Writing Kidlit Magical Realism

 

Gene Wolfe advises young writers at the Shared Worlds camp. Via BuzzFeed

Today, I stumbled across this piece of writing advice from sci-fi writer Gene Wolfe. “Start the next book.”

Yikes! I’m still editing The Temple of Lost Time with my ASA mentor. I just finished an epic overhaul involving the wholesale slaughter of darlings and ruthless culling of scenes that slimmed my pudgy 66,000-word manuscript down to a lean 54,000 words with a taut-n-terrific middle. Next we polish.

I can’t possibly start something else.

Can I?

I’ve been reluctant to work on multiple writing projects at once. What if I mix up characters or lose the voice of one work or do something stupid with the files?

Erm, no. I’ve realised two things. First, it’s unlikely that I’d have two manuscripts at the same stage of development. The kind of thinking and energy required in pre-writing is very different to that of outlining, drafting, revising and finessing.

Second, I will not manage to create a significant body of work if I maintain my current ambling pace. Just as stores need stock to sell, serious writers need finished works. It’s time for me to shift gears to generate more stories.

Off the Back Burner

My Graceland (working title) project is so exciting I’m almost giggling at the prospect of sticking my fingers into its gooey belly. After some 12 months of preparatory mulling and reading, I have a protagonist named Tallulah and a cast of odd-bod characters, a cool setting I can’t wait to explore, an intriguing genre, and the first shreds of research.

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Graceland will be a contemporary middle-grade coming-of-age story with a dusting of magical realism. I want to create a story that feels like Roald Dahl’s Matilda—funny and poignant, filled with heartbreak and hope, but with a darker, issue-laden backdrop. The Secret Life of Bees comes to mind, but my protagonist will be 12 or 13, a year or two younger than Lily Owens in Bees. And I want some wry Aussie humour to buoy it. Think: Cloudstreet for kids.

Why Magical Realism?

We all know the adage: Write the book you want to read. Well, the book I just described is exactly what I want to read. If I l lined my favourites on a shelf, I would see a trend – a strong leaning toward magical realism, which I love because it’s atmospheric. Think of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Secret Lives of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Skellig by David Almond

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Even elements of The Secret Garden could be considered magical realism.

The bigger question is what is magical realism. It’s a valid question, because just about everyone—including authors, agents and editors—is confused.  It’s no wonder: magical realism is by nature vague. Simply put, it portrays a mundane world where magical (or miraculous) things happen without question or explanation.

 “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.” – Luis Leal

I have been reading up on the genre for a while now to prepare myself. I hope I can pull it off. It takes a light touch to get the balance of realism and magic right—subtle yet substantial. It can’t be tinsel and bobbles tossed on at the end. It has to lie in the warp and weft of the story. More reading is required. With any luck, I’ll absorb ‘it’ by osmosis.

Really Good Magical Realism Resources

Lindsay Moore‘s Magical Realism article on the Emory Postcolonial Studies site presents a brief academic overview with two examples and a useful list of characteristics.

How about an academic  article that refers specifically to magical realism in children’s literature? In particular, David Almond’s Skellig. Don Latham’s paper is insightful. Particularly useful are the references to Wendy Faris’s five characteristics of magical realism. What a find this was! It came from a site called Alice’s Academy, which is an off-shoot of The Looking Glass: New Perspectives in Children’s Literature, a database which is now hosted by Australia’s La Trobe University. #RabbitHoleWarning!

Agent-Editor-Author Michelle Witte has a 5-part series that unpacks magical realism and gives some examples of texts. She boils it down to “ordinary events with a touch of the extraordinary.” Michelle’s series is comprehensive and avoids getting bogged down in the political and historical roots of the genre/movement. Those are interesting and valid points, but they don’t help with creativity.

Ted Gioia, a world authority on jazz and books, covers the latter on one of his sites, Conceptual Fiction. One year, he completed A Year of Magical Reading, reading and reviewing a book a week that incorporates elements of fantasy, magic, or the surreal. Use this one to find well-written reviews on what Ted calls Conceptual Fiction, which is literary genre fiction. I spent a couple of hours browsing his virtual shelves. #RabbitHoleWarning!

My Goodreads Magical Realism shelf  has over thirty titles to consider. Take a look if you’re looking for titles for kids or adults. Or the HuffPost has nine suggestions for grown-ups.

[I will add more resources as I find them.]

Going to Graceland

Now that I’ve given myself permission to work on Graceland, I’ll continue reading magical realism for grownups and children. I’ll research elements of the story (setting, themes, etc) in earnest, looking for my propelling nugget of goodness or PNG, a deliciously quirky fact that makes my story take off. And I’ll start planning my character arcs working toward an outline…

…All while polishing the other MS, The Temple of Lost Time.

Over to You

Do you have a favourite magical realism title? What do you think about working on more than one project at a time? Got any tips?

Image Credits

Gene Wolfe’s hand via BuzzFeed

Record Store by Yaroslav Blokhin via Unsplash

Staying Ground by Rob Potter via Unsplash

My Favourite Five Reads – 2016

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Some people evaluate the passing year in wins; others in sales, gigs, or publications. I have a tradition of summing up a year in titles. Out of the (nearly) fifty books I read in 2016, here is my annual list of best reads.

My Favourite Five

David Copperfield by Charles Dickensdavidcopperfield

I blogged about this one shortly after reading it. (Read it here).

I  confess that I loved  this book so much I was compelled me to buy a special (used) Folio Society edition as a keepsake. (Hey, don’t judge me. I write Victorian fiction. It’s an investment in a resource, right?)

 

JonathanStrangeMrNorrellbySusannaClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell  by Susanna Clarke

Gosh, I loved this book, but it isn’t one I readily thrust into friends’ hands. I’m not entirely sure others will love it as much as I did. It is weird and dark and really long. I put off reading it for years, because its oozing footnotes seemed like they’d be a dreary chore to read. (They weren’t!)

Ultimately, its brilliant premise won me over: What if once upon a time English Magic existed, but it faded into obscurity and is all but forgotten? And what if one man seeks to revive it for the good of the realm?

Mr Norrell is a magician and a pernickety, reclusive man who, after years of rigorous solo study, performs powerful magic that makes him an instant celebrity. Soon the English government is calling on his services to rectify civil disasters and gain military advantage over enemies. English Magic is making a comeback so big he has to take on a student. Enter the charismatic Jonathan Strange, quite a different character altogether. Together, they do great good for England, and all is well until the teacher and the pupil clash.

Susanna Clarke’s world building is extraordinary thanks in part to the footnotes I mentioned. She references a fictitious canon of books of magical scholarship. It’s fascinating how much plausibility and texture this quirky little device added. I listened to the audio version (which was exquisite), and surprisingly the footnotes weren’t a bother at all. (Reviews of the digital version indicated that the footnotes were a nuisance.) In an interview with the New York Magazine, she explains how she achieved such realism in a book about magic. “One way of grounding the magic is by putting in lots of stuff about street lamps, carriages and how difficult it is to get good servants.”

So who is Susanna Clarke? Here are some fascinating facts:

  • JS&MN is her debut novel (but she works in publishing).
  • She put ten years into the manuscript, sometimes fearing she’d never finish it.
  • After two rejections by publishers, Bloomsbury offered her a £1 million advance on an unfinished manuscript! (2003)
  • She (apparently) hasn’t written another novel.

Clarke didn’t have a name for the book’s genre, though there are plenty of possibilities offered, from pastiche to fantasy to alternative history. I believe it is gaslamp fantasy, which means it is an alternative history with a magical twist. (Read about gaslamp fantasy here.) The subplots were intriguing; the characters unforgettable; and the settings vividly eerie in their coldness. Set at the dawn of the Nineteenth Century with the Napoleonic Wars brewing and raging, Lord Byron and Lord Wellington play important parts in the book.

If you’re not up for  a 36-hour audio book or an 800-page book, check out the BBC’s TV mini series. If I haven’t convinced you, consider this article that says Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is “just as magical as Harry Potter.” I’d love to know if you’re as smitten as I am. [For grown-ups (and precocious younger readers who love footnotes)]

The Lie Tree by Frances HardingeTheLieTreebyFrancisHardinge

Winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year, this was another title in my  gaslamp fantasy binge. I’d seen a flurry of articles about Frances Hardinge online, and was intrigued by the woman who wears a fedora for its sense of adventure.  She’s a master storyteller: her writing in The Lie Tree is utterly captivating, the plot is surprising, and the themes are big and important—everything we bookworms hope a book could be.

The protagonist Faith, 14 and stuck in a ‘training corset’, grapples with heady topics: societal conventions and  limitations on women, the discovery of the flaws in her father’s character, the clash of science and religion in Victorian England, and the mob mentality of people. Big ideas, fresh characters, and lovely writing made this one deliciously memorable. [MG]

TimWintoCloudstreetCloudstreet by Tim Winton

I mistook Cloudstreet as an ordinary tragicomical family drama, which didn’t overly excite me even if it’s considered a modern Aussie classic and one of Australia’s favourite books. But when I saw it classified as magical realism, I was instantly intrigued. I knew I had to read it as research for my  WIP Finding Graceland.

The audio version is performed to perfection by Peter Hosking, who brought Tim Winton’s lush writing into full Technicolor splendour. Read it—you’ll never forget the characters or how the book gripped your  heart. [For grown ups]

EchoPamMunozRyanEcho by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I mentioned above I was seeking magical realism books to read, and this was one of them. I loved its light touch, but most of all I was impressed with the book’s beautiful structure.

Echo tells the stories of three young people in the WWII era, who are connected by, well … an enchanted harmonica. Now, as weird as that sounds, it is an amazing tale, full of music and heartbreak, pathos and redemption.The whole thing is bracketed in an original fairy tale. The ending is one of the most satisfying I can remember. Don’t let the harmonica-fairy tale thing throw you. This book is swoon-worthy.  [MG/YA]

Over to You

Have you read any of the titles above? Leave your thoughts in the comments. Happy reading in the coming months!

Image Credit: Ian Schneider, CC0, via Unsplash