Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Tolkien”

Possessed By The Muse

After last week’s Eat, Pray, Love, Write post, I realized I had written something similar a while ago. It does suggest a (pathological) pattern, but the first step to healing is to recognize the problem and share with a few hundred on-line friends. No, don’t worry, I’m not subconsciously crying out for an intervention – I have too many stories to write!. Here is the earlier post: 

The scene might be the same in any house mid-week, early evening.

Your partner is rushing to make dinner, still in his/her office clothes. Ten- year-old son is irritable, primarily because he prefers to play wall ball than eat his lunch at um … lunch break…and is now grumpy and starving. He has even pointed out that the First Lady wants him to exercise more (you just lost my vote in 2020 Ms. Obama! Tell him to eat that sandwich we made him). Older son is drowning in homework and needs help. Unfortunately it is not math where he ends up explaining it to a perplexed calculator-wielding father – it is English and father is the fastest typist in the house.

imagesFrom deep within this maelstrom, hassled wife turns around from steaming cooking pots and sees an unset, messy dinner table, a swivel chair, and a writer’s desk. The writer, sitting in said chair, is distinctly facing the wrong direction, pounding his keyboard with a vengeance that clearly indicates he is not helping older son with homework.

Suddenly, she can’t help herself. Forgetting the wooden spoon in her hand (writers notice these details especially when the spoon is being flailed in said writer’s direction), she towers over the writer, hands on hips:

“You’re writing? Now? Man, you’re just possessed!”

When my extremely patient and understanding wife flips out with something like this, it does makes one ponder the extremity of the situation.

The problem is that after a stressful few months, I had a week off over the Christmas break, and kind angels put up our family in beautiful, snowbound Tahoe, 10,000 feet high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Already on crutches from a knee operation, I was never going to cut the crisp, fresh snow on virgin slopes (I don’t even when not on crutches – at best I tumble down a 100 feet nursery slope, make sure there are photos, and then slink off for laced hot chocolate).

images-1But here, if only for a few days, I couldn’t help myself. The laptop comes on and a few snow-bound scenes of a new book somehow appear.

Possessed? Moi? Five months and 103.000 words later, despite an intense period at work and many other obligations, I type the final period, click the save command, and stare at the epilogue. Rough first draft of Wycaan Master Book 4 is completed.

Written mainly between 7.00-8.45 am and after the boys go to bed on weekdays, and a couple of hours on the weekend, or random pieces written during odd times. Waiting at the dentist, on the mass-transit BART commuting home, in San Francisco, Washington DC, Ventura, St. Louis, San Diego, and at too many airports.

images-3Possessed? Nah. Possessed would be finishing Book 4 and starting to write scenes of Book 5. Possessed. Out-of-control. Crazy.

I just wrote a few pages, mainly plot threads that I want to develop, characters that need to grow and confront their pasts. There is a bit of world-building with oceans and…

Starting Book Five might just be considered grounds for divorce, need to involve Family and Children Services, or a good psychologist (preferably one who is as much a fan of Tolkien as of Freud). 

Starting Book Five? “Now? Man, you’re just possessed!”

Fair point.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

I Didn’t Make The Cut

I’m bummed. This week 50 writers saw their manuscripts advance to the Semi-Final stage of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – YA category. My humble offering – Wycaan Master – was not one of them. It reached the Quarter-Final, ahead of a few thousand others, but…

In an odd sense of timing, I will finish reading the 95,000 word epic fantasy story to my writer’s group. They stuck with me over the past 18 months though none (until the last couple of months) read or are interested in fantasy. Thank you – Berkeley Writers Group.

Either you think epic fantasy is alive and thriving (Tolkien, Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore etc.,) or you think the only fantasy that sells is high concept – Harry Potter, The Hunger Games…

It is hard writing in two genres – social justice-themed novels reflect my lifestyle and values. Young-adult fantasy was inspired by a writing project with my preteen son and has been a lot of fun. But they serve two separate target audiences and I maintain a seperate blog and twitter account (both under the elfwriter name).

I have to admit, I’ve arrived at a junction. I have not only sweated over a first YA fantasy manuscript, but completed a second, and am 30,000 words into a third. It is  a series and I must admit: I’m kind of hooked on it.

I want to see how my young heroes (and villains – who I am also quite attached to) grow. Will the races of Odessiya unite? What is the Emperor’s secret power that enables him to keep winning? Will shy Seanchai and his guide, Ilana, ever hook up?

As a reader becomes hooked on a series and feels compelled to read through to the end, I have discovered that so can an author become ensnared. It might well be an issue of not writing an outline and having faith in the story evolving, but I need to discover what happens in the world I’ve created.

Even if I didn’t make the cut.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

The Power of Paolini – Thank You Christopher

Last week, Christopher Paolini released the fourth book in the Inheritance Trilogy (sorry Christopher – even though we (fantasy readers) are all thrilled there are another 800 pages of Eragon, we all remember the moment somewhere in the third book when we realized it was not going to end here.

Our copy of Inheritance arrived in the next couple of days and my 12-year-old is devouring it, hopefully passing it on to me to read during the Thanksgiving vacation. The Inheritance series has been a wonderful bonding experience. Whether it is Harry Potter to Eragon (or most likely both) who are responsible for his leap in reading ability and desire is immaterial, I am eternally grateful to both Paolini and J.K. Rowling.

My son and I spent endless hours reading the books, listening to the audio version, watching the (only!!!!) movie, and discussing how it will end in Brisingr, the third and not final book of the trilogy, and then doing the same for Inheritance.

When Paolini released Brisingr, my then 10-year-old stood defiantly at the front of the line in our local Borders, literally falling asleep on his feet as the clock approached midnight. I remember the lady who was working there, encouraging him to stay awake and hang on. At exactly midnight, she put a copy that she had hidden under the counter into his hands and whispered that he should buy that very copy. It was the only book in the store that Christopher Paolini had personally signed.

Fan For Life

Five minutes later, my son was fast asleep in the car clutching his autographed copy by his hero who was barely ten years older than him.

Paolini has proved a number of important points:

1. The young generation will read 400-page novels if the material is gripping enough.

2. They will read rich descriptions, convoluted plots, and identify with characters that are deep, vulnerable, and profoundly human (or elf or dwarf).

3.  They will thrive on a high level of language.

4. Tolkien might still be king, but he has good company. Paolini is young. His level of craft is only going to improve and that is an exciting prospect.

The Master

Two years later, my son and I wrote our first 90,000-word fantasy novel. The seeds were sown in the land of Alagaesia, on the wings of dragons, and in the art of an incredibly talented young man

As the excitement grew for my eldest son and I as the release date for Inheritance neared, my youngest son, eight-years-old, has quietly read more than 250 pages of Eragon.

The Complete Trilogy

So Christopher, if by any chance you ever read this: Thank you, as a reader, a fan, and a father.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Why We Read Fantasy

This week I completed the manuscript for my second fantasy novel. What began a year ago as a way to bond with my oldest son took on a whole new perspective. I had previously read Tolkien, Paolini and probably a few others, but I never considered this my genre.

Now, 180,000+ on, I am reading about fantasy writing techniques, devouring books by authors such as Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvatore, and considering getting my ears pointed (okay – but there really are people who do this cosmetic surgery).

Hey Mom, I promised no tatoos!

Whenever I tell people, especially those who know I write political fiction, about my foray into the world of fantasy, I do it in a somewhat apologetic way. Usually, I make sure to tell people that I am doing it for my son, which while true, is only part of it as my enthusiasm grows. 

The question that is on my mind these days is why do intelligent, educated adults enjoy plowing through 90,000 word tomes about elves, dwarfs and dragons? Here are some Wiki answers:

“Some fantasy readers are unhappy with their lives and think that they would be happier in another world. A place where someone who is not so successful in this world might be a hero or king in another world.”

“I like reading fantasy books because they provide me with a beneficial different point of view on world and everything. I like to think about it using the analogy to house that you may live in but you’ll never be able to understand if you don’t ever get outside and look at it from perspective.”

“You can see a lot of tiny details in fantasy books that you may somehow lose in your everyday life just because they aren’t getting enough your attention… Digest them and they’ll make your life more colorful and interesting.
A lot of fantasy is about the world we would like to see, a dream we want to pursue. Where would we be at if we didn’t dream?”
 
“Older readers might enjoy Fantasy because of its imaginative scope, and also because of the uncanny ability fantasy has to show us aspects of our own lives in an otherwise far-fetched format. People can relate to the emotions and experiences of fantasy characters, as well as mirror events in human history, through the blurred mirror of the fantasy world.”

“Fantasy is a place to escape when you no longer want to live in real life. Where you can let your imagination run free and have control over what you see and hear.

Many people like to escape the hustle and bustle of real life and be captured by a story which involves something special, unreal or different – possibly magic. People enjoy being in someone else’s shoes – someone extraordinary, so that we can look at the world through anothers eyes. You can switch off and enjoy letting your imagination run wild.”

Do you read fantasy? If so share what the attraction is for you? If you read it once in a period of your life, why then and not now?  Fascinating stuff.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

The Elves of Berkeley

I never believed in elves until I wrote a fantasy novel with my eldest son over the summer. Now they seem to be cropping up all over the place. Both my sons are desperate to get me hooked on a strategic game called Magic: The Gathering. I do love the art work and none more so than the elves.

What on earth has this got to do with a political left coast blog?

Two weeks ago, I tried to persuade my 7-year-old that elves are real (heck, he has no problem with the tooth fairy, though I don’t appreciate the winged one’s line of credit). My son remained skeptical but then we received a printed note from the Rosa Parks (the name of his school) Bike Elves.

It seems that these elves are very committed to encouraging young people to bike to school (and elsewhere). They (magically?) appear at the school and decorate the bikes at the bike rack with colorful ribbons. Now they are offering other incentives to young cyclists such as an ice cream social after school one night and to receive raffle tickets with cool prizes for riding to school.

I don’t know who these elves are, but one of them, Stephanie is willing to help children and parents map a safe route to school (I wonder if elves rely on google maps or prefer a GPS?).

In most fantasy novels, the elves have a great respect for the earth. In Berkeley, they are taking practical steps to help our youngsters embrace a healthy and socially responsible lifestyle.

Gotta love those elves!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

List That Matter – 50 Best Political Novels

I believe passionately that fiction writers can use their ability to help effect positive social change. My novels all reflect this and I was delighted when Kaitlyn Cole from Online Universities shared a list that their faculty had put together entitled: 50 Best Novels For Political Junkies.

Kaitlyn wrote: “True story: Some of the best political novels aren’t explicitly about politics. Yes, some of the books on this list deal directly with governments and politicians, with laws and the ways they’re made or abused, and with the peril and promise inherent in every governing body. But some of them use adventure, parable, or satire to subtly explore our political system with a depth that wouldn’t be possible any other way.”

Great point. So far, the four novels that I have written all carry a political message, as you can see on my website. But over the summer I had the amazing experience writing a fantasy novel together with my 11-year-old son. While I have read a few fantasy novels, I had no idea about the “rules” of the genre.

Writing with my son, however, compelled me to include moral issues such as racism, dictatorship and freedom, as well as the values of friendship and freedom. I was writing for my son and there is (I hope) plenty of swords, quests, elves, dwarves etc., but as I watched him read and listened to his feedback, I waited for his comments about such issues and derived huge satisfaction when he did.

When my wife and I discussed whether to allow him to watch Lord of the Rings which features a lot of violence, I suggested that the most important message from Tolkien’s trilogy was that of friendship.

My lack of knowledge regarding fantasy leads me to ask the question: Can fantasy offer a vehicle to discuss political and social injustice? I would love to hear your answers fantasy-fans.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday Pele

I love the summer. We take a family vacation, my work slows, there seems more time to exercise, fish, write, and have quality time with my family. Almost everything I listed (apart from the latter, I do by myself. I work out, fish (usually), and write alone. But the highlight of this past summer was a fusion of two of these pastimes, and it was a treasured experience.

I often wonder how my sons perceive me. I spend long hours away from them during the week, and as they grow up, I find myself competing with their natural desire to hang out with their friends. In fact, during the week we will spend no more than two hours a day together and that is usually reduced to a frenzy of preparing and eating the main meal of the day, pushing them to complete their homework, bathe and go to bed at a reasonable time. They must resent my drive to write and promote myself as an author – an act that necessitates me being absent from home 1-2 evenings a week or on weekends.

So I was thrilled when my eldest son suggested, on the first evening of our vacation, that we write a book together. He devours fantasy novels and this was always going to be our common ground. I am not apathetic to a good sword fight, or a ride on the back of a dragon, and I have only read or watched Lord of the Rings about a dozen times.

It was amazing to sit in a mesh tent, surrounded by majestic redwoods and tap out a story on my noble white steed (a mac book by any other name). We disagreed here, he corrected my word choice there, and though it was me driving the story on, it never ceased to be a collaborative effort.

My sons are aware of my drive for social justice. I tell them when I have volunteered at the food bank, and have heard from other parents and teachers when my eldest has told them about my annual trip with students to help rebuild the Gulf Coast. I refrain (or try to) from lecturing him on such values as I refrain from pushing him to write. I figure that the best I can offer as a parent is to be a role model.  The choice must always be his.

More experienced parents tell me that I will learn to accept his choices as he grows up. I guess it makes it  special when our paths do fuse together, and all the more so when he makes the choice. I have no idea if our fantasy novel is any good. I doubt that Tolkien, Paolini or Terry Brooks need lose any sleep over our creation. But however good it is, it will always be very special for this father. Often the journey overshadows the destination.

Happy Birthday, Pele.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

Writing With My Sons

My annual family camping expedition is always exciting for me. It is an opportunity to spend intensive time with my sons and wife without the interruption of screens, play dates, or work.

We have seen orcas in the ocean, bald eagles in the sky, caught our first trout each, biked in the redwoods, driven boats on lakes, and much more. This year we had an experience that was particularly special.

My eldest son is 11 and loves reading fantasy. Give him swords, a quest and some dragons, and he can disappear for hours even as he sits in our living room. About six months ago, we began writing a fantasy novel, just a few pages and then forgot it in the humdrum of regular life.

During this vacation, we reread what we had written and began writing again. Our younger son (7) joined in. And now we have 12,000 words on the page (well, word document).

The book might come to nothing, but sitting under the stars, gas light on a picnic table, my sons either side of me as we rode the creative waves of writing together was truly exhilarating. We might not be an immediate threat to the masters: Tolkien, Donaldson, Brooks et al, but I will treasure what we wrote and especially the experience of creating together.

Good Writing,
Alon

ALON SHALEV
Oilspill dotcom – in paperback & currently on Kindle for $4.99

A Moment of Appreciation

Wade Mayer, who manages an excellent blog called Inviting Conversations: Intelligent Dialog Connecting Thoughtful People, posted a question on our LinkedIn Writer’s group. He asked whether we put our family events on our business calenders. In sharing my response, I realized how strongly I feel about the challenges facing achieving excellence in my work, my writing and my parenting.

My response:
Always! The challenge of maintaining a work:life balance is the most difficult juggling act I face. I love my job and my writing life, both hopefully impact others to create a better world. Raising two young boys that they might become a positive force for change and sharing quality time with a life-partner who makes me a better person, demands just as much attention.

I am learning to live with the fact that I cannot promote my novels that are already published, edit the current completed manuscript, and write the next novel. All this while holding down a full-time (and wonderful) job, and being a meaningful influence as my children develop, as well as being a supportive life-partner.

But it’s hard. I’ve been struggling with the usual winter coughs and colds for too long. No time to slow down and let the body recuperate. In the words of Jack Kerouac:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…”
On the Road, Jack Kerouac

And I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Final word: I am speaking at the Californian Writer’s Club on Sunday (March 21), at 2.15 p.m. in the West Auditorium of the Oakland Main Library at 125 14th Street near the Lake Merritt BART station. Enter directly from Madison Street between 13th & 14th Streets.

Love to see you there.

Alon
http://www.alonshalev.com/

With Respect to the Classics

I have just read A Catcher in the Rye, and finished listening to the third Lord of the Rings on audio book during my daily commute. At the same time, I am editing Unwanted Heroes and making some changes for the next printing of Oilspill dotcom. To help me with the latter, I am consulting various guides to self-editing, receiving invaluable feedback from the Berkeley Writer’s Group, and drinking a lot of wine (when someone tells me that a passage is lucid and flowing, I silently thank the Grape Goddess).

But reading my own work and trying to fit it in to the rules: plot-driven, show-don’t-tell, no repeating words, no adverbs etc. etc… I can’t help wondering what were the rules for Salinger, Tolkien, Dickens, or Hardy?

Let’s face it. These guys have made it. They are the immortals, the literary gods, forever a part of history. We admire and envy them.

Most authors want to write bestsellers and make lots of money (okay, at least I’m being honest) and we all want our books to be read after our deaths and in centuries to come, enabling us to join the immortals. The question thus stands: do we write for today or forever? Do we sacrifice quality (if indeed that’s what it is) to become a hit today?

Kill your babies! Another golden rule of self-editing. But I love my babies. I see their worth, a rich tapestry woven of detail, a clear memory engraved forever. What fantasy reader doesn’t have a clear succinct picture of Middle Earth engraved in his/her mind? That comes from reading (and sometimes toiling) through pages of rich description. Some die-hard fantasy followers have even written Elven as a second language on their resumes .

Still, I am no Tolkien, but every time I press on the delete button, I feel I have left behind a friend, a painful step forward of a yet unfulfilled journey.

Good Writing,
Alon

http://www.alonshalev.com/

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