Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October has come, and with it the joy of reading tales deliciously eerie on chilly autumn evenings.
So let us break for a wee spell from the lovely indie fiction to venture down paths dark and mysterious. I’ve got some fun frights recommended to me by other neato book reviewers as well as some spooky stories by authors I’ve not had a chance to taste before. Let us begin with The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix.
What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!
Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!
Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:
And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.
However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?
Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.
After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?
I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.
They. Didn’t. Matter.
Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.
Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.
So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”
The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.
“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig. The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.” “Nonsense!” said the Matron. “But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.” Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.” Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.
I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.
Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.
Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.
Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.
For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.
Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.
The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.
[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.
After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:
“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”
Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.
THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?
Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?
Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.
It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)
When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.
She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak, “Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.” Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”
When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.
But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?
A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.
So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.
And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.
Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.
I’ve been honored by other amazing indie author’s invitations to share my stories and thoughts on craft. Today’s share is a podcast I did with fellow fantasy writer Neil Mach. We covered all sorts of gleeful things, from flawed heroines to our mutual love of spaghetti westerns. I hope you enjoy it!
Lastly–for I don’t want to scamper off so soon, but there’s been one of those delightful domestic disturbances of a broken garbage disposal to deal with–here’s a sneak peak into one of my chapters of Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Charlotte’s been separated from the others and in trapped inThe Pits. Only one thing could make it worse:
She is not alone.
Charlotte’s body slams into the ice-cold clay of the Pits. She slides down the tunnel, faster and faster, until it evens out and she slows to a stop. This clay is a little less damp, the air a little less putrid. And light: barely, but there. Any light at all must mean the atrium. So, breathe through your god-damn nose, Charlie, and sneak on over that way to get help.
But why would Orna trap you down here only to let you out again? The Voice puzzles.
Shut up, no one asked you.
Toes first. Charlotte wriggles them into place, then carefully brings weight back down on her heels. Charlotte holds the bone-knife before her, ready to slash and swipe, while her free hand finds the tunnel’s side and presses it gently. Step by step. Forward.
Stop breathing through your mouth, Charlie!
But Charlie isn’t breathing through her mouth.
In the void ahead…somewhere, someone is breathing. Slurping. A click-popping, almost like a frog’s broken croak.
Charlotte pauses. Looks back. Ahead.
Another broken croak. Followed by a slow, slow rattle.
Orna—or a Hisser?—lies ahead.
Charlotte takes another step.
The rattle stops.
Charlotte slaps her hand over her face. Counts her breaths and reaches for the pendant that’s not there. Dammit, Dad, I wish I had a piece of you with me like I did that first time down here.
But even though Charlotte’s alone in the darkness, she is not alone. Liam and Arlen can find me, and they will find me if I ain’t quiet.
“Bring it on, bitch!” Darkness sucks her words into the void.
The rattle starts again. The croaking quickens to a sort of buzz…
Charlotte’s fingers groove the tunnel’s side as she walks with blind briskness. Colors squiggle where her eyes strain for light, but the air continues to freshen—she is moving towards the atrium. “How the hell can you even see me in this dark? Ha! Can you see the reeeal me…” Charlotte starts to sing, and the rattle ramps up its insane rhythm. The Voice in Charlotte’s heart laughs as it presses the bellows to the rhythm of Charlotte’s favorite Who song. Orna’s henchman Cein thought he could take it from her—hell to the no on that.
“Can you see the real me, preacher? Preacher?!”
The rattle keeps getting louder, but now Charlotte sees a clear, definable web of light ahead—the tunnel’s exit into the atrium of the Pits.
“Can you see, can you see, can you see?” Charlotte runs and slides out of the tunnel, singing,
“Can you see the real me, doctor?!”
The atrium is a graveyard of branch and bone. Ash floats lazily in the air like dust mites. A wide gaping mouth high in the wall above Orna’s old platform still hangs open, drooling its lines of glass droplets—the old channel for the water road, now crystalized tears of dead magic because of the Wall.
Charlotte looks up to the atrium’s ceiling, where the white tree once grew. New roots, black as pitch, are sewing the gap shut. But in this moment shards of light can still sneak through. She breathes deep and belts as loud as she can, “Can you see the real me, Maaaaaaama?!” she holds that last “Ma,” ready to sing herself hoarse—
“No. No. No. No. No.”
Charlotte spins around. In another tunnel’s entrance stands a pale shadow. The bottom half writhes, and the rattle grows louder. Two needle-thin arms stick out and shoot up as though a child is positioning the limbs. Ten fingers as long and sharp as snake fangs jerk out, jerk up, and take hold of the head slumped to one side. They wrench it upright. Mangled, oily locks of hair fall into place, but the tongue remains free to slurp and drool where it wants.
Inside, Charlotte wants to gag. What drunk sewed your face back on?!? Outside, Charlotte sticks her hands on her hips. “What, no Anna skin this time? I could describe my grandma to you if you want. Always did want to punch that hag in the mouth.”
The rattle tones back. “Ha ha ha ha.” Her lips don’t—or can’t—move. The tongue slithers about in the air and catches Charlotte’s scent. It wavers in Charlotte’s direction, and Orna’s snake-half finally slinks forward in short, halting movements. The hands jerk free of her head, and The Lady’s head flops to the side once more. Her fingers move in mechanical fashion at Charlotte, even as one finger falls off to the ground, lifeless at last. Orna’s eyes look pathetic without the menacing stars that once glowed in them.
Charlotte scoffs. “Jeez, even I could kill you now.”
“Charlotte?!” The cry flies down through the crevices. Yet the roots still grow, bridging every gap they find.
Charlotte sticks her bone knife back into the red belt. “Pardon me for just a second,” she says to the herky-jerky Lady and cups her hands to her mouth. “DOWN HERE!”
“An an an ha ha ha.”
Charlotte’s eyes narrow at the name. “That name’s got no power comin’ out of your stupid-ass mouth. Damn, even I can sew better’n’that..” She pulls out the bone-knife—
—almost too late.
Orna’s tongue whips far longer than before, missing Charlotte’s shoulder by a hair. Charlotte rolls to the side and curses at herself. “Yeah, Charlie, you can really slay the snake-lady easy peasy, can’tcha?”
The roots threading the atrium’s ceiling shake and crack, but don’t break. Thunder shakes from within a tunnel, echoes of light rippling out the tunnel’s sides to die in the atrium.
Orna’s tongue blossoms into three, then five, then ten translucent pink living whips. The stitches at the bottom of her face rip as her jaw unhinges wide enough to swallow a human. The hydra-tongue descends—
Charlotte leaps aside and slashes with the bone-knife. Dammit, this ain’t no blood dagger! But the blade is wicked sharp and takes out one of the tongues. It flops fish-like on the ground, spurts of oil and veli barely missing Charlotte’s leg.
She runs away before Orna’s hydra-tongue can take aim again. If I can slash up the snake part, I bet I could bleed the bitch out. She spots the serpent portion of Orna’s body, its peeling, sick skin caught on the rocks littering the tunnel’s entrance. Charlotte picks up speed, bone-knife aimed for the massive molting serpent—
Fire lights up the atrium. Roots rain ash as Liam’s blood sword burns through them all. He rolls, sheathes the blade, transforms mid-fall into the golden eagle, talons at the ready.
Charlotte’s knife strikes hard and deep into the snake’s belly. Oil laced with veli oozes from the gash. The funk of rot floods Charlotte’s nostrils.
Thunder builds in the tunnel. There’s a light, white and spectral, running with the thunder…
Orna’s body shakes and screams. Her head flops as the hydra-tongue feels the air for Charlotte.
It finds Liam’s talons instead.
“Liam fly up, NOW!” Charlotte screams. The hydra-tongue quickly coils round both Liam’s legs. Liam’s whole body burns feathers of fire, but the tongues don’t give. He transforms and hangs upside-down several feet above Orna’s gaping jaws.
The empty eyes meet his. A moan of pleasure oozes from her mouth.
The blood dagger slips from its sheath into Liam’s hand, and he slashes one leg free. Charlotte runs and aims for those needle arms, ready to rip one out.
“Can you see, can you see—” A tenor voice barrels out of the tunnel, followed by a pale figure wielding a sword of white light. Charlotte slides to a stop as he lops the bottom half of Orna’s jaw clean off. “Can you seeeee the real me?!”
Orna’s eyes roll towards him. A geyser of oil and screams erupt at the base of her tongue.
Liam slashes his other foot free, and he somersaults to the ground.
The pale figure wraps his hand in a hank of Orna’s hair and lifts her oily, sparkling half-face off the ground and right up to his own, the star-less orbs even darker next to his white-blond hair and ice-blue eyes. “You should have played the game my way.” Her herky-jerky arms begin to reach out, but he stomps down on her breasts and pops her head off with a thock! He tosses the head over his shoulder, spins the light sword. It flickers down into a broad, thick dagger with vicious claw marks crisscrossing in its steel. He slips the dagger into a leather sheath strapped to his right calf, then looks at Liam. “And where in Aether’s Fire have you been?”
Happy weekend, Friends! It’s been a bugger of an August so far. We’re doing the best we can with the time we have–like a couple of trips to the beach while helping my mom clean out her house to sell it–but it’s pretty clear my three B’s are in desperate need of a break from one another. With many lockdown measures still in place, they’re acting like grumpy Pevensies stuck together on a rainy day.
If only a game of hide and seek would reveal a mysterious portal elsewhere, you know? Whether that portal be an old wardrobe, a forgotten door, or a painted forest, we are all looking for those gateways to adventure. Earlier this summer I was finding my own escape through the banjo, violin, and other instruments of the Appalachian Mountains, following the sounds of Edie Brickell and Steve Martin in their songs of love lost and found again.
But while their music calmed my heart, it didn’t spark my writing, a must when I was finishing a couple short stories and finalizing a novel for its ARC release. I needed another portal, one of magic, of danger…
…and a little hope.
The soundtrack for Back to the Future has been on constantly in our house since Bo showed the time travel scenes to the kids. Biff now runs around yelling, “Doc, the flux capacitor isn’t working!” Bash rides his bike with the cry, “we gotta go back to the future!” (Blondie politely tolerates it all.) And really, what isn’t there to love in this Alan Silvestri score? The little excerpt you’re (hopefully) listening to right now from the second film starts with one of my favorite cues: the violin, piano, and chimes trilling downward like falling magic. There’s mystery in the minor, and just a touch of danger in the french horns as Future Doc must take do what he can to prevent Past Doc from seeing him.
The main theme for Back to the Future is one of THE great themes for adventure: the swelling cymbals and bombastic brass sweep you away into the impossible journey through time–not to the major landmarks of history like some Wild Stallions, nor to the future of other galaxies like certain Doctors. No no, just into the past of one boy’s family, where he is able to inspire his father and mother to be the strong, loving people he needs in his present. Like John Williams, Silvestri loves his brass, but the heroic, staccato brass can only carry us so far without the legato of running strings echoing accelerating us to 88 miles per hour so we, too, can vanish with a trail of fire behind us.
Oh, the 1980s did have a marvelous run of music, didn’t they? Here’s one I just had to share from another favorite composer, James Horner. When you think of Horner, you usually think of Star Trek, Aliens, or Titanic. Ah, but he’s done so many others, including this little guilty pleasure of mine…
Bo often pokes fun about Horner. “It all sounds like Wrath of Kahn and you know it.” NO, I say, even though…yeah, there are bits that will always make me think of Star Trek II (which is one of the greatest scores ever and yes, I will need to do a post dedicated entirely to that score sometime.). But as another fan commented on YouTube, the common threads in Horner’s music feels like it binds all these different universes together, making this life just one more epic adventure tied to the next. I love that concept, and come on–who wouldn’t want the stampede of trumpets, the melodic violins heralding their arrival? The galloping drums transport us across the vast alien landscape to rescue our kidnapped love doing their best to hide from a villain who sees all, knows all.
But more than anything, it’s the trumpets at the two-minute mark that just melt me. Oh, what a hero’s theme. The utter defiance in the face of omnipotent evil. No matter what mischief is worked, the hero comes through in those trumpets, riding on, never stopping until he rescues the one who was taken from him.
Of course there has been good music after the 1980s. Take The Pirates of the Caribbean, where the first film has a wonderfully lush score for its swashbucklers. Hans Zimmer is connected to this series, but the first film was composed by Klaus Badelt, who has worked with Zimmer on other scores like The Prince of Egypt and Gladiator. Badelt’s theme starts fast and never lets up for a heartbeat. Here the orchestra moves as one, crashing up against us as the ocean waves beat a ship’s hull, and the cannon smoke blinds men in their climb up and down ropes to protect the sails and seek out the forbidden land for treasure.
Or you may abandon the ships for an adventure on the land, where the desert is your sea, and your only hope is to drive on, drive fast, and never, ever, let them catch you.
Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) has become a go-to creator of action and adventure scores over the last twenty years. Whether you’re web-slinging with Spider-Man, defending a Dark Tower, or driving a mobile city to devour another, Holkenborg knows how to balance instruments and synth to create a force of unnatural power. You must move forward, you must heed the drums, you must flee the dissonance. You must summon all courage as the bass carries you, and when the strings break free from the percussion, you must fly or perish.
There is also adventure to be found in the music without a film. When I interviewed author Michael Scott oh so long ago, he recommended listening to trailer music on YouTube for writing inspiration. If it weren’t for him I would have never stumbled across the track that inspired my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth.
Unlike the western scores I shared at Night’s Tooth release, this music has no direct correlation to the western genre. It’s just drums, hands, guitars, and a whole lot of guts synthed together. When I first heard this, I imagined gunslingers running among bullet-torn walls while a hunter poises himself for transformation, snarling as he becomes a creature of night and fire and vengeance.
Jean Lee’s western, Night’s Tooth, takes readers back to the world of the River Vine, but in a different era- the Old West. Elements of a western, of real history, and of terrifying fantasy combined to make this a real page turner.
Amazon Reader Review
As Night’s Toothapproaches its birthday, I’m debating making the novella available in print as well as an e-book. I could maybe add some extras to the novella to make it worthwhile…a few of my other Princeborn short stories, perhaps? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
I’m also wrapping up preparations to share the ARC of my second novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen at the end of August. If you’ve not read the first novel but are interested in doing so, I’d be happy to connect you with it for a review!
I’ve been around a while and read my fair share of Fantasies, but it’s rare to find an artist who so capably commands her medium as does Jean Lee.
Her evil characters transcend malevolence, while her good characters are flawed enough to be their worthy opponents. I’ve never witnessed such a clash of forces and such mayhem as battled in the climax. I was literally exhausted when I finished it.
It’s good to know there are many books remaining in Jean Lee’s arsenal. We’ll be enjoying her brilliance for years to come.
Amazon Reader Review
Booksprout is a handy hub for catching ARCS from favorite indie authors, so if you’re keen for early access to Chosen, please visit my Booksprout page. If for whatever reason it’s not working and you’d like to have an ARC for a book review, just let me know!
Here is a quick taste of Fallen Princeborn: Chosen…
Ashes touch the air.
And a cackle.
A shriek, far and away.
Two entrances out of the Pits, both unlocked. One out in the woods.
And one inside Rose House.
“Liam!” Charlotte slams the patio door, locks it—idiot, it’s fucking glass—and bolts for the library.
Liam has yet to move, eyes closed, breath still slow.
“Liam you have to wake up!” Charlotte shakes him, cups his cheeks, brings her face close–dammit, this isn’t time for that. So she slaps his cheek instead. “Liam!” She yells in his ear.
Pounding, pounding below her feet.
They are coming.
Writers, we must keep fighting for our right to adventure. We must fly upon the backs of eagles, take to the line among those defending our personal Narnias, and conquer the darkness that would douse our creative fires. Let us share the music that carries us to victory and brings life when all would seem lost.
For the adventure. For the story. And for the music that inspires them both.
I’ll be sharing an extra post to announce when Fallen Princeborn: Chosen ARCS are readily available. I also have an interview lined up with a wonderful indie author as well as a return to the Queen of the Fantastic.
For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.
Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.
“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”
“Why does David go away to school?”
“Why is David’s family so mean?”
Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.
“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.
I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”
I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…
I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…
Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.
Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)
One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.
“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.” David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)
Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.
Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)
The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.
“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.” Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.” “What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.” “Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately. “I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)
It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.
It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.
“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.” It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did. … [said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)
David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.
“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)
Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)
Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.
And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.
Sound familiar? It does to David.
The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)
This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.
Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.
When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.” “Run for what?” said David. “Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)
Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”
I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.
Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.
Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.
David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”
“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.
“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”
Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.
It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)
Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.
Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.
I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!
–it is high time we take a look at the most powerful magic-wielders in any fantasy realm: the Wizard.
WIZARDS are normally intensely old. They live solitary lives, mostly in TOWERS or CITADELS, or in a special CITY which has facilities for study. They will have been studying MAGIC for centuries and, alas, the great majority have been seriously dehumanized by those studies. Two-thirds have become EVIL, possibly agents of the DARK LORD. The remaining GOOD one-third have become eccentrics or drunks or just very hard to understand. Evil or Good, Wizards are the strongest MAGIC USERS of all except for the DARK LORD and GODDESSES and GODS, and can usually be distinguished by the fact that they have long beards and wear ROBES.
You need to distinguish Wizards: if crossed, most Wizards get childishly offended and exact terrible revenge. Angry Wizards are likely to throw lumps of LANDSCAPE hither and thither, move MOUNTAINS, wave WEATHER systems about (see STORM CONTROL), hurl DEMONS, flood or bury CITIES, and pollute whole COUNTRIES with sleeting Magics. This is how the WIZARDS’ WAR seems to have come about: too many Wizards got too annoyed at once.
As a result, full-scale Magic Wars have been prohibited by the Rules. Nowadays most Wizards are bored. Evil ones have to occupy their time with BREEDING PROGRAMMES and plans to rein over the world. Good Wizards could not do this, and so the Tours have come as a godsend to them. Some Good Wizards can accompany the Tourists as MENTORS, and all of them have fun bossing the show and delivering PROPHECIES or cryptic advice. And the Management in its turn is grateful to the Wizards, both for making the Tours so interesting and for obligingly putting all teh Landscape back together again after each Final CONFRONTATION, so that the next Tour may visit Fantasyland and find it whole and entire, as if as always.
I do so love Jones’ take on the Wizards’ War consisting of a bunch of annoyed Wizards in a snit with one another. I can only imagine she had this in mind as she crafted the world around the country of Ingary and its own population of witches and wizards, many with temperaments liable to bring about pools of green ooze or something worse: a curse.
So, let us all keep in mind the importance of Wizard Etiquette, shall we? One never knows, after all, just who walks by us on the street…
HOW TO INTERACT WITH WIZARDS
Treat all Wizards with the utmost politeness, even if one of them is your Tour MENTOR and you are trying to bully her/him into providing some action or telling you something. Remember that Wizards do not need anything from you and do not like to be coerced. Even the smiling ones with bushy eyebrows are touchy on this point.
Evil Wizards are liable to immure you in ice, bury you alive, or just transmit you to the Breeding Pens as food for their MONSTERS. Be highly civil.
Good Wizards do not go so far. They will just remove your skin and then make you itch. Be very courteous. Poor Wizards, who are back at MAGIC, need to be treated with even greater politeness, unctuously in fact. If they botch the SPELL they put you on in anger, they might turn you into anything an then not be able to undo it. Positively crawl to these.
And, please, please, never attempt to seduce a female Wizard. The consequences can be terrible.
Thank you all so very much for travailing with me through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland! We didn’t get to all the people and places I had hoped (the Crone, oh heaven, the Crone!), but I’m thankful for how far we could go together. I can’t wait to spend June catching up with you as I teach summer school, university, and attend school for another Masters. I’m also excited share a few fun interviews, some music, some lessons learned, and God-willing, some WRITING.
But first…the larch. The. Larch.
Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one. 🙂 I’m in such a loopy mood…ANYway, I just wanted to say I’ll be sharing a new Diana Wynne Jones analysis with you just as May departs us. The kiddos have been mightily enjoying our lunchtime read, and the last chapter awaits us tomorrow. What did we read? What did we learn? Stay tuned and find out!
Cheers, my friends, for it is Friday at long last! It might be a tad early for beer, but I think you’d like to share a tall order of joy with me. x
We’re deep, deep, deep into our Diana Wynne Jones read-aloud at home. Though the boys often ask for pictures from the story (and I answer, “Make the picture in your mind”), all the kids are happily enjoying the adventure. I’m hoping Blondie will take to the audio version of Howl’s Moving Castledue to arrive any day now in the library–yes, the libraries will be opening! REJOICE!–and maybe, just maybe, will want to read more Jones of her own accord.
Speaking of Jones, she’s got some delightfully delectable definitions of dastardly deviants and other d-words in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland. We must begin, of course, with the dungeons I had mentioned last time.
DUNGEONS are the first thing to be built when anyone is planning a large BUILDING. Even Town Halls tend to have them. The Rules state that Dungeons are damp and small and a long way underground. If the Tourist being confined is lucky, there will be a small barred window too high up to reach, through which the contents of the moat trickle, and old straw on the ground. There will be a thick door (locked) with a small shutter in where what passes (only just) for FOOD can be thrown in at prisoners, generally dropping it tantalizingly an inch out of reach, and there will always be rings in the walls carrying chains and sometimes old bones too. It is all designed to make you feel low. There may even be scutterings that could be rats (but see ANIMALS). The average stay in such a place is, for Tourists, twenty-four hours. If the Dungeon is a pit of the type called an oubliette, on the other hand, you are justified in slight melancholy. It will be several days before someone lowers a rope to you and hauls you out.
Now while a town’s jail cell doesn’t sound all that intimidating, I can only imagine the dungeon of THE villain in Fantasyland would be another matter.
DARK LORD. There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS, of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black (see COLOUR CODING) and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on. You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your COMPANIONS, without too much effort. However, the Rules state that at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by MAGIC. So be careful.
Such Dark Lords are often the responsibility of whatever plagues the Fantasyland, for they are the root of all Danger.
DANGER is everywhere in Fantasyland. You will be in Danger from the first step you take on your Tour, starting with the intruder with a knife on your first night, then running through ASSASSINS and DEMONS on to WIZARDS and bad QUEENS and finally the DARK LORD–not to speak of AMBUSHES in between and subtle Dangers devised by ENCHANTRESSES. You will spend a lot of time fleeing. In order not to live in a state of perpetual abject Terror, you must remember that in Fantasyland, Danger has an actual SMELL (aka, Reek of Wrongness). Watch for this Smell. HORSES are good at detecting it. When there is any threat to safety, recognise what the Horses are sniffing and from then on you can relax until the moment you smell it.
All the talk of smelling danger got me thinking about my protagonist Charlotte in Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. She depends on her sense of smell not only to get accustomed to strange surroundings, but to alert her to danger…and help.
Charlotte breathes in as she steps down, the last passenger to get off the bus. Her nose tells her that the bus has leaked its gasoline all over the highway, that the man with the fry pan ears hasn’t bathed in days, and that a predator killed its prey somewhere in the surrounding forest two, if not three, days ago….
*** Charlotte sees seats of soft leather, new carpet, a bathroom, a table piled high with cakes and fruit and cans of soda. Yet all she smells is rot and blood. She shakes her head again and again, as if whatever gunk had died in her nose just needs to be blown out…
*** Charlotte lowers the blade. No, Arlen’s not the threat here, and neither’s Dorjan. Dorjan could have ripped her to pieces, and Arlen could have poisoned her. And both bear a scent Charlotte long thought dead in the world: nobility.
Another d-word that got me thinking about Princeborn was Jones’ entry for a female villain.
DARK LADY. There is never one of these–so see DARK LORD instead. The Management considers that male Dark Ones have more potential to be sinister, and seldom if ever employs a female in this role. This is purely because the Management was born too late to meet my Great Aunt Clara.
I was honestly surprised by this one. A lead female villain was first and foremost on my mind for Princeborn.
Crack! The lowest branches split the trunk open, yet its brittle orange leaves refuse to fall. The white wood creaks and curves as it opens like a great flower, bends back, rejoins, and is made whole again. The tree has become a throne, and on it sits the Lady.
Hell of an entrance.
She’s draped in a silver dress that hangs limply around her shoulders. Her skin glows like the tree, her white-blond hair matchstick straight. She leans to the side and holds her chin in her hand. A long white finger traces her smile. “So. You are the outsider that intrigues my loyal adviser. Welcome.” She rises. “I am Orna, Lady of the Pits, Ruler of the River Vine Velidevour.”
Everyone bows—all except Cein, who beams with pride, and Charlotte, who doesn’t give a fuck. Even the branches demonstrate their fealty, bending low to crown her body in orange gold and form a stairwell to the ground.
Charlotte tilts the blood dagger so the Lady can see it reflect light off its steel feathers. “I want my sister back.”
Surely there are plenty of wicked women in fantasy literature, aren’t there? Are they always second bananas to the primary villain? I would love to hear your comments on this, if you have the chance. I know I’ve been quiet on my comments and yours lately, and I apologize. This new term is utilizing some sort of new learning software takes forever to use, so I’m constantly fielding student complaints while being unable to actually fix anything. It sucks, I don’t like it, let’s close this post out with a link to my novel that you can now purchase for 99 cents.
POSTING UPDATE: There’s been a gaff with Amazon over the sale. Please stay tuned for updates in future posts.
If you already own it, my deepest thanks for buying! If you’ve already left a review, YOU ARE AMAZING. If you haven’t had a chance to review it yet, now’s the time! I’ll be back here tomorrow with Blondie to celebrate her years upon this earth, and to likely discuss talking dogs, as they are just as awesome as dragons as far as Blondie’s concerned.
Happy Saturday, one and all! I’m reveling in the last bit of springtime sunshine before rain and snow slush their way through Wisconsin in the next 48 hours. I can only imagine how fun it would be to hide the kids’ eggs in the snow…
(No, I’m not evil, but I may be driven to that evil if the kids can’t stop fighting for %^@$&# minutes.)
Yeah, it’s been a rough week. I had hoped to update everyone on Wednesday, but between teaching my kids and teaching my own university students, the time to write you wasn’t there.
Plenty of time to ponder, though, especially as I cleaned Biff’s puke out of the car. (No, he’s not sick. Apparently the string cheese from one of the community lunches must have been bad, because he puked two minutes after eating it and was totally fine afterwards. I’ve smelled a lot of puke in my days, but cheese puke is right up there as one of the worst.)
Anyway. As one who sits on both sides of the educator’s desk–
–we gotta talk.
Teachers EVERYWHERE are overwhelmed and frustrated. Unless you’ve been trained to teach online and have a class structure that functions online, you are flying by the seat of your pants to make what were paper assignments doable online. You’re having parents take pictures of homework in the paper packets you had to send home because many of your kids don’t have the technology or Internet capabilities to submit anything online. So many of your lesson plans depended on in-person classroom time, and now you have to learn how to mediate an online meeting with kids who may or may not have any other person in the same room with them, which can make it impossible to reign in behavioral issues.
And even if you ARE one of the lucky ones who is already trained to teach online in a well-established online classroom, you’re STILL dealing with students not logging in, not reaching out, not submitting work. And for all you know these students are sick, or have loved ones suffering, or simply don’t care. Without any communication, you have no idea. And that terrifies you.
Parents EVERYWHERE are overwhelmed and frustrated. It’s like the teachers assume parents can just pick up the lesson plans where teachers left off. They expect students to accomplish 6-8 subjects in a day with or without any meeting via phone or chat. They expect parents to create picture-perfect photos of completed work, and God forbid the kid uses a pencil like she’s supposed to because the pencil never shows up in the photos. And even though you hear from teachers not to push the kids too hard, they assign several daily tasks to be completed online–you know, on the computer YOU are supposed to be using for YOUR job if you still have one. Not tiny tasks, either–30 minutes on this program, 30 minutes on that program. Make sure they take this quiz, read this book, complete X squares of Phy Ed. Bingo and show, SHOW they completed those squares by videotaping them, and don’t forget creativity! Make this chalk! Make these toilet paper tube animals! Make this clay!
And this is all assuming your teachers are on the same page. God help you if you have twins with different teachers, who despite teaching the same grade in the same school assign COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS. One has to spend time on Program A while the other’s supposed to check out Program Q and fill in a story diagram, but the one needs to go to Program H and learn this song and sing it back while the other has to recite poetry from Program T and identify diaphrams and ENOUGH.
We gotta take a moment, and we gotta breathe.
While I am desperate to create school days that keep my three Bs engaged and excited to learn, I know I am not the same as any of their teachers. Even my three do not fit into any sort of one-size-fits-all learning mentality; while Blondie and Biff can both self-motivate to accomplish school jobs, Bash constantly struggles to focus his ideas, all of them brilliant, but always “too much work” to put down. He sees his brother and sister make it all look so easy, and he gets even more stuck in how he’s not yet done. He’s not done yet because he must be stupid. He IS stupid. He’s always stupid.
Anxiety’s not the only emotional struggle, either. Blondie keeps hearing the boys on their programs and asks why SHE doesn’t get to do any fun computer games like they do. Biff sees how short his work list is and complains I’m making him do extra stuff–though all I’m doing is having him follow the same work schedule as Bash.
All the while I fear that if I don’t push them at least a little, that if I solely leave them to whatever the teachers have dumped into my inbox, that they will lose the learning stamina they’d slowly gained over the school year.
Surely there is a calm somewhere in this storm.
So far, I’ve found success–small, but consistent–with establishing themes for their school day. No matter what the teachers assign, we will gather to read a little, write a little, and explore a little. I will have them practice handwriting with cool facts about outer space, go on a virtual field trip with an astronaut or to facilities like Boeing via Discovery Education, and then do a space-related experiment through Mystery Science. We’ll read a couple bug books together, write neat bug facts, watch an episode of Monster Bug Wars, then check out bugs with Blondie’s microscope. We’ll listen to the birdsong outside and try to spot who’s chirping and draw the birds for science, then read about nests and write bird facts. We’ll tour Washington DC, read about a president, and then design our own monument for the capital. We’ll visit the Lego House in Denmark, write facts about Lego, and then experiment with building Lego boats.
You may see that in all my themes there is one task running throughout: handwriting. No computer game, video, etc. is going to make a kid work on his handwriting, such a vital fine motor skill that could easily atrophy if left out of the plan.
Am I overloading the day? I probably ain’t helping it much. But I know that school should be more than just a bunch of computer games and worksheets. Even one hour of these themed activities sprinkled throughout the day gives the kids a chance to feel like they’re together learning something. And any learning community is better than no community at all.
Click hereand herefor a mix of online and printed resources I’ve been using to keep the homeschooling humming along.
So parents and teachers–take a sec to breathe. We’re all of us overwhelmed. We’re all of us scared. We’re all of us praying our children’s futures aren’t lost to the lock-down. So long as we show our students of all ages that yes, we care, yes, we want to see them succeed, and yes, we can only do our best until things change for the better, then just maybe we can keep that spark of curiosity alive while the school windows remain dark.
A blessed Easter to you all! May your day be one of peace and hope and not, well, this…
The whole cartoon is here, in case you’re in the mood. 🙂
Darnit, I almost forgot! The whole “Write at Home” thing and how that’s coming…weeeeell it’s slow. Very, very slow, but it’s there. Fellow teacher, mom, and indie author Anne Clare recommended keeping the goals in easy reach; unlike many writers on social media who speak of how much writing time they now have because of the lock-down, we parents in the crowd are all–
–so yeah. No “I can write my whole novel at last!” going on here, let alone a bunkerin’ down at Camp NaNoWriMo.
Writers, there’s always SO much we want to do, but if we don’t pace ourselves our eyes’ll never stop twitching.
I’ve narrowed myself down to three projects–not to complete, per say, but to at least develop.
Fallen Princeborn Series Arc. YES, yes, I still want to make progress on that series despite all that’s happened after the first book came out. The problem is that I still don’t like how the series itself wraps up. Until I create a series synopsis with milestone events that both fit the characters and my vision, then I can at least finish the edits for the second book.
Academic article. Creative writing is nice and all, but universities want to see professional writing from its teachers, too. My department chair has said in no uncertain terms that if I want to advance my career, I must publish something for academia, sooooo I need to get that started.
Short Story Submission. I already have one short piece out for consideration, and I’d like to complete one more before spring is over.
Speaking of short stories, thank you to all who’ve voted for my revamped “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer”!
If you haven’t had a chance to vote yet, please do so–every tally counts in increasing the story’s chances for acceptance into a local anthology. Click here to vote!
Unsure what you’re voting for?
In a few days I will share the worldbuilding process of this story with you, showing that even when confined to one’s home, there are entire lands of magic and mayhem just outside one’s window.
Later on, I’ll recommend some of the books that the three Bs and I have enjoyed reading together. I also want to tune you in to some amazing music (har har) to help you escape those same ol’ four walls and find yourself in a blissful Other-Where.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.
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 Thronesproved 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.