now put on some motivating tunes, clear away the distractions, and get writing!

Far-Out Settings, Down-Home Comforts

Consider this: You’re writing a sci fi story. It’s set in a world of your own making in a time far removed from the present. You’ve built the physical environment, engineered the societies occupying it, and crafted the characters born from it. Your protagonist wakes up one morning and puts together breakfast. Does he make himself a cup of coffee? Pour a glass of orange juice? Or fry up some taorkiki and top it with whipped henuvia?

In this made-up world of yours, does its denizens enjoy the morning ritual of coffee? Do oranges even exist? Maybe your protagonist doesn’t need to eat breakfast but rather injects himself with a nutrient serum.

When writing spec-fic, it can be easy to focus so much on creating the big-picture aspects of the setting that the everyday details are forgotten—until you’re facing your hungry protagonist in the morning with nothing to eat. And you can feed him only once you determine  how much of your made-up world should be made up.

It seems unreasonable to imagine every last detail of your setting. Sure, your world can sport a few unique fruits and a sense of fashion all its own, but you don’t have to rebuild the entire kingdom of plantae  or redesign the concept of clothing. There’s no need to reinvent every wheel. Because if you do, you’ll not only weigh down your story explaining every last detail, including your protagonist’s breakfast, but you’ll also overwhelm your readers.

Incorporating real-world details into your spec-fic setting can help ground your work. Readers will grab on to the familiar elements in an unfamiliar world and use what they know to help imagine and understand what they don’t know. Real-world details also provide a moment’s break for readers; they don’t have to work to imagine what a cup of coffee is like because they already know.

Don’t be afraid to use things from the real world in your spec-fic. You’re no less creative or imaginative for having a protagonist drink coffee for breakfast than having one who injects himself with his day’s nutrients. Your readers will appreciate the  sliver of normalcy, and the almost mundane qualities of reality in the fantastic will make your spec-fic more approachable and, most important, more believable. So start brewing that coffee.

The Old Curiosity Shop

The Old Curiosity ShopThe Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rating clarification: 2.5 stars

Skip the first half of the novel. You won’t miss much. Dickens doesn’t come to the meat of the story until over halfway through, where the action turns lively, the characters develop and deepen, and the narrative marches forward with direction. Until then, Dickens flounders about, and the reading of it is a painful going.

The Old Curiosity Shop was first published as a serial, and according to the introduction of my Penguin edition, Dickens wrote each weekly installment just before it was published. This rush to throw together a story explains the wandering feel to the first half of the novel.

For example, a first-person narrator opens the first three chapters to “introduc[e] these personages to the reader” and then bows out so that the main characters can “speak and act for themselves” (p.35). In truth, Dickens had decided by that point that the narrator would not suit his story, and he excuses him in quick order.

Dickens has a tendency to spend time with characters who have a passing role in the story. Paragraphs to pages go by detailing interesting traits and backgrounds of characters who never appear again after those descriptions. While these characters may add richness to the setting, they end up cluttering the story as pointless tangents.

Skip all this in the first half, though, and the novel is okay. Dickens writes with a surprising wit and beauty at times and a narrative voice that colours the prose with personality. His outrageous characters live on exaggeration and yet move with simple motivations. Even an independent-minded pony brings great delight and charm to the story.

Perhaps if Dickens’d had the time to plan out The Old Curiosity Shop before serializing it, the novel would be shorter, sharper, and more focused. I probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit. As it stands, the lively second half of the story doesn’t quite redeem its dull and confused counterpart. I can’t help but feel relief that it’s over.

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Thingamabobs and Whatsits, or, Research and Writing

If I make everything up, I won’t have to do any research, so thought my teenaged writer self. Equal parts lazy and equal parts fearful of being inaccurate (i.e., stupid), I wanted to avoid doing research for my writing as much as possible. Creativity and imagination should be enough for spec-fic, right?

Of course I’ve learned over the years that even imaginary people, places, and things have some basis in reality, and those very real foundations require research. Sometimes the imaginative requires more research than the real in order to be grounded and believable. My teenaged self would be groaning from all the homework my writing gives me.

What I haven’t learned or figured out yet, though, is when to do that research. The first draft seems like a good time in general because the story is malleable. In the first draft I am discovering what the story is, how it’s getting to its conclusion, and who is taking it there. All its parts are moving and experimental; the story is easy to change if my research reveals it necessary to do so.

The question with the first draft is…

Before, During, or After?

Do I research most everything I need before writing? Use the planning and outlining stage to pinpoint what I need to know and then resolve it all before I write? The catch with this approach is that I need a solid and detailed outline for my story to begin with—and that rarely happens. Also, conducting copious amounts of research before I start writing will likely kill my desire to write. It will be homework.

Do I instead research as I go because I don’t know what I need to know until I’m writing? I had been following this method, and I have to say that it’s very dangerous. Every time I come against some detail or fact I don’t know, I stop writing to go hunting on the internet. Which is a huge mistake for two reasons: one, I interrupt my own flow and lose the momentum I had writing; and two, I can easily get lost in the internet and end up distracted by irrelevant tangents.

Or do I research after my first draft, putting in placeholders for things while I’m writing to then look into later? This method is probably the friendliest to my writing, insofar that I can write Insert spontaneous toaster combustion science here and then carry on with the story with no time lost. This approach, however, could have the same problem as the first one: a pile of research to do, only in this case between the first and second drafts.

Crucial Research

A larger issue with timing and planning research is, well, researching larger issues—things that are central to the story or that will appear numerous times throughout. If one of my characters is a wheat farmer, for example, I need to have a good understanding of wheat farming before I write this character. Otherwise, a majority of scenes with and about this character will be fill in the blank.

Some research beforehand is inevitable, then, but the question again is, how much? How much of wheat farming do I need to understand before I work on my first draft? How much do I want to research first? How do I know what I need to know about wheat farming before I begin writing?

Fill in the Blanks

For the novel I’m working on now, I’m taking a fill-in-the-blank approach because I got blocked at the planning stage. I could not outline where the story is going, so to push through my frustrations, I started writing. Now as I’m writing, I’m discovering things that I need to research. However, because my writing momentum has been rather precarious with this story and I don’t want to interrupt and lose my flow, I’ve been putting in fill-in-the-blank notes as I go.

So far, it’s been working. I haven’t encountered crucial points that I need to research, so my story can carry on unharmed without the details of wheat farming. I’ve even used the Insert [thing] here method when I get stuck on story details, such as a made-up name for something or a character’s witty reply.

Keep writing! has been my mantra for this story, and I won’t let details like facts or believability get in the way of my first draft. I can clean it up later.

What is your approach to writing research? Do you research before, during, or after your first draft, or do you follow a combination of the three approaches? What works best for you?