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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Have Mischievous Fun with Misdirection.

 

After a deep study of The A.B.C. Murders, I see just how bad-ass Agatha Christie was. She truly earned the title “The Queen of Crime.” One way she earned her crown: her use of clues.

Part of any mystery’s fun is the deduction of a clue’s status: red herring, or genuine? Mysteries must be addled with both in order to satisfy both the narrative and the reader. That woman managed to make a ton of clues both red herrings and genuine clues, and it’s never clearer than in The A.B.C. Murders. It’s so clear, in fact, that some publisher thought it was smart to throw the most important elements of the mystery onto a book cover.

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Gah, this one really pisses me off!

No, I’m not over-reacting.

Look, I get that all book covers need to attract readers, and what better way to draw readers to a mystery than by putting a mystery on the cover, right? If you pop on back to my earlier post on this story, you’ll see two covers that focus on different elements:

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27f You got your railway guide. Important, but not a giveaway.

02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6You got the killer’s shadow and A.B.C. Neither are giveaways.

3fdbce79-c391-d822-f06e-75c7fc83740f-mediumoriginalaspectdouble Typewriter: Ibid.

925034295-2887690-1_s Corpse: Ditto Ibid. Etc. Etc. Etc.

That one cover with the stockings and letter, though…THAT one is showing off a little too much. (Shout-out to Sarah Higbee for getting me into these book cover comparisons!)

Let’s start with the letters. The first arrives on page 4:

MR. HERCULE POIROT–You fancy yourself, don’t you, at solving mysteries that are too difficult for our poor thick-headed British police? Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack. Look out for Andover on the 21st of the month. Yours, etc., A.B.C.

The other three letters have this same tone: confident and mocking, with oodles of superiority. Inspector Crome of Scotland Yard, Hastings, and others dismissed the initial letter, but after the first murder each letter is treated as a window into the mind of the killer. Three of the four letters arrive some days in advance, even, as a way to let Poirot and the Yard prevent the next crime, but Poirot and the Yard’s measures are never enough. Only one letter arrives late because of an incorrect address, which the Yard puts off as an accident:

Poirot gave [the letter] to [Inspector Crome].

He examined it, swearing softly under his breath.

“Of all the damned luck. The stars in their courses fight for the fellow.”

“You don’t think,” [Hastings] suggested, “that it was done on purpose?”

Crome shook his head.

“No. He’s got his rules–crazy rules–and abides by them. Fair warning. He makes a point of that. That’s where his boastfulness comes in. I wonder now–I’d almost bet the chap drinks White Horse whisky.”

Ah, c’est ingenieux ca!” said Poirot, driven to admiration in spite of himself. “He prints the letter and the bottle is in front of him.”

The letters offer no forensic help, and only when the families of the first three victims come together does there seem to be any hope in catching the killer. In Chapter 21, Poirot deeply believes that conversation among the family members and witnesses will reveal the killer:

“Each one of us knows something about him–if we only knew what it is we know. I am convinced that the knowledge is there if we could only get at it.”

And sure enough, by the end of that chapter, a major connection is made when the third victim’s secretary recalls a stockings salesman coming to their door. The sister of the second victim mentions that her mother bought stockings for the victims the day she died. A reader can flip back and confirm what police say: a new pair of stockings was included in the first victim’s belongings.

Poirot presses the police to use the stockings angle, but they dismiss it as a coincidence. Of course they do! It’s only A MAJOR CLUE, right? And it does help: after the fourth victim is discovered, a man is spotted, bloody and bewildered, fleeing his room. A suitcase of new stockings was left behind. The man: Alexander Bonaparte Cust. A quiet man. Awkward. Shabby. Shy. Epileptic, and not medicated, so his memory has big gaps. He’s been to every location the day of a murder. He has a bloody knife, for crying out loud. The pressure to find him reaches such a fever that Cust himself walks into a police station in a daze and collapses.

So endeth the A.B.C. murders, yes? A typewriter in his room was the same used to write the letters. More stockings. More railway guides. All the clues are there….

And yet.

At the end of Chapter 31, Hastings wakes up from a nap to discover Poirot’s figured it out, and he’s going to be damned gleefully secretive about it. He’ll only say what he’s said before:

“There is nothing so dangerous for any one who has something to hide as conversation.”

Poirot meets face to face with Cust. Cust doesn’t recognize the detective’s name at all. He has no memory of the murders. Another man even remembers playing dominoes with Cust in a different part of the town where the second murder happened. And the second murder victim, a pretty young girl who liked to party, would NOT have given a guy like Cust the time of day, let alone her belt to be strangled with.

Yet the clues point to Cust. Cust even thinks he did the murders–he can’t remember those days, and as a stranger told him while reading his palm, he’s destined for the gallows…

Cust’s conversation reveals how some old clues are impacted by new clues. His character, for one, is in total contradiction with the letters. Unless the guy’s got split personality disorder, there’s no way a wuss like him is the snot who wrote the letters. He also talks about his dead-end job after the war, and the blessing that came with this selling job: a door-to-door job with a salary and commission. To any one with an iota of common sense, the idea of selling stockings door to door for a big salary and commission should sound questionable.

See what Christie did here? Those major clues–the letters, the stockings–were red herrings to take Poirot and the Yard to Cust. But those clues also reveal genuine hints of the true killer. By building us to this false climax of the killer caught, Christie increases tension a hundred fold. Despite Hastings’ skepticism (you’d think he’d know better by now), readers can’t help but read on to find out what Poirot’s discovered. I mean, I was super-peeved because my school contacted me about teaching and my son had the audacity to get sick. The wait until evening for those last fifteen pages was agony!

Chapter 34 is entitled “Poirot Explains,” for this is when all is explained to the families of the victims. Yes, it’s the typical gathering of suspects–it wouldn’t be a Poirot mystery without it.🙂 Poirot focuses on the letters first: why write to Poirot, and not the Yard? Why commit these murders at all? Everyone else had thrown their hands up at “madness!” because that was the catchword of the day, apparently, and therefore everything’s justified. But Poirot points out that if a madman just wants to kill, why in Hades would he draw attention to himself, and therefore risk getting caught? He goes on with these contradictions found with the other clues, like the railway guide. There’s no discernable motive to be tied to Cust, or justification from any off-balance point of view.

So Poirot turns it all on its head with this base deduction about the letters:

“What was wrong with them was the fact they were written by a sane man!”

After all the “What?!?” by the victims’ families, Poirot points out how easy it is to hide something:

“When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pin-cushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of murders.”

Now the letters become a major, genuine clue: the third letter, the only one mislabeled–the one Hastings wondered had been mislabeled on purpose–was for the murder that needed to happen without interference. When approached with that in mind, suddenly the true killer comes to the forefront: the boyish, adventurous, and broke brother of the third victim. He is one who could get that pretty girl to give him her belt. He is one with the snot-attitude that fits the letters to a T. He is one with the risk-taking spirit to kill in the open one night and approach the police the next. He had met Cust, and put the idea of the gallows destiny in his head. He planned out everything, from the bulk purchase of stockings and railway guides, to sending Cust the typewriter he used to type all the A.B.C. letters beforehand. He selected Poirot to get the letters because a letter addressed to Scotland Yard won’t go astray, but a letter to a private address can!

So yes, I’m still miffed about that one book cover. It took two of the most important pieces of the mystery and stuck them on the cover, forcing them to always be at the forefront of the reader’s mind. I’m also miffed this book isn’t used in more writing classes. It’s a brilliant piece of a mind-game: the clues alter in importance depending on the latest piece of information. What was once deemed important becomes a red herring only to become important again. And the fact that Christie gives us little chapters from Cust’s point of view early on makes us think we’re keeping tabs on the killer, and yet we can tell from those snippets what a shy, shabby fellow he is, devoid of confidence or wit. She’s giving us both a red herring and a real clue with every scene.

All method. No madness.

All hail the Queen of Crime!

 

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Can a Protagonist be a Jerk in a Story Worth Reading?

“No, I could never read this book again.”

The eighteen of us sat in a classroom no janitor’s touched in weeks, evidenced by the dust bunnies on my backpack, not-looking at whomever dared to speak. The first term of grad school, my first class analyzing story and craft. Overwhelmed, I poured through critiques others wrote only to be thumped for not sharing my own “untainted” thoughts. Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers was the first I tried to study free of the evil critic taint.

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“Because I don’t like Charlie. He’s an asshole.”

“So you don’t think a story can sell if you don’t like the main character.” Half the room nodded with the teacher, whose demeanor reminded me of a spectacled old grizzly bear.

I half-raised my hand. The teacher, a loud atheist who found my faith “quaint,” peered at the table-space before me to make sure I had no pile of articles painted by highlighter. “Jean?”

“Well,” I coughed, hated talking in that space, squirmed in the plastic chairs all universities think are somehow comfortable for hours of lecture, “A story can still be good just because you don’t like someone.”

My classmate turned to me, confident in her age and skill. “But I don’t care about him.”

“That doesn’t make the story less good.”

Yeah, I wasn’t much for eloquence back then. Not that my classmate was wrong, per say. Who wants to root for a jerk’s success? But there are other characters in the story beside the protagonist, so I think it depends on this question:

Will the story transform your character, or does your character transform the story?

The Rachel Papers fulfills the latter: Charles Highway makes his mark on Rachel and a number of other people, but remains an unchanged blighter from start to finish.

middlers-pride-7In my current work, Middler’s Pride, main character Gwen begins as a pompous ass. Oh, she’s nice enough with some characters back home, but once she meets the other Shield Maiden recruits in her training group, she declares herself superior, a legend who simply hasn’t been noticed yet. The latest scene I drafted amplifies the conflict between her and the other girls:

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The river ran noiselessly, like a shadow. One could leap over it on horseback without trouble. If one could get a horse here. A hand barrow would do the trick, made with her wrecked tunic and some thick sticks and haul the weapons a few at a time. The ground, though… Despite the fresh sun, the land felt cold, sticky, and damp, like mud in the earliest of spring. Yet the trees were in full summer leaf, and the rabbits and family of deer who fed on the meager ferns and asters took no notice of Gwen. Good. A few snares should mean decent eating through the whole month. The mushrooms didn’t look all that bad, either. Tegan must be used to a much fatter landscape.

Near the Khaibe, maybe?

What did she know about the Khaibe, that the name would draw such hate into her face? Maybe she grew up near them, too. Had family.

Gwen pulled out the clay token Aberfa had made for her. It filled the palm of hand, its lines from the Bread Code they’d created as children. Friend. Always.

Girl chatter. The rabbit and deer scattered. UGH. They arrived as though bound together, like some sort of band, or, group, or…whatever. And what was Tegan doing with them, anyway? Some friend she was, chumming up with Elle and Wynne for no reason. Aberfa understood loyalty.

“This can’t be the River Gasirad,” Elle leapt about like a lame doe and landed atop an old tree stump next to Gwen. “It’s so puny.”

Wynne still heaved deep breaths, but managed to say, “It’s not. I live. By the proper. This connects. There.” She pointed south. “Not far. Rode. The barges a few. Times.”

A low ripple of cracks, low, swelled up, THUNK—Elle’s foot fell through the trunk, but the rest of her remained safe and sound thanks to Gwen’s lightning reflexes. Elle smiled in thanks. Great. Just let GO.

“Hold still, Elle,” Tegan brushed the dust and splinters. Paused. “Hey, Gwen, look at this.” Finally! Gwen untangled herself from Elle and knelt next to Tegan. Sure enough: “It’s like the plants from yesterday.”

Gwen took a deep breath, fixed her gaze so that she saw only Elle’s calf. “And the stag under the curse of the Cat Man.” Time the eyes, don’t move too fast. This must be a dramatic moment of the legend’s tale…

Elle thrust her fingers into it like an idiot. “Doesn’t feel much like a curse to me.” She held her fingers towards Wynne like she would know any better. “I mean, it’s a bit smelly. Sure this isn’t just old bat scat?”

Tegan took some and rubbed it between forefinger and thumb. “From what you said, Gwen, this stuff seems awfully watery. And more grey than black.”

“Remnants of old black magick, then?” She wasn’t going to be dumb enough to rub her skin in that stuff. Idiots. “Look, we have orders. We have to clean the weapons, which means carrying them here.”

“And ruin our clothes like you ruined yours?” Elle’s laugh sounded like a dog barking at the wind. “No thank you. We think it’ll be loads easier to carry water to the fort instead. Boil it up. Clean the weapons that way.”

Gwen bit the inside of her lip. “We?”

The three of them looked at each other like this “we” was perfectly normal. That of course they would work together. Gods forbid they not listen to orders. Again. Oh that’s right, they’re not.

“We were ordered—“

“And we’re going to do fulfill that order, Gwen.” Why was Tegan looking at her like some rabid animal? “We’ll clean the weapons, but carrying them here is foolish. We can’t afford to ruin what little we have to wear. You really want that black mold stuff on your armor?”

Gwen felt her feet step back. No. She couldn’t retreat. But she didn’t want her armor wrecked before it saw battle, either. “We’re here to train, build our strength. Become proper soldiers.” Well. She eyed Wynne. “Some of us, anyway. Gods know what you’re doing here.”

“Hey!” Elle stepped into Gwen’s eye-line and gave glare for glare. “We’ve all of us reason to be here, and become soldiers. Not all of us have been trained straight from the cradle, or whatever it is you did with your precious Shield Maiden Nanny.”

“Don’t you—“ Gwen formed a fist and swung.

Elle caught her fist. Held it.

Try the other fist? It won’t stop shaking…

Those damned red eyes are daring her to.

“You can help us here, or you can walk away.”

Her fist shook inside Elle’s. So. Humiliating. Her eyes burned like fire, all those legendary scars, too–

How dare she look a legend.

How dare they not…listen, and just…

“Fine,” she said with clenched teeth, and pulled back. Walked around.

“You dropped this.” Wynne’s hand shook as she held it out: Aberfa’s talisman.

Shaking hand.

They even take her weakness from her.

Gwen snatched the talisman away and marched back to the fort, black thoughts circling.

They’re not listening to orders because ol’ Captain Tree Trunk is incompetent.

Terrwyn’s too far off, blast it.

Well.

Captain Vala just needs to be informed of the situation. And once she sees how they disregard her orders, then, THEN there will be some proper teamwork under the true leader of this group.

The true legend.

Gwen’s the kind of girl I would have feared and hated in school. I would never want to hang around her, let alone be related to her.

Yet I created her. I WANT her to be this way right now. Why?

Because Gwen, like so many kids, gosh, like so many of us grownups, has to realize she isn’t the hot shit she thinks she is. Countless stories include that change: take my primary influences for Middler’s Pride, Michael Dellert and Diana Wynne Jones. drownedammet

A Merchants Tale_Final Cover.inddThe protagonist Corentin in Dellert’s The Merchant’s Tale is a young guy who treats the others in his caravan like nobodies, but by the end he’s willing to respect them and listen to (most of) what they have to say about traveling through Droma. In Jones’ Drowned Ammet, Mitt sees the aristocracy as a bunch of gluttonous leeches while Hildrida looks on commoners as nasty imbeciles. Of course they’re stuck on a boat together, and treat each other like crap for a good long while. But unlike Charles Highway, these two cannot help but be influenced by events, and therefore change their perspectives.

the_dawn_treader_coverAs a reader, my first experience with this kind of character was that turd of a cousin Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the selfish idiot who refuses to take in the world around him until his selfishness puts him under a curse that only Aslan can break. Eustace finally must face that he cannot do it all. He cannot save himself.

That moment has stuck with me through the past couple of decades—not just because of my faith, but in a story, I see that moment as being The Ultimate Moment. The protagonist cannot save herself her own way, or be the lone savior of her world. It is through the sacrifice of the most treasured elements within her that a new power comes through love, friendship, light. Everything, the presumed inevitable end, the web-ties of the characters, all alter because of that fall to her knees in surrender. Such changes snap and re-bind the page to the reader herself, for she knows the really good stuff is coming.

Now to give it.

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Gratitude in Numbers With a Coda of Writer’s Music

Ever imagine in words?

(My apologies, I’m pretty sure I’ve asked this before, but bear with me.)

Language has become a sort of filter in my life: sensations, reactions, and originations (new word!) must BE words before I can understand what to say, or think. What I want to write. So often I see not only dialogue, but action and setting in words, too. Only after I write them can my brain weave the threads together to wrap around the other senses.

So to receive such words of support and love after I faced The Monster was like a favorite blanket coming round my shoulders after a nightmare. My words back feel so feeble, but please know just how much I glow, I smile, when I say:

Thank you.

Now, not too long ago, the lovely author Shehanne Moore and her hamster crew nominated me for the “3 Days, 3 Quotes” challenge. While I would love to follow the rules to the letter, the War of the Potty means no chance to work from sunrise to sunset lest I miss a new addition of pee-pee water or poop to the carpet. That, and this is my 100th post, so let’s make it special by creating 3 posts in 1!

Oh, and it’s Thanksgiving Day here in the States. With my in-laws, including the battle-ax matriarch.

So.

Gonna bend the rules a bit.

The Rules (without the bending)

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you, and share their website. (Done! Click here to read some wicked humor, smexy stories, and writing tips most practical.)

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2.Post 1-3 quotes a day for three consecutive days.

3. Nominate 3 people every day.

Well, I’m only writing on one day, soooo guess I’ll just nominate three people. YAY!

Michael Dellert

Dyane Harwood

George Blamey-Steeden

Time to bend Rule 2.

~The Day of Bash~

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My youngest and most creative, Bash never tires of story-telling. He’ll gather a group of toys anywhere, and he’s in the groove.

Most plots hinge on emotion. His characters ask each other what he often asks me:

“How are you feeling?”

Something happens to make a character sad–he breaks down, another gets lost. The others team up to save the day. The story often ends “And now I’m happy!”, much like after I cry, or after he fights: we sit down, and hug, and smile. And now I’m happy.

Diana Wynne Jones also emphasizes the importance of emotion between writer and character in Reflections on the Magic of Writing:

“If there is one thing I have learned, it is that you must have at least some emotional connection with every soul who figures in a story. You may like them, love them, find them disgusting or hate them, but you must react to them in some way.”

I do my darndest to remember this as I write Middler’s Pride. I hope you can check it out on Wattpad, where the first scene of the story is now available for viewing. I’ve been sharing my character sketches of her on Wattpad as well. When I posted her last anecdote, a wee epiphany hit me:middlers-pride-7

I love Gwen like I love my daughter.

The maternal fibers in me sing when she hits her high marks; other times I want to shake the stupid out of her when she catapults herself into the lows. I roll my eyes at her snotty behavior, and can’t understand how the fruit of MY person can be such a rude pisser.

Gwen doesn’t see it that way, of course. She’s a downtrodden teenager who has finally, FINALLY been given a chance to prove to the world she’s the legend she believes herself to be. She even imagines her own ballad on her way to accept a sword and entry into the Shield Maidens:

At the peak of it all stood a stout manor home of mortared stone paired with the King’s Tower. No man could possibly scale such a thing, but Gwen thought the stones might allow a woman’s fingers.

Hail Gwenwledyr, Protector of the Tower. It was she alone who scaled its heights to fight the Flying Beasts of Evil sent by The Massively Evil Man.

Hmm.

The Massively Evil Behemoth.

Better.

She feels herself superior. Training–and some evil magic–will teach her otherwise.

~The Day of  Biff~

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“READ!”

Like Bash, I spent my pre-reading years creating stories with toys and pictures. Biff, however, can read already, and demands help in this department. “Read, Mommy? What’s this spell?”  He is not appeased with mere letters or pictures. He wants to know.  Those letters clumped together mean something, and he’s determined to learn it all. At times I think of my father, who began every sermon with:

“The Lord, sanctify us with the truth. Your Word is Truth.”

And I see his relentless pursuit of imagination, of faith, of knowing, all in Biff. Will he follow his grandfather’s Divine Calling?

He’d be so proud. Oh, he’d be proud of him no matter what, but to read with him…I can picture my father’s smile, the one that shows off his laughter lines. His absence is always felt more sharply over the holidays. My favorite hymn brings comfort at such times. Tears, too, but definitely comfort. I found a video that provides the lyrics, so please take that as another quote.🙂

Biff is also my middler by a whopping two minutes. He scared me during pregnancy, so quiet and tucked away while his brother never stopped somersaulting in my womb. Now he’s the one who taunts and fights his siblings without a break. The only time the house is quiet is when he is stretched out on his top bunk, books and bear and blanket around him.

I wish I could read his eyes when I break up yet another fight. His inner workings will likely be a mystery to me until the End Days. Gwen can’t be a mystery to me, though. I have to understand her, inside and out, because otherwise readers won’t get the whole story. Diana Wynne Jones puts it best, of course:

…You can see what an audience, or a readership, expect from a hero is a very serious form of a game, in which the hero is expected to struggle on two fronts, externally with an actual evil, and internally with his/her own doubts and shortcomings. The hero, out there as a scapegoat, has to do the suffering for everyone.

When I set out to write Middler’s Pride, I did so with this very idea in mind: Gwen’s got to overcome more than just a monster out to poison the countryside. She’s got to overcome her pride, too. One victory cannot come without the other.

~The Day of Blondie~

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This toothless wonder loves to help, so today I asked her to help me pick the music I write about. No, no, she won’t pick a “kiddie” song. She knew the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” before “Jesus Loves Me.”

No, I’m not writing about “Sledgehammer,” either.🙂

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One random trip to the library revealed a collection of music created for various DC Comics shows and movies. Some are old-school, like the theme for the 40s Superman, but others are more recent, like this theme from a Green Lantern animated movie made in 2009. Blondie surprised me when she asked for this track on repeat. Considering my daughter’s lack of interest in creative activities, I took this request as a good sign, and dared to find out why she liked this song so much.

ME: Blondie, what do you see when you hear this music?

BLONDIE: See where?

ME: See in your imagination?

BLONDIE: Me saving someone.

ME: Who are you saving?

BLONDIE: One of the guys from Veggie Tales?

ME: Who?

BLONDIE: Larry.

ME: Who are you saving him from?

BLONDIE: Bad guy.

ME: What’s the bad guy?

BLONDIE: A UFO.

ME: What’s the UFO want Larry for?

BLONDIE: I dunno.

ME: So what happens after you save him?

BLONDIE: I dunno.

BO: (looks up from peeling sweet potatoes) You asked.

ME: (laughs)

BLONDIE: I gave you the giggles!

ME: Yes, you did. You have for years and years and you will for years and years and ever after.

BLONDIE: In Heaven, too?

ME: Especially there.

And for that, I am so very, very thankful.

 

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These Words Are Knives & Bridges

I’ve been unfolding and refolding this paper for months.20161116_091359

“It’s very possible it won’t go the way you think it will,” my therapist says, tissues at the ready.

How she thinks I think it will go:

Tears. Blubbered admissions, plea for forgiveness. Transparency. 

How I think it will go:

Hissed threats. Bruised skin. Fear of his car in my driveway, don’t you DARE tell ANYONE

Thursday

Biff’s been coughing a lot. I get an email from the school that there have been cases of hand, foot, and mouth in his grade.

Our boys are doomed to get it. They’ll get it tomorrow, and Saturday I will have to drive by myself to Milwaukee to face The Monster all alone and even if in a coffee shop I don’t care, I’ll be alone and he’ll talk me out of what I know like he’s always done and I feel so fucking weak–

Bo has to remind me multiple times that Biff has boogers, not a fever.

“But what if they get sick? We can’t put this off.”

Bo doesn’t know.

Neither do I.

A text from him: Are we still on for Saturday?

I don’t breathe while I text back: Yup.

Friday

Jittery. Half-listening to my kids. My daughter has a family fun night in the evening. I don’t want to go. I can’t concentrate on nice things. I can only think of burning coffee being thrown in my face, of being shut out by my family for making the past matter.

I unfold the paper while my daughter plays freeze tag with friends. I do not know these other parents, and tonight I’m not the kind of parent to chat with, anyway. So I read, and read again. My eyes stay with that last line:

If repentance does not occur, the victim can still forgive by offering bold love,

but relationship cannot be restored.

My relationship with The Monster has felt like the rope bridge in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, only without a blind Terry Gilliam asking me what my favorite color is before flinging me into The Gorge of Eternal Peril. I’m scared as Hell to get on it. I never know where to grip. I don’t dare trust a single board with my weight lest it gives and I fall. I fail.

And I cannot fail.

My kids cannot afford such a failure.

I’ve been climbing this rope bridge for 6 years now. Time’s only made it worse. Time will continue to make it worse.

For the sake of my children, for the sake of my sanity, one of two things needed to happen:

We must repair the bridge together, as a family, one and whole. This would mean family therapy–that we all, like my mother and his wife–be told about the past, so that we may work through the penitence and forgiveness together. To build trust, together.

–Or–

Cut the ropes. Walk away.

I describe this image to Bo for the umpteenth time as we get ready for bed. He pulls the quilt up and over my bare arm. “Jean, no matter how many times you rehearse, it’s not going to go that way.”

Hours in the dark with tears and threats and withered hopes. Sharpened knives on frayed ropes.

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Saturday

The air cuts my lungs with leaf-smoke and frost-thaw. I want to hold Bo’s hand as he drives, but traffic is heavy, and deer collisions common. Biff and Bash are thrilled to be going to Great-Grandma’s house, a glorious place filled with trucks, helicopters, and all the donuts they can eat. Blondie is not quite as talkative, having lost yet another tooth down her gullet. (Anyone else have a kid swallow THREE out of six baby teeth? The tooth fairy in our district’s getting exasperated.) We arrive, get the kids settled. I do not take off my coat.

“Where are you and Daddy going?” Blondie’s lone front tooth is also perilously loose. The kid’s going to have to live off of ice cream pretty soon.

I can’t picture the meeting place–it’s a coffee shop unfamiliar to me. I can only feel the hate and fear rippling from the future into this moment with my daughter, whose birth cracked all the old hurts open. “Out,” I say. “Just for a little while.” I kick my inner self for making such a glib promise.

I do not say goodbye to my sons.

Bo gives vague answers to his grandmother’s questions about what we’re doing and follows me out.

We arrive.

The wind’s nasty as we walk. The skin of Bo’s hand is so calloused I can barely sense his warmth.

I step in. The shop’s empty but for one older gentleman at his computer. An open space, easy to overhear others. Do I watch my words? Do I get into detail, spit my own acid of memory in his face for the baristas to hear? Do I–

He’s already there.

He sits in the one nook of the place, a pair of leather chairs stuck into the corner where one can find the restrooms.

He waves.

I want to turn around.

I want to turn around and just not do this.

I want to leave and breathe air and be by other people, people who haven’t hurt me.

Bo orders coffee. Looks at me.

Does he see the panic? Does he see how I’m shaking?

Fight or Flight.

This is what families do for each other

No.

He will never say that to my children.  He will never do any. of. that. Not to my children.

No.

He already sits in one leather chair. I sit in the other, facing him. There’s no support, and I sink back. My instincts wobble–this off-balanceness is unexpected. Awkward chuckles from all of us as I right myself. Bo cannot sit by me, so he sits across from us.

I breathe.

The barista brings a customer over to talk about the beans on display behind me.

FUCK.

How–how am I to use the words I need to use with strangers flittering in and out like house flies?

He picked a place like this on purpose.

Wait.

No, I did.

I didn’t want to risk being alone. Well there’s a consequence to that, Jean. This, strangers or no, is your shot.

Find the right words.

“We need to talk about the past.”

And we do.

Sort of.

“What you did to me made me hate myself, hate my life. I wanted to die for so, fucking, long. I didn’t feel like a human being. Bo helped me find that again. I thought, I thought it, what you did, could be in the past, just, back there, done. But motherhood changes that. I see you, and I see my kids, and all I can think of is what you did to me.”

He says nothing. He leans forward. He is shaking a little.

“I’m tired of being so angry and afraid all the time. I want my family to be safe. But the past has consequences, and one of those consequences is that I cannot trust you. I’m incapable of trusting you. And if you have any respect for my feelings, you’ll understand when I ask that you do not go near my kids if Bo and I aren’t around. Even if they’re at my mom’s. You, you just don’t go.”

He holds his chin in his hands. He says a very quiet “I understand.”

I think of The Monster I knew as a child, the golden boy as tall as a tree and just as wide, with fists that let loose stars before my eyes when he hit me. I see The Monster sitting before me now, hunched over. Shaking. Eyes on the floor.

I look at him, my demon. I’m looking at him with my spine straight. I’m not shaking anymore.

“We’re a family, all of us, but I…” I pause, yes, I can say what I’ve been rehearsing– “I feel like I’m only connected to you by a single rope. If we’re going to be a true family, we need family therapy to build the bridge together.” Pause. Do I threaten to cut him off, here and now?

He’s not disagreed, or lashed out in any way.

I was told he might need time. Jeez, how many years has this moment needed to come into existence?

“I’m not asking you to agree to that right now. But the therapist has strongly encouraged me to tell my mom so she understands why I act as I do when I’m around you.” He goes very still. “Just…just…trust starts with transparency. Family therapy would give that.”

He nods, and starts…well…questioning himself and giving one-word answers. Does he have a lot of regrets from that time of his life? Yes. Does he think about what he did? Yes. Does he respect why I’m asking what I’m asking? Yes.

For all those questions, he never flat-out says: Am I sorry? Yes. Did I fuck you up? Yes.

At one point he says: I don’t know what I could say that could make any of it better.

Now I want to scream: YOU COULD FUCKING SAY YOU’RE SORRY

But I don’t want to have to demand it. It wouldn’t be any better than asking Bash to tell Blondie sorry for kicking her. Just a hollow parroting.

I want him to want to say sorry and say it. To finally hold himself accountable for what he did to me.

But I can see from the question-answers, from the tangent he enters about his marriage, about my mother, that this moment isn’t coming unless I demand it.

I want it to come from him because he wants it to come.

And if the past is any indication of the present, that will never happen.

So I cut his tangent off and tie it back to the family therapy. “I’m not asking that we start it now, but it will have to happen if I’m ever to trust you. I hated you for so damn long.” I pause, and the words surprise even me: “I don’t hate you any more, for the record.”

He coughs. Thank you for saying that, he says.

I nod, a little bewildered inside. But what else explains how I dug myself out of all the anger and self-loathing to reclaim my humanity? How else could I both find and keep love, experience joy, challenge my skills with language? For all the Hell I experienced at his hands, I still managed to live.

To thrive.

I am stronger than he is.

And now he knows it.

I look at the words I’ve been wearing to keep up my strength since we agreed to meet.

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I look back up, and say it:

“I forgive you.”

We part.

Not sure what other shoppers think as I fall in and out of sobs. Bo is glowing. My shakes are back, and my coffee’s cold. But Bo still manages to kiss my snot-coated lips and whispers, “I am so proud of you. You did it. You looked him in the eye, and you told him. And he knows I know, which proves you’re not afraid to talk about it anymore.”

I think about the bridge. I had walked into that coffee shop with knife in hand, ready to cut it and The Monster loose completely. That didn’t happen. A small part of me dared to hope he’d want the bridge repaired for the sake of the family. That didn’t happen, either. The future remains in the mist, guarded by a blind man whose questions–and the consequences of their answers–remain unpredictable.

As Sir Lancelot says: “Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.”

Nor am I.

~*~

Thank you all, from the heart and soul of me, for sharing this journey that started with Growing Pains” and continued through “Lessons Learned from Zoe Zolrod: First, Face Myself and Second, Find My Voice.”  You cheered with me in “And through the mist you’ll find hope.” Now here we are, on the precipice of a new chapter in my life. Thank you, dearest kindred spirits, and God bless you. 

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Pack it on Every Page.

When we think “cozy mystery,” we think of a manor, or someplace isolated, with a limited cast and one, maybe two murders in a tight amount of time. Subtle clues that we didn’t understand come to light when the detective gives his Great Reveal in Act III. My study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles fulfilled such requirements, as do other major Agatha Christie novels, like Murder on the Orient Express, Cat Among the Pigeons, or Murder on the Nile.

So let’s not talk about any of those and look at A.B.C. Murders instead.

This particular mystery takes place in and around London. The victims are not known until they’re dead. The killer has no face–in fact, the only clue that connects the murders is an A.B.C. railroad timetable. That’s the mark of a serial killer. The cast morphs and sprawls with each death.

All the while Poirot’s little grey cells ponder over long periods of time.

Now I will admit to my own little crime: I am writing this post before finishing the book. I read it once as a child, but, as suggested by Damien Walter, I wanted to give A.B.C. a serious study for craft’s sake. Arrangements to face The Monster in two days’ time have made it hard to focus, but I did manage nine chapters, and that’ll do for the topic I want to cover:

Pacing.

In my earlier study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  I noted just how quickly Christie gets the story moving in that first chapter with character introductions. I wondered how every line’s got to count in a mystery, be it for the character or the plot. This time, I decided to see what Christie accomplishes on every single page of A.B.C. Slow work, but already I find it most worthwhile.

Rather than give you my notes–well, here’s some of them. Now go and be thankful you don’t see my handwriting on a regular basis.

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Chapter 1’s header already engages us: “The Letter.” Consider the book’s title: Are we talking about the letter A? Correspondence was still a primary form of communication–are we talking about a posted letter? By page 4, we find out it’s both: the first note from our killer, taunting Poirot with a murder to be committed in the city of Andover. Hastings, of course, does not take it seriously, but Poirot does. On page 9, the killer’s predicted day comes and goes, and Hastings calls it a false alarm. By page 11, we learn differently. Come page 12, we get one hell of an eerie statement from Poirot:

“This is the beginning.”

Every single page contains a clue of sorts: testimony from a witness/suspect, scene of the crime, Poirot’s critique, and so on. Trust me, I looked for a page that could have been cut for its insignificance. As of nine chapters, we have two murders, two different groups of suspects and witnesses, two different towns, two different inspectors.

On page 24, for instance, Poirot took time to study the only three photographs in a victim’s apartment. You just know that’s going to be useful later, right? On page 25, Hastings tells us what he sees in the apartment; no overlap, and it sounds mundane, and yet in a mystery everything counts, so one of those items just has to stand out sometime.

By page 37, Poirot has met with the first victim’s family and usual suspects, then visited the scene of the crime. At this point, all leads to dead ends, and Poirot tells Hastings that there is nothing that can be “done” until the murderer strikes again. Hastings, being British, loathes this not-doing-anything, and spends page 38 lamenting Poirot’s clear loss of detecting powers. Sounds pointless? Not at all. The page puts doubts in reader’s mind as to whether or not Poirot really can solve this crime. For those who have read from Hastings’ perspective before, we know he’s not a reliable narrator, yet we can’t help but feel our faith shaken.

Then comes page 39, and another letter predicting murder with a B. Christie breezes over weeks of time by distracting us with Hastings’ doubt. From pages 40-42 we get the new victim, the conflict with a new inspector, and the increase in doubt of Poirot’s abilities.

By page 48, we start to see at least one connecting thread between victims thanks to Poirot. No, not the railway guide, that’s the obvious one left by the murder. Poirot remarks on the beauty of both victims. Why? Hastings doesn’t think on it, passing it off as something foreigners do. You’d think Hastings would know better by now…Anyway, that makes nine chapters.

It was as if every couple hundred words Christie took care to stick a useful02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6 tidbit in. Maybe she counted, maybe not. But I could certainly see why The New York Times said that this book is “The very best thing Agatha Christie has done”–at least that’s what it says on my edition, a 17th printing (SEVENTEENTH!) from 1967.
Christie lets no page go to waste. Only one page of genuine reflecting in nine chapters, and not general reflecting, either–it has an underlying agenda. Setting details are given quickly, almost waved aside:

“A dingy little place…A commonplace little shop, one of many thousand such others.” (23)

“Situated on the sea front, this was the usual type of small tea-room. It had little tables covered with orange-checked cloths and basket-work chairs of exceeding discomfort with orange cushions on them.” (45)

Did I mention the one departure from Hastings’ point of view? Chapter 2 focuses on a man named Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust? A man in a “shabby bedroom,” who smokes “cheap cigarettes,” and cults a “railway guide” and a “typewritten list of names”? We get this on pages 6-7.

He’s not been mentioned since.

But cheap cigarettes and railway guides sure have.

Such little things, and yet because of this single departure  from Hastings we hunt through the little details Christie places on every page, measured and sprinkled like chocolate chips for muffins. Too many and they’ll just spill off and melt on the pan. Too few, and the children will gripe and revolt and demand better muffins. (What, that doesn’t happen in your house?) Measuring out the placing of details gives readers reason to read not just the good chocolatey bits, but the whole thing. Give readers a sweet on every page, and they will not walk away until you’re story’s devoured completely.

 

 

 

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Lesson Learned from Charlie Brown: Dream Big.

When one walks under the weight of depression, life itself aches. Despite therapy and the writing regimen both creative and confessional, I have felt little hope for the future. My school has me on reserve to teach not just 40, but potentially 80 students. Bo’s schedule has gone haywire, and we find ourselves in survival mode. I can’t get ten minutes’ peace on the computer when the boys were awake. The church wants me to do A, B, and C in a month–wait, actually 7 days. That’s fine, right?

All this over the past few months, plus taking notes on The Tellinga memoir about recovering from sexual abuse by @ZoeZolbrod. I had already shared two parts of my reflection: of facing the pain within myself, and coming to terms with how an abusive past impacts motherhood.What remains is the final, most painful facing: that with The Monster himself. It will end with either reconciliation and healing with my family as a whole, or severance, and the destruction of several blood ties. We await on when the children can be watched, when life will make it “convenient,” and all the while my lungs knot when my mother brings him up, of having him over for the holidays, and sleepovers, and….

A rather not-fun time, that.

Music, thankfully, alters my insides for the better.

Desperate for a change from Veggie Tales sing-a-longs, I got a copy of The Peanuts Movie soundtrack. My folks both enjoyed Peanuts comics, toys, and cartoons, and that joy passed down to me and my kids. When word came of a new film, I remained skeptical.

Now? My whole family loves it, and I strongly recommend you watch it with or without little ones. Oh, the kids love it when Snoopy the World War I flying ace saves his beloved Fifi, and Bo enjoys all the tightly executed homages to the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas, but I see something else: I see the journey of a writer.

No, not Snoopy (though he’s quite the author with his typewriter!). Charlie Brown.

He’s the odd one out, the one never really understood by others. He keeps trying to succeed with his passions such as kite-flying, but just. Can’t. Do it. The same old obstacles, like the kite-eating tree, snatch his hope away. He’s scoffed and ridiculed by his peers. When a new kid–the little red-haired girl, no less!–moves onto his street, he is awestruck. All he wants is a chance to show her the real him, the Charlie Brown no one else sees.

“Charlie Brown is not a quitter.” -Charlie Brown

How many of us have felt misunderstood, simply labeled and discarded as hopeless cases? How many of us come down with “a serious case of inadequacy,” as Charlie Brown puts it?

He tries different things to impress her: he prepares a magic act, only to give up his chance so he can help his sister Sally instead. He learns to dance for the winter dance competition, only to slip and set off the sprinkler system. He spends the weekend reading War and Peace and writing a book report for their team grade only to watch his paper get shredded by a toy.

Time, and time, and time again he gives his all and gets nothing in return. Even the star he wishes on falls from the sky. All he can count on is his dog, who remains loyal and loving no matter the disaster. (Dyane, I can’t help but think of you and Lucy!)

When I hear Christophe Beck‘s piano melody for Charlie Brown’s moments of defeat, I’m on the verge of tears, especially here, during his school assembly.

And yet, despite all the hopelessness, Charlie Brown dreams on. He sees the success of another kid’s kite-flying attempt, and hopes for his own. Don’t we have those moments as writers, too?

Then, out of beyond-nowhere, the little red-haired girl wants to be his summer penpal. His. Charlie Brown’s. All he’s been through, all he was ready to give up on, and…and he didn’t even DO anything this time! Why, why now? She tells him: she had watched him and all he went through over the year, and felt him a friend worth knowing.

How many of us have reached out with words, and wanted nothing more than to feel a reader’s hand find ours?

Perhaps you’ve been feeling nothing more than the football pulled out from under you. That the world has deemed you a failure because:

“You’re Charlie Brown, that’s why!” -Lucy Van Pelt

Well, guess what? Charlie Brown may be gullible enough to still run for Lucy’s football, but he’s also a thoughtful, kind, and giving person who never gives up, no matter how many kites he loses. He dreams of a chance to meet someone who can see him for all he is and could be, not just his failures and shortcomings.

Dream big, fellow writers. Charlie Brown is worth knowing. So are you.

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The Wattpad Dare (or, why I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year)

I love National Novel Writing Month with its “Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon.” Hell, I’ve got a sweatshirt with that very phrase on the back. (This image, in fact. The fingerprints are sparkly!)nano

50,000 words in thirty days is no meager feat, especially when one’s arms are literally being pulled from the keyboard. When trains are being launched at the keyboard. When the goldfish crackers aren’t in the right bowl. When a red car goes missing and the screaming won’t stop until you find it. No not that red car, the RED car. THE REEEEED CAAAAAAAR!!! (For the louder one shrieks, the better I will apparently know which hue of red out of the two dozen red cars is the “right” red car.) Despite all that, I managed to crank out 800-1000 words in an hour twice a day, teach some students, and occasionally sleep.

Out of the hundred-some pages I produced every November, approximately a dozen, maybe two, were any good. What a waste, right?

Never. In the writing groove I discovered images of a power and vibrance I never knew were in me. Little touches of world-building just appear with the same magic of Bash walking in with a toy no one could find for weeks, and be damned if those touches ain’t just perfect for the story at large.  Above all, @NaNoWriMo will always hold a special place in my heart because it helped me win the first battle with postpartum.

Some years, though, there is no denying that one more goal, however low-stake, just can’t be added. I didn’t participate the year my sons were born, for instance–already teaching, babies with stereo colic. Blondie asking when we could take the babies back to the hospital.

No. Nursing both boys football-style while talking on a headset about thesis statements was hard enough.

This year looks to be another one of those “don’t be stupid and make it worse–you’ve got enough” kinds of November: teaching, mothering, potty training (dear GOD give me strength), blogging, writing…

Hmm?

Yes, I said writing.

This past summer I surrendered myself to fiction: I would write the story of a character in a world  already created.  In a way you can consider it fanfic–after all, I didn’t do any of the world-building, and the protagonist was a creation assigned to me–but I soon learned that while I was writing in a world already built, my protagonist and her piece of the world had yet to be defined. 

Over the past few months, my protagonist Gwen has marched with me through some very mucked-up territory. She’s also introduced me to her fellow Shield Maiden recruits, each with her own story to share.

Good Lord, I have a series.

The challenge, though, is how to put them in readers’ hands. I suppose I could go the traditional route, or even the self-pub route, but honestly, I just want to share the stories. I can’t work out their marketability without readers, anyway, and writing Middle Grade fantasy is a pretty specific niche. I can’t bug kids at my daughter’s school, because that involves using my real name. I prefer keeping my writing life separate and safe, where I can lay out past pain and uncover unknown strength.

Time to Wattpad it up.

Michael Dellert once wrote that Wattpad is “the kid’s table of publishing.” It’s a free platform where writers can post stories and readers can post their comments. No shot at getting paid, just as the wine never leaves the adults’ table. Good thing I’m a near-teetotaler. (Never been a fan of my grandfather’s taste in zinfandel anyway.)

Having readers of age who will tell me what they think, and therefore help me grow as a writer, will be akin to the sweetest of Grandma’s sweet potatoes. Sure, I’d love a massive heap of NaNoWriMo stuffing, too, but there’s only so much one body can take. Wattpad will require a discipline of writing under pressure and sharing rough work with strangers. That plus all the other obligations of life Out Here fills my plate quite enough, thank you.

A cover was needed; Michael kindly assisted me. middlers-pride-7

With book cover and Wattpad banner (it greeted you above the post) completed, I could work on a book blurb.

Which, um, I had never done.

Quick, to the Diana Wynne Jones shelf!

I plucked up Volume One of The Dalemark Quartet. Her blurbs for both Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet are quite succinct. For Cart and Cwidder: “Traveling musician Moril has inherited a cwidder said to have belonged to one of the Undying. Can he learn to harness its strange powers in time to prevent an invasion?” For Drowned Ammet: “To avenge his father’s death, Mitt has joined a plot to assassinate the tyrannical Earl Hadd. But when everything goes wrong, he finds himself on a storm-tossed sea in a bot with his enemies.”

Both fixate on the character and the problem at hand. Both are right around thirty words.

Yowza.

Three drafts later…

After a humiliating dinner with a suitor, Gwen sees only a dull life ahead, destined to crush her heroic spirit—that is, until she’s accepted into the Shield Maidens. Surely nothing but glory and adventure await, right? And they do…if Gwen can first overcome the most dangerous enemy of all: herself.

51 words, but still: protagonist and problem, fitted together.

Next comes the Author’s Note. I needed to state I would be sharing both character sketches and scenes, as well as when they’ll be published. I also wanted to give readers a sense of where this story came from.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

Middler’s Pride sprouts from two places: Michael Dellert’s Matter of Manred saga, and Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet. Dellert’s land of Droma is rich with conflict and beauty, but his Matter of Manred saga only focuses on select portions of this landscape. This year he honored me with my own little corner of the country and a character to develop. Herein lies the origin of Gwenwledyr of the Shield Maidens.

But what to do with her was another matter entirely. That’s where Jones’ Dalemark Quartet inspired me. Each amazing adventure in the series centers on one youth. Often the youth has some serious growing up to do in order to overcome whatever villainy is at work. I wanted Gwen to have just such an adventure as well as that growing up. Herein lies the origin of her fellow Shield Maidens, the evil sorcerer known only as the Cat Man, and the most elusive, destructive enemy of all:

Her pride.

Before we get to the story, I want to share a dialogue I had with Gwen. Hearing her voice answer the questions I put to her helped me understand her character better, and this in turn helped me write the story that will follow. I intend to post excerpts of the dialogue and scenes from Middler’s Pride every Wednesday and Friday until Gwen’s story is told and another Shield Maiden must tell her own tale.

So you see, I can’t do NaNoWriMo this year. Next year, perhaps, I’ll happily lose myself in thirty days and nights of literary abandon. Until then, enjoy an adventure or four with Gwen and her comrades.

Click here for Middler’s Pride, and here for my Wattpad profile.