Thursday, October 23, 2014

NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and The Story

I don't even remember when I first heard about National Novel Writing Month. It must have been the first year I was studying in the USA (that is 2007) and I remember liking the idea. I was a published author by then, so I already knew an important thing about myself: I simply cannot write alone. Maybe this stems from also being a performing storyteller, being used to constant audience feedback, but whatever the reason, it was really hard for me to get motivated when alone, and so I was constantly seeking out family members, friends, and other people not fast enough to run away, to bounce ideas and get feedback for my work. I also loved working alongside other writers, even if our genres didn't mix well, just for the motivation of writing along (yes, I am extremely competitive, thanks for asking).
In the past 7 years, I did not always participate, and when I did, I didn't always hit the 50k goal. Last year was an epic fail, for example, mostly because it collided with my first year of PhD. But the year before (2012) marked the start of my book, Tales of Superhuman Powers (55 re-tellings of folktales that feature superpowers), my first English language work, that got published by McFarland.
You win some, you lose some.

Except, you really don't lose anything.

Now, while hundreds of thousands people participate each year, NaNo also has its critics. Most of them belong to the "NOBODY CARES" camp of people (I never understand why they are on social media in the first place, if they will whine about having to look at other people's interests), and some of them are believers in "high literature" that don't trust the quality of works that come out of 30 days of crazed writing.
So here is the thing: NaNo is not perfect, and it is not for everyone. It will also not turn you magically into a bestselling author if you leave your work as it is on November 30th. There are good things, there are bad things. From my experience, here are some of them:

The Good

1. Motivation. NaNo was designed to make you put your ass into a chair, your hands onto a keyboard, and start the book you always planned to start 'someday.' It also keeps you on track with word counts and various other built-in mechanics of the challenge.

2. Community support. Despite the claims of 'nobody cares,' I have seen people actively help each other during NaNo, instead of just tooting their own horn. Heck, the forums are full of questions and answers. People support, encourage, and motive each other; they give feedback, and help with research. As they should.

3. Pre-release audience building. Who said getting people interested in your work has to start after publishing? People are invested in works if they see them being formed, and even more if they participate in their creation by supporting and motivating the author. NaNo is a great place to build interest, a following, and an audience that keeps you going simply because they want to read the finished product.

The Bad

1. Deadline stress. Are you a person that gets stressed out about deadlines and shuts down entirely? Maybe NaNo is not for you. Or maybe it's just more of a challenge.

2. Number of people. Sometimes I get intimidated by the sheer number of books people write during NaNo. How am I ever going to be one of the few that get picked up? Is it even worth trying while so many other people are also competing in the same market? Are we going to turn from writing buddies into competitors the moment November is over? While a great place for support and help, just because of the sheer number of participants, NaNo can also be intimidating.

3. Extra work. NaNo was designed to make you put out 50k words in a month to kick off your next writing project. However, since editing is forbidden during November, a lot of what you put out in a writing frenzy will probably land off the cutting table in December. It would be interesting to see percentages of how much useful written material people actually get out of NaNo. I know I scrapped an entire project once.
(But still: Getting started in the first place is priceless. At least you find out what direction you didn't want to go in).

The Story

While I don't always use it to its full potential, I do believe in NaNo. Mostly because I am not convinced that writing was ever supposed to be a solitary act. I know storytelling certainly isn't. We are social beings. Maybe we just create better within a community.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Call for Participants for a Survey on Bards and Storytellers in Role-Playing Games!

Call to gamers in the tabletop role-playing field: 
I am looking for participants for a research project on Bards and other storyteller-type characters! My name is Csenge Zalka, and I am currently a PhD student at Bowling Green State University. I am conducting a research project on how people play storyteller-type characters, and what they like or dislike about them.

If you have ever played a storyteller-type character (Bard, Eshu, Gaillard, Trubadour, Fatemaker, Lore-keeper, etc.), and you would be willing to participate in the project by filling out a short (15-20 minutes) online survey, please follow the link below! You have to be at least 18 years old to participate. 
Thank you!

If you want to fill out the survey, follow this link!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MythOff Bowling Green: Newbies take the cake!

We had Bowling Green's (and, in fact, Ohio's) second ever MythOff event tonight!
And we saw that it was fun.

The venue was brand new: We have moved to Café Havana, the home of the Bowling Green Open Mic Night, and were greeted with the roaring sound of delicious fresh-made smoothies. Thus, MythOff was preceded by Smoothie Hour, until everyone had ordered all the heavenly beverages of their heart's desire, and settled down for the tales.
Our host, once again, was Tom (also, incidentally, the host of Open Mic), and he carried us with eloquence and empathy through the evening.
The lineup was as follows:

Round One: Giants!
In the Norse corner, Jamie opened the night with the tale of Thor's Jounrey to Utgard. In the Ossetian corner, bringing the Nart sagas to MythOff for a historic first time, was yours truly with the story of Soslan and the Giant's Skull (this tale, in which the Nart heroes excavate, reassemble and resurrect a giant from his skeleton, has a soft spot in my archaeologist heart).
The prize was the Stallion of Giants, a "full-sized horse" that was supposed to make you feel like a giant yourself (a tiny, tiny horse in a tiny, tiny box, obviously). It was awarded to the tale that sounded the most sexually charged when taken out of context (Tom's take on the questionable wording we both used describing giant parts and giant sounds). Jamie, a first-time MythOff participant, carried the steed home to his feasting hall.

Round Two: Love and War
This round pitted two first time MythOff tellers against each other with thundering success. They did not only brave the stage and the stormy seas of myth, but they also battled the demons of the blender and the steaming machine, masterfully subduing them and incorporating them into their tales. In the Irish corner was Flannery, an Open Mic veteran with a passion for Irish stories, who delivered the most upbeat version of Deirdre of the Sorrows that I have ever heard, until she brought it to a stunning and shockingly deep ending. In the Russian corner competed Zack, our SCA bardic champion, with the tale of Ilya Muromets and the Magic Sword, which was as unknown as it was spellbinding.
The prize for the round was the Arrow of Love and Hate, an obsidian arrowhead fashioned into a necklace. It was awarded for the story that reflected most the nature of the storyteller performing it. It was awarded to Flannery, for her feminine and thoughtful take on Deirdre.

Round Three: Resurrection
This round was, sadly and tragically, cut short because one of our storytellers, Dan, had to leave to take care of an emergency. The other teller, Clarke, a second time MythOff participant, did take the stage though, with a gruesome yet colorful Aztec myth about the origins of the human sacrifice.
The prize for the round was the Globe of Resurrection, a shining bouncy ball symbolizing the ability to bounce back from the worst. It was awarded to the storyteller who seemed to be the most present in his tale. The vote unanimously went to Clarke on that one.

In the audience, we had a shifting number (around 30) of rapt listeners who followed us into the world of myth and awarded the tales with applause and appreciation.

All in all, it was an epic night. And a really nice strawberry banana smoothie.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Read some quality historical fiction today!

I found out big news today: Robert Merle's Fortune de France series, one of the great reading adventures of my youth, is finally being published in English! I wanted to share this with you English-speaking readers, and make a case for adding this book to your shelves.
Not too long ago I wrote a post about 6 Books that Need an English Translation a.s.a.p. My prayers (or whining?) seem to have been answered, and Pushkin Press is proudly presenting us the first volume of one of them this September: Robert Merle's The Brethren.
Fortunes of France (or, as I knew it growing up, French History) is a captivating, exciting and adventurous series of historical fiction that takes place in late Medieval France. The whole series is 13 volumes long, enough to take you through several decades of turbulent 16th century French history, and well into the early 17th century, the world of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu so well-known from... other books. In the midst of struggle between royal houses, religions, and nations, our hero Pierre de Siorac works his way through France (and most of the lovely ladies of his time). Adventures, gallantry, some plague, lots of rapier fighting, complicated politics, generous amounts of love, dark tones, likeable characters, and a quite accurate picture of life in those times makes these books an experience that stays with you permanently.

This is not really a book review. The books have been out for a while, they are a proven classic, and people who have read them already know that they are amazing. Hopefully they will be even more popular now that they are available for the English-speaking bookworm crowd.

(...Who am I kidding? I am willing to hit you over the head until you read them.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

5 Things to Love About the SCA

When you fill out the Ultimate Geek Test (which you should), you get extra points for being in the SCA, and even more extra points for holding an office in the SCA. In mainstream culture, being a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism is usually seen as an extremely geeky/nerdy activity. Which is totally fine with me, because I am a nerd. But there are also a lot of stereotypical ideas and misconceptions out there about what the SCA is, or what we do. Without attempting to dissolve all of those, today I had the inspiration to make a list of some of my favorite things about being a SCAdian:

1. Community that talks
We eat together, we sit together, we play together, and we talk a lot. I cherish the times when we sit around, everyone working on their own project of embroidery, spinning, knitting, weaving, etc. and while our hands work, we talk about things. Not just SCA things. All kinds of things. We talk about our day, and work, and the movies we like, and the shows we watch, and the books we read, and sometimes we tell stories, and we laugh a lot. In a world where I walk into classrooms full of students sitting in complete silence staring stubbornly at their phones, it is a rare thing to have one night a week when you just sit and talk to other human beings.

2. Community that dances
People who dance. Real dances (not grinding and twitching). With partners (boy and girl, girl and girl, boy and boy, no one cares). For fun. To live music. People who dance medieval dances, renaissance dances, dances you secretly admire in Jane Austin movies, in long lines, and the guys bow, and the girls curtsy, and, get this, guys don't awkwardly shuffle away to avoid it!! We dance until we can't breathe, and then we dance some more, and We. Have. DANCE CARDS.

3. Community that knows their history
One of the things I notice about my students in the USA is how different their perception of history is compared to students in Europe. Oh sure, most European students loathe history too, but they exist in a space where history has a different, long-term feel to it, and that affects how they perceive long-ago events. Long story short: If you love to have long discussions about Viking weaponry, or the dirty secrets of medieval royal bedrooms, or you love swapping Roman era inside jokes, the SCA is one of the few non.academic spaces to do it. These people are history buffs, and they know their stuff. Oh, and they also know how to make it exciting.

4. Community that creates things
Honestly, I have never been a very crafty person. I don't impulsively re-decorate, I don't make clothes, and I can only sew buttons. I used to do embroidery and friendship bracelets in high school, and that's about it. Even when I was in a Renaissance performance group in Hungary, I had my dresses made, I never got around to making them myself.
And then I joined the SCA. I joined in late August; by early November, I had a tablet weaving project. And with the woven belt came an idea for a garb, and so I started learning how to work a sewing machine. By then I had a shoe box full of needles, scissors, thread, and random tidbits. By the end of spring, I had an ongoing costume project, and a full sized toolbox full of stuff.
The joy of creating something with your own hands is severely underrated these days.

God, I missed archery after high school. So. Freaking. Much.

I rest my case.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Long stories, short stories, true stories - NSN Conference, Mesa, AZ

While I did not get to live blog everything that happened in these past 5 days of the 2014 NSN conference, now that I am sitting at the airport gate I feel like a report is in order.
Short version: The NSN conference, as usual, was epic.
Long version:

I feel like this year's #NSNStoryCon had a very balanced lineup of workshops. The proverbial pendulum that swings between the extremes of "personal stories only" and "traditional stories forever" seems to be approaching some kind of a middle ground - in my 7 year experience, this year showed a lot more attention to long-form storytelling and traditional stories than a couple of years ago. This in itself made me happy.
Master Class: I took Joe Hayes' master class on telling traditional tales from cultures other than our own. While we established up front that the discussion will not get political, that was easier said than done. People have strong feelings about telling folktales, especially from Native American cultures, without working with the community behind them. With that said, Joe did a good job of telling us tales he works with, and then guiding us backwards through the process of adapting them all the way to the original sources. We learned a lot about Southwestern Native American and Hispanic cultures. While not all of us agreed with the idea of treating stories as text separate from the culture they came from, in the end we reserved that discussion for another day.
Workshops: Too many to choose from! I would have loved all of them, but short of Hermione Granger's time turning thingy, I had to make some hard decisions. The good news? There really were no bad choices.
Pam Faro's Interfaith Interplay was a treat, especially because she drew many of her stories and examples from medieval Andalucía. We talked about spiritual stories, sacred stories, stories of faith traditions, and how to use them to create connections and bridges. Pam is a lovely lady, and a true master of the topic.
Also attended the "No Moth? No Problem!" workshop with Liz Warren, Megan Finnerty and Marilyn Omifunke Torres. It was a tour de force through organizing community storytelling events. Professional, efficient, to the point, no-bullshit presentation. We need more of these so we can all learn how to put on more quality storytelling events! Also, someone's gotta say this: Megan is the Darcy Lewis of the storytelling world. There, I said it. She is an amazing, powerful lady.
Liz Weir's Out of the tunnel and into the light of peace workshop was also eye-opening and much needed. While I thought it was going to be all about stories of ethnic/religious conflict, she gave us much more: She talked about the importance of storytelling in all kinds of conflict in one's life, from bullying to family discord. She drove home the age-old idea that it is a lot harder to hate someone once you know their story...
One of my favorite things this weekend was Rivka Willick's workshop on what storytellers can learn from comics. It was so much fun! We got to browse comics of all kinds, read them, and then play around with adapting their visual and narrative style to our storytelling. We all had great fun, came up with some great lines and images, and I personally felt sorry this was not a 3-hour intensive. We also introduced a bunch of new people to comics, which was lovely.
The last workshop of the weekend for me was Priscilla Howe's presentation on long-form storytelling. That is really where my heart is these days, so it was great to learn and talk more about it. Priscilla told us part of her Tristan and Iseult show, and then we went into questions like how do you prepare to tell one story for hours, what to do when your audience goes into a trance, and how to market long-story events to new audiences. I was so excited by the end of it that I spent dinner break with Priscilla, swapping tales and discussing possibilities.
Swaps and Fringes: The Wednesday evening healing story concert was truly a healing experience. It featured a wide variety of stories from many traditions, which was fascinating to me, and I also learned a lot from them. Thursday evening I attended Cassie Cushing and Ann Harding's fringe The Wily, the Kind and the Bittersweet. What a quality event! Both girls did a beautiful job adapting well-known fairy tales and elaborating them in their own style. They produced the best versions of the Twelve Month Brothers, Snow White and Rose Red, and the Snow Maiden that I have ever heard. The Fairy Tale Lobby story swap similarly turned into a great spontaneous lineup of stories: 7 tellers told 7 tales (including myself, trying out a new Hungarian folktale about a king and his three clever daughters). It could not have been better if we planned it that way!
The Grand Slam was also a treat to behold. Linda Gorham did a wonderful job hosting it; while the judges deliberated, she entertained us with quotes, poems, and songs related to the theme (Fire and Light). We even ended up singing some Johnny Cash. Ha! The stories ranged from hilarious to heartwarming, and for a while we had a spontaneous Chicago Fire theme going. Since I was the only name in the International Region's hat (cup), I got to tell my story too. It was the first time I told the wonderful true tale of the Győrújbarát Naked Cyclist, and I got a huge kick out of the audience reactions. I didn't make first three, but the naked man on a bike became a running joke for the rest of the conference. Some people swore to have seen him, and some people swore it was them. Fun times.
I closed the conference experience with Noa Baum's It's impossible to translate but I'll try, and it was a perfect closure. She guided us on a journey to the Jerusalem of her childhood. We laughed until our sides hurt, and we sighed in nostalgia, and listened with rapt attention as she told us personal stories filled with emotion. I heard people say this was one of the best she has ever done. I can agree with that. She is a wonderful presence on stage.
Keynotes: The opening keynote on Thursday night was much needed and well done. Queen Nur, Kiran Singh Sirah, and Doug Bland all talked about the importance of story in communities, and storytelling work that can change people's relationships to their communities and to each other. And while Kiran's kilt was the undisputed highlight of the evening, we all learned truths and went to sleep filled with hope for the future.
The Friday morning panel on Ancestral Stories was similarly much needed and deep. Four Native storytellers representing four nations talked to us about story, about myth, about the importance of water and earth, and how science and story are not only not mutually exclusive, but cannot even survive without one another. Things that needed to be said were said, and I think we will remember them for a long time.

Of course, a storytelling conference is always a lot more than what is on the program. I could spend a lot of time describing the dedication and lovely hospitality of all the organizers; the fun moments of hurried conversations with old friends in the hallways between workshops; the lunches and dinners that take forever because everyone is talking; the spontaneous and wild dance party that ensued after the end of the Oracle Awards ceremony; the explorations to downtown bookshops and restaurants; the project ideas that were born and exchanged; and the quiet conversations in corners between people who live and understand story.

Thank you all who were there, and all that wanted to be there, and all that will be there next time.
See you on the road!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Just What ARE You Anyway? - A folktale about gender and confusion

Today I found a collection of gitano (Gypsy) folktales in Spanish; I bought it a couple of years ago at the Maratón de Cuentos in Guadalajara, read a few of the stories, and then got distracted by another continent. Browsing through it this time I came across a folktale that caught my interest for its treatment of gender roles and expressions.
There is a lot to say about gender fluidity and gender identities, and a lot of it has already been said. I would merely like to add my two cents, and a folktale, to the discussion.

The folktale in this particular case is titled "The Warrior Girl" but it is a type that exists in other forms and in other cultures as well (including Hungarian). At the beginning of the story, we learn that there is a man with seven daughters, which is a great shame, because if a family cannot send a son to the king's army, they are not respected by others. Moving on, the youngest daughter offers to go and take her place in the army (think Hua Mulan), but her father tells her that she can't do it, because she is a girl. Hearing that, she decides to go disguised as a man. The father argues further: She can't pass for a man because her hair is long, and her breasts are full. The girl doesn't give up: She cuts her hair and puts on clothes that conceal her breasts. This is apparently good enough for the father, who begrudgingly allows her to go.
However, arriving to the king's court, the girl soon catches the prince's eyes, who insists to his father that he would wager his life that the young soldier is, indeed, a girl in a man's clothes. "She has too delicate a face to be a man," he says. The king doesn't quite believe his son, but suggests a test: He should invite her for a walk in the palace gardens, and if she goes to admire the flowers, she is a girl. The girl, however, goes for the pear tree instead and picks some fruit, as she says, for herself and for her (female) sweetheart.
At this point the prince's naughty bits are confused, and he opts for another sure-fire test: He takes her shopping. Girls, he reasons, go for the textiles at the market. This one, however, goes for the swords, preparing for battle (since she is, you know, a soldier).
The prince, who has entirely too much frustration going on in his pants, now decides he should just see her naked and tell what she is based on her... er, equipment. But when he invites her for a swim, she jumps into the water fully clothed, claiming that she had made a sacred oath not to undress until the war is over.
The prince gives up.
And then: Divine intervention.
Gearing up for battle, the mysterious soldier's sword breaks. She curses the sword, and curses herself (in a frustrated, "**** me" kind of phrase), revealing her true gender: She refers to herself with a female adjective (this really only works in Spanish, sorry). Ta-da! The prince is happy to find out that the object of his fascination indeed identifies as female, and therefore she is fair game. He asks her to marry him right away, and the folktale goes out with a happy bang.

Sooo... yeah. I'll just leave this here as food for thought.