#lessons learned in #worldbuilding for #writing #fiction: #wildwood by @colinmeloy

One of the reasons I love Wisconsin so much is its wild places.

 

–Wisconsin photos by photographer and friend Emily Ebeling and myself– 

For all the suburbs decimating the farmland, for all the whacky tourist traps and tailored nature, there are still large swatches of wilderness that cluster together in defiance of farm and town alike. You can see these swatches set off by corn, wheat and soy, or perhaps by a state road, or even by the great Wisconsin River. These barriers keep us apart, we people and the bears, coyotes, wolves, and whatever else hunts and hides among the verdant life.

It is about such barriers I’d like to speak.

Prue of Colin Meloy’s Wildwood lives near a place modern society has ignored for centuries. It’s not that no one sees it; in fact, this place is on any map of Portland:

As long as Prue could remember, every map she had ever seen of Portland and the surrounding countryside had been blotted with a large, dark green patch in the center, like a growth of moss from the northwest corner to the southwest and labeled with the mysterious initials “I.W.” (13).

When Prue asks her father about the “Impassable Wilderness” and why no one lives there, he likens it to Siberia—too inhospitable a land for people, so people simply leave it alone. End of story. Adults never talk about it, kids occasionally tease about it, but otherwise the Impassable Wilderness is simply a place no one enters, like the spooky house at the end of your street. It’s there, you know it’s there, you want to know what’s in there, but like heck are you going in to find out. It reminds me of two other books I’ve studied this year: Annihilation and Enchanted Glass. Both stories have settings outside of our perception of normal, and the settings of these stories can be seen in some capacity by those outside it.

The barrier, however, is another matter. In Enchanted Glass, Aidan and Andrew have to feel out the boundary of Andrew’s field-of-care by walking; there’s a sort of buzz in their feet to let them know when they’re on the boundary, and when they go off-track. In Annihilation, the biologist and others are hypnotized to pass through the barrier, but on either side of the barrier, there’s nothing to see. Scientists even drive animals into the barrier at one point just to mark its location. Where do they know the barrier lies? Where animals vanish completely into silence.

Unlike Enchanted Glass and Annihilation, the barrier described between Prue’s town of St. Johns and the Impassable Wilderness is quite, quite visible:

Here at the eastern side of the Willamette River was a natural border between the tight-knit community of St. Johns and the riverbank, a three-mile length of cliff simply called the bluff…The crows had cleared the precipice and were funneling skyward like a shivering black twister cloud, framed by the rising smoke from the many smelters and smokestacks of the Industrial Wastes, a veritable no-man’s-land on the other side of the river, long ago claimed by the local industrial barons and transformed into a forbidding landscape of smoke and steel. Just beyond the Wastes, through the haze, lay a rolling expanse of deeply forested hills, stretching out as far as the eye could see. (11-12)

Meloy’s taken two  extremes—Industrialization, Nature—and slams them next to one another for the clearest possible contrast between what society is familiar with, and the unknown. Like Prue, we see the height of man’s victory over land, as well as his defeat. The special touch comes with the name “Wastes”: for all of man’s business and industry, he can not maintain it. Now all that’s left is rotten, disused, worthless. It’s a sort of wasteland we as everyday readers can understand; we pass such rotting structures all the time in real life.

2But what we don’t often see is a murder of crows kidnap a baby, which is what happens to Prue in the first line of Wildwood:

How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. (first line)

Those crows flying over the Wastes are the ones carrying her brother, and like the twister clouds, those vicious forces of nature, Prue can’t stop the “black twister cloud” carrying her brother from crossing over the Wastes and entering the Impassable Wilderness.

Now if a twelve-year-old girl is to make it into the Impassable Wilderness (and therefore give us a story), then the barrier itself can’t be impassable.  It doesn’t need to appear and disappear in different places like the windows and fairy doors in Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Callthat feels too complicated for Meloy’s universe. Crossing the barrier to rescue a baby is a serious business, so using Jones’ humor of taking Aidan and Andrew through a manure-addled pasture and a home’s loo doesn’t feel appropriate. And making a barrier erase anything that vanishes through it like Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X would be too damn terrifying—imagine being a kid and seeing a baby, already being flown off by crows, now vanish in midair. Why would Prue think the kid alive at that point?

Meloy successfully utilizes elements to create a barrier that is eerie without causing young readers to freak out:

The only thing beyond the bluff that was exposed above the bank of clouds was the imposing iron lattice of the Railroad Bridge. It seemed to float, unmoored, on the river mist. Prue dismounted her bike and walked it south along the bluff toward an area where the cliff side sloped down into the clouds. The world around her dimmed to white as she descended.

When the ground below Prue’s feet finally evened out, she found she was standing in an alien landscape. The mist clung to everything, casting the world in a ghostly sheen. A slight wind was buffeting through the gorge, and the mist occasionally shifted to reveal the distant shapes of desiccated, wind-blown trees. The ground was covered in a dead yellow grass. (33)

I love the ghostly element of the “unmoored” iron Railroad Bridge—there’s a sort of River Styxian moment here, especially with words like “alien,” “mist,” and “ghostly sheen.” Nothing thrives: trees are grass alike are dried out and shriveled to nothing.

In utilizing a smart mix of sensory details and man’s thirst for industry, Meloy succeeds in creating a barrier that imposes, haunts, and intimidates his heroine. This early encounter with danger—and bravery—assures readers that they walk with a hero worthy of attention, and that they begin a journey so full of action the challenges begin before the hero’s even out the door.

Who says crossing the threshold can’t be its own adventure?

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#writing #music: Mark Mothersbaugh

61lm7CkCpqL._SS500What makes music epic?

Brass. All those horns just blasting bombastic harmonies.

Strings going to blazes and back.

Percussion pounding the heartbeats of heroes.

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

What makes music cosmic?

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

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

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

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

Who won?

Story-tellers, that’s who.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, you want me to buy music?”

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

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

“But you haven’t seen the movie.”

So?

“Then how do you know the music?”

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

“What for?”

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

(I may have growled for good measure.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There it is: the arpeggio.

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

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

 

 

#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Mentors deserve #character arcs as much as #Heroes.

A common writing topic among my adult learners is an argument for better mentor programs among urban and rural youth. The majority of my students have lived many chapters before school: military service, lost jobs, parenthood, health problems, jail time. And in those chapters they had one adult who was there for them while their own loved ones wouldn’t, or couldn’t, support them. Time and again, their stories testify to the power one good grown heart can have in an uncertain life.

Such is the power of a Mentor, an amazing presence one can have in real life, as well as in fiction.

51473OvY5zL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgSometimes it’s not a bad idea to refuse a Call until you’ve had time to prepare for the “zone unknown” that lies ahead. In mythology and folklore that preparation might be done with the help of the wise, protective figure of the Mentor, whose many services to the hero include protecting, guiding, teaching, training, and providing magical gifts….Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure.  -Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

One element irks me about this Mentor business, though: these characters often don’t get much time to grow. Adults so often come pre-set in Young Adult and Middle Grade: they represent all that’s wrong with the story’s universe, or they’re created soley for cannon fodder to inflict emotional damage on the young hero. Of course those that mentor will provide and guide as Vogler mentions, but when it comes time to act, the Mentor either cannot help, or will not. Even Dumbledore, one of THE Mentors in the fantasy genre spanning Middle Grade and Young Adult, admits in Order of the Phoenix to purposefully withholding information from Harry so he could be a kid for a little longer. Well, that withholding led to Harry dragging his friends into an ambush and Sirius Black getting killed off. So I guess Dumbledore does grow, but it takes, you know, FIVE BOOKS for that to happen.

Why not give the Mentor a chance to grow throughout the plot, right there alongside the Hero?

Diana Wynne Jones’ Enchanted Glass shows not only the power of the Mentor/Hero relationship, but the strength of a story that allows both characters to develop.

Now being a Middle Grade fantasy, the book’s blurb will of course talk about the child character, Aidan:

Aidan Cain has had the worst week of his life. Creepy, sinister beings want him dead. What’s a boy to do?

When you open to the first page of the story, however, you don’t hear about Aidan at all:

When Jocelyn Brandon died–at a great old age, as magicians tend to do–he left his house and his field-of-care to his grandson, Andrew Brandon Hope. Andrew himself was in his thirties.

Say what? Why are we meeting this guy first?

51BWYaYblWL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Jones spins the Hero’s Journey round and round and upside down and settles it just the way she wants. In a way, Andrew and Aidan are both heroes, even though Andrew ticks a lot of the boxes for Mentor: he takes Aidan into his home, helps him cope with the loss of his family, protects him from the sinister, teaches him about magic and the curious lives hiding about the town, such as the giant who comes to the shed to eat overgrown vegetables every night.

At the same time, Andrew has to grow, too. When we meet him, he is very quiet and mild. This softie-sort of demeanor makes the grandfather’s staff think they can boss Andrew around.

“And I do hope you’ll continue to work for me just as you did for my grandfather,” he said.

To which she retorted, “I don’t know what you’d do if I didn’t. You live in a world of your own, being a professor.”

“I’m not a professor,” he pointed out mildly.

Mrs. Stock took no notice of this.

They couldn’t be clearer of their opinions of Andrew than in their actions. Heck, Mrs. Stock won’t even let Andrew move the furniture around. Every time he redoes the living room, she spends the whole day moving it back, pissed to blazes at him for taking the piano out of its “hallowed corner” and the chairs and lamps away from their “traditional places.” She punishes him with terrible casseroles, but Andrew just ignores them.

Ignoring isn’t the same as growing, though. We start to see his spine stiffen as he deals with the gardener Mr. Stock (no relation). Mr. Stock is obsessed with growing the best veg for the summer fête, and he uses Andrew’s garden to do it while ignoring the lawn, flowers, trees, etc. If Andrew dares ask Mr. Stock to see about the flowers or lawn, Mr. Stock takes to dumping veg rejects in the kitchen, kicking the stained glass door as he goes, rattling glass panes everyone knows to be exceedingly old…and, as it happens, magical.

The magic in the glass is just one of the many things Andrew does not remember. He needs his own Mentor (found in another gardener, no less) to help him sift through the past for all the vital magic lessons from his grandfather, plus learn about the odd bits and pieces about the field-of-care, like the curious counter-parts, and the strange Mr. Brown who’s taken over a chunk of Andrew’s land.

The climax comes with serious growth in both hero and mentor: Aidan’s able to tap his inner magic to create a fire no invader could penetrate, and Andrew remembers enough of his grandfather’s teaching to summon the powers of his enchanted glass to send the Fairy King back to his own home. Only now, with this success, is Andrew seen as someone to respect, as Mr. Stock admits (to himself, anyway):

He picked up the great marrow and seemed about to hand it to Andrew. Then it clearly struck him that Andrew was too importantly powerful now to carry produce about.

But this victory wasn’t just Andrew’s power, or Aidan’s. It’s a team effort between Hero and Mentor to deal with the Fairy King and his little minions from the get-go until the final thunderclap of magic and acorn flood.

Such is the growth I strive to create in my own characters populating Fallen Princeborn. The protagonists have their own valleys of struggle to walk through, but so does their mentor. He’s forgotten what hope is, and has given up on any sort of change to heal his world. When my heroine arrives, however, and brings a storm of chaos with her, he begins to feel hope again. Experiences hope again. And in that hope, he starts to find the old courage and strength that once held him fast against the enemy.

Even good grown hearts know pain and doubt. They deserve a chance to heal and grow, just like a hero. Heroes of any age want to look up to someone, but they need to relate to someone, too. The Hero’s Journey needn’t be completed by the Hero alone. Let readers walk the Mentor’s Journey, too, and experience a path through the story-world so often left unknown.

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#Writing #Music: Lalo Schifrin

“Mommy, play Harry’s hot dog song again!”

“Yeah, Mommy. Play it!”

I may roll my eyes, but I concede. Every kid’s going to have their favorite song about hot dogs, right?

Not what you were expecting, I wager. But that sax will set Bash a’boppin’ every time. Even Biff’s  bear-friends Mel and Grand-Père will dance to this tune.

(For the record, Blondie is tolerant, but would prefer her sweet pop songs. Or AC/DC. 7 going on 17, I swear…)

If there must be a song about hot dogs in my house, then I’m glad it’s by one of the smoothest bad-ass composers of the twentieth century,  Lalo Schifrin.

This man is a living institution, a game-changer. He started composing in the 1950s and hasn’t stopped since. Seriously, this man is STILL writing music. He’s created for television shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  and Mission: Impossiblefilms like Cool Hand Luke and Kelley’s HeroesHis score tears down the road with Steve McQueen in Bullitt. When Bruce Lee kicks ass in Enter the Dragon, Schrifin’s kickin’ it right along with him. When Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan go after the mob, Schifrin is…hang on, he did ALL the Rush Hour movies?

thSo I’m not talking about those. I want to look at two quintessential themes from a quintessential action film: Dirty Harry.

Though Schifrin supposedly scored four of the five films (I have a very stubborn conspiracy theory about Dead Pool, but I shan’t bore you with it here), the groundwork themes are to be found here, in the first film. Not only does Schifrin capture both environment and hero in Dirty Harry’s theme, but also madness and villain in Scorpio’s.

Let’s look at Dirty Harry first.

“Mommy, is this Charlie Brown music?” Biff asks every time this is on. I was stumped at first, but then realized Biff’s actually making a pretty decent genre connection: Vince Guaraldi’s compositions for the Peanuts specials are jazz in nature. Schifrin uses what Nick Redman defines as “urban jazz-funk.” Percussion is the star here, with the bass guitar a close second. The snare and bongos weave a layered energy throughout the theme–feet walking, cars honking, countless rhythms confined to this one hard space. The strings change the mood beautifully too, from the uneasiness of the violins to the steady groove of the basses and cellos. My favorite moment, though, is just around the 3:00 minute mark, when all falls away but the bongo and keyboard while Dirty Harry takes in the crime scene. For all the raw energies moving through the city, this halt to stop and think under a soft harmony makes me wonder if there’s more to this gritty cop than meets the eye.

With Scorpio, it’s aaaaall about what’s going on inside him.

Just listen to that first minute: deliciously unnerving. The whining effect that makes your ears twitch, the off-beat percussion–THIS, the percussion, is one of my favorite elements. Scorpio has no definable rhythm. He moves, he waits, he watches victims, he waits. The percussion only grows when he’s chosen a victim.

And the voice–oh, that voice! My daughter hates this song because the singer freaks her out. The singer’s sweet dissonance calls out like a siren for Scorpio to make his next kill; hell, you see that gleeful pleasure on his face when he chooses his next victim for a sniper shot.

But then comes the fuzz petal and bass, and a steady percussion announces a new rhythm: there’s law on the scene. The voices multiply and swell as Scorpio runs. The track climaxes with, of all things, a shaker. Lalo Schifrin makes a shaker sound totally bad-ass. Who else can do that? No one, I say!

Even actor Andrew Robinson, who played Scorpio, understood the power of Schifrin’s music. In one documentary (watched by Bo, who watches any and every documentary about favorite films), Robinson described meeting Schrifin by chance and thanking him for “making that character memorable,” and thereby giving Robinson a career. Robinson’s portrayal is powerful, yes, but the sirens, the drums, the guitar–they bear witness to the Scorpio’s outsides AND insides without any extra visuals. We feel this villain’s psychotic nature thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the city’s neon grit thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the hero’s inner calm amidst blood splatter and shell casings thanks to Schifrin.

Some stories require fun whimsy, or epic sweeping beauty, or the quiet dance of curious love. But for the streets of rundown hot dog stands, pawn shops, and ma-and-pa groceries, for the tattered scroungers and their shopping carts of cans, for the hunter flicking his cigarette into the gutter outside the alley where they, the notorious they are known to hang out….for the streets stained with the fluids of human and machine…

Look no further for inspiration than Lalo Schifrin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if superheroes had no morals?

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

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

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

He refuses.

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

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

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

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

And his sexual playthings.

And the sexual playthings for other G-Men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he doesn’t care.

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

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

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

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

Not just the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds.

But the Hero Against the Monsters We Know.