#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.

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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.

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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.

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 1: the ignored blueprints of #StarWarsRebels.

But  the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.  

Robert Mckee, Story

It’s an opening as known as Once upon a time. It’s the sort of opening to calls upon readers to leave the reality they know and enter a story both of the future and of the past—a hero’s journey, a villain’s redemption, a coming of age, a coming together of hearts, of friends…

…and Ewoks.

In other words: timeless. (Except maybe for The Battle for Endor, but anyway.)

The dialogue over Disney’s contributions to the Star Wars universe has been….well, a pretty shitty one. We’ve reached the point where Star Wars fans are like the Yooks and Zooks of Dr. Seuss’ The Great Butter Battle, and if you know that story, you know it doesn’t end well for anyone.

So let’s just put aside our Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos for a second, lean against the wall à la Charlie Brown–

–and talk like storytellers. Not as rabid fans, or haters, or menaces, or warriors. Just people who love crafting good stories as much as they love experiencing them. And what better way to focus on the craft than by utilizing wisdom from one of the most revered voices in storytelling?

Robert McKee has been a revered voice in Hollywood for decades, as he’s taught notable storytellers like Peter Jackson, Paul Haggis, and William Goldman. His book Story is one of the few texts I’ve kept from my hellish graduate school days, as it utilizes films from several different genres to show how smart writing with character development, tension, and scene structure can build a powerful story with which audiences can connect.

It is with McKee’s craft lessons in Story I’d like to discuss the flaws that plague Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. As storytellers, I think we can all agree on some pretty important things are necessary to make a strong story, and therefore understand certain choices that both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson made with their installments. To be clear,I’m not going to bash either director. On the contrary, I think both brought some positive elements to Star Wars that shouldn’t be dismissed just because you don’t agree with all of their other creative choices.

No, the flaw lies in the foundation of the sequel trilogy. Like the parable of the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand, the recent Star Wars trilogy was built without a solid foundation. In other words, the creative powers of Disney failed to do the necessary worldbuilding—galaxy-building, if you will—for the stakes of the new trilogy to appeal to audiences old or new.

In this blog series, I’m going to utilize McKee’s words on story craft to break down where the sequel trilogy’s potential shines as well as where it dims. Every film has its moments, so I’m not going to dwell for a thousand words on one and then just rush through another.

And the truly tragic part? This could have aaaaaaall been avoided had Disney stuck with what it already built.

Story is about originality, not duplication.

Robert McKee, Story

Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rights to Star Wars in 2012, and by 2014 had created its own original storyline in the Star Wars Universe. The story was set between the prequels and original trilogy, a time when the Empire are hunting down any surviving Jedi and the Rebellion is slowly beginning to form.

Star Wars: Rebels ran for just four seasons, but in that time gained a solid following of fans, a good merchandise line, and even splinter stories in books and comics. The cast was a mix of alien and human-like folks, male and female, adults and kids, each with unique talents that came together to create a strong team to deal with a vicious gallery of Imperial foes.

The storyline fit snugly in the between the established trilogies without disturbing any of the arcs of previously established characters in the Skywalker episodes. Audiences were happy to go on adventures with the scrappy kid, laugh at the cranky droid, marvel at the piloting smarts of the lady alien, feel for the Jedi mourning the loss of his brethren…

…in other words, Disney had successfully built a solid setting in this galaxy far, far away that was unique while also adhering to the state of this galaxy as Revenge of the Sith left it.

Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.

Robert McKee, Story

You’d think that for a studio that loves making live-action remakes of their animated properties, bringing a live-action adaptation of Rebels to film would have been the easy-peasy choice for their feature debut with the Star Wars franchise. They had fans happy with the show, they had storylines all written out ready to go, characters fun and fleshed out. All the hard work of worldbuilding, character development, and plotting was already done.

But perhaps, to those Disney Powers That Be, this was the problem.

Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.

Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.

Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.

The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.

Rebels wasn’t enough like Star Wars’ original trilogy, a film series loved by millions across multiple generations. Rebels’ own successes just weren’t enough.

Disney was determined to repeat the cosmic success of the 70s and 80s, and decided the best way to do this was by treating those original films as a formula to follow.

This choice, right here, before ANY director could say “Action!”, marks the beginning of the troubles for Disney’s Star Wars films. Had they begun with a feature film cast with their own characters and followed previously tested storylines, they would have planted the seeds of goodwill among audiences while also learning the ins and outs of producing a sci-fi adventure epic that is a Star Wars film.

Instead, they chose to fly as close to A New Hope as possible. Too close, as we shall see.

~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~

Oh, I’m keen to do some analysis of the entire sequel trilogy, so you’re stuck with me on this topic for a little while. 🙂 But I’ll also throw in some AMAZING music by Daniel Pemberton I got for Christmas, plus there’s some swanky author interviews coming, too.

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

#writing #music: #Suspiria by @thomyorke

Rhythm.

We keep in time with it as we dance to life’s obligations. We drum our fingers to it when all else slows to drudge, we unleash our feet to it when all else is quickens to thrill.

Writing, too, has its rhythms. They can be the water flowing through a setting, the heartbeats of two characters meeting, the dialogue where all that is important is left unsaid.

The narrative rhythm quickens and slows with every story, every writer.

And sometimes there is that rare, beautiful moment where the rhythm of one story inspires another.

Welcome, Suspiria.

While both the original 1970s Italian film and 2018 film take place in a dance studio, that is about all they have in common. (If interested, click on for Red Letter Media’s thorough dissection of both the original and the remake.) As I am going to speak of the 2018 film’s soundtrack, let’s focus on the latter, where a young Mennonite American woman feels she must, she must, join a West German dance troupe that is secretly run by a coven of witches. As she grows more entwined with the magic of the school, the psychotherapist of a dancer missing from that same troupe investigates what he believes to be supernatural goings-on behind the studio’s doors.

(Oh, and that elderly psychotherapist gentleman is played by Tilda Swinton, who is also playing one of the teacher-witches. This was actually a controversial point in the press, as she didn’t admit to playing this role until after the film premiered. Just watch this little snippet of the character moving, and you just feel the age of him, the weight of this mystery upon him. Bloody amazing, that Swinton.)

And there is indeed magical goings-on behind the studio doors. The witches need to prepare a vessel for one who claims to be of the Three Mothers whom the coven worships. How do the witches prepare such a vessel? With dance.

All their magic is empowered by dance. Every choreographed movement of the female body, especially a group of female bodies, helps build their power to control, summon, bespell.

So what better way to bespell the audience than with a magical score? Thom Yorke of Radiohead weaves synth, piano, and dancing rhythms through much of the score. Sometimes we are given only sound, such as in “A Storm That Took Everything.” Like a storm outside, the world is noise, dissonant, clashing, overwhelming. (I wish I had more than an Amazon sample to give you, but Yorke limited which tracks could be on YouTube, dammit.)

Sometimes the dancing rhythm takes center stage even when characters are not dancing. “Belongings Thrown in a River” is an excellent example of this. You can just feel the 3/4 time, always used for waltzes, pull you into a hypnotic 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. Even when no witches can be seen, even outside and away from the studio, there is a power reaching out to our characters from afar.

A longer sample I can share of magical rhythms comes in “Volk,” the song played when the dancers perform what they think is a recital while the teacher-witches prepare Mother Suspiriorum’s entry into their chosen vessel, the Mennonite Susie.

The tinkling high synth that sinks down takes us, the listeners, down to the rhythm. Feel the 5/4 time, otherwise known as quintuple meter. It’s unnatural, this rhythm. It’s not one to be walked to, to run to. It is its own…until just after two minutes, and then the rhythm changes. Constantly halted, that synth, pausing you, pulling you, pushing you, a jerking dramatic control so like a puppeteer with his marionettes.

So like these dancers and their bewitching teachers.

But no song bewitched me like Yorke’s own “Suspirium.”

Again, the 3/4 time, but here with piano, a distant organ, later a flute. The rhythm is the melody is the rhythm. One feels prone to dance a walk in silence as the lyrics invoke a haunted hope of an impossible waiting, just ahead.

This is a waltz thinking about our bodies
What they mean for our salvation
With only the clothes that we stand up in
Just the ground on which we stand
Is the darkness ours to take?
Bathed in lightness, bathed in heat

All is well, as long as we keep spinning
Here and now, dancing behind a wall
When the old songs and laughter we do
Are forgiven always and never been true

When I arrive, will you come and find me?
Or in a crowd, be one of them?
Wore the wrong sign back beside her
Know tomorrow’s at peace

Songwriters: Thomas Edward Yorke© Warner Chappell Music, Inc. For non-commercial use only. Data from: LyricFind

It is through this song I found the rhythm of a story to another girl, one also drawn to a place she cannot yet understand, where her fate is entangled with past bloodied and forgotten in the snow.

It was 8:30 at night, and Grandmother still wasn’t dead.

Chloe tapped her box of Winston cigarettes against her nyloned knees, cold and impatient. Sitting at the top of the stairs hurt made her ass hurt, but the stairs started near Grandmother’s room, where Mom sat with the others. Chloe did not want to be too far from Mom, not when she sat so still and quiet in a room where Death was due to arrive at any time. 

Chloe redid her headband to keep her black hair out of her eyes, and then leaned backwards to peer through the doorway again.

Nothing had changed. A heavy, ornate lamp sat on the bedside table with a thin orange shroud draped over its shade to dim the light. The bed stood high with wooden globes for feet, globes carved into precarious connections along the frame and headboard. The blankets on the bed looked like cast-off ball gowns, all bright colors in expensive fabric stitched with gold. Gold was everywhere in that room. No shroud could hinder the light from finding the gilded edges of crucifixes, mirrors, chairs, fireplace. Old family portraits of white people sitting stiffly cover walls papered in some sort of leafy green paper. The paper is cracked and peeling in places, just like Grandmother.

A portrait taken of this generation would be very, very different.

I’m still working out some of the history and time-frame for this story so that, God-willing, come November I can launch myself into Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon.

I should also warn you all I may very well drag you into the forest around the Crow’s Nest during my month-long stay in this story-world. Stay tuned to upcoming posts about that. 🙂

Speaking of writing endeavors, Super-Proud Mom Me is getting out of the chair so Blondie can tell you all about her current writing project. Take it away, Blondie!

Thanks, Mom! I’ll take it from here. Hello, everyone! I’m Blondie, if you don’t know already. Now, my story is called Alley Heroes. A wolf named Thor needs to defeat the evil Loki. Where is it? Oh, it takes place in Milwaukee, and the magical land of Valhalla.

Methinks my daughter has been influenced somewhat by her Basher Mythology book. 🙂 Here’s her introduction. Love this girl! xxxxx

INTRODUCTION

It was a typical day in Milwaukee, or what you call typical. Under a pretty rosebush, Thor was born. What?! No, No, not the Norse god Thor! Well, maybe, but any who, let’s continue, shall we? SO, then, Thor’s parents left him behind when humans came. Thor grew up in the city alleys where it was perfect camouflage. Then it happened. What?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN, “SO, WHAT HAPPENED?” WELL, TURN THE PAGE!

Speaking of books, indie author and reviewer Colin Garrow was kind enough to review my novella Night’s Tooth. I’m so honored!

A mix of classic western and fantasy, Jean Lee’s novella is set on the edges of her Princeborn universe (see Fallen Princeborn: Stolen). Her use of language is delightful, with an unusual writing style that’s as clever as it is original. The characters are an interesting lot, too, (like the Sherriff with the squirrel-tails moustache). Drop them all into an atmospheric Clint Eastwood-type setting, and there’s plenty of action to keep the reader guessing what’s coming next.

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I hope you’ll check out his site…and, well, my books, too. Night’s Tooth is only 99 cents, after all!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’ve just enough time before All Hallow’s Eve to explore spaces lost and forgotten, frightening and small. I’ll share a peculiar corner of Wisconsin before we run for the small spaces, where we must hope the smiling man of the mist will not find us….

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

#AuthorInterview: #indie #writer @julidrevezzo discusses #historicalromance, #steampunk, and other #magic delights in #writing #standalones and #novelseries

Good morning, fellow creatives! While I frantically put together my analysis of Aunt Maria for Witch Week, please welcome the magical Juli D. Revezzo, author of over a dozen novels of magic and love. Tell us a bit about yourself, please!

Hello, I’m Juli D. Revezzo. I write fantasy, fantasy romance, and historical romance. I’ve written The Antique Magic series, including its latest release, The Dragon’s Seamstress, the Celtic Stewards Chronicles, and several historical romances.

Your historical romances, like House of Dark Envy and Courting the Stationmaster’s Daughter, are set in the 18th and 19th centuries. What draws you to the Victorian and Gothic periods? What kind of research do you do to help you prepare for storytelling in the past?

Well, House of Dark Envy and Courting the Stationmaster’s Daughter are both set in the 19th century. My Gothic paranormal romance Lady of the Tarot is set in the 18th century and Fifty Measly Bucks, the 17th. I’ve also written in the Medieval periods–and one in World War II. 🙂 What draws me to the Victorian era, though, is… well, actually, I have a degree in Literature and from my early 20s have been reading Victorian lit through the lit of the mid-to-late 20th century ever since. And most of my biggest influences (sans Moorcock) are the writers of that era. I find the 19th century sense of wonder and drive for exploration particularly inspiring, they let their imaginations run wild (whoever thought we might travel faster than a horse?? Our 19th century ancestors, of course!), and that was for the most part, the birth of the fantasy genre, as well as the birth of women’s rights. So it’s a ready made hotbed of conflict.

Your time-travel novella Fifty Measly Bucks features protagonist Denver being caught up in the Salem Witch Trials. What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?

There are none in my novels. Well, no. Not often, I should say. I’ll mention them, but I have a particular aversion to putting words in a real figure’s mouth. I don’t know why; I just always have. So, I write around them. I change names and invent characters to stand in for them. There might be gossip a figure overhears about such and such a real life character, but I always try to corroborate the gossip. If I can’t I don’t use it. The only time I ever have was in House of Dark Envy. My hero corresponds with Tesla (yes, the Tesla) and I struggled with that, until I found the tidbit that said “Tesla wrote hundreds of letters” so….why couldn’t he have correspondence with Felix? 🙂 Fifty Measly Bucks, though, I mentioned the judges and the girls (Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and Ann Putnam, Jr.), but extended the period deliberately to push out having to involve the three girls–and made one character a friend of the girls…. I can’t explain much more than that without spoiling it. Everything in the book, though, happens because of that extension.

You recently published the fifth installment to your Antique Magic series, The Dragon’s Seamstress. Congratulations!

Thank you. I hope your readers will love The Dragon’s Seamstress. It was a different assignment for Caitlin and Trevor but I couldn’t resist? Who wouldn’t love having a dragon drop in for help? Its synopsis (because, why not? ;)) is as follows:

Since Caitlin and Trevor vowed to assist the Otherworld and opened their enchanted antique shop, they’ve seen many strange things. But now, someone comes in asking for a mundane item: kitschy “witches” brooms. Has their magical life returned to normal? 

As the couple prepares to host a family gathering, fate intervenes and something they’ve never seen before roars into their life: A creature out of Welsh legend and fantasy: A blundering, somewhat underdeveloped dragon—not at all the type of dragon they ever expected to meet.

Forced to undertake his unique challenge, Caitlin and Trevor are perplexed by his demands, but the magical beast is certain they are the only witches who can help him.  Doing so might unlock an ancient hidden secret. Refusing might destroy them.

This series has a unique episodic feel thanks to the profession of your protagonists Trevor and Caitlin, married owners of an antique shop that attracts gods, ghosts, and more. Earlier this year I discussed the writer’s problem of writing cliffhangers vs. standalones; do you feel having an episodic series is a strong compromise of giving readers more of the heroes they want without leaving them hanging when a book ends? (Gosh, I hope this question makes sense)

If I understand the question correctly, yes. Maybe? I do try to tie up the end of each tale. Caitlin always finds the answer to each client/sellers’ problem/mystery, book to book, but where the “episode” comes in is that their year progresses–or by this point, it’s been five years. 🙂 There’s a progression book to book of Trevor and Caitlin’s ages, their anniversary, the holidays. While there’s also two characters in school and their education advances, the biggest hold over is the Curse that hangs over the heads of Trevor’s family. So the question of why did that thing happen to his brother, sister, and mother casts a long shadow over the series, despite each wrapped-up happy ending. To my longtime readers, I know the answer to that question, and yes, you will be getting it soon.

That’s just a long way of saying, yes having an episodic series is a compromise, but more, I’ve done it because it felt right to continue following Caitlin’s life, in a linear progression. But finding where to cut without a cliffhanger is too much of a nuisance, so I’d rather have a clear end to the manuscript. Otherwise, the five books would still be in my computer, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

You write fantasy and steampunk as well, such as Watchmaker’s Heart. Do you find yourself doing the same kind of research as you do for historical romances, or do you toss history out the window and write the world as you wish? 🙂

A little bit of both. The thing about Steampunk is that it’s the aesthetics of our 19th century with the technology of…well? Star Trek but run on steam. So, as much as you get to have fun coming up with airships, gaslamps, and steampowered cars and weird robotic things, Queen Victoria is always in charge (unless there’s been some coup by we pesky Americans! ;)) and there’s always some 19th century cultural something or ‘nother going on. So, depending on what that cultural something is I want to noodle with, I’ll have to delve into the research lake. In Watchmaker’s Heart it was the mechanics of the underworld, as my hero is an ex-gang member trying to go straight, and I also had to do a little bit into the workings of the House of Commons for another character. With House of Dark Envy, again, that was such a time of technological exploration, and I had a readymade Steampunk feel in the work my hero (and in real life history of the time Tesla) were doing concerning DC and AC power, it was easy to just throw in some goggles and arcing magic Tesla beams. With a book like my faery tale-based/faery godmother story Changeling’s Crown…well, it was a mixture of faery tale setting and real world setting so that was fun to play with. Having castles on one hand, and cars and modern ranches and cell phones on the other. J And Caitlin even dips into the historical through the Antique Magic series, with the psychic trips the things in her antique shop sometimes spring on her. So far, she’s been hit with the prohibition era, the ‘60s,  Civil War battles, (due to a Civil War fort she lives near, and the ghost of Trevor’s ancestor from the 19th century who lives in their house and *cough* helps out more often than not), and the most recently, a glimpse of Medieval Wales.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us, Juli! Let’s wrap up with one last craft question. How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

Critique Partners! In series (like Antique Magic), it gets particularly sticky, as I try to explain as much as I think necessary, but I have to leave it up to my critique partners to let me know if more is needed. And even then, sometimes, we miss. Personally, I see no need to regurgitate the entire story in all books throughout a series; in fact, that bugs me to no end when I read other writers doing it. I’ve skipped more pages, and put more books I read down for that than I have for not understanding something in a series of which I neglected to read from the beginning.

But editors and cps seem to think differently, so I sometimes have to overcompensate to bring them up to speed. I hope I don’t bore the heck out of my longtime readers when they pick up a #x story, doing a recap, but if so, I hope they’ll forgive me. So, how do I balance it? Very carefully and not without pulling my hair out. 😉 So, The Dragon Seamstress, while it can stand alone, being the fifth time I’ve revisited the couple, is very much part of the series. I hope your readers will enjoy them all.

I’m sure they will, Juli, especially when you share of your novellas for FREE! That’s right, folks–you can get the ebook Caitlin’s Book of Shadows for free right now, at this very moment, instantly, today.

Though their fame became legend, a rumor cropped up about the Fulmer family: Something terrifying stalked Caitlin and her beloved Trevor. Something the bits and pieces she left claimed she had to make sense of. When the curator of their collection finds Caitlin’s long forgotten diary, she wonders will it tell the whole tale? Will it tell why Caitlin seemed so determined to tell the difference between reality and nightmare? Why she thought herself a witch?

What will the holidays hold for Caitlin? Perhaps the answer lies between the lines of her story, one of lessons, struggles, and hopes for each new year.

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For more on Juli and her work, check out her website and Amazon page. You can also sign up for her newsletter here.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We are diving deep into a world of witchcraft and waltzes, haunting melodies and dissonant sexes.

Blondie is also super excited to share a project she’s working on, and I might just have a spooky surprise or two in store for you before All Hallows’ Eve.

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

The Childhood of an Unlikely Shield Maiden: Wynne IV

Good morning, lovely readers! What follows is a continuation of my previous three installments of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we walk with Wynne as she evades Prydwen, The Man of the Golden Hound Crest, and learn that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for her love, the smithy’s son Morthwyl.

Is that when you decided to join the Shield Maidens?

The Shield Maidens? Oh, Galene, if I had thought of them sooner… yet I was not of age, and the King’s Stronghold seemed to only make use of men, at least in Cairbail. But King’s presence or not, Trade is Law, be it done with the crown’s blessing, or not.

For the next three years, life in Cairbail flowed with the Gasirad: it sparkled with life, it stunk with decay. It all depended on where you stood: more traders came up the river and King’s Road, more business done. Father was elated, of course, which put Mother into her happy hysterics. But for whatever these traders brought into Cairbail, very little was left. And very few held to the King’s Road long after. Some of Caddock’s men were on the road one dawn as they veered off onto the small rutted road towards Morthwyl’s village. What use do farmers have for weapons and powders?

I, too, saw them from the oak where Morthwyl and I often hid. The ground had stopped feeling safe the moment Prydwen rode into our world. In the heat of summer, with the leaves at their proudest size and the bees endless in their own sweet industry near us, we felt safe.

Oh, those were the happiest hours! Morthwyl leaned against the trunk, and I against he, my head upon his shoulder, his scent filling the very air I breathed. Our fingers entwined, we would say nothing at all, our lips dancing as our feet yearned to do along Gasirad’s shores.

It was such a moment when we heard the whining of old wagon wheels, crude humor, the splash of wine, and the countless yips and cries of dogs. We dared not move the branches for a look, as the oak grew close to the road. But we could hear as they approach, hear the words, “What in blazing Hifrea a lone man’s needin’ so many bloody dogs is a mystery, make no mistake.”

“Shut yer gob, the money’s good.”

“Aye, the money, but what’s one lone man doing, asking a professional breeder such as myself, to bring not just one breed, but FIVE? And FIVE of each breed? It’s off the nut queer, it is. And ruins my offerings to many good clients for summer hunting.”

“Yer getting paid twice what any nobleman can give you. Now shut it, we don’t stay on the road long. There’s a marker somewhere round heres.”

Their noise only just started to fade when Morthwyl whispered to me, “That’s the fifth wagon I’ve heard talk like that.”

“With dogs?”

“No, but always five of something: knives, pottery, glass, furs, chairs. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

My heart lurched as we clung to one another, for we both thought the same: my sisters and I. The five of us, a collection.

That afternoon I accompanied Tarren from Little Innean back to Cairbail with my pretense: some repaired girdles for Heledd, Ysball, and myself. I refused to wear the new ones Prydwen had bought for the five of us, all “fine leather” and “stitching done with a fairy’s hand.” Fairy, my eye. The girdles all portrayed golden hounds, and those girdles were nothing more than brands to mark us for his own. Poor Congol! He sobbed on the open street when he saw his chances with Isolda really were over.

While Tarren and I were not quite friends, our similar ages allowed for easy conversation on our journey. When we approached the last hill before Cairbail, I turned to give the forest a smile farewell, and froze.

“Did you forget something?” Tarren asked me as she searched for what I saw.

Upon a speckled grey steed sat one of those guards, the grey ones heavy with death about their hands and faces, staring at us.

“Those men of that merchant’s give me the frights,” Tarren said, shuddering. “They look like rocks dressed in clothes.”

I nodded, and wondered how much truth lay in those words.

“Isn’t that merchant fellow courting all of your sisters, and even you?”

And would you know…this was a strange sensation, but once I did it, I knew what I had done: I sneered. My heart kicked my chest. All I wanted was on the other side of that….thing. That thing, and that man, IF you can call him that, which he represented. That man who dared show up, insist he know my family, lay claim to us as if we’re some sort of lost property, and then, then, stand aghast when he hears a girl is not to be won over by money or status. The impudence! The garishness! The audacity! It all churned and bubbled into a terrific bile in my mouth, and I spat it all out, far louder than was polite to Tarren, but I didn’t care, I wanted it out: “He can have the pick of my sisters or all of them, but not me. Never me.” 

Weren’t other people thrown off by how he wanted to marry all five of you? You were what, fifteen by then? That’s still more kid then woman, for goodness’ sake.

Goodness had nothing to do with it. Marriage is a business more than anything else in Idana: one marries, and money is exchanged. One marries, and money awaits for your offspring. One strives to marry above station, but not too above, that’s just as scandalous and unseemly. And while polygamy didn’t happen often outside of the aristocracy, it still happened.

Tarren thought it a bit odd, to be sure, especially when it seemed far easier to simply take me on as some sort of handmaiden. “Surely five dowries amounts to a king’s ransom. I can’t imagine how your parents or that merchant are affording all this.” I liked how Tarren always referred to Prydwen as “that merchant.” Many in Cairbail did, too, because he so very rarely showed his face. Lord Murdach has even given Father a bit of grief for sending his daughters off rather than make more sensible marriages within Cairbail. But once my sisters knew they wouldn’t have to smell the tannery all their lives, why should they bother with the likes of our townspeople?

Of course Sage Forga insisted he knew the truth. He insisted yet again as Tarren and I came to Market Street. “A new river will flow in Galene, Mistress Wynne, mark my words,” he called from his window box of herbs. The apple of his throat jumped with nervous delight. “Yes indeed, told Lord Murdach just this morn of my latest vision.” Tarren rolled her eyes as she went on towards Aedh for leather scraps. I, being the object spoken to, could not roll my eyes, let alone step away. Oh gods, send a storm upon us to close those shutters and his mouth! “I see…” His eyelids fluttered, and his hands spread before his cheeks. He rather had the look of a fish when he envisioned past visions. “I see a river of gold flowing in a crimson sunset. I see your suitor, an enchanted prince from a far-off land, who wants to love all. A new age comes for Cairbail, for aaaaall the land that is,” his hands whirled closed, “Idana.”

I considered his popping eyes, brown teeth, and sweaty face, and thought him to spend far, far too much time in the smoke of his pipe weed. “Time will reveal all, Master Forga,” I said with as much civility as could be mustered. “Good day.” I curtsied and turned to leave.

Prydwen stood but a few feet away. Where in all blessed Idana did he come from? Yet there he stood, flesh, velvet, and all, one leg bent as he flourished one side of his cloak to bow from the waist down. “My lady. Summer blesses your spirit once again. The air of wildflower and honey suits you.”

Surely, surely he spoke as he did because he knew. He knew of the tree. He knew I continued to see my Morthwyl despite my family’s schemes. Yes, I could see it in his chest, barely moving beneath that golden hound, eyes warm and bright like candles: small flames, but even the smallest flames can burn far and deep.

“I’ve come to inquire after your mother’s health, as I cannot help but do. A meager excuse to see you and your sisters, but,” he held his orange jeweled hand open to me, “I simply cannot help myself.”

He stood without steed, servant, or guard. He carried no money, no goods. Perhaps he needed none, for what he carried was deadliest of all: knowledge.

I swallowed my fear, and all my words. Of what could I accuse him? All would say he was merely protecting one of his…brides. Oh, disgusting word! To spit upon his face and run!

“Master Prydwen, what a most marvelous surprise!” Never had I been more thankful for Sage Forga than in that moment, especially when he burst from his door in a strange mix of sliding on a horse pat and bowing at the waist while still trying to draw smoke from his pipe. “I simply must speak with you soon. Such omens fly above me and crawl beneath my feet that point to you, and only you, Noble Sire!”

“Let me not detain you from a conference of such importance, Master Forga.” I curtsied to him and walked around Prydwen without so much as a goodbye. Enough of his gem-stoned wooing and endless compliments. Enough of his golden hounds and gifts. I cared not that I left his hand shaking in the air. Sage Forga is not easily deterred, especially when he is full of visions that require a bit of gold to complete.

I nearly collided with Aedh’s precious mule as I moved with all civil haste to Caddock’s warehouse. Even at 15, I still met Caddock for my lessons. Though Mother thought my skills proficient, Father noted Caddock also a fine teacher in the ways of goods keeping. She’ll be such a help to Prydwen that way, my dear wife.

Ugh. Oh ugh, these are the moments I nearly lose myself…a moment while my stomach calms….please, sit with me here, Adyna’s neighbor Niall always has some ol and wine on hand. Some cheese dipped in batter sounds wonderful, thank you.

Sounds like Sage Forga knows how to butter up the money. I’m guessing that Lord Murdach, being the guy in charge of a town, didn’t like being showed up by some outsider.

You use words strangely, but…if I understand you, yes. As performers need to share the stage without dominating one another, so Cairbail felt a stage, and Prydwen an actor who had walked through the audience and onto the boards without permission. “What’s a man like that doing here?” I heard Lord Murdach say as a dagger whistled and thunk a far box of what I hoped to be fruits, beans, anything not alive. “Don’t get me wrong, Caddock, I enjoy an upturn in business as much as any man—”

“But the upturn came a bit quick.” Caddock’s voice was low, clear, and disquieting.

“Precisely. A little black market makes no mind, but he has gods-know-how-many barges and wagons coming up from the ocean filled with gods-know-what because he’s duped the inspectors into thinking it’s all just typical animal feed and livestock. You tell me who needs five oxen and doesn’t farm!” The next dagger struck but a few feet in front of my nose as I stood, still out of site in this labyrinth of crates and sacks. “He’s got something going on, but everyone’s too keen for his coin to care. It’s only my title, my seat, my life on the line with his business.”

“I fully share in your skepticism, Sir.”

“Good. And good on you for not storing his goings-on here. He’s got boxes of all sorts tucked into every other warehouse in town. Don’t like it. Not one bit.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

I came into view, then, halting their dialogue. Caddock’s gaze was angry but distant, while Lord Murdach looked like a mad bear, with froth about his lips and hair barely braided back from his gargantuan frame. “Ah, daughter of Master Adwr, yes?” I curtsied and greeted as manners dictated. “You’re a big favorite of Master Prydwen, you and your whole family. Gods know your father’s holdings have nearly quadrupled these past three years, your sisters donned in velvet and pearls every day.”

Caddock snorted. “You see velvet and pearls on this one?”

“No…no, you have a point there, my friend, I don’t. Look up, girl.” Lord Murdach studied my roughspun cloak and shawls and cold eyes. “You don’t seem too taken with the man.”

I curtsied again, my breath slight puffs in the air. “I find him generous with words and coin, yet miserly with motive.”

“Motive. Yes. Yes, girl, that is the crux. And the sage is useless, of course, fopping over himself to bring more good news of Cairbail’s future thanks to Golden Prydwen. I wonder if the King’s Stronghold would have another sage untainted by this…whoever he is…” Lord Murdach mumbled himself out the warehouse and into the street.

Caddock waited until the mumbling fell into the ebb and flow of street noise before speaking once more. “Have a care, Wynne. That sort of man’s not to be antagonized.”

I settled onto my favorite seat, the old barrel saved for apple cores and fruit skins. “I wasn’t rude to Lord Murdach.”

“I do not speak of Lord Murdach.”

“Why do you stare so? I care nothing for his intentions, I have been clear on the subject, I will not accept gifts from a man and lead him on as Mother instructs. That is rude, and selfish, and—”

“Wynne!” He shot my name like an arrow and silenced me. Caddock muzzled himself with his own hands, breathing heavily, the muscles of his neck tight as a growling guard hound…at last he sat next to me and unloosed his tongue. “A man like that does not hear ‘no.’ Only ‘you haven’t won me yet.’ I know his kind, Wynne. Men who insist on more than one wife wield an entirely different sort of greed. Your sisters may be cloth-eared, empty-headed ninnies, but they’re beautiful, and that’s a man who clearly likes his beautiful things.”

“Why do you think I dress as I do? To prove I’m not beautiful.”

Caddock smiled sadly. “You cannot hide real beauty, girl. I’m sorry.”

“But…but I don’t want to. I just…I already…” I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket to catch the tears before they blot my face and betray my feelings to outside eyes. But I had forgotten what was wrapped in the linen: my iron orpine fell softly into my lap.

Caddock, of course, snatched it from the air before it hit the sawdust on the floor. “You’ve already given your heart, haven’t you, Wynne?” I opened my mouth to beg him, to unleash words of mercy and hope secrecy, but he raised his hand to silence me. And, with his head close for secrets as when we shared our love of the river Galene, he laughed. “Good. Now I know your family hasn’t a hope of influencing you down the years.” Caddock whistled as he delicately traced the leaves. “Your boy has skill, impressive skill.”

Pleasure filled me, for Caddock’s compliments do not come easily. I knew my Morthwyl could amaze others! “The smithy’s son in Little Innean, Morthwyl.”

“That’s a fair walk north. What brought you two together?”

I had to laugh. “Galene. She led me to him, actually.”

“The goddess holds you highly, Wynne, make no mistake.” He placed the orpine back in my hand and folded my fingers down upon it. “This promises a fine future for you both, if you could…one moment.” Caddock ran out. How strange the warehouse felt in his absence! No longer a sanctuary, but a maze of shadows and sharp corners I could never navigate were Prydwen’s men to follow…Thank the gods Caddock returned before my fears could grow any darker. “Can you visit the boy today?” He moved with a skittish urgency, pulling charts and maps from a chest precariously balanced on rotting crates.

“I was just there, but yes, I think so. If we’re not to dine with him again. Heledd’s not complained, at least.”

“Good.” He unrolled a large map, nearly torn apart in three places, littered with notes and arrows and scrawls. Idana, our country, looked a child’s mess. “Then let us hope the river goddess’ watch is vigilant.” His finger followed the river north, past Cairbail, the King’s Stronghold, and into forests far from the northern towns. “I’ve a barge to leave before daybreak tomorrow. Get the smithy’s son and yourself ready to be on it.”

My heart felt as a falcon loosed from its hood. Was it possible? Could I really escape Hafren and all its scheming souls? But I paused. Morthwyl loved his family, all kind, gentle people who did depend on him. “How far north would it take us?”

“As far north as I pay them. Till Galene’s beginnings, if possible.” Caddock breathed deep. “He won’t let you marry your boy, nor will your family. And he wants you for something, Wynne. He doesn’t have his ‘men,’ whatever those creatures are, following your sisters. Just you.”

“Because I’ve yet to agree to the marriage.”

Caddock looked up with an expression I will never forget: the paleness of his skin beneath his hair, the slight tremble of his chin, the way his voice fell to a whisper.

Caddock was afraid. Very afraid.

“No, it’s more than that. I’ve heard your father boast of meeting Prydwen the same day the river saved you, of how Prydwen looks just like his son. I, too, met Prydwen years ago, when I was but five, and Heledd seven. Galene bid us hide and be silent for not one but three days. It was torture to lay among the rocks and briars, but in those days a strange merchant bearing a golden hound upon his chest and a caged wagon of slaves interrogated my town for what he called ‘friends of the goddess.’ It took threat of the King’s Company to drive him out. That’s no son, Wynne. That is the same Prydwen.”

Thanks so much for reading! We’re nearly at the end of my dialogue with Wynne. I’d love to hear your feedback on this moment, or on any of the other moments of Wynne’s childhood–a prequel, you could say, to her adventure in Beauty’s Price.

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

#lessons learned from @CorneliaFunke and #GuillermodelToro: #write a #fairytale to enrich the #history of your #story.

Once upon a time, when magic did not hide from human eyes as thoroughly as it does today…

“The Mill That Lost Its Pond”

You know the words.

Once upon a time.

So many fairy tales begin this way. Like river stones bridging shores, we travel with those words from our world to another, eager to see what lies beyond.

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has been luring his audiences to cross reality’s river for years, but this summer he and author Cornelia Funke did more than lure us over the river. They led us through the hills past Grandmother’s house into a forest where past and present seemingly grow as one.

According to IndieWire, del Toro had wanted to expand on the folklore within his fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, and I’m so very glad he did. The book’s a beautiful reading experience from cover to cover. (Seriously, the art work of the book is stunning. Just look at this!)

I could gush for another thousand words about the beauty of the language, the flawless shifts in point of view, etc etc, but instead let’s sit and talk depth. Not, you know, profound philosophy or some such thing, but giving a story-world depth. Giving the world a feel of history and life. Giving a sense of reality to non-reality.

And using the fairy tale to do just that.

Now I suppose that sounds a touch ironic. Words like once upon a time are timeless, aren’t they? They’re right up there with A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Fairy tale lands are…you know, out there (insert vague hand-wavy gesture here). That’s why there’s that indefinite article a. A time could mean Any time.

But The Labyrinth of the Faun is NOT “out there.” We are told on the first page of Chapter 1 precisely where and when we are:

There was once a forest in the north of Span, so old that it could tell stories long past and forgotten by men. The trees anchored so deeply in the moss-covered soil they laced the bones of the dead with their roots while their branches reached for the stars.

So many things lost, the leaves were murmuring as three black cars came driving down the unpaved road that cut through fern and moss.

But all things lost can be found again
, the trees whispered.

It was the year 1944 and the girl sitting in one of the cars, next to her pregnant mother, didn’t understand what the trees whispered.

Chapter 1, “The Forest and the Fairy”

The girl’s name is Ofelia, and this story not only tells of her meeting the Faun, but of war, of grief, of sorrow, and of hope. (After seeing what high school students are reading these days, I would LOVE to just assign this book and build a critical reading/writing unit around it.) So many themes are woven into one girl’s quest to discover her true soul, her identity as the long-lost princess of the Underground Kingdom. And hers isn’t the only journey shared here; we experience the life of Rebels hiding from the Fascist soldiers. We experience the mind of Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s sadistic stepfather. But best of all, we experience the life of this forest via the fairy tales interspersed between the chapters.

This is something del Toro must have known would not translate into the film medium: he and Funke interrupt the present-day narrative with Ofelia to take readers out and into the past. It’s an occasional pause during the first third of the book, but the interruptions increase in frequency towards the end of the book–past and present coming together for that single climactic moment in Ofelia’s journey.

The first fairy tale comes after Chapter 5, sharing the story of the sculptor whose creations Ofelia discovers centuries later in Chapter 1. The second fairy tale, “The Labyrinth,” tells of a nobleman who discovers a beautiful girl asleep in an ancient forest by a mill pond. They fall in love and marry, but her lack of memory plagues her in the night, sending her back to that forest time and again with sadness. The nobleman visits a witch her lives near the “Split Tree, which was said to house a poisonous toad between its roots.”

Hold on to that reference, if you please.

The witch Rocio instructs the nobleman to construct a labyrinth out of stones from the nearby deserted village where the Pale Man stole children to eat. The nobleman threatens to drown the witch in the pond if his wife’s memory doesn’t recover.

Rocio answered him with a smile.
“I know,” she said. “But we all have to play our parts, don’t we?”

“The Labyrinth”

The labyrinth fails to awaken the girl’s memory, and she dies, too ill with sadness to live. The son she bore the nobleman later walks the labyrinth to find what his mother lost only to never be seen again.

It took another two hundred and twenty-three years until the prophecy of the witch came true and the labyrinth revealed his mother’s true name when she once again walked its ancient corridors as a girl called Ofelia.

“The Labyrinth”

All this is learned before we come enter Chapter 10, “The Tree.” The Faun has given Ofelia three magic stones and a book that instructs Ofelia to give the stones to a “monstrous toad” inside a “colossal fig tree” that is now dying because of the toad.

By the end of Chapter 12, Ofelia successfully kills the Toad and sees “The key the Faun had asked her to bring was sticking to the Toad’s entrails along with dozens of twitching woodlice.”

Yet despite dying, this is not the end of the Toad’s presence in the story.

Remember, we are given this land’s history in fairy tales, and fairy tales know no time. Whenever Man wishes to control something as powerful as Time or Life, Death often follows.

Once upon a time, a nobleman ordered five of his soldiers to arrest a woman named Rocio, who he accused of being a witch. He told them to drown her in the pond of a mill deep in the old forest where she lived. It required two men to drag her into the cold water and one to hold her down until she ceased to breathe. That solder’s name was Umberto Garces.
… The task was terrible, and at the same time it arouse him, maybe because the witch was quite beautiful.

“The Echo of Murder”

This vicious act mirrors the evil we readers have seen earlier in the book with Captain Vidal. The echoes don’t end there, however. After sleepless nights of haunting visions, Garces returns to the old mill pond in hopes for peace of mind.

When he stepped closer to the water, though, Garces wished he’d never returned. The water was as black as his sin, and the trees seemed to whisper his judgment into the night: Murderer!”

“The Echo of Murder”

The trees repeat the word, over and over. The land is echoing Garces’ evil back at him.

“I’ll do it again!” he shouted over the silent water. “You hear me?”
His boots sank deeper into the mud and his hands started to itch. He lifted them to his face. His skin was covered in warts and webs were growing between his fingers–the fingers he’d used to hold the witch down.
… Garces screamed again. By now his voice had changed. Hoarse croaking escaped his throat and, his spine twisted and bent until he fell to his knees, digging his webbed fingers into the mud. Then he leaped into the same muddy pond water he’d drowned the witch in.

“The Echo of Murder”

The Toad is created. Yet wasn’t this Toad already present when the witch was alive, a toad the nobleman thinks on in the second fairy tale?

And yet this STILL isn’t the last we’ve seen of the Toad. He appears once more in the final fairy tale before the final chapter. This last tale shares the origins of a Child Eater known as the Pale Man.

In “The Boy Who Escaped,” we meet a boy named Serafin from a village near an ancient forest. The Pale Man captures him and takes him to his layer to eat, but Serafin is so fast he not only escaped the Pale Man’s clutches, but made off with a large key. A key to what? A key to a cupboard where the Pale Man’s dagger was kept–the dagger Ofelia and the fairies retrieved back in Chapter 20.

But hang on, we’re still with Serafin here. He escapes the Pale Man’s layer and, desperate to be rid of the key, throws it into an old mill pond.

Serafin didn’t notice the huge toad watching him when he hurled the key into the pond, nor that it had the eyes of a man. Neither did the boy see the toad swallow the key with its wart-covered lips.

“The Boy Who Escaped”

So…hang on. In THIS story, the village is no longer deserted, but Serafin sees the pond and recalls hearing that “years ago a nobleman’s soldiers had drowned a witch” there. yet in THAT story, the nobleman is instructed by the witch to build the labyrinth out of stones from a nearby deserted village.

Fairy tales need not be restricted by time. Man cannot contain it, as Captain Vidal dares with his silver pocket watch. Oh no. As Doctor Who would say:

Fairy tales happen once upon A time. Perhaps long ago, or not long ago. They happen when they happen. They are when the are.

And because they still are, they affect characters in this, the present tense.

Just as they affect us, the readers, now and always.

It’s always just a few who know where to look and how to listen, that is true. But for the best stories, a few are just enough.

“Little Traces”

What fairy tale echoes in your present life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

October awaits with all its firey magic! I’ve some lovely interviews coming, as well as some exciting news about Witch Week. Plus there’s updates to be told about my Fallen Princeborn series–oh, my western fantasy Night’s Tooth is still 99 cents, if you’ve not snatched that up yet!

I’ve the perfect music to haunt your dreams, and–if my teaching allows it–some snippets of a novella I’m building out of snow, fear, and secrets.

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

#writerproblems (and #parentproblems): Brewing Trouble

Back in the early 90s, when Wallace purchased The Wrong Trousers for Gromit, Batman faced a Phantasm, and the last Star Wars film consisted of an ewok and a girl facing a sorceress from I, Claudius, my uncle purchased a book that would challenge the comedic lobe of my wee mind.

No, he didn’t get this book for me; he bought it for his parents, my grandparents, whom I’m pretty sure never cracked the cover. You can bet your boots my brothers and I did, though. I was fascinated by these bizarre animals and people with 1950s glasses and beehive hairdos. The puns were atrocious, the wordplay crazy. My favorite running series in all the collections, however, had little to do with language and aaaaaaall to do with the situation.

Yes, I now know this is based on an actual event.

How did Gary Larson come up with these combos? Every pairing seemed so outlandish, and yet I always laughed, even when I was small, because Little Me knew:

That’s a baaaad idea.

More Trouble Brewing

Even if you’re not a fan of forcefully brewing trouble, there’s no denying that we as writers thrive on trouble–aka, conflict. There’s got to be a struggle between person and nature, person and person, person and self. There’s a quest, an escape, a threat to overcome. Somewhere, whether in our world or in our imaginations, there must be something happening, ingredients to brew the trouble that make for a delicious story.

A recipe for disaster, if you will.

Recipes with ingredients only Gary Larson seems to come up with: poodles and falcons, sky divers and alligators, marching bands and migraine doctors. These are all common, everyday things in our world, but when mixed together the story–the conflict–is anything but ordinary.

~*~

Lord knows that as a parent of two Calvins and a Hobbes, my shelves are stacked with cookbooks of mayhem.

Probably THE best comic strip ever. Better even than Peanuts.
Yeah, I went there.

If you’ve never heard of Calvin and Hobbes, you MUST read them. Today.

Like now.

Calvin’s best friend is a tiger named Hobbes. To all the world, Hobbes is a stuffed animal, but to Calvin, he is the ultimate friend and ally in a boring world.

When Bo found his collections of Calvin and Hobbes comics, Blondie and the boys snatched them up and still haven’t let go. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see the kids so engaged with a character. Calvin deals with a lot of kid issues like bullies and school woes, but he also gets into some very grown-up topics like environmentalism and death.

On the other hand, Calvin is, well, something of a troublemaker.

This comic feels like some hilarious yet horrendous portent of days to come with Biff and Bash. (No, Blondie doesn’t get off the hook. Hobbes instigates just as often as he cautions.) Calvin can be rude, foolish, and downright diabolical, but I cannot stop loving him for one simple reason:

His imagination.

Calvin can take any thing, any place, any one, and create a universe of adventure.

He inspires Bash to be his own Stupendous Man, complete with sidekick (Bash’s wee Bumble, Captain Ice Cube).

He inspires Biff to find magic on the snowy slopes, even after losing two teeth in a sledding accident.

Calvin’s dad even inspires Bo’s parenting style.

We tell the same thing to our kids.

Yeah, I didn’t get to do much writing this summer, but I still consider the past few months well spent because I got to be a reader–no, that’s not the right word. A listener. I was blessed to listen and watch Biff, Bash, and Blondie work together to create hilarious adventures featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, Wall-E the trash bot, Optimus Prime, Lego Batman, the USS Enterprise, and more. Every plot point was preceded with a “How About ___?” and a “Yeah, and then ___!”. No villain’s ever truly villainous, and no hero’s ever truly perfect. Settings switch from Sodor to Cybertron to Gotham City and back again without characters ever missing a beat. I marvel at how their voices run through the story together, pulling each other along…and yes, sometimes one voice knocks another down, and I must end the story with a cliffhanger. They get so frustrated when their stories diverge with the same characters, and one wants the others to follow. I wish I had perfect motherly advice to give them, but considering my own experiences with collaborative writing went up in flames, all I can manage is a welp, kiddos, maybe you should just tell separate stories for a while.

And they do. Less excitedly, but they do.

Creative teamwork is a delicate thing, and I’m still very clumsy at helping it stay together. But after this summer I’m determined to keep trying because when together, my children imagined stories as magical as dandelion seeds flying through a northern wood.

When I am with my kiddos, there truly is treasure everywhere.

Do you have a favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic? Share it in the comments!

Did you miss my monthly newsletter? Read it here!

I’m also so very blessed to know amazing readers and writers in this blogging community. Ola shared some really helpful input on my YA fantasy novel, and Cath gave awesome thoughts on the opening lines of my newest publication, a western fantasy novella.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’ve got an indie author interview on the way, as well as a fun exploration into theme music. We also need to do some serious pondering of the fairy tale, and how two storytellers of film and page came together to build a country’s history out of…fairy tales?

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

My #western #fantasy #novella is #onsalenow for #99cents! Plus, #lessons learned in #worldbuilding for #writing #fiction: #AnEasyDeath by @RealCharlaine.

Hello, everyone! At long, long, loooooong last, my novella “Night’s Tooth” is alive and kicking on Amazon!

Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.

Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.

It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…

Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.

Once Biff, Bash, and Blondie are all in school, I hope to get “Night’s Tooth” on Draft 2 Digital so it’ll be available on other markets. Click here for an excerpt of the novella. The whole thing’s just 99 cents–easy on the wallet. 😉 Don’t forget to leave a review, too!

Like “Night’s Tooth,” Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death is a mix of fantasy and western, but while my novella takes place during the “official” time period of the Wild West, Harris’ story is set in an altered, no-longer-United States. I picked up An Easy Death after reading SJ Higbee’s glowing recommendation, and after reading it I can see why Time magazine lists An Easy Death as one of its top 10 fantasy novels of 2018.

Let’s take a walk through the first two chapters and see how Harris builds this broken world.

In the morning I got Chrissie to cut off all my hair. Tarken and Martin would be tinkering with the truck, which was our livelihood….My neighbor Chrissie was not too bright, but I’d watched her trim her husband’s hair and beard as he sat on a stool outside their cabin. She’d done a good job. She sang as she worked, in her sweet, high voice, and she told me about her youngest one’s adventures with a frog in the creek.

I see a few key words in here that can make the imagination fill in some mighty big blanks. “Cabin,” for instance, isn’t a term for a home in an urban setting; therefore, we picture the two characters someplace rustic. A child playing with a frog in a nearby creek emphasizes the country-type of location here.

A truck tying to livelihood tells us we’re dealing with transporters of a sort–a cross-country kind of job. We should expect to see a lot of the story’s landscape with this narrator.

Chrissie and the narrator, Lizbeth, have a conversation on the second page. I’ve copied nearly the whole page here because, like Agatha Christie, Harris packs a lot of information in dialogue that only takes a few minutes to read. (Still, it’s a long passage to blog, so I’ll break it up a bit.)

“You heading out soon? I saw them farmers at Martin’s place, when I was coming back from the store.” Chrissie’s trousers had long tendrils of dark hair all over’em now. She’d have to brush’em.

“Yeah, we’re leaving as soon as it’s near dark.”

“Ain’t you scared?”

Sure, I was. “Of course not, the only ones should be scared are anyone who tries to get in our way.” I smiled.

“You’ll kill’em dead, bang, bang,” Chrissie said in a singsong voice.

“Yep. Bang, bang,” I agreed.

What have we learned? Lizbeth is leaving with some farmers, who must be riding in that truck, her livelihood. It’s Lizbeth’s job to kill anyone who tries to hinder them. Considering Chrissie’s innocent tone in describing this, killing people has become a mainstream profession, and by Lizbeth’s tone, we get the sense she knows what she’s doing…even if the job still scares her.

“Why are they going to New America?”

“The farmers? The part of Texas they live in got swallowed up by Mexico a few years ago. You remember?”

Chrissie looked dim. She shook her head.

“Anyway, the government down there has been telling the Texans that they’re not real Mexicans, and their land is forfeit.”

Chrissie looked even dimmer.

Their land is getting taken. So if they’ve got kin up north or anywhere, even in Dixie, they got to leave Mexico to have a chance.”

Dixie was so poor and so dangerous you’d have to be desperate to flee there.

What have we learned? America is weak enough that other countries like Mexico have taken control of its land. Notice Lizbeth doesn’t say “North America” or “United States,” but “New America” and “Dixie.” This isn’t the traditional 50 states of our reality.

Chrissie ran her fingers through the short hair on the left side of my head, and shook her head. “Anyone ever go to the HRE?” she asked.

“Chrissie,” I said. She bent around to meet my eyes.

“Oh, sorry, Lizbeth.” She began to work on the right side, following her own whim. I tried to remember if I’d ever seen her cut anyone’s hair besides Norton’s. “I forgot you don’t like them grigoris.”

No. I did not like magicians.

What have we learned? The HRE is not someplace you want to find yourself because–and this is the part that hooked me to the story–there’s magic in this world. Magicians are part of the normal fabric of society; not liked, maybe, but still, they are as normal as killing people to protect others fleeing the country.

So, over the course of two pages, we have a sense of narrator Lizbeth’s no-nonsense attitude thanks to her clipped prose and dialogue. We know her profession. We know she has some prejudices, and some inner conflicts. We know something of the world, though we don’t know why it is the way it is. All we know is that it’s dangerous, and people are desperate to flee from that danger. Harris successfully builds the world just enough that we can move forward without tripping on any exposition dumps.

A couple pages later we learn the term for Lizbeth’s profession.

I passed Rex Santino. “Easy death,” he said in his gruff way.

That’s what people wished gunnies. It made me feel good. I nodded back at him.

Not quite “gunslinger,” but it’s close enough to familiar terminology that readers get what Harris is going for. On this version of the North American continent, hired guns are a must for safe passage from one country to another. Connections like roads and rails, amenities like electricity and plumbing, they’re all as fickle as the law one finds from town to town.

We were on a good part of the road, one that hadn’t been broken. There were still stretches around like that. My mother had told me that once almost all the roads were smooth, and that when they cracked, they got repaired. It sounded like a fancy dream.
….

If the New America patrols stopped us, we’d be fine. People were legal cargo, and respectable people like this were even welcome in New America. But if bandits caught us, well, that was why Galilee and I were on duty. That was why the oldest brother had hired us to get the two families through the lawless land along the border between Texoma and New America.

What have we learned? When we consider how the roads were built to help unite a country, is it any surprise the roads are among the first things to rot in this fractured land? It’s also clear that the new countries don’t much care for watching each other’s borders, but will instead keep to their own; hence, the “lawless land.”

Chapter 1 ends with an ambush. All the gunnies but Lizbeth are killed, the truck destroyed. In Chapter 2, an injured Lizbeth tracks the bandits and farmers. She discovers the body of a teen girl along the way.

There must have been more gunfire after I’d been hit. She’d tried to run. Lots of families taught their girls to run, figuring that a bullet in the back was quicker than what waited for them after capture. My opinion, sometimes they were right.

What have we learned? The violence of the bandits tells us just how much human life is worth between the countries: absolutely nothing.

Lizbeth kills the bandits, rescues the remaining family members, and successfully escorts them to New America on foot. During this trek the farmers get to talking, which allows Lizbeth to think about historical context for the reader’s sake. (Last excerpt, promise)

“Since the president died, the world has gone to hell. God help us all,” Jeremiah said, and his brother nodded.

When people said “the president,” they meant the last elected president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. When he’d been assassinated in some city in Florida, before he could be sworn into office, the government had started down a slope that had gotten slicker and slicker…..After the white government had collapsed, the Indian tribes who could muster up a group of warriors had taken back the land that had been theirs….And bandits were everywhere, especially in Texoma, New America, and Dixie. I had heard that in Britannia, the area that had knelt to England, there was so much law that bandits were caught and hung quickly. The same for Canada, which had expanded to take in a lot of northern America. Canada had its horseback police, who were supposed to be crackerjack at their jobs. The Holy Russian Empire had a squad of grigoris and militia whose job it was to track highway robbers and kill them on the spot.

But in Texoma and New America, formal justice was scarce on the ground.

What have we learned? Ah, now we get the mother-load, for now we have a time frame to work with. FDR was indeed fired upon by Giuseppe Zangara in 1933. For those who don’t know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the helm of the United States during The Great Depression and remained in the presidency through much of World War Two. He’s the only president to have served more than two terms; in fact, the man had been voted to serve a fourth term when he died in 1945.

All the world was in flux in the 1930s. The aftermath of World War I, the rise of fascism and communism, the transformation of media and transportation….Life. Was. Changing. Just as a single assassination tipped Europe’s political scales into warfare in 1914, Harris shows us how the United States could have been broken by assassination in 1933. And when one considers the political climate of that time, are we really so surprised?

Now Harris doesn’t clearly state how much time has passed since FDR’s assassination, but when Lizbeth does meet two grigoris who want to hire her for a job, we learn a bit more about the Russian monarchy that escaped the communist uprising as well as magic’s role in this new world.

But that’s for you to discover in An Easy Death.

When a writer sets out to cut history’s timeline and paste it somewhere new, she has the advantage of using some common history to give the reader context before guiding the reader into unfamiliar territory. It’s a tried and true method used by many to their advantage, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, either. It all comes down to pacing–rather like helping a rambunctious kindergartner glue string on top of his fish picture. Sure, you can just squirt a HUGE glop of glue on the page and just slather it everywhere; it gets the job done, but then all you both see is the glue smears over his nice fish. If you carefully squirt teeny dots all along the string, the string will remain in its place, and the fish is no longer smeary.

…sorry, that’s quite a mom-metaphor there. Point is, you don’t want readers to see nothing but the exposition. You want it to blend into the story, right? So don’t slather that world-building everywhere, blurring what could be an amazing story. Bead it along, letting it glue together scenes of conversation, conflict, and discovery.

Thanks so much for reading! I do hope you enjoy “Night’s Tooth.”

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

The kids will be in school!

I mean….

The kids will be in school.

(Honestly, it’s a mix of both.)

Anyway, September and the fall season await with more delightful author interviews, some studies of scary tales, a hunt for fun’n’freaky music, and hopefully some updates on my current WIPS–both novellas, both dark fantasy, and both spooooooookily inspired by Wisconsin’s North Woods.

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