#writerproblems: Expectations & Payoffs in #Storytelling

As readers, we build  upon our knowledge of previous stories to create expectations. If someone tells us their story is “Thomas the Tank Engine meets Dracula,” we  expect some sort of life-sucking creatures living among talking vehicles. If someone says they’ve done a retelling of, say, “Alice in Wonderland with some Resident Evil thrown in,” then we expect a heroine stumbling into another world filled with zombies, puzzles, and big bad monsters.

As writers, we want readers to know they’re going to like our book. We need to show them the book has stuff they like. That’s why we cling so to the subgenres and the comparisons. “If you like Beauty and the Beast, you’ll love this! If you like ghost stories, you’ll love this!”

But there’s a problem with such expectations: They have to pay off in a way readers will accept. Is it safe to delay those expectations, or derail them entirely?

Let’s look first at delaying them. Take Sara Waters’ The Little Stranger.

Riveting trailer, isn’t it? Eerie, dramatic, a ghost story through and through. The tension builds from the first second to the last. I saw the trailer while checking Facebook for pictures of my niece and nephew. The trailer popped up on my feed, and I was hooked! I NEEDED to read the book before I see the movie…eventually. (Hey, babysitters are expensive.)

71bBVB2Q8LLThe prose is beautiful, of course. Waters walks readers through Hundreds estate one step at a time. We see every wall, every room, every window, every garden. We feel like we’re there.

But unfortunately, this is also part of the problem. For a story advertised as “A chilling and vividly rendered ghost story set in postwar Britain,” it takes 150 PAGES for the paranormal element to reveal itself.

Think about that. What if it took Alice fifteen chapters to find the rabbit hole, and you spent the first half of the book just gabbing with her sister? What if Poirot wasn’t called to investigate a murder until the tenth chapter, the previous chapters all about him enjoying London? I’m sure he’d be fun as a tour guide, but come on–that’s not why I picked up his book.

Beautiful writing or no, if a book is categorized as under a specific genre like ghost story, then it’s fair to expect that genre dominates the book.  It’s not like Waters’ characters had to see blood on the walls by Chapter 2, but I’ve no doubt that in all their wandering through the house in the first 150 pages Waters could have dropped a few peculiar touches to promise us readers that yes, the ghostliness is coming if we just hold out a little bit longer.

The same problem arises with likening a story to one we already know. Several reviews called Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses a retelling of Beauty and the Beast,  and many of the elements of the book pay off to that expectation: girl Feyre kills a wolf who turns out to be a Faerie, so she’s told by a Faerie High Lord named Tamlin she must come to his court as a consequence. His court’s cursed by an evil queen, and Feyre’s love of Tamlin is a key to breaking the curse. She breaks the curse, the queen dies, they all go home, the end. Not a bad following of B&B, sure. BUT: this is Book 1 of a series.

Beauty and the Beast ends with that broken curse (no matter what Disney says). Where is there to go?

Helter Skelter, apparently. In the second book,  A Court of Mist and Fury, we find out Tamlin is actually a really nasty possessive jerk and one of the evil queen’s henchmen who is another High Lord is secretly a really nice guy who’s been dreaming about Feyre for years, so they get to fall in love and have lots of sex and so on.

Say WHAT?

Hearing a story is akin to Beauty and the Beast establishes a very specific set of expectations in the reader’s mind: thoughtful female, misunderstood male cursed in appearance, and their love conquers all. Maas builds the relationship of Feyre and Tamlin with every touch of love and understanding, right down to the moment Feyre’s paintings speak to Tamlin’s inner struggle in helping his people. When Feyre faces the evil queen, she says time and again she’s fighting for her love, Tamlin.

23766623Yet in Chapter 1 of Mist and Fury, we’re hearing that Feyre is vomiting and can hardly sleep. Tamlin’s as much of a wreck, but they don’t talk. They’re going to get married, but Feyre is dreading the wedding so much she’s praying to be saved. This calls in Rhys, that other High Lord who was once the evil queen’s henchman. He carries her off to his court, and from this point we realize just how traumatized Feyre is from her trials under the evil queen. Chapter by chapter we see that Rhys is the one who truly understands Feyre, noble and kind, willing to put all he has on the line for the sake of protecting those he loves.

Gosh, this sounded familiar to me. The first impression of a brute, a cad, a wicked man who surely cares nothing about others, but upon second look is actually very kind, noble, self-sacrificing….

Hey, that’s Pride and Prejudice!

Rhys is the handsome, brooding Mr. Darcy in faerie form, deeply misjudged by Feyre in the first book because she’s so taken with her Mr. Wickham–I mean, her Tamlin. Only as she spends time with Rhys/Mr. Darcy character does she see the depth of his goodness, and therefore more clearly sees Tamlin/Mr. Wickham’s truly vile nature.

At first, I couldn’t understand why Maas simply hadn’t called this series a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. Readers would have walked into the series with the correct expectations. They’d have known Tamlin was all wrong for Feyre, even as the relationship grows in Thorns and Roses.

But those correct expectations come at a cost: killing the surprise.

Readers want to be surprised. They want to not know what’s going to happen next. But they don’t like a bait’n’switch pulled on them, either. So, I went back into Thorns and Roses to see if Maas had put any foreshadowing of the relationship breaking.

Sure enough, I find a few spots.

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Shortly before Tamlin and Feyre talk about her art, she is wondering if she should live elsewhere so she doesn’t distract Tamlin from fighting rogue monsters.

[Tamlin] laughed, though not entirely with amusement… “No, I don’t want you to live somewhere else. I want you here, where I can look after you–where I can come home and know you’re here, painting and safe.” (206)

This is exactly what he expects of her in those first chapters of Mist and Fury–to be content painting on his estate forever and ever. He pushes this so hard he even locks her in the house so she can’t escape.

The last chapter of Thorns and Roses shares a good deal of Feyre’s pain after taking two innocent lives during the evil queen’s trials. Even when she’s back with Tamlin, she feels that something’s come apart in her.

Tomorrow–there would be tomorrow, and an eternity, to face what I had done, to face what I shredded into pieces inside myself while Under the Mountain. (416)

Maas sewed the seeds for this relationship’s end, but with expectations centered around a Beauty and the Beast kind of story, readers like myself were all too keen to ignore those seeds. Yet if Maas had allowed marketing to tie her series to Pride and Prejudice, aaaall that romantic tension between Feyre and Tamlin in Thorns and Roses would have been a waste of time.

I wish I had the answer to this writer’s problem. I want readers to read my stories like The Stray” and The Boy Who Carried A Forest In His Pocket” and not feel duped or betrayed. (Click on the titles for the free downloads, by the way. Be sure to share your thoughts on them, please!)

 

Perhaps it’s the reader’s responsibility not to think writers are going to follow a paint-by-numbers approach for a genre or a retelling.

But it’s equally the writer’s responsibility not to depend on that genre or retelling as a selling crutch. Your story has been and always will be more unique than that.

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#lessons Learned & an #Author #Interview with Michael Scott, Part 1: #writing a #pageturner. Thanks, @flamelauthor!

Readers expect a world created from our words, a place of wonder and depth. If they get bored–and as a reader, I know I’ve gotten bored–they will tune the story out. They will shelve it among the “did not finish” works in Goodreads, and they will bid our titles adieu. There are, after all, a gazillion other writers out there.

So how do we keep readers in the story? How do we get them to whisper, “just one more page” for the seventeenth time?

After reading Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst, I can safely point out two elements that kept me reading: the cliffhangers between each chapter, and the book’s antagonist. In this post, we’ll focus on the first.

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Let’s consider Chapter 1. We’ll have to start with the first line in order to fully appreciate the chapter’s end. (I’ve already covered story starts in other posts about Holly Black and Diana Wynne Jones, if you care to look.)

“Ok–answer me this: why would anyone want to wear an overcoat in San Francisco in the middle of summer?”

Nothing outrageous. Just a little oddity that might call attention to a casual passer-by, as it calls the attention of teen Sophie. She sees a few coated individuals and “small, rather dapper-looking man” enter the bookstore across the street where her twin brother Josh works. They’re kind of weird, but that should be it, right?

Scott then takes us to Josh’s perspective. When foul odors suddenly permeate the bookstore’s basement, he decides to go up for some air.

He popped his head out of the cellar door and looked around.

And in that instant, Josh Newman realized that the world would never be the same again.

End of chapter.

In the first couple pages, Scott establishes something is off in the Normal Life of our protagonists, but we don’t know how off. At chapter’s end Scott makes it clear that it isn’t the teens’ summer that changes, or even their Normal Life. It’s the world.

And, it’s only page 8.

We need to read how this simple meeting, this little one-off from Normal, could mean something cataclysmic.

Over the next few chapters, the teens are on the run with Alchemyst Nicholas Flamel, keeper of an ancient book called the Codex. The Codex holds the secret to immortality as well as the forgotten histories and magics of Earth itself. The Dark Elders, once gods but now forgotten, want that book more than anything, and they’ve sent Dr. John Dee, an old apprentice of Flamel’s, to retrieve it. Immortal through his service to the Dark Elders, Dee will spill any blood and unleash any power necessary–and we see in The Alchemyst that Dee has a massive magical arsenal at his disposal.

17402605Come Chapter 6, we are following Dr. John Dee’s point of view. Dee has stolen most of the Codex and abducted Nicholas’ wife Perenelle, but Josh managed to rip the last few pages back before Nicholas helps the twins escape. Furious, Dee contacts his masters for a little help.

Then he snapped the phone shut and looked over at Perenelle Flamel. “It would have been so much easier if they had just given me the Codex. Now the Morrigan is coming. And you know what that means.”

End of chapter.

Perenelle Flamel may know what “that means,” but we have to study the context a little to catch on. “The Morrigan”–a definite article means this not just a beast or creature, but a specific being, an individual entity unique and separate from others met so far. “So much easier if they had given me”–if surrendering to a killer is the “easier” option, then we know whatever’s coming is more violent and nasty than Dee’s been. Dee feels confident in telling Nicholas Flamel’s wife about “the Morrigan” because he expects this Morrigan to get results. Since we’ve seen some of Flamel’s magic, this must mean the Morrigan is a very powerful individual capable of killing Flamel.

Well. We’ve got to see that.

Closing the chapter on a sinister, ominous image can also hook readers for the next chapter. Chapter 8 has Flamel and the twins trapped in ally Scatty’s residence. We end as Dee begins his assault with creatures under his control.

Below them, three huge Golems, trailing flaking dried mud, were pushing their way through the wide-open alley door. And behind them, in a long sinuous line, came the rats.

End of chapter.

I LOVE the use of the word “sinuous.” Read out loud it sounds like a snake’s slithered into the room. Visually, readers picture rats doing something they know to be unnatural. Since when do rats move in a single-filed line? Plus there is a common loathing of rats: bringer of disease and destruction, full of little pointy teeth and hands. When you see one, you know there’s a few dozen more not far behind. Maybe some people think of Ratatouillebut being an 80s child, I think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. 

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Scott also has some fun playing with the reader’s expectations. Chapter 10’s climax is a lovely example of this.

Sophie pulled her cell out of her pocket and flipped it open. “Aren’t you going to work some magic?” she asked hopefully.
“No, I’m going to make a call. Let’s hope we don’t get an answering service.”

End of chapter.

By this point, the twins are accustomed to seeing Dee utilize his powers to combat the villain. The fact he uses a phone for such a mundane action makes Reader Me want to know: Who on earth could this guy be calling to combat a monstrous cloud of crows bent on tearing them apart? The only way I can learn the answer is by reading on.

Being a pushy, curious sort, I asked Michael Scott how he worked out building strong chapter endings with multiple points of view.  His answer reflects an important writing strategy: planning.

I started with a single sheet of paper and wrote out my idea for the entire series. I could see that there were six very neat breaks in the narrative.

I then wrote out the idea for each book on six sheets of paper. Then I went in and plotted them sometimes in fairly fine detail. That allowed me to pace out the chapters.

I always tried to end a chapter with a hook which would leave you dangling so that you had to read the next chapter (which was often not a continuation of the story), to get back to the main story. So your plotting is chapters 1,3,5 are all one story, and 2,4,6 are a separate, but linked story.

I love my narratives to adventure into the unexpected, but even I like to keep a map on hand in case I get lost. Readers will only appreciate tension and high stakes if the story stays focused on those things. If writers dish out too much tension at once, any slowing of the plot jars the pacing beyond repair. Like the 90s blockbuster Speedyou have to keep the story moving fast, or risk blowing up your reader’s engagement. If you attempt a slow burn and fail (and I just read a novel guilty of this, so stay tuned in August), you’ve lost readers before you could even get to the story’s objective.

So you need action, but not too much at once. You need climaxes in that action, but not so much to make later climaxes feel, well, anti-climactic. No wonder, then, that Scott not only took time to outline The Alchemyst, but the ENTIRE six-book series of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. How else can he tell the story from both the heroes and villains’ perspectives without missing a beat?

And I’m not going to lie–Dr. John Dee is my favorite part of this book. Next week, we’ll explore with Michael Scott what makes this villain–and therefore the well-written villains–worth reading.

download (2)Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/. 

 

 

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Lesson Learned from the Marx Brothers: Heed the Zeppo Factor.

animal_crackers_movie_posterI originally wanted this post to be about the importance of unique characters. That when characters overlap, you have to cut whomever’s the most superfluous. Considering the current love of the Marx Brothers in our house, I was going to use Zeppo Marx as an example.

For those even more of a Philistine than me, the Marx Brothers began as a vaudeville group put together by their mother. All could sing, dance, play instruments, and verbally spar like nobody’s business. When the talkies came a’callin’, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo left Broadway to perform in a filmed version of Cocoanuts and four other musical comedies for Paramount. When they transferred to the MGM film studio, Zeppo dropped from the act. The films they did for MGM, most notably Night at the Opera, made boatloads of money, so therefore the loss of Zeppo must have improved the films. Right?

20170117_071743Well….n-n-no.

Bo’s adored the Marx Brothers since the age of 6. Introducing them to the kids has been a huge treat for him. Bash in particular adores the music segments, and can even mimic Harpo’s faces during a piano duet in The Big Store:

I showed Bo my old post. He shook his head. “See, you can’t…no. Look.” He crossed his arms. Books, films, and documentaries played on fast-forward across his eyes. “It’s true that Zeppo doesn’t really stand out. You’re right that he plays the connection to the flimsy excuse of a plot in those movies. But when he’s gone, they still have a pretty boy for a lead. The three Marx Brothers are tighter as a unit, yeah, but they’re not the real stars of the movies anymore. They’re just a part of the story, and the stories suck. There’s a reason I never made you sit through Day at the Races.”

“So,” I hold off Biff and his giant metal eighteen-wheeler, “it’s the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story?”

Bo considered. “Yes, I suppose so.” And then he went on about a lot of other nuances and exceptions, but I’ve had wine, so I don’t feel like typing all that.

The point is, even a character who doesn’t seem to stand out can have an impact on a story; it’s just that impact may not be felt until its absence. The Marx Brothers are all about fine-crafted comedy: perfectly-timed stunts, word-play that’ll make a priest blush, and music performances any obnoxious toddler will watch in blessed peace. Each Marx Brother contributed particular gifts: Groucho’s wordplay, Chico’s music, and Harpo’s innocent deviltry. While all the brothers had talents in all the corners, each picked one to dominate. Sure, Harpo played piano with Chico sometimes, and Chico sometimes sparred words with Groucho, and Groucho sometimes joined Harpo in the physical schtick, but these cross-overs never outlast the bit at hand.

And then, there’s Zeppo. He was just as talented as the other three: sing, dance, play, banter. All of it. He was a hit with them on Broadway, even though he never cared for the attention. But the triumvirate of comedy–physical, verbal, musical–were filled in by his brothers. What unique trait did he bring that they couldn’t?

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The eye-candy, of course!

Yup, they made him the pretty boy character. He was the one who kept whatever passed for a story going. When he was given a chance to actually be funny, like in Animal Crackers, he’s great, but otherwise he’s just…there. Several scenes pass between Zeppo appearances in the films, and he’s never really missed. Groucho’s foil is usually Margaret Dumont, so even the straight-man role is filled. After Duck Soup and the announcement of MGM “acquiring” the comedic group, Zeppo took advantage and left the group.  A tighter group should lead to tighter comedy, only it doesn’t. Why?

Because as Bo said, the MGM films don’t highlight the comedy.

Therein lies the dilemma.

MGM was all about appealing to the broadest audience possible. This meant expanding the films to be more than just Marx Brothers’ antics; the movies had to contain a stronger story and popular music numbers, too. MGM proved their point with the massive box office successes of their three Marx Brothers films, but any fan of the Paramount films can see that the Marx Brothers simply aren’t allowed to be as funny in the MGM films. Story was given priority at the sacrifice of the characters. When one looks at the Paramount films, one’ll find plots little Bash could out-write in a single afternoon. The comedy, though, is king. The four Marx Brothers have free reign with their banter, music acts, and physical antics, which makes for hilarious viewing every time. One does not watch Duck Soup for its political drama; one watches it for Chico and Groucho verbally sparring over a nut stand. One does not watch Monkey Business for the drama of gang rivalry; one watches it for Harpo driving steamship’s crew crazy.

As writers, we must always be conscious of how many characters we have in play. We must be wary of repetitive characters, of too many or too few characters. We must also remember that the changes we make with our characters can have a subtle ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. Sure, the three Marx Brothers were a tighter comedy unit, but their films did not in any way improve. The four Marx Brothers make one easily forget about the need for plot, but one’s always left wondering, “What’s with Zeppo?”

When you choose to revise your cast, think carefully what impact the absence(s) will have. Don’t just study the plot for new rips; study what binds the characters, too. The needed mending might not be noticeable at first, but once you spot it, the story won’t be the same until you make it right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm?

Yes, I said writing.

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

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

Good Lord, I have a series.

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

Time to Wattpad it up.

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

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

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

Which, um, I had never done.

Quick, to the Diana Wynne Jones shelf!

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

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

Yowza.

Three drafts later…

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

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

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

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

Middler’s Pride sprouts from two places: Michael Dellert’s Matter of Manred saga, and Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet. Dellert’s land of Droma is rich with conflict and beauty, but his Matter of Manred saga only focuses on select portions of this landscape. What begins as a bit of fanfic in his world has grown into its own world and its own characters.  Herein lies the origin of Meredydd of the Shield Maidens.

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

Her pride.

 

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

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

 

Children’s Writer A.J. Cosmo & I Wonder What Can–or Should–be Stuffed into Kid Lit

franky002AJ Cosmo has written and illustrated many books over the years, his latest being Poop, a Middle Grade tale of a boy learning to handle life at a new school as well as living with his body’s needs. After writing about how dark kid lit can gowe decided to take turns “debating” a few other elements of children’s writing.

What purpose do you think stories have?

JL– For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

 Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

 To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

 My favorite children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- Ha! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on them sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue, but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

JL-Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

 Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

 AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

 AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture; however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the foreseeable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

 AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like these characters? Good, because they’re going to talk. A lot. And I ain’t tellin’ you who’s talkin’.

14abfqTo be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went. Two steps in particular irritated me time and again. This is the first.

~*~

In the prologue, the narrator Adso states he’s not going to bother describing people because “nothing is more fleeting than external form.” Fine. I suppose describing a bunch of monks will feel repetitive in some respects. Part of me feels like this is a cheat on Eco’s part, though. This is a record from centuries ago. Imagine your own version of these people while I put words in their mouths. And boy, does he.

Time and time again I find myself turning back pages to figure out who’s talking. Of course, dialogue and rhetoric are lifelines for those in the cloister. Plus, there are hundreds of pages of history to share in order to bring this story to life. That history’s got to come out somehow. Why not in dialogue?

But that means pages upon pages of talking. Just. Talking. If you’re lucky, you get a “William said,” or “the abbot nodded.” While omitting dialogue tags isn’t a sin outright, it DOES become a nuisance when characters often speak for more than a page, and then someone responds with a page’s worth of dialogue, and so on. Readers shouldn’t feel like they’re experiencing the story blindfolded.

On a preferential level, I also find it important to share what on earth characters DO while they talk. How many of us literally stand still and speak to one another for several minutes at a time? Isn’t there other stuff going on around us? The world’s stimuli can open up so many opportunities to learn about a character. Take a bird. Let it fly over the abbey. Let it relieve itself as it flies over some monks. (Hey, I’m a mom of small children. “Poop” is one of the top ten words in this house.) I bet the abbot would be horrified. The oddball Salvatore would have likely laughed and eaten the stuff, or maybe thrown a rock to kill the bird and then eat the bird. And William of Baskerville would have likely raised one of his Connery eyebrows and rubbed the stuff off with snow while never losing his train of thought.

I dig moments like this. Characters don’t speak to one another in the Cone of Silence from Get Smart.

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Life is going on around them, and it’s NOT going to leave them alone.

Did Eco miss a mark? Technically no. Adso does state this is a record he wishes to leave for future generations to help record signs of End Times. What would it matter to future scholarly monks if bird droppings landed on an abbot’s head in the 14th century?

Yet I cannot help but wonder what this story could have been had all our senses been  engaged.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Hook’em Up.

game1A couple days ago I cracked open The Game and settled in for another great story.

First Line:

When Hayley arrived at the big house in Ireland, bewildered and in disgrace, rain was falling and it was nearly dark.

I paused–not because I was turned off by the story, but I realized just how much Jones packed into the first sentence.

  1. Protagonist introduction
  2. Setting
  3. Protagonist’s state of mind and problem, or semblance of a problem
  4. Time/atmosphere

One line in, and I know there’s a problem for this girl to deal with, and she’s totally out of her element. Who can’t relate to that?

In my first “Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones” post, I covered the opening pages of Howl’s Moving Castle. That, too, packs a lot in a tight space. I started to wonder about the other Jones books I read, and basically piled them up into my arms and started sifting.

Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. –Eight Days of Luke

  1. David’s not like other kids–something sets him apart.
  2. The time: holidays. Normally a more cheery time of year. Therefore…
  3. Why wouldn’t a kid like David be excited about the holidays?

“Charmain must do it,” said Aunt Sempronia.  –House of Many Ways

  1. There’s a not-quite-usual family dynamic involved here if the aunt dictates what the protagonist must do.
  2. Unique names = unique place? Perhaps.
  3. Do what? Got to learn more…

It was years before Christopher told anyone about his dreams. –The Many Lives of Christopher Chant

  1. The protagonist has something unique going on with him–if these were normal dreams, they would not be worth a story.
  2. Christopher does not trust easily, if it took years to open up about something most people seem to experience–who doesn’t dream?

I may as well start with some of our deep secrets because this account will not be easy to understand without them. –Deep Secret

  1. The narrator seems to be our protagonist.
  2. Deep secrets? Sounds, well, secret. Something people like you and me aren’t supposed to know. In-trigue!
  3. Our? So the protagonist isn’t the only with with knowledge about this. We’ve got a secret group out there.
  4. An account= something serious went down.

When I was small, I always thought Stallery Mansion was some kind of fairy-tale castle. –Conrad’s Fate

  1. The narrator seems to be our protagonist.
  2. There’s an established place near the narrator that is not normally approached by kids. Whether it’s intimidating or just well-protected, this place is bigger than life.
  3. Something has changed this protagonist’s mind about that place. What?

The Dog Star stood beneath the Judgment Seats and raged. –Dogsbody

  1. Stars don’t rage, do they? What the hoobajoob is going on?
  2. Whatever it is, it’s not good, if he’s being judged for something.
  3. This Dog Star has a temper. That’s can’t be good for a trial. I bet something’s going to go horribly, horribly wrong…

The note said: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH. Witch Week

  1. Class = bunch of kids
  2. A note without a name = someone’s telling secrets…or lies.
  3. If calling someone in the class a witch has to be done anonymously, it makes one wonder just how serious such an accusation is.

We have had Aunt Maria ever since Dad died. –Aunt Maria

  1. Parent death = rough time for the kid(s).
  2. We = the protagonist is not alone.
  3. Had = Hmm. Doesn’t sound like the protagonist wants to have Aunt Maria around. They’re stuck with her. Why? And why is that a bad thing?

When Jocelyn Brandon died–at a great old age, as magicians tend to do–he left his house and his field-of-care to his grandson, Andrew Brandon Hope. –Enchanted Glass

  1. Magic is clearly involved.
  2. Family ties matter. And Andrew must be a special bit of family; a magician’s not going to leave his field-of-care to just any ol’ grandchild.
  3. Field-of-care = Something magic-related, I’ll wager. That means the grandson must have some skill, too.

That should be enough for now.

I admit, it was difficult NOT to share more than the first line, since some of the second sentences added loads more. Still, these first lines of various lengths and styles all give a great sense of the story’s voice in just, oh, a dozen words or thereabouts. A writer who can do that again, and again, and again, and never give the reader a sense of déjà vu is most certainly worth a read or two.

Or thirty.

You get my meaning.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

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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: Brevity’s Fine, Too, You Know.

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Some tales require thousands upon thousands of pages. Writers paint a world, a history of that world, history of the players, the players’ quests, etc.

Some tales need only a day and 100 pages. How does Jones pull this off?

She begins with a common problem of many adolescents: a summer holiday with no access to fun. Jones amplifies the common with the not-quite-so-common: protagonist Heather is stuck at a home which is also a tourist attraction. The girl yearns for the tourists to go away, and finds herself wishing on an old mound for an old story about a warlock named Wild Robert to be true.

Enter Jones’ fantasticness: the girl’s wish comes true. She made her wish on the warlock’s grave, and her wish wakes him up. He doesn’t waste time turning people into sheep, pulling old relatives out of paintings, compiling strewn garbage into nasty monsters who chase children–Wild Robert’s capable of anything, as Heather quickly learns. Only she sees him, restrains him from doing more than pranks. By the end of the day, the characters have connected, and we finally learn all of Wild Robert’s story.

The end.

Huh?

Yup. One day. One glorious, adventurous day. It’s not like Jones cut out with the final detail of Robert’s life. Rather, she ends with the promise of future adventures:

Wild Robert’s power really did end at sunset. He must be back in his mound now….Heather remembered that Wild Robert had made her promise to speak to him again tomorrow. He had known….She climbed the stairs to her little room in a corner of the old castle, smiling. Robert was full of tricks. Tomorrow she would understand him better….Heather fell asleep thinking of ways she might even rescue the treasure that was really Wild Robert’s heart….

But those days are different stories. I’m sure that if Jones had wished to return to these characters she would have, but she didn’t have to. Readers, especially Middle Grade readers, have plenty of imagination. Jones provided a place, the players, the premise. It’s all laid out. Wild Robert gave us “a day in the life.” Now it’s on the readers to imagine the rest of the life.

Don’t think that you have to provide your readers every bloody day between birth and death. If the heart of the story is in but one event, then that’s IT. You know readers can tell when a story is padded. Knock that off. Give them the adventure. Trust them to imagine more.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 2

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Part 2: Wistful In & After

Archer’s Goon is glorious fun on many levels. Not only does all the magic occur in a typical city—the magic also manifests in typical fare, like the sudden appearance of go-go dancers or surveillance through light bulbs. The magic is exposed and eventually beaten out not by a single hero, but by family, forced together by magic and determined, despite their many dysfunctions, to stick it out.

Love has a mixed effect on three and a half characters: Fifi, the college student living with the Sykes; the Goon, who is determined to get 2000 typed words out of Mr. Sykes; Archer, one of the wizards who controls the city; and Awful Sykes, age 8.

Awful and her elder brother Howard first discover the Goon in their kitchen. He has come to collect the 2000 words Mr. Sykes always writes every three months. Why does he write them? No idea. But the unknown boss who’s required them is angry he hasn’t received the latest installment, so if Mr. Sykes doesn’t rectify the situation their lives will be in trouble. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sykes take the Goon’s presence in stride, but Fifi, Howard, and Awful can’t stand him. Yet despite the poor first meeting, Awful and Goon make a tentative connection over, of all things, a puking contest. (Well she IS 8, and she didn’t earn the nickname Awful for nothing.) Fifi does her best to help Howard rid the house of the Goon, but to no avail: mystery arises over who gets Mr. Sykes’ words and how he/she uses them, and no one’s more curious than the seven wizard siblings who run the city.

Each wizard goes after the Sykes in his/her own way. Dillian, the beautiful sister who runs the police, admits to the theft and still tricks Howard, Fifi, and Awful to leave her home without them. This is the first time where Fifi’s looks require the reader’s attention:

“Oh!” Fifi said. “I’d give my ears to look like Dillian! Wasn’t she glamorous!”

[Howard] looked at Fif’s peaky little face and frizzy light brown hair and laughed again. (p.72)

No, I’m not saying physical appearance is everything, but 13-year-old Howard’s note of Fifi’s appearance makes it sound like Fifi couldn’t figure into anyone’s desires like that. Even the school boys in Chapter 2 and 3 like to mock Howard for walking around with Fifi like she’s his girlfriend.

But Fifi does become an object of desire to no less than two characters: the Goon, and Archer.

Eldest of the wizard siblings, Archer meets Fifi with Mr. Sykes and the kids when Sykes thinks Archer is the one who’s wanted the 2000 words. An argument erupts between Sykes and Archer, but Fifi remains bashful, speaking only in whispers. Chapter 5 marks the beginning of Fifi’s shift from a supporter of the Sykes to a doleful, lovelorn devotee to Archer. She still helps Howard and Awful with home things, like learning how to live with marching bands going eternally up and down the street and leaping over the moat around the house and silencing a massive drum kit and stealing food all because of magic. Every wizard who demands Sykes write for only him/her only drives Sykes’ heels further and further into the ground. His defiance against Archer, though, is blasphemy to Fifi.

While Fifi fawns over images of Archer, the Goon has fallen for Fifi. Yup, he’s still there, this monstrous tree of a man, and has actually settled into the household because, well, he’s supposed to get those 2000 words. Chapter 6 ends with the Goon’s confession to Howard about his feelings for Fifi, feelings which make him a bit difficult. He won’t stop staring at her, and he only scares her when he tries to help her survive the chaos about them. When Archer takes Fifi out on a date, the Goon’s behavior worsens.

That day the Goon dismally drew a large heart in purple crayon on the kitchen table and sat throwing his knife at it, over and over again. The heart was shortly covered with dents, but it made no impression on Fifi’s heart in any way. (p. 153)

When Fifi moves out to marry Archer, her shift in alliance is complete. Love has taken someone we initially considered a protagonist and turned her antagonist. The Goon’s dejection makes him so pitiable the Syke children feel for him and are a bit nicer to him. So, the one readers presume to be the antagonist now seems to be a protagonist. Or is he?

Turns out the Goon is not just a goon—he’s one of the wizard siblings, and he’s livid with the only wizard sibling we have yet to meet for trapping the rest of their bizarre family in the city. He attempts to restrain the Sykes family in the sewage treatment plant until the last wizard sibling reveals himself and owns up, but the Sykes manage to escape. Howard decides to hunt down this last wizard sibling himself so his family’s persecution will stop: Mrs. Sykes has grown gravely ill, and even though Awful is awful, she should not have to fear being beaten up by wizard-run gangs.

Turns out Howard is the last wizard sibling. In a twist only Jones could pull, Howard realizes his older self has hidden away all sorts of magnificent technology in the future; he also realizes his older self was a pompous, self-centered jerk. When he tried to get back into the present, he aged backwards into a baby and was found in the snow by the Sykes, who adopted him. He grew up in a loving family. He grew up knowing why family mattered. And knowing this, Howard did not want to re-grow up into that pompous jerk. The Goon is really his brother Erskine, who’s been trying to make Howard remember so Howard will destroy the spell that’s kept all the siblings in the city. And, after all the years apart, he wants to be brothers again.

During the Goon and Howard’s visit into the future to uncover Howard’s true identity, Awful stumbles in and ages herself.

Awful grew as [Howard] watched. By the time she was on the third step she was a large, fat schoolgirl in a maroon uniform, with a sudden strong look of Shine… She heaved up onto the fourth step. There she was suddenly skinny and Awful again, but nearly six feet tall, with a scornful grown-up look. Then she came up on to the marble floor and became a student about Fifi’s age, but much better-looking.

[Howard] gasped. He had no idea Awful would grow up that pretty. Beside him, Erskine’s eyes popped, and a great admiring grin spread over his little face.

“Marvelous!” said Erskine. “Chip off the old block!” (p.274-5)

Now no, Awful launches herself back down the stairs and returns to her proper child state, so nothing happens between Awful and the Goon. However, after the bad wizard siblings are shot into space, the last few paragraphs allude to a very strong possibility…

 Behind them Erskine luxuriously stretched long Goon arms. “Go and travel now. See the world,” he said. His eyes slid to [Mrs. Sykes] pleadingly. “Come and see you every year?” he asked.

Howard looked at Erskine warily. He rather thought Erskine’s eyes had flicked on to Awful after that.

It was quite possible that Erskine would come back one year, saying he had taken a look at the world and decided he would like to [conquer] it. When he did, he would offer Awful a share. (p.323-324)

So, after all the Goon’s longing, he doesn’t get the girl…yet. Readers are left to bet the Goon would make a strong play for Awful when the time was right. Considering her terrible antics throughout the story, readers can also bet Awful wouldn’t say no. Why don’t we get this in the story? Because such a scene has to take place in the future. Yes the characters literally walked into the future at one point, but this scene requires some living and maturing to happen first. That stuff’s not relevant to this specific story arc, which means the Goon/Awful connection must be considered an eventual romance. I can recall at least three other Diana Wynne Jones books where the “eventual romance” is foreshadowed: Year of the Griffin, House of Many Ways, and Wild Robert. I could also count The Many Lives of Christopher Chant on a technical level because the main characters do not become romantically involved, but as this book’s a prequel inside the Chrestomanci series, readers already know romance is on the way.

When writing for Young Adult or New Adult, there is this instilled Romeo/Juliet need: our main character MUST find his/her other half; otherwise, life just isn’t worth living.

Bugger that. Maybe your protagonist needs to grow up by dealing with life solo for a little while. Sure, hints of love down the road aren’t bad, but why thrust them into the story like a kid smashing an action figure against a Matchbox car? The dude’s not going to fit, kid, let it go. The same goes for writers: sometimes there just isn’t room. If the story’s fun without love, don’t force it in. If you want love to have a little fun of its own out of the spotlight, let it, and watch for the fresh twists in character that will only enhance your readers’ experience.