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

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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!

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with an important #writetip for #kidlit #storytelling

Soooooo my puppet plans for the day went so-so. Each kid had a snit at some point: Blondie in making the puppets, Bash in writing his play, and Biff in performing for his family. Still, the kids had TONS of fun at various points of the day creating their robots, rockets, and superheroes. We also took breaks to watch the ultimate puppet show, The Muppet Show. The episode with John Cleese is always a favorite!

I also had a lovely chat with long-time friend, Anne Clare. It always lifts the spirit to connect with an old friend and fellow creative who adventures with teaching and parenting at home as I do. Be sure to stop by her site and say hello!

This week we also found the library that contained the last book to Blondie’s current fav series: Last Dogs by Christopher Holt. She’s found a lot of escape in this series, and I didn’t want to cut off her escape time by missing one of the books.

Escape is very important in times like this, and I hope you each have found that beloved book to transport you out of the current chaos (feel free to share it in the comments below!). I’m excited the stories I’ve written have helped others escape; nothing helps me reset like escaping into my fantasy writing. Diana Wynne Jones also considered fantasy stories to be a delightful bit of escape and adventure for children, but she also reminds writers that fantasy is much more than that for children. Through fantasy, children discover how to be their best selves.

From Writing for Children: A Matter of Responsibility

…many writers, not only those who say imagination drives you mad, get the wrong idea. They assume that because a thing is “made up” it is unreal or untrue (disregarding the fact that any kind of story except the most factual biography is always “made up”). They see a child reading a fairy story, or constructing his or her own fantasy, and they at once conclude that the child is retreating into make-believe simply to get comfort in a melancholy situation.

Fantasy certainly does provide comfort–and who is not entitled to a little comfort if they can get it? For those who need that, it is the mind’s perfect safety valve. But a child reading, say, a fairy story is doing a great deal more. Most fairy stories are practically perfect examples of narratives that fit the pattern of the ind at work. They state a problem as a “what if” from the outset. “What if there were this wicked uncle? That evil stepmother who is a witch? This loathsome monster?” Stated in this way, the problem (parent? bully?) is posed for the widest possible number of people, but posed in a way that enables the reader to walk all around it and see the tights and wrongs of it. This uncle, witch or monster is a vile being behaving vilely. As these beings will invariably match with an actual person: parent, sibling, schoolfellow, what a child gains thereby is a sort of blueprint of society. Reading the story, he or she is constructing a mental map–in bold colors or stark black and white–of right and wrong and life as it should be. Turning to the cruel parent or schoolfellow, where right and wrong are apt to be very blurred, this child will now have the mental map for guidance.

An important part of this mental map is that the story should usually have a happy ending–or at least an ending where justice is seen to be done to villains and heroes alike. This is again part of life as it should be. The mind, as I have said, is programmed to tackle problems, joyfully, with a view to solving them…it is important that the blueprint instructs them to aim as high as possible.

If you bear in mind these responsibilities as you write, you need have no fear that any child will mistake the blueprint for the actual world. Children recognize the proper workings of the imagination when they are allowed to see it and may quite well remember your story, joyfully and gratefully, for the rest of their lives.

As you all continue on your adventures through the fantastic, I hope you’ll take a moment to remember the authors who inspired you with their monsters and warriors, and how those stories brought you here, to your Wyrd and Wonderful place, to create a new world of monsters and warriors to inspire a new generation of readers drawing up their own blueprints to becoming their best, their brightest, their most unique selves.

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

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #robertmckee and #starwars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 2: #TheForceAwakens to #MissedOpportunity

Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever.

Robert McKee

November. The media blitz is on to promote Rise of Skywalker, the third installment in Disney’s sequel trilogy in Star Wars. Kathleen Kennedy, the current head of Lucasfilm, is interviewed by Rolling Stone to discuss the films and their challenges. When asked about writing the third film to close the arc, Kennedy says:

Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.

Kathleen Kennedy to Rolling Stone, November 2019

It seems a curious line, to specifically point out how Star Wars has no comic books. A dig, perhaps, at the Marvel films and aaaaaaaaaaaall those comic story lines at the screenwriters’ disposal for adapting into film?

Or did Kennedy forget Star Wars DID have comics and novels–decades worth, in fact?

In 2014, Disney officially announced all the published Expanded Universe (EU) stories of the Star Wars universe were no longer canon. All the adventures that took place after Darth Vader hurled the Emperor into the abyss were gone.

For folks like my friends and brothers who had read the comics and novels, this was a serious blow to the gut. For more casual fans like myself, who grew up with the movies and the goofy spin-off cartoons–

R2-D2 is HILARIOUS in these. A big favorite with my droid-lovin’ kiddos.
The theme song got better…eventually.

–I wasn’t angry so much as confused. If the cartoons can pull one or two tertiary characters from the original trilogy and build successful stories around them, why was it so important to blow up the ENTIRE EU and all its storylines? Each one had already undergone serious testing with lovers of sci-fi, let alone Star Wars. It’s not like all the storylines had potential for film adaptation, but surely a few had promise, right?

But Disney didn’t want to continue the saga in the galaxy far, far away as other creators had seen it. They wanted their Star Wars to be like the Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s, only different enough so they could make the most money with the least amount of change.

The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.

Robert McKee

Enter The Force Awakens.

Damn, if that teaser STILL doesn’t give me chills. We have a panicked Storm Trooper–a human, panicking Storm Trooper. This isn’t just some eleventh generation of clones from the prequels, but a person, and this person looks sincerely scared. For the casual fans like myself, this had never been seen before. The first few seconds of this teaser promised audiences a new kind of Star Wars story. Throw in a new droid, renegade girl, and an X-Wing pilot, sure, but the real compliment to that opening new thing was the climactic-yet-familiar thing: the Millennium Falcon fighting TIE Fighters. Over the course of roughly 90 seconds, the teaser promises audiences a balance of familiar and unfamiliar to create a new Star Wars story.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into an analysis of all the trailers. It just felt important to show that in 2015, The Force Awakens looked extremely promising to the fans who grew up with the first six films, and now have toy-loving children who of course have seen those films, too. After Disney had yanked the EU, devoted fans like my brothers were excited to see what Disney wanted to put in its place. Considering the cool work they’d done bridging the gap between prequels and original trilogy with Star Wars: Rebels, Disney had a lot of audience goodwill in their favor, visible in all the Cosplay and YouTubers whooping with light sabers as they prepped their own audiences for movie reviews.*

Then folks saw the movie.

Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible…we don’t want to hit the same note over and over…. They key to varying a repetitious cadence is research. Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling. With authorial knowledge we can prepare a feast of pleasures.

Robert McKee

Many were thrilled to see a style more like the original trilogy than the CGI-infested prequels. However, many–me included–felt a very strange deja vu. Echos, if you will, that felt too like what’s come before. And we felt it before the opening scrawl had departed for the stars.

Luke Skywalker has vanished. Woah! The only known Jedi in this new series was officially missing? How? What happened? One sentence in, the audience’s curiosity is piqued. But then we keep reading: In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.

Hold on.

So, that whole chucking-the-Emperor-into-the-abyss didn’t kill the Empire? Hmm. Well, it’s just the head of state. Big Bureaucracy like that could probably run for a bit without the head. But if this First Order is looking for Luke, then they must not be responsible for his absence. So is there another villain here? What’s going on?

The scrawl goes on: With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.

So…ok. the Republic of the prequels is back now, but there’s still a First Order that came out of the Empire. If Leia’s leading the Resistance, that must mean the First Order has more power than the Republic, I guess? Who’s even in the Republic? Wouldn’t the First Order technically be the minority, the underdog?

We’ve defined setting in terms of period, duration, location, and level of conflict. These four dimensions frame the story’s world, but to inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, cliché-free story, you must fill that frame with a depth and breadth of detail.

Robert McKee

Herein lies the next major mistake Disney made with Star Wars: they wanted all the same stakes of the original trilogy without putting in the effort to bring the galaxy to that point. People like Rebel Princess Leia, so keep her in that position. People liked the baddie Empire, so make a new Empire. People liked the Death Star, so let’s make a new one. How the First Order–consisting from, as the scrawl said, the “ashes” of the Empire–has the might they do to build huge fleets and planet-killers is never explained. Why doesn’t the Republic have its own army? At the very least it’d have reused whatever’s left from the Empire…unless the First Order took ALL of that? So then what the heck is in the Republic, and why are they separate from the Resistance?

Time never moves without effect. Years have passed since Return of the Jedi, and yet good and evil are right back where they were. History may be cyclical, but something must happen to reset the cycle.

Disney never shares that something with us. It’s as if they hit the reset button on a video game, selecting different faces and places, but leaving the stakes the same.

However, as my husband Bo reminds me, there’s only so much one can pack in the first movie. Backstory can always help explain things later in the narrative arc, when a breather in action is needed. So at this point, audiences have to hope for a quiet moment with a sage-like character–Leia, perhaps, since she’s the only one the scrawl tells us is present–to clue audiences and new characters in as to how the galaxy ended up the way it did. A scene with some exposition could better clarify why the stakes are what they are so audiences can care about the characters involved in those stakes. This didn’t have to happen in The Force Awakens, but the opportunity was there in one of the first characters audiences see: the scared Storm Trooper from the teaser.

The opening scene echoes the entrance of the black-cloaked figure in a mask, Kylo Ren. The daring pilot’s hidden the clue to Skywalker in his droid, BB-8, and sends him off…He wants the map to Skywalker from what the title scrawl calls an “old ally”–not anyone we’d have actually seen in the first six films, mind you. Just Max von Sydow talking to Adam Driver (Kylo) like they had a history…not that we know any of this history…

As a story opens, the audience, consciously or instinctively, inspects the value-charged landscape of world and characters, trying to separate good from evil, right from wrong…. The worst of people believe themselves good. Hitler thought he was the savior of Europe.

Robert McKee

It doesn’t take much to see the evil masked people killing the good guys. But one, one does stand out: a Storm Trooper who runs to assist one of his dying comrades, the dying man putting a bloody hand to the other’s helmet and streaking it with blood. The Storm Trooper pulls back, and you can see the panic in his body language. He no longer lifts a gun when ordered.

We see a Storm Trooper, always the symbol of order and Empire, breaking free.

THAT gets our attention. Something is different with this character. A Storm Trooper turning good? Maybe we could learn about the First Order through this character! Audiences fixate upon this character who clearly questions his masters, who fears the life he’s in. As McKee calls it in Story, this Storm Trooper, named Finn by the pilot, becomes our Center of Good in the first ten minutes.

Only we’re diverted after that to Rey, a lone girl on a desert planet doing the same thing day in, day out…kind of like a farm boy on Tatooine, methinks…scavenging crashed ships for parts, dreaming of a life elsewhere. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the first scene with Rey does a beautiful job telling the story of her life without her saying a word. A quick montage of her day, and we know what her life’s been like living in a hollowed out Walker.

So…so where is our Center of Good? Are we following the Storm Trooper, or the scavenger?

Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role. If not, the Center of Good decenters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.

Robert McKee

Rey is, from the start, a good character. She helps the BB-8 droid without knowing who it is, she doesn’t sell it off when that would easily give her enough food for months. She’s consistently nice and helpful.

Finn, however, was clearly raised to be a mindless soldier. He’s been conditioned to follow orders and kill without mercy, yet this guy doesn’t. Despite his environment and all that he knows, he is different. And that, by definition, makes him stand out. It makes him unique.

It makes audiences want to see him as the Center of Good, to overcome the old identity of Storm Trooper and discover who he truly is.

Fine writing puts less stress on what happens than on to whom it happens and why and how it happens.

Robert McKee

By the time we see Storm Trooper Finn again, he helps break out the imprisoned pilot so they can both get off the vast, fancy, well-stocked star destroyer. Their ship is struck, and Finn wakes to find himself alone in the wreckage. He takes the pilot’s abandoned jacket and wanders the desert until he stumbles upon the village where Rey and the droid are. Finn tells them what happens, and takes on the guise of being a Resistance fighter. When Troopers and Fighters come, he doesn’t simply run from his old life. He protects the droid his pilot friend wanted to rescue and the girl whom the droid’s befriended.

TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.

Robert McKee

These are the kinds of choices that engaged fans like me in The Force Awakens: the Storm Trooper breaking free of his old coding to join the fight for good and, in consequence, discover his own self-worth. I would have loved to learn more about the First Order way of life through Finn’s memories. I would have loved to see Finn reach out to those he cared about, like the dying Storm Trooper in the first scene, and see if other Troopers were capable of finding the good within. I would have loved to see Finn’s potential with a light saber as shown on the movie’s poster.

Fans were excited for something new, and a story of a Storm Trooper Turning Good would have been dazzlingly new as far as these cinematic episodes go. We were ready to follow a classic story in a familiar galaxy with this unique character.

CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.

Robert McKee

Alas, it was not meant to be.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

You know, I really hoped I could do one film per blog post, but there is just waaaaaaaay too much to cover regarding plot holes, characterization, and antagonists. Since I have students submitting projects this week, I’ll likely save the next Force Awakens post on worldbuilding and plot holes for later. I think we could all use a music break, right? Who doesn’t love a trip into a land fantastic, rich in history and ripe for adventure?

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

*Video game and movie critic Mauler has an excellent series on The Last Jedi. While his The Force Awakens series remains unfinished, I still recommend what he’s done so far, especially since his thoughts on the world-building problems inspired me to share my own.

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 1: the ignored blueprints of #StarWarsRebels.

But  the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.  

Robert Mckee, Story

It’s an opening as known as Once upon a time. It’s the sort of opening to calls upon readers to leave the reality they know and enter a story both of the future and of the past—a hero’s journey, a villain’s redemption, a coming of age, a coming together of hearts, of friends…

…and Ewoks.

In other words: timeless. (Except maybe for The Battle for Endor, but anyway.)

The dialogue over Disney’s contributions to the Star Wars universe has been….well, a pretty shitty one. We’ve reached the point where Star Wars fans are like the Yooks and Zooks of Dr. Seuss’ The Great Butter Battle, and if you know that story, you know it doesn’t end well for anyone.

So let’s just put aside our Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos for a second, lean against the wall à la Charlie Brown–

–and talk like storytellers. Not as rabid fans, or haters, or menaces, or warriors. Just people who love crafting good stories as much as they love experiencing them. And what better way to focus on the craft than by utilizing wisdom from one of the most revered voices in storytelling?

Robert McKee has been a revered voice in Hollywood for decades, as he’s taught notable storytellers like Peter Jackson, Paul Haggis, and William Goldman. His book Story is one of the few texts I’ve kept from my hellish graduate school days, as it utilizes films from several different genres to show how smart writing with character development, tension, and scene structure can build a powerful story with which audiences can connect.

It is with McKee’s craft lessons in Story I’d like to discuss the flaws that plague Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. As storytellers, I think we can all agree on some pretty important things are necessary to make a strong story, and therefore understand certain choices that both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson made with their installments. To be clear,I’m not going to bash either director. On the contrary, I think both brought some positive elements to Star Wars that shouldn’t be dismissed just because you don’t agree with all of their other creative choices.

No, the flaw lies in the foundation of the sequel trilogy. Like the parable of the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand, the recent Star Wars trilogy was built without a solid foundation. In other words, the creative powers of Disney failed to do the necessary worldbuilding—galaxy-building, if you will—for the stakes of the new trilogy to appeal to audiences old or new.

In this blog series, I’m going to utilize McKee’s words on story craft to break down where the sequel trilogy’s potential shines as well as where it dims. Every film has its moments, so I’m not going to dwell for a thousand words on one and then just rush through another.

And the truly tragic part? This could have aaaaaaall been avoided had Disney stuck with what it already built.

Story is about originality, not duplication.

Robert McKee, Story

Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rights to Star Wars in 2012, and by 2014 had created its own original storyline in the Star Wars Universe. The story was set between the prequels and original trilogy, a time when the Empire are hunting down any surviving Jedi and the Rebellion is slowly beginning to form.

Star Wars: Rebels ran for just four seasons, but in that time gained a solid following of fans, a good merchandise line, and even splinter stories in books and comics. The cast was a mix of alien and human-like folks, male and female, adults and kids, each with unique talents that came together to create a strong team to deal with a vicious gallery of Imperial foes.

The storyline fit snugly in the between the established trilogies without disturbing any of the arcs of previously established characters in the Skywalker episodes. Audiences were happy to go on adventures with the scrappy kid, laugh at the cranky droid, marvel at the piloting smarts of the lady alien, feel for the Jedi mourning the loss of his brethren…

…in other words, Disney had successfully built a solid setting in this galaxy far, far away that was unique while also adhering to the state of this galaxy as Revenge of the Sith left it.

Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.

Robert McKee, Story

You’d think that for a studio that loves making live-action remakes of their animated properties, bringing a live-action adaptation of Rebels to film would have been the easy-peasy choice for their feature debut with the Star Wars franchise. They had fans happy with the show, they had storylines all written out ready to go, characters fun and fleshed out. All the hard work of worldbuilding, character development, and plotting was already done.

But perhaps, to those Disney Powers That Be, this was the problem.

Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.

Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.

Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.

The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.

Rebels wasn’t enough like Star Wars’ original trilogy, a film series loved by millions across multiple generations. Rebels’ own successes just weren’t enough.

Disney was determined to repeat the cosmic success of the 70s and 80s, and decided the best way to do this was by treating those original films as a formula to follow.

This choice, right here, before ANY director could say “Action!”, marks the beginning of the troubles for Disney’s Star Wars films. Had they begun with a feature film cast with their own characters and followed previously tested storylines, they would have planted the seeds of goodwill among audiences while also learning the ins and outs of producing a sci-fi adventure epic that is a Star Wars film.

Instead, they chose to fly as close to A New Hope as possible. Too close, as we shall see.

~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~

Oh, I’m keen to do some analysis of the entire sequel trilogy, so you’re stuck with me on this topic for a little while. 🙂 But I’ll also throw in some AMAZING music by Daniel Pemberton I got for Christmas, plus there’s some swanky author interviews coming, too.

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

The Childhood of an Unlikely Shield Maiden: Wynne IV

Good morning, lovely readers! What follows is a continuation of my previous three installments of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we walk with Wynne as she evades Prydwen, The Man of the Golden Hound Crest, and learn that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for her love, the smithy’s son Morthwyl.

Is that when you decided to join the Shield Maidens?

The Shield Maidens? Oh, Galene, if I had thought of them sooner… yet I was not of age, and the King’s Stronghold seemed to only make use of men, at least in Cairbail. But King’s presence or not, Trade is Law, be it done with the crown’s blessing, or not.

For the next three years, life in Cairbail flowed with the Gasirad: it sparkled with life, it stunk with decay. It all depended on where you stood: more traders came up the river and King’s Road, more business done. Father was elated, of course, which put Mother into her happy hysterics. But for whatever these traders brought into Cairbail, very little was left. And very few held to the King’s Road long after. Some of Caddock’s men were on the road one dawn as they veered off onto the small rutted road towards Morthwyl’s village. What use do farmers have for weapons and powders?

I, too, saw them from the oak where Morthwyl and I often hid. The ground had stopped feeling safe the moment Prydwen rode into our world. In the heat of summer, with the leaves at their proudest size and the bees endless in their own sweet industry near us, we felt safe.

Oh, those were the happiest hours! Morthwyl leaned against the trunk, and I against he, my head upon his shoulder, his scent filling the very air I breathed. Our fingers entwined, we would say nothing at all, our lips dancing as our feet yearned to do along Gasirad’s shores.

It was such a moment when we heard the whining of old wagon wheels, crude humor, the splash of wine, and the countless yips and cries of dogs. We dared not move the branches for a look, as the oak grew close to the road. But we could hear as they approach, hear the words, “What in blazing Hifrea a lone man’s needin’ so many bloody dogs is a mystery, make no mistake.”

“Shut yer gob, the money’s good.”

“Aye, the money, but what’s one lone man doing, asking a professional breeder such as myself, to bring not just one breed, but FIVE? And FIVE of each breed? It’s off the nut queer, it is. And ruins my offerings to many good clients for summer hunting.”

“Yer getting paid twice what any nobleman can give you. Now shut it, we don’t stay on the road long. There’s a marker somewhere round heres.”

Their noise only just started to fade when Morthwyl whispered to me, “That’s the fifth wagon I’ve heard talk like that.”

“With dogs?”

“No, but always five of something: knives, pottery, glass, furs, chairs. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

My heart lurched as we clung to one another, for we both thought the same: my sisters and I. The five of us, a collection.

That afternoon I accompanied Tarren from Little Innean back to Cairbail with my pretense: some repaired girdles for Heledd, Ysball, and myself. I refused to wear the new ones Prydwen had bought for the five of us, all “fine leather” and “stitching done with a fairy’s hand.” Fairy, my eye. The girdles all portrayed golden hounds, and those girdles were nothing more than brands to mark us for his own. Poor Congol! He sobbed on the open street when he saw his chances with Isolda really were over.

While Tarren and I were not quite friends, our similar ages allowed for easy conversation on our journey. When we approached the last hill before Cairbail, I turned to give the forest a smile farewell, and froze.

“Did you forget something?” Tarren asked me as she searched for what I saw.

Upon a speckled grey steed sat one of those guards, the grey ones heavy with death about their hands and faces, staring at us.

“Those men of that merchant’s give me the frights,” Tarren said, shuddering. “They look like rocks dressed in clothes.”

I nodded, and wondered how much truth lay in those words.

“Isn’t that merchant fellow courting all of your sisters, and even you?”

And would you know…this was a strange sensation, but once I did it, I knew what I had done: I sneered. My heart kicked my chest. All I wanted was on the other side of that….thing. That thing, and that man, IF you can call him that, which he represented. That man who dared show up, insist he know my family, lay claim to us as if we’re some sort of lost property, and then, then, stand aghast when he hears a girl is not to be won over by money or status. The impudence! The garishness! The audacity! It all churned and bubbled into a terrific bile in my mouth, and I spat it all out, far louder than was polite to Tarren, but I didn’t care, I wanted it out: “He can have the pick of my sisters or all of them, but not me. Never me.” 

Weren’t other people thrown off by how he wanted to marry all five of you? You were what, fifteen by then? That’s still more kid then woman, for goodness’ sake.

Goodness had nothing to do with it. Marriage is a business more than anything else in Idana: one marries, and money is exchanged. One marries, and money awaits for your offspring. One strives to marry above station, but not too above, that’s just as scandalous and unseemly. And while polygamy didn’t happen often outside of the aristocracy, it still happened.

Tarren thought it a bit odd, to be sure, especially when it seemed far easier to simply take me on as some sort of handmaiden. “Surely five dowries amounts to a king’s ransom. I can’t imagine how your parents or that merchant are affording all this.” I liked how Tarren always referred to Prydwen as “that merchant.” Many in Cairbail did, too, because he so very rarely showed his face. Lord Murdach has even given Father a bit of grief for sending his daughters off rather than make more sensible marriages within Cairbail. But once my sisters knew they wouldn’t have to smell the tannery all their lives, why should they bother with the likes of our townspeople?

Of course Sage Forga insisted he knew the truth. He insisted yet again as Tarren and I came to Market Street. “A new river will flow in Galene, Mistress Wynne, mark my words,” he called from his window box of herbs. The apple of his throat jumped with nervous delight. “Yes indeed, told Lord Murdach just this morn of my latest vision.” Tarren rolled her eyes as she went on towards Aedh for leather scraps. I, being the object spoken to, could not roll my eyes, let alone step away. Oh gods, send a storm upon us to close those shutters and his mouth! “I see…” His eyelids fluttered, and his hands spread before his cheeks. He rather had the look of a fish when he envisioned past visions. “I see a river of gold flowing in a crimson sunset. I see your suitor, an enchanted prince from a far-off land, who wants to love all. A new age comes for Cairbail, for aaaaall the land that is,” his hands whirled closed, “Idana.”

I considered his popping eyes, brown teeth, and sweaty face, and thought him to spend far, far too much time in the smoke of his pipe weed. “Time will reveal all, Master Forga,” I said with as much civility as could be mustered. “Good day.” I curtsied and turned to leave.

Prydwen stood but a few feet away. Where in all blessed Idana did he come from? Yet there he stood, flesh, velvet, and all, one leg bent as he flourished one side of his cloak to bow from the waist down. “My lady. Summer blesses your spirit once again. The air of wildflower and honey suits you.”

Surely, surely he spoke as he did because he knew. He knew of the tree. He knew I continued to see my Morthwyl despite my family’s schemes. Yes, I could see it in his chest, barely moving beneath that golden hound, eyes warm and bright like candles: small flames, but even the smallest flames can burn far and deep.

“I’ve come to inquire after your mother’s health, as I cannot help but do. A meager excuse to see you and your sisters, but,” he held his orange jeweled hand open to me, “I simply cannot help myself.”

He stood without steed, servant, or guard. He carried no money, no goods. Perhaps he needed none, for what he carried was deadliest of all: knowledge.

I swallowed my fear, and all my words. Of what could I accuse him? All would say he was merely protecting one of his…brides. Oh, disgusting word! To spit upon his face and run!

“Master Prydwen, what a most marvelous surprise!” Never had I been more thankful for Sage Forga than in that moment, especially when he burst from his door in a strange mix of sliding on a horse pat and bowing at the waist while still trying to draw smoke from his pipe. “I simply must speak with you soon. Such omens fly above me and crawl beneath my feet that point to you, and only you, Noble Sire!”

“Let me not detain you from a conference of such importance, Master Forga.” I curtsied to him and walked around Prydwen without so much as a goodbye. Enough of his gem-stoned wooing and endless compliments. Enough of his golden hounds and gifts. I cared not that I left his hand shaking in the air. Sage Forga is not easily deterred, especially when he is full of visions that require a bit of gold to complete.

I nearly collided with Aedh’s precious mule as I moved with all civil haste to Caddock’s warehouse. Even at 15, I still met Caddock for my lessons. Though Mother thought my skills proficient, Father noted Caddock also a fine teacher in the ways of goods keeping. She’ll be such a help to Prydwen that way, my dear wife.

Ugh. Oh ugh, these are the moments I nearly lose myself…a moment while my stomach calms….please, sit with me here, Adyna’s neighbor Niall always has some ol and wine on hand. Some cheese dipped in batter sounds wonderful, thank you.

Sounds like Sage Forga knows how to butter up the money. I’m guessing that Lord Murdach, being the guy in charge of a town, didn’t like being showed up by some outsider.

You use words strangely, but…if I understand you, yes. As performers need to share the stage without dominating one another, so Cairbail felt a stage, and Prydwen an actor who had walked through the audience and onto the boards without permission. “What’s a man like that doing here?” I heard Lord Murdach say as a dagger whistled and thunk a far box of what I hoped to be fruits, beans, anything not alive. “Don’t get me wrong, Caddock, I enjoy an upturn in business as much as any man—”

“But the upturn came a bit quick.” Caddock’s voice was low, clear, and disquieting.

“Precisely. A little black market makes no mind, but he has gods-know-how-many barges and wagons coming up from the ocean filled with gods-know-what because he’s duped the inspectors into thinking it’s all just typical animal feed and livestock. You tell me who needs five oxen and doesn’t farm!” The next dagger struck but a few feet in front of my nose as I stood, still out of site in this labyrinth of crates and sacks. “He’s got something going on, but everyone’s too keen for his coin to care. It’s only my title, my seat, my life on the line with his business.”

“I fully share in your skepticism, Sir.”

“Good. And good on you for not storing his goings-on here. He’s got boxes of all sorts tucked into every other warehouse in town. Don’t like it. Not one bit.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

I came into view, then, halting their dialogue. Caddock’s gaze was angry but distant, while Lord Murdach looked like a mad bear, with froth about his lips and hair barely braided back from his gargantuan frame. “Ah, daughter of Master Adwr, yes?” I curtsied and greeted as manners dictated. “You’re a big favorite of Master Prydwen, you and your whole family. Gods know your father’s holdings have nearly quadrupled these past three years, your sisters donned in velvet and pearls every day.”

Caddock snorted. “You see velvet and pearls on this one?”

“No…no, you have a point there, my friend, I don’t. Look up, girl.” Lord Murdach studied my roughspun cloak and shawls and cold eyes. “You don’t seem too taken with the man.”

I curtsied again, my breath slight puffs in the air. “I find him generous with words and coin, yet miserly with motive.”

“Motive. Yes. Yes, girl, that is the crux. And the sage is useless, of course, fopping over himself to bring more good news of Cairbail’s future thanks to Golden Prydwen. I wonder if the King’s Stronghold would have another sage untainted by this…whoever he is…” Lord Murdach mumbled himself out the warehouse and into the street.

Caddock waited until the mumbling fell into the ebb and flow of street noise before speaking once more. “Have a care, Wynne. That sort of man’s not to be antagonized.”

I settled onto my favorite seat, the old barrel saved for apple cores and fruit skins. “I wasn’t rude to Lord Murdach.”

“I do not speak of Lord Murdach.”

“Why do you stare so? I care nothing for his intentions, I have been clear on the subject, I will not accept gifts from a man and lead him on as Mother instructs. That is rude, and selfish, and—”

“Wynne!” He shot my name like an arrow and silenced me. Caddock muzzled himself with his own hands, breathing heavily, the muscles of his neck tight as a growling guard hound…at last he sat next to me and unloosed his tongue. “A man like that does not hear ‘no.’ Only ‘you haven’t won me yet.’ I know his kind, Wynne. Men who insist on more than one wife wield an entirely different sort of greed. Your sisters may be cloth-eared, empty-headed ninnies, but they’re beautiful, and that’s a man who clearly likes his beautiful things.”

“Why do you think I dress as I do? To prove I’m not beautiful.”

Caddock smiled sadly. “You cannot hide real beauty, girl. I’m sorry.”

“But…but I don’t want to. I just…I already…” I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket to catch the tears before they blot my face and betray my feelings to outside eyes. But I had forgotten what was wrapped in the linen: my iron orpine fell softly into my lap.

Caddock, of course, snatched it from the air before it hit the sawdust on the floor. “You’ve already given your heart, haven’t you, Wynne?” I opened my mouth to beg him, to unleash words of mercy and hope secrecy, but he raised his hand to silence me. And, with his head close for secrets as when we shared our love of the river Galene, he laughed. “Good. Now I know your family hasn’t a hope of influencing you down the years.” Caddock whistled as he delicately traced the leaves. “Your boy has skill, impressive skill.”

Pleasure filled me, for Caddock’s compliments do not come easily. I knew my Morthwyl could amaze others! “The smithy’s son in Little Innean, Morthwyl.”

“That’s a fair walk north. What brought you two together?”

I had to laugh. “Galene. She led me to him, actually.”

“The goddess holds you highly, Wynne, make no mistake.” He placed the orpine back in my hand and folded my fingers down upon it. “This promises a fine future for you both, if you could…one moment.” Caddock ran out. How strange the warehouse felt in his absence! No longer a sanctuary, but a maze of shadows and sharp corners I could never navigate were Prydwen’s men to follow…Thank the gods Caddock returned before my fears could grow any darker. “Can you visit the boy today?” He moved with a skittish urgency, pulling charts and maps from a chest precariously balanced on rotting crates.

“I was just there, but yes, I think so. If we’re not to dine with him again. Heledd’s not complained, at least.”

“Good.” He unrolled a large map, nearly torn apart in three places, littered with notes and arrows and scrawls. Idana, our country, looked a child’s mess. “Then let us hope the river goddess’ watch is vigilant.” His finger followed the river north, past Cairbail, the King’s Stronghold, and into forests far from the northern towns. “I’ve a barge to leave before daybreak tomorrow. Get the smithy’s son and yourself ready to be on it.”

My heart felt as a falcon loosed from its hood. Was it possible? Could I really escape Hafren and all its scheming souls? But I paused. Morthwyl loved his family, all kind, gentle people who did depend on him. “How far north would it take us?”

“As far north as I pay them. Till Galene’s beginnings, if possible.” Caddock breathed deep. “He won’t let you marry your boy, nor will your family. And he wants you for something, Wynne. He doesn’t have his ‘men,’ whatever those creatures are, following your sisters. Just you.”

“Because I’ve yet to agree to the marriage.”

Caddock looked up with an expression I will never forget: the paleness of his skin beneath his hair, the slight tremble of his chin, the way his voice fell to a whisper.

Caddock was afraid. Very afraid.

“No, it’s more than that. I’ve heard your father boast of meeting Prydwen the same day the river saved you, of how Prydwen looks just like his son. I, too, met Prydwen years ago, when I was but five, and Heledd seven. Galene bid us hide and be silent for not one but three days. It was torture to lay among the rocks and briars, but in those days a strange merchant bearing a golden hound upon his chest and a caged wagon of slaves interrogated my town for what he called ‘friends of the goddess.’ It took threat of the King’s Company to drive him out. That’s no son, Wynne. That is the same Prydwen.”

Thanks so much for reading! We’re nearly at the end of my dialogue with Wynne. I’d love to hear your feedback on this moment, or on any of the other moments of Wynne’s childhood–a prequel, you could say, to her adventure in Beauty’s Price.

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

Night’s Tooth is up for #preorder. Add some #indie #fantasy #western #adventure to your #summerreading today!

Good morning, you wonderful folks, you! (Or afternoon. It’s coffee time, no matter where you are. xxxxx)

Sorry for the quick informal post, but I just got my approval for pre-order and can’t wait until next week to share it with you.

I picked the official launch day for Thursday, August 29th. We’ll still do our weird Wisconsin tour and study of Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death, never fear. 🙂 In the meantime, please spread the word to kith and kin my latest tale’s just 99 cents and will be available in two weeks!

Oh, and before my kids’ latest skirmish over Lego spills into my work space, let me say that if you’d like to contribute some early reviews for this story, please let me know, for that would be awesome. 🙂

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

#writing #music: #western #soundtracks by #composers @jayandmolly, @carterburwell, @MEnnioMorricone, #HarryGregsonWilliams, #JamesHorner, #ElmerBernstein, and #LeonardCohen

Once upon a time in the Midwest, a teacher told his 6th grade class to pipe down and watch something for social studies time.

Yay, a movie! we all think.

Only it wasn’t a movie at all. It was the Civil War miniseries by Ken Burns.

Now like many preteens, I was initially ecstatic to have something on a television screen during the school day. But also like many preteens, I was not what one would call appreciative of this thorough analysis of the Civil War. In fact, to keep myself from falling asleep, I’d count how many times “Ashokan Farewell” would play. (I distinctly remember reaching seven times in one episode.)

This was, you could say, my introduction to western period music.

To be clear, I’m not trying to denigrate Jay Ungar in any fashion. This is a beautiful string piece full of love and mourning. At one point I even learned how to play it on the violin. But in the early 90s I was a bratty kid who didn’t care and just wanted the stupid show to be over so we could get some lunch.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my mother enjoyed watching all sorts of older movies, including westerns. Yule Brenner, John Wayne, Gary Cooper–oh, they were a treat for Mom to see. Me? I had as much patience for cowboys and prairie women as I had for robots with plungers for arms.

(Gosh, I was a bratty kid, wasn’t I?)

Yet even my bratty self could never deny the epic score of those old-school westerns. Elmer Bernstein lassos you in with those opening staccato trills, brass galloping on as percussion rushes underfoot, strings sweeping across the open skies over this land of boundless possibility.

Fast-forward a decade or two, and my movie fanatic husband Bo is educating me on all sorts of cinema wonders. One viewing of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and I was hooked on the spaghetti western. I mean, that final showdown with the guitar, the trumpet, choir, bells, the literal hanging on the edge of the seat as the men’s eyes flash and fingers twitch and MY GOD WHO’S GOING TO DIE, WHOOOO?!?!

I’ve already gushed quite a bit about Ennio Morricone as well as where I spot his influence in recent soundtracks. Il Maestro is a storyteller with sound, make no mistake. His orchestras can speak for characters, tension, and setting without any help from a screen. Once Upon a Time in the West is a powerful example of this. Here the guitar strings hum with impending danger, the repeating triplet by other strings a feeling time’s relentless press onward into certain death. The dissonant harmonica not only speaks for one of the protagonists, but plays an intrinsic role in the story itself.

The guitar does seem to be one of the voices of the Wild West, isn’t it? Even in westerns with a genre twist to them, the guitar sings for the defiant free spirit of our lone hero. I love Harry Gregson-Williams’ use of the guitar to introduce us to a man without a past or name–just a wrist laser he uses to shoot down alien spacecraft.

Some epic tales of guts and determination inspire us so deeply that Hollywood’s keen to retell these stories as many times as consumer wallets will allow. A composer, however, doesn’t have to repeat what’s come before. Take James Horner–he died while developing his score for the remake of The Magnificent Seven. Thankfully, Horner’s friend Simon Franglen finished what Horner started, and we’re given a beautiful mix of indigenous and traditional instruments with a touch of a choir to take listeners back through the mists of time to find themselves cut off from civilization, lost to the raw landscape where power is brutal, and heroes the thing of dreams.

Not all stories are epic, however. Sometimes stories are just about a man and a woman trying to figure out life in a bitter, harsh land. Leonard Cohen’s music that speaks to this in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Not gonna lie–this is not an uplifting film, nor does Cohen’s music lighten its weight. His songs inspire hope for a connection, however brief, before the return of isolation and loneliness.

And then there are those rare, rare moments where Writer and Bratty Kid come together, where the frayed edges of past and present bind and wrap round the soul, warm and loving.

That moment came for me with the remake of True Grit.

Carter Burwell took “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a hymn I’ve known since childhood, and unraveled it, carefully threading its elements into various moments of his score. From beginning to end, this hymn never quite leaves the characters or the land…or us.

Thank you for joining me on this sojourn through the music of magnificent grit seen only once upon a time. If you feel another score is worth mentioning, please let me know! In the meantime, enjoy this music while reading my novella Night’s Tooth, on sale now for just 99 cents.

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.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Bo and I visited one of the strangest–or should I say, “most creative”–places in Wisconsin. I’m keen to share my photos! (Well, and what photos I can find on the Internet that aren’t blurry.) Plus, there’s a world-building study of another western-fantasy, the official launch of my novella, some more author interviews, fun with kids, and more!

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

For the love of #westerns: one #indieauthor #writes her #fantasy world into a #timeless #genre.

Once Upon a Time in the West

I wish I could tell you just when it started, this love for the western. It should have been decades ago, when my brothers and I watched our old recorded VHS on the making of Star Wars yet again while Mom just wanted to sit and watch John Wayne in a classic like Stagecoach or The Searchers. But I had no patience for the kind of western where women clutch their aprons while Native Americans gallop by with villainous intentions and only John Wayne with his swaggering cadence can talk a coward into being a brave man just long enough to shoot the savage and save this little refuge of civilization.

Oh no. Iiiii had to sit and watch a rogue with a laser gun help out wizened old man and a snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s smart in the saddle hold out from attacks by corrupt powers….heeey…sounds, um…

Sounds kinda like a western. (More on that later.)

But aren’t westerns just glorified propaganda for western civilization uprooting native cultures? Don’t all their shoot-outs result in a lot of powder in the air, women swooning, and men clutching their chests going, “Aaaurgh!”?

Hardly.

Countless storytellers–be they writers, filmmakers, or game developers–refuse to leave the Wild West alone. Type “western” into the books’ search engine on Amazon, and thousands of results pop up. Western films have been regularly produced for audiences since 1903. That’s over a century’s worth of western storytelling produced by the United States; the number skyrockets when you look around the globe. And just last year, the best-selling video game was, of all things, a western.

What is it about this period spanning thirty years (or sixty, depending on whom you ask) that draws us back again and again?

I can’t speak for others, but dammit, I’ll speak for me.

A Hero uncivilized and unrestrained.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the antihero, and how this individual for good or ill lives by his own code to meet his own ends. In the western this character certainly exists, but there are plenty of heroes, too, who are out to right a wrong and carry out some justice…only, their means ain’t exactly pretty (see High Plains Drifter for the ugliest justice there is). Plus, these folks are by no means super-heroes or ramped up by crazy technology (unless, of course, you’re in Wild Wild West).

The hero–or antihero–of the western is often one of minimal means caught up in a conflict where the other side has more bullets, more men, more high ground. Jack Shaefer, a writer of westerns, elaborates on this point:

The western story, in its most usual forms, represents the American version of the ever appealing oldest of man’s legends about himself, that of the sun-god hero, the all-conquering valiant who strides through dangers undaunted, righting wrongs, defeating villains, rescuing the fair and the weak and the helpless — and the western story does this in terms of the common man, in simple symbols close to natural experience . . . depicting ordinary everyday men, not armored knights or plumed fancy-sword gentlemen, the products of aristocratic systems, but ordinary men who might be you and me or our next-door neighbors gone a-pioneering, doing with shovel or axe or gun in hand their feats of courage and hardihood. 

quoted in Jeremy Anderberg’s “21 Western Novels Every Man Should Read”

This is why I love Clint Eastwood in so many of his westerns. He’s shot, beaten, left to die in the desert, and God knows what else. We see him lose as much blood as he draws. He, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, and loads others show their struggle for a better self in a world that rewards the greedy and vicious. The price to be paid when doing the right thing can be pretty damn high, and the heroes are willing to sacrifice it all, including their own goodness, to pay it.

The Magnificent Seven

Which brings me to my next point. (And to one of the happiness quotes I was challenged by the lovely Lady Shey to hunt down and share.)

“I was happy in the midst of dangers and inconveniences.”

– Daniel Boone

Action! Bang bang, punch kick kapow, boom blam CRASH!

In case you didn’t know from other posts, I’m something of an action junkie. (The fact that 1987’s Predator is another one of my all-time favorite movies should tell you a lot about me.) Westerns promise action. There may be tons of gun fights, or only a few. There may be a total blood bath such as in Django Unchained, or a drawn….out….showdown…years…in…the making….

That’s part of the western’s beauty. The climax can be a chess game of men, where pawns are removed one by one until all that remains are the kings of the board…and, perhaps, a rook. We have to watch their necks sweat, fingers twitch, eyes narrow, and wait, wait, wait for the moment where Hell will break loose–

Or, bullets fly and characters die in epic battle fashion, such as in The Magnificent Seven; we’re not sure who will survive the climactic battle, and because we know these heroes experience the broken bone and spirit of mortality, we cannot be certain any of them will make it at all.

(Unless, of course, you’re the townspeople of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge, who all wind up breaking onto the set of another film and then the studio’s commissary for a huge food fight.)

Speaking of settings…

*

*

*

A landscape beautiful, terrifying, and untameable.

Western civilization may have crossed into the territories, but it is by no means in control of the land.

True Grit

Communities are rarely large, and their ties with “proper” society–towns and cities east of the Mississippi–are tenuous at best. The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, the first transcontinental telegraph only a few years before that. If someone travels west, they travel a lonely road, or a railroad often unguarded. They enter territories that never belonged to them, and yet are determined to keep them.

Pale Rider

La Crosse was such a place, once upon a time.

I figured this riverside town would be the perfect place to set my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth. Wisconsin earned its statehood in the 1840s, sure, but it’s not like all of it was paved with pristine society by the end of the Civil War, right?

Well…the first settlers established the community of La Crosse in the 1840s a few years before that statehood, so yeah, Wisconsin still had a bit of wildness to it as far as governance goes, but by the end of the Civil War the log cabins had been replaced by a full-on city with one of the country’s first swing bridges for the Southern Minnesota Railroad.

La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1867

No longer did rail cars have to be ferried across the great river to journey west. The White Man had brought his roads and buildings and built them all square and orderly to the Mississippi River Valley. Man had conquered Nature.

As far as Wisconsin was concerned, the Wild of its West was lost.

I can’t write a story where the West ISN’T Wild!!!

The idea of La Crosse being so damned orderly and efficient at growing really galled me. It galled me so much I figured my main character, a bounty hunter named Sumac, would be galled too, and call it a damn shame.

Then it hit me.

Use the city’s history in the story. Show how this final bastion of “civilization” before the territories had its own moments of dark dealings. Perhaps, if I am very careful, sew some patches of magic goings-on onto time’s quilt of history, and in their threads tell a new tale of hunters who hide among us…

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.

~*~

Intrigued? I sure hope so! 🙂 I’ll be posting an excerpt from the story in this month’s Exclusive Free Fiction from the Wilds. Once I’m done mucking through the formatting business, I’ll publish Night’s Tooth as an e-book and set its price for 99 cents. If all goes well with children and teaching, Night’s Tooth will be available near the end of this month.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite westerns in the comments below! You may also enjoy watching Cinefix’s very interesting breakdown of favorite westerns from across the decades, including the changes of tone and theme created by different directors in countries. (If you’re wondering when Star Wars was supposed to come up again in this post, watch the video.)

~Stay Tuned Next Week~

I’m super-stoked about next week’s interview! He’s a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a fellow fan of Diana Wynne Jones. After that we’ll study a new and unique Wild West set in an alternate America, then take a tour through some amazing composers for westerns before finally (fingers crossed and turning thrice widdershins) launching Night’s Tooth into the publishing wild!

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

#lessons Learned from #GarthEnnis, @DarickR, and #TheBoys: not all #heroes want to seek redemption.

When we read stories of good vs. evil, we often see a clear demarcation between heroes and villains. One aspires to protect and save, the other to destroy and waste.

Then there’s stories like The Boys that come along and shatter that demarcation into nothing.

Now I’ve discussed this series in a few other posts about character: about inserting trauma into backstory, providing a moment of vulnerability so readers see layers, and making characters face Monsters readers know all too well.

But now it’s time to define the, well, indefinable. The hero who’s beyond all redemption.

The antihero.

Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, a government-backed group created to keep the corporate-backed super-heroes from taking over the world. Butcher meets all the marks of a tragic hero. His wife Becky was raped by Homelander, the most powerful of all the superheroes (aka “supes”), and died when his unborn baby tore its way out of her stomach. The baby nearly killed Butcher with laser vision, forcing Butcher to beat this baby to death while his wife bleeds out in front of him.

Tragic backstory doesn’t get much darker than that.

From a writer’s standpoint, it’s shocking that we learn this much about Butcher by the sixth issue of the series–six out of seventy-two.

Why do we get this monumental information so early? Isn’t this the sort of thing that’s dropped further on down the plot, when reader engagement is high and they want to know more about where the characters come from? After all, we don’t get the backstories of M.M., Frenchie, or The Female until Issue 35.

Frenchie, Mother’s Milk (M.M.), Wee Hughie, Butcher. The Female’s sitting in front.

First, Butcher’s using the information to motivate Hughie, the protagonist readers follow through this series, to join The Boys. Hughie himself lost his girlfriend when the hero A-Train crushed her against a wall during his fight with a villain. Mutual loss bonds the two characters.

Loss isn’t all that drives Butcher. There’s a reasoning–a philosophy, if you will, or a code. It takes me back back to the stories of the “lawless” West, or even the classic Robin Hood; just because a man is lawless doesn’t mean he’s rule-less. It only means his rules and society’s laws don’t sync up. Now whether his rules benefit others outside himself could be up for debate, I’d say–Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name comes to mind. He’s clearly out for personal gain in For a Fistful of Dollars. Sure, he helps a kidnapped woman and her family escape, but that’s only to screw around with two warring families whom he’s scamming for all they’re worth.

Butcher, too, has his own set of rules, and he doesn’t care if they jive with anyone else. He tells the CIA director in Issue 1:

Superpower’s the most dangerous power on Earth. There’s more an’more of’em all the time, an’ sooner or later they’re gonna wise up. If you can dodge bullets or outrun tachyons or swim across the sun, you’ve better things to do with your life than save the world for the two hundredth time. One day, you might twig what you’re really invulnerable to is your humanity. An’ then God help us all.

Butcher to Dir. Rayner, “The Name of the Game” Part 1

A lot happens to prove Butcher right. The Boys fight a huge number of supes who rape and kill for fun, their atrocities almost always covered up by the Vought Corporation. The public goes right on devouring the stories told in Vought’s comic books like they’re the truth of the world. One by one, Butcher marks The Boys’ targets and plans how to take that team of supes down.

Everything he does or says serves whatever it is he got planned. He don’t waste nothing’–not time, not words, not effort. Not even a goddamn smile, Hughie.

Mother’s Milk to Hughie, “Get Some” Part 2

The Boys maim and kill a number of supes, be they street teams or a Nazi disguised as a Norse god. So long as they’re just killing bad guys justice won’t touch, then everything’s okay, right?

Right?

This is what we tell ourselves. As readers, we escape into stories to see comeuppance served because so often the justice served in reality is unsatisfactory. In fiction, the detectives catch the bad guy. The villain’s plot to take over the world is thwarted. The bad guys, the really bad guys, pay for the crimes.

Characters can be antiheroes who do horrible things because they’re still heroes, if only just. We’re sure there’s something good in them, and we’re willing to wait out the horrible things in order to see that goodness come to light.

And we see Butcher with that goodness, if only just. The miniseries Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker takes readers into Billy Butcher’s past. We meet Becky. We see her and Billy Butcher fall in love, get married. We see the charming side of this antihero, and his heart.

We see Becky die, and the aftermath.

Loss rarely breeds good things. Strange, how often we look for tragedy in our heroes–the loss that drives them to fight for justice, for making things right. We forget that revenge and ambition do not always lead to bettering the world. Clint Eastwood comes to mind again, this time as Dirty Harry in the film Dirty Harry: Magnum Force. There’s a crew of cops out to take justice into their own hands, and they want Harry to join them.

It’s the Point of No Return. Harry is invited to cross it, but he refuses.

Butcher, on the other hand…well. He crossed it long, long ago.

Readers get a preview of Butcher’s true nature in Issue 14, when he sets off a genetic detonation device that kills 150 supes who did took money to help start a coup in Russia. In Issue 28 (The G-Men series I’ve written about before) Butcher is fine killing a supe team of teen boys; later, if not for Hughie, Butcher would have killed a team of mentally challenged superheroes simply for cussing in front of him. These two teams weren’t trying to overthrow any government. Heck, some were genuinely trying to help the citizens of their town.

Where is this antihero’s rules, his personal code? Butcher gives one version of his code to Hughie after the G-Men slaughter:

But we ain’t here to make things better, are we, Hughie? We’re here to stop’em from gettin’ worse.

Butcher to Hughie, “We Gotta Go Now” Conclusion

Okay, that sounds somewhat justifiable. There are many problems in the world that can’t be eradicated. Sometimes containment’s the best one can hope for.

But a flashback with Butcher’s mentor Col. Mallory sheds a brighter, nastier light on the true rule Butcher lives by no matter what the rest of the world says. When Butcher and Mallory discover a convention of supe children have all been gassed to death, Butcher doesn’t care. To Butcher, the only good supe is a dead supe.

I’ll tell you how you neutralize the potential threats: you f***in’ drop the lot o’ them. Every single arsehole in tights, you do’em…No one should be allowed to walk around with what they’ve got, it’s just too much of a risk.

Butcher to Mallory, Issue 55

As far as Butcher’s concerned, any super-human of any kind must die. It doesn’t matter what he/she did or didn’t do. It doesn’t matter who that person is, if they were born with the powers, or if Vought injected them with the DNA-altering chemical Compound V to create those powers. If a person has powers, they deserve to die. Mallory even warns Hughie to watch his back around Butcher, because for Butcher, this personal war with the supes is never going to end.

There is no one on earth who hates like that man does.

Mallory to Hughie, Issue 55

I’m not going to tell you how far Butcher will go in his personal war–I’ll let you find out via the comic series or the upcoming TV show.

(Warning: the trailer’s pretty true to form with the comic, so carnage and cussing abound. Only watch if you can handle that sort of thing.)

Antiheroes are compelling because we really, honestly, truly do not know what they’re willing to do in order to fulfill their code. There’s a level of wretchedness we expect heroes will not sink to; there’s a level of goodness we expect villains will not aspire to.

But antiheroes don’t give a shit about reader expectations or presumptions. They will do whatever it takes to reach their goal.

And readers cannot help but follow, compelled to discover what goal could be worth such a path taken through the shattered demarcation between good and evil. With every step taken readers’ feet will bleed upon the shards, and like the antihero, readers will complete the journey…but will never be the same.

~Stay Tuned Next Week!~

More interviews with authors both indie and award-winning are lined up for your enjoyment, as well as a journey with Bo and me into the mysterious North Woods where a ghost stands, lonely and waiting. On top of all that, I’ll be taking you into the Wild West for some fantasy adventure. Bullets and magic will fly…just not to the Will Smith song. Pleeeease not to the Will Smith song

Oh, and just to toot my own horn for a second, I’ve written my own batch of flawed characters with their own Points of No Return to cross…or not.

You can check out my novel here.

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

#BONUS #AuthorInterview! #AwesomeAnnHunter Talks #Parenthood, #ADD, #writing #comingofage Issues in a #YAseries, and Sharing Her Love of #Horses with #YAreaders– #firstnovel #onsale June 10th-17th!

Happy Saturday, Friends! While Bo and Blondie attend a baseball game and I take the twins to a swimming pool (PRAY FOR ME), please welcome fellow Young Adult author Ann Hunter!

First things first! Tell us a little about yourself, please.

I like to say I’m a Mom first, a writer second, and all around ninja. I’m a dyed and true Hufflepuff #badgerfierce, love dark chocolate and red velvet cake. And I love YA literature. I love mentoring other writers, too, and teens as well. I’m assistant teacher at the Taekwondo Dojang I train at with my daughters, and I’m so grateful for my epic husband– he really is too patient with me.

Oh my g.o.s.h., you serious? My brother is a teacher in Taekwondo! Both of them have black belts. I, however, was enrolled in dance class for a summer.

(Don’t ask how that went.)

Anyway, my own three wee hooligans keep me inspired, not to mention on my toes. One phone call from the principal, though, and my creativity’s shot for the day. What would you call your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?

My biggest Kryptonite is my ADD (clinically diagnosed in college). I have a hard time getting started and staying focused unless I have my ritual/routine down. I use noise canceling headphones and http://brain.fm.

I also sprint with other writers in a dedicated chat room on slack. It helps a lot to have friends and support. 

I struggle with energy, too. My best-selling series, North Oak, is so emotional that it’s very taxing physically and mentally. 

I’m currently developing a class that I’ll be presenting at Fyrecon later this month on how to be a word warrior without burning out.

Uffdah, burnout is right. I’m in the midst of overhauling my platform while also grading finals while also having Biff, Bash, and Blondie home for summer break. How on EARTH do you balance writing and parenthood, anyway? I’m always hunting for tips. 

Not just a writer and mom, but a ninja too! I also do Taekwondo and I’m working toward my black belt in 2021. I plan on competing at the World Taekwondo Federation National Championships this July. My daughters do Taekwondo with me, so when they’re in class I’m often in the Dojang office working on book stuff.

I’m really blessed that my husband is very supportive of my writing. He’s even my business partner in our publishing LLC. He’s happy to take care of the kids whenever I need to get writing done, usually in the evenings and on weekends. In turn I’m supportive of him and try to let him sleep in and nap on said weekends before I’m working.

That’s so lovely to hear your husband’s been with you throughout the entire writing of your North Oak series!

Now, these novels feature a young protagonist and her relationship with amazing horses. The blurb for Book 1, Born to Run, mentions Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. Is that a favorite book of yours, a source of inspiration, or both?

I had a hard time getting into Black Stallion as a book series when I read them as a kid. My big inspiration is the Thoroughbred Series by Joanna Campbell (and later Mary Newhall Anderson). I liked Dick Francis, as well, and I’m a sucker for the Black Stallion movies and Phar Lap. 

My biggest inspiration, however, was my parents breeding Arabians when I was little. I gained a sense of horsemanship by running around half-naked and barefoot with our herd on the Wasatch Front. 

Woah! You’ve such a love for horses bred and nurtured in you. I can’t help but wonder, then, if stories had that same kind of connection with you when you were small. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I remember being in first grade and writing a story about a rabbit pulling a carrot out of the ground. I drew a little action “kapow” around the word POP, and my teacher really liked that. I also remember my aunt giving me this gorgeous book on Shakespeare’s works when I was, like, 4, and I desperately wanted to know what the words said. Needless to say, I was reading Shakespeare by age 6. 

But it wasn’t until I was ten that I truly realized the power of words, when I had to write my first official story. The words poured out of me as though they came from somewhere else. They weren’t mine. My hand couldn’t keep up with my brain. I spent the next 6 years writing 20 novels in the same fashion.

TWENTY NOVELS?! That. Is. AWESOME! So writing a long-running series like North Oak must be easy peasy, what with Book 7 coming out in July.

Well, I shouldn’t say “must” be easy-peasy, because I imagine every writer has his/her challenges with series writing. What challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?

I started writing this series 25 years ago at the age of 12 (July 24th– Happy Anniversary!). So I’ve known the whole story for a long time. It’s gone through several incarnations until I finally knew its purpose and what I needed to do with it for today’s youth. My biggest challenge is keeping everyone the right age and not fudging timelines. I’m going to have to make up a chart or something one of these days as I plan to take the series well into book 20 and onward. 

What would you say has been the most difficult scene to write in the North Oak series, and why?

Every book has its most challenging scene. I want the books to MEAN something to the reader. I’m writing them so today’s youth have a heroine to look up to who is going through many of the same scary issues they face daily.

North Oak #6: Dark Horse forced me to look at my own demons though, and was very hard to write. I didn’t want to deal with my own depression that Alex, my main character, had to face. A lot of the books in the series have multiple points of view, but Dark Horse only had Alex. I wanted the reader to feel alone, because that’s a big part of depression. You can be in a room full of people who are crazy about you and still feel alone. 

In North Oak #5: Far Turn, I made myself cry. I won’t give spoilers, but it was a funeral scene and I chose the song “I Can Only Imagine” as they played the life video of the departed. That was tough. 

Oh, character deaths and their memorials are always so painful to write. You dive into some other tough youth issues in your series, too—bullying, suicide, and sexuality, for a start. Are these things you wanted to discuss through your stories, or did the themes just appear because of what the characters were going through?

A little of both I think. I knew today’s youth were facing some scary stuff, and I wanted to give them someone to look up to. I want them to find me someday and say “You wrote this for me.” And I’ll hug them and say “I know.”

Especially the LGBTQ+ community. There’s nothing else like North Oak on the market. I pray every night before I write that I’ll be a vassal for what the Lord wants His youth to hear. And it’s love. Everyone deserves love.

This has been such an awesome chat, Ann! Any closing words of inspiration and encouragement for your fellow writers?

Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s part of it.

Keep swinging, and may the horse be with you!

#AwesomeAnnHunter

#TeamAlex

@NorthOakSeries

SERIES PAGES:
AMAZON:
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07MPDR72J?ref=series_rw_dp_labf

BARNES & NOBLE:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/ann+hunter+north+oak?_requestid=1862889

KOBO
:https://www.kobo.com/us/en/search?query=North%20Oak&fcsearchfield=Series&seriesId=091c7fab-78cb-57d3-8d7b-50fe9d17b2a0

APPLE IBOOKS:
https://books.apple.com/us/author/ann-hunter/id792888890

GOOGLE PLAY:
https://play.google.com/store/search?q=north%20oak%20ann%20hunter&c=books

Many thanks to you all for reading and spreading the word! Stay tuned as more author interviews are on their way this month, as well as some tough love on fantasy world-building.

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