“Mom, can I throw this sock away? It’s got a hole.”
“Not THAT hat, Mom, there’s a hole!”
Since the start of school Biff and Bash have put holes in three hats, five pairs of pants, two pairs of snow pants, six socks, and one snow boot. Hell, Biff still has a hole in his smile.
The holes in the new Star Wars hat were particularly impressive. “What was he doing, growing horns?” said Bo when I showed him. Biff can only shrug as he kneels with his cars, the knees of these jeans already threadbare.
Unlike my grandmother,I am no seamstress. Better to find a pair of jeans at the thrift store for a couple of dollars than to poke my fingertips with a needle for hours. Unfortunately, this propels the vicious cycle of worn jeans wearing out faster with boys who love to crawl, kneel, wrestle, and so on. All I can do is keep the few pairs of still-kneed jeans safe for school while the torn pairs are worn on weekends. Surely God doesn’t mind seeing bare grubby knees in church now and again.
Curious: as a child, I never wore anything torn. Oh, we had hand-me-downs galore, but everything was always kept stitched and tidy. Perhaps it was a point of parenting pride for my mother, that even on so little, her children would always be presentable.
And to a point I have to agree: I can’t bring myself to take the kids on errands in their PJs. I’ll use my own spit to wipe a child’s face if I don’t see a bathroom anywhere. It’s a point of parenting pride that my kids are dressed and (mostly) clean.
But holes in knees, in sleeves? Pish. That’s what duct tape is for. The kids’ll outgrow those clothes soon enough.
It’s the holes in character I will not abide. Not as a writer, not as a mother.
What do I mean by holes in character? Lack of empathy. Kindness. Imagination. Ever since my boys were toddlers I’ve had to pull them apart, bear cubs down to the clawing hands and vicious growls. I’ve feared one, even both, could grow up to be a bully feared by other children. Ever since my daughter discovered technology I’ve feared that she’ll let the virtual world dance its pretty colors to bewitch her, each new button click a chip at her creativity until it is utterly broken and buried beneath the hulking troll of apathy. I’ve seen these holes in other children. They belittle, dismiss, hurt. And the earlier these holes appear, the bigger they’re going to get unless they’re patched.
Mothers are often seen patching holes, but what of our own holes? Ever since the summer of stitches my confidence in safety has been torn wide open. I’m quick to see the worst-case scenario in everything. You say “trip to the park,” I say “Falling off the monkey bars.” You say “swimming pool,” I say “drowning.” You say “getting groceries,” I say “running into an old lady while fighting with the grocery cart and knocking over a display of glass olive oil bottles.” (And I can say that because this nearly happened. I managed to stop the cart after only one bottle fell and not all several dozen.) Point is, I’ve a hard time patching up my fears. Damn hard, after seeing the blood pour from holes in my sons’ skin.
But the holes in Bash’s eyebrow, on Biff’s forehead–they healed. These little bear cubs may fight now and again, but they help each other, too. When Bash was too tired to keep trick or treating, Biff asked for candy to give his brother. When Biff was sick, Bash gave him extra blankets and comfie animals to hug.
And Blondie? Oh, Blondie. Sure, she enjoys her game time, but even she grows tired of the screen. She can build up and take down Lego concoctions for hours. She’ll make up conversations between characters in her favorite comics, and later draw her own.
More than anything else, each child is filled with unbridled joy over sharing love. Blondie’s excitement to use her own money to buy presents for her brothers. Bash’s happiness to snuggle with me next to the Christmas tree through the dawn. Biff’s glee to stand with me in the church choir and sing the Hallelujah Chorus, his voice loud and proud, so excited he cheered for us all at song’s end. “That was amazing! Fist Bump! High Five!”
So their snowpants are patched with duct tape. So we go back to the thrift store for more pairs of worn jeans. We’re all of us frayed somewhere, but that does not stop us from living.That is the mark of strong character: for all the scuffs and tears upon us, those tears do not destroy what’s in us. My children remind me of that every day as they run, knees popping in and out of decimated denim, lost in yet another story of their creation. Holes are nothing to the binding threads of love and imagination.
As 2018 draws to a close, I want to give a special thanks to all who have supported me on my journeys as a writer and mother. Your support here gives me the gumption to keep my chin up no matter what shit life threw at me. You are all blessings in my life I shall never take for granted.
Now, let’s see what 2019 shall bring us, eh? Perhaps another novel or two? Perhaps some tales of adventure from my children real and fictional? Perhaps some naked mannequins glued to wings and hanging from the ceiling above a giant carousel while the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse gather dust by the dead orchestra?
What is it about the stories we save for Christmas time? Why do we pack them up with the ornaments and stockings as another special sparkly for December? This week I talk with my family about their favorite Christmas stories to discover what makes them so special.
Takeaway: Christmas stories should be fun, and elves are hilarious.
Takeaway: Christmas stories require a bit of action, even violence, in order to achieve the “happily ever after.” Also, alien robots.
Wonder what Blondie will add to the mix…
Takeaway: Learning what Christmas is all about is very important, especially when animals are involved.
Kids tucked up in bed, Bo and I pull out one of the many Christmas catalogs we’ve received lately to talk about a unique occurrence with Christmas: the HallmarkChristmas film. What has Hallmark figured out about Christmas stories that gives them the knack to make so many every year?
Takeaway: Pretty people with Christmasy names and/or places facing a little problem and/or a little death in order to achieve love…which basically means that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever. Even the 30th Anniversary trailer that just came out agrees. (For the record, Bo and I recorded our talk before seeing this trailer. Guess this makes us amazing!)
Will I ever write a Christmas story? I’m not sure. Bo and I began dating and even married around Christmas time, so I cannot deny there’s a certain magic to the season. I also know how sharp grief grows at Christmas, making its hope all the more critical to share before it’s too late.
Hmmm. Maybe Hallmark has a point about love…after Charles Dickens made it over 150 years ago:
I have always thought of Christmastime…[as] a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…
-Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol
So yeah, Christmas stories may seem a bit too schmaltzy at times, but know what? That’s okay. This is the season when we’re all just a bit more open to love’s magic. There’s a power in these December days unknown at any other time of the year. Use that power, friends, be it in your storytelling or your life’s story, to share the magic. Use whatever you need, be it dogs, cookies, or flying reindeer.
Also, alien robots.
Oh! Lest I forget, be sure to give some indie books to your fellow readers, and reviews to your fellow writers on Amazonand Goodreads! Nothing’s as awesome as the gift of words.
A most blessed Christmas to you all. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
Reverend Wesley Allen is a delightful friend and fellow indie writer with a new book,In the Land of the Penny Gnomes.Today we discuss our mutual love of writing fantasy, balancing family and the writing life, and more.
I love this line from your “about” page on your site, Painfully Hopeful: “I hope that I can be a decent pastor, geek, father, and husband. It’s just sometimes I’m painfully aware that I’m not quite all that I want to be.” Let’s address your family first. You have a wife, two teenagers, and a baby. Just…I cannot fathom having a baby at this point, let alone with teenagers in the house. Do you manage to squeak a little writing time in every day, or just on Sunday afternoons, or when? Does your family root you on in the writing process, or do you keep your stories to yourself?
I am also unable to fathom having an infant in the house. Still, he’s pretty cool and I’ve raised kids through adolescence so poopy diapers and crying isn’t as daunting as it used to be. When Bump doesn’t want to sleep at night, though, I get a bit cranky.
I do write a bit most days, but I’ve managed to write only one short fiction piece for my blog since Bump’s been born. I need to get into a mindset to write, and it’s been hard to find the space to get there. My imagination is still going strong, though, and I’ve got stories running around in my head. I also have to write a sermon every week, so there’s that.
And Sunday afternoons are not good writing days. My introverted brain is basically a bowl of oatmeal by Sunday afternoon. It’s all I can do to scream at the Eagles when they’re playing. (1)
My family really isn’t involved in my projects. My wife isn’t a fantasy fan, my daughter likes to pretend she doesn’t care (2), and my older son just kinda grunts at me when I mention I wrote something. Bump drools on my keyboard. I’m sure if I pushed things a bit more they’d show more interest, but I don’t feel compelled to do so. When I was growing up my family referred to my daydreaming state as “Wes World.” I could dive so deep into my imagination people could be screaming at me and I would barely notice — it was my place to be one my own with my thoughts. As my writing basically emerges from that space it continues to be a solitary endeavor.
As a child of a preacher m’self, I know how one’s life merges to be one with the church sometimes. Personally, I like when storytelling allows me to separate from that environment, but there are ways when faith weaves itself into the fantasy world-building whether intended or not. Do you consider your faith to be a major or minor influence in your writing? How so?
I’m not sure I’d categorized it as “major or minor,” as that would imply faith was merely a component of who I am. Faith is the core of my being, it’s who I am.
But, because I’m quite comfortable with faith being who I am I do not set out to write “Christian stories.” In fact, using the word “Christian” as an adjective to describe a particular set of pop-culture media makes me want to throw up. I guess I’m with Tolkien — too much of what I see in “Christian” pop-culture is reduced to a blunt allegory which has deluded itself into believing it’s subtle. It’s icky.
At the same time, because faith is what I am, of course there are aspects of my faith which can’t help but be seen in my writing. But I try to evoke them as applicable expressions. The idea that good exists, that there is always a larger narrative, and that a people’s story matters all spring into my work though my faith. But I hope they resonate with any reader, and not just “religious” ones.
Having said all that, I am working on a devotional which works around short fiction pieces, but even then the pieces are there to provoke thought and not just telling people what to believe.
About the Pictures
On top of all this, you still find time to get out with your camera! Do you find the images you capture to inspire your storytelling, or do you enjoy time with your camera as a break form words?
Since I love to take Bump for walks, I’ve been able to keep up my photography hobby throughout his early months. I don’t know if photography is a break from words so much as it is permission to pay attention. I live in my head, photography gives me a window to see the world. At the same time, I hate photographing people. I love landscape, as they don’t look at you funny.
And, yes, photography has inspired me to write. When I share photos on my blog they are accompanied by a short meditation, which helps me process what I’m seeing. And the third world I’ve created, The Kingdom of Parallel, was inspired by a photo I took at Sunset. The story has evolved away from the inspiration that photo provided, but the world wouldn’t exist without it.
You’re also keen on using technological resources. I’m hoping to finally start using a program or two m’self, such as Scrivener. As a writer with multiple devices and obligations, which program do you find most useful for building and writing a fantasy world and why?
As you mentioned, Scrivener is huge. I’d be lost without that program, and version 3 on the Mac is superb. All my writing is done inside Scrivener.
For world-building Aeon Timeline is an application which helps me give context to my writing. I love visuals, and the character creation tools inside Aeon Timeline help me visualize how old the characters are at the time of the story. I have to imagine ahead of time, which takes out a lot of the guess work.
And then, interestingly enough, I love minecraft as a world builder. In fact, the first novel I completed, Welcome To The Valleys, was started because I wanted to write the story for the world I’d both explored and created. As I explored villages, terrain, and roadways I could visualize the world as a living space, which made it fun to write.
About the Book
Now let’s talk about your book, In the Land of the Penny Gnomes. Not only do you have an omniscient narrator to tell the story, but the Narrator himself is a character that interacts with the young hero, Will. Can you explain the process that brought you to this writing choice? What have been the challenges of such a choice? The payoffs?
The Narrator is a combination of techniques both Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde use in their work. Pratchett is famous for his footnotes, in which the Narrator issues an aside to the audience. So my use of footnotes is an homage to him. At the same time, Jasper Fforde uses footnotes so characters can communicate with one another (3). These two techniques became the genesis of the Narrator, a literal bridge between the reader and the characters in the story.
The main challenge was to not have the Narrator appear to fix everything on every other page. I’m not sure he’s Omniscient in the usual sense, because he’s on the journey with Will. He knows things, but there’s still things for him to discover, which is unusual for the Narrator. The biggest payoff is what Pratchett discovered, breaking the fourth wall to have the Narrator speak with the reader is a great way to add some weight to the connection.
One of my favorite elements in your book are the unique traits that go into the characters, like Professor Nobody, the gnome fixed upon the creation of the perfect snack chip. What on earth (or elsewhere, of course) did you find the inspiration to gather up such traits, let alone names?
Professor Nobody was named because I loved the gag his name creates. The Narrator can say things like “Nobody smiled,” and every time he did it would make me laugh. Nobody is my favorite character to write, there’s a lot of depth in that mad scientist.
Bug was named just because I wanted a name to match his personality. His last name is really bad Koine Greek, and means, “Not of me.” So Bug’s name, though Bug is actually a nickname, basically means, “Don’t bother me.” He’s unhelpful, grumpy, and points out the foibles of his own people group — which is something we are not supposed to do. Bug’s my hero.
Other names just… came to be. Though Grimby’s name is easy to confuse with “grimey,” which I enjoy.
The snack chip thing. I have no idea. I think Nobody pointed it out to me, if I’m honest, because it makes zero sense. I remember I liked the slogan “Snack Like Nobody’s Business,” which is a great pun on a number of levels, and ran with it.
While I have no idea how I came up with the whole snack chip think, their presence became a sign that he wasn’t giving up on The Realm. Nobody needed something to work toward, and what more ecould a deranged professor of Applied Imagination want than great snack chips?
Now I know you’ve got big plans for Realmian, what with saving imagination–and snack chip creation, and coffee, and Will–from pesky camouflaged lawyers in The Realm. Is there a sequel in the works with Bug, Professor Nobody, and the rest of the Penny Gnomes?
Yes, and I have you to thank for it, as you were the one who told me to keep exploring this world. In the second book the story will center around two the supporting characters I really enjoyed from the first book. It’ll follow Grimby the Dwarf and Fineflen the Darned Elf as they investigate a conspiracy to corrupt the Penny supply. The other characters will shift to supporting roles, with the exception of Sills.
Right now I’m mapping out the story in Aeon Timeline ahead of time, which will allow me to keep two separate story arcs in sync. This is fun, because it’ll be the first time I’ve tried to do this!
This is going to take a while. In the last six months I’ve managed to map out exactly two chapters!
If anyone wants to follow updates on The Realmian Adventures I encourage folks to follow @PennyGnomes on twitter. This is where I’ll be sharing updates, and where the characters sometimes decide they want to hijack the feed to add their own commentary.
1. And that’s if they’re winning. If they’re losing I get downright grumpy.
2. Which she sometimes forgets. She once told me she thinks Penny Gnomes should be a movie, but then remembered herself and shrugged with feigned nonchalance.
3. It’s complicated.
I love giving books for Christmas: they engage and inspire over and over again. My kids are getting books, my husband’s getting books–words for everyone!
Feel free to give my book to people, too, nudge nudge. 😉
Know what? Authors would love to receive YOUR words for Christmas, too. Book reviews help writers reach new readers on Amazon and Goodreads. So spread some cheer this season by sharing your love of your favorite stories online. We authors will love every word you say!
Last week’s poston Alan Silvestri’s score for Predator didn’t have any room to touch on the bombastic ending that was Schwarzenegger vs. Alien From Unknown Planet.
Man, what a spectacle. Muscle and teeth and gutteral roars vs. creepy four-pronged jaws and lazers and bombs and stuff. Lazers! Helicopters! Green gooey blood! HUGE explosions! It’s an ending that has you knocking your beer over as you cheer for Earth’s Last Action Hero. Kick interplanetary ass, Arnie!
Perfect Days doesn’t end with an explosion, or aliens, or any of that. It’s a novel of the thriller genre, a tale told of one man’s love for a girl and the lengths to which he’ll go–i.e., abduction, rape, and murder–to have her.
(Spoilers abound. I still recommend the read, if you can handle this sort of thing.)
Are you familiar with the concept of “bookending”? It’s a method I recommend to my students when they don’t know how to write a conclusion paragraph for an essay. You look at how you began your work, and see what element can be brought back in the end.
In short, set up in the beginning for the pay off at the end.
No, it’s not easy, because for once it’s a pay off you don’t want readers looking for. This element needs to be something it feels like characters have walked away from, discarded, grown from, etc. Such is the case with Teo, a student on the verge of graduating med school. The book opens during one of his last classes.
Gertrude was the only person Teo liked. The other students weren’t quite as at ease around her….Teo didn’t want anyone to notice how good he felt there. He’d walk over to the metal table with his head down.
There she’d be, serenely waiting for him. Gertrude. …
In her company, his imagination knew no bounds. The world melted away, until he and Gertrude were all that was left. (1-2)
Teo, our main character, has forged a relationship with a corpse. Not physical, but intimate. Opening this way, Montes not only shows readers how uncomfortable Teo is around other people, but how much his imagination fills in reality for him; for instance, when another student makes a conclusion about something, Teo wants to laugh, “And if Gertrude could have heard that nonsense, she’d have hooted with laughter too” (3). Teo “knows” Gertrude, even though Gertrude is not this corpse’s name. He’s studied this body, and imagined all the rest. When the class–and chapter–end, so ends his time with Gertrude, and Teo is “alone again” (4). The character must now move on from this point.
So readers move on as well, and see Teo attend a party with his mother and meet Clarice, a petite free-spirit whose brief conversation leaves him absolutely smitten. He uses the university database to find her and, after another encounter, ends up striking her unconscious and taking her to the flat he shares with his mother.
He felt bad: it was the first time he had thought of himself as a villain. By stuffing Clarice in a suitcase and bringing her home, had he become a criminal? (32)
(I just had to share that line. No, this isn’t asked sarcastically–Teo genuinely contemplates whether or not he’s done something wrong. What a killer bit of pov.)
For the majority of the novel, Teo has Clarice locked up in two different cabins Clarice has used in the past, cabins owned by others who are used to her coming and going. At one point in the first cabin they’ve settled into a routine of sorts, and Teo begins to open up about his personal life.
He even mentioned Gertrude….He told her a serious [sic] of funny anecdotes about things he’d done with Gertrude. Clarice found it interesting that he was friends with a much older woman and said she wanted to meet her….It made him a little ill at ease, as he didn’t want to spoil things by telling her that Gertrude was a corpse. (81)
Teo doesn’t talk about Gertrude again with Clarice, and as tensions mount in Teo’s determination to keep Clarice and avoid arrest, readers don’t think much about Gertrude, either. Teo kills Clarice’s boyfriend, rapes Clarice, and even severs her spine to prevent her escape.
Climax: Teo is driving off a ferry, certain Clarice is still unconscious in the passenger seat from the last dose of sedative. But Clarice suddenly yanks the steering wheel, and their car goes straight into a restraining wall. Teo wakes up in a hospital. Surely it’s all over, with her family and police present, asking questions.
Yet there are no charges.
He asks to see Clarice, and is escorted to her room.
When Clarice looked up at him…she stared at him with unprecedented interest… “I’m sorry, but… who are you?” (253)
She couldn’t remember having seen Teo before, or what had happened in the previous month or year…. She seemed truly perplexed that she was engaged. (254)
The advantage of her lack of memory was that he could tell her whatever he wanted; he exaggerated the details in order to make it all sound poetic and inevitable. (255)
As the last chapter progresses, we can’t help but think Teo’s won. He’s successfully avoided the police and familial scrutiny. He marries Clarice, and all is as it should be.
Clarice was having fewer nightmares, although sometimes she’d still wake up acting strangely, and it was very distressing–she’d shout and break plates of food against the wall, saying they’d been poisoned. Maybe their marriage wasn’t perfect, but there were much worse ones out there. (260)
Last page: Clarice is pregnant. A family! Teo’s happy, and “Clarice appeared to be too” (260). Teo’s overwhelmed with love when they learn they’re having a girl, and is about to speak when Clarice interrupts him.
She smiled at Teo and said, “A beautiful name came to me just now. Gertrude. What do you think, my love?”
No last-minute duel. No savior to put all things to right. But BOOM nonetheless.
A few things.
First, we’re left wondering about Clarice. Did she really lose her memory? She still calls him “my love.” But such a name as Gertrude…oh, that does not come out of the blue. We wonder now if Clarice is no longer trying to escape, but to dominate. Perhaps she has plans of her own for Teo.
Speaking of Teo, is he going to panic and kill Clarice? He’s killed his mother’s dog and Clarice’s boyfriend, so the act is not beyond him. He’s never handled moments of Clarice’s superiority well at all. Yet she’s smiling at him, calling him “love.” Will Teo leave his wife and unborn child lifeless as he did the corpse Gertrude at the end of the first chapter, and be alone all over again?
We do not know. We will never know.
That name, that single little element, is Montes’ bookend. He took the single most vulnerable point in the Teo’s life and gave it a body–a lifeless body, but a body nevertheless. And like all bodies left unburied, they come back to haunt even the most resilient of natures. By waiting until the absolute last line, Montes leaves readers in the wake of a narrative bomb: we don’t know if blood will be shed, if foundations will be cracked, or if all will go on as before, with “distressing” moments that might, just might, lead to a peculiar food poisoning.
So as you work out your ending, writers, ask: What element from the opening chapters can help create a narrative bookend? Perhaps a person, a token, a place may return. It could be as monumental as a dream fulfilled, or as momentary as a single name whispered on dying lips. It all depends if you wish to leave your readers happily tired by the journey, or blinded by the bomb. Either way, they’ll return to you knowing thrills are hidden in every chapter, right down to the final line.
(Oh don’t you think I’m done with Alan Silvestri yet. I’ve got a word or three to say about his score for The Polar Express.)
Subscribeso you don’t miss another round-up of terrific offerings from fellow Indie creators as well as updates on my own projects. I’d be happy to share your work, too! Justcontact me with your plug and I’ll include it in next month’s newsletter.
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.