Guest Post

Guest Post: Marie Brennan on Fairy Tales

For the second year in a row, I’ll be up north — likely with spotty internet access — when my book comes out. D’oh! So I invited Marie Brennan, author of the forthcoming book With Fate Conspire [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy], to do a guest post.

Please welcome Marie, and if you enjoy her post as much as I did, go check out her LiveJournal. Or take a peek at some of her books over on her web page.

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Jim has unwisely loaned me his podium for a day while he’s out of town, and since this is the week that The Snow Queen’s Shadow [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] launches, I figure I should talk about fairy tales.

I actually have a degree in the subject — nearly had two, before I left graduate school to write full-time. (Yes, they give degrees in folklore.) We studied lots of things, not just fairy tales, but they were always one of my particular interests. So I speak as a semi-expert on the subject when I tell you:

I have no idea what the hell these people were thinking.

You know how you can tell that “The Snow Queen” is a literary fairy tale, rather than a part of the oral tradition? It makes sense. Evil mirror, shard in the eye, everything looks unpleasant; sure, I follow. But what about these opening lines, to a lesser-known Grimm tale? “There was once a little mouse, a little bird, and a sausage, who formed a partnership. They had set up housekeeping, and had lived for a long time in great harmony together.”

Whut?

I’m sure Bruno Bettelheim could explain how this story expresses and resolves the oedipal conflicts of children — but that’s because Bettelheim liked to make up data to support his pet theory. Me, I can’t tell you what the heck that’s supposed to mean. If you think fairy tales make sense, that’s because you’re mostly familiar with the ones that have spent two hundred years going through the rock tumbler of the literary tradition, having their nonsensical edges worn off. We heard things in my folklore classes that simply defied all sense. My professor told us one folktale (non-European, but at this late remove I can’t remember where it came from; maybe Swahili, as that was my professor’s specialty) where the heroine spent most of the tale being chased by the demonic severed head of her grandmother, and then when she finally found a way to destroy it, she got cosmically punished for being a bad grand-daughter. (Moral of the story: you owe filial piety even to demonic severed heads?) If “The Snow Queen” had been an oral tale instead of a literary one, Kay’s mind would have been corrupted by a bit of shell under his fingernail or something.

Sometimes I think the entire thriving sub-genre of fairy-tale retellings is our collective attempt to wrestle the things into making actual sense. Not just the retellings, either; the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen went through seven editions in forty-five years (not counting ten editions of the “children’s version”), and while some of that involved adding and removing tales, there was a heck of a lot of editing going on, too. (Despite Jacob urging collectors to record things “without any cosmetic touch-up or addition.”) They mashed tales together, expanded plots, added Christian elements and tried to scrub out French ones; the 1810 manuscript of “Hansel and Gretel” has the children’s mother sending the kids out to die, before it got changed to a step-mother. Can’t have the story reflecting badly on the flower of German motherhood!

It isn’t that there’s no logic to them; folklorists have spent plenty of time analyzing what makes fairy tales go. It’s just that their logic is not our Earth logic. Vladimir Propp laid out a very clear grammar governing the order of events in Russian folktales, and Max Lüthi did an excellent job of describing their aesthetic laws. None of it is much like modern fiction — not even fantasy. Characters in folktales (European ones, at least) don’t bat an eyelash at a talking lion or a mountain made of glass, and if they have to cut off a finger to make a key to open a door, they do it without even saying “ow.” Modern fantasy more often bears a resemblance to the folkloric category of “legend” . . . but that’s a topic for another post.

The thing about fairy tales is, they’re like Rorschach ink-blots. What you see in them depends on who’s looking. And that, I think, is why we go on retelling them: we keep seeing with new eyes, finding new things to amplify or argue with. Their very simplicity and persistent weirdness makes them nigh-infinitely flexible — and at the same time, the shared familiarity of the most common tales means your audience is already part of the conversation you want to have. No wonder we keep coming back to them.

Savor the Moments

Good morning!  I’m not actually online today.  This week I’m writing these blog posts from the past!

Except for today, because I didn’t actually write this one.  Today’s post was written (also in the past!) by Jon Gibbs, author of the novel Fur-Face, and founder of Find A Writing Group.

Jon also maintains an interesting and useful writing blog, one I’ve been following for a while now.  My thanks to Jon for helping to fill in this week while I’m away.

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I’ve been a fan of Jim’s writing and blogging skills for a long time, so you can imagine how thrilled I am to be posting an entry here on his blog.  I hope I can justify his confidence in me.

Savor the Moments

A career in writing is not for the faint of heart.  Writers go through a huge amount of negative before they ever get published, and (I suspect) even more of it afterwards. 

Before he/she ever makes that first short story sale, a writer can expect to receive rejection after rejection from editors and slush readers, most of whom offer little or no feedback or encouragement.  Critiques from fellow writers, however well-meaning, tend to focus on what doesn’t work, and though that’s to be expected (it’s the point of them, after all), they too can be a bit of a downer. 

Then there’s a writer’s family and friends.  I’m fortunate in that the people who matter in my life are incredibly patient and supportive about my fiction habit, but many folks aren’t so lucky.  Spend some time around other writers and you’ll hear plenty of stories about family and so-called friends either belittling, or even mocking their efforts.

“If there’s so much negative, why bother?” I hear you ask, as if we could ever stop making up stories.

In truth, many folks do give up.  You may well know some of them.  They got to a point where they couldn’t take the negative anymore, so they told themselves whatever they needed to hear to justify giving up on their dream, and settled for something less.

How can we avoid that same fate?  I can think of three ways, which I’ll offer in reverse order:

#3  Never refer to yourself as ‘unpublished.’
Whether you’ve just started writing, or you’ve been submitting stories and novels for thirty years without a single publishing credit to your name, you’re not ‘unpublished’ you’re a ‘not yet published’ writer, and don’t let anyone tell you different.

#2  Spend time with other writers.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a critique group, a workshop, a conference, or even hanging out with like-minded scribblers online.  So long as those folks aren’t having a pity party, spending time with them will do your confidence the world of good. 

#1  Learn to savor the moments.
“Moments?” you say.  “What moments?  I’ve never even been published.   I’ve never had a moment.”  Oh, you have them all right, but do you stop to enjoy them?  Remember that feeling you get when a new story idea comes to you, or you come up the first few lines of a new project, or print out a finished first draft?  Most other folks could never do those things (though a surprising number seem to believe they could if they only had the time).  Take a few seconds to appreciate that.

Every time you submit a story, take a ‘moment’ to feel proud of yourself.  Heading out to a writing group or some other writerly-type meeting?  When you pull up in the car lot, sit back awhile and savor the feeling of a dream pursued.  

When you get a rejection with a ‘not this time, but please try again,’ make sure you appreciate what that means.  That editor’s telling you he/she liked your writing.  Your story didn’t suck, it just wasn’t right for that publication at that particular time.  Every now and then you’ll get a hand-written note of advice/encouragement (or the email equivalent), sure, it’s still a rejection, but someone thought enough of what they saw to offer you some encouragement.  Set some time aside to enjoy that feeling.

Non-writer might question why any of the above is worth celebrating.  Ignore them.  Taking pleasure in your minor achievements helps you stay positive and fortifies your dream.  That’s always a good thing.

How about you?

What moments will you savor in the coming weeks?

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Born in England, Jon Gibbs now lives in the USA, where he’s the founder and proud member of The New Jersey Authors’ Network and FindAWritingGroup.com.  His debut novel, Fur-Face (Echelon Press) is available from Amazon.com (Kindle) and in other e-formats at OmniLit.com.

When he’s not chasing around after his three children, Jon can usually be found sitting in front of the computer in his basement office. One day he hopes to figure out how to switch it on.

Jim C. Hines