Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

 

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coralineCoraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to.* The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Music: Peter Gabriel

gabriel_scratchmb_header2Rarely do I allow myself to write with lyrical music on in the background. The words don’t always jive with what I picture in my head, and tend to distract me from the goal of the scene.

And yet, there are some songs that work on a level where the music and the words are intrinsic to each other, like a vine that climbs the old iron fence and flowers before your eyes. You can’t remove the fence, and you can’t remove the vine, for together they create a single unique image. The individual components are now in union, and for the better.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy Peter Gabriel’s rendition of “Heroes” so much. Set apart, the strings are just. Breathtaking. The build is dramatically, almost painfully slow, but you know they’re building, so you’re willing to stay, and well up with them. Touch the stars with them. Return to earth with them.

Set apart, Gabriel himself is just. Heartbreaking. The song itself shares a deep hope, yet when Gabriel sings it, there’s this sense of fate–for all the crying out to the heavens, the singer will continue to be alone, for his hope can never be truly fulfilled.

United, this song transcends to a Shakespearean height in longing, love, and imagination.

The first time I heard this song, a scene formed in my head, bright and complete. It’s a rare experience for me, to see a piece of story in such detail–usually I can only hear the dialogue, or see something important, and have to clean up the fuzzy bits over the course of multiple revisions.

Not that scene, though. This song brought it to me, whole and beautiful, and it’s stayed as it was first drafted. Perhaps this song will help you uncover that precious, bittersweet something hidden beneath the starlight.

Click here for more on SCRATCH MY BACK.

Click here for more on Peter Gabriel.

 

 

 

Writer’s Music: Anne Dudley II

That which we read often cannot help but influence how and/or what we write. In this case, having immersed myself in The Name of the Rose and Hedge King in Winter, I find myself drawn to @Inessa_ie‘s recommendation of Anne Dudley’s score for Tristan & Isolde.

Period music has its uses: atmosphere, for one. As much as I enjoy John Powell’s powerful narrative, or Philip Glass’ delicious tension, they simply do not always lend to a particular time period. One of my stories contains several characters of bygone ages–The Dark Ages, for instance. Over the course of the story, the protagonist finds herself inside the memories of these characters. How to make the present connect to the past? With music.

“A Different Land” helps me hear the past so I can help readers see it. A lovely melody passes between the oboe and violin while the harp provides the undercurrent on which the song travels. Dudley does not use brass too often in the score, which I find to be a benefit: a romance this delicate–and tragic, sorry–requires a lighter sound, and the balance of strings and woodwinds, with just a touch of percussion, gives us precisely that.

Perhaps your characters are about to embark on a journey to a different land. Perhaps that journey is really for you. Whatever the case, bring Tristan & Isolde. Listen as Dudley’s score and the landscape unite to create new harmonies for your world.

Click here for more on Anne Dudley.

Click here for more on TRISTAN & ISOLDE.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 3

51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_

Part 3: I Despised You Three Chapters Ago, But NOW…

As I said in my preface post a week or so ago, Deep Secret utilizes a romance arc we often see in stories and films: the terrible first impression (cue the trombone) that ends in happy love (cue the strings).

Thankfully, the story is so, SO much more than this. The romance arc is one of many character/conflict arcs in the novel, all of which weave beneath not one but TWO quest problems for the male protagonist Rupert: to find a new Magid (one who uses magic to keep the multiverse moving in the right direction) for Earth, and to find the heir for a nasty chunk of worlds called the Koryfonic Empire. While Jones tells the story with three different points of view, Rupert’s is the dominant, so readers tend to feel from his angle.

Now, to follow my “traditional” lovey-dovey arc points:

Who-The-Heck-Are-You. The female protagonist Maree is one of five candidates Rupert’s been recommended to interview for a new Magid. He is most eager to find her because a) she’s the only candidate in his country and b) she’s just a touch younger than him. He imagines her to be pretty, smart, and free to attach to him.

The search does not bode well. He first meets Maree’s mother, who sums him up in one look: “You think too well of yourself…. Posh accent, shiny shoes, expensive raincoat, not a hairout of place—oh, I can see well enough why you let her down…Let me tell you, if I’d seen you when she first took up with you, I’d have warned her. Never trust a cravat, I’d have told her. Nor a mac with lots of little straps and buttons. Clothes always tell” (p.22-23). Rupert blows her off, though he does throw the cravat in the fire when he gets home. Rupert continues to build up an amorous vision of Maree from what he learns of her— someone who’s strong and capable with talents she doesn’t know she has. And then he meets her.

After a long car chase he finds her dancing in the middle of a street in deadlocked traffic: “She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose” (p.61). All amorous ideas vanish. He is angry. He refuses to have anything to do with her despite her talents. In fact, he continues to be angry for several days, and in this anger, prepares the fatelines of the other candidates so he can interview them all at once during a fantasy/sci-fi convention.

When we first read from Maree’s perspective, we learn she’s crossed in love—that is, horribly depressed after a bad break-up. She has no money and battles her aunt over everything. When she receives a letter from someone calling himself a lawyer, her hopes lift that good change is coming. And then she meets him.

After a battle with the aunt over Nick (the third perspective in the story), Maree and Nick drive off into town and find themselves in an unlucky situation. To break the bad luck they do their Witchy Dance in the middle of the road. Someone steps out to confront them: Rupert, the supposed lawyer: “Oh he was angry. I looked at him. I looked at his great silver car and then back at him. He was a total prat. He had a long head with smooth, smooth hair, gold-rimmed glasses, a white strappy mac and a suit, for heaven’s sake! And instead of a tie he had one of those fancy silk cravat things” (p.90).

Memorable first impressions, to say the least.

I-Can’t-Stand-You. Rupert is so enraged Maree didn’t fulfill his romantic expectations that he works magic to ensure she can’t be near the convention where he’ll interview other Magid candidates. He is determined not to see her again, or think of her again—except anger has its own magic, too, and his dwelling on Maree causes her fateline to be entwined with the other candidates’. He sees her at the convention, and she sees him, and they are equally horrified: “[his] face was just turning away from me with much the same horror on it that I was feeling, seeing him” (p.130).

And yet, already, feelings begin to shift, just a touch. When we get this horror-face-trade from Rupert’s perspective, we also know he observes a change in Maree: “…she had neatened up considerably from the witchy bag-lady I had encountered in Bristol…She looked almost human. I watched Rick Corrie dart up to her…I got the impression he fancied the woman in his shy way. There is no accounting for taste” (p.140). Why should Rupert care if someone took an interest in a girl he loathed mere days ago? But Rupert does care, and by the following morning his intrigue over Nick’s bizarre morning routine (read the book just for this bit—BRILLIANT) leads to calmer talk between the two, and later in the day Maree and Rupert manage a civil conversation. Each notices things about the other, but none of these are worth discussing when there’s an injured centaur on the loose.

Wow-That-Was-Surprisingly-Impressive. When Maree tells Nick Rupert creates computer games (every Magid needs a cover life), Nick goes bonkers and insists she make introductions. They spot Rupert, try to catch up to Rupert…and end up hiking through worlds instead as they follow him. They are impressed with magic and Rupert’s Magid life, but they don’t get a chance to share this as Rupert’s too livid with them for following him unprotected.

Not long after an injured centaur leaps out of one world and into Earth’s—right in front of a car. Rupert, Nick, and Maree get the centaur out of sight, and Maree, being a vet student, takes it on herself to stitch the centaur up. She is professional, calm, and collected; she even clips her talon-nails (growing since the break-up) in order to do the stitching properly.

“Come along! Barked Maree, disposing of her last fingernail. Snip!

“Yes’m,” I said.

She caught my eye and grinned at me. “Sorry.” In the bathroom, she confided in a whisper, “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this. I’m nervous.”

“You could have fooled me!” I said. She pushed her glasses up and gave me a proper smile at that. It made me as warm as the flush on [the centaur]’s face. I began to feel that it was worth being volunteered, if it meant that Maree was starting to approve of me a little. (p.203)

I’m-Jealous-When-You-Fraternize-With-Others-But-Don’t-Know-Why. Yes, Rupert has officially taken a liking to Maree. He admits as much to readers after their first casual talk ends—“…she disappeared while I was flagging down Kornelius Punt, and I hardly knew whether I was relieved or aggrieved” (p.157). When Punt talks to Rupert about hitting on Maree, Rupert finds himself angry, mortified…and more and more preferring Maree to the other Magid candidates.

 Don’t-Risk-Your-Life-I-Love-You-Shoot-I-Forgot-To-Say-That-Out-Loud. Back in the Koryfonic Empire Rupert discovers more murder and trouble with some potential heirs. He also finds Nick and Maree, who were lured in by the injured centaur. Nick’s mother (who is evil on so many levels) opens an inter-world portal through Maree, stripping her, and leaving her half-dead. Rupert carries Maree to his car to drive back to earth: “It was no trouble to lift her. Her body weight was exactly half what it should have been. I stood up with her easily and was puzzled to discover that holding her like this, light, limp, and frost cold, was one of the most sexual experiences I have ever had. I also had to fight myself not to cry” (p.238).

One thing can save Maree, but it is a Deep Secret: a hidden knowledge so powerful it is broken and divided among the Magids so that no one has too much for him/herself. Rupert knows the Deep Secret of Babylon could save Maree, but how many verses of the knowledge were out there to get? One can’t call up a deep secret without knowing how to use it. All the while Maree’s half-presence lay before him: “Feelings I had been carefully trying not to admit to blocked my throat and tore at my chest. It was a dry, strong, physical ache, as if someone had forced me full of little broken pieces of concrete” (p.251). In the end Nick screams something Rupert now feels, too: “I wasn’t alive until Maree came to live with us! She makes that kind of difference—she’s that kind of person!” (p.252).

Using Babylon takes a long time, and requires other Magids to fight off curses and evil Koryfonic folk while Rupert stands guard to the opened Deep Secret. The Babylon secret involves a road into a world NO one, not even those who control the Magids, can find, and Maree must walk, half-dead as she is, that entire road and back. Rupert desperately wants to go with her, but knows he can’t because he must keep the portal to the road open. Nick goes with her, and gladly. Rupert spends the hours dwelling on everyone and everything, but most of all on Maree. He contemplates how unhappy she was, yet she “thrust her way beyond with angry fingernails…I hoped her life would be better now. I ached to let her have something better. I wanted her to come back more than I have ever wanted anything. Ever” (p.300).

Let’s-Spend-Forever-Together. An excellent twist here on Jones’ part. Maree does return from Babylon, in full health, but more, too—she is back in the same garb and with the same spiked nails as she had when she danced in traffic and infuriated Rupert. These two get a chance so few of us could ever hope to get: a second chance at a first impression.

A small, small measure of the change was that she now looked good in her woeful old garments. She looked astonishingly good.

As I saw all this, Maree looked up and saw me. A look I had not seen before—one of pure delight—filled her face. I don’t think she had ever been truly happy in her life before. Now she was, because she had seen me.

Maree’s face was a glowing heart-shape of pleasure. She looked up at me and said, “Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

At this, she stepped back a bit and pushed at her glasses in her combat-manner. “I’m not a very good investment,” she said, with that sob in her voice. I had missed that sob. “I warn you.”

“Neither am I,” I said. “Wait till I tell you.” (p.316)

There’s still angry Koryfonic people with thorns and lasers to deal with, but this is where the romantic arc ends.

Why did I find this a satisfying love story? More than anything, I think it was because Maree and Rupert were so, well, human. They were not perfect physically, emotionally, or mentally. Their flaws stood out prominently at first, because sometimes what we consider shows of strength (Rupert’s fine garb, Maree’s spiked nails) are really charades to cover the real feeling: loneliness, or bitterness. Like any relationship, we have to see more than just the lion’s mane and fancy raincoat. We have to SEE the strength, the knowledge, the determination. The humor, the selflessness. It’s all there. But it is NOT always tucked inside a Standard Pretty Person hidden beneath a temporary shroud of frumpiness. We love, and that love brings out beauty in the other that no one else will likely ever see. That’s part of what makes love so amazing. Let’s try to remember that as writers, too. Pretty’s nice, Beautiful’s de-wonderful, but Love, True Love, gives any character that deliciously secret view of another that sets readers’ hearts and imaginations alight.

Click here for more on DEEP SECRET.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Firefly Night

 

05.-Firefly-image_TH

Photo from Reddit.com

I watch Blondie chase fireflies. Her first time up late and outside, she runs and giggles and squeals, “Hello there, little lightning bug! Hey, wait for me!” Few stars care to share themselves before the sun disappears, but Bo comes across Venus and Jupiter together. “The second star to the right!” Blondie tugs my hand and points beyond our world. “That’s where Tinkerbell and the fairies live. Can we go there?”

 

“In your dreams, Blondie, sure you can.”

“But I want to go for real.”

“I know, kiddo.” Magic’s for dreams and stories, I want to say, not real life. But she’s five. What does she know?

~*~

I am returning from the library in the next town. Biff and Bash have been living up to their names moreso than usual, so when Bo offers to handle bedtime solo, I flee.

The sun’s brilliance wanes. A thin haze rests upon the treetops. It is the first cloudless sky in days, and I wonder if I shall see some constellations before I reach home.

The stars do not bother. Too much competition.

Never have I seen so many fireflies at once. On either side of the road, from curbside to distant tree lines, slowly circling every corn stalk. Blondie would have called them dancing fairies. I would have agreed.

I find myself jealous of Creation.

Had I built this moment myself, in my head, I could stay in it as long as I choose. I could add more colors to the fireflies and the sunset. I could add a chill in the air to make it more comfortable. I, I, I. I wanted to be in control.

Stories allow that. I can revisit a scene from years ago and rewrite characters’ choices. Natures. Trim every unpleasantness away.

But where is the life in such manipulation?

At some point, I have to stop the fixes and simply let the characters go the ways they wish. I am tempted often to analyze what I’ve done: if I give it just one more go, I can get it right.

But will it really be “just one more go”?

~*~

We cannot see the ripples of consequence until after the stone is thrown. Some of us don’t have hope great enough to fill the palm of one hand; instead, we carry a pebble, a little nothing that could never touch another. Or, like me, some lumber about with a boulder that defines everything, everything we perceive ourselves to be. I aimed my boulder as best I could for graduate school, certain it would teach me the beautiful secrets of writing. Instead, I learned to hate it. It took years of postpartum depression for me to try writing again, and discover its power to heal. I can’t delete the dark thoughts I battled to reach this point. I don’t want to. Because I wouldn’t know, really know, who I am if not for those internal scars.

I still stare into that water sometimes, though, and wonder how much longer I should have held on to that damn boulder. What friendships I should have saved and not abandoned. Which hearts I should have sought and not ignored. I can stare, and stare…and miss the beauty of a hundred fireflies dance around my daughter.

So I do my damndest not to stare. Creators who watch nothing lose control of their worlds, and characters who immerse themselves in nothing can only drown. I am a mother of children who see me as the foundation of their world. I am a wife to a man who dared throw his pebble into the water at, of all things, the sight of me. I am a woman who wants to share her imagination with those who walk away from the water and enter the fireflies. Perhaps we will see each other amidst all the little glows, perhaps not. To miss the dance this year is not the end—one of the best miracles about fireflies is that they come back. Until then, we can look for stones to skip, and, when we’re ready, launch them across the water and make it beautiful. That, to me, is magic.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Stop Taking Genre So Damn Seriously

51fsghdnkdl-_sy344_bo1204203200_As writers, we are reminded to read similar works in our genre, pay attention to what’s hip in our genre, make sure we can define the genre that sums up our story, etc. Do a simple search for “fantasy books” in Amazon, and you’ll see no less than TEN subgenres. Agents and publishers need to know how to classify your story so they can sell it to the right readers. If you can’t classify it, who can?

Diana Wynne Jones spoke about the problem of genre in her address to the New England Science Fiction Association:

[Each genre] has hunkered down inside what it believes to be its own boundaries, and inside those boundaries the Rules for Being Of That Genre have proliferated and hardened until almost no one can write anything original at all. But the Rules say that if you write the same book all the time, that’s OK. That’s fine. That’s Genre.

The Rules add that if you do cross these boundaries, what you have written will be called “Not Really Horror—or Science Fiction or whatsoever” and nobody will want to know.

“A Talk About Rules,” 1994

Twenty years ago, Jones rightly nailed the fear so many of us aspiring writers face. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed or a repeat of what’s already been done, but look at those sales records! The marketing is so easy for a book that clearly hits all the same markers as its predecessors. Give people more of what they want, right?

Jones takes this concept of Genre Rules and creates two marvelous things: The Dark Lord of Derkholm and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. The latter is a dictionary of sorts, listing all the possible people, places, and things one encounters in a fantasy novel. Here is an example:

HOVELS are small, squalid dwellings, either in a village or occasionally up a mountain, and probably most resemble huts. The people who live in hovels are evidently rather lazy and not very good with their hands, since in no cases have any repairs been done to these buildings (tumbledown, rotting thatch etc. are the official clichés) and there is no such thing as a clean hovel. Indoors, the inhabitants eke out a wretched existence (another official cliché), which you can see they would, given the draughts, smoke and general lack of house-cleaning. This need not alarm you. The Tour will not allow you to enter a hovel that is inhabited. If you enter one at all, it will be long deserted (another official cliché) and there will be sanitary arrangements out the back.

Here is a writer who has written dozens of fantasy books, and yet has glorious fun poking at her own genre. She knows full well what people expect out of fantasy. She even takes it one step further and turns all of those clichés into a fantastic story. The Dark Lord of Derkholm isn’t really a dark lord at all—it’s just his job for the tourist season.

51wy1w-envlA nasty and quite powerful wizard took control of this magical world a long time ago; every year, he opens gateways to a nonmagical world to bring Pilgrim Parties through. These tourists expect to—what else—help the poor down-trodden souls break free from The Dark Lord. They must encounter pirates, or bandits, or both, and be hunted down by monsters, get help from wizard guides and glamourous enchantresses…all the things readers expect are what the tourists expect.

Except this magical world isn’t like that at all, so people are forced to role-play lest the nasty wizard bumps them off.

It’s a hilarious story that shows what happens when we writers take readers’ expectations far too seriously. We all want to be entertained, sure, and that may include an adventure, some battles, and a bit of love. But do we really have to all do it the same way? We fear agents/publishers/readers won’t “get” our work because they can’t fit it under a tidy shelf name in the bookstore. If we follow The Rules, we can belong.

And be just like everyone else.

Click here for more information on Diana Wynne Jones.

Click here for more on THE DARK LORD OF DERKHOLM.

Click here for more on THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND.