Point of View Experiment with “Normal’s Menace,” Phase 1

The wrong point of view can ruin the most fantastic of stories. Maybe you jump from character to character too much. Maybe the character you designated as narrator has taken over the story, or that particular character can’t possibly be present for the necessary plot points.

This is the quandary I’m in now with a bit of short fiction. I’m not even sure I want to use the title “Normal’s Menace.” But then, I’m not even sure I want to tell it with the narrator I currently have.

Well, like any scientific experiment, the process of elimination will show me which voice best serves the story. Since you’ve been patient enough with my brainstorming through music and photography, let’s continue on through this, my first draft.

Normal’s Menace

I loved Captain Whiskers. He was the best thing to come from Quiet Mound. You don’t know where that is, because it’s on my farm and you shouldn’t be going all over it unless you got a snowmobile, I guess, but Daddy hates those things, and he shot at one when he thought it was a bear, so it’s just not a good idea to come here.

You can sort of see it past the first field. I see it, anyway. I always look at it when I wait for the bus in winter. Hard to do anything else when you’re in a snow suit. Mom’s gotta yank my arms through the straps of my backpack, but it’s up to me not to drop my She-Ra lunchbox. She’s the Princess of Power, you know. You drop She-Ra, the Evil Horde wins.

So I hold on super-tight to my lunchbox, and imagine that Quiet Mound is a portal to Etheria, where She-Ra fights for the Great Rebellion. Nothing grows on Quiet Mound, even though it’s got this pond big enough for two ice shanties at the top of it, like…oh! Like when you make your mash potatoes into a crater and put all the gravy in it. Like that. It’s all protected and cut-off because of the trees. Winter makes them look like someone strung them out and wrapped them together again, like the webs barn spiders make.

That’s where I found Captain Whiskers.

The first big snow, and I’ve just freed She-Ra from Hordak’s Ice-Ray, and there’s this cat. I didn’t see him at first because its speckles matched the last brown leaves stuck on a thorny bush along some of the trees. I thought he was stuck, so I pulled out my real pocket knife to cut him out. He looked starved and pretty beat up, with scrapes and cuts deep in his fur, but he was still super nice when I cut some of the branches, and his eyes were the prettiest purple, prettier even than She-Ra’s friend Glimmer. He purred while he watched me the whole time, and when I touched him! Oh, it was magical. I could see, you know? Really see She-Ra on Swift Wind, and the Horde Robots marching through the trees. And she called to me, ME, Millie the Magnificent, to fight by her side! And my pocket knife was a real sword, and the pool was lava, and I fought all those robots into the lava and melted them and She-Ra knighted me for the honor of Grey Skull and bestowed a captainship upon The Bravest Cat in the Galaxy—

–and that’s when Daddy found me with his rifle slung over his shoulder and a dead turkey in his hand. “What are you doing, Mil?” I wrenched my pocket knife out of a dead tree trunk. He spat a little tobacco at Captain Whiskers. Captain Whiskers went on licking my feet as if they were covered in milk. “We don’t have room for strays, Millie.”

“Barn’s always got mice, Dad.”

He snorted into the snow like a bull in the cartoons, and set a bunch of snowflakes all whirly. “Fine. Barn only.”

And for Mom and Dad, that was that with Captain Whiskers. They didn’t know how he came to my window every night to take me back to Etheria, to make magic with Madame Razz and spy on the Horde with Bow. They missed all that. Captain Whiskers made it all real. It was…it was just so awesome, I can’t tell you. I didn’t need television or my cassettes or even food, really—made for some awkward dinners with my parents, let me tell you. They started to watch me eat just to make sure I wasn’t the one fattening Captain Whiskers. It’s just that…food’s so boring, you know? Who needs food or sleep when you can go on adventures that take you away, inside and out? I even snuck Captain Whiskers with me to school a few times until Captain Whiskers cursed Molly Grunewald.

Yeah, that’s right. Cursed Molly Grunewald. All he had to do was stare at her, and I saw her for the Horde Robot she really was, and I held up my sword to strike, but she leaked all this oil and fell before I could cut her head off. Turns out she peed her pants real bad. But she didn’t want other people to know she peed her pants, so she said Captain Whiskers peed on her. But I was there. He got her to pee herself. No more bullies for me! But I couldn’t let Captain Whiskers do that all the time, so I kept him out of school unless I needed him.

Then that stupid guy came out of the trees and ruined everything.

 

Saturday, right? No busses to wait for, and winter meant chores weren’t too bad, so I was going to have lots of time with Captain Whiskers on Quiet Mound. I got him from the barn. He was so sweet that morning rubbing his head right against my heart and purring, even licking a little. I could see the portal’s light all sparkly and secret through the trees from the driveway—

–but something moved. Something low.

Skulking, that’s the word. It skulked around the edge of the trees, eyes right—

—on—

—me.

Captain Whiskers went NUTS. He leapt out of my coat and took off faster than I could blink. Even Cheetara never had a chance of catching him.

The thing stopped skulking and lifted its head.

Like a huskie on steroids. Big. Black. Nasty.

I shrieked high and as loud—trust me, I get pretty high. Even that far away, it had to shake my noise out of its ears. Mom rushed out asking what I broke, but then she saw it run up Quiet Mound and yanked me into the house and declared I was stuck inside until Dad trapped whatever that was.

What really stunk was that Captain Whiskers wouldn’t leave the barn that night. I spent more time out of bed than in, peeking out the window to see if The Nasty ever took a break from skulking. My hands shook for my sword. I shivered for Etheria. It got so bad I tried walking down the stairs to find Captain Whiskers in the barn, but my feet weren’t listening to my head and I clunked too hard on the groaning boards. Mom fussed me back into bed with a cold pack and a slug of something gooey and dreadful. My dreams were as hollow as a snake skin.

 

Next morning I find a note from Mom: they’re helping neighbors with traps, stay inside, be good, eat some food you look like a skeleton, blah blah blah. Are you kidding me? It’s the first sun we’ve had in weeks. The trees sparkled with all their little icicles, and I could see the…the…what’s the word…meniscus! That line the top of water makes. It sparkled, too, like the portal I always saw with Captain Whiskers. I opened my bedroom window to look at it better, Captain Whiskers came in purring, and the air just bit with magic, you know? Cold, too, but magic. I knew, through and through, that something amazing was going to happen at Quiet Mound today.

And then, that guy.

He stood by the trees, hands in a ripped up trench coat. I know the homeless people in our town because I help Mom with the free lunches our church holds a few times a month. This guy was new. Or a hitchhiker? That was more a summer thing. What the heck was he doing out there? Just, hands in his pockets, standing in dirt and snow, and…looking.

At my window.

The window blew a bunch of snowy ice off the trees. It whipped his coat around his knees, it blew his black hair around his face, but he didn’t move.

“NO TRESPASSING!”

Captain Whiskers took one look at him and totally freaked out a gazillion times worse than yesterday. He hissed and spat and ran around my room and clawed the closet door in no way that I could cover up with my folks. Stupid cat. I yelled at him to stop, turned to the window again, and—

–that guy was walking through our field. Not that stupid fast-walk old people do instead of jogging. Just this steady step, step, step. Through our field! He didn’t even have a snowmobile!

Call the Grunewalds for my parents? No way, not letting Molly know I’m scared. Call the police? I went for the phone, but Captain Whiskers knocked the receiver out of my hand and he just…he glared. And his paws held my hand down. I didn’t even know he had claws. Ever catch your hand on an old nail under the couch when you reach down there to get something? Like that. Like eight of that.

I sucked in air and bit my lip and made my tears go silently into my hair. “Stop it, Captain Whiskers. We need help.”

He shook his head.

“But he’s coming. What are we gonna do?”

Captain Whisker’s ears fell flat as his hair rose up. He…it was such a weird sound, something I never heard from a cat before. Like a groan people make when they’re really frustrated, but there was a hiss in it, too. He let go of my hand and licked my blood off his claws. Morning light and dust mites shimmered above his head, came together and made—

The Princess of Power stood in my room—still a little bit see-through, but wowzers, she was in my room!  “He heralds the coming of Hordak to your world. He is determined to enslave you all.”

I couldn’t help it—I looked out the window.

Not walking.

Fists out.

Oh no…but…”but he’s just one guy.”

She-Ra bent forward, and…wow, that scowl. Her eyes weren’t blue like in the cartoon, but all black, and when she brought her face to mine I thought I was going to fall in, get buried alive. “Do you want the Evil Horde to conquer your world?”

“N-no.” My voice didn’t even sound like me, so small and stupid and scared.

“Then evade his capture.” Now her skin lit up like diamonds on tv, and she smelled like summer. “Reach the water, and your captain will bring you safely to Etheria, and to me. Do not fail me, Sir Millie the Magnificent.”

I wanted summer. I wanted Etheria. No more stupid snow suits or barns or schools or parents. I wanted to fight by She-Ra’s side forever and ever and ever. “Never!”

Her skin got really shiny, then broke up like dust in the sunlight.

Ding dong.

I grabbed my coat. Captain Whiskers stood with me at the top of the stairs.

Ding dong.

“Hello?”

He wasn’t even American!

This time my feet listened to my head. I tiptoed down a bunch, managed to skip the groaners even, but once the stairs were in view of the door I laid back and started sliding on my butt instead. I could see a head with wavy hair behind the stained glass on the door. Captain Whiskers had been moving behind me, but once the head came into view he shot down and round for the kitchen.

The head moved with him.

Ding dong.

“I’m with Animal Control. It is urgent I speak with you about a rabid animal loose in these parts.”

“Come off it, you, you sod!” I heard people like him say that on PBS.

“I know you’re in there.”

Guess he doesn’t watch PBS.

I back-stepped towards the kitchen and back door.

“Millie?”

HE KNEW MY NAME!?

My hand froze over the backdoor’s knob. The front door’s knob clicked against the lock. Click. Click. Thunk.

It unlocked.

Oh I bolted. I flung that door open and RAN. Didn’t think about steps or claws or wind or cold. Just barn barn barn barn barn barn

BARN!

I slid through the cow poop at the door and ran up the ramp and up the bales to the hayloft. He’ll use the main door to avoid the poop and—

He sat in the hayloft’s threshing door like he’d been there all morning. He even had his hands folded like this was all normal! “Look can I just—“

“NO!” Captain Whiskers leapt onto my chest and dug his claws into my bones and I turned to run but my feet flew into the air and I fell over the loft edge, I was going to die with poop on my shoes—

A hand grabbed my leg and YANKED. I was upping and not downing, overing and not splatting, overing and downing and thud. Hay this time.

The guy hunched on hands and knees where I would have landed—hard cold floor. I should have broken my neck where he stood, but he had saved me.

But—

—but I was still in so much pain. Not from the fall. From Captain Whiskers.

Why did he hold me like that? My heart felt like it was screaming and running and shaking all at once. Like Captain Whiskers had my heart for real in its claws.

The guy shook himself out like a dog and sent hay everywhere. It was…it was really weird. I knew Captain Whiskers wanted me to keep running, but how? This guy beat us to the barn. There was no out-running him.

“Sorry about the fright,” he said. “I’m not used to manners on two legs.” He stood up, and I saw his eyes for the first time: one was green, and one was sky blue. I’d seen eyes like that on a Huskie once, but never on a person. “May I please ask you where you got that cat?”

Now I didn’t believe for one Horde Second that he was from Animal Control. He wasn’t going to tell me the truth—I’m just a dumb little girl to him. But he’d have to tell the truth when Mom and Dad find him in here with me in tears, especially when Dad has his rifle…

I realized then I wasn’t holding Captain Whiskers. His claws were in me so hard that I didn’t have to. “Found him.” I still felt like I had to hide him somehow, so I zipped up my coat.

“You must love him very much.”

“Huh?”

“He’s drawing blood.” He pointed at my jeans. Hay clumped to little red stripes rolling down to my knees.

“He’s my cat.” That was all I could figure out to say. I felt muddled and hot inside. Outside the world sparkled with Etheria magic, but off somehow, like light in a cracked prism..

The guy took one step forward. Captain Whiskers hissed hot spit on my neck. “Thorn is no one’s cat.”

“His name’s not Thorn, it’s Captain Whiskers and he’s mine.”

Ever watch someone’s eyes when they laugh? They get this sort of extra smile in them. The guy’s green eye got that smile, but the blue didn’t. The blue one looked…angry. Like, Dad-watched-a-snowmobile-run-over-a-calf angry. That freaked me out more than his magical showing-upping in the hayloft. “Captain Whiskers. Nice, erm, name.”

“She-Ra gave it to him.” And I found I could hold Captain Whiskers, so long as I didn’t press him. He even started licking my chest and made the pain back off a bit. “You get a name from the Princess of Power, you keep it!”

He sucked his lip. The cows’ gossip got really loud for that moment. When he talked again, he went really slow, without a smile anywhere on him. “Has she spoken to you as well?” He didn’t ask like other grown-ups, who always assume it’s all pretend. He asked me like she was real.

Because she was.

Which meant…

I pulled out my pocket knife, and it grew, and was a sword and for REAL. Yes, for real. I pointed it at him with both hands, and it knicked his coat. Shut up, like one more tear was going to matter.

And you know? He wasn’t even surprised. He just stuck his hands back in his pockets and glared at Captain Whiskers’ head sticking out of my own coat. “And for how long have you and Captain Whiskers been going on adventures with the Princess of Power?”

The seriousness of it. Wrong, too wrong. “Why do you care?”

“Answer the question.”

“I don’t even know who you are.”

“My name is Dorjan.”

All that magic I felt in the air earlier? It fell out. Like in the movies, when you see zero gravity, and then gravity comes back and everything just splats. That’s what happened.

Captain Whiskers clung even harder and bared his teeth right by my throat, he was so scared. I wanted him to let go, I wanted him to keep the pain away, to keep the world away cuz it was just to muddled up and weird and dumb and I didn’t know what to say to such a dumb name so I just said, “That’s a dumb name.”

Dorjan stepped back until Captain Whiskers closed his mouth. “Yes. Well. We can’t all be Captain Whiskers.” He cracked his neck. “Now. Let her go.”

“Captain Whiskers is a boy, stupid!” But then I realized he wasn’t talking to me. His eyes were on Captain Whiskers, and they were angry. Both of them.

Captain Whiskers hissed and opened his mouth by my neck again. His teeth, pointy as the claws, on my skin, why? “Captain Whiskers, stop!” I felt small and hollow. I even cried a little. “Please, I love you, stop!” She-Ra’s scowl was all I could see, and doom. Real doom. I was going to fail her and lose my magnificence.

“Don’t be an idiot, Thorn.” Dorjan’s voice went low and slow, weird compared to Captain Whiskers’ crazy heartbeat against my own even crazier heartbeat. “The girl won’t survive the Water Road. She’ll be useless to her Ladyship, and you’ll be driven out again.”

The teeth let go.

The cat-heart slowed a little.

“You can’t win. She won’t allow it.”

A small shove from Captain Whiskers sent me back into a bale. The sword clanged, bounced, and landed a pocket knife. Bubbles of pain burst across my chest, and I suddenly went all light-headed…

…but, on the ground, hazy, I could still see Captain Whiskers make bloody pawprints as he approached the Dorjan guy. His tail bobbed in the air like a snake’s head.

“Frankly, Thorn, if I were you,” he stepped aside, and the big barn door opened to glorious sunshine and the sounds of an old truck slowing down on the highway, “I’d try Milwaukee. It’s got a casino and a rather rampant drug problem. Living there’s a breeze for our sort.”

Captain Whiskers purred.

Purred!

He was leaving me!

“Cap…Captain…”

He turned around.

Ever look in a cat’s eyes? They’re really good with that calculating look.

Captain Whiskers had it, but more. The beautiful purple in his eyes was actually swirling around the iris like a whirlpool. I held up a hand for him, to pet him, because this was his home, he was my light, my life—

He laid a paw in my hand. Purred.

Then dragged his claws across my skin.

Dorjan sucked his breath in.

I whimpered as more blood came out. It glittered in the dark. Captain Whiskers lapped some up.

I didn’t get it then. I still don’t.

He…he just showed up, took me to another world, and then left me lying in my own blood.

And then he walked away, like I was a toy he got bored with. He even approached Dorjan with his nose in the air.

Dorjan knelt beside him. “Of course,” he said, voice a growl, “if I were you, I wouldn’t be going after children in the first place because I’d know the rules, and how certain princeborns don’t take kindly to the rules being broken.” He smiled. It stretched his face. I peed my pants.

Captain Whiskers hair rippled up from head to tail. He moved his mouth as he hissed as though he could speak real words. He ran out in…it was all so slow….all couldn’t-be-happening…

…me struggling up…

…Dorjan in the air, burning like a copper fire…

…Captain Whiskers slipping on ice…

…me grabbing the door…

…Dorjan landing on four paws, not even a huskie, some sort of wolf, teeth blinding in the sun…

…Captain Whiskers long, bizarre, not furry, hands and feet and a mouth full of curses…

…me screaming his name…

…the blood in the air, but something else, too, something tragic and beautiful as it sparkled brighter than any snow…

 

Mom and Dad say I was traumatized. That a hawk got Captain Whiskers, and attacked me when I tried to fight it off, because that’s the crazy sort of thing I’d do in my She-Ra games.

I don’t play She-Ra anymore.

It’s all cold and fake and not-real.

I miss the old Captain Whiskers.

I miss the magic I felt that morning before Dorjan made Captain Whiskers evil.

I stand at the end of the driveway every morning and stare at Quiet Mound. Maybe another Captain Whiskers will come. When he does, we’re taking off for Etheria before another Dorjan comes and screws it all up.

 

Next week I’ll post from Dorjan’s point of view. We’ll see how much of the story alters…or if it’s the same story at all.

 

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Just because the series rallies around one character, doesn’t mean the stories have to.

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Diana Wynne Jones has mentioned in her essays that she did not much care for series writing. A complete story can be told in a book, and that’s that. If you see a sequel, or a continuation of some sort, you will see it is because the story has picked up with another character, perhaps with characters in the previous story tied onto the thread.

This is what makes the Chrestomanci Series so unique. In some stories, he is the main protagonist. In others, he does not show up until the last couple of chapters, or even the last few pages. Chrestomanci is always a presence, a force: a solution to whatever problem the protagonists, the actual main characters, are battling.

Take “Sage of Theare,” one of the stories in Mixed Magics. Chrestomanci shows up for a moment in the middle of the story to place the protagonist safe, and then returns in the last few pages to help the protagonist face off with the gods. In Witch Week, the third book in the series. Chrestomanci doesn’t arrive until the end of Chapter 11 (there are fifteen chapters total). He’s not even mentioned before that. In this upside-down world of bountiful magic and witch-burning, his name has been kept secret as the last resort among the magic underground. Chased by police, some young witches manage to uncover his name and bring him into their world. Only he can right the tear their world has suffered. The feud of two families in The Magicians of Caprona causes widespread magical problems, especially for the children; because Chrestomanci was met briefly in the first half of the story, the children know to acquire his help in the last few chapters of the book.

In other stories, Chrestomanci is present throughout, but he is still not THE primary character. Charmed Life and Pinhoe Egg are terrific examples of this; plus, they have the same protagonist: the boy Cat Chant. I’ve written about Charmed Life before, that because we experience the story from Cat’s perspective, we originally perceive Chrestomanci as the antagonist (this, of course, is proved otherwise). In Pinhoe Egg, Cat and a girl in the village are doing their best to solve the problem and only involve Chrestomanci as necessary.

And then, of course, Chrestomanci gets to be the star in his stories (finally!). I am NOT always a fan of prequels—as the comedian Patton Oswalt said (without the cussing): “I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from. I just love the stuff I love!” However, The Lives of Christopher Chant satisfies on many levels: yes, we learn how this kid Chris became the Chrestomanci. But we also learn where he met his wife, why he is so obsessed with fashion, and the difficult coming of age he had to experience while being exploited by his family. Conrad’s Fate, though written almost twenty years after Lives, returns readers to Chrestomanci’s youth. Yes, Conrad is THE main character, but Chrestomanci is a teenage boy with him, off to become servants in a bizarre house. Why is Chrestomanci there? Because his childhood friend (and budding sweetheart) is lost somewhere in that house, and he’s NOT going to lose her.

It strikes me now that on the one hand, it’s strange Chrestomanci can’t be a star player in his own series unless he’s young. But then, these are stories for the young. The young, therefore, must be in the spotlight. And considering how so many children’s stories portray adults as stupid, evil, or willfully unhelpful, it’s refreshing to see there is an adult, odd as he is, who listens to children, wants to help, and actually does it. In style.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones and the Chrestomanci Series.

 

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Define Your Own “Normal” Sibling Ties

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412The concept of slight-of-hand—whom you think you can or can’t trust is all upside down and sideways—is not unique to Jones by any means. What IS worth noting here is how that method plays out when the protagonist is a child. Because of his limited world experience, what he defines as “normal,” or as “loving,” can be VASTLY different from humanity’s norm. Because of this, the actions of, say, a sibling, can always be spun to fit the child’s understanding of love.

Take Eric “Cat” Chant in Charmed Life. A strange boating accident leaves him orphaned with his elder sister Gwendolen, whom everyone adores, including the protagonist: “Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her” (p. 1). Here is a boy who, with this perspective, will always think well of his sister no matter what she does because, as far as he knows, she is the only family he has. They are cared for, and SHE is adored by all the witches in their community (it’s a bustling magical world, this place).

But no adoration comes from Gwendolen to her brother. None at all. She gives him cramps, she turns his violin into a cat, she constantly calls him “idiot” and “stupid.” Yet Cat accepts this all as normal because with Gwendolen, this attitude IS the norm. It didn’t help that a clairvoyant predicted Gwendolen shall rule the world.

Enter murmurings of The Dark Stranger, the one to help Gwendolen conquer the planet. He also happens to be one whose very name makes witches and warlocks shudder: Chrestomanci. Because their foster mother is terrified of the man, so is Cat. Of course, Gwendolen decides that HE must be the one to teach her magic, and forces him into their lives.

It takes little for an adult to terrify a child, especially when they are so sharply dressed and curtly spoken. Chrestomanci meets Cat first, and chides him for scrumping apples. He then meets Gwendolen and agrees to heading their instruction in magic (regardless of the fact Cat has not shown any talent whatsoever).

The children are taken to Chrestomanci Castle, which is all gorgeous and foreboding and whatnot. Chrestomanci does not teach them, and the tutor with their charge won’t bother with witchcraft lessons until they prove knowledgeable in other subjects. Gwendolen does not like this, surprise surprise, so she proceeds to initiate pranks all over the castle—fields of mole hills, shifting the forests, calling up apparitions, transforming dresses into snakes, and so on.

Chrestomanci’s power is felt and, to Cat, seen. Chrestomanci grew often when he used his power, or even with instilling commands into others: “He looked so tall like that that Cat was surprised that his head was still under the ceiling. ‘There’s one absolute rule in this Castle,’ he said, ‘which it will pay you all to remember. No witchcraft of any kind is to be practiced by children…’” (p.42).

Because of Gwendolen’s prank campaign against Chrestomanci, Cat is naturally inclined to see Chrestomanci as the villain and Gwendolen as the…well, as the sort of good. He does not care for her pranks, either, especially the apparitions, yet she is his sister. She is the ally. She is the one who cares for him and wants him to be okay. Right?

It takes a lot for a child to fully understand how good—or bad—a family member is, especially when that family member is all you care about.

By the book’s end, Gwendolen IS queen of a parallel world, and she intends to keep it that way through Cat.

“Now, where was I?” Gwendolen said, turning back to the Nostrum brothers. “Oh, yes. I thought I’d better come back because I wanted to see the fun, and I remembered I’d forgotten to tell you Cat has nine lives. You’ll have to kill him several times, I’m afraid.… I’ve been using his magic ever since he was a baby.” (p.197)

The hints have been there, throughout the story, but now, Gwendolen is perfectly blunt: Cat was only good for his magic. She had already killed him four times before—his previous lives were the apparitions she summoned to scare Chrestomanci. No. Love. At all.

Nothing matters for a moment. Cat doesn’t care if the evil warlocks and witches under Gwendolen want to kill him and use his life to take over other worlds. What did it matter? He had no family, no one who cared about him.

But he does have family. Chrestomanci is himself a Chant, and he refuses to let Cat give up. When the others go searching for an enchanted cat containing one of Cat’s nine lives so they can kill it, Chrestomanci does something no one else has done before: he shows he believes in Cat.

“Cat,” said Chrestomanci. He sounded almost as desperate as Fiddle. “Cat, I know how you’re feeling. We hoped you wouldn’t find out about Gwendolen for years yet. But you are an enchanter. I suspect you’re a stronger enchanter than I am when you set your mind to it.”

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “I don’t know how to do anything.”

“You’ve more ability in the little finger of that hand than most people—including Gwendolen—have in their entire lives.” (p.201)

The battle over, and Gwendolen sealed in another world, Cat comes to terms with his reclaimed magic and prospects of a new life with Chrestomanci. It is not the normal he knows. Thanks to the love found in Chrestomanci’s family, it will be far, far better.

Sibling relationships, or the lack thereof, have a profound impact on characters and readers alike. Don’t be afraid to use this connection to make—or break—your protagonist.

Click here for more information on CHARMED LIFE.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 1

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Part 1: I can’t be in love, you idiot

One of the many brilliant moves in Howl’s Moving Castle is the emphasis on wizard Howl’s heartlessness. Sophie, the narrator, establishes this in the first reference to Howl: “He was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard and no young girl was safe from him if he caught her on her own” (p.5). Rumor has it he seeks young girls to devour the souls from their hearts. This only adds to Sophie’s problem: spinelessness. Being the eldest of three sisters she assumes herself doomed to a life of tedium and spinsterhood. She cares for her younger sisters and hopes for their fortune in love and happiness, but already by 18 she has given up on chances for her own.

Their first brief encounter comes towards the end of Chapter 1. We have no clue who Howl is, nor does Sophie. But somehow she acquires attention from the “dashing specimen” who, according to Sophie, pities her (p.19). This only shames Sophie, and she literally runs away from the man before he can say anything else.

When the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie’s town on the hunt for Howl, she learns of Sophie’s encounter—among other things I can’t mention yet—and curses Sophie with old age.

Oddly enough, Sophie doesn’t mind. Oh she gets angry later, but until the final chapter of the book, Sophie remains an old woman. So how in Ingary does romance blossom between a 20-something wizard and a 90-year-old woman?

First off, Sophie grows a spine. She no longer fears to speak her mind or act on impulse: “As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (p.83). She also does not fear calling Howl out on his rude or selfish behavior. Since the plan is for Sophie to break a magical contract between Howl and his fire demon Calcifer so Calcifer can break the old-age curse, Sophie declares herself Howl’s new cleaning lady even though she “can’t clean [him] from [his] wickedness” (p.75). She calls Howl out on all sorts of things, especially when he is seen courting her sister Lettie for what Sophie assumes to be Lettie’s soul.

Howl remains quite the enigma throughout the book, as Sophie’s narration isn’t always reliable. Multiple readings, though, help give the audience a touch more perspective. When Howl first meets old-age Sophie in Chapter 4, he hints to his apprentice that he knows more about Sophie than he can let on:

“Howl’s not wicked,” Michael said.

“Yes I am,” Howl contradicted him. “You forget just how wicked I’m being at the moment, Michael.” He jerked his chin at Sophie. (p.75)

Howl criticizes Sophie with equal vivacity, especially her nosiness into every nook and cranny of his castle. In Chapter 5 he lays Sophie’s true problem bare, even though she doesn’t know it:

“You’re a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean old woman. Control yourself. You’re victimizing us all.”

“But it’s a pigsty,” said Sophie. “I can’t help what I am!”

“Yes you can,” said Howl.

Howl wants Sophie to know she IS capable of a fate different than what some old superstitious saying dictates for her. But Sophie isn’t listening, and on the first read, most readers aren’t, either.

Despite all of Sophie’s nosiness and bossiness, Howl never makes Sophie leave. He gives her jobs, even ones he can complete with magic. When Sophie suffers a small heart attack, Howl is genuinely concerned and strengthens her heart with magic. He even opens up in Chapter 14 about his inability to love. The references to his heartlessness have persisted by means of Calcifer and the apprentice Michael, who explain Howl’s wooing process: he beautifies himself and professes undying devotion to a girl until she confesses her love in return; then, he dumps her. When Howl and Sophie are alone in Chapter 14, he relates the same process to spiders and their webs, but unlike Calcifer and Michael, he does not see it as selfish at all:

“That’s why I love spiders. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’ I keep trying,” he said with great sadness. “But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago, and I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now.” (p.281)

This not only foreshadows the magical contract between Calcifer and Howl, but also proves Howl considers Sophie as more than just a cleaning lady.

Sophie also ceases to see her place in Howl’s castle as a mere ends to her curse. She is relieved when Howl gives up on her sister, and jealous of his fresh attention to the strange and beautiful Miss Angorian. She does not like when people mistake her for Howl’s mother. And when Howl asks her input on what kind of lifestyle they should lead when hiding from the king, she shares ideas without hesitation.

This move comes at a price: Howl’s castle merges with an old shop in Sophie’s home town. It is the same shop run by her parents for years. Sophie looks around, sees herself back where she began, and is totally miserable (“…it’s being the eldest, really. Look at me! I set out to seek my fortune and I end up exactly where I started, and old as the hills still” (p.342)). It doesn’t help that Howl reveals who she really is to everyone and accuses Sophie of holding onto the age curse because she “liked being in disguise” (p.369). Sophie refuses to accept this, but her sulk afterwards does reveal that she’s never seen a chance for herself when compared to her sister, and especially no chances with Howl when compared to Miss Angorian. So the old age stays, and we’ve only got two chapters to go. Howl appears to be apologetic, even upset that Sophie won’t speak to him. But too much has been going on with the villain (you know, plot and all), so no time is spent in boring conversation about love and feeling. There’s a witch to battle.

By this time events have revealed Sophie has her own magical gift: she gives life to things. She successfully charmed hats in Chapter 1, though she didn’t understand what she had done until Chapter 12. Her charms apply to clothing as well, such as the suit she mended for Howl early in the story. She fears the suit’s charm (“built to pull in the girls” p.239) worked on her sister, and later in the story, she blames the charm for her own feelings about Howl. But when Howl reveals he hasn’t worn the suit in ages, Sophie has nothing to blame but her own heart.

The fate of Howl’s heart is finalized in the final chapter. Determined to make up to Howl for her poor behavior, Sophie tries to save Miss Angorian from the Witch of the Waste, only for Howl to defeat the witch instead and explain Miss Angorian was really a fire demon, just like Calcifer. They rush back to the castle and find Miss Angorian with Calcifer in her hand. Beneath his flame beats Howl’s heart, a trade made under contract to lengthen his life and strengthen Howl’s magic. Sophie attacks Miss Angorian, not Howl. Sophie successfully gives life to Calcifer so he can separate from Howl’s heart. And Sophie gives new life to Howl’s heart…in more ways than one.

Six pages left, and Sophie is finally her true self, in and out. Youth back, but spine intact, she no longer fears what the future may bring: in fact, she embraces it. Howl does remember Sophie from their first meeting. He held no pity, but hope that the old Sophie who had the nerve to command a fire demon and hunt down the Witch of the Waste would be “that lovely girl I met on May Day” (p.426). The two never kiss, or have any other such cliché moment. Even his proposal keeps with his slightly-snotty but kind character, as does Sophie’s slightly-snarky but delightful response:

Howl said, “I think we ought to live happily ever after,” and she thought he meant it. Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try. “It should be hair-raising,” added Howl.

“And you’ll exploit me,” Sophie said.

“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me,” said Howl. (p.427)

No angst. Only a few pages of love-talk. LOTS of pages of magic and attitude and adventure. We are not jilted out of a romance here, but as the plot moves the characters don’t have much time to think about love, and when they do, it is too difficult to contemplate for long. So why force the subject to the forefront where it does NOT belong? The characters didn’t want to believe themselves in love; they had to reach that epiphany on their own which, I think, makes that epiphany all the more satisfying for the reader. So, don’t feel that if you have teenage protagonists they MUST swoon and despair and go googley-eyed over someone. Let love surprise them like a snowball at recess. Quietly form, aim, and fire with precision. The shocking strike and beautiful fall-out will be all the more perfect.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Click here for more on HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Don’t Sacrifice the Fun for Grown-Ups

51dW4rYg4cL._bL160_Those who write books usually write with a specific age group in mind. Oh sure, we can say, “This is for anyone who loves a good story,” but when the protagonist is 12, there’s a natural inclination in the plot, setting, and conflict to please the prepubescent crowd. Diana Wynne Jones wrote children’s stories for a good twenty years before writing A Sudden Wild Magic, her first adult story for the fantasy genre. It was this experience that also led her to discuss the absurd differences in writing for old vs. young in the article “Two Kinds of Writing?” Though I would love to simply reprint the piece here and let Jones speak for herself, I will confine myself to sharing a few highlights.

For one thing, adults are considered to be far more simple-minded than children. Everything about how the world works and what it looks like must be explained in inane detail. Because children are at the stage when their brains are constantly tested in school and gaming and the like, complex stories mean nothing to them. (She also makes a wry poke at adults: if they can follow a Doctor Who storyline, they can follow ANYTHING.) A Sudden Wild Magic has two major settings and several plotlines that follow groups of characters, characters on their own, characters regrouped—seriously, I lost count. Yet did I get confused about who’s this centaur or why Zillah’s on Leathe? Nope. Because I’m in the story. Jones has always been a master of balancing detail, dialogue, and wit-full exposition. When she puts down one plot thread to pick up another, I know it’s for a reason and am never disappointed. (And I’m not even a Doctor Who fan.)

Speaking of characters, adults are evidently too simple-minded to keep characters straight. Jones noticed that many grown-ups writing for grown-ups would repeat key traits when referencing to a character. How many times does a reader have to be reminded the dude’s got green eyes or came from Ohio? Yet this happens all the time. Jones barely does this in A Sudden Wild Magic; when she does, it is from a character’s point of view, and it is because this character doesn’t know the other’s name. That way, the tactic isn’t so much a reader’s reminder as it is one person using a singular feature (for example, “the woman in boots”) to point someone out in a crowd.

Sex would be the most notable difference in writing for adults, but Jones explains that many kids’ books deal with sex—not always explicitly, but it’s there. Jones alludes to sex a number of times in A Sudden Wild Magic: the book jacket even refers to an attack team of women using “kamikaze sex” to destroy another world’s magical hold on Earth. But while these allusions abound, Jones never goes into graphic detail…and according to her editor, this meant the sex element was all too “nice” and not “tragic,” which is what adult readers of fantasy expect.

Say what?

I admit, I held off on reading Jones’ adult-geared books because I feared there would be some sort of alteration in her humor and/or style to make them, well, “literary.” But no. All the snort-inducing quips, complicated plot twists, and ever-unique worlds are there. Jones may have felt the assumptions of adult writing to be “claustrophobic,” but she didn’t let that hinder the creation of yet another incredibly fun story. In her own closing words: “For, when all is said and done, it is telling a good story, and telling it well, that is the point of both kinds of writing.”

Click here to read “Two Kinds of Writing?” Seriously, stop what you’re doing and read this.

Click here for more on A SUDDEN WILD MAGIC.

As My Daughter Turns Five

Blondie3

Blondie observes a toad cross our walk

“What’s that noise, Mommy?”

“Sounds like a dragon waking up for some breakfast.”

“No it’s not. It’s the washing machine.”

Your persistence with reality annoys me. “Then why did you ask?” I leave you in bed and hunt down your brothers.

 ~*~

For you, imagination must be pre-created by others, people in cellophane and places punched out of cardboard. To look outside the wrapper is to look into The Nothing.

 ~*~

Biff is reading, Bash is talking to helicopters. You are nowhere to be seen. I approach your bedroom door and hear small murmurs. I knock. You open the door, knowing it’s me. (That is, until your brothers learn to knock and wait. Then your room is doomed.) I see you have opened your fairy house, a three-room house built out of an old suitcase that my father had made for my dolls, and that I had recently altered with butterflies and flowers to suit fairies. All the fairies sit on the furniture in a half circle facing you.

“What are the fairies up to today?”

“I dunno.”

“Are you getting ready for a big adventure?”

“No. They’re just sitting here.”

O-kay.

“Are they having a party?”

“No.”

I try a movie reference. “Are they going to get the blue pixie dust back from the pirates?”

“No.”

I see her dragons perched nearby. “Can the dragons come over to visit?”

She scoffs at such a notion. “Dragons can’t go into a fairy house. They’re too big!”

“Well…are you having fun?”

She shrugs.

Someone small, male, and irksome is into the kitchen pans again. “Well I guess I’ll close the door.”

“Yeah you do that.”

I do. Biff and Bash leap into the hallway with cookie pans and drying racks. “Hi, Mommy!” They throw the pans back onto the hardwood floor. “BOOM! Do it again!”

I hear a small yell as I chase little wiggling butts—“Don’t let them into my room!”

 ~*~

There is a box in our basement filled with audiocassettes I made when I was 5, all stories and songs I made up. Yes, I used storybooks we had, but I turned those images into places to explore. I gave characters voices and motives. They had fights and adventures. My imagination could take me into the page and deeper, until the real world was but a small hole high above me. When the typical story books didn’t satisfy me, I started making my own. I spent hours drawing out the different scenes and then “published” the esteemed work with a fancy glittered cover and purple string binding.

 ~*~

You grunt with increasing frustration as Bash makes yet another go at the dragons in your lap. “No, Bash, mine!” Biff rattles your door again. “Stop it, Biff!”

“WE ARE DONE!” Ahem. “Time to color, okay?”

“Crayons?!?!” Biff and Bash never have access to writing utensils unless I am desperate for peace, and today qualifies. They race to their chairs at the table, knock the chairs together, push them too far away to reach the table, whine, push them too close to get into the seats, whine again, and then just whack each other in the heads because, brothers.

You quietly get into your seat and settle your head in your hands. Bored already, and the boys haven’t even finished their routine to sit down. “What are we gonna color?”

“How about we draw today?” I get some crayons and paper and spread them out on the table. Biff and Bash get right to work, seeing which color is darkest, which crayon will fly furthest when thrown backwards, and so on.

You continue to sit. I place three colors and a blank sheet between your elbows. “What am I gonna draw?”

“Whatever you want.”

You sigh.

I sigh. “How about a dragon?”

“I don’t know how.”

“It can look however you want.”

Your voice shrinks. “I don’t want to.”

“Okay then, how about a fish?” I pick this specifically since you have spent a week on ocean life in school.

“What kind of fish?”

“Any fish you want.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Oh yes you do, from school.”

You draw like you eat vegetables: resigned and hateful.

Biff and Bash are on their fourth pieces of paper. “Look a helicopter!” Bash cries out gleefully as he points to a mess of circular scribbles. Biff straightens his back up and declares his pile of straight lines are “lots and lots of trailer trucks.”

You push a paper my way. In one corner of the sheet is a small orange circle, some fins, and an eye. “There, a fish.”

“It’s a lovely fish, Blondie. Can you draw another one? There’s loads of fish in the ocean, you know. Or an octopus? What about a whale?” I push the paper back. You sit and sulk for a moment, but when you see Biff and Bash are having fun for some reason, you choose a blue crayon and begin to draw.

I manage three sips of coffee before you appear in the kitchen with your paper. “The ocean’s full now. Can I go?”

A gigantic rectangle fills the rest of the page. It is bent inward on one end and dotted slightly on the other. “Is this…”

“It’s a whale.”

“Ah, I see. And what are their names?”

“Whose names?”

“The fish and the whale. What are their names?”

“Um…” you look around. I see you debate about my coffee, about the frying pan, the sink. You settle on your brothers. “Biff and Bash.”

“What are Biff and Bash going to do? Go on an adventure?”

“No. They’re just fish. Am I done now?”

 ~*~

You are a will of your own, always have been. I love you for your curiosity, your laughter, your silly dances and cuddly hugs. And because you are growing into your own person, I must realize that what you define yourself to be will not match my expectations. I can want you to be creative, but I cannot make you. Creating stories should be fun, not a chore, and I promise you, my daughter, that I will never make you imagine any more than you want to.

 ~*~

Biff rests his nose on the table as he slowly moves two trains past his eyes and back again. Bash sits on Biff’s bed to read about trains. I hear a high-pitched, exasperated voice down the hall, followed by a strange…is that supposed to be male?

I tip-toe to your room. Quiet. The bathroom door is open a crack.

I peek inside to see you on the toilet with a Tinkerbell comic book you just received for your birthday. You do not know the story yet, nor do you know many of those characters. But I see you have two index fingers pointed on two fairies, and you are making them talk.

Then you see me. “Mo-om, what are you doing here?”

“Oh just…saw the door open, thought you’d want it locked before Biff or Bash showed up.”

“Yes, please.” You wait all through my dramatically slow closing of the door before saying in a nasal voice only small children can make, “But I don’t make flowers, I’m a skunk fairy!”

You bust my heart wide open, you skunk fairy. I want to sit and listen to your voices and learn about the places, maybe add my own and give some voices too. But then the story would no longer be yours, would it?

Let your stories be your secret. I shall keep my distance and listen for the fairy-speak, wondering what adventures hide within the pages this time and all the times to come.