What I Learned From “Over the Garden Wall”

Over the Garden Wall is a strange show. It’s a cartoon mini-series of ten tiny episodes, less than twelve minutes each. It purposely evokes an old-fashioned style, and while it’s not afraid of a joke, the mood of the show is often one of slowly building horror.

The show is the story of two brothers, Wirt and Greg, who are lost and trying to find their way back home. Where exactly they are (in geography or time period) and where their home might be, are all left a little bit unclear. But that doesn’t stop them from continuing down the road, accompanied by a pet frog and a talking bluebird named Beatrice.

It is strange enough that it seems a small miracle that it was ever made. It’s the sort of thing that knows exactly what it wants to be, even though that doesn’t fit very neatly into television seasons or half-hour slots, or precisely-delineated viewership and advertising segments. I expect it’s the sort of thing that people mostly either love or hate, and I fall firmly into the first camp.

As usual, I’ll eschew a traditional review. Instead, I want to comb over this beautiful oddity to see what lessons we can learn from it, to improve our storytelling.

There may be some light spoilers here, but I’m going to try not to ruin the mystery for those who haven’t watched it. If you don’t want to be spoiled, go watch it first! It’s on Hulu, and only slightly longer than a movie.

Succinctness is a Virtue

When I was a wee lad, I loved giant stories that spanned many volumes. I loved giant jRPGs that shipped on half a dozen discs. I loved TV shows that ran for the better part of a decade.

There are still examples of those things that I love, but now that I’m kind of an old guy and there are never quite enough hours in the day, I really, really appreciate things that fit greatness into a small package. I love a good short story or novella. I treasure a good miniseries or single season show.

Over the Garden Wall clocks in at under three hours in total. You can watch the whole thing in an evening, and you don’t even have to stay up late. And although each episode is quite short, each one is gratifyingly complete. Across the episodes, every major character has an arc, and the little mysteries build into big mysteries.

Even the twist ending (which could have been disastrous) is satisfying, layering additional meaning onto the episodes leading up to it. When I finished the series for the first time, the first thing I thought was, “oh man, I need to rewatch that to find all the things I didn’t pay enough attention to.”

It’s easy to make a big, messy, sprawling story. The real artistry is in crafting that story down into a svelte package where every single word is in exactly the right place, and even doing multiple things at once.

Mood Matters

Over the Garden Wall is autumnal. And I don’t simply mean that it’s set during the fall, although it is. The backgrounds are scattered with orange leaves verging on brown. There are fields, ripe and ready for harvest. There are fall festivals and Halloween parties, and as the show goes on, the chill of winter descends over everything.

There’s also the music, which is original to the show but sounds decidedly old-fashioned. It’s sometimes jovial and silly, sometimes morose and melancholy. It hovers between major and minor keys. It captures the mood of Halloween, an old festival that has continued into modern times, stripped of its original meanings: a hint of the ancient and sacred, a hint of the otherworldly and evil, a hint of banal silliness.

Almost every single episode manages a difficult trick. Each one feels like a horror story, beginning with the mundane, leading into strangeness and rising dread. Then, in the end, that menace turns out to be overblown. Everything works out fine, but that dread lingers and grows as the episodes go on.

Autumn is the season of dying. The cold death of winter is on its way, and the plants and animals seek shelter and hope for the rebirth of spring. The show is keenly aware of this, and almost everything is built around these themes of fall, winter and spring, of death and rebirth.

An overarching mood or theme like this can elevate a story beyond the individual components.

Don’t Explain Everything

The last two episodes of Over the Garden Wall come out of nowhere. At least I certainly didn’t see them coming. And yet, they’re a satisfying conclusion. They provide an explanation for what’s going on, and they provide the emotional closure that makes the whole thing feel complete.

What the ending doesn’t do is explain everything. Did everything literally happen? Or was some of it metaphorical? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and we can each ponder and debate what we think really happened.

I know there are some folks who need to have every mystery wrapped up neatly with a bow, but…I don’t understand those people! Life in the real world is mysterious, and things often go unexplained. Hundreds of years of scientific exploration have only shown us how little we really know. Stories, like science, are a way to explore the universe.

By all means, resolve those big mysteries in your stories. Answer those burning questions. But when you get to the acknowledgements or let the credits roll, consider leaving one or two things open to interpretation. A little ambiguity can make a good story feel like it was just a little too big and too real to entirely fit onto the page.

Comedy Enhances Tragedy Enhances Comedy

There are great dramas and great comedies, but I’ve always felt that the greatest works of art straddle the line between comedy and tragedy. There’s something magical about laughing at the start of a sentence and crying by the end of it.

Over the Garden Wall has some amazing jokes that have become a part of my daily conversations with my family. None of them bat an eye when I talk about burgling turts, call harmless lies “rock facts,” or mention horses who want to steal. But the show also has some relatable teenage angst, tear-jerking brotherly love, and even maybe some life-and-death stakes.

Just because you’re creating “serious art” doesn’t mean you can’t crack wise once in a while, and if you’re crafting a work of comedy you can still sneak in an emotional gut punch or two. In fact, those things can be even more effective thanks to that juxtaposition. The real world isn’t all good or all bad. It’s a mix of both. Stories that acknowledge that feel true.

Wear Your Influences Proudly

Have you ever had a great idea for a story, only to realize it’s not your idea—it’s actually from a movie or book that you forgot about long ago? I have. It’s mortifying.

As artists, there’s an incredible pressure to create something unique and new, with your own voice. To be called derivative is an insult. But the fact is that each of us is a creative soup whose ingredients are all of our most beloved influences. The art and media that you consume inevitably influence the art and media that you create.

Over the Garden Wall emulates a turn-of-the-century style in its painted backgrounds (often with sweeping countryside or dark forest), its new-yet-old-timey music, and even in the mode of speech used by many of the characters. The animation evokes Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and early Disney.

The show isn’t afraid to look, sound, or act like things that have come before. It pulls wholeheartedly from its inspirations. It wears its influences proudly. And wonderfully, by amalgamating all of these old influences with its modern writing, voice acting and processes, it manages to create something that feels unique and fresh.

Over the Garden Wall is a Modern Masterpiece

What can I say? I love this show. I love the mood that it puts me in, and I try to watch it every year around Halloween. I love how difficult it is to find any comparisons for it when I’m recommending it to people. I love that I keep finding little secrets hidden in the dialogue or visuals, even after multiple viewings.

If you haven’t watched it, go check it out. As I said in the intro, it’s on Hulu and only slightly longer than a movie. And I hope, like me, you get a little inspiration from it for your own creations.

“It’s a rock fact!”

What I Learned From “The Martian”

The Martian is a 2011 sci-fi suspense novel about astronaut Mark Watney, who finds himself stranded on Mars after a huge dust storm ends his crew’s mission and nearly kills him. It’s a book that combines near-future hard science-fiction with a classic survival story. Author Andy Weir keeps the story rooted in realistic science and extrapolates what the first few manned missions to Mars might look like. But it’s Watney’s struggle to survive and overcome one impossible challenge after another that gives the book its heart.

Rather than review a decade-old book, I decided to look at what the story does well, and what lessons I can learn from it to improve my own writing.

A Good Opening Is a Juggling Act

There’s a lot going on at the start of the book. The astronauts of the Mars mission leave their habitation module in the midst of a severe dust storm, fleeing to their launch vehicle so they can escape before it tips over in the high winds. They’re unable to see each other in the dust. When Watney is skewered by a high-speed flying antenna, disabling him and his suit’s comms, his teammates have no choice but to leave him for dead.

Weir could have started the book with this high-octane action scene, but he doesn’t. Instead, he starts with this:

Chapter 1

LOG ENTRY: SOL 6

I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.

Fucked.

Six days into what should be the greatest month of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

And it’ll be right, probably. ‘Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.

There’s no doubt that the action scene would start the book on an exciting note, and it would set up the plot nicely, but wouldn’t do much more than that. Instead, Weir starts with a log entry and Watney’s assessment of his situation, before he describes what happened.

This has a few advantages. It immediately gives us hints of Watney’s personality. The way he describes the situation is important. These few sentences set up Watney as the main character and the challenge he will have to overcome: surviving Mars, alone. This primes us to ask “what the heck happened?” And now we’re hooked, and we keep reading to find out more.

Adjust the Narrative Style to Fit Your Needs

I can’t remember the last time I read a book that splits up the scenes of the story in so many different ways.

The first five chapters (about fifty pages) are told entirely through Watney’s computer logs. We get to know him and his situation, and see him go into problem-solving mode as he tries to solve the immediate challenges of staying alive. Interestingly, the logs are relatively short, with several logs per chapter.

Next, the book goes into a third-person narrative style to go back to Earth and the folks back at NASA. There is a larger cast of characters to follow at NASA, so this shift makes it a lot easier to follow what’s happening, while sacrificing some of the closeness to a single character that the “logs” style give us with Watney.

The next major shift is at chapter 12, about halfway through the book, where we finally get a flashback to the action-packed scene of the astronauts fleeing earth. This comes at a time where things are going well for Watney, so it injects a bit of needed tension. More importantly, this flashback serves to introduce us to the rest of the crew of the Ares III mission, just in time for them to come into the story. After the flashback, we immediately roll into a scene with these same people in the present.

Finally, throughout the book, little mini-scenes and dialogues play out as back-and-forth messages between those in space and those back on earth. These serve a few different purposes, but mostly convey necessary info quickly so the story can move on to something more interesting.

What was most surprising to me about all of this is that it’s really not distracting. As long as these different techniques are written well and serve the needs of the story, they enhance the experience, rather than detracting.

Go to Great Lengths to Cut the Boring Bits

The style of Watney’s logs give Weir a great way to skip the boring parts, and opportunities to create micro-tension as Watney describes his plans in one log, then describes the results of those plans in the next log, often within the same chapter.

The story doesn’t even touch on the people back at NASA or Watney’s crewmates until it’s time for them to enter the story. All along the way, the important information is provided, the characters introduced, exactly when they are needed. Information that isn’t worth an entire scene is conveyed through quick exposition or text messages.

The book doesn’t slow down, because as soon as there’s any risk of that happening we skip ahead to the next exciting bit.

The Try/Fail Cycle is an Engine That Drives the Story

Watney is faced with a big challenge: survive and somehow get off Mars. That one overarching goal is actually composed of dozens of smaller challenges: having enough food, water and air; making contact with earth; and traveling hundreds of kilometers to another mission’s launch vehicle. Back on Earth, they have their own challenges. As the characters try to solve each problem, they sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, sometimes have to change strategies and try again, or deal with the fallout of a bad decision or unexpected event.

The book exemplifies how the try/fail cycle can drive a plot. The characters have clear goals and sub-goals, and clear stakes for success or failure. Plus, Weir uses these cycles to ramp the tension up or down. I could sense when a few things had gone well for Watney that it was just about time for some new catastrophe to blow up all his well-laid plans.

The tension only abates occasionally, to give the reader a reprieve. Once we’ve taken a collective breath, a new problem is introduced, and once again the characters have their work cut out for them. They have to inch forward, fighting every step of the way.

One example even interleaves Watney’s happy logs, where everything is going smoothly for a change, with italics description of the manufacturing process for a particular piece of equipment. What would otherwise be relatively mundane description of things going well becomes ominous as it becomes clear that the description is foreshadowing the imminent failure of that equipment, and the ensuing disaster.

Asymmetric Information Can Create Tension

For most of the book, Watney is completely cut off from NASA, or can only communicate one-way through simple morse code messages, spelled out in rocks and read through satellite photos. This creates a dynamic where Watney knows things that the people at NASA do not, and vice versa. In each of these cases, Weir uses this asymmetric knowledge to create tension.

The reader, being able to look out through multiple viewpoints, can see the incoming problem while some of the characters remain ignorant until it’s too late. The characters would have too easy a time overcoming some of these challenges if they could work together with no hindrance, so Weir creates believable problems that prevent them from working together.

Sometimes You Don’t Need a Villain

A lot of readers love a great villain, but this book really doesn’t have one, and it still works. If anything, Mars is the antagonist, but none of the characters really bear any ill will toward the big red rock. Despite effectively being a prisoner on the planet, alone for months, Watney has mixed feelings whenever he thinks he might actually escape.

If the book has any overarching message, it’s one of optimism. It says that almost anything can be overcome with human ingenuity, and our greatest strength is our ability to work together. Near the end of the book, Watney ponders how he could have never come as far as he had without the help of hundreds of people working tirelessly at NASA, along with the rest of his Ares III crewmates, and even some surprise help from the Chinese space agency.

A story like this can be hopeful without being saccharine. Not every story is zero-sum. Sometimes nobody has to lose and everyone can win. And I think that’s the kind of story that a lot of readers are finding appealing right now.

Lemony Snicket Proves I Can Love Literary Fiction

This is a review — a word which here means, “an excuse to write about a book that I like” — for the book, Poison for Breakfast. This book was written by Daniel Handler, who sometimes calls himself Lemony Snicket when he’s writing books. He mostly uses straightforward language, and when he doesn’t, he likes to define the words he’s using, as I just did, above.

Poison for Breakfast is a book that takes its time getting where it’s going, but it does get there. So I’m going to take my time getting where I’m going in this review. I’ll start by talking about music and books.

How I’ve Felt About Music

I first recall really paying attention to music, beginning to realize that I might have opinions about music, in middle school. Those opinions were mainly whether I liked a particular song or not. For some music lovers, there is a particular genre they fall in love with, and it becomes a lifelong passion. I had no conception of genre, at first. That came sometime later.

When I did develop opinions about genre, they were mostly vague and negative ones, influenced, if not outright parroting, my parents’ tastes. I recall “hating” techno, rap, and country music, or at least saying that I did.

As I grew into an adult, I made it a point of pride to seek out opinions and ideas that challenge or conflict with my own beliefs, whether that be in politics, religion, or music. I’ve been an adult for many years now (a shocking number, when I stop to think about it), and I’ve sought to listen to a wide variety of music. Luckily, we live in a world where there are still a few independent radio stations and innumerable streaming services, not to mention Bandcamp, YouTube, and all the other places where artists can make their work available to the world without much interference.

I’ve learned that there is no genre of music I truly dislike. The trick is to find a single song that I can appreciate. From there, I always find more. Rather than genres that I “hate,” it turns out I just have genres where I’m pickier.

A Little Cognitive Dissonance

From a very young age, I’ve been attracted to genre fiction. I loved books about aliens when I was a child. Around the time I was discovering opinions about music, my mother’s co-worker introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I was thoroughly hooked on fantasy as well as sci-fi.

As I grew and my tastes in music expanded, so did my tastes in literature. Once again, all it takes is finding one book to serve as a gateway into a new genre. While I once may have eschewed non-fiction or romance, I’ve discovered a love of all sorts of non-fiction in recent years, and a few romances too (even if they do have a sci-fi bent).

I just talked about how I like to keep an open mind and expand my interests. It might seem absurd then, that I would shy away from any genre of literature. But the absurdity of it doesn’t make it any less true.

Literary fiction, which oddly has become as much a closed-off genre as sci-fi or fantasy, has long left a bitter taste in my mouth. Since this is a label more controversial than most genre labels, I’ll provide my own controversial definition: “fiction that is more interested in playing with words than in telling a compelling story.” This is a definition that encompasses quite a lot of “traditional” Lit-Fic, while also allowing something like Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts, which many people might exclude, to perhaps straddle the border.

I might trace my early dislikes in music to my parents tastes, but I have a harder time tracing my literary dislikes. I’m sure it didn’t help that school foisted onto me some of these lit-fic “masterpieces,” like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, without adequate context and certainly before I was mature enough to appreciate much about them. I have gone back to a few of these books in recent years, and discovered that they at least have something to offer, even if I didn’t fall in love with all of them.

Literary Fiction

Writing a review of a book that barely mentions the book itself is considered bad form by many people. With this in mind, and having now taken a leisurely drive around the metaphorical block, let’s return to where we started this somewhat strained music/literature metaphor.

This is one of those books that, by my own definition, qualifies as literary fiction. And I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not only that, but what I enjoyed most was the words, rather than the story. I enjoyed it because it was literary fiction.

One could argue (with good supporting evidence) that this book does have a plot. It begins with Snicket, the narrator, who is told by anonymous note that he has eaten poison for breakfast. He spends the rest of the book trying to solve this mystery, though his methods mostly involve meandering around town and becoming lost in thought. It’s a tiny plot, but also a tiny book. This little bit of story is just enough to let the book focus on what it really wants to do, which is play with words.

Poison for Breakfast is so full of delightful sentences that I started marking the bits I liked with little scraps of paper. By the time I finished, there was a nice, thick ruffle of scraps sticking out. The book is full of anecdotes and asides that seem like non sequiturs until you read a bit further and find that they’re referenced again and again; linguistic winks and nods, like inside jokes with the reader. It wraps back around on itself. It pulls disparate threads together and twists them into delightful and surprising shapes.

There are motifs, like sets of rules that turn out to really only be one rule from a certain point of view, or that a good story must be bewildering, or the contents of the narrator’s breakfast, left-justified like poetry with each individual food on its own line:

Tea

with honey,

a piece of toast

with cheese,

one sliced pear,

and one egg perfectly prepared

And there is death. This is a book that mentions brutal prison camps; and death by starvation, and old age, and of course, poison.

Winks and Nods

A book about being poisoned might not sound like a child-friendly book. And perhaps it isn’t. Like Snicket’s other books, this is a book that observes the world with a child-like wonder, and discusses it with mostly simple and straightforward language. It’s a book that seems to understand a child’s perspective. It is more of a child-understanding book. It feels like the sort of conversation you might have been lucky enough to have as a child, with an adult who spoke seriously and honestly, and didn’t sugar-coat the truth or dumb-down the complicated. An adult who understood how to speak with children as equals.

By virtue of being both author and narrator, Snicket places himself where he can freely talk about his love of language and literature, and the books, poems, songs, and ideas he likes, while also illustrating that joy in his own words.

The second-to-last chapter takes all the little callbacks, the little winks and nods, and ties them all together in a neat little bundle. It’s the big reveal at the end of the magic show. And in the final chapter, Snicket sets to work writing the story you are in the midst of reading, making the whole thing feel like the cycle of chicken and egg (which is itself another repeated motif from earlier in the book).

Poison or Antidote?

Poison for Breakfast reminded me that I can love literary fiction, even if it’s not the first section I visit in the book store. As an added bonus, this is a book ostensibly for children, so I will get to enjoy it a second time when I read it to mine. With any luck, they won’t spend years thinking that they dislike whole categories of things when they are, in fact, just a little bit picky.

Five Things I Learned from The Clan of the Cave Bear

I mentioned in my previous Razor Mountain post that I was reading The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. A portion of Razor Mountain follows a pre-historic tribe, and Cave Bear is one of the few titles I’ve come across that is set in a similar time period, albeit in a different part of the world.

The book gave me some things to think about as far as prehistoric settings go. There were aspects of it I really enjoyed. However, the book also had a number of small issues that, taken together, made it a frustrating read for me. Today, I want to dig into those things, and try to discover what I can learn from them to improve my own writing.

The Clan of the Cave Bear is written mostly as straight historical fiction, with a few fantasy elements. The protagonist of the story is Ayla, a Cro Magnon (early modern human) child who loses her family in an earthquake within the first few pages. She is eventually rescued and comes to live with the titular Clan of the Cave Bear, a Neanderthal tribe that was displaced by the same earthquake and forced to search for a new cave. The Clan have only rare interactions with Ayla’s kind, who they call “the Others,” but end up adopting her.

As Ayla grows, she has to deal with the challenges of integrating into the Clan as an outsider. Though her body is noticeably different, the conflicts between her and the Clan are primarily differences in worldview. Auel drives this conflict with the fantasy element of the book. The Neanderthals of the Clan possess ancestral memories that are passed down through generations. They rely on the experiences of previous generations, as well as their own, to navigate the world around them. Auel paints the Clan as a slowly dying race. Their long memory keeps them in a rut of tradition and limits their ability to adapt to change. Ayla, as homo sapiens, lacks their racial memory, but is more adaptable and quick to learn. She chafes under the heavy tradition of Clan life, and constantly seeks out new skills and new experiences.

Lesson #1 — A Little Verisimilitude Goes a Long Way

Auel does a tremendous job constructing a believable world filled with detail. Ayla learns rudimentary medicine from her surrogate mother, the tribe’s medicine woman, who expounds on dozens of plants and their uses. The variety of animals and their habitats are also important to the Clan’s survival, and described in great detail. The tools used by the clan, how they are made, and how the go about their everyday tasks are all carefully thought-out.

I don’t know much about plants, let alone their medicinal properties, but I’m betting Auel did quite a bit of research to get the details right. She didn’t have to name all the plants, or go into detail about which ones are used to treat different ailments. The story could be told without those details. But these are things that the protagonist is learning, and things that her adoptive mother is intimately familiar with. Those details help the reader to feel what she’s feeling by learning about this plants as she does.

There is no limit to the level of detail you can include in a novel, but at some point, it bogs down the story. The trick is finding particular places to add that detail that help the setting feel more like a living world, without getting lost in the weeds.

Lesson #2 — Perspective is Powerful…and Dangerous

The story starts with the child, Ayla, losing her family in an earthquake. Although the story follows her and ostensibly shows her perspective, it becomes clear very early on that the narrator is distant, wiser than this child, and has more modern sensibilities.

Brush close by the upstream banks quivered, animated by unseen movement at the roots, and downstream, boulders bobbed in unaccustomed agitation. Beyond them, stately conifers of the forest into which the stream flowed lurched grotesquely.

As the story goes on, the narration veers into scientific terms to describe some of the animals and their less ferocious descendants in modern times. The narrator is not anchored to any character’s perspective. It’s not anchored in the time period of the story.

Some of this is personal taste and fashion in fiction writing (this kind of third-person omniscient perspective has fallen out of favor in recent years), but there are some clear downsides to this style. As a reader, it’s hard to feel close to Ayla when the narration seems to be separate from her. The occasional digressions into the more scientific and into far-future times pull the reader out of the here-and-now of the story. Jumping from the thoughts of one character to the thoughts of another in the same paragraph puts the reader at a distance to both of those characters.

This style of writing allows the reader to know what everyone is doing, what everyone is thinking, and any of the past history or future ramifications. It gives the author the power to show anything they want, at any time. The cost of that power is the distance it puts between the reader and the characters and current action.

Lesson #3 — Don’t Break Your Own Rules

Auel makes it very clear that the Clan are people with traditions. In fact, they are trapped in those traditions. Their ancestral memory is such a guiding force that they cannot adapt to change. This is stated repeatedly. When Ayla joins the Clan, she is constantly going against their norms and traditions. It is the cause of almost all the conflict in the book.

Ayla talks, laughs, and cries, all strange things to the Clan, who feel emotion, but experience no physical tears or laughter, and rely on their very limited vocal capabilities to augment a much richer sign language. Ayla hates being subservient to the men of the Clan, a social structure supposedly easily accepted by the women of the Clan. She secretly teaches herself to use a weapon, something that is strictly forbidden to women by Clan tradition. She observes rituals that she should not see. These are things that the clan believes could bring down a sort of spiritual cataclysm on them. In short, by the end of the book, Ayla has completely upended the social and religious order of the Clan.

And yet, time and again, the repercussions are limited. The laws are modified. The punishments are made less severe. The supposedly unadaptable Clan adapts constantly to her presence.

That’s a perfectly fine story structure. It’s a classic “stranger comes to town” style of plot. But it doesn’t make sense to draw so much attention to the Clan’s built-in unchageability when the rest of the story is going to go on and show them adapting every step of the way.

Lesson #4 — Characters Need Goals

Ayla certainly does a lot throughout the book. She is constantly in the midst of conflicts. This action and conflict drives the story. However, there were several points were I got the sense that the story just wasn’t going anywhere. What I eventually realized was that I didn’t know what Ayla wanted.

Most of the conflicts that come up are due to Ayla acting impulsively — doing something without thinking of the consequences. Sometimes she’s completely unaware that there will be a problem. Almost none of it involves her choosing a goal and acting in pursuit of that goal. In fact, the only instance I can think of is when she flees the Clan in order to protect her baby, which she believes they will force her to kill (it looks like her, rather than a Neanderthal baby, and is thus considered “deformed”). I don’t think it’s coincidence that these chapters were the most compelling portion of the book for me.

The other characters are also mostly lacking in goals and desires. They could mostly be boiled down to “support the status quo,” or “help Ayla with all this trouble she’s in.” There are two exceptions.

First is the leader of the Clan, Brun, who wants to be a good leader and take care of his tribe. He is often the one who has to make hard decisions about the conflicts around Ayla, and always tries to do what is best for the tribe.

Second is Broud, the son of Brun. He is the most goal-oriented character in the book. His goal is to make Ayla’s life a living hell.

Lesson #5 — Give Villains Some Good Qualities

The clear villain of the book is Broud. As a child, Ayla ends up stealing some of his thunder at an important Clan ceremony. From that point onward, he takes everything she does as a slight. Interestingly, because he hates her so much, he is the one member of the Clan who is completely intolerant of her transgressions, while the others come to accept her.

Broud is essentially the cave-man version of the 1980s “asshole jock” movie archetype. He’s selfish. Everything he does is to honor himself and gain status. The only thing he fears is his status being diminished, and only because it might prevent him from eventually becoming the leader of the Clan. He is not only cruel, but derives sadistic pleasure from that cruelty. He shows no particular love for his family or those who ally themselves with him.

The climactic end of the book comes when Broud is made leader of the clan, at which point he becomes a literal maniac, screaming and ranting. Without the looming threat of his father blocking his ascension to the throne, he immediately does everything he can think of to hurt Ayla. When Ayla and the others complain, he forces the Clan shaman to essentially excommunicate her, a spiritual punishment that the Clan views as literal death.

It’s certainly easy to manufacture conflict with a character like this, but it feels like such a caricature. Sure, he’s easy to hate. That’s his only purpose. But couldn’t he have loved his family as more than just status symbols? Couldn’t he have actually wanted to make his father proud? Couldn’t he have had some redeeming features to make him feel human?

I know plenty of people who love villains like this, so it still comes down to personal taste. I’d rather see a villain who is understandable and relatable. A villain that, were the story shown from a slightly different perspective, might look more like a hero.

Every Book Has Lessons

Even though The Clan of the Cave Bear wasn’t for me, I don’t consider it a bad book or regret reading it. I think the language of pop media criticism has become really, unfortunately black-and-white, where people talk about books, movies or music as being good or bad. We all have our own tastes, and a book that might be great for someone else just won’t hit right for me. Criticism is about justifying your opinion about art, and even a justified opinion is still just an opinion. From an author’s perspective, that’s nice, because it means readers may dislike some or all of your book, without making it a “bad book.”

In any case, I learned a lot from The Clan of the Cave Bear. By thinking about the things I didn’t like, I can work on excising those from my own work. It was useful to see a perspective on writing a story set in pre-history, and I have no doubt that it will influence me as I continue to work on Razor Mountain.

Reference Desk #12 — DIY MFA

As you might expect from the title, this book is billed as a do-it-yourself replacement for a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. Now, a single book replacing an entire four-year degree is a tall order, and it’s pretty clear as you read that it isn’t really trying to do that. What this book is trying to do is provide a scaffolding for how to build a career as a professional author.

Having never gone through an MFA program, I can’t really compare the two. The impression I get is that MFA programs tend to focus on the fine art aspect of writing and especially on literary, rather than genre writing. I don’t hear much about MFA programs really preparing their graduates for the business of writing as a career. So, while DIY MFA makes for a catchy title, the book is at least trying to be a little more well-rounded than the average MFA program (or at least my slightly fuzzy impression of one).

Breadth Over Depth

DIY MFA is organized around three principles: reading, writing, and community-building. It starts with a brief description of MFA programs, pointing out their weaknesses (as might be expected in a book that positions itself as a direct alternative). Then it goes into the details of each of these pillars.

For Writing, there are chapters on motivation and writing habits, handling rejection and failure, and then more “traditional” technique discussion: developing ideas; outlining; creating characters; beginnings, middles, and endings; voice; point of view; dialogue; world-building. Oh, and a chapter on revision.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. The writing section is the bulk of the book, but each of these chapters is relatively short. Every one of these concepts is big enough to fill entire books. For better or worse, DIY MFA chooses to cover this huge breadth of topics, rather than dig into any one of them in depth.

Next is the Reading section, which talks about reading widely in the genres you want to write, active reading with the intent to learn, and some exercises for more effectively digesting what you read. Compared to the seventeen chapters on writing, there are three on reading.

Finally, there is the Community section. This is really an amalgamation of networking and business concerns. There are chapters on workshopping and critique, crafting an author identity and a website, targeting readers, networking, and submitting work. The book doesn’t play favorites between traditional publishing or self-pub, and generally looks at aspects of the business that can benefit any author.

Who Is This For?

In my opinion, this is a book for younger or inexperienced authors. The framework of Read, Write, Build Community is a pretty good overview of the things you should at least be thinking about if you want to write as a profession. The ideas around goal-setting, organization and learning are the best parts of the book.

The sections about craft and technique are a great jumping-off point, but you’ll need to find other books, websites, resources and mentors if you want to really dig deep into any of these topics, since they’re only addressed by a single chapter of this book.

At this point, it’s worth noting that there is a robust DIY MFA website with a whole team behind it. I don’t know whether the book or the website came first, but the book certainly shows the power of connecting your various media to draw in readers.

The book suggests signing up for the DIY MFA newsletter and BONUS MATERIALS! that you can download from the website. I went ahead and signed up, and the amount of emails is right on the edge of being spammy. If you’re an author who dreams of a media empire, this is an interesting example to look at. They have articles. They have a podcast. They have a newsletter. They have a paid courses and a virtual writing retreat. They have a random writing prompt generator that’s a little bit Story Engine-esque.

The Upshot

I may not be the ideal audience for this book. I’ve read variations of the advice in a lot of these chapters before. I think the best and most important thing the book offers is the overarching ideas about what’s important for a career author, and how to stay organized and focused. It’s a good reminder of what you should be working on if you’re making your living writing, or at least aspire to. It certainly made me think about some of the aspects that I have personally been neglecting.

And while the book offers a variety of suggestions about how to do things, they’re always given with the caveat that what works for one person may not work for another. The DIY mindset requires you to develop your own best practices. This is a refreshing divergence from the many writing books that claim to provide the one and only way to do something correctly.

If you’re a young author (or a not-so-young author who is only recently committed to trying to write for a living) and you haven’t delved too much into the books and blogs and myriad resources out there, this is a perfect place to start. Just don’t limit yourself to the DIY MFA ecosystem. Find the pieces that really interest you and look for more resources on those topics.

Reference Desk #11 —Writing Comics

I recently read two of Scott McCloud’s lauded books about comics: Understanding Comics and Making Comics. These books have been around for decades, but they hold up well. And when comics treatises are praised by the likes of Art Spiegelman, Jeff Smith, and Neil Gaiman, you can be pretty sure there’s something good in there.

I wouldn’t say I’m a full-on comics nerd, but I did work at a comics shop in high school, and I have a respectable number of comics on my bookshelf and e-reader. I know what I like and dislike. And while I occasionally dabble in visual arts like drawing and painting, I’m happy to be a semi-competent amateur when it comes to producing visuals. As a writer, I’m much more interested in the craft of writing for comics. That’s the perspective I brought to reading these books.

Understanding Comics

This book is, first and foremost, a comic. McCloud understands that the best way to describe the medium of comics is within the pages of a comic. He is an adept artist and writer, rendering his ideas clearly and gracefully, with a dash of silliness here and there.

McCloud has a style that appeals to my personal tastes — he loves to define and categorize. He describes the medium of comics by breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, then showing how those pieces can be combined to build new and interesting things.

First, he goes through pages of effort to justify his chosen definition of comics: “Sequential Art,” or more precisely, “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He gives a brief history of art that fits this description, from native Mesoamerican codices to the Bayeux Tapestry to Egyptian tomb paintings, and on into more modern examples. This may sound like dry academics, but it’s much more palatable in comic book form.

Next, he discusses iconography and the complex spectrum between words and pictures; how symbols can be more relatable than realism. He categorizes the ways that a reader infers movement across time and space between the juxtaposed images of a comic, in the “gutters.” He shows the ways that words and pictures can interact together to create unique effects within comics.

Finally, he finishes the book with a broad manifesto describing all art as a series of layers, with some art at the shallow surface level, and some digging deep into other layers. This ties into the comics stuff, but it’s more like his ideas of how to make great art.

McCloud is a great observer of comics. He describes many techniques that I’ve seen before, but his categorization and explanation allowed me to understand how they work, and what they’re good at. This book is not prescriptive, it’s descriptive: it’s a fantastic description of comics from his vantage point as an articulate insider.

Even though this book doesn’t describe comics in a “how to do it” manner, it’s incredibly useful for aspiring creators. It provides framework and language for understanding the medium. These are vital tools in the creator’s toolbox.

Besides, when it comes to creation, there’s a related book called…

Making Comics

Making Comics is another comic about comics. It takes many of the concepts from Understanding Comics and uses them as a foundation. This is much more of a how-to manual, split pretty evenly between visuals, words, and general storytelling principles.

Since my interest is in writing, not art, I skimmed some of the more technical parts related to drawing recognizable expressions and body language. I focused on the parts relating to writing, storytelling, and the way the words and pictures work together.

This book will be most useful to the indie comic artist, who wants to draw and write everything themselves, or perhaps writer-artist duos. McCloud does everything, so that’s the perspective he writes from.

There is a bit less in here for someone like me, who is only interested in the writing, despite it being a thicker volume than Understanding Comics. Still, Making Comics is a valuable book, worth reading if you’re interested in any aspect of comic creation. It solidifies some of the abstract concepts of the first book in more hands-on examples.

Am I an Expert Yet?

Reading these books didn’t make me want to immediately write a comic. But that’s a good thing. They do a great job showing how deep comics can go as an art form, and that’s a little intimidating. They showed me enough to realize I’d need to put in more effort before I think about starting a comics project.

I think my next step will be to re-read some of my favorite comics and analyze what makes them great. McCloud’s books have given me the tools to do that analysis. I know I like the stories, but how are they using the medium, the “juxtaposed images in sequence,” to tell those stories so effectively?

I also want to look for good examples of comics scripts, just to learn the ins and outs of formatting. I know there’s an annotated Neil Gaiman Sandman script in some edition or another of those books, and I’m sure there are other examples floating around. I get the impression that comics script format is a bit less rigid than TV and movie scripts.

As I continue to dig into writing for comics, I’ll come back and post more updates. If you have any interest, these two books are a great starting point. And if you’ve come across any other great resources for comics writing, let me know in the comments.