Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna III

51tlmvsqpelMy love for Mychael Danna’s music originates here, with Capote. This is the music that pulls the floor out from under your characters and crashes realization down upon them. Hard. Crudely put, Capote’s perfect for the moment your character whispers, “Oh, shit.

At some point, our characters discover just how far out of depth they are from their comfort zones. This may be the introduction of fresh conflict, a singular plot point, or even a change of setting. I rely heavily on Capote when describing the moment my protagonist learns her sister is missing. This moment comes in the country, with few facts based in reality for her to follow. I suppose that is why I love the strings and piano in Capote—they disturb my emotional base with their harsh simplicity. Nothing can just be beautiful. There is a menace underlying every track, even in “Epigraph.”

“Epigraph” is unique in two ways: piano dominates the track, and the menace of the strings is weakened by the kindness in the piano’s melody. One feels an almost-hope in this song, and that can translate well to characters unsure of where they stand, especially after a downfall.

Which brings me to that second uniqueness: that “Epigraph” is music to bring characters together. So much of Capote can be utilized to alienate your characters, to make them feel cut off from everything they know. “Epigraph” is almost physical in the way it helps characters connect, be it in their resolve, their consolation, or even grief.

Bring Capote into your world. Watch your characters grow as they fall…and come together in almost-hope.

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Click here for more on CAPOTE.

#lessons learned from #DianaWynneJones: The Pseudo-Sequel.

Except where Chrestomanci is concerned, I usually find that the end of the book is the end of the important things I have to say about the central character.

“A Whirlwind Tour of Australia,” 1992

As far as I have read in Diana Wynne Jones’ work, this quote is quite true. The castle-in-the-air-by-diana-wynne-jonesChrestomanci series is the only one that a reader can point to and say, “Chrestomanci’s always important, even if he only physically shows up near the end sometimes. A presence in every story = series!”

And yet, if you have read through any number of her books, you’ll know she’s written sequels. Howl’s Moving Castle is followed with Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways. Don’t forget The Merlin Conspiracy stems from Deep Secret. The Year of the Griffin comes after The Dark Lord of Derkholm. (I would also expound on The Dalemark Quartet, but I have yet to read the third or fourth books, so that wouldn’t be fair.)

So how can her quote still be true?

Diana Wynne Jones pulls off something brilliant with these pseudo-sequels, something I wish more writers would feel inclined to do: shift away from the central character and let readers have more of this brilliant world they’ve worked so hard to create.

Take Castle and House. Each story starts with a fresh cast of main characters. Each book starts in a different country, but Jones quickly establishes that these countries are in Howl’s universe by relating the countries’ locations to Ingary, where Howl’s Moving Castle takes place. Castle in the Air introduces some rather odd second-stringers the reader wouldn’t care much about: a magical black cat and her kitten, a cranky genie, a magic carpet. In the third act spells lift to reveal the magic carpet is Calcifer, the genie Howl, and the black cat Sophie. The kitten is a new addition: Morgan, Howl and Sophie’s child. House of Many Ways utilizes the Howl family, too, but not until halfway through the book, and they are again NOT central characters.

I should also note how much time passes between publications: Howl came out in 1986, Castle in 1990, and House in 2008. This may be presumptuous on my part, but I doubt Jones had House of Many Ways in mind back in the 1980s. She wrote Howl to stand alone, and it does. Both Castle and House give us a glimpse of what our beloved characters are up to a few years later while at the same time providing fresh stories. (PS—never has a story made me snort so loud I thought I’d wake the kids like Castle in the Air. Absolutely hilarious.)

This same tactic applies to the previously mentioned titles. In The Dark Lord of Derkholm, Elda is just a young griffin sibling in a family of griffins and humans (best read the book to understand that), but in Year of the Griffin, she is the central character we follow to The University. Deep Secret has two narrators: a junior Magid and a struggling young woman named Maree Mallory. Her teen cousin Nick Mallory is an important second-stringer who impacted fans so deeply that one boy told Jones at a book-signing that he wanted to learn more about Nick. Jones thought about it and agreed. Lo and behold, Nick becomes an important character in The Merlin Conspiracy a few years later.*

Of course there are those stories that won’t fit in a single volume; writers shouldn’t think they only have so many pages to cram with conflict and character. But one shouldn’t pad out for the sake of a series, either, as Jones explains with some criticism in “Two Kinds of Writing?”: “A book should conclude satisfactorily; to leave the ending for the next volume is cynical (and annoying for readers).” Let’s not annoy our readers. Let’s not feel the world we’ve built up from nothing can never be used again. And let’s not forget the characters to whom we’ve given birth. They may be just the right touch for a whole new story we have yet to imagine.

*As explained in Jones’ “The Origins of The Merlin Conspiracy,” which can be found in the 2012 edition of Reflections on the Magic of Writing. Which you should read. Now.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.


To Create in Bedlam

It is 5:30am. I may have thirty minutes, I may have an hour. Whatever I’ve got, it’s quiet.

To immerse oneself into a story world takes concentration and peace of mind. I get this from music, which is why I write of it so often. Unfortunately, I am not allowed the aforementioned tools much throughout the day. Why? Hellspawn!

Well, children, to be more accurate.


Many writing books and author biographies I’ve come across don’t mention these glorious people doing much until their kids were in school. As I have three children ages 5, 2, and 2, I can see why they waited that long. Four years may not sound like much, but that’s an eternity to a kid.

Some of us grown-ups can’t afford to wait that long, either.

It’s not that we have agents and publishers banging down our doors. It’s the monsters that are crawling up our insides, up from the gut, along the spine, and scraping, scratching the fibers of love in our minds until only self-hate and despair are left.

Postpartum does not simply stop when babies become toddlers.

I have written about this before (See “The Machete and the Cradle”). If I go for a few days without writing (like last week), I can feel It pull me downward. I hear only my children’s screams, not laughter. I see only failure, not work in progress. I feel only worthless, not worth my family’s love.

That’s when Bo forces me to sit down. “Go write. NOW.

Some of us need to create. Be it writing, art, music, model trains, whatever—we need a say somewhere, cuz it ain’t in our houses. Children dictate what stores we can visit without incident, what food we buy, when we can be out of the house (God help the parent who interrupts the nap schedule), etc.

To create is to finally be in control.


It is 8:22am.

Blondie enjoyed her first year of pre-school so much I thought it a shame she’d spend all summer at home. Shuffle that kid off to summer school, and I’m down to two little ones in the morning. How to distract toddler boys? Two words: Thomas. Television.

Never, EVER be ashamed of using your TV to give yourself a kiddo break.

Granted, I can’t expect them to leave me alone. If Biff calls out a name to me I must repeat it immediately or he will start screaming. Once Bash knows the laptop is on the table he will decide all the trains must bash into it, onto it, and so on. Now is not the time for creation.

Now is the time to review and plan.

When your children are conscious and mischievous, you can’t afford to tune them out with headphones. I prefer this time to plot out where to take things next. I may also work on maps, character garb—anything that does not involve a complete shift out of Mommy-mindset and into my characters.

Aaaand Bash has arrived with his trains.

Just because one has small children doesn’t mean one has to put the creative life completely on hold. Some can be content with just a few sentences’ work here and there, since that does add up. But when you’re impatient and determined, you’ve got to MAKE the time.

But how to do this when funds are limited? Wisconsin is one of the most expensive states with childcare. How could I possibly justify paying someone to watch children outside the home when I’m still in it? Even capable baby-sitters are by no means cheap.

So how?

Bo knows I still fight postpartum, and is not afraid to take the kids after a long day of work so I can have an hour of uninterrupted writing. Every month he takes the kids so I can go off by myself and have an entire day to write, recharge. He will find books I need for research to save me time.

He never reads my stuff, though.

Lesson learned: relish the support your partner can give you, but don’t ask too much of him/her. Bo is not a fiction reader, let alone fantasy. I tried to get his input on a synopsis once; after three paragraphs he looked up and shrugged. “I am sooo not the audience for whatever it is you’re saying.”

Find the friends who are capable of decent feedback, and ask them to enforce deadlines.

If one’s emailed me her thoughts, I won’t open the email until this time in the day. Revision requires careful planning to ensure consistency, and planning is what this hour is all about. By allowing myself to think through the coming events in my story in the morning, I am ready to write in the afternoon.


It is 1:00pm. Naptime for the twins. The most bittersweet part of the day.

Blondie: And here’s the Hall of Justice, and Superman with Green Arrow. Who’s this?

Me: Not now, kiddo, I’m working.

Blondie: Can you play James? He’s my favorite engine because he’s red. Can you play James in the Hall of Justice?

Me: Not now, kiddo, I really need to work.

Blondie: That’s the button with Aquaman’s pool, and there’s—

Me: KID-DO. I reeeeeeeally need to work. I’ll try to play later, okay?

Blondie: When you’re done working you’ll play?

Me: Yes. Just, please, let me put on my music and work.

Sometimes I remember to play, sometimes not. Sometimes I can silence the guilt. Usually not.


It is 8:30pm. I have about an hour before complete mental shutdown.

Unless a major deadline or inspiration looms overhead, I do nothing with my own story. After hours of reading truck books, walking through letter words, scraping pasta off the table, roaring like dragons, and so on, the last thing I want to do is deep-think.

Time to explore.

Bo sits contentedly next to me unwinding his own way with a Dirty Harry flick or some such thing. I wander through blogs and Twitter to see what epiphanies other writers have uncovered, or reviews on books I may want to read. I was never much for platform-building before. I still don’t think of it that way.

Writers need readers. I want to be read, so I shall read in return.

I may review the events of the day, especially if there’s a bruise on my face from Biff’s latest tantrum. I nearly cry when I talk about refusing Blondie. Bo never chastises. “We’ll make it up to her,” he says. “You can’t not write, so don’t beat yourself up over it.”

Which is, after all this, my point.

You can’t not write, so don’t force yourself to stop. Bury your passion alive, and it will decay before its time. Monsters are born this way, and they feed upon bitterness and resentment. Let yourself create, and your worlds both real and imagined will thrive.

Writer’s Music: Kristopher Carter

batman_beyond_return_of_the_joker_soundtrackThis one’s a guilty pleasure. Having grown up with a father who adored fiction’s two greatest detectives, it was only natural that, once Batman: the Animated Series hit the air, our family could not go by a week without its viewing. Any offshoot, such as Batman Beyond, was equally welcome.

Now, in my previous “Writer’s Music” posts, I’ve dwelled on some of the more subtle sorts of music, for anticipation, unease, thoughts of the future, and so on. But sometimes, you just need a moment of badass-ness. This is your moment.

Kristopher Carter wrote a good deal of music for the animated Batman shows, but the mix of orchestra and hard rock is positively brilliant, especially when one considers the Batman of Batman Beyond is a teenager who works for an aged Bruce Wayne. It is, I admit, hard not to separate the music from the show, so much so that I have yet to apply the music to a story I’ve written. Considering the wealth of authors I have met online, however, I know there are plenty of writers who have heroes with battles to face—not just the inward ones, but ones requiring swords, guns, and any weapon I have yet to imagine.

The metal and the orchestra balance each other throughout the score, but in this theme youth dominates. Don’t let that fool you—the orchestra swells in the last third of the track to add not only power, but an authority as well. This is the music of transformation: perhaps your hero knows who—or what—s/he is, but has yet to fully become that which your story world needs to be saved. The resolve, the power suit, whatever your hero needs, must come sometime, and there’s no reason for it to come quietly. If your hero must prepare to face the darkness, let him prepare to this.

Click here for more on Kristopher Carter.

Click here for more on BATMAN BEYOND: RETURN OF THE JOKER.

#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Stop Taking Genre So Damn Seriously.

51fsghdnkdl-_sy344_bo1204203200_As writers, we are reminded to read similar works in our genre, pay attention to what’s hip in our genre, make sure we can define the genre that sums up our story, etc. Do a simple search for “fantasy books” in Amazon, and you’ll see no less than TEN subgenres. Agents and publishers need to know how to classify your story so they can sell it to the right readers. If you can’t classify it, who can?

Diana Wynne Jones spoke about the problem of genre in her address to the New England Science Fiction Association:

[Each genre] has hunkered down inside what it believes to be its own boundaries, and inside those boundaries the Rules for Being Of That Genre have proliferated and hardened until almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s OK. That’s fine. That’s Genre.

The Rules add that if you do cross these boundaries, what you have written will be called “Not Really Horror—or Science Fiction or whatsoever” and nobody will want to know.

“A Talk About Rules,” 1994

Twenty years ago, Jones rightly nailed the fear so many of us writers face. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed or a repeat of what’s already been done, but look at those sales records! The marketing is so easy for a book that clearly hits all the same markers as its predecessors. Give people more of what they want, right?

Jones takes this concept of Genre Rules and creates two marvelous things: The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The latter is a dictionary of sorts, listing all the possible people, places, and things one encounters in a fantasy novel. Here is an example:

HOVELS are small, squalid dwellings, either in a village or occasionally up a mountain, and probably most resemble huts. The people who live in hovels are evidently rather lazy and not very good with their hands, since in no cases have any repairs been done to these buildings (tumbledown, rotting thatch etc. are the official clichés) and there is no such thing as a clean hovel. Indoors, the inhabitants eke out a wretched existence (another official cliché), which you can see they would, given the draughts, smoke and general lack of house-cleaning. This need not alarm you. The Tour will not allow you to enter a hovel that is inhabited. If you enter one at all, it will be long deserted (another official cliché) and there will be sanitary arrangements out the back.

Here is a writer who has written dozens of fantasy books, and yet has glorious fun poking at her own genre. She knows full well what people expect out of fantasy. She even takes it one step further and turns all of those clichés into a fantastic story. The Dark Lord of Derkholm isn’t really a dark lord at all—it’s just his job for the tourist season.

51wy1w-envlA nasty and quite powerful wizard took control of this magical world a long time ago; every year, he opens gateways to a nonmagical world to bring Pilgrim Parties through. These tourists expect to—what else—help the poor down-trodden souls break free from The Dark Lord. They must encounter pirates, or bandits, or both, and be hunted down by monsters, get help from wizard guides and glamourous enchantresses…all the things readers expect are what the tourists expect.

Except this magical world isn’t like that at all, so people are forced to role-play lest the nasty wizard bumps them off.

It’s a hilarious story that shows what happens when we writers take readers’ expectations far too seriously. We all want to be entertained, sure, and that may include an adventure, some battles, and a bit of love. But do we really have to all do it the same way? We fear agents/publishers/readers won’t “get” our work because they can’t fit it under a tidy shelf name in the bookstore. If we follow The Rules, we can belong.

And be just like everyone else.

Click here for more information on Diana Wynne Jones.

Click here for more on THE DARK LORD OF DERKHOLM.

Click here for more on THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND.