#WritingLife: The Neglected Garden

Gardening is really an extended form of reading, of history and philosophy. The garden itself has become like writing a book. I walk around and walk around. Apparently people often see me standing there and they wave to me and I don’t see them because I am reading the landscape.

Jamaica Kincaid

My love of nature is great, though my show of it is meager. The shadow of expectation, I suspect–my mother is an avid gardener with a number of bird feeders for the cardinals, orioles, woodpeckers, chickadees, and various other breeds flittering among Wisconsin’s trees. Those feeders are always stationed outside a window near the kitchen table, where no matter the season, my mother can enjoy her meal with the company of the nature she tends so lovingly.

My mom had a setup similar to this when we lived in the country. Noooo idea how she pulled this off.

Meanwhile, the bushes around my home have withered and died. Hostas–I think they’re hostas–have grown so wild and tangled in the back that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rats of NIMH had made a second home beneath their roots. Our single shade tree’s losing its bark and many of its branches refuse to bud. Even the small potted cactus my mother had given me years ago for some sort of greenery in the house has long since died.

Years ago, I would simply blame all this botanical death on motherhood. I couldn’t focus on a garden with Biff and Bash running rampant. I couldn’t afford to garden when the basement flooded and we had to replace things like the furnace and air conditioner. I couldn’t afford to garden when the kids were in school because I was only working part-time and money’s needed elsewhere. I can’t afford to garden because I’m working full-time and time is always needed on the computer, not outside.

Yet my mother worked full-time all my life, and her gardens surrounding any home always thrived. Why?

The love was there. The passion. Just as she loved the beauty in growing things, I love the beauty of stories, of helping them grow. What has one to do with the other?

When I’m writing, I think about the garden, and when I’m in the garden I think about writing. I do a lot of writing by putting something in the ground.

Jamaica kincaid
This book is the inspiration for this post. 🙂

We do our damndest to bring nature to us through artificial means–ambiance videos of forest sounds, for instance. Pretty desktop pictures of gardens.

Yet no matter what pretty picture or sound we acquire on our screens, we’re drawn to our windows, to our doors, our porches. We want to feel the breeze that lifts the dandelion seeds to the air. We want to smell the fresh earth tilled by farmers beyond our borders. We want to see those first bright shoots of green reach for sunlight. We want to reach for that sunlight. We want our senses to revel in Nature because we want our readers to feel the worlds we create for them to explore.

We must break through that thick dark that buries us, and reach. We must break through, and grow.

The gardener just has to accept that gardening is not a set-it-and-forget-it activity…A gardener must know his plot. He must think about what he wants it to look like. Then it is the daily cultivation that leads to beauty, in a landscape and a life, too.

Laura Vanderkam

No small feat, this.

The soil and all its mysteries, the shadow of my own mother’s accomplishments–I find myself taking small steps into tending nature. Caring for birds felt a safer, easier place to start. After all, it’s just a matter of supplying birdseed, yes? Plenty of wild birdseed to be had. But then there’s all those specialized suets and seeds for special birds, special feeders for different breeds. Damn, there’s a lot to work out. I begin with a general birdfeeder and a suet holder for the woodpeckers.

I need this birdfeeder!

Chickadees, sparrows, cardinals galore! The children especially love to spot the pairs of cardinals and guess where their nests could possibly be. Mornings are filled with birdsong outside our front window. I can stand with coffee in hand to watch the sun rise above houses and farmland, the sky awash in orange and pink behind those early risers perched upon the feeder. It’s a daily joy to see so many birds make themselves at home on my porch. The morning doves have even taken to hanging out upon the roof. Of course, this also leads to hawks occasionally stopping by for breakfast and leaving their leftovers in our yard, but that just creates a fresh science lesson for the kids.

No woodpeckers, though.

Not a one.

And still, I leave the suet in hope one comes.

Bo kisses my head as I once again stare at the suet holder. He shakes his head. “That suet’s getting moldy out there,” he says, and hooks a plastic bag on my fingers. He’s right, of course. Only a few small steps into nature, and I’m already stumbling.

But is that not the way with writing, too? Even the safest, smallest of steps into story-worlds isn’t without some risk of falling. We’ve all the unfinished prose and poetry that pain us to think on. Does the pain prevent us from writing?

Perhaps for a while. But never forever. We find new words, new worlds. We peer into the gifts from loved ones and find new seeds, a new feeder.

New life.

New hope.

~STAY TUNED!~

Since Death on the Nile is coming to video in early April, I’m just going to save my next Christie post for when I can rent the film and watch it. I refuse to be foiled by a lack of a babysitter! More indie author interviews are also on the way, and Blondie’s just about done with the third chapter of her Elementals story.

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

Everyday Absurdity: #HumorWriting and the Relatable Experience. #WritingTips

Cancer.

The word, the ordeal, the cause of death–it is not a thing to inspire a smile. My husband Bo knows this all too well, for during his college years his mother fought against breast cancer only to be overtaken by the ovarian cancer the doctors missed. She was scheduled for cremation before her funeral at their local church in accordance with her wishes.

Bo, his father, and his brother all arrived at the church early to help prepare for the visitation. Bo’s mother had already planned the service during her final weeks in hospice, so all the hymns and Scripture passages had been chosen. They just had to help with whatever final arrangements needed to be done with flowers and lunch and such. Bo’s grandparents were present as well, but their grief had swallowed them both body and soul.

Now we come to the point of this.

After speaking briefly with the funeral home director, Bo’s father yanked his sons into the pastor’s office out of sight.

“The director just talked to me. They weren’t done with creating your mother yet, so they just brought the urn for the service.”

“So…the urn is totally empty?” Bo’s brother said, a smirk slowly creeping onto his face. “It’s not, like, just the ashes of Mom’s leg or…”

“No, it’s totally empty.”

“Wait. Wait wait wait,” Bo said with hands up. “Are you saying Mom is actually late for her own funeral?”

“Yes.” Bo’s father peered out the door and made a thumb towards the grandparents, their faces covered with tears and rage. Don’t you DARE tell your grandmother or she will KILL the funeral director!”

We all have experienced grief for a loved one in our lives, so we can understand that some cope with it in different ways. Some will encase themselves with it. Some will reason their way through it. And I’m sure many in that visitation line thought Bo and his brother had gone hysterical with grief. Anytime someone would say the typical Christian variant of, “Your mother isn’t here” (aka, your mom’s in Heaven now), Bo and his brother would respond with, “We know!” and just start laughing.

For Bo, this moment still makes him laugh because such a turn of phrase actually became true for his mom.

(No, Bo’s grandmother still doesn’t know this happened. Yes, Bo’s mother was on time for her own burial, so there’s that.)

Maybe it’s because some people view the human condition as tragic and others see it as comic…Maybe it’s that absurdity is the deeper reality of human life…

Patrick mcmanus

The Relatable Experience

We all wind up in uncomfortable experiences at some point. How we respond/act in that experience depends on who we are and that is the promise of a humorous story we can all appreciate. For Bo and his family, the choice to laugh in spite of grief gave them a cathartic release after months of watching their mother be eaten up by cancer. We all, in those dark moments of grief, yearn for that release, so we as readers can relate to Bo’s experience.

Humor is not a trick. Humor is a presence in the world—like grace—and shines on everybody.

–garrison keillor

Of course, those relatable experiences need not be so extreme. Even the most mundane of relatable experiences has the potential of inspiring laughter from our audience. Take the 90s hit sitcom Seinfeld. No matter how you feel about the actor or the show, the fact is the show really was “about nothing,” as comedian Jerry Seinfeld always said. Because every episode highlighted a flustering relatable experience many of us have dealt with in our own ways, we see the humor of that experience and can laugh at the characters–and ourselves in turn. The episodes “The Chinese Restaurant” from Season 2 and “The Stall” from Season 5 are marvelous examples of this.

Now chances are, none of us have run from a public bathroom with all the toilet paper in petty revenge against the person who would “spare a square” with us before. But we have been in that situation where the public stall had no toilet paper. We recall the embarrassment and frustration and the wish to DO something about it. Now we see a fictional character follow through on those wishes, and we can laugh not only at the plight we had found ourselves in, but the “justice served” upon one who perpetuated that embarrassing situation. The difference between Elaine’s choices and our choices often boil down to building a little creative absurdity into the situation–not right away, but down the line towards the climax.

And such is a strategy that I think many of us writers wouldn’t mind trying. Whether we write fiction based on experience or get a little extra “creative” with our creative nonfiction, we can all see the storytelling potential of nurturing that seed of relatable experience into uniquely hilarious outcomes. Take Caryl Rivers’ “Dragging the Family to the Magic Kingdom,” a fun little addition in 1998’s There’s No Toilet Paper…on the Road Less Traveled: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure. (Clearly I’m stuck in the 90s with this post.)

Caryl starts with the relatable experience of traveling to Disney with her family, which of course will include various jokes about the heat and humidity. This compounds with children whining for food and various rides. This compounds when they are stuck in a very dark space in the crowded line for Pirates of the Carribean and the husband starts making mock headlines like “A thirty-nine-year-old father of two suffered a coronary today in Pirates of the Caribbean…when he fell, he tumbled into the underground stream and his bloated body floating through the pirate displays immediately became one of the most popular tourist attractions.” This compounds with others in line voicing their impatience and the husband saying the skeletons chained to the wall were just folks still waiting in line from the 1960s. This compounds when the mother/narrator starts whining with the kids for food. This ends with the children sick of the whole Disney journey, said they only wanted to throw up.

We’ve all been stuck in hot weather. We’ve all been stuck in lines. We’ve all been stuck with and/or around kids. We can relate to aaall the things Caryl Rivers is bringing up here. Even a story that is nearly thirty years old still holds wait because many of these relatable experiences are timeless, and that timelessness is crucial in writing strong humor writing that lasts.

The Timelessness of the Relatable Experience

And you know what? We can even go farther back. Consider the humor writer Robert Benchley. His humorous essays in Pluck and Luck published in 1925 STILL hold up. “The Church Supper” reminded me of every single potluck I have attended over the past few decades, from the awkward young servers habitually spilling on everyone to the lone male helper in the kitchen being teased by all the ladies for his excellence in “women’s work.” From the bizarre array of supplied foods and beverages to the onslaught of bratty children wreaking havoc on the older lady servers, Benchley captured an event of his time that has yet to really change.

The kiddies, who have been brought in to gorge themselves on indigestible strawberry concoctions, are having a gay time tearing up and down the vestry for the purpose of tagging each other. They manage to reach the door just as Mrs. Camack is entering with a platter full of cabbage salad, and later she explains to Mrs. Reddy while the latter is sponging off her dress that this is the last time she is going to have anything to do with a church supper at which those Basnett children are allowed. The Basnett children, in the meantime, oblivious of this threat, are giving all their attention to slipping pieces of colored chalk from the blackboard into the hot rolls which have just been placed on the tables. And, considering what small children they are, they are doing remarkably well at it.

(Thankfully, while Biff and Bash have not done this prank with chalk (yet), they used to have a rather nasty habit of stealing older women’s canes during church events. It wasn’t so much the fact that they stole the canes as that they were stealing the canes still being used by their proper owners.)

“Kiddie-Kar Travel” is another one that goes to show many of life’s markers, no matter where we are or when we are, simply haven’t changed. I mean, just take this opener:

In America there are two classes of travel–first class, and with children…The actual physical discomfort of traveling with the Kiddies is not so great, although you do emerge from it looking as if you had just moved the piano upstairs single-handed…There are several branches of the ordeal of Going on Choo-Choo, and it is difficult to tell which is the roughest. Those who have taken a very small baby on a train maintain that this ranks as pleasure along with having a nerve killed. On the other hand, those whose wee companions are in the romping stage, simply laugh at the claims of the first group. Sometimes you will find a man who has both an infant and a romper with him. Such a citizen should receive a salute of twenty-one guns every time he enters a city…

Sure, folks aren’t traveling by train as much, but if you replace the setting of a train with the airplane, it all holds up: from the ordeals of using the bathroom to blocking the aisles to the refusal eat/sleep/be quiet and to the inner debate if anyone would really notice and/or care if the child were to be dropped overboard. Of course Benchley has a little fun with this, ending with an escalation into absurdity with a tale about a cousin.

In fact, I had a cousin once who had to take three of his little ones on an all-day trip from Philadelphia to Boston. It was the hottest day of the year and my cousin had on a woolen suit. By the time he reached Hartford, people in the car noticed that he had only two children with him. At Worcester he had only one. No one knew what had become of the others and no one asked. It seemed better not to ask. He reached Boston alone and never explained what had become of the tiny tots. Anyone who has traveled with tiny tots of his own, however, can guess.

Of course Benchley doesn’t have a cousin who did this, but after commiserating with him about the struggles of traveling with children, we readers are just nodding our heads, knowing our frustrations are both seen and understood by the writer and any other reader out there.

The Workings of the Timelessness of the Relatable Experience

Another humor writer, Patrick McManus, has a marvelous example of this building on a timeless experience with a touch of absurdity in his story “The Deer on a Bicycle” published nearly fifty years ago. When Patrick begins the tale, he begins with a juxtaposition that establishes both empathy and tone:

When I was fourteen, I loved deer hunting more than anything I could think of. I had only two problems: I had never been and I didn’t have anyone to take me. Remember, my dad had died when I was very young, and none of the neighbors, not even Rancid Crabtree, wanted to be around me when I was armed. There were no deer near where I lived, so I decided the only thing to do was to ride my bicycle up into the mountains and go hunting by myself.

Many readers can relate to loss of a parent or an absent parent, so right there Patrick builds a connection with readers. But we are not to dwell on any negative feeling for long, because the rest of the paragraph has us picturing a teenager determined to go hunting for a huge, massive, hundreds-of-pounds deer with his…bicycle.

We adult readers can laugh, but we can also experience some self-deprecation. Who of us hasn’t used Kid Logic to explain an idiotic decision? Because when we’re kids, we just don’t think through All The Things like Patrick clearly hasn’t. So we as readers anticipate something is bound to go horribly awry.

Surprise and anticipation are basic to comedy.

Patrick mcmanus

And because Patrick’s delightfully concise, we don’t have to wait long. We get one paragraph of the teen Patrick pedaling past ridiculing hunters into the woods, and lo and behold–a deer!

So all at once I just snap off a quick shot at the deer. It drops like a rock! I’m amazed! It was such a difficult shot too, because I was so startled and all shaky and everything–and the rifle was still tied to the handlebars!

Now would this be even physically possible? I’ve never hunted, so I don’t know. But again, an adult who did dumb things in the past, I can imagine a kid trying to pull off this very thing. The paragraph dedicated to describing how Patrick finagles putting the deer into a sitting position on the front bike is precisely, so just go hunt down (ha ha) The Deer on a Bicycle: Excursions into the Writing of Humor by Patrick McManus for some excellent writing tips as well as his other forays into storytelling.

Anyway. Young Patrick is pedaling with the deer, and it wakes up.

The deer is blinking its eyes! It panics. First time on a bicycle, I guess.

We have this lovely juxtaposition of something quite likely to happen and something quite unlikely to think: the animal was stunned…because it’s on a bicycle. Well…maybe that is more likely to happen. Suppose if I were a deer I’d be quite shocked to wake up on a bicycle, too.

Anyway.

Patrick and the deer pass the hunters, whom “[Patrick] can tell they’re real surprised to see I got a deer before they did,” and then Patrick realizes the deer is pushing Patrick’s feet off the pedals and is taking over the bike. So, Patrick throws himself off and the deer takes off with both bike and rifle.

Later I heard he was in a shootout–with the police–while holding up a liquor store–in Tacoma, Washington–with my rifle!

Yeah, obviously this is absurd. But that’s the joy of humor writing: you can take these absurd routes so long as you build up to them. Take that toilet paper episode of Seinfeld. It wouldn’t have been as funny if Elaine immediately busted the door down to yank all the toilet paper away; rather, we get that revenge in the end of the third act. Caryl doesn’t begin her essay with made-up headlines of families not surviving Disney because they needed to spend time their first. Robert Benchley didn’t begin his travel essay with a man “losing” his children at the beginning of the journey, but at the end when the escalated behavior is raised. When the stakes have been raised.

Just as any story needs time for the stakes to rise, so does a good humor story. Stuff’s gotta build with realistic escalations so that the absurdity, for all its lack of reality, is still completely welcome to the readers. “The Parking Space” episode from Seinfeld‘s Season 3 is a great example of this. A debate on who gets a parking space begins with just the two male drivers. In the next scene, some friends are involved. In the next scene, passers-by are giving their input. In the closing scene, it is clear that hours have passed and even the police are debating about who gets the space. The credit sequence shows these two guys STILL arguing in the dark.

In reality, no one has time for that kind of argument, but as readers we LOVE to witness a character taking on this relatable experience and seeing how they deal with it. We can celebrate with them if they win, and we can empathize with them if they fail. Either result still leads to a satisfying close to the story.

When I write about my mistakes and stupidities, my readers recognize them as authentic, because they have done the same dumb stuff.

patrick mcmanus

Building with The Workings of the Timelessness of the Relatable Experience

So, would you like to have a hand at writing a bit of humor through your Relatable Experience? Come on, you know you’ve got a tale or twenty to share. I bet at least a few would fit into these categories:

  • Kid Crises
  • Academic Anarchy
  • Parenting Problems
  • Workplace Woes
  • Travel Trials
  • Rivalry Ruckuses. Rucki? Ruckeese!
  • Family Fails
  • Social Slips

Sure, your experience may look like a Story About Nothing at first, but if you take the realistic escalations that occurred and add your own little slow builds into Absurdity, you may find that a little creative flair can turn any nonfiction experience–or fictional tale–into a story we can relate to time and time and time again.

Confusion is the natural environment of a humor writer, and it is best to get introduced to it as early as possible.

Patrick McManus

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m going to do a wee bit of revamping to my podcast’s title, so watch out for something new there! Also, I’m warily intrigued by the new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Watching this trailer as well as the other adaptations AND reading the book got me thinking about a common writer’s problem we all face. Be sure to stop by and found out what that problem is!

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

Special #December #Podcast Series! Blondie Shares #TwelveDays of #MiddleGrade #ReadingRecommendations: Foxcraft: The Taken by @Inbalinka

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’ve always been thrilled to see how much my three little Bs love to read, but it makes my heart melt to hear my daughter Blondie say she wants to do a podcast with me to share her favorite books. When I said we could make a little “12 Days of Christmas” style series in December, Blondie whipped through her books and picked twelve for us to study. She even designed our banner with her favorite fantasy creature. x

So here we are! I’m blessed to have such amazing kindred spirits in my life, and I am so very blessed to have a daughter who loves storytelling as much as I do.

On the seventh day of Blondie’s Books, my daughter gave to me:

Foxcraft: The Taken by Inbali Iserles

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

Why did you pick this book, Blondie?

I found this at a library and the only reason I picked this book was that there were foxes (my favorite real animals) and magic. This now is one of my most favorite book series of all time. I strongly suggest readers read this book. It’s VERY hard to put down this book when you start reading it!

Stay tuned for more storytellin’ and carol-singin’!

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

The Power of #OralStorytelling in #History, #Reading, and #Writing

Hello, my fellow creatives! Summer has returned to the Midwest at last. While my kids eagerly toss their backpacks into the air crying Hallelujah, I am wrapping up finals while also preparing for the next term. It’s a little scary, changing over terms, but, you know…we manage somehow. 🙂

But all this monsterly ruckus does not mean we cannot think of writerly things. In fact, I was fortunate enough to host a virtual Creative Salon for some fellow teachers about the importance of oral storytelling for its cultural, creative, and classroom significance. Let me take you through a few bits of research, perhaps a pondering or two, so that we may all remember just what is treasured–preserved–known through the tradition of oral storytelling.

The oral traditions and expressions include of many spoken such us riddles, proverbs, folklore, tales, legends story, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and more. Oral traditions and expressions are used to give information about the knowledge, social and culture values as well as the collective memory.

Cultural Preservation: Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku

Think back to your days listening to a story a loved one tells you, or that you told yourself. “Once upon a time”… and off you go into someplace Other and New. Such a common little phrase, isn’t it? We hear it over and over in familiar fairy tells and legends. You can even trim that phrase down further to simply “Once.” Countless stories start at this very moment. These stories come from across land and time to reach us, here and now, and pull us into their “once”: stories of battles waged, quests completed, families reunited.

Or perhaps those stories come from an Elsewhere altogether different: lands of myth and magic, where the Impossible is just as real as you, or you…oooor you!

Campfires call upon that Impossible Magic, don’t they? When the words of a spoken story combine with the sparks and stars, we cannot help but fall under the story’s spell. Such was the way we and others wove with words: summer camp’s ghost stories, Dad’s evening devotions, or the bizarre fairy tales we’d tell ourselves while poking the embers with our sticks still sticky from the last of the marshmallows.

In the time of Dickens, reading aloud at home was very much a common household entertainment. The practice had become broadly accessible in Britain a hundred years earlier, with the spread of literacy and the increased availability of books and periodicals…they saw reading as a pick-me-up and a dangerous influence, a source of improvement, a way to stave off boredom, and even as a health-giving substitute…

The Enchanted Hour

But let us not be so foolish as to suppose the stories told could only be for fun. Telling tales aloud could be extremely instructive, too, for any class. From oral historians describing battles to Caesar as he dined, to the man reading newspapers to Cuban cigar-rollers as they worked, we have depended on the oral storyteller to take us outside of ourselves and witness that which we cannot experience otherwise. It is through the telling of lives that we have learned what it is like to emigrate to a foreign land, to live in a centuries-old slum, to hide in the trenches as bombs decimate the land. Countless cultures have depended upon oral storytelling to preserve their histories and customs, and it is through such practice that modern generations have been able to preserve the ways of their ancestors.

The art of storytelling was practiced by both men and women in Lakota culture and society, where a form of high culture existed prior to the reservation period. Those individuals born in the early part of the twentieth century retained memories of narratives told by grandparents who lived during this “high culture” period, which extended from the time before contact with Europeans to approximately 1850.

George Sword’s Warrior Narratives

Nowadays, Kapata is performed (sung) widely [in Indonesia]. In its development, Kapata helps to carry out the function as the medium to enrich language and literature…Another function of Kapata is a social control function. It can be found in the texts of Kapata such as in Kapata Nasihat in Central Maluku from parents to children or from kings to his people. Kapata [maintains] the sanctity of customs regulations and upholding custom laws in a particular community; and to preserve and maintain custom relations that have been established in a community for years.

Rediscovering the Endangered Oral Tradition of Maluku

Māori who participate in ceremonies and meetings there, descendants of those who composed and passed on the ancient records, know the lineage of their forebears because of often quoted genealogies, which were also preserved in the oral tradition. The words handed down from the ancestors are cherished and kept current in various ways and through new media….The literature that bears the closest relationship to the oral tradition in its original form are the texts that Māori first wrote down from memory or that were written for them as they dictated…

Maori Oral Tradition

The West had shaped the knowledge and discourse about Africa for hundreds of years and it was important to shift that power relationship. Obviously, decades of European colonial incursion and rule needed to be sorted out as it pertained to earlier scholarship….Certainly, African societies have preserved their histories, cultures, and ideas in nonverbal forms in the plastic, musical, dancing, and ritual arts, and these need to be taken into account when seeking a thorough historical picture. This also allows us to understand how earlier events have been reconsidered or even reshaped over time for contemporary purposes.

On the Status of African Oral Tradition Since 1970s: An Interview with Robert Cancel

But what does oral storytelling mean for us in the here and now? Since the professionals cannot make up their minds about listening to stories vs. reading them, let’s just focus on what we get out of oral storytelling as both readers and writers of the present.

Reading becomes a priority again. One of my university colleagues broke down the current literacy plight as an inevitable consequence of the “multimodality” of our entertainment. Once radio and film came to Main Street, people no longer needed newspapers and books like they used to. A representative of Wisconsin Literacy concurred, noting that a child is not raised in a home where reading matters, that mindset is carried into adulthood and passed on to the next generation. This mindset propels that vicious cycle of low-literacy onward: no motivation to read = inability to decipher and synthesize text both simple and complex. Forget research–low-literacy means being unable to properly fill out a job application or understand a medical prescription. Studies shared in The Enchanted Hour show that the majority of a child’s neurological development occurs in the first five years, and when a child watches a video instead of listening to a book being read, that development suffers greatly.

Listening to a picture book being read, however, helps children connect the pictures and words they see with the words they hear. They hear how the words sound, how the sentences sound, and are therefore able to use those words and sentences themselves with confidence. And this isn’t just for kids, by the way. I have recommended my adult learners reading fun stuff for years, and the response is overwhelmingly positive. Reading for fun makes reading for school a smidge easier. Reading for school makes writing for school a smidge easier. Writing for school makes writing for work a smidge easier. Put all those smidges together, and you’ve got yourselves a broken vicious cycle.

If a child sees something in a parent that that child aspires to, he or she will copy that parent and be content.

The Reading Promise

This is another reason why I started my podcast last month: in all my encouragement to students, I was neglecting myself. Story Cuppings became a way for me to not only sample and study stories through reading their first chapters, but to read aloud and experience new language again and again. If you’ve a book–be it one you love, wrote, or both–you’d like me to share on Story Cuppings, just let me know!

Passion swells to share one’s life experience, the struggles here and now. “Once upon a time” is not limited to Past Days or Elsewheres. “Once” means “now” as much as it means “then.” “Once” there is a group of people who struggle, not struggled, against adversity. That “once” takes us to the accounts of individuals in Hong Kong, in the United States, in Myanmar, in Poland, in Mexico. It is through the words of an individual—what they see and hear, what they experience at the hands of others—that we learn of the epic quests and battles of today.

And do not assume “epic” must mean “global stakes.” On the contrary, the most epic victories can be one family, one person, living life one season to the next. Such are the stories we hear at family gatherings, be they around a campfire, kitchen table, or fence post. As fellow Wisconsinite storyteller and documentarian Jeremy Apps explains:

My father and my uncles were storytellers, and so were several of the neighbors in the farming community where I grew up in central Wisconsin. Family members told stories when we gathered for celebrations, birthday parties, anniversaries, and at Christmas and Thanksgiving family affairs. Our farm neighbors told stories during threshing and wood sawing bees, while they waited at the grist mill for their cow feed to be ground, and when they came to town on Saturday nights and waited for their wives to grocery shop. These stories were always entertaining, as many of them had a humorous bent to them, but they were also filled with information—how the cattle were surviving during the summer drought, what price Sam got for his potato crop and how he managed to get that price. How the weather this year was not nearly as bad as the weather twenty years ago. Many of the stories were also sad, such as how Frank was making it on his poor farm since his wife died and left him with three kids to fee and care for.

Telling Your Own Story

When I read App’s words and see his work like A Farm Winter, I see the shine of the pivotal truth he wrote in Telling Your Own Story….

Click here for more on this documentary.

Your stories are snippets of history.

Never, EVER, sell your own story short. Whether you weave your experiences with imagined elements or you stitch the raw details together for all to know, YOUR story matters.

Now, tell it aloud.

Hear the sounds of the words you choose, the rhythm they create like the genealogies repeated by the Maori over and over as the story is told by the teller. Listen to the nuances of your characters’ voices–what words embody the tones you use when your voice dresses up as each character? What words bring sensory feeling to the settings you describe?

There is beauty in your story’s language, my fellow writers. Share it with the sparks and stars, and see its magic pass from one generation to the next.~

~COMING SOON!~

Would you believe I’m actually working on a humor writing workshop for my university this summer? I’m still working out how I got roped into that, too. Plus we need to FINALLY talk about the process of choosing character names. Let’s not forget studying those character archetypes that cross time and culture! There’s lots of literary fun to share over the coming months, not to mention some more kickin’ author interviews.

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

#ProudMom Moment! My Daughter Blondie Shares Her #Fantasy #Fiction.

Happy Mother’s Day, my fellow creatives!

Whether you’re a mother or you’re the one who mothers; whether your mom is present for a hug, or a wave, or a kiss heavenward, take a moment to share love with those who share their nurturing love with you.

To celebrate Mother’s Day, Blondie has finished her pictures and story so I can share them here with you. Looks like a day off for me!

Blondie adores Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon, as you can see. 🙂

Welcome, my friends, to Blondie’s story: THE FOUR REALMS.

The Four Realms #1: Four Kingdoms

T’was the winter of the fall of Tyrannus when the realm was divided into four kingdoms. The Kingdom of Dragons was the most powerful of them all. King Flamescale ruled the land. He was a ruthless, unforgiving king, and treated people from other kingdoms with no respect. The neighboring kingdoms often rebelled against him with no success. They were powerless against him. One of those kingdoms was not really a kingdom. It was the QUEENDOM of Foxes. The queen was none other than the wielder of the Vermillion Sword, Queen Scarletfire. She was a born warrior and was kind to her people. She never really trusted other kingdoms and their ways, even though they fought for the same purpose. The wolf kingdom was mostly the same way. The king was the wielder of the Axe of Titor, King Siberius. He was the leader of a great pack and took care of them all. The wolf kingdom and the fox queendom hardly knew each other existed, until one day

The king of hawks, King Skyfighter, turned rouge over the years, so he decided to attack.

Hundreds, thousands, millions of hawks came from the sky and attacked the foxes and wolves. They barely had time to suit up for war. CHARGE!!!! The wolves and foxes were fighting separately at first, until Scarlerfire saved Siberius from a diving hawk. Then, in return, Siberius saved Scarletfire from a hawk, too. Soon, the kingdoms were working side by side. Seeing they were losing, the hawks retreated hastily. Meanwhile, King Flamescale oversaw the entire battle from the battle from his palace. He was worried about the kingdom and queendom might attack his kingdom. So he thought of a plan to get rid of their leaders. He called the king and queen to his palace and said, “Wait out in the field you fought the hawks so we can pay tribute to the dead.” It sounded pretty suspicious, since the King rarely did so, but they obeyed.

As the sun went down, Scarletfire and Siberius waited. Then, dragons of every size, shape, and color imaginable came roaring from the skies. The king and queen realized the Dragon King had the whole thing rigged. So, under the cover of darkness, Scarletfire and Siberius jumped onto the dragon army’s highest general, and steered him toward the palace. The general was none other than Toothless the Night Fury, confused and lost, and decided to join the army. The entire army followed Toothless, unaware what in the world was going on. Scarletfire and Siberius stormed into the king’s throne room.

“(You’re still alive?! Darn army has failed me again.)Well, looks like you caught me red pawed.” The king said, smiling slyly.

“You tricked us, you sniveling worm.” Siberius snarled. “Are you going to kill me? Ha! It would disgrace the legacy of the dragons if their greatest king was slain by two mutts.”

“There are three things wrong with that. One, yes, we are. Two, you are the WORST KING EVER. And three, WE ARE NOT IN ANY WAY MUTTS!!!!” Scarletfire roared, stabbing the king in the wing.

“CURSE YOU, YOU DAFT DOGS!!!!” the king yelled, slashing at Scarletfire, missing, and hitting Siberius in the face. Siberius growled and cut at the king’s legs. The king, crippled, began breathing fire EVERYWHERE. Scarletfire then leapt and blinded the king with her sword. The king, beyond enraged by this point, screamed and tried to swipe and scorch Siberius and Scarletfire. Together, they jumped and slashed at the king’s unprotected chest.

The king shrieked, and was no more.

From that night forward, the dragons, wolves and foxes built a new civilization and lived in peace. The hawks remained rouge and kept themselves hidden in the shadows, plotting their revenge. Rumor has it that there is a lost heir to the dragon throne, but that’s for another time.

(P.S, Toothless met Hiccup again and promised to come back to the Realm again and bring his friends. But that is for another time)

This historic legend and novel is by: Blondie the Dragon Tamer

I’m so proud of my eldest! She’s even working on a new story about a girl forced by her awful aunt to face a wizard. “Can I post my story on your website when I’m done?” she asks.

Me on the outside: “Of course, Kiddo!”

Me on the inside:

This Mother’s Day, I hope you find many moments to dance on the inside as well as the out. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: #StoryEndings and #LooseEnds (Also, a Defense of #EarwigandtheWitch)

Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!

Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:

I’m talking about the little Middle Grade fantasy Earwig and the Witch.

And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.

However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?

Adapting.

Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.

After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?

I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.

They. Didn’t. Matter.

Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.

Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.

So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”

The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.

“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig.
The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.”
“Nonsense!” said the Matron.
“But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.”
Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.”
Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.

I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.

Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.

Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.

Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.

For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.

Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.

The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.

[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.

After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:

“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”

Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.

THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?

Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?

Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.

Aren’t these illustrations by Paul Zelinsky a scream?

It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)

When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.

She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak,
“Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.”
Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”

When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.

But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?

A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.

So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.

And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.

~STAY TUNED!~

Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.

Just look at the drama packed into these characters! xxxxxx

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

#writerproblems: Balancing #WritingGoals in #storytelling and #Blogging During These #Uncertaintimes

Mama Robin calls
as morning’s dew captures light


Never mind writing haiku without coffee is hard.

Anyway.

‘Tis July first! The year is officially halfway over, and with all that’s happened in the world, I know many would prefer to wash their hands of 2020 and be done with it.

But then there are folks like me, who see a half-year of potential rather than a full year wasted. Lamenting opportunities lost only breeds bitterness and anger. Now is the time to grow onward and upward with whatever we have.

Even if all we have is a page of fantastical hopes.

Fellow Young Adult author K.M. Allen posted a couple articles recently about her own struggles with time management during the lockdown life and balancing the writing we do for our platforms vs. the writing we do for, you know, storytelling and whatnot. (Allen used a much better term–“The Art of Authoring.”) Her posts got me thinking about my writing mindset, and how I’ve tended to lump aaaaaaaaall the writing together into this single act. Writing a blogpost? Still writing. Writing notes on history? Still writing. Writing an actual honest-and-true story? Still writing.

Were my extra teaching jobs and graduate school work still a part of my life, this kind of writing would be enough. Heck, I’d be ecstatic if I found time to blog while writing term papers. But these extra factors are not a part of my life right now. Sure, University work still is–I even presented on nonfiction writing at the Lit Fest earlier this month. While researching I stumbled across a Writer’s Digest article called “The 9-Minute Novelist,” and that got me thinking…

Why not me, too?

I know I’ve bemoaned my struggle with time before–when my kids were toddlers, when they attended school but only part-time, when everyone’s home on summer break, etc etc etc. When lockdown life began, I thought for sure I could do do a little, just a little, writing. But too often I allowed blogging, researching, plotting, and those other -ings replace the actual DRAFT-ing that needed to happen.

Some are quite adept at blending one task to create another–history notes get typed up into the blog to help show a writing update, for instance. I know I used my 2019 attempt at NaNoWriMo as a chance to both draft and post all at once. It worked for a little while, just as the notes-turned-blogposts can work for a little while, too.

With the coming school year’s attendance procedures impossible to predict, parents like myself have to be prepared for more of “School at Home” while also working in or out of the home. (And of course, just as I type this, Bash has come into the room. “What is it, dude? I’m trying to work,” I say. “But I wanna be by you,” he says with the smallest possible voice, and moves all my materials to snuggle up by me. Oh, little kiddo.)

Some days the kids are great at occupying themselves, and other days not. Parent-Writers, we know setting aside “hours” to write, even once a week, just isn’t realistic. Heck, I’m amazed when the kids leave me be for twenty minutes in a row.

And that’s the key here: working with the minimum amount of time, not the maximum. Let’s consider what non-kid stuff requires our attention in the day, and where we can find those nine–or ten–minutes to write.

(Yes, I’m back to the old bulletin board. I need my visual schedule!)

One Hour

Risky thing, setting aside an hour. Either a movie better be on that ALL the kids will watch, or someone else needs to be in the house with the kids. My online classes are an hour long in the evenings when Bo is home. If I do a movie during the day, that is my one chance at an hour block. This time’s usually needed for grading, a task that I can safely break from and start back on when kids intervene. Writing-wise? That hour better be had outside of the house.

(Aaaand now Biff is in the room, poking Bash with his toes. “Why don’t you two read something?” *Two pairs of eyes continue staring off into space as toes continue poking legs*)

Thirty Minutes

Done right, half an hour can be a very productive time. One can write proposals for a conference, respond to a few students, or catch up on the late grading. As a writer, thirty minutes is perfect for looking through research, scoping out potential publishers, or drafting.

(Aaaaand now Blondie pokes her head in with a page she just has to read from Dogman: For Whom the Ball Rolls. “Yes, kiddo, thank you. Now go and occupy YOURSELVES. I am not here to entertain you!” Three bodies sluff off, complete with drooping shoulders and groans of “I’m too tired to build Lego.”)

Twenty Minutes

This is probably where one can feel the sprint effect–that is, there’s not a minute to waste. Good! Too often I fall down the social media hole with Twitter or YouTube. We must make every minute of that twenty count, be it drafting, editing, grading, or…gasp…exercising.

Again, being realistic with myself. I know I won’t set aside an hour for it, not even half. Twenty…yeah, I could swing that, if the mood strikes. Plus I can drag the little “what are you doing nooooow?” buckos right along with me. Win-win.

Ten Minutes

Okay, THIS has to be the golden number for one who’s got kids and job AND writing in life. Even my attention-lovers can be occupied by books, drawing, or Snoopy Monopoly for ten minutes.

So many lovely moments can be made in just ten minutes: reading a story aloud to kids. Drafting dialogue. Answering student questions. Editing a scene. Playing catch outside. Prepping for class. Networking on social media. Writing a Goodreads review.

Maybe it hurts a little inside to think I’m only spending ten minutes with my kids/story? I can’t do that! They deserve better! We need to remember this important point.

The day is no mere ten minutes.

I’m usually up from roughly 4:30am to 9:30pm. Want to guess how many minutes there are in seventeen hours? 1,020 minutes. Or, 102 slots of Ten Minutes.

102.

You are not giving your kids 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. You are not giving your writing 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. Don’t beat yourself up over organizing your time. If you don’t organize your time, then you will always feel like something is being set aside for the sake of the other, and that fear will lead to nothing but bitterness, anger, and the Dark Side.

Nothing has to be sacrificed here. Honest and for true. You just need to jigger those expectations over what you want to do and when. Take me, eager to publish the sequel to Fallen Princeborn: Stolen before 2020 ends. If I set aside 10 minutes to edit every day, I can make that goal. I want to expand and re-publish Middler’s Pride, too. 10 minutes a day can get me there. I’d LOVE to get “Hungry Mother” in an online magazine, finish the novella What Happened After Grandmother Failed to Die, work on the OTHER Princeborn novella I’ve sketched out–

And I can do all those things. I will do all those things. And you can, too.

Ten minutes at a time.

STAY TUNED NEXT FORTNIGHT!

Yup, two weeks. Part of this “jiggering” of expectations means blogging can’t overwhelm the story-writing. I’m going to follow K.M. Allen’s idea of blogging every other week, scheduling my own posts for the first and fifteenth of every month. Thank you all so much for your patience, kindness, and encouragement, and I hope you’ll be back when I share the interviews, analyses, music, and doodles waiting in the wings!

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

Many #thanks to @ReviewAlholic for this #BookReview of my #YAFantasy! Now may we all #weatherthestorm and be #grateful for what we have. #ReadIndie

Hello, everyone! June’s been quite the river rapids of change for me. From the cancellation of my elementary summer school gig to the delay of my return to graduate school, life’s been…unpredictable.

Yet there is always something to be thankful for. Quiet mornings with nature and that first cup of coffee, for one.

Blondie, Biff, Bash, and Bo are healthy. I still have my university teaching, and Bo still has his job. Parks in communities around us have opened, so the kids can experience playgrounds again. My mom is getting married to a kind, funny man later this year. Our house is still dry despite a tropical storm traveling across the country and flooding the Midwest. This drastic change-up of commitments also means I can now commit to my biggest writing goal: publishing at least one novel before 2020 ends.

And as always, I am thankful for you, each and every one of you. Our family trip into the North Woods kept me offline, but I’m still excited to spend what remains of June wandering through your corners of the writing-verse and catching up with you. I’ve got some swell interviews lined up, Blondie’s promised to share her doodles, Biff and Bash may allow me to record their storytelling, and lo and behold, there’s been a new review of my novel!

This review is what I thought I’d share today. Briar, you have my deepest gratitude for sharing your recommendation of my book. You’re a dear!

This summer may not be what many of us intended, but we still have a lot of creative fire burning in us. No storm will douse our flames, Friends, remember that.

Read on, share on, and write on!

#LessonsLearned from #DianaWynneJones: Small #Family #Conflict Can Grow Into An #Epic #Fantasy

For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.

Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.

“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”

“Why does David go away to school?”

“Why is David’s family so mean?”

Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.

“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.

I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”

I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…

I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…

Anyway.

Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.

Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)

One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.

“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.”
David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)

Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.

Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)

While this cover also gives away Thor’s hammer,
there’s also a lot of magical whimsy with the way
Luke ribbons his fire amidst the garden.

The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.

“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.”
Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.”
“What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.”
“Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately.
“I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)

It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.

It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.

“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.”
It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did.

[said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)

David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.

This style initially reminded me of the mosaics of Rome until I scoped out ancient Norse carving.

“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)

****

Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)

Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.

And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.

Sound familiar? It does to David.

The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)

This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.

Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.

When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.”
“Run for what?” said David.
“Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)

Now this cover’s got more of a Young Adult feel, what with the spitfire of Luke standing defiantly with his arms crossed and his firey hair blending with the flames surrounding him.

Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”

I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.

Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.

Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.

David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”

“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.

“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”

Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.

It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)

Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.

Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.

~STAY TUNED!~

I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!

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

Blondie’s #Fantasy #MG and #Kidlit #BookRecommendations for #WyrdandWonder

Hey Jeanie Beanie, where’d you go yesterday? Wasn’t your novel supposed to be on sale? What happened to this marathon of posts for Wyrd and Wonder?

Hi, guys. Yes, my novel was supposed to be on sale, but there was a gaff with Amazon, sooooo it can’t be on sale right now.

(You’re welcome to buy it anyway, if you’d like. It’s on Kindle Unlimited, too!)

I’m bummed, but there’s no use moaning about it, not when my eldest turned ten over the weekend.

Originally, we were to take her and some friends to see the new Scoob! movie in theaters. But when the world went into lockdown, aaaaaall that changed. We managed a day of coded messages, dandelion seeds, and mysterious footprints for a present hunt, all topped with chocolate milkshakes and Scooby-Doo cake. I could not bring myself to break from her to write here, and I have a feeling none of you would want me to, either. x

Even now I can’t just sit and gab about Diana Wynne Jones. As much as I love her work, I want to give Blondie another moment in the sun with you here. So today, let’s hear from Blondie about what she loves to read in a Fantasy, and then let her update us on her upcoming summer adventures. So first, let’s hear about Blondie’s new favorite series, Last Dogs.

Despite Biff and Bash going at it in the hallway instead of cleaning their room, Blondie and I continue towards another fantasy series, one she loves to reread–Endling.

One of Blondie’s presents was a video game based on The Guardians of Ga’Hoole, which got Blondie back into reading this long’n’awesome series.

And now, at long last, we talk of Blondie’s dragons and her own comic creation, Captain Fantastico. (I’ll attempt pictures when Blondie colors them. Her sketches are TINY!)

For this ten-year-old, the best fantasies bring animals–and sometimes people–together in a strange land to fight for hope. I think we could all use an adventure like that, don’t you think?

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