Recommendation roundup: January 2019

Hey all,

I wanted to write this post a little earlier, but apparently, I had other things I wanted to say so here we are. That being said, there are a few things that have been of particular interest to me this past year/heading into this one (I promise this is probably, maybe the last time I milk the old year/new year transition) and given the time of year, I wanted to share.

Fullmetal Alchemist

Edward Elric. What a cool guy.

For anyone who follows me on Facebook, Twitter, (feel free to join the clubs) or Goodreads, you know that one of the bigger features of 2018 was what I referred to as my “Fullmetal summer,” in which I read the entire Fullmetal Alchemist manga series by Hiromu Arakawa. At the same time, I watched all of the anime series Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, having seen the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime series several years before. And, while they all have their differences, there are a few things I wanted to point about the story in general that really put it at the top of my list.

  1. Concept: When people ask me what I like about anime, one of the first things I tell them is that anime is really good at committing to a concept, or, to put it another way, that they are really great at exploring ideas (the American contrast in storytelling being much more moral/message driven). Fullmetal Alchemist is no exception to this rule. Following these two boys as they wrestle with concepts such as equivalent exchange, truth, and even God is a joy and a pleasure, and the world (and the rules it lives by) are by and large consistent, fascinating, and fun to explore.
  2. Characters: From the two main brothers, Ed and Al; to Roy Mustang and his coterie of soldiers; to the homonculi; and more, even small characters in this series are well thought out, distinct, and purposeful. I love the different cultures Arakawa has created, the strong and intertwining relationships between the characters, and the humor and heart that live in them all.
  3. Plotting: Given that Arakawa had such a large cast, it would have been easy to drop characters or plotlines almost without her readers noticing. Instead, she has created a tapestry of plots, all weaving in and out of each other until the very end. And while of course there were parts I didn’t love, or times when the arcs she chose to follow most closely weren’t my favorite, the overarching impression I had throughout this series was one of admiration and respect. The story is great, well-paced, and how everything managed to come together was, overall, a joy.

The Story Grid Podcast/Book

As I’ve been looking into improving my own plotting skills, one of the resource names that I kept seeing was The Story Grid, a method by which writers and/or editors can map out a story’s major movements in detail in order to better quantify and locate those vague, foggy places where something “just doesn’t work.” Looking it up, at first I was a little overwhelmed. I like making plot graphs and taking notes, sure, but this? It seemed like another level entirely. I wasn’t even sure where to start.

That’s when I discovered they have a podcast.

The show is simple in premise: New fiction writer Tim Grahl asks long time editor Shawn Coyne (author of The Story Grid) questions about how to be a better writer.

The results are magic. Shawn has a wisdom and familiarity about storytelling borne of 25+ years of experience that absolutely shines through the way he speaks, and Tim’s questions are both practical and insightful. Along the way, I get tons of practical advice (something that can sometimes be missing in the somewhat ephemeral world of writing and writing advice), as well as frequent forays into the more philosophic questions about writing and what it is actually for. Shawn provides authority on the topic–as well as flexibility in the fact that all writers really do approach things their own way–and Tim is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him on topics about which they might disagree. The result is a series of natural sounding conversations that are smart, practical, and wise, and I am devouring them.

On a related note, after starting to listen (and after finding the website fairly unwieldy in actually finding the information I need), I did decide to buy the book and it just came in the mail yesterday. Given that today is a snow day as well, I can’t wait to dive in. I am sure the pages will be much earmarked by the time I am finished.

Twice Born 2

Okay, I’m going to admit, this one is a little self-promotional, but I am also very, very excited about it. Again, as anyone who follows me on social media knows (don’t you want to be included now? Links below!), I recently finished the first two arcs of a collaborative story I’ve been telling online for the past five years. I use an online, collaborative storytelling platform called Storium to host it, and the story is called Twice Born. It follows the story of a young prince who was nearly murdered by his Uncle while his country sits at the brink of war with the neighboring Lustaran elves. The first two arcs focused mostly on him getting his original body back (after being forced into a different one after his near-assassination) and returning to his home kingdom.

Now, entering arc three, he and his companions will be taking down the larger entities behind his near-death, all while hoping to bring his country back from the brink of said war.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to include this one on the list.

First, because as someone who loves collaborative storytelling, I am super jazzed about getting to be involved with this story and the super awesome writers who have agreed to write it with me.

Second, because, given that it took five years to complete the first two arcs, this game has meant a lot to me on a personal level. Not only have I learned to write (and plot) better, to persevere, and to work collaboratively, but I have also been so blessed by the friendships and relationships that have come out of writing with these amazing people. They have challenged my writing, pushed me to improve, and it has just been an utter blessing to get to work with such kind and talented people.

Thirdly, because we got some new writers for this game, and I cannot wait to see what their characters do. With so much to work from using the first two arcs as fodder and the creativity these new writers have already shown in just their character submissions, I think this story is going to be an absolute blast. We’ve already started the first two scenes, (available here). If you want to find out more about these awesome folks or follow the story, I suggest you sign up and follow or bookmark it now!

Honorable Mentions

Since this post is already starting to get a little long, I don’t want to bog you down with too much more, but I did want to share a few other things I’ve been into lately, even if they couldn’t fit in top billing.

Chris Renzema is a Christian music artist and his music has really helped me through some tough times. What I love about him most is his honesty and willingness to plumb the full range of human experience for his art. A playlist of some of his top songs is embedded below.

Critical Role is a real-play podcast that follows several friends as they play D&D. Warning, there is a lot of bad language/inappropriate content in the show, which I don’t like, but also a lot of wonderful characterization, growth, and creative action, so just listen at your own risk.

So, what about you? What have you been into lately and why? Any good resources, stories, or favorite jams? Please tell me in the comments below, and if you want more content like this, feel free to follow me here on the blog or on social media using the links below!

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