#LessonsLearned from #DianaWynneJones: Small #Family #Conflict Can Grow Into An #Epic #Fantasy

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For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.

Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.

“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”

“Why does David go away to school?”

“Why is David’s family so mean?”

Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.

“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.

I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”

I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…

I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…

Anyway.

Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.

Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)

One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.

“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.”
David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)

Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.

Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)

While this cover also gives away Thor’s hammer,
there’s also a lot of magical whimsy with the way
Luke ribbons his fire amidst the garden.

The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.

“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.”
Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.”
“What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.”
“Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately.
“I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)

It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.

It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.

“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.”
It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did.

[said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)

David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.

This style initially reminded me of the mosaics of Rome until I scoped out ancient Norse carving.

“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)

****

Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)

Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.

And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.

Sound familiar? It does to David.

The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)

This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.

Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.

When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.”
“Run for what?” said David.
“Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)

Now this cover’s got more of a Young Adult feel, what with the spitfire of Luke standing defiantly with his arms crossed and his firey hair blending with the flames surrounding him.

Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”

I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.

Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.

Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.

David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”

“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.

“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”

Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.

It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)

Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.

Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.

~STAY TUNED!~

I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing Says Farewell to #WyrdandWonder with #Wizard #Etiquette

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Hello, Friends! I wanted to run by with a quick hello while fleeing the wizards…and the essay grading, but mostly the wizards.

NOT THOSE WIZARDS!

Ahem. No no, just the wizards Diana Wynne Jones describes in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. As a final jaunt through her critical parody of fantasy writing for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder

–it is high time we take a look at the most powerful magic-wielders in any fantasy realm: the Wizard.

WIZARDS are normally intensely old. They live solitary lives, mostly in TOWERS or CITADELS, or in a special CITY which has facilities for study. They will have been studying MAGIC for centuries and, alas, the great majority have been seriously dehumanized by those studies. Two-thirds have become EVIL, possibly agents of the DARK LORD. The remaining GOOD one-third have become eccentrics or drunks or just very hard to understand. Evil or Good, Wizards are the strongest MAGIC USERS of all except for the DARK LORD and GODDESSES and GODS, and can usually be distinguished by the fact that they have long beards and wear ROBES.

You need to distinguish Wizards: if crossed, most Wizards get childishly offended and exact terrible revenge. Angry Wizards are likely to throw lumps of LANDSCAPE hither and thither, move MOUNTAINS, wave WEATHER systems about (see STORM CONTROL), hurl DEMONS, flood or bury CITIES, and pollute whole COUNTRIES with sleeting Magics. This is how the WIZARDS’ WAR seems to have come about: too many Wizards got too annoyed at once.

As a result, full-scale Magic Wars have been prohibited by the Rules. Nowadays most Wizards are bored. Evil ones have to occupy their time with BREEDING PROGRAMMES and plans to rein over the world. Good Wizards could not do this, and so the Tours have come as a godsend to them. Some Good Wizards can accompany the Tourists as MENTORS, and all of them have fun bossing the show and delivering PROPHECIES or cryptic advice. And the Management in its turn is grateful to the Wizards, both for making the Tours so interesting and for obligingly putting all teh Landscape back together again after each Final CONFRONTATION, so that the next Tour may visit Fantasyland and find it whole and entire, as if as always.

I do so love Jones’ take on the Wizards’ War consisting of a bunch of annoyed Wizards in a snit with one another. I can only imagine she had this in mind as she crafted the world around the country of Ingary and its own population of witches and wizards, many with temperaments liable to bring about pools of green ooze or something worse: a curse.

So, let us all keep in mind the importance of Wizard Etiquette, shall we? One never knows, after all, just who walks by us on the street…

HOW TO INTERACT WITH WIZARDS

Treat all Wizards with the utmost politeness, even if one of them is your Tour MENTOR and you are trying to bully her/him into providing some action or telling you something. Remember that Wizards do not need anything from you and do not like to be coerced. Even the smiling ones with bushy eyebrows are touchy on this point.


Evil Wizards are liable to immure you in ice, bury you alive, or just transmit you to the Breeding Pens as food for their MONSTERS. Be highly civil.


Good Wizards do not go so far. They will just remove your skin and then make you itch. Be very courteous.
Poor Wizards, who are back at MAGIC, need to be treated with even greater politeness, unctuously in fact. If they botch the SPELL they put you on in anger, they might turn you into

anything an then not be able to undo it. Positively crawl to these.

And, please, please, never attempt to seduce a female Wizard. The consequences can be terrible.

Thank you all so very much for travailing with me through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland! We didn’t get to all the people and places I had hoped (the Crone, oh heaven, the Crone!), but I’m thankful for how far we could go together. I can’t wait to spend June catching up with you as I teach summer school, university, and attend school for another Masters. I’m also excited share a few fun interviews, some music, some lessons learned, and God-willing, some WRITING.

But first…the larch. The. Larch.

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one. 🙂 I’m in such a loopy mood…ANYway, I just wanted to say I’ll be sharing a new Diana Wynne Jones analysis with you just as May departs us. The kiddos have been mightily enjoying our lunchtime read, and the last chapter awaits us tomorrow. What did we read? What did we learn? Stay tuned and find out!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#YAFantasy #Onsalenow to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder! Add #Magic, #Danger, and a #Vicious #DarkLady to your #WeekendReading.

Cheers, my friends, for it is Friday at long last! It might be a tad early for beer, but I think you’d like to share a tall order of joy with me. x

We’re deep, deep, deep into our Diana Wynne Jones read-aloud at home. Though the boys often ask for pictures from the story (and I answer, “Make the picture in your mind”), all the kids are happily enjoying the adventure. I’m hoping Blondie will take to the audio version of Howl’s Moving Castle due to arrive any day now in the library–yes, the libraries will be opening! REJOICE!–and maybe, just maybe, will want to read more Jones of her own accord.

Speaking of Jones, she’s got some delightfully delectable definitions of dastardly deviants and other d-words in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. We must begin, of course, with the dungeons I had mentioned last time.

DUNGEONS are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. If the Tourist being confined is lucky, there will be a small barred window too high up to reach, through which the contents of the moat trickle, and old straw on the ground. There will be a thick door (locked) with a small shutter in where what passes (only just) for FOOD can be thrown in at prisoners, generally dropping it tantalizingly an inch out of reach, and there will always be rings in the walls carrying chains and sometimes old bones too. It is all designed to make you feel low. There may even be scutterings that could be rats (but see ANIMALS). The average stay in such a place is, for Tourists, twenty-four hours. If the Dungeon is a pit of the type called an oubliette, on the other hand, you are justified in slight melancholy. It will be several days before someone lowers a rope to you and hauls you out.

Now while a town’s jail cell doesn’t sound all that intimidating, I can only imagine the dungeon of THE villain in Fantasyland would be another matter.

DARK LORD. There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS, of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black (see COLOUR CODING) and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on. You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your COMPANIONS, without too much effort. However, the Rules state that at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by MAGIC. So be careful.

No one’s voice carried menace quite like John Hurt (RIP)

Such Dark Lords are often the responsibility of whatever plagues the Fantasyland, for they are the root of all Danger.

DANGER is everywhere in Fantasyland. You will be in Danger from the first step you take on your Tour, starting with the intruder with a knife on your first night, then running through ASSASSINS and DEMONS on to WIZARDS and bad QUEENS and finally the DARK LORD–not to speak of AMBUSHES in between and subtle Dangers devised by ENCHANTRESSES. You will spend a lot of time fleeing. In order not to live in a state of perpetual abject Terror, you must remember that in Fantasyland, Danger has an actual SMELL (aka, Reek of Wrongness). Watch for this Smell. HORSES are good at detecting it. When there is any threat to safety, recognise what the Horses are sniffing and from then on you can relax until the moment you smell it.

All the talk of smelling danger got me thinking about my protagonist Charlotte in Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. She depends on her sense of smell not only to get accustomed to strange surroundings, but to alert her to danger…and help.

Charlotte breathes in as she steps down, the last passenger to get off the bus. Her nose tells her that the bus has leaked its gasoline all over the highway, that the man with the fry pan ears hasn’t bathed in days, and that a predator killed its prey somewhere in the surrounding forest two, if not three, days ago….

***
Charlotte sees seats of soft leather, new carpet, a bathroom, a table piled high with cakes and fruit and cans of soda. Yet all she smells is rot and blood. She shakes her head again and again, as if whatever gunk had died in her nose just needs to be blown out…

***
Charlotte lowers the blade. No, Arlen’s not the threat here, and neither’s
Dorjan. Dorjan could have ripped her to pieces, and Arlen could have poisoned her. And both bear a scent Charlotte long thought dead in the world: nobility.

Another d-word that got me thinking about Princeborn was Jones’ entry for a female villain.

DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.

I was honestly surprised by this one. A lead female villain was first and foremost on my mind for Princeborn.

Crack! The lowest branches split the trunk open, yet its brittle orange leaves refuse to fall. The white wood creaks and curves as it opens like a great flower, bends back, rejoins, and is made whole again. The tree has become a throne, and on it sits the Lady.

Hell of an entrance.

She’s draped in a silver dress that hangs limply around her shoulders. Her skin glows like the tree, her white-blond hair matchstick straight. She leans to the side and holds her chin in her hand. A long white finger traces her smile. “So. You are the outsider that intrigues my loyal adviser. Welcome.” She rises. “I am Orna, Lady of the Pits, Ruler of the River Vine Velidevour.”

Everyone bows—all except Cein, who beams with pride, and Charlotte, who doesn’t give a fuck. Even the branches demonstrate their fealty, bending low to crown her body in orange gold and form a stairwell to the ground.

Charlotte tilts the blood dagger so the Lady can see it reflect light off its steel feathers. “I want my sister back.”

Surely there are plenty of wicked women in fantasy literature, aren’t there? Are they always second bananas to the primary villain? I would love to hear your comments on this, if you have the chance. I know I’ve been quiet on my comments and yours lately, and I apologize. This new term is utilizing some sort of new learning software takes forever to use, so I’m constantly fielding student complaints while being unable to actually fix anything. It sucks, I don’t like it, let’s close this post out with a link to my novel that you can now purchase for 99 cents.

POSTING UPDATE: There’s been a gaff with Amazon over the sale. Please stay tuned for updates in future posts.

If you already own it, my deepest thanks for buying! If you’ve already left a review, YOU ARE AMAZING. If you haven’t had a chance to review it yet, now’s the time! I’ll be back here tomorrow with Blondie to celebrate her years upon this earth, and to likely discuss talking dogs, as they are just as awesome as dragons as far as Blondie’s concerned.

Gromit, of course, being the exception to the rule.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with #Writingtips from the #Imagination in the Wood

Happy Wednesday, all! Uffdah, it’s already been ten days of sharing dragons, bountyhunters, and love for the fantastical that authors like Diana Wynne Jones inspire us to create. In these days of life at home, nothing’s so precious to one’s sanity like imagination. Applying my own imagination to storytelling has been a life-saver for my mental health. One of those stories, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, will be on sale this weekend. You’re more than welcome to climb over The Wall and be lost from the world, if you so wish.

Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte runs away. She takes her bratty younger sister Anna with her, swearing to protect her. However, when their bus breaks down by a creepy old farm, the inconceivable happens—Anna is wiped from human memory.

But something inside Charlotte remembers. So she goes over the Wall in a frantic rescue attempt, accidentally awakening a once cruel but still dangerous prince, and gaining control of a powerful weapon, his magic dagger.

Charlotte’s only chance to save Anna hinges on her courage and an uneasy alliance with some of the very monsters that feed on humanity.

I also thank God every day that my kiddos have been blessed with creative spirits they have, because I’m pretty sure life here would be far more dire if they didn’t know how to escape these walls on their own. Jones understood all too well the lessons to be learned from a child’s imagination, and she shares those lessons in the essay “The Children in the Wood.”

Any book, whether realistic or fantasy, is a self-contained world with the reader in control (if you do not like the game the writer is playing, you can always stop reading). My feeling is that children got most from books which work along the same lines as they do—in other words, by ‘Let’s Pretend’. I am not saying that a fantasy needs to ape children’s games, but I do think it should be not unlike them in a number of important respects. Above all, it should be as exciting and engrossing as the games in the wood. I aim to be as gripped by a book I am writing as I hope any reader will be. I want to know what happens next. If it bores me, I stop. But a book has an additional asset: it seems to be real. If you say in a book that a certain thing is real, then in that book it is real. This is splendid, but it can also be a snare. I find I have to control any fantasy I write by constantly remembering the sort of things children do in their games.

Notice, for instance, that the children in the wood are very wisely not pretending too many things at once. They say ‘Pretend we’re all queens,’ or ‘Pretend we’re explorers,’ and part of the point of what follows is to find out what this entails. In the same way, I find it works best to suppose just one thing: Pretend you are a ghost, or Pretend your chemistry set works magic, or Pretend this dog is the Dog Star. Then I go on to explore the implications of this supposition. Quite often, I am totally surprised by the result.

Photo from Children and Nature

I also bear constantly in mind the fact that pretending is a thing most usefully done in groups….it is obvious that all other characters in a fantasy ought to be very real and clear and individual, and to interact profoundly—real, colourful people, behaving as people do. ..The third thing I bear in mind is the peculiar happiness of the children wandering in the wood. They are killing one another, terrifying one another and (as queens) despising one another and everyone else too. And they are loving it. This mixture of nastiness and happiness is typical of most children and makes wonderful opportunities for a writer. Your story can be violent, serious, and funny, all at once—indeed, I think it should be—and the stronger in all three the better. Fantasy can deal with death, malice and violence in the same way that the children in the wood are doing. You make clear that it is make-believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone. It is the way all fairy tales work.

But when all is said and done, there is an aspect to fantasy which defies description. Those children in the wood are going to grow up and remember that they played there. They will not remember what they were playing, or who pretended what. But they will remember the wood, and the big city all round it, in a special, vivid way. It does seem that a fantasy, working out on its own terms, stretching you beyond the normal concerns of your own life, gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you. At least, this is my idea of a fantasy, and I am always trying to write it.

May all who write fantasy aspire to do so…lest they be tossed into a dungeon and tortured! Mwa ha ha ha!

Say, that would be a good place to start our Fantasyland chat tomorrow…ahem. Anyway.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#LastDay for a #freeread! #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder with #freefiction and all those peculiar #fantasy #characters

Okay, I’m being a very naughty person right now, writing this while attending a virtual workshop on Google Classrooms, but it’s just, so, BORING. I mean, there’s no bountyhunters or sabotage in a talk about building quizzes.

(Though if you dig bountyhunters and mysteries trains, my historical fantasy is still free! Today is the LAST day, so grab it while you can!)

I just want to escape dull online meetings for that mysterious River Town, something akin to Diana Wynne Jones’ Fantasyland, and get lost among the townsfolk who don’t worry about Discussion Boards, Rubrics, or Co-Teaching.

Art by Ryan Lowe

Perhaps I’ll wander the Market, watching merchants gather from nearby towns to sell their hometowns’ specialties. Artisans show their wares while bossing around their apprentices.

MERCHANTS—when freelance—travel from an unknown place in the south northwards to another uncertain place. They own CARAVANS loaded with BALES. And they love MONEY. This must be the reason so many of them travel, because nearly all of them fall by the wayside, victims of BANDITS or other AMBUSHES, and the rest must know the risk. But they keep coming. Individual Merchants are portly, warmly dressed, and rather prone to trust hired GUARDS on small evidence. While alive, they drive a hard bargain. Many of them travel with young female relatives. This is unwise. See SLAVES, FEMALE.

APPRENTICES are people who are training for a trade or skill, which means they are usually quite young and bad at what they do. Most of the time they are like nurses during an operation, being there only to hand the master his tools. They seem to have to do this for a good many years before they get to do anything more interesting, and it is therefore not surprising that some of them get restless and either try to do the interesting stuff themselves or simply run away and join the Tour. The Rules state that if an Apprentice tries to do the interesting stuff on her/his own it will blow up in her/his face. If she/he runs away, she/he will learn all sorts of things very quickly and also probably prove to be the MISSING HEIR to a Kingdom. Surprisingly, very few Apprentices do run away. If you have one on your Tour, you are in for an eventful time.

Oh dear. Well if the Apprentice is blowing up the workshop, I should maybe get that kid out for a break at the Inn. I’ll buy him a pint, so long as the Innkeeper will serve an outsider.

INNKEEPERS are all so alike that the Tourist may be pardoned for thinking she/he has not moved from one INN to the next. Innkeepers are tall, fat, male, aproned, busy, and normally jovial. They are there to serve and shout order to barmaids. They take everything in their stride, from STRANGE RACES and TAVERN BRAWLS to peculiar requests from Tourists with awkward SECRETS to conceal. They seldom otherwise intrude on the action. They are always too busy. It is not known when these admirable men find time to eat or sleep.

The Apprentice calms down after a pint, though he’s still smoking a bit. The Innkeeper’s third chin wiggles a bit while he slides a mug to a darkened corner of the tavern. Who goes there?

ASSASSINS are numerous and widespread. They are said to be very good at their job, which is of course killing people for money, and to proceed on all occasions with strict regard to law and protocol. From one-third of the way through your Tour onwards, you may expect someone to have paid an Assassin to slaughter you. The traditional venue of this murder is a townhouse (Assassins, for some reason, do not operate in open country) or WHARF, so be on your guard in these places. But do not lose sleep over it. As the Assassin approaches you will get a sense of wrongness or feeling of being watched, and this should alert you in time. Once alert, you will find it surprisingly easy to kill this practiced killer. He will die protesting that you broke some Rule or other.

Dammit, now I have to pay the Innkeeper for the drinks AND the cleanup.

Still, I dump some money and drag the Apprentice out before he can whine for a third pint. A beggar notices I have money, so of course takes to poking my boots with his walking stick. For a blind pirate, he sure has a keen sense of his surroundings.

BEGGARS are to be found in all major CITIES, always wearing rags and often with hideous deformities. They will pester Tourists for money from the City gates onwards. As soon as the City comes under SIEGE, however, all Beggars vanish. The Management has prudently withdrawn them for use in other Cities along the Tourist routes. This makes sense. Beggars would only be in the way during the fighting.

I’ll have to slide my remaining coins into my boot, because there’s eyes a’plenty watching me pay, and I’m not keen to lose my boat-fare for the way home.

THIEVES’ GUILD. The Thieves’ Guild exists to transfer wealth but not to distribute it. Its members are pickpockets, burglars, robbers, fences, and housebreakers, but never muggers. The Guild claims to be a body of artists. All its members profess horror at violence (but are quite proficient fighters all the same) and pride themselves on bringing off robberies in apparently impregnable TREASURE stores, on picking locks, and on climbing smooth walls. You will be taken to see the Guildmaster, who rejoices in such NAMES as The Faceless Man or The Gentleman, at some point when your Tour visits a City.

I have to lose myself among the townspeople. Surely they can’t ALL be cut-throats and miscreants, can they?

AVERAGE FOLK are any people inhabiting the continent who are not specifically mentioned in the list of PEOPLES. They are not precisely normal all the same. Those who are not ASSASSINS, BEGGARS, or THIEVES will be INNKEEPERS, MERCHANTS, or peasants, and therefore they are busy trying to either rob you, rub you out, or cheat you. The rest will be fully occupied being taxed out of existence or dealing with a variety of magical nuisances. Otherwise they are rather like you, give or take a few hideous sores, gnarled hands, and suspicious scowls. Do not expect help or sympathy from any of them.

Looks like I have to escape my own little fantasy visit just to make sure I’m not left destitute in some alley. Jeez, for once it’s safer with my kids and their Lego wars. Legend has it, however, that a child of golden hair has the ability to capture a dragon’s likeness upon the page. I think we’ll seek that child out tomorrow to learn what breeds she’s studied so far…

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with #Clothing

Anybody else have to do laundry on Mother’s Day? I did my best setting the twins off to put away clothes while Blondie helped me fold. The job got done…eventually. Bo grilled despite the snow/rain outside, so our tummies were warm and full by the end of the day. 🙂

All that laundry yesterday got me thinking about which Tough Guide to Fantasy Land highlights I wanted to share today for Wyrd and Wonder.

There are many world-building curiosities DWJ clearly had fun poking at in her book, attire being one of them.

CLOTHING. Although this varies from place to place, there are two absolute rules:

  1. Apart from ROBES, no garment thicker than a SHIRT ever has sleeves.
  2. No one ever wears SOCKS.
    See also CLOAKS, COSTUME, and KNITTING.

COSTUME. It is a curious fact that, in Fantasyland, the usual Rules for CLOTHING are reversed. Here, the colder the climate, the fewer the garments worn. In the SNOWBOUND NORTH, the BARBARIAN HORDES wear little more than a fur loincloth and copper wristguards (see CHILBLAINS and HYPOTHERMIA). However, as one progresses south to reach the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS, one finds VESTS and BOOTS added to this costume. Further south still, the inhabitants of the VESTIGIAL EMPIRE wear short SKIRTS and singlets and add to this a voluminous wrapper on cold days. Thereafter, clothing steadily increases in thickness and quantity, until one finds the DESERT NOMADS in the tropics muffled to the eyebrows in layers of ROBES (see HEATSTROKE).

UNDERWEAR is optional and largely nonexistent. It is believed that some form of loincloth or drawers is sometimes permitted, but the Management is naturally coy on this subject. Bras are certainly unknown, but in the case of dancing girls may be replaced by sequined things with tassels.

SOCKS are never worn in Fantasyland. People thrust their feet, usually unwashed, straight into BOOTS.

BOOTS. In Fantasyland these are remarkable in that they seldom or never wear out and are suitable for riding or walking in without the need of SOCKS. Boots never pinch, rub, or get stones in them; nor do nails stick upwards into the feet from the soles. They are customarily mid-calf length or knee-high, slip on and off easily, and never smell of feet. Unfortunately, the formula for making this splendid footwear is a closely guarded secret, possibly derived from nonhumans (see DWARFS, ELVES, and GNOMES).

Ah, sharing Diana Wynne Jones always brings a smile to m’face. We’ll see how the antics with our schooling at home help me choose tomorrow’s selection. In the meantime, stay healthy and keep on walkin’!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Another Escape From This #LifeatHome, Plus Other Updates On Goals for #SchoolatHome And #WriteatHome

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Yet another spring day of sunshine, robins, aaaaaaaaaaaand that s’mores cake just sitting in the fridge, callin’ my name…

How are you, Friends? I’m not quite as grumpy as I was last week, but honestly, I’m still feeling pretty downtrodden. The extension doesn’t allow for nonessential travel, and…gosh, can’t time outside’n’elsewhere be considered essential? Please?

I found this shot of Silver Lake, which is near one of Bo’s favorite places.

Escape through photography is one thing–there are plenty of amazing nature photographers out there capturing intimate moments in the wilderness.

Stunning find #1 from Wisconsin photographer E. Ebeling!
Stunning find #2 from Wisconsin photographer E. Ebeling!
Stunning find #3 from Wisconsin photographer E. Ebeling!

Unfortunately, we can’t just take my family on a walk through the park. Parks have playgrounds, and playgrounds are still off-limits. This led to Bo and I brainstorming our day-trip to the graveyards–four, to be exact. We visited the graves of grandparents and parents buried in dilapidated Catholic plots, forgotten farmland sites, suburban stone-less grids, and MANSIONS!

Doesn’t that look like a mansion? It’s got this huge church in it, and castle-like sitting room, and crypts, and statues, and a Hall of Presidents, and I’ll stop rambling so you can just see for yourself in the gallery on their page. The kids actually had quite a bit of fun on this graveyard run, looking for the really old graves, checking out all the unique names in the mausoleums, admiring the veteran statues, and simply loving the warm, windy day.

Brighter days have led to Biff’s pleas being answered at last: I got the bikes down. After a couple of weeks with training wheels, Biff’s soaring off on his two-wheeler…

Bash is so, so close to Biff as far as speed and balance, but once again anxiety has been rearing its ugly head, and Bash panics the moment I let go of him and falls. He’s made his feelings quite clear on the subject.

Bash’s teacher sent a phone book’s pile of worksheets to be completed this month, while Biff’s teacher simply emptied the boy’s desk into a plastic bag aaaand that’s it. So…is Biff done, but not his brother? Oh, Biff’s expected to keep doing stuff online. Soooo is Bash. Then do we both with these worksheets or not?!?!

The school crap’s getting old, people. I’m not going to just throw in the towel like a professor with just one first-grader, but the utter disconnect between expectations from the boys’ teachers is frustrating. I’ve tweaked the school schedule yet again to try and get through as much of their work in the morning as possible, with Bible History, Math, Reading, and Writing as our daily core and then ending on a special, like Science, Geography, Art, or History. I overlap whenever possible–drawing maps, for instance, or building something like people did in the olden days (they want to build a fort like a cathedral now–thanks, Nova!)

But because the boys each have such different things they’re supposed to do for each subject, even these few things take time with the play breaks they need throughout the morning. It’s all I can do to keep up with them while, yes, once again Blondie has to tend to herself. Thankfully, this doesn’t perturb her too much; she chats with her friends online via the school computer while completing assignments. Any connection to friends beats fighting with little brothers any day, yes? I’m also impressed with a theme in her writing over the spring involving these dog/dragon/ghost folk building their own planet for alien tourism.

Now I just need to get her back to her Alley Heroes, am I right? 🙂

Speaking of writing: yes, I’m doing my best. I’ve submitted a short story to my university’s literary journal, and I’m still writing another I hope to share with you. The idea came from a very vile looking park bench and a pair of towns I’ve passed through many times in my life; Ashippun, and Old Ashippun. Two communities, very near one another, and yet they have very different feels about them. The idea of a town starting in one place only to be abandoned for the sake of progress stuck with me, and I hope to put that sense of (dis)place into my WIP, “Hungry Mother.”

“What’s that?”

Nicole carefully places the Bella Café sticker over the tell-tale yellow arches. “My coffee,” she tells the child. “Want some?” Please don’t want some, Christ your teeth look like rocks.

The girl tucks a few greasy strands of hair behind her ear, revealing the rest of her lopsided face. No doctor could save that face. “Nah. I’m waiting for the water.” She points to the old water pump in the middle of the park.

Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of arborvitaes is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes, and that yes is due any minute.

“Don’t you have water at home?” Nicole can’t imagine allowing her own daughter to play in this rundown park, let alone drink water from some forsaken pump. Carl and his skank Sandra probably would. I bet they don’t even follow my rules for brushing her hair.

The child plucks a centipede off Nicole’s bench. With all the bird-crap and graffiti littering the park’s picnic shelter, Nicole had been forced to pick a bench out among the tired, mushroom-eaten pines, and even this bench has quite a few cuts and words scrawled on it. “It’s not the same,” the child says, watching the bug travel from one muddy hand to another.

Nicole brings her Serenity Cloth to her face as though to dab a drop of coffee, but really she just needs to breathe the lavender oil and think, Christ kid stop touching that thing and take a bath. Where is your mother? “Would anyone across the street be able to help?” Not that there’s much to look at across any street in Old Sanctuary. Crawling vines of small red flowers cover almost every building surrounding the central park—post office, gas station, all of it. Only the trailer park sign looks new:

THERE’S NEW LIFE AT OLD SANCTUARY ESTATES! JOIN US TODAY!

New life. What a joke.

Two people stand by the sign in casual conversation: an old man as grimy as the child, and a woman around Nicole’s age…clean, that’s all Nicole knows without seeing the woman’s face. The dress looks like some over-bleached 90s relic cut and sewn for a slightly better fit. A woman like that’ll value her dollars, will try to take care of things herself, won’t bother with big names telling her what to do, like stores or doctors. Perfect.

The child releases the centipede on the bench. It crawls over the words MY PRETTY GIRL IN RED AND CURLS and stops next to Nicole’s left thigh.

Nicole sweeps herself up, dress spinning as she grabs her ___ bag and laughs nervously. “Well you have fun with…” she almost points to the centipede, then spots CURLS. “Say, maybe your momma can put your hair in curls today. Won’t that be pretty?”

The child shakes her head. “It’s talking about you.” The child hobbles over to the broken swings and flops forward to lay her stomach on the seat, her legs and arms dangling like a spider from a thread.

Hopefully I can keep this piece under 1.5K so it fits more easily with magazine submission guidelines. In the meantime, I’ve pulled Middler’s Pride off of Channillo and hope to revamp it for an ebook later this year…or 2021. I should probably be realistic with my timeline here, as I, too, am going to be in school.

Yup.

I’m going back to school.

In order to make myself look more awesome for a full-time gig, I’m going back for another Masters degree, this time in instructional design. It’s an accelerated track, which means I’ll be in the crunch for eighteen months or thereabouts. I’m praying this won’t hinder my ability to blog too much, buuuuuuut I better be realistic with myself here.

Still. This academic journey doesn’t start until June, so we have some time to edit a novel. Write a story. Email a friend. Discover new music. Hug a child. Trade fart jokes. Wash a chalk-covered stuffie. Steal Easter candy. Read a book. Drink coffee. Savor tea.

Take one day at a time, and pray for things to change for the better.

~STAY TUNED!~

It’s high time I share something from something I’ve read, wouldn’t you say? ‘Tis the month of Wyrd and Wonder, after all!

Or perhaps we shall return to that Star Wars swamp. We’ll see what the kids allow me to do. x

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 4: #sidelining strong #villains of the #story for the sake of #razzledazzle #cliché.

Happy Monday, one and all! Yes, I know I’m a day late, but I’ve got the best of reasons: I got to spend ALL of Friday with Blondie at her Parent Visitation Day. No calls from the boys’ principal this time. Just me sharing hugs and silly faces with Blondie during her classes and scribbling “Captain Poop” on the name slot of her Spelling Test because I’m mature like that.

It was worth putting off the pile of grading and my interactions with you all because when you’ve got little loves in your life, you’ve got to make every hug count.

So, now that the brunt of grading has been completed and I’ve successfully ignored all calls to substitute teach in this county, let’s wrap up our look at The Force Awakens and prepare for our shift into The Last Jedi with a little talk about villains.

As far as Disney’s sequel Star Wars trilogy is concerned, I consider the villains to be at their strongest in The Force Awakens because they had the most potential here. Each villain has a unique look, sense of purpose in body language, and dialogue that consistently carries the story along. Each had a strong mix of elements that could leave lasting impressions on readers.

THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.

Robert McKee

A big reason Episodes I-VI are still loved today is the cast of antagonists. Darth Vader was other-worldly with his powers and costume, yet impossibly human when he tells Luke he’s his father. The Emperor, a specter of white skin beneath a black hood, didn’t just carry power in his Force lightning, but in his voice, his speeches chipping away at Luke’s hope until the final showdown when Vader finds redemption in saving his son. The prequels take those two villains and re-cast them as protagonists, revealing the roads taken that transform Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader and Senator Palpatine into…well okay, Palpatine was also evil in the prequels, but he wore the good-guy disguise. We were still watching that transformation of shedding the good-guy pretense and becoming the Emperor.

In both trilogies, there were transformations at work. The heroes were growing, yes, but so were the villains, and THAT is just as important if not moreso.

Rather than spending your creativity trying to invent likable, attractive aspects of protagonist and world, build the negative side to create a chain reaction that pays off naturally and honestly on the positive dimensions.

Robert McKee

In any story, there must be a clear sense of cause and effect: if the hero does something, that’ll ripple over to the villain in X way. If the villain does something, it’s going to impact hero like Y. Audiences are quickly bored with a villain that simply twirls his mustaches and goes right on with the same schemes that tried and failed before.

Much as we all love Snidely Whiplash’s mustaches, the whole take-the-girl-to-the-tracks-thing gets real old real fast.

Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.

Captain Phasma

A female storm trooper of authority–something audiences had not yet seen in Star Wars. Phasma had a cold-blooded voice and towering presence that could make anyone run for cover. The actress’ screen time in Game of Thrones proved she was capable of combat and other feats of bad-assery, so audiences expected to see some wicked work done by this daunting leader of First Order troops.

But it’s awfully hard to effectively show how bad-ass you are when you’re not even in the story for two whole minutes.

No joke. These are all her scenes in the first film.

For a character that looks like she should have plenty of conflict potential with Finn, the Storm Trooper Turned Good, we get practically nothing. The character is relegated to a few snippets of dialogue and a bit of fan service with the “trash compactor.”

Supreme Leader Snoke

Ah, the character that bred a thousand fan theories… Snoke’s hardly in the film–like Emperor Palpatine, Snoke only appears in hologram communication in this first film. Like Phasma, Snoke looks good. The towering projection of him dominates not only the villains of the film showing who’s in charge, but looms over audiences, too, freaking them out with his deformities twisted by shadows and ghostly light. Kylo Ren and General Hux are both eager for his approval, which adds an extra layer of conflict among the antagonists.

Not bad, right? A bunch of yes-men in uniforms quickly makes for dull viewing. Intrigue in the ranks is a great way to sneak in extra plot twists, shifts in power, etc. Mystery never hurts, either. This Snoke guy must be pretty powerful if he heads The First Order (wherever they came from), and if he’s trained Kylo Ren in the ways of the Dark Side, he’s got to be a powerful Force user, too. As much as I hate seeing too many Mystery Boxes in one film, JJ Abrams knew what he was doing in planting just enough information about Snoke to intrigue audiences and keep them talking about a character who’s only on screen for a few minutes.

General Hux

Just as Vader had a very old Peter Cushing (I mean, Grand Moff Tarkin. Look, I only knew him as Peter Cushing even as a kid, okay? Peter Cushing was AWESOME and don’t let anyone tell you different.), Kylo Ren had a military counterpart that worked with him as much as he worked against him. The General Hux character of Force Awakens is sharp, curt, quick to please his Supreme Leader as he is to put down anyone beneath him. Ambition oozes from his body language and dialogue, especially in his speech to the troops.

The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized…story must become.

Robert McKee

Again, there is potential here. This is a character that feeds on power, thrives on stepping over the masses groveling at his feet. General Hux is no Force user, but he has forces of thousands at his command. Should a character like he choose to clash with one like Kylo Ren and/or even Snoke, there could be some fascinating political theater here. He’s a powerful speaker, for instance–he could persuade legions to follow him. Trick troops into thinking they’re carrying out Snoke’s commands. Pit lower-ranked commanders against one another. This general looked and sounded capable of all of this. Had the movies followed through on these established traits, they would have had some mischievously tricky plot threads to bind audiences to future stories.

Kylo Ren

For those who don’t know, Kylo Ren was born Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. In The Force Awakens, Ren is seen not to revere not his parents, but his grandfather, Darth Vader. For him, the temptation is from The Light, not Dark Side. He led other Padawans to become The Knights of Ren and destroy Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple and almost killed Luke Skywalker in the process. Some of this echoes the character arc of the now non-canonical Jacen Solo of several Star Wars novels, son of Han and Leia, TWIN BROTHER of sister Jaina who starts as his ally and ends his enemy.

Empathetic means “like me.” Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity.

Robert McKee

So, so many of us have fought against that “which is in our blood,” have struggled to be anything BUT our parents, yearned to be something bigger than ourselves. More than any other character, it is Kylo Ren with whom audiences connect. No one condones his determination to remain on the Dark Side, but audiences fight for his redemption, even here, because they know who his parents are. Even after Kylo Ren kills his own father, audiences know there is “good in him” like Luke knew there was good in Vader. Audiences want to see this character succeed–not as a villain, but as a villain-turned-good.

So.

What went wrong?

Death Star 3.0, for starters.

Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels.

Robert McKee

The dissonance is subtle at first, but it swells quickly. For all the hype over Captain Phasma, it occurs to us in her last scene with Finn that she’s hardly done anything throughout the story. For all the booming threats from Hux, he becomes inept when he himself is faced with a threat. For all the “Ye GODS” Force-wielding moments Kylo Ren has early in the film, by movie’s end he can barely duel Rey, who’s never held a lightsaber in her life.

But the worst offender by far is that Starkiller Base. You and I know it as Death Star 3.0 because that is PRECISELY what it f’ing is.

What Abrams and/or Disney thought could be pulled with this stunt, I do not know. George Lucas succeeded with his reveal in the first Star Wars because it hadn’t been done before.

Thus begins the required “I have a bad feeling about this” line to be uttered in many, many, MANY more movies to come…

Even the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi feels redundant, but because Emperor Palpatine is on board, audiences are willing to set aside the déjà vu and see how this new conflict unfolds.

“But look!” Disney seems to say. “This time it’s a whoooole planet and it can blow up a bunch of planets at once! It’s bigger, better, more blastier than ever!”

Yuh huh. No it’s not.

Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media… The cause of this worldwide epidemic is simple and clear; the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.

Robert McKee

All four villains in The Force Awakens had the potential to become something special in the Star Wars universe. Each had characteristics and made choices that affected a protagonist, creating promising conflict for the upcoming films. Had Disney’s “creative team” followed the antagonists’ choices to the logical next step, they could have given audiences thrilling adventures with minimal cases of déjà vu.

But Disney wasn’t about making something new, at least not with The Force Awakens. They wanted something that would ignite the nostalgia in my generation and engage my generation’s children to invest their time, money, and Christmas lists in whatever Disney slapped the Star Wars seal on. I have no doubt that JJ Abrams and any other director involved with Star Wars sincerely enjoys the classic adventures in the galaxy far, far away. But the potential of their Mystery Boxes, villains, and heroes was crushed beneath the demands of The Mouse’s Committee.

Heed this, writers, and heed it well. When a writer doesn’t take time to explore the potential of his own story-world, instead choosing to depend on what is considered “a sure thing” in the publishing industry, a writer ends up no only disappointing audiences but his own storytelling spirit. Never is this clearer when an antagonist’s traits are altered, choices limited, or ambitions doused for the sake of a trend or gimmick. As author Michael Scott once told me:

I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal…I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.

Do not damage the potential of your own story’s villain for the sake of pleasing some committee. Know your story. Know what drives the Dark so that you may better create its counterpart in the Light. If you ignore one, the other’s arc will burn to inconsequential ash.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’ll see if I can get Blondie to say what she’s been up to, Miss “I want to write book reviews on my own website!” xxxxx I’ve also got some choice words about the state of literacy in Wisconsin, few of them good.

Or we might just talk about mental health. Or music. Frankly my mind’s so fried from grading I’m amazed this post got written.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #robertmckee and #starwars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 2: #TheForceAwakens to #MissedOpportunity

Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever.

Robert McKee

November. The media blitz is on to promote Rise of Skywalker, the third installment in Disney’s sequel trilogy in Star Wars. Kathleen Kennedy, the current head of Lucasfilm, is interviewed by Rolling Stone to discuss the films and their challenges. When asked about writing the third film to close the arc, Kennedy says:

Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.

Kathleen Kennedy to Rolling Stone, November 2019

It seems a curious line, to specifically point out how Star Wars has no comic books. A dig, perhaps, at the Marvel films and aaaaaaaaaaaall those comic story lines at the screenwriters’ disposal for adapting into film?

Or did Kennedy forget Star Wars DID have comics and novels–decades worth, in fact?

In 2014, Disney officially announced all the published Expanded Universe (EU) stories of the Star Wars universe were no longer canon. All the adventures that took place after Darth Vader hurled the Emperor into the abyss were gone.

For folks like my friends and brothers who had read the comics and novels, this was a serious blow to the gut. For more casual fans like myself, who grew up with the movies and the goofy spin-off cartoons–

R2-D2 is HILARIOUS in these. A big favorite with my droid-lovin’ kiddos.
The theme song got better…eventually.

–I wasn’t angry so much as confused. If the cartoons can pull one or two tertiary characters from the original trilogy and build successful stories around them, why was it so important to blow up the ENTIRE EU and all its storylines? Each one had already undergone serious testing with lovers of sci-fi, let alone Star Wars. It’s not like all the storylines had potential for film adaptation, but surely a few had promise, right?

But Disney didn’t want to continue the saga in the galaxy far, far away as other creators had seen it. They wanted their Star Wars to be like the Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s, only different enough so they could make the most money with the least amount of change.

The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.

Robert McKee

Enter The Force Awakens.

Damn, if that teaser STILL doesn’t give me chills. We have a panicked Storm Trooper–a human, panicking Storm Trooper. This isn’t just some eleventh generation of clones from the prequels, but a person, and this person looks sincerely scared. For the casual fans like myself, this had never been seen before. The first few seconds of this teaser promised audiences a new kind of Star Wars story. Throw in a new droid, renegade girl, and an X-Wing pilot, sure, but the real compliment to that opening new thing was the climactic-yet-familiar thing: the Millennium Falcon fighting TIE Fighters. Over the course of roughly 90 seconds, the teaser promises audiences a balance of familiar and unfamiliar to create a new Star Wars story.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into an analysis of all the trailers. It just felt important to show that in 2015, The Force Awakens looked extremely promising to the fans who grew up with the first six films, and now have toy-loving children who of course have seen those films, too. After Disney had yanked the EU, devoted fans like my brothers were excited to see what Disney wanted to put in its place. Considering the cool work they’d done bridging the gap between prequels and original trilogy with Star Wars: Rebels, Disney had a lot of audience goodwill in their favor, visible in all the Cosplay and YouTubers whooping with light sabers as they prepped their own audiences for movie reviews.*

Then folks saw the movie.

Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible…we don’t want to hit the same note over and over…. They key to varying a repetitious cadence is research. Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling. With authorial knowledge we can prepare a feast of pleasures.

Robert McKee

Many were thrilled to see a style more like the original trilogy than the CGI-infested prequels. However, many–me included–felt a very strange deja vu. Echos, if you will, that felt too like what’s come before. And we felt it before the opening scrawl had departed for the stars.

Luke Skywalker has vanished. Woah! The only known Jedi in this new series was officially missing? How? What happened? One sentence in, the audience’s curiosity is piqued. But then we keep reading: In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

Hold on.

So, that whole chucking-the-Emperor-into-the-abyss didn’t kill the Empire? Hmm. Well, it’s just the head of state. Big Bureaucracy like that could probably run for a bit without the head. But if this First Order is looking for Luke, then they must not be responsible for his absence. So is there another villain here? What’s going on?

The scrawl goes on: With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

So…ok. the Republic of the prequels is back now, but there’s still a First Order that came out of the Empire. If Leia’s leading the Resistance, that must mean the First Order has more power than the Republic, I guess? Who’s even in the Republic? Wouldn’t the First Order technically be the minority, the underdog?

We’ve defined setting in terms of period, duration, location, and level of conflict. These four dimensions frame the story’s world, but to inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, cliché-free story, you must fill that frame with a depth and breadth of detail.

Robert McKee

Herein lies the next major mistake Disney made with Star Wars: they wanted all the same stakes of the original trilogy without putting in the effort to bring the galaxy to that point. People like Rebel Princess Leia, so keep her in that position. People liked the baddie Empire, so make a new Empire. People liked the Death Star, so let’s make a new one. How the First Order–consisting from, as the scrawl said, the “ashes” of the Empire–has the might they do to build huge fleets and planet-killers is never explained. Why doesn’t the Republic have its own army? At the very least it’d have reused whatever’s left from the Empire…unless the First Order took ALL of that? So then what the heck is in the Republic, and why are they separate from the Resistance?

Time never moves without effect. Years have passed since Return of the Jedi, and yet good and evil are right back where they were. History may be cyclical, but something must happen to reset the cycle.

Disney never shares that something with us. It’s as if they hit the reset button on a video game, selecting different faces and places, but leaving the stakes the same.

However, as my husband Bo reminds me, there’s only so much one can pack in the first movie. Backstory can always help explain things later in the narrative arc, when a breather in action is needed. So at this point, audiences have to hope for a quiet moment with a sage-like character–Leia, perhaps, since she’s the only one the scrawl tells us is present–to clue audiences and new characters in as to how the galaxy ended up the way it did. A scene with some exposition could better clarify why the stakes are what they are so audiences can care about the characters involved in those stakes. This didn’t have to happen in The Force Awakens, but the opportunity was there in one of the first characters audiences see: the scared Storm Trooper from the teaser.

The opening scene echoes the entrance of the black-cloaked figure in a mask, Kylo Ren. The daring pilot’s hidden the clue to Skywalker in his droid, BB-8, and sends him off…He wants the map to Skywalker from what the title scrawl calls an “old ally”–not anyone we’d have actually seen in the first six films, mind you. Just Max von Sydow talking to Adam Driver (Kylo) like they had a history…not that we know any of this history…

As a story opens, the audience, consciously or instinctively, inspects the value-charged landscape of world and characters, trying to separate good from evil, right from wrong…. The worst of people believe themselves good. Hitler thought he was the savior of Europe.

Robert McKee

It doesn’t take much to see the evil masked people killing the good guys. But one, one does stand out: a Storm Trooper who runs to assist one of his dying comrades, the dying man putting a bloody hand to the other’s helmet and streaking it with blood. The Storm Trooper pulls back, and you can see the panic in his body language. He no longer lifts a gun when ordered.

We see a Storm Trooper, always the symbol of order and Empire, breaking free.

THAT gets our attention. Something is different with this character. A Storm Trooper turning good? Maybe we could learn about the First Order through this character! Audiences fixate upon this character who clearly questions his masters, who fears the life he’s in. As McKee calls it in Story, this Storm Trooper, named Finn by the pilot, becomes our Center of Good in the first ten minutes.

Only we’re diverted after that to Rey, a lone girl on a desert planet doing the same thing day in, day out…kind of like a farm boy on Tatooine, methinks…scavenging crashed ships for parts, dreaming of a life elsewhere. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the first scene with Rey does a beautiful job telling the story of her life without her saying a word. A quick montage of her day, and we know what her life’s been like living in a hollowed out Walker.

So…so where is our Center of Good? Are we following the Storm Trooper, or the scavenger?

Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role. If not, the Center of Good decenters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.

Robert McKee

Rey is, from the start, a good character. She helps the BB-8 droid without knowing who it is, she doesn’t sell it off when that would easily give her enough food for months. She’s consistently nice and helpful.

Finn, however, was clearly raised to be a mindless soldier. He’s been conditioned to follow orders and kill without mercy, yet this guy doesn’t. Despite his environment and all that he knows, he is different. And that, by definition, makes him stand out. It makes him unique.

It makes audiences want to see him as the Center of Good, to overcome the old identity of Storm Trooper and discover who he truly is.

Fine writing puts less stress on what happens than on to whom it happens and why and how it happens.

Robert McKee

By the time we see Storm Trooper Finn again, he helps break out the imprisoned pilot so they can both get off the vast, fancy, well-stocked star destroyer. Their ship is struck, and Finn wakes to find himself alone in the wreckage. He takes the pilot’s abandoned jacket and wanders the desert until he stumbles upon the village where Rey and the droid are. Finn tells them what happens, and takes on the guise of being a Resistance fighter. When Troopers and Fighters come, he doesn’t simply run from his old life. He protects the droid his pilot friend wanted to rescue and the girl whom the droid’s befriended.

TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.

Robert McKee

These are the kinds of choices that engaged fans like me in The Force Awakens: the Storm Trooper breaking free of his old coding to join the fight for good and, in consequence, discover his own self-worth. I would have loved to learn more about the First Order way of life through Finn’s memories. I would have loved to see Finn reach out to those he cared about, like the dying Storm Trooper in the first scene, and see if other Troopers were capable of finding the good within. I would have loved to see Finn’s potential with a light saber as shown on the movie’s poster.

Fans were excited for something new, and a story of a Storm Trooper Turning Good would have been dazzlingly new as far as these cinematic episodes go. We were ready to follow a classic story in a familiar galaxy with this unique character.

CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.

Robert McKee

Alas, it was not meant to be.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

You know, I really hoped I could do one film per blog post, but there is just waaaaaaaay too much to cover regarding plot holes, characterization, and antagonists. Since I have students submitting projects this week, I’ll likely save the next Force Awakens post on worldbuilding and plot holes for later. I think we could all use a music break, right? Who doesn’t love a trip into a land fantastic, rich in history and ripe for adventure?

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

*Video game and movie critic Mauler has an excellent series on The Last Jedi. While his The Force Awakens series remains unfinished, I still recommend what he’s done so far, especially since his thoughts on the world-building problems inspired me to share my own.