Allow me to sum up the current state of Autumn in Wisconsin with the following excerpt from a beloved classic:
Yup. Rain. And lots of it. Our sump pump is working, thank the Lord, but the extension hose attached to the pump outside came off. Heaven knows how long our sump pump dumped water right next to the house. I’m praying that I got it re-attached in time…and that it stays connected when I go to work at a nearby elementary school for a while.
So, um, my mind’s not exactly in a writerly place right now.
But let’s not fall into another panic attack. Let’s think on the lovely colors of fall (that will hopefully show up some time) and the literary celebration that is National Book Month.
I usually roll my eyes at “National ___ Day/Week/Month,” but this one’s got my attention, especially after working with kids of elementary age who still cannot read.
My heart chokes as I sit with children who cannot recognize letters, let alone words, and these kids are at least my sons’ age, if not older. These children want to read. They want to understand what those printed squiggles are with every picture. They want to know what all the signs say in the rooms, what the teacher sees when she reads to them. They want to know what the world is trying to share with them, to enter all the worlds that flourish around the illustrations on paper, to fill their imaginations with places and people never seen before.
They so badly want to know.
So this month, my friends, please take a moment to read to one who cannot. Share a story you love, or a story neither of you have ever seen before. Countless worlds await us in the bookshops and libraries, worlds of dragons and treasures and friendships and love, journeys of redemption and damnation and transformation and hope.
Let us bring those worlds to those who do not yet know their own written language. Let us share a cherished tale with those whose eyes can no longer hold words in place.
Let us celebrate this most precious gift: the gift of story.
Not sure what to read? Allow me to share a few books floating around my house.
What’s Blondie reading?
Blondie also had a go at some classics earlier this summer thanks to Bookpacks, a really cool combination of book and audio book to help kids focus on reading when there’s no pictures for context. Maybe your library has Bookpacks, too! Click here for more info.
I’m bringing a talk about familial villains to the table with an analysis of Black Maria–or Aunt Maria as it’s known in the States.
While I was also tempted to reread Something Wicked This Way Comes, I decided to try something new. I’m hoping there will be a lesson or two to share when I’m done.
Not gonna lie–my brain is addled by the overlapping schedules of six different school districts that can now call me at a moment’s notice to substitute. Time to read, let alone write, feels all but gone.
It’s at such a moment like this, when the world is soggy like forgotten cereal, the kids are screaming like so many banshees wielding stale banana chips as throwing stars, and the university asks for the presentation due a week ago, that I need to remember the gift of story.
The gift of escape.
Sweet, spooky escape. x
Any reading recommendations you’d like to share here among fellow book lovers? Please share it in the comments below!
However, as book reviewer and author S.J. Higbeehas often noted, many authors and/or publishers feel compelled to stick waaaaaaaaaaaay too much information into the book blurb. (Click here for just one of MANY reviews where Sarah touches on the problem of chatty blurbs.) Where is the line between too much information and too little? We want to give readers a taste of the story inside, but we don’t want to ruin their appetites. We want to engage readers without killing all the story’s surprises or subverting all the expectations.
Which got me to thinking about M*A*S*H. Yes, the TV show.
I never watched M*A*S*H as a kid, nor did I know about the original book on which the film and television series are based. I only knew that whenever the theme song started playing on the TV, I went off and did something else.
Just listen to that mellow song played alongside these doctors and nurses treating soldiers near enemy lines. The show’s opener had the look and feel of some medical drama, the last sort of show Little Me would want to watch.
Then I learned after marrying Bo that this show was a comedy. A COMEDY?! How the heck is someone supposed to catch the comedy vibes from that opener? The melody’s a sad one; heck, the original song’s called “Suicide is Painless.” We see no happy or positive expressions on people’s faces, only the urgency of aiding the wounded. There is absolutely nothing present in this theme to tell one that they’re about to watch a comedy. Imagine if a book tried to pull this same stunt with their cover art and blurb. How do you think the ever-watchful Goodreads community would respond?
As writers, we need that blurb to give readers a genuine sense of the story-world they’re about to enter. Usually just a few elements of the genre are enough to tell readers, this is what you’re in for. If you dig X, then you’ll love this.
Since television themes are always held to a similar degree of requirement (unless it’s M*A*S*H, apparently), let’s use a few more for examples: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Dragnet.
Not one of these theme songs is all that long, but we get enough out of the music to know the genre of each show: the twang of the western guitar, the dissonance of an eerie suspense-filled horror, the stalwart drums of justice. With just a few seconds, these themes accurately and concisely provide the audience a sense of the stories that will accompany the themes.
Now I’m not saying that chattiness is always bad. Heavens, Rod Serling’s speech for Twilight Zone’s theme is iconic. Then you have shows like Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team, which just so happen to be Bo’s and my favorite TV shows from childhood. Both are spot-on with their carefree guitar and military snare, and both directly address the audience with the premise of the show (only the A-Team don’t need no Waylon Jennings to sing because they got Mr. T, fool!). These themes are slightly over a minute long, but they don’t overwhelm the audience with information. We only get what we need: Protagonists and Problems. It’s up to us to stay tuned for more.
So what happens when that blurb of a theme does give us more?
This is where I think we enter the “chatty” territory, the “too much” territory. Allow me to force more of my 80s upbringing on you for examples.
Okay, I’ll let the monotonous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sung over and over in the background slide because it’s like a companion to the drums. But do we really need to hear the traits of every main character in the opening of EVERY episode? She-Ra and Masters of the Universe did that, too, always breaking down every damn character so you would know just who the good guys and bad guys are, and who knows the secret identity stuff and who doesn’t, because apparently you, you snot-faced lump of Cheetos-dusted child, are too dumb to catch on to any of this when watching the show.
And I think this is what really gets to me about those chatty blurbs on books today. It’s like the publisher/writer thinks they have to talk down to the reader to ensure they understand the story’s premise and conflict. Sure, no one wants the reader to feel confused, but the consequence of over-talking is that we make the reader feel inferior.
Yes, there are some that like having all the dots connected for them, but not this gal, not this gal’s kids, and I have a feeling that you don’t dig being babied, either. Plus, it says something about us as writers when we don’t trust our own storytelling skills to adequately show readers who’s who and what’s what inside the story itself.
There simply comes a time when all we can–all we should–give readers are duct tape, a lemon, and a broken magnifying glass. If they’re intrigued with the few pieces you leave for them to find, then you can bet your MacGyver-lovin’ boots they’re comin’ into the book for more.
Anyone else have a favorite television theme to share? I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in Hawaii Five-0, but I just couldn’t make it work, dammit.
In short, Tchaikovsky is an amazing creative soul that we should all get to know a bit better. 🙂 How would you describe what you do, Sir?
So basically I mostly write books about spiders. Also dogs, AI, shapechangers, insect-people and anything else that lets me get out of a human skull. There’s not much more to me than that, in all honesty.
Considering the depth and breadth of your work, your imagination must have been nurtured with rich inspiration from little on. Are there any folks or favorite authors from your childhood that helped spark your passion for storytelling?
Absolutely – my great storytelling guru from teenage onwards was Diane Wynne Jones.
Oh yes, she vastly expanded my frame of reference as to what you can do with a story, how you can play with reader expectations, that sort of thing. The Homeward Bounders and Power of Three, especially. Jones pulls a number of switches on the reader in Power of Three, with regard to precisely what the setting is, who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, all that, which really opened my eyes. Before that, as well as cutting my teeth on Dr Who novelisations, I loved Tove Jansson, because she built such a wonderful world with her stories.
My home state of Wisconsin is a curious patchwork of farms and wild places. I love exploring this landscape in my mind, creating stories to give shapes to the shadows hiding just out of sight. Would you say the landscape around you inspires your writing, or has been utilized in some way to help build a story’s setting? That swamp you describe at the beginning of Guns of the Dawnfeels like this horrible place I knew near my summer camp…
So… actually no. I don’t tend to relate much to places I’ve been, per se. No more than places I’ve read about or seen pictures of. It all just feeds into the general melting pot in my head that I draw new creations from. I’ve never been in a swamp like that, but I seem to be able to imagine these places and put them on a page well enough to make them real to my readers.
All the more impressive, then, Sir, that you can stimulate the reader’s imagine to build such a real place known only in your own mind!
Now, let’s stick with Guns of the Dawn just a touch longer because it has an amaaaazing opener:
I killed my first man today…
The air was hot,muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.
I’ve already told my husband I’m treating myself to this book after I complete my pedagogical training this summer.
So after a first line that provides the point of view, time, and controversial action, you launch us into a paragraph filled with extremely vivid sensory details further enriched by memories of the past. Thanks to these memories, readers get the impression of a narrator who cares more about the quiet life in the farm land–a stark contrast to one who’s said she’s killed a man. You strike a delicate balance of grounding readers in the present moment of the story while also flashing back into the narrator’s past and how the world once was. Can you describe your process of finding this balance?
This is going to sound very zen, which frankly I am not in any way, but there is a big subconscious element to that level of my writing. I was never formally taught about writing technique, I just read a whole hell of a lot, and then I wrote a whole hell of a lot, and my writing got better with each book I tried. Although there is a definite conscious input, and as I’ve got better I’ve become more aware of things I can do deliberately to create an effect, a great deal of it just comes out of the way the words spill onto the page in their raw form.
Well paint me green with storytellin’ envy, Sir, because your opening lines are as consistently effective as those created by Diana Wynne Jones. A wee survey of your stories uncovers hooks both big and small.
There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility—rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.
From this paragraph we learn the story’s location, the time frame, and the narrator’s love of this created home. We are also left asking: “What happened to earth?” And we are driven to read on.
It went wrong for me when they made Sethr an outcast.
From this sentence we learn the story’s point of view, that there is some powerful “they” capable of ruining someone’s life, and because one person’s ruined, so is our narrator. We are also left asking: “Who is this mighty ‘they’? Why should Sethr’s fate mess up life for the narrator?” And we are driven to read on.
Writing compelling openers is surely one of the most important challenges any writer faces. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle crafting their hook?
I am going to raise a hand and say that good lord I’ve had books where the opener has been a problem, and it is super important. Often it’s a matter of where in the story you start – easy to start things too soon and have too much lead-in. And there’s a huge pressure to start with everything on fire, meaning that certain types of storytelling are virtually extinct in the genre right about now. Sometimes I’d like to feel people would just amble with me a bit at the start…
I love the idea of ambling…and with over thirty titles to your name, there’s lots of ambling to do! Some of your titles are stand-alones, like The Expert System’s Brother; some are in trilogies, such as Echoes of the Fall; and then you have your TEN-book series Shadows of the Apt. I tip my hat to you for building worlds unique and complete time, and time, and time again, just like Jones. What thrills you about building a new world? How do you avoid the temptation of re-using elements? No writer wants readers to get déjà vu and think they’re just reading the same story over again.
Building worlds *is* the thing that thrills me, and I have a whole host of ideas yet to come. So far repeating worlds hasn’t been the issue (outside of sequels obviously). I’m more worried about repeating themes, because obviously there are certain things you come back to, each writer to their own, and there’s a real danger that you end up telling the same snippets of story over and over if you don’t remember to give them a different spin.
Another common problem for many writers–as well as movie-makers, I’d say–is crafting an action sequence that moves quickly and fiercely without confusing readers as to what’s going on. I know this was one of the toughest elements to hammer out in my own novel, which contains battles involving several key players duking it out all over the place. Your novels contain intense action on both an epic scale as well as an intimate one. How do you keep the language quick-footed without losing readers along the way?
Action sequences are very much an art of their own. Having a good grasp of the shape of the sequence is important I think – I plan a great deal anyway, and action sequences get thought through in the same way. A chase or a fight has a mini-narrative of its own, including opportunities to bring out character, to foreshadow, and to have their own emotional beats. A particularly big action scene can almost be a book in miniature.
Another resource that’s always helped me write action scenes as well as stay focused on the feeling of any given moment is music. For every author that tells me he/she loves having music to help set the mood for writing a scene, I hear from another author that he/she needs silence in order to write. Which camp do you call home and why?
I tend to listen to music when I write and have a series of playlists for different moods, to help me focus and blot out distraction. I generally listen to instrumental music from film soundtracks, computer games, and music written specifically for trailers (a good source of consistently hammery action music), Some composers you might not know who have some interesting stuff include Kyle Gabler, Lorne Balfe, and Bear McCreary.
(Gasps) GODZILLA?! Hell to the yes! Sign me up for some new composers to study later this year!
One reason I depend so heavily on music is because it helped me write when my children were small and at home all day. Now that my kids are old enough to attend school, I can usually find an hour of peace to write. Still, it’s extremely tough some days to balance parenthood and writer…hood. Authorhood. You get me.Do you have any tips for balancing writing and parenting?
Honestly my son’s 11 now so he’s more self-sufficient. I write in the mornings and very late evenings, though, which is a convenient way of working around family commitments.
Lastly, let’s talk about the ever dreaded Kryptonite. Writing Kryptonite, to be precise. There’s always something that can sap all creative power away in a heartbeat. For me, it’s a phone call from my sons’ school principal. It takes a good long while of watching my sons lose themselves in their own adventures with droids, transformers, and wild animals before my own creativity sparks back to life. What would you call your Writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
Arguments with my son will do it, but as a sort of contributor to a general cycle of depressive ups and downs that are quite capable of just doing their own thing with me, without any actual outside stimulus. Writing is a big drive for me, though. If I’m not writing, it has a serious negative effect on my mental state all its own. So although a downswing can make it hard to get going, once I’m actually writing I can generally retreat into it from my problems.
My deepest thanks again to Adrian Tchaikovsky for taking the time to talk to us today! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and his website, too.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
We’re going to meander through some gorgeous western scores in anticipation of my upcoming Night’s Tooth.
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
We’ll also do some adventuring about Wisconsin and do a wee worldbuilding study of a recent western fantasy,Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death.More author interviews are on the way, too. I hope you’ll join me!
“Why isn’t Huck Finn’s dad nice to him?” Blondie asks from behind her beloved stuffed dog Sledgehammer.
Bo closed The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and stared at the cover a good long moment
before answering. “Some parents are not that nice, kiddo,” he says, and goes on
to talk a bit about alcohol addiction.
I came in after her prayers as I always do to give her a hug
and kiss goodnight. “I hope Huck gets away soon,” she says.
“He can’t have any adventures if he doesn’t.”
Blondie nods, then brightens. “I can’t wait until my
So it goes when talking to an almost-nine-year-old: from horrifying parents to birthday celebrations in the blink of a beautiful eye.
It struck me, then, how few stories I read during my own childhood that contained positive parent figures. There’s no parents in the Chronicles of Narnia that I recall. Ramona Quimby had a mom, I think…but she wasn’t a major character, or at the very least, memorable. Fairy tale parents are usually evil or inconsequential. Babysitter Club books are usually about girls solving their own problems without parental help (why else would a babysitter be around?). I don’t recall Nancy Drew having extensive scenes with her folks. Few of the detective novels I read had much of anything to do with family, come to think, unless you count Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. But that’s a brother, not a parent, and he only shows up twice.
Huh. No wonder Blondie’s reaction to Huck Finn sticks with me still: I didn’t have that kind of exposure to the Nasty Parent at her age. Even the evil stepmom of Cinderella doesn’t go on drunk binges and whip Cinderella with a belt. Huck Finn’s dad is nasty. Scary-nasty. The sort of nasty that’s talked about on the news or in a television series, not a kid’s book.
Now why am I going off like this? Because here in the U.S. Mother’s Day approaches, and I want to celebrate the positive parent characters in children’s literature. Seriously, they exist! Like…um…oh! Ray Bradbury created a loving relationship between father and son inSomething Wicked This Way Comes. Even Diana Wynne Jones, who had a miserable relationship with her own parents, could still create some flawed yet very loving parents in books like Archer’s Goonand The Ogre Downstairs.
Today, I’d like to look at one of the strongest moms in fantasy fiction, a widow with four young children, one of whom’s gravely ill.
I am, of course, talking about Mrs. Frisby.
Or Brisby, if you knew her by the Don Bluth film like I did.
With all due respect to Robert C. O’Brien, the book moves with a much…quieter, calmer pace, I’ll say, than the Bluth film.
And, well, let’s face it: O’Brien doesn’t have any electro-magic wielded by rats voiced by the majestic Sir Derek Jacobi, let alone a soundtrack composed by the ever-wonderful James Horner.
Bluth’s version of Mrs. Brisby is a widow just like the Mrs. Frisby of the book, and both versions do have four children and one suffering from pneumonia. But unlike Mrs. Frisby of the book, Mrs. Brisby is constantly facing certain death in order to protect her kids. From standing in the bones of other mice to speak with the Great Owl…
…to running under the farmer wife’s feet in order to sedate Dragon, the barn cat that KILLED HER HUSBAND, Mrs. Brisby puts her life on the line time and again for her family. I can still remember the terror racing through my little-kid heart when the giant rat guard tries to electrocute Mrs. Brisby at the gate into the rose bush…
…or when the Brisby home begins sinking in the mud and all the kids inside are gasping for air.
But because I felt the terror then, and saw this little mommy mouse defy her fears to run into a moving tractor to disable it while the ceiling started to cave in around her sick son, because I felt the panic in her pulling rope after rope around her sinking house to keep her children from drowning—because I felt all the fear Mrs. Brisby experienced, the courage she also displayed resonated with me very, very deeply; it resonates with me still, thirty years later. In a story of mice and electro-magic rats, I saw motherhood in its purest form:
Love, fearless and boundless, strong and eternal.
May our own hands brave the fire to protect those who matter most.
What positive parent characters appear in your favorite stories? Please share so I can give Blondie something to look forward to…
I’ll be the first to admit the moms of my own fiction are, shall we say, some nasty pieces of work. Scope out my novel and free short stories on this site to find out more.
To celebrate March Magics–and because I’ve final projects to grade and two novels to crack down upon–I’m sharing a previously unposted essay I wrote a couple years back when I was compiling all my Diana Wynne Jones posts into the collection Lessons Learned. Enjoy!
In “The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey,”Diana Wynne Jones discusses the place of the mythic hero in contemporary story-telling, especially her own. This particular essay in Reflections on the Magic of Writing struck me on epiphanical proportions. (Yes, new word. Doesn’t the fantasy genre allow for some language leniency?) In all the writing classes I had taken over the years, no one had ever broken down the echoes and inspirations between the modern and ultra-classic like that before. Jones details connections between her work and Chaucer, Spenser, and Homer, to name a few. Sure, that may sound like she’s tooting her own horn, but I don’t think so. Fire and Hemlock, one of her most critically revered novels, is so subtle with the fantastic you can literally blink and miss it. For instance, the first chapter is all about the protagonist Polly trying to remember something. Sounds dull, doesn’t it? Yet as we go further into the story, we learn Polly is fighting through the memories be-spelled upon her by the villain. The first chapter shares Polly’s initial success in remembering the true past.
Tempting as it is to go in depth on Fire and Hemlock yet again, “The Heroic Ideal” contains Jones’ discussion of mythology’s inspiration F&H with far more depth and humor. Besides, she wrote two other novels that serve as marvelous examples. The first, Eight Days of Luke, is a touch more obvious than Fire and Hemlock if one knows a bit about Norse mythology. I’ll admit that I didn’t, at least not until the movie Thor came out and my father was as giddy as an eight-year-old. (It is a decent movie, for the record–and directed by Kenneth Branagh of all people!)
Granted, Marvel’s interpretation of Norse mythology is, um, loose, but you get some basics in there: the home of the gods, Thor and his dad being at odds, Loki the mischief maker, etc. Diana Wynne Jones has her own fun with these myths, and from her fun Eight Days of Luke is born.
David is stuck at home on school
holiday with his horrible relations. After being reminded how he’s a wretched,
ungrateful little orphan they don’t deserve to put up with, David skulks out
into the garden and starts pacing back and forth, muttering what he feels are
some really good curses—only, he doesn’t really know what he’s saying. The
garden wall cracks and out come some nasty snakes and a boy just David’s size.
His name is Luke.
By this point I’m sure you know who the title character Luke is—that’s right, Loki. David has somehow freed Luke from his prison (only Diana Wynne Jones would put a Norse god’s prison beneath a marrow garden in Ashbury) and Luke’s relations are coming down to get him: Mr. Chew (war god Tiu), the Frys (fertility gods Freyja and Freyr), and Mr. Wedding (Odin, chief of the gods). Thor comes along eventually when we learn why Luke’s in so much trouble, and what David can do to help him. (Thor’s rather the giveaway, so no fancy modern alias for him.)
One of the cool things about a quest story is that they are indeed timeless. David must outwit gods and mortals alike for the sake of his friend, just like any great hero of the distant past. Sure, folks like Perseus and Beowulf may not have had pinball or cricket, but they always had someone or something worth fighting for.
Jones’ The Game puts a girl at odds with horrible relations, too, only this novella is a bit more…hmm…nonlinear, would be the best way to say it. Hayley is sent to live with a bunch of aunts and cousins she’s never met before, and she quickly learns why her grandmother never liked them. She also learns just how much her grandfather bears on his shoulders—literally. Among many worldly matters, Haley’s grandfather takes great care of the mythosphere, a place where Hayley’s cousins secretly play The Game. Once Hayley begins playing The Game with them, reality and the mythosphere are both irrevocably changed. She discovers her grandfather’s true identity: Atlas the titan. The uncle who controls them all is none other than Jupiter. And she must…well. Needless to say, I learned some more mythology thanks to this book.
Bringing past gods into the present isn’t a unique idea; Rick Riordan’s made a mint off of his various “modern kids vs. ancient gods” series, Percy Jackson and the Olympiansbeing the first and, I believe, the most popular. (It’s the one I read, anyway.) And I give Riordan and Jones both credit for inspiring curiosity in young readers for the olden tales of heroes and gods, of the odysseys through time and beyond.
I know we all like to make that Ecclesiastic complaint that there is nothing new under the sun. Well, it’s one thing to copy, or plagiarize, but it’s another to truly reimagine. Jones proves time and again that one can look to the classics for inspiration. Even the most worn of roads will take you somewhere, if you let it.
Thanks so much for reading! If you have other grand (or not-so-grand) examples of reimaginings you’d like to discuss, please share them in the comments below.
I’m running around the house doing anything but prepare: laundry, readying kids for school, dishes–
Bo: “Know what you need?”
A sedative. A one-way ticket to Oslo. A chorus of Muppets performing a musical review of Animal Crackers.
“No. You need to go downstairs, breathe in those cinnamon pinecones on your desk, and pull out my copy of Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul.”
But I can’t listen to it. It’s not Hot Clarified Butter Soul. Get it? Eeeeh? Get it? Whole30 humor!
Oh I’m going to fail on so many levels…
Well…I spoke like a juiced driver on the Daytona track, but I didn’t flub my points or the snippets I read from Stolen and “The Stray.” Thank the Lord I could use my old–slogan?–“Writer of Fantasy and Adventure in Her Own Backyard” to be the theme of my talk. I delved into Wisconsin’s landscape and how it inspired my fiction from little on, and that any writer can create worlds unique to their stories with a little help from the everyday environment around them.
Building the extraordinary out of the ordinary, as it were.
Afterwards, I had many colleagues tell me they felt really excited to explore the favorite places from their own childhoods as I had with mine, and to take a crack at some fantasy fiction of their own.
Gotta admit: I felt proud of that. Relieved, but proud. x
This moment with Blondie still pulls all those emotions of motherhood to the fore: guilt for writing instead of playing with her, pain for making her feel like work mattered more. Determination to make right, only to have my plans be too “scary” for her. Dammit, I’m going to cry again!
But the one good thing about tears while reading: it gets the listeners all teared up too. So never mind my editing snafus in the piece–I got the whole room cryin’.
Gotta admit, I’m proud of that. Of Blondie, of this day, of all of it, now. For once, I’m going to allow myself to be proud of myself.
Now I just need to survive that interview with the faculty panel tomorrow…
Oh! Before I forget: tomorrow is the LAST day my novel’s on sale for 99 cents. If you know anyone who loves fantasy, be sure to drop this title their way before March runs my sale out of town!
Breakfast: Biff and Bash enjoy peanut butter waffles, pineapples, and bananas. I do my darndest not to lick the peanut butter off the knife.
Bash: Starscream’s going to attack your Wall-E!
Biff: No he’s not. Activitate Starscream Destructo Ray! Wooosh!
Bash: Nuh uh. Starscream’s a ghost. It goes right through him.
Biff: Activate Starscream Ghost Ray! Wooosh!
Bash: Nuh uh! Starscream’s a super ghost!
Biff: Activate Starscream Super Ghost Ray! Wooosh!
Bash: Nuh uh, it goes right through him cuz he’s a super DUPER ghost!
Biff: Activate Starscream Super Duper Ghost Ray! Wooosh!
~Boistrous battle breaks between Bash and Biff with blocks & busted blue markers.
Boo-boos blessedly bypassed.~
Pardon, folks, but my brain’s a touch fried from grading and preparing a presentation for my university’s literary festival. I’m a keynote speaker this month!
The theme is “Worlds Beyond: Exploration and Imagination.” I’m compiling some Diana Wynne Jones and Donald Maass quotes while mixing up some of my own photos for a discussion on finding inspiration for world-building in the everyday world around you. (Yes, I’m going to plug my novel. I ain’t missin’ this opportunity!) Here’s hoping people don’t mind a touch of the silly during a gathering of intellectual creatives. I mean, come on–I HAVE to quote Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasylandfor examples of world-building tropes people take seriously far too often.
FOREST OF DOOM. This is usually the home of mobile and prehensile trees. There will be giant spiders too, and Dwellers near the centre who will want to sacrifice any stranger to their God. It is best to avoid the place if possible. But the Management usually insists on sending you there.
ALLEYS are the most frequent type of road in a city or town. They are always narrow and dark and squishy, and they frequently dead-end. You will escape along them when pursued and also be ambushed there.
MAYOR. The head of the town council and usually a bumbling idiot. Quite often he is a minion of the Dark Lord, but only a minor one. Keep out of his way.
So while I work on this presentation, here’s a Whole30 recipe that’s actually good.
You heard me. This diet does actually have some yummy meals that DON’T require expensive fare found only in health food stores. Many of these ingredients are probably in your pantry already. Give this one a go, and let me know how you like it!
(PS: If you need help with the clarified butter, I can ask Bo how he does it. It’s actually not that hard of a process.)
Banger Sausage Patties with Sweet Potato Mash and Caramelized Onions
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice
4 tablespoon ghee or clarified butter
½ cup full-fat coconut milk
1 onion, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
PREHEAT the oven to 350°F. Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
PREPARE THE SAUSAGE: In a large mixing bowl, mix all the sausage ingredients. Form into 8 equal patties. Place on a plate and chill in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes while starting the sweet potato mash.
COOK the sweet potatoes in the boiling water until fork tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and return the potatoes to the pot. Add 1 tablespoon of the ghee and coconut milk. Using a potato masher, immersion blender, or large kitchen fork, mash and mix the sweet potatoes with the ghee and coconut milk. Cover the pot to keep warm and set aside.
REMOVE the sausage from the freezer and place on the parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Bake the sausage patties in the oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 145°F, and no pink remains in the middle of the patty.
MEANWHILE, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of ghee in a large skillet over medium heat, swirling to coat the bottom of the pan. When the ghee is hot, add the onion and cook for 15 minutes, turning them periodically as they begin to brown and caramelize. (Do not rush this step—the browner the color, the more concentrated the flavor will be.)
TRANSFER the mashed sweet potatoes to a bowl or serving dish and top with the caramelized onions. Season with salt and pepper and stir to combine. Serve with the sausage patties.
While I try to sound like I know what I’m talking about, how about having a go at my novel? It’s full of, you know, smartness! Full of fun, at least…and some nasty monsters and lots of battles and the occasional quiet moment where trauma’s faced and a girl plays piano to find peace in a strange, strange land.
If that sounds like a fun weekend read to you, then you can snatch it up for less than a buck! If you like what you read, please let me know in a review. Those book reviews on Amazon can mean life or death for the indie author!
Because it’s hard to write a few thousand words of novel every day when you get called into the principal’s office, called into the classroom, or simply called to take a particular child home several times over the past couple of weeks (seriously, Bash!?), I need to take a minute, and breathe.
We’ve all known these rough patches. We trip and sprain an ankle, tear the sole in our boot and step in a muddy puddle. Slow to a halt when a gaggle (herd? pack? hay bale?) of farmers turn their tractors off to chew gossip. And don’t get me started on those roads diverging in yellow woods.
Now’s the time for camaraderie and thankfulness for the authors who have walked with me in the blogosphere these past three years, and those who move me to keep on walking. Sci-fi writer J.I. Rogers‘ kind nomination provides me the chance to do just that.
Rogers is author of the sci-fi novel The Korpes Files, co-writer of Last Horizon: Collapse, and contributor to the speculative fiction adventure anthology On the Horizon.Do check them all out!
“According to Okoto Enigma, ‘Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.’ ”
Thank whoever nominated you and include a link to their blog.
Tell your readers three things about yourself.
Nominate bloggers you feel deserve the award.
Answer questions from the person who nominated you.
Ask your nominees 5 questions of your choice with one weird or funny one.
Notify your nominees by commenting on their blogs.
SJ Higbee—Because she shares so many wonderful stories, and keeps me inspired to get my own stories out there, too.
Anne Clare—Because she’s one of my oldest friends, whose faith so often helps me center my own.
Callum Stanford—Because his drive to overcome all obstacles professional and personal stirs new strength in me every time I read his story.
Questions for my nominees
Think back to the first story you ever wrote/drew. What was it about?
Does your creativity spread into other skills?
If there’s one book you wish you could UN-read, which would it be?
Favorite tea or wine? (I’m always looking for recommendations)
If you could visit one location on this lovely earth to study it for a story’s setting, which would it be?
Now me I decided to approach J.I. Rogers’ questions in a more nontraditional manner. Her questions came at a time when I was fretting in and out of prayer, and for some reason the gifts of the Holy Spirit fell into the mix, too.
Gifts of the Writing Spirit
First and foremost, there is this awe, this legit fear of the power in imagination. My memory sucks–you ask me about a major childhood event, or high school shenanigans, or what we even spoke about yesterday, and I’ll blink at you blank. But I can recall nightmares that are decades old, and haunt me still. Nightmares from the age of four, when I dreamed my parents and a man with a handlebar mustache stood talking before a gothic cathedral while unseen arms picked me up and stuck me in a station wagon’s backseat. My folks’ heads never moved as I pounded my little fists on the window. Their bodies shrunk as the gothic cathedral’s stone infested the world. I can describe the nightmare of being trapped in a house, gagged, with walls peeling open to pink, translucent tentacles. I can tell you the dream of the shadow that chased me through a dark church, flattening against the walls and then popping out, always in front of me, its bright blue eyes never blinking. And those are just the nightmares of imagination, not real life.
If we want readers to respect our imaginations, to be trapped in our worlds past 3am, talking to the the typed letters like they’re real people–“Don’t go in there! Yeah, you tell’em! Wait, you can’t walk out on her now!”–then we need to treat our imaginations and all that live in them as real.
We all know we need to read well to write well. Sure, I’ll bust out the Shakespeare and the Austen every now and again, but I’ve always found more pleasure in reading books by Diana Wynne Jones. Her worlds never feel slipshod or half-done. The characters always have a bit of snarky wit about them, and they never do anything that feels out of sorts. The pacing, too, is a great thing to watch; just when you think she may be giving too much exposition, you find out quite a bit of plot’s been moving along right under your nose. One of the best guilty pleasures is re-reading Howl’s Moving Castle for fun. It’s a beautiful example of two real characters, complete with stubborn streaks and conceited airs, still somehow falling for one another in the midst of working magic errands for a kingdom at war.
Must have coffee. Sometimes tea.
And peanut butter. Lots, and lots, of creamy peanut butter.
Ever watch or read something to learn what not to do? I find riffing shows quite useful in this department. Robot Co-Op,Rifftrax, or old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000always teach me something as they roast games and films into hilarious remains because many of their jokes are rooted in the lousy writing. They give Writer Me a Reader’s reaction to the poor character development, lame dialogue, or muddled plots a half-assed story uses. If you don’t want your story to become infamous like Manos: The Hands of Fate,then do the story RIGHT!
We all of us have talents outside of writing. Anne Clare can make stained glass windows, for instance. Shehanne Moore‘s an actor and director. We have these extra channels that help us pull our creativity out of a rut, even renew it.
Music is mine. At one point I was learning piano, violin, clarinet, and even organ. Fourteen years of lessons are going to leave their mark; that’s why I write so avidly about music, and listen to music whenever I write. It’s another realm of creation and adventure we have only to hear to believe. Even my heroine in Fallen Princeborn: Stolenis a pianist because I know how music mends the torn soul.
It’s not just about the reverence, it’s about the belief. You need to know it, feel it in the furthest reaches of your gut, in the callused skin of your fingertips. You have to move forward with the faith that you will succeed, that you will get your stories to readers. I kept that faith for thirty years: doodling stories, recording stories on cassettes, writing stories, going to school to learn about stories, hating school for what they said about stories, and then finally saying piss off to everyone and writing what I wanted to write.
And now here I am, signed on with Aionios Books, with plans to publish my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus.
When I was checking the list of what constitutes gifts of the spirit, I came across this notation for “Understanding”:
“To grasp faith’s mysteries.”
So it goes for writing.
As much as we may stand in awe of our imagination’s power, we must also journey through it to find its roots, and learn how it grows. As a child raised in a minister’s family, I was baptized in Word and Spirit: the water, the Bible passages, dove symbolizing God, etc. I was raised to believe that which the world deemed impossible: walking on water? Feeding thousands with scraps? Rising from the dead? Bah. Fairy tales.
Perhaps it was my father’s study, where Dr. Who figurines stood in front of Hebrew texts and Dragonriders of Pern sat shelved alongside doctrine commentaries. Somehow, my father’s love of fantasy and science fiction grew right alongside my faith. I accepted all the impossible: the wardrobes, the fairies, the dragons, the Highlanders–all felt as proper and real to me as Scripture.
And it’s this sense of realness, of trueness, that keeps my hope alive. There are so, so many worlds out there. Can’t you feel them? Found on a flight of whirligig seeds, hidden beneath the floorboards of the long-forgotten school outside of town. We have been baptized in imagination: we are the ones who see these places, feel their life force humming in the air. We have been baptized in hope, the hope that in our story-telling we will bring sight to the eyes that cannot see these worlds. We hope to find kindred souls who search, like us, behind the crumbling walls and through the old photographs to rediscover mysteries long forgotten.
We are blessed with such gifts to tell our stories. It is our power.
A common writing topic among my adult learners is an argument for better mentor programs among urban and rural youth. The majority of my students have lived many chapters before school: military service, lost jobs, parenthood, health problems, jail time. And in those chapters they had one adult who was there for them while their own loved ones wouldn’t, or couldn’t, support them. Time and again, their stories testify to the power one good grown heart can have in an uncertain life.
Such is the power of a Mentor, an amazing presence one can have in real life, as well as in fiction.
Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to refuse a Call until you’ve had time to prepare for the “zone unknown” that lies ahead. In mythology and folklore that preparation might be done with the help of the wise, protective figure of the Mentor, whose many services to the hero include protecting, guiding, teaching, training, and providing magical gifts….Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure. -Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey
One element irks me about this Mentor business, though: these characters often don’t get much time to grow. Adults so often come pre-set in Young Adult and Middle Grade: they represent all that’s wrong with the story’s universe, or they’re created soley for cannon fodder to inflict emotional damage on the young hero. Of course those that mentor will provide and guide as Vogler mentions, but when it comes time to act, the Mentor either cannot help, or will not. Even Dumbledore, one of THE Mentors in the fantasy genre spanning Middle Grade and Young Adult, admits in Order of the Phoenix to purposefully withholding information from Harry so he could be a kid for a little longer. Well, that withholding led to Harry dragging his friends into an ambush and Sirius Black getting killed off. So I guess Dumbledore does grow, but it takes, you know, FIVE BOOKS for that to happen.
Why not give the Mentor a chance to grow throughout the plot, right there alongside the Hero?
Diana Wynne Jones’ Enchanted Glassshows not only the power of the Mentor/Hero relationship, but the strength of a story that allows both characters to develop.
Now being a Middle Grade fantasy, the book’s blurb will of course talk about the child character, Aidan:
Aidan Cain has had the worst week of his life. Creepy, sinister beings want him dead. What’s a boy to do?
When you open to the first page of the story, however, you don’t hear about Aidan at all:
When Jocelyn Brandon died–at a great old age, as magicians tend to do–he left his house and his field-of-care to his grandson, Andrew Brandon Hope. Andrew himself was in his thirties.
Say what? Why are we meeting this guy first?
Jones spins the Hero’s Journey round and round and upside down and settles it just the way she wants. In a way, Andrew and Aidan are both heroes, even though Andrew ticks a lot of the boxes for Mentor: he takes Aidan into his home, helps him cope with the loss of his family, protects him from the sinister, teaches him about magic and the curious lives hiding about the town, such as the giant who comes to the shed to eat overgrown vegetables every night.
At the same time, Andrew has to grow, too. When we meet him, he is very quiet and mild. This softie-sort of demeanor makes the grandfather’s staff think they can boss Andrew around.
“And I do hope you’ll continue to work for me just as you did for my grandfather,” he said.
To which she retorted, “I don’t know what you’d do if I didn’t. You live in a world of your own, being a professor.”
“I’m not a professor,” he pointed out mildly.
Mrs. Stock took no notice of this.
They couldn’t be clearer of their opinions of Andrew than in their actions. Heck, Mrs. Stock won’t even let Andrew move the furniture around. Every time he redoes the living room, she spends the whole day moving it back, pissed to blazes at him for taking the piano out of its “hallowed corner” and the chairs and lamps away from their “traditional places.” She punishes him with terrible casseroles, but Andrew just ignores them.
Ignoring isn’t the same as growing, though. We start to see his spine stiffen as he deals with the gardener Mr. Stock (no relation). Mr. Stock is obsessed with growing the best veg for the summer fête, and he uses Andrew’s garden to do it while ignoring the lawn, flowers, trees, etc. If Andrew dares ask Mr. Stock to see about the flowers or lawn, Mr. Stock takes to dumping veg rejects in the kitchen, kicking the stained glass door as he goes, rattling glass panes everyone knows to be exceedingly old…and, as it happens, magical.
The magic in the glass is just one of the many things Andrew does not remember. He needs his own Mentor (found in another gardener, no less) to help him sift through the past for all the vital magic lessons from his grandfather, plus learn about the odd bits and pieces about the field-of-care, like the curious counter-parts, and the strange Mr. Brown who’s taken over a chunk of Andrew’s land.
The climax comes with serious growth in bothhero and mentor: Aidan’s able to tap his inner magic to create a fire no invader could penetrate, and Andrew remembers enough of his grandfather’s teaching to summon the powers of his enchanted glass to send the Fairy King back to his own home. Only now, with this success, is Andrew seen as someone to respect, as Mr. Stock admits (to himself, anyway):
He picked up the great marrow and seemed about to hand it to Andrew. Then it clearly struck him that Andrew was too importantly powerful now to carry produce about.
But this victory wasn’t just Andrew’s power, or Aidan’s. It’s a team effort between Hero and Mentor to deal with the Fairy King and his little minions from the get-go until the final thunderclap of magic and acorn flood.
Such is the growth I strive to create in my own characters populating Fallen Princeborn. The protagonists have their own valleys of struggle to walk through, but so does their mentor. He’s forgotten what hope is, and has given up on any sort of change to heal his world. When my heroine arrives, however, and brings a storm of chaos with her, he begins to feel hope again. Experiences hope again. And in that hope, he starts to find the old courage and strength that once held him fast against the enemy.
Even good grown hearts know pain and doubt. They deserve a chance to heal and grow, just like a hero. Heroes of any age want to look up to someone, but they need to relate to someone, too. The Hero’s Journey needn’t be completed by the Hero alone. Let readers walk the Mentor’s Journey, too, and experience a path through the story-world so often left unknown.
“Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy?” My friend thumbs the book’s pages as a frown spreads across her face. “I mean, it’s good, kinda, but there isn’t much, you know, different, in it.”
Blasphemy! I think. But I know what she means. There’s no spectacle about Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. It’s a damn good fantasy, but it’s subtle with that fantasy. It’s not one of those sweeping epics with sky-burning battles of global proportions, powers that can wrinkle time and send us in one earth and out another, or characters filled with magic up to their eyeballs.
Now don’t get me wrong: these can be good fantasies. Heck, I’m in the midst of editing one for publication right now. However, a common trouble with such spectacular epics is that the character doesn’t often move the story along. We’re not reading for the characters so much as for the battle, the quest, the romance, etc. When the story zooms from the epic-ness to the characters and lets them dictate the story, we have a much more personal perspective, but we then we don’t sweep the epic.
I’d like to focus on Fire and Hemlock‘s beginning to make this point. Let’s take a classic likeAlice in Wonderlandfor comparison. Alice enters Wonderland because she follows a White Rabbit in a waistcoat down its rabbit-hole:
There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat–pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.
(Gosh, what a long sentence.)
The image of a talking, clothed animal–who tells time!–running through our world snags a reader’s and promises some zany adventures to come. With Fire and Hemlock, the story opens with….wait for it…a girl not really packing for college.
Magic! Adventure! Alakazam, Alakazoo!
But there is magic already at work, if you listen to the heroine Polly:
And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet–here was the odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it….Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there…Why should she suddenly have memories that did not seem to correspond with the facts? (4-5)
This begins Polly’s journey back into the memories that had somehow been hidden within her. The “Rabbit-Hole” moment comes in her first memory, when she and her friend Nina are running around in black dresses for a game, get separated, and Polly stumbles onto the peculiar estate of town, Hundson House:
When Polly came out into the open, it was not a road after all. It was gravel at the side of a house. There was a door open in the house, and through it Polly caught a glimpse of Nina walking up a polished passage, actually inside the house…cautiously, she tiptoed up the passage. (12)
Polly finds herself in the middle of a funeral and wishes to slink out, but 10-year-olds don’t always know how to do that sort of thing. Thankfully a young man named Tom helps by offering to take her for a walk out back.
The sun reached the dry pool. For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of light filled the pool deep with transparent water. The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom were, just for an instant, floating, green and growing. (23)
Here readers get their first clue that this place is not as normal as her Gran’s. She may not be talking to blue caterpillars or playing croquet with flamingos, but Polly’s definitely stumbled into a group of people where “normal” no longer applies. By the novel’s end we discover that Laurel, the woman whom Polly mistook for Nina earlier, is none other than the Queen of the Fairies, and she wants Tom to sacrifice himself for the King of the Fairies.
It’s a slow build from funeral to Fairy Court, and almost entirely grounded in normal places like Polly’s hometown. But the beauty of such a subtle fantasy is that it makes you peer at the stubborn door at your own gran’s, or sneak down that one badly lit aisle of the supermarket, and wonder: