#writing #music: Mark Mothersbaugh

61lm7CkCpqL._SS500What makes music epic?

Brass. All those horns just blasting bombastic harmonies.

Strings going to blazes and back.

Percussion pounding the heartbeats of heroes.

And don’t forget the choirs: lots of celestial singing for the unnatural nature of these  more-than-mortals.

What makes music cosmic?

This is where the synthetic can weave something new in the orchestral tapestry.

In the soundtrack to Thor: Ragnarok, Mark Mothersbaugh takes the epic aesthetic one  associates with the Norse gods and braids it gleefully with the cosmic synth to give us an entirely unique aural perception of a displaced hero fighting his way out of an alien environment.

Of all the tracks, I feel this to the best example of synth and orchestra duking it out for story’s sake:

We begin with a synth arpeggio that quickly swells into percussion, choir, brass, and strings. The hero is showing his mettle, but he is not in his element. At 1:00 there is just, oh, this brilliant fall felt in the battle drums and synth arpeggio. The synth occasionally overwhelms the orchestra: the villain is winning. Then right around 2:30 it feels like the strings are changing sides as they finger-slide amidst new arpeggios, challenging the brass to rise up, strike back. Choir and battle drums silence both in the final moment.

Who won?

Story-tellers, that’s who.

Music with this narrative power inspires the most uncertain writer to hand off their beers, roll up their sleeves, and tell their characters, “Now this is how you do it.”

I had this very moment with my hero and heroine not too long ago. Running from the villains they knew, I discovered new characters eager to snatch the heroes out of their environment and drag them into a location deep under water. The heroes are cornered in this alien place. Escape is surely impossible. The logical course of action is surrender.

Not gonna happen, Story-teller Me says. Hold my beer, and let me show you how it’s done.

Who the hell can surrender with this music on? Synth joins drums and calls the heroes to fight the undefeatable with the impossible and come out victorious even as the bars of imprisonment clang shut.

But I should be honest: these aren’t the songs that drove me to call Bo in the middle of his workday and tell him I needed him to hit a music store.

“Wait, you want me to buy music?”

(Bo’s CD collection is, admittedly, immense.)

Yes, I said, I need the score to Thor: Ragnarok.

“But you haven’t seen the movie.”

So?

“Then how do you know the music?”

YouTube. But the commercials suck and I need that music.

“What for?”

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

(I may have growled for good measure.)

“Okay, okay!” He comes home with the last copy (and a really nice Ennio Morricone collection for himself, but blah blah, that’s for another post).

One of the beautiful problems of imagination is that it’s not often a one-road traveler. It wants to go everywhere, meet everyone, see everything. Even in the most boring of places, our imagination sees more. My son taught me that. 

My sons have both been a source of heartache lately. The class bully has decided to target Bash with hurtful friendship. Biff’s teacher and principal have had to speak to me many times about his temper. One wanders friendless around the school yard, talking only to the teachers, while the other’s willing to hurt another child because if he doesn’t, the bully won’t be his friend any more.

I think on this often as I drive Blondie to her school one town over. Would  the boys be dealing with these same problems ten years from now? Good God, fifteen-year-olds, so wonderfully smart and creative, but also distant, violent, and too damn eager to please. Would they ever be friends in their own right? What would drive them to work together, as a team?

And a synth arpeggio flowed through my mind as I saw them on the run for their lives. What chases them? What’s waiting for them? Will they change for the better, or worse?

I dug through Tron Legacy, thinking the notes from Daft Punk, but they weren’t. They seemed to be of  their own creation, but I knew better. I had to have heard them from somewhere.

Providence: After a round of King Arthur, YouTube mixes things up with Thor: Ragnarok. 

There it is: the arpeggio.

And there they are: my sons, fighting, together. Brothers bound in blood, and in soul.

God-willing I’ll have time to write this story in the next few years. These brothers have already run so far through its many lands, met some bloodthirsty and bizarre characters. Like their little selves, they’re eager to sit me down and tell me all about it. I’m so sorry, little loves (for you’ll always be my little loves), that you have to show your patience, and wait for another story to be told first. But I have your fall into adventure. You share it with the heroes born alongside your sister. This music is for you all, and will keep your adventures burning bright inside me until your turn comes to race onto the page.

 

 

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#lessons Learned from #GarthEnnis and @DarickR: #Write #Heroes Who Know No Odds.

We’ve all read, have maybe even written, the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds. There’s usually an evil army involved, a small band of good ragamuffins, a touch of something magic or uber-powerful, and KABLAM! Good guys win–with a death or two–but Victory! Woohoo!

But I’m not here to talk about the heroes against typical maniacal-laughter-evil.

I’m talking about the hero against Monsters. Monsters so many of us know too damn well in our childhood nights, in our present nightmares.

And no one carves such a moment like Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson in The Boys.the_boys1-e1305121951979

The Boys was a comics series that ran in the mid-2000s and remains the only series Bo and I read together. In fact, we would take turns with the kids just so the other could read the latest issue. Then, with kids in bed, we would talk, giddy with awe and fascination over how screwed up this world is, but so bloody true at the same time. We couldn’t wait to see the villainy behind the villainy. We both cried at the series’ climax. I would love to do a few more posts to study character development here, because there is just…damn, it’s GOOD.

But you have to be prepared for it. The premise for the world itself is simple:

What if superheroes had no morals?

Everything we know in this reality’s superhero mythos gets turned on its head with that question. The super “heroes” in The Boys are nothing but publicity stunts, but these are genetically modified publicity stunts: these “heroes” and “villains” have all the powers, but this time, all their “battles” and such are planned by the corporation that owns them.

The Boys are those that keep the corporation and “supes,” as they’re called, from decimating the planet.

Hughie is the newest member, and whose perspective is used to tell this arc. His girlfriend dies during a “fight” between two supes whose lightning speed leads to Hughie’s girlfriend being crushed against a wall, her arms still in Hughie’s hands. The corporation tries to buy his silence.

He refuses.

So Butcher, leader of The Boys, picks him up, modifies him, and puts him to work.

6203292One such adventure involves infiltrating the G-Men after one of their original members commits a public suicide. As you may have guessed, the G-Men is Ennis and Robertson’s version of the X-Men. And like the X-Men, there are gobs of different G groups, all of which give their humble beginnings to John Godolkin, the Professor Xavier of the G-Men. Like the X-Men, the G-Men are sold to the public as outcasts and runaways, taken under Godolkin’s wing to become a strong fighting force, a family spanning generations. And family they are: there are the adult groups, the teen group G-Wiz, and even a child group, Pre-Wiz.

That child group is nothing but six-year-olds.

Hughie and The Boys uncover the G-Men’s orphan ploy is just a cover: Godolkin literally  plucks children off the streets, modifies them, and turns them into “heroes.”

And his sexual playthings.

And the sexual playthings for other G-Men.

If one member dares speak of anything to anyone, they are killed by a fellow G-Man. Period.

This happens, and viciously too, to the teenager telling Hughie and The Boys. A G-Man transports himself into the scene just long enough to drive his fist through the boy’s skull–“Silence is golden!”

The Boys turn, and there stands every member of every G group.

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Hughie’s horrified. As you can see, the other members of The Boys are not. They’re sizing up the situation, and yeah–it’s pretty grave.

When the leader Butcher is prepared to leave, Hughie turns, sees the body of the boy…

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That moment. That right there. Hughie’s one guy. One guy against dozens upon dozens of supes. He knows what they’re capable of.

And he doesn’t care.

Because he’s going to kill himself some fucking monsters.

I still remember reading this for the first time, and bawling. Pull off the costumes, and this is one soul up against the child molesters who always get off, who are believed perfect, wonderful, amazing. There’s no way one soul can stand against such a force.

But that soul stands against them anyway. He doesn’t give a piss if he stands alone. He just knows that he’s standing, dammit, and taking down whomever he can with him.

That. That, is a hero readers will root for to the very last page of the very last story.

Not just the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds.

But the Hero Against the Monsters We Know.

 

 

 

She’s a pantser. He’s a planner. Can This Creative Duo Really Get Along?

Creation. It’s a process both universal and unique. We all create with words, or cameras, or music. That’s universal. But how we go about it is unique to each and every one of us.

I speak often here about the inspiration found in music and photography. I know my storytelling would be lost without it, while some of you dear friends have mentioned the need for silence while writing to be free of distractions. Reasonable, I suppose.

But one thing I’ve never been good with is a plan. Oh, I’ve had them. I’ve made them for National Novel Writing Month projects so I can barrel through the major scenes and reach that precious 50,000 word goal. I’ve used them in the revision process so I can figure out where the plot went wonky.

When I’m writing an untimed rough draft, though, I loathe them.

So of course, I’m now working with one of the planniest planners out there, Michael Dellert.

mike5aMichael created his Matter of Manred universe several years ago, but more recently brought it to the page with his books Hedge King in Winter, Merchant’s Tale, The Romance of Eowainand The Wedding of EithneMichael knows his characters inside and out. He knows the land and all its settlements. He knows the population of each settlement and how much they earn. Hell, he even knows the weather on any given day.

Me? I don’t know the weather until I need the weather to do something. I don’t know my characters until they speak up. I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen over the next hillside until they get there.

And somehow, these two different creative methods are going to make a cohesive story?

I admit, when Michael first approached me about co-writing a short story, I couldn’t help but think of a story told on Milwaukee radio years ago about “tandem writing”…

“It’ll be fun,” Michael promised.

Uh huh…

“Eowain and the Boar” will tell of King Eowain’s mysterious hunt into enemy territory accompanied by his men and my Shield Maiden Gwenwledyr. He sent me a character list, a plot outline. Information about hunting and horses. I stared at it all, rubbing my temples. When I wrote Middler’s Pride, I just went where Gwen took me. I didn’t think she’d actually make friends. I hoped she’d have a change of heart, and she did…sort of.

While I enjoy writing with Gwen’s mischievous and superior attitude towards everyone, I still get antsy working with characters whom I didn’t, well, raise. It’s rather like having a bunch of kids over for a birthday party: you want them all to get along and play the games nicely together, but you really don’t know those kids. You don’t know if they’re just going to shove each other down instead of race, or wreck one another’s airplanes before the flying contest starts, etc.

So I just did what I always do: I let Gwen blab.

54ac121481fa5e11e12f29c32bcfa83bYou again. I begin to think you loiter about awaiting entertainment that pleases you. Well, let the records show I am no bard, fool, or minstrel. Indeed, Master Peculiar Wayfarer from—ye gods, wherever people find your attire acceptable—I am a legend in these parts. I’ve slain magick-wielders, dueled soldiers, battled cursed warriors, wreaked vengeance—

Alone? Er, no, not entirely. I had a few of my fellow Shield Maidens along with me. They helped a bit.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re like her ladyship—you want answers about that hunt, don’t you? Can’t say I blame you. It was a curious affair, to say the least, what with the king and his—

Hmm.

You’re not from their side, are you? I have seen a few of them with that sort of, I’ll say, look of the hair. No?

Amazing how quickly Gwen’s voice takes over. If I let her speak, a story started to spill out. Maybe this could work after all!

But I don’t know the King. Or the other characters. Or where we’re even going.

i-thought-you-were-smart

Well, neither does Gwen. So for now I think I’ll let Gwen show me which characters she gives a toss about, and which she doesn’t even bother learning names. Somewhere in her incessant epic-weaving will be the pieces Michael needs to stitch up with his own narrator, the young acolyte Adarc. Somehow, two people who have never met in person will take two narrators who’ve never met in their universe tell a story. The story must be clear. It must ring true. It must be an experience felt in the senses and beneath.

Just like any other story.

But as the joy of storytelling is known to all, the joys felt by story-teller and story-listener are unique. And here we fade to a cold winter’s night, where a queen sits, heavy with child and fearful for her husband and king, waiting to learn the truth from two young adventurers…

 “You just make yourself comfortable, your ladyship, while Master-Know-It-All Adarc finds a midwife or three to catch your child…because—well, let’s face it, your ladyship: this isn’t the happiest of stories.”

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Want to hear Michael’s side of things? Click here.

And be sure to check out Go Indie Now on October 4th for a little chat Michael and I have about collaboration.

 

 

#writing #music: Daniel Pemberton

When I listen to the music flowing beneath a film, I search for tributaries. Could this music tell more than one story, or is its course reinforced with concrete, impossible to divert?  Some scores are simply too entrenched to draw elsewhere, such as John Williams’ work for Superman and Jaws. Other scores tell the narrative their own way with music, and in that narrative arc flow many streams of story. One need only pick the flow to follow.

John Powell is one such composer, whom I’ve written of before, as well as Daft Punk. I still remember the excitement in me when I heard they were composing for Tron: Legacy, and knew that, if nothing else, the music would be amazing.

But the less said about that film, the better. No, I wanted to touch on Daft Punk because this year I felt that same excitement in discovering a composer previously unknown to me, one whose work I’m most assuredly going to dig through in the coming months:

Daniel Pemberton.

So I’m a sucker for a good fantasy film. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its flaws with pacing and use of characters for plot propulsion, but there’s amazing aural storytelling to be found in this “175m music video.”*

In the first moments, you already feel a knowledge of old brilliance:

That lone violin pays homage to another master composer, Ennio Morricone, and his use of a music box to elicit feelings of love lost and revenge throughout the film For a Few Dollars More.

That connection sparked in my first viewing, and brought a smile to my face. I knew I was about to listen to someone who knew the power music has in cinematic narrative.

And I was right.

This theme blends period strings and electric guitar with such a gutteral heaviness that you can feel the weight of chains upon you. You’re being marched into a bleak land of little hope. Had Pemberton amped up the pacing here, he’d have something rather steampunky (rather like Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes, I’d say), but he didn’t, and I’m glad. The rhythm of trudgery emphasizes the setting into which Arthur is born and raised.

“Gutteral” is a term I use as a compliment because it’s so bloody perfect with Arthur’s character. Guy Ritchie’s film has Arthur orphaned and raised by prostitutes in a brothel. He’s a boy of the streets, doing anything and everything to make a little money and protect those who didn’t have to raise him, but did.  Just listen to how the bows scrape along the strings to create almost-notes. The plucking and drums evoke a sense of dim lights, warm beer, and sly talk.

The human body itself is even an instrument in Pemberton’s score.

Breathing plays a role in a number of tracks, and for good reason: Arthur is a fighter, then literally on the run for his life. The breathing carries a determination to survive, but a desperation, too. He hasn’t the magical knowledge of the sage (the less said about her, the better), nor has he the confidence of his father’s knights. Pulling Excalibur out of the stone pulled him out of his own element, and he’s constantly catching up to understand just what the hell is going on. And as “Run Londinium” climaxes, Pemberton shows that all that frustration, desperation, and confusion is going to explode in the height of the fight to survive.

Okay, last one, I promise. I just had to show how, like Morricone, Pemberton uses the lone violin in the climax to bring this story full circle: from murder to vengeance. From child to hero.

Give Pemberton a listen. Watch your characters toddle, play, saunter, run. Fight. Survive. Thrive.

Live.

Click here for more on Pemberton’s Score. 

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*A reference in Daniel Pemberton’s Twitter feed that made me laugh.

Writer’s Music: Emmylou Harris

Rage.f2abca9241eb60fdc6dca8b43b8a7c9c--irish-art-irish-mythology

Burning. Vicious.

Fearful.

Righteous. Determined.

Painful.

There are those songs that evoke a moment with such clarity that the world cowers behind a fog of silver. The universe narrows itself until all is void but for this bare ground and air, where beasts and heroes entwine. Such is “Fire in the Blood”–when done right.

I have used music from the score Lawless before, which also contains music from an artist I’ve used before, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. But “Fire in the Blood” is different. Not only is it used three different times on the score, but it’s sung by two different artists with a different twist on it every time. Ralph Stanley’s weathered voice brings a nostalgic atmosphere with the lyrics. Nostalgia is not what I need.

Emmylou Harris’ first version is sweet and mild. The strings move fluidly as the river, indefinite as to melody or climax. Harris’ voice moves as footsteps across a river’s stones, guiding one to the meadow where fingers run through blades of grass and rake fresh earth.

But I do not want sweet or kind. I need a heart beaten and crippled and thrown into the corner. I want that cornered creature to look up wide-eyed in anger and panic, knowing the only way out is through the beast.

Here, the strings have soured in dissonance. Bows scrape indefinite sounds intended to be music. Harris’ own voice has gone widdershins against the wind, all harmony lost, its beauty not gone, but no longer what it was.

In this brief minute, I saw one of the turning points for my heroine Wynne: the moment her true love is captured by the wealthy, mysterious Prydwen, and crippled before her eyes.

Jean LeeSnarls rumbled in the low branches. Swift, eager sniffs and snaps of jaws. “Y-you c-c-c—“ I needed to speak, but fear found new footing inside me and crushed my heart. I struggled against the hold of that guard, but he was so bloody strong I could not break free. Oh for a weapon that day! “You can’t!”

A row of five muzzles broke through the foliage. I saw their lips quiver against yellowed, pointed teeth. Prydwen’s hand remained up. “Can’t I?” He snapped his fingers.

Vicious biting, howling, Morthwyl’s screams it was all so red, death could only be a blessing, Annwn take us both! But they would not attack me no matter how I screamed for them to find my throat. They only fought over Morthwyl’s leg for moment, after moment, after moment, when flesh and bone turned to mangled playthings among the hounds.

Prydwen snapped again, and the hounds dropped Morthwyl and ran into the night.

Blood rained from Morthwyl’s lips as he spoke, “No one will believe your story, I’ll tell the—“ Prydwen’s hand clamped Morthwyl’s mouth shut, and that smooth face stretched into…into I know not. Something unreal, un-right. “You will tell no one. Your very body will keep my secret for me. Such is the magick I know. I can guide your hand to drive a dagger through your chest if I so choose, but this gentle,” he shook Morthwyl’s mangled limb, “reminder should be adequate for my bride to understand her proper place.”

Morthwyl was breathing through his teeth, growling like the animal I knew Prydwen to be. How dare, how dare he do such a thing, but I…I felt so, so powerless… “Leave him, please, just leave him alone,” I was begging, and did not care, and crying, and did not care. He had broken and bewitched my love’s body. What hope could I hold for escape, for a future?

Prydwen arose. He brushed mud and scraps of Morthwyl’s leg off his cloak. He ran those ringed fingers through his hair, and at once he became the elegant tradesman of mystery my sisters swooned over. “Leave him alone, after my own hounds did such a thing? Not at all, my Lady. No, I will ensure his family is handsomely compensated for my beasts’ mistake, and that the boy wants for nothing. I will have a guard visit his home every day to check upon his health, his needs. He will be under my ever-watchful care day after day, year after year.” He stared hard at his own palms, then sighed deeply. “There is simply no other recourse. I care not for this, but even now, I see it in your face. You would betray me, even with such a gift lain at your feet.”

“A gi–!” I could not finish. His palm smelled of Morthwyl’s sweat and tears. To taste Morthwyl like this, and fear it the last!

“Your lips cannot speak of what has happened. You can only say you found the smithy’s son on your way to visit me, your betrothed. You cried out, and because of you, this boy will not die. Is that not so?”

His eyes burned as the slaver’s brand. He was burning me, burning my soul and heart for his own, his hate and want so powerful, too powerful for my love, too young love, I had to let Morthwyl go to save him—

—and yet something stirred in those ashes Morthwyl’s magick left in my mouth. Something new in me that I had not yet known found my heart, called it out of hiding for a different hope:

The hope of vengeance.

Find your hero’s song of vengeance. They will need that fire in their blood to conquer all you’ve placed in their path.

Lesson Learned in Writer’s Music from the Rolling Stones: Don’t Misunderstand your Villain.

sympathy_for_the_devil_coverA rare moment when I get to listen to music of my own choosing during the daylight hours. The moment comes with sacrifice: no writing.

Normally, when I take the boys to school, I walk to a bookshop a few blocks away and settle in for a morning of school work and writing. Today, however, was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school one town over. “You can come this time, right Mommy?” Her toothless smile looked tenuous. She was so used to hearing “I can’t come because I’d have to bring the boys.” “I can’t leave the boys behind.” “I can’t when I have work, honey.” I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve written before how hard it is to get time without her brothers. This time I gave her a hug and said, “I can’t come for the whole thing.”

She groaned.

“But, I can be there in the morning for a little while.”

Blondie’s smile broke loose and spread to her toes, throwing her into a hopping frenzy. “You can dance with me at brain break! And see my desk! And hear my story!”

So here I am, driving between schools, with, of all things, the Rolling Stones blasting because it’s the only CD that’s not Weird Al” Yankovic or Veggie Tales. “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on, and my mind starts to wander…

Why, of all beings in the big ol’ Cosmos, would we give sympathy to the Devil? Yet, well, as writers, that is what we want to do. I’ve read stories where the villain has less development than Snidely Whiplash of the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, all cackles and mustache twirling, and have been utterly, utterly bored.

Now 2-D characters do have their place, like, say, Michael Myers of Halloween, but slasher films are where cookie-cutter characters thrive best: The Virgin. The Jock. The Slut. The Jealous Boyfriend/Girlfriend. The Nerd. Etc.

When it comes to novels, we need more than one-note characters: we need songs, harmonies, percussion, the whole sonata. And not just from the hero.

We want to be just as intrigued with the one whom the hero is up against.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

There’s something to the tribal feel of the percussion here counter-balancing the piano. A unique style of class. It makes me picture a man with tailored suit and cane, someone at ease in the bar who for all his drink loses not one iota of wit, something like Alex from Clockwork Orange. Just listen to that opening stanza: He’s polite. Rich. Cultured. Seasoned. Sounds rather like a philanthropist, doesn’t he? One who smiles sincerely as he offers you a drink and a stool in return for your ear…

…and soul.

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

He starts with one of his oldest and dearest triumphs. You’d think this would turn you away, that you’d never want to listen to someone who sealed the fate of Christ. Yet you’re still sitting there, because here’s a man who reveals Christ had doubt. He takes the Big Good Guy and shows He’s no better than the rest of us. Everything feels a bit more level now, doesn’t it? Those Hoidy-Toidies ain’t got nuthin’ better than us.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

How curious this man wants us to guess his name. But he, like most villains, wants to be known. Understood. And what drives him? All villains need something to keep them on the path they’ve chosen.

And for this particular fellow, it is one of the most basic and most frightening of motivations.

He’s bored.

All that he shares with you is part of his “game,” and as he shares, the music builds and you find yourself awestruck and horrified and fascinated all at once…

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

How can we possibly sit at this man’s side and listen to him share all this like it doesn’t matter?

Hey, a game is not supposed to be serious. A game is fun, harmless.

But his actions are everything but. Why, why listen?

Because we like him. Because he’s not simply “evil”–he is a complete creature with a nature that gets bored and wants to have fun.

Just.

Like.

Us.

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

This must reside in the core of our villain’s creation: they must have some essence of us, of the everyday person. Even the most alien of villains can have a nature with passions and repulsions. When we forget to give our villain a nature, we deny our heroes a true conflict. Without conflict, we deny our readers a true story.And you know the cost of such a sin.
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah
Songwriters: KEITH RICHARDS, MICK JAGGER© Abkco Music, Inc.For non-commercial use only.
Data from: LyricFind

Writer’s Music: John Carpenter

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a2192220213_10Let’s try something different.

Let’s try music we never tried before.

Music that has no roots in a film, though its creator does.

John Carpenter has been on my mind these past few days. I’ve been brainstorming up a bit of short fiction I wanted to share here to analyze the relationship between my immediate settings and the stories I create. While I have a sense of what I want to do, the rhythm’s still missing. The piece can’t afford to build too quickly; it’ll need a slow build to grip the readers. I need the readers to see the menace, know it’s coming, shake their fists at the protagonist as they cry, He’s right behind you!”

Aha! Just like Carpenter’s HalloweenThere’s a movie without flash or whimsy: everything’s done on a shoe-string budget while everyone gives their 200%. This is the movie that made Jamie Lee Curtis the Scream Queen, after all. And Carpenter’s score is legendary, as is his method. (“I’m the cheapest, and I know I’ll get it done on time,” He said. Sort of. Look, ask Bo, he’s read all about him.) Carpenter uses his synthesizer to score nearly all his movies. Sure, his melodies are simple, but they cement themselves into the audience’s memory, and fast. The theme for Halloween is nothing short of iconic, right up there with Superman and Batman.

But like John Williams, this can mean that the music lets a writer think of nothing else but Michael Myers walking down a shadowed street.

Enter the Lost Themes.

In the last few years Carpenter has produced two new albums of instrumental music totally unconnected to his films. They still keep his minimal style of percussion, synthesizer, and occasional piano. The result? Desired aural atmosphere without the Pavlovian reaction. Every track smacks of 80s: arcade tournaments and puffy vests, rolled-up denim and disco fries. Occasionally Kurt Russell in an eye patch appears in one’s imagination, but he’s too smart to interrupt the story at hand.

So, over the next week I’m going to see how far these albums can take a character I created years ago. He’s been kicking the table for his own story, but I was never sure what to do for a novel. Well, problem solved now.

We got work to do, Dorjan.

Let’s go.

Can a Protagonist be a Jerk in a Story Worth Reading?

“No, I could never read this book again.”

The eighteen of us sat in a classroom no janitor’s touched in weeks, evidenced by the dust bunnies on my backpack, not-looking at whomever dared to speak. The first term of grad school, my first class analyzing story and craft. Overwhelmed, I poured through critiques others wrote only to be thumped for not sharing my own “untainted” thoughts. Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers was the first I tried to study free of the evil critic taint.

“Why?” 18828

“Because I don’t like Charlie. He’s an asshole.”

“So you don’t think a story can sell if you don’t like the main character.” Half the room nodded with the teacher, whose demeanor reminded me of a spectacled old grizzly bear.

I half-raised my hand. The teacher, a loud atheist who found my faith “quaint,” peered at the table-space before me to make sure I had no pile of articles painted by highlighter. “Jean?”

“Well,” I coughed, hated talking in that space, squirmed in the plastic chairs all universities think are somehow comfortable for hours of lecture, “A story can still be good just because you don’t like someone.”

My classmate turned to me, confident in her age and skill. “But I don’t care about him.”

“That doesn’t make the story less good.”

Yeah, I wasn’t much for eloquence back then. Not that my classmate was wrong, per say. Who wants to root for a jerk’s success? But there are other characters in the story beside the protagonist, so I think it depends on this question:

Will the story transform your character, or does your character transform the story?

The Rachel Papers fulfills the latter: Charles Highway makes his mark on Rachel and a number of other people, but remains an unchanged blighter from start to finish.

Middler's PrideIn my current work, Middler’s Pride, main character Meredydd begins as a pompous ass. Oh, she’s nice enough with some characters back home, but once she meets the other Shield Maiden recruits in her training group, she declares herself superior, a legend who simply hasn’t been noticed yet. The latest scene I drafted amplifies the conflict between her and the other girls:

III.ii.

The river ran noiselessly, like a shadow. One could leap over it on horseback without trouble. If one could get a horse here. A hand barrow would do the trick, made with her wrecked tunic and some thick sticks and haul the weapons a few at a time. The ground, though… Despite the fresh sun, the land felt cold, sticky, and damp, like mud in the earliest of spring. Yet the trees were in full summer leaf, and the rabbits and family of deer who fed on the meager ferns and asters took no notice of Meredydd. Good. A few snares should mean decent eating through the whole month. The mushrooms didn’t look all that bad, either. Tegan must be used to a much fatter landscape.

Near the Beaumains, maybe?

What did she know about the Beaumains, that the name would draw such hate into her face? Maybe she grew up near them, too. Had family.

Mer pulled out the clay token Aberfa had made for her. It filled the palm of hand, its lines from the Bread Code they’d created as children. Friend. Always.

Girl chatter. The rabbit and deer scattered. UGH. They arrived as though bound together, like some sort of band, or, group, or…whatever. And what was Tegan doing with them, anyway? Some friend she was, chumming up with Elle and Wynne for no reason. Aberfa understood loyalty.

“This can’t be the River Galene,” Elle leapt about like a lame doe and landed atop an old tree stump next to Mer. “It’s so puny.”

Wynne still heaved deep breaths, but managed to say, “It’s not. I live. By the proper. This connects. There.” She pointed south. “Not far. Rode. The barges a few. Times.”

A low ripple of cracks, low, swelled up, THUNK—Elle’s foot fell through the trunk, but the rest of her remained safe and sound thanks to Mer’s lightning reflexes. Elle smiled in thanks. Great. Just let GO.

“Hold still, Elle,” Tegan brushed the dust and splinters. Paused. “Hey, Mer, look at this.” Finally! Mer untangled herself from Elle and knelt next to Tegan. Sure enough: “It’s like the plants from yesterday.”

Meredydd took a deep breath, fixed her gaze so that she saw only Elle’s calf. “And the stag under the curse of the Cat Man.” Time the eyes, don’t move too fast. This must be a dramatic moment of the legend’s tale…

Elle thrust her fingers into it like an idiot. “Doesn’t feel much like a curse to me.” She held her fingers towards Wynne like she would know any better. “I mean, it’s a bit smelly. Sure this isn’t just old bat scat?”

Tegan took some and rubbed it between forefinger and thumb. “From what you said, Mer, this stuff seems awfully watery. And more grey than black.”

“Remnants of old black magick, then?” She wasn’t going to be dumb enough to rub her skin in that stuff. Idiots. “Look, we have orders. We have to clean the weapons, which means carrying them here.”

“And ruin our clothes like you ruined yours?” Elle’s laugh sounded like a dog barking at the wind. “No thank you. We think it’ll be loads easier to carry water to the fort instead. Boil it up. Clean the weapons that way.”

Mer bit the inside of her lip. “We?”

The three of them looked at each other like this “we” was perfectly normal. That of course they would work together. Gods forbid they not listen to orders. Again. Oh that’s right, they’re not.

“We were ordered—“

“And we’re going to do fulfill that order, Mer.” Why was Tegan looking at her like some rabid animal? “We’ll clean the weapons, but carrying them here is foolish. We can’t afford to ruin what little we have to wear. You really want that black mold stuff on your armor?”

Meredydd felt her feet step back. No. She couldn’t retreat. But she didn’t want her armor wrecked before it saw battle, either. “We’re here to train, build our strength. Become proper soldiers.” Well. She eyed Wynne. “Some of us, anyway. Gods know what you’re doing here.”

“Hey!” Elle stepped into Mer’s eye-line and gave glare for glare. “We’ve all of us reason to be here, and become soldiers. Not all of us have been trained straight from the cradle, or whatever it is you did with your precious Shield Maiden Nanny.”

“Don’t you—“ Mer formed a fist and swung.

Elle caught her fist. Held it.

Try the other fist? It won’t stop shaking…

Those damned red eyes are daring her to.

“You can help us here, or you can walk away.”

Her fist shook inside Elle’s. So. Humiliating. Her eyes burned like fire, all those legendary scars, too–

How dare she look a legend.

How dare they not…listen, and just…

“Fine,” she said with clenched teeth, and pulled back. Walked around.

“You dropped this.” Wynne’s hand shook as she held it out: Aberfa’s talisman.

Shaking hand.

They even take her weakness from her.

Mer snatched the talisman away and marched back to the fort, black thoughts circling.

They’re not listening to orders because ol’ Captain Tree Trunk is incompetent.

Terrwyn’s too far off, blast it.

Well.

Captain Vala just needs to be informed of the situation. And once she sees how they disregard her orders, then, THEN there will be some proper teamwork under the true leader of this group.

The true legend.

Mer’s the kind of girl I would have feared and hated in school. I would never want to hang around her, let alone be related to her.

Yet I created her. I WANT her to be this way right now. Why?

Because Meredydd, like so many kids, gosh, like so many of us grownups, has to realize she isn’t the hot shit she thinks she is. Countless stories include that change: take my primary influences for Middler’s Pride, Michael Dellert and Diana Wynne Jones. drownedammet

A Merchants Tale_Final Cover.inddThe protagonist Corentin in Dellert’s The Merchant’s Tale is a young guy who treats the others in his caravan like nobodies, but by the end he’s willing to respect them and listen to (most of) what they have to say about traveling through Droma. In Jones’ Drowned Ammet, Mitt sees the aristocracy as a bunch of gluttonous leeches while Hildrida looks on commoners as nasty imbeciles. Of course they’re stuck on a boat together, and treat each other like crap for a good long while. But unlike Charles Highway, these two cannot help but be influenced by events, and therefore change their perspectives.

the_dawn_treader_coverAs a reader, my first experience with this kind of character was that turd of a cousin Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the selfish idiot who refuses to take in the world around him until his selfishness puts him under a curse that only Aslan can break. Eustace finally must face that he cannot do it all. He cannot save himself.

That moment has stuck with me through the past couple of decades—not just because of my faith, but in a story, I see that moment as being The Ultimate Moment. The protagonist cannot save herself her own way, or be the lone savior of her world. It is through the sacrifice of the most treasured elements within her that a new power comes through love, friendship, light. Everything, the presumed inevitable end, the web-ties of the characters, all alter because of that fall to her knees in surrender. Such changes snap and re-bind the page to the reader herself, for she knows the really good stuff is coming.

Now to give it.

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These Words Are Knives & Bridges

I’ve been unfolding and refolding this paper for months.20161116_091359

“It’s very possible it won’t go the way you think it will,” my therapist says, tissues at the ready.

How she thinks I think it will go:

Tears. Blubbered admissions, plea for forgiveness. Transparency. 

How I think it will go:

Hissed threats. Bruised skin. Fear of his car in my driveway, don’t you DARE tell ANYONE

Thursday

Biff’s been coughing a lot. I get an email from the school that there have been cases of hand, foot, and mouth in his grade.

Our boys are doomed to get it. They’ll get it tomorrow, and Saturday I will have to drive by myself to Milwaukee to face The Monster all alone and even if in a coffee shop I don’t care, I’ll be alone and he’ll talk me out of what I know like he’s always done and I feel so fucking weak–

Bo has to remind me multiple times that Biff has boogers, not a fever.

“But what if they get sick? We can’t put this off.”

Bo doesn’t know.

Neither do I.

A text from him: Are we still on for Saturday?

I don’t breathe while I text back: Yup.

Friday

Jittery. Half-listening to my kids. My daughter has a family fun night in the evening. I don’t want to go. I can’t concentrate on nice things. I can only think of burning coffee being thrown in my face, of being shut out by my family for making the past matter.

I unfold the paper while my daughter plays freeze tag with friends. I do not know these other parents, and tonight I’m not the kind of parent to chat with, anyway. So I read, and read again. My eyes stay with that last line:

If repentance does not occur, the victim can still forgive by offering bold love,

but relationship cannot be restored.

My relationship with The Monster has felt like the rope bridge in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, only without a blind Terry Gilliam asking me what my favorite color is before flinging me into The Gorge of Eternal Peril. I’m scared as Hell to get on it. I never know where to grip. I don’t dare trust a single board with my weight lest it gives and I fall. I fail.

And I cannot fail.

My kids cannot afford such a failure.

I’ve been climbing this rope bridge for 6 years now. Time’s only made it worse. Time will continue to make it worse.

For the sake of my children, for the sake of my sanity, one of two things needed to happen:

We must repair the bridge together, as a family, one and whole. This would mean family therapy–that we all, like my mother and his wife–be told about the past, so that we may work through the penitence and forgiveness together. To build trust, together.

–Or–

Cut the ropes. Walk away.

I describe this image to Bo for the umpteenth time as we get ready for bed. He pulls the quilt up and over my bare arm. “Jean, no matter how many times you rehearse, it’s not going to go that way.”

Hours in the dark with tears and threats and withered hopes. Sharpened knives on frayed ropes.

bridge-of-death-monty-python-and-the-holy-grail-591678_800_441

Saturday

The air cuts my lungs with leaf-smoke and frost-thaw. I want to hold Bo’s hand as he drives, but traffic is heavy, and deer collisions common. Biff and Bash are thrilled to be going to Great-Grandma’s house, a glorious place filled with trucks, helicopters, and all the donuts they can eat. Blondie is not quite as talkative, having lost yet another tooth down her gullet. (Anyone else have a kid swallow THREE out of six baby teeth? The tooth fairy in our district’s getting exasperated.) We arrive, get the kids settled. I do not take off my coat.

“Where are you and Daddy going?” Blondie’s lone front tooth is also perilously loose. The kid’s going to have to live off of ice cream pretty soon.

I can’t picture the meeting place–it’s a coffee shop unfamiliar to me. I can only feel the hate and fear rippling from the future into this moment with my daughter, whose birth cracked all the old hurts open. “Out,” I say. “Just for a little while.” I kick my inner self for making such a glib promise.

I do not say goodbye to my sons.

Bo gives vague answers to his grandmother’s questions about what we’re doing and follows me out.

We arrive.

The wind’s nasty as we walk. The skin of Bo’s hand is so calloused I can barely sense his warmth.

I step in. The shop’s empty but for one older gentleman at his computer. An open space, easy to overhear others. Do I watch my words? Do I get into detail, spit my own acid of memory in his face for the baristas to hear? Do I–

He’s already there.

He sits in the one nook of the place, a pair of leather chairs stuck into the corner where one can find the restrooms.

He waves.

I want to turn around.

I want to turn around and just not do this.

I want to leave and breathe air and be by other people, people who haven’t hurt me.

Bo orders coffee. Looks at me.

Does he see the panic? Does he see how I’m shaking?

Fight or Flight.

This is what families do for each other

No.

He will never say that to my children.  He will never do any. of. that. Not to my children.

No.

He already sits in one leather chair. I sit in the other, facing him. There’s no support, and I sink back. My instincts wobble–this off-balanceness is unexpected. Awkward chuckles from all of us as I right myself. Bo cannot sit by me, so he sits across from us.

I breathe.

The barista brings a customer over to talk about the beans on display behind me.

FUCK.

How–how am I to use the words I need to use with strangers flittering in and out like house flies?

He picked a place like this on purpose.

Wait.

No, I did.

I didn’t want to risk being alone. Well there’s a consequence to that, Jean. This, strangers or no, is your shot.

Find the right words.

“We need to talk about the past.”

And we do.

Sort of.

“What you did to me made me hate myself, hate my life. I wanted to die for so, fucking, long. I didn’t feel like a human being. Bo helped me find that again. I thought, I thought it, what you did, could be in the past, just, back there, done. But motherhood changes that. I see you, and I see my kids, and all I can think of is what you did to me.”

He says nothing. He leans forward. He is shaking a little.

“I’m tired of being so angry and afraid all the time. I want my family to be safe. But the past has consequences, and one of those consequences is that I cannot trust you. I’m incapable of trusting you. And if you have any respect for my feelings, you’ll understand when I ask that you do not go near my kids if Bo and I aren’t around. Even if they’re at my mom’s. You, you just don’t go.”

He holds his chin in his hands. He says a very quiet “I understand.”

I think of The Monster I knew as a child, the golden boy as tall as a tree and just as wide, with fists that let loose stars before my eyes when he hit me. I see The Monster sitting before me now, hunched over. Shaking. Eyes on the floor.

I look at him, my demon. I’m looking at him with my spine straight. I’m not shaking anymore.

“We’re a family, all of us, but I…” I pause, yes, I can say what I’ve been rehearsing– “I feel like I’m only connected to you by a single rope. If we’re going to be a true family, we need family therapy to build the bridge together.” Pause. Do I threaten to cut him off, here and now?

He’s not disagreed, or lashed out in any way.

I was told he might need time. Jeez, how many years has this moment needed to come into existence?

“I’m not asking you to agree to that right now. But the therapist has strongly encouraged me to tell my mom so she understands why I act as I do when I’m around you.” He goes very still. “Just…just…trust starts with transparency. Family therapy would give that.”

He nods, and starts…well…questioning himself and giving one-word answers. Does he have a lot of regrets from that time of his life? Yes. Does he think about what he did? Yes. Does he respect why I’m asking what I’m asking? Yes.

For all those questions, he never flat-out says: Am I sorry? Yes. Did I fuck you up? Yes.

At one point he says: I don’t know what I could say that could make any of it better.

Now I want to scream: YOU COULD FUCKING SAY YOU’RE SORRY

But I don’t want to have to demand it. It wouldn’t be any better than asking Bash to tell Blondie sorry for kicking her. Just a hollow parroting.

I want him to want to say sorry and say it. To finally hold himself accountable for what he did to me.

But I can see from the question-answers, from the tangent he enters about his marriage, about my mother, that this moment isn’t coming unless I demand it.

I want it to come from him because he wants it to come.

And if the past is any indication of the present, that will never happen.

So I cut his tangent off and tie it back to the family therapy. “I’m not asking that we start it now, but it will have to happen if I’m ever to trust you. I hated you for so damn long.” I pause, and the words surprise even me: “I don’t hate you any more, for the record.”

He coughs. Thank you for saying that, he says.

I nod, a little bewildered inside. But what else explains how I dug myself out of all the anger and self-loathing to reclaim my humanity? How else could I both find and keep love, experience joy, challenge my skills with language? For all the Hell I experienced at his hands, I still managed to live.

To thrive.

I am stronger than he is.

And now he knows it.

I look at the words I’ve been wearing to keep up my strength since we agreed to meet.

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I look back up, and say it:

“I forgive you.”

We part.

Not sure what other shoppers think as I fall in and out of sobs. Bo is glowing. My shakes are back, and my coffee’s cold. But Bo still manages to kiss my snot-coated lips and whispers, “I am so proud of you. You did it. You looked him in the eye, and you told him. And he knows I know, which proves you’re not afraid to talk about it anymore.”

I think about the bridge. I had walked into that coffee shop with knife in hand, ready to cut it and The Monster loose completely. That didn’t happen. A small part of me dared to hope he’d want the bridge repaired for the sake of the family. That didn’t happen, either. The future remains in the mist, guarded by a blind man whose questions–and the consequences of their answers–remain unpredictable.

As Sir Lancelot says: “Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.”

Nor am I.

~*~

Thank you all, from the heart and soul of me, for sharing this journey that started with Growing Pains” and continued through “Lessons Learned from Zoe Zolrod: First, Face Myself and Second, Find My Voice.”  You cheered with me in “And through the mist you’ll find hope.” Now here we are, on the precipice of a new chapter in my life. Thank you, dearest kindred spirits, and God bless you. 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Pack it on Every Page.

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27fWhen we think “cozy mystery,” we think of a manor, or someplace isolated, with a limited cast and one, maybe two murders in a tight amount of time. Subtle clues that we didn’t understand come to light when the detective gives his Great Reveal in Act III. My study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles fulfilled such requirements, as do other major Agatha Christie novels, like Murder on the Orient Express, Cat Among the Pigeons, or Murder on the Nile.

So let’s not talk about any of those and look at A.B.C. Murders instead.

This particular mystery takes place in and around London. The victims are not known until they’re dead. The killer has no face–in fact, the only clue that connects the murders is an A.B.C. railroad timetable. That’s the mark of a serial killer. The cast morphs and sprawls with each death.

All the while Poirot’s little grey cells ponder over long periods of time.

Now I will admit to my own little crime: I am writing this post before finishing the book. I read it once as a child, but, as suggested by Damien Walter, I wanted to give A.B.C. a serious study for craft’s sake. Arrangements to face The Monster in two days’ time have made it hard to focus, but I did manage nine chapters, and that’ll do for the topic I want to cover:

Pacing.

In my earlier study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  I noted just how quickly Christie gets the story moving in that first chapter with character introductions. I wondered how every line’s got to count in a mystery, be it for the character or the plot. This time, I decided to see what Christie accomplishes on every single page of A.B.C. Slow work, but already I find it most worthwhile.

Rather than give you my notes–well, here’s some of them. Now go and be thankful you don’t see my handwriting on a regular basis.

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Chapter 1’s header already engages us: “The Letter.” Consider the book’s title: Are we talking about the letter A? Correspondence was still a primary form of communication–are we talking about a posted letter? By page 4, we find out it’s both: the first note from our killer, taunting Poirot with a murder to be committed in the city of Andover. Hastings, of course, does not take it seriously, but Poirot does. On page 9, the killer’s predicted day comes and goes, and Hastings calls it a false alarm. By page 11, we learn differently. Come page 12, we get one hell of an eerie statement from Poirot:

“This is the beginning.”

Every single page contains a clue of sorts: testimony from a witness/suspect, scene of the crime, Poirot’s critique, and so on. Trust me, I looked for a page that could have been cut for its insignificance. As of nine chapters, we have two murders, two different groups of suspects and witnesses, two different towns, two different inspectors.

On page 24, for instance, Poirot took time to study the only three photographs in a victim’s apartment. You just know that’s going to be useful later, right? On page 25, Hastings tells us what he sees in the apartment; no overlap, and it sounds mundane, and yet in a mystery everything counts, so one of those items just has to stand out sometime.

By page 37, Poirot has met with the first victim’s family and usual suspects, then visited the scene of the crime. At this point, all leads to dead ends, and Poirot tells Hastings that there is nothing that can be “done” until the murderer strikes again. Hastings, being British, loathes this not-doing-anything, and spends page 38 lamenting Poirot’s clear loss of detecting powers. Sounds pointless? Not at all. The page puts doubts in reader’s mind as to whether or not Poirot really can solve this crime. For those who have read from Hastings’ perspective before, we know he’s not a reliable narrator, yet we can’t help but feel our faith shaken.

Then comes page 39, and another letter predicting murder with a B. Christie breezes over weeks of time by distracting us with Hastings’ doubt. From pages 40-42 we get the new victim, the conflict with a new inspector, and the increase in doubt of Poirot’s abilities.

By page 48, we start to see at least one connecting thread between victims thanks to Poirot. No, not the railway guide, that’s the obvious one left by the murder. Poirot remarks on the beauty of both victims. Why? Hastings doesn’t think on it, passing it off as something foreigners do. You’d think Hastings would know better by now…Anyway, that makes nine chapters.

It was as if every couple hundred words Christie took care to stick a useful02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6 tidbit in. Maybe she counted, maybe not. But I could certainly see why The New York Times said that this book is “The very best thing Agatha Christie has done”–at least that’s what it says on my edition, a 17th printing (SEVENTEENTH!) from 1967.
Christie lets no page go to waste. Only one page of genuine reflecting in nine chapters, and not general reflecting, either–it has an underlying agenda. Setting details are given quickly, almost waved aside:

“A dingy little place…A commonplace little shop, one of many thousand such others.” (23)

“Situated on the sea front, this was the usual type of small tea-room. It had little tables covered with orange-checked cloths and basket-work chairs of exceeding discomfort with orange cushions on them.” (45)

Did I mention the one departure from Hastings’ point of view? Chapter 2 focuses on a man named Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust? A man in a “shabby bedroom,” who smokes “cheap cigarettes,” and cults a “railway guide” and a “typewritten list of names”? We get this on pages 6-7.

He’s not been mentioned since.

But cheap cigarettes and railway guides sure have.

Such little things, and yet because of this single departure  from Hastings we hunt through the little details Christie places on every page, measured and sprinkled like chocolate chips for muffins. Too many and they’ll just spill off and melt on the pan. Too few, and the children will gripe and revolt and demand better muffins. (What, that doesn’t happen in your house?) Measuring out the placing of details gives readers reason to read not just the good chocolatey bits, but the whole thing. Give readers a sweet on every page, and they will not walk away until you’re story’s devoured completely.