#lessons learned from #NationalPoetryMonth: every prose #writer should feel the power & #inspiration of #poetry.

poetry-NPM-banner2

Poetry requires a deftness with space and language, a skill akin to lacing. Lacing needs sure fingertips, careful measurements, knowledge of the spaces as well as the threads, their knots, their weaves, none of which I’ve fully understood.

Oh, I’m not putting down prose–a great book requires all these things, too. But there’s something about the poetic line, that tight little collection of words that must balance just-so with the empty space surrounding it, that is needed more in poetry than prose. Studying such rich handfuls of language can only better the prose writer, inside and out.

I can still remember the first poem that shook me. Not a hymn, not Scripture–pshaw, I grew up around that stuff. For the first couple decades of life, that stuff  sat next to the peanut butter, mixed into the pile of bills on the kitchen table, hung on the hook in the hall. Just another part of the day.

College: changes.

For the first time, I was in a place where no one else knew my family. I wasn’t being judged by the actions of my parents or brothers. I was me.  I finally embraced my passion to write and yes, I dared choose story-telling over music. I worked to understand that which mattered inside me.

That which hurt.

For the first time, I spoke to an adult, the college chaplain, about The Monster. His hands. My despair.

Later that same day I was trapped in a poetry unit of a lit class. I didn’t get any of it: meaning, syntax, meter. Hell, I was barely listening. Blah, blah, sentence fragments words, blah, blah. I just wanted to leave, and deal.

Next in our anthology was Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Every line. Word. Space. Stuck.

Never had words burrowed into me, gripped the pit of me and twisted, fucking hurt as they twisted and pulled–because they were trying to right me. I took that poem to the dorm, and bawled for a long, long time. I still cry every time I read it.

Of course all writers want to grip readers. But there are those, like Hughes, who do far more than entertain, or inspire. They transform us. That transformation may be one of the bloodiest experiences in our souls, but we are, yes we are, the stronger for it.

~*~

College: changes.

I studied literature for a summer at University College Cork. I didn’t really fit in with those who spent every lecture drinking alcohol in soda containers and flying to London on weekends to go clubbing. Nor did I fit with the academics who’ve read Ulysses and/or Finnegan’s Wake twice and sat on the dormitory’s stoop to pontificate nature, economy, philosophy. I spent much of the off-hours alone, wandering Cork, reading Seamus Heaney, doing my damndest not to be a dunce.

I can’t tell you which poem fell upon me me first. “Blackberry-Picking,” I think.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots

Pardon me for being evil, and breaking his stanza. I want to pause it here, because I can feel the call-back of the memory in these lines.
The title seemed simple to me. I should be able to understand a basic description, right? And being the Midwest girl that I am, raised in a farming town before getting shuffled to Milwaukee because God said so, I felt like I could even–gasp–write almost-intelligently about it. Harvest. Rural life. Childhood innocence. Yay, I understood something!

Then something else happened, something that for all my writing aspirations, I had never really considered:

Language.
The first two lines form a smooth sentence, a prosey sentence. But line 3 comes along and says: “glossy purple clot.” Suddenly I am holding something, vivid and bright. Yet “clot.” Why “clot”? Who associates “clot” with delicious fruit? We want blood to clot, I suppose. And there you have it, lines 5 and 6, describing sweet “flesh” and “summer’s blood.” Line 7 builds to “lust” and–hey! The sentence is broken! The space urges me to line 8 where capitalized, separated by the rest of the line with a period, comes the act, the want, the purpose: “Picking.”

Every word Heaney shares connects with one or more senses:

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
The “briars scratched.” The “wet grass bleached our boots.” I read these lines out loud on the sidewalk outside a bookstore, the buzz over the latest Harry Potter deaf on my ears. The way “briars,” “bleached,” “boots,” roll in the mouth, berries all their own. “Like a Plate of eyes”–a return to the flesh imagery! Emphasized with the association to the murderer Bluebeard, who hoarded wives as the young characters do berries:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Gah! Not just “grey,” or “silver,” or “fuzzy,” but “rat-grey.” Immediately, we think of pestilence, unwanted, toxic growth. More of such vivid sounds that we can taste against the roofs of our mouths and yet see, all at once: “fresh berries/byre” or “fungus, glutting.” Action moves quickly with the imagery: “fruit fermented”…”sweet flesh would turn sour.” Three words transform what is loved to what is lost.

And the ending of the poem…we have this sort of short “o” sound three times in the last four lines: “sour,” “rot,” not.” “Sour” creates tension on two fronts: that growling “r” carries on in “fair,” the positive, the hopeful, only “It wasn’t fair,” was it? And the short “o” of “sour” echoes in the harsh monosyllabic phrase, “smelt of rot.” Damn, such a slamming there. A child, stomping his boots at the unfairness, the inevitability despite the hope the narrator knows is in vain, yet holds in his jars and cans every year: “knew they would not.” The whole last line is monosyllabic, too, words falling like so many spoiled berries one tips from the can onto the ground.

I carried Heaney and all these thoughts back with me to the dorm. No, no tears today, but another epiphany, yes. For the first time, I wasn’t looking at words for what they achieve as a whole. Of course, “Blackberry-Picking” is a story in its own right, complete with characters, conflict, climax. But so much is accomplished in the little things here, too.

Every word written carries a rhythm. Listen with every sense. Capture what you can.

Repeat.

 

 

Advertisements

#Author #Interviews: #writer Peadar Ó Guilín discusses setting & #pointofview in #writing. Thanks, @TheCallYA!

download.pngFor more than ten years, Peadar Ó Guilín has been riveting readers with his fantasy and science fiction. His latest, The Invasion, hits American bookstores this week. To celebrate, I’m pleased to present his thoughts on the influence of Ireland’s landscape, as well as the challenges of using multiple points of view, while writing The Invasion’s thrilling predecessor, The Call. For a brief study of Ó Guilín’s writingplease click here.

~Landscape~

The Grey Land itself does as much as the Sídhe to trap the adolescents Called there. I could swear I caught a touch of Dante mixed among the Grey Land’s snares. True?

Absolutely true. Dante influences everything I write. In my first novel, The Inferior, I tried hard to model the world on that of The Divine Comedy. I even began the book with a quote from The Inferno and included a Dante Easter Egg in the middle of the story. It was way too obscure a reference, though. Not even the readers of the Italian translation got it.

However, while he has been a huge inspiration, my aim in The Call was the opposite of Dante’s. Rather than creating a system of perfect justice, I was trying to show the random nature of outcomes. Of awful things happening to the good and the bad alike.

The Sídhe surround Ireland in a mist no one can exit or enter. I tried to make my way through some impossible fog in Galway once, and gave up at the first pub I found. Did your inspiration for the fog come from myth or experience?

It probably came from watching too many cheap horror movies as a kid. We humans are often afraid of things we suspect are there but cannot properly see. This is why anything that cuts down the character’s vision gives readers the heebie-jeebies!

 

 

The windows between the Grey Land and the Many Colored Land are a particularly sadistic touch on your part. The lush vibrance of Ireland burns brightest in the windows than when we walk with Nessa and the other students at the survival college. Was the sparse allowance of setting details outside The Grey Land a conscious choice?

I created the Grey Land to be a hell. The Windows are there to make it so much worse. The Sídhe live in horror and pain, but any time they want, they can see those who ruined their lives enjoying the paradise that was stolen from them.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of that paradise, rarely notice it.

“The Twisted Path” is one of my favorite bits of setting. Sensory details mesh around Nessa as well as in her, making us question our own senses. How did you strike upon this balance of mental and physical detail?

I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be in two completely different worlds at the same time. In reality, I suppose it would twist you inside out and kill you instantly. But what would it feel like if you could survive it? That was my thinking.

As a writer, do you see the Grey Land’s intrusion anywhere in your Ireland? Where does reality feel thinnest?

The most magical experiences I have occur when I am in the presence of a living wild animal that is going about its business as if I don’t exist.

 

~Point of View~

What process led you to utilize the p.o.v.s of students and teachers alike in telling The Call instead of using only Nessa’s perspective?

If you read books from the 70s and 80s, you will see a lot of jumping around from one character’s point of view to another’s. It can confuse the reader and jolt them out of the story, so over time, we have seen a shift to tight third person narratives. I myself prefer to stick with no more than one character per chapter.

However, a good, old-fashioned omniscient narrator can do so much more in far fewer words. The narrative voice of The Call provides the overall tone of the book. It is portentous, and wise and ironic — all things that the main character, Nessa, is not. If I stuck with her voice, the atmosphere would have been a very different one. Less like a dark fairy tale.

The page count would have doubled too, as I contorted the story structure in order to put her in a position to witness or hear about, every important event.

In a past interview you noted that Conor was a difficult character to write. Besides Nessa, which character was a joy to write from and why?

I loved Megan, of course, because she will say the sort of things I never would myself. Cahal was fun too, simply because his personality appeared out of nothing on the page as I was writing his Call.

 

 

I’m not going to ask for spoilers, but did you find a character in The Invasion to be as challenging as Conor? In what way?

There were several characters in The Invasion that caused me a lot of trouble. The Warden, Maurice, The Professor. The plot of the book relies on a great many moving parts that the characters need to slip into place with subtlety. They didn’t always want to cooperate.

On the other hand, I had great fun with Liz Sweeny.

One crime I’ve seen committed in young adult novels is the use of cardboard cutouts for second-string characters, lifeless save for the moment they flash for a plot point before fading into the story’s ether. (Don’t worry, you’ve committed no such crime.) Do you have any tips for other writers to help them carve out moments in the story to develop the crucial supporting cast?

I think you have included the answer in the question.

The key to a character’s solidity, is the effect they have on the world around them as they pass through it. Where were they before they appeared on the page? Where are they going after? What are the clues that show us that they existed before this? Somebody might have mentioned them, casually. Or cursed them. Or prayed for them. Maybe an item of clothing went missing that they are now wearing and that will turn up later on a battlefield.

Show me their footprints!

My deepest thanks to Peadar for sharing his time, experience, and beautiful photos of his homeland. The Call and The Invasion are both available online and in bookstores. Pick up your copies today!

After so much danger, Nessa and Anto can finally dream of a happy life. But the terrible attack on their school has created a witch-hunt for traitors — boys and girls who survived the Call only by making deals with the enemy. To the authorities, Nessa’s guilt is obvious. Her punishment is to be sent back to the nightmare of the Grey Land for the rest of her life. The Sídhe are waiting, and they have a very special fate planned for her.

Meanwhile, with the help of a real traitor, the enemy come pouring into Ireland at the head of a terrifying army. Every human they capture becomes a weapon. Anto and the last students of his old school must find a way to strike a blow at the invaders before they lose their lives, or even worse, their minds. But with every moment Anto is confronted with more evidence of Nessa’s guilt.

For Nessa, the thought of seeing Anto again is the only thing keeping her alive. But if she escapes, and if she can find him, surely he is duty-bound to kill her…

 

#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.

bkglass.jpeg.size-custom-crop.0x650

 

 

 

 

 

 

#lessons Learned in World-Building for #fiction: Peadar Ó Guilín’s “The Call.” From @TheCallYA & @Scholastic

In my previous world-building study, I noted the mix of normal and abnormal details to help create an other-wordly atmosphere in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Nature is the focus of such details, as someone or something is altering the environment.

Not all stunning stories have to dwell on the environment, however. Sometimes a writer can build the world with pieces of society, of the “normal” one experiences when moving about in daily life. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s  The Call, that normal is, well, pretty f’d up. But a girl like Nessa isn’t going to let the new normal of her world dictate when she dies: not the doctors who want to put her to sleep because she has polio, or the Sídhe who hunt all of Ireland’s adolescents in the Grey Land.

51yePoz3hgL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_To look at how Ó Guilín builds this “normal,” I’m going to focus on the first ten pages of the novel.

Page 1: “She knows nothing about the Three Minutes yet.” This second sentence starkly contrasts the first line about Nessa turning ten and overhearing her parents argue. That’s a pretty bland normal–kids hear their parents argue all the time. But what is this “Three Minutes”? The fact it’s capitalized tells us that whatever this is, it’s important. It’s something worth arguing over. The rest of the page tells us parents are desperate to hide the Three Minutes from all children under ten. Why? We have to keep reading.

Page 2: “Oh for Crom’s sake.” What ten-year-old says this? Biff and Bash are eager to cram “poop,” “patoot,” and “pee pee water” into as many conversations as possible. I’ve heard a few kids Blondie’s age say “damn,” “shit,” and even one “bitch.” But never “Crom.” Does this have to do with where she lives? We don’t know the place yet.

“This is the first hint of the fear that will never leave her again; that will ruin her life as it has ruined the life of everybody in the whole country.”  Okay, something is definitely wrong in this country. There’s a desperation among adults to keep kids as innocent as possible. Referencing pagan deities instead of the common God when cussing. The Three Minutes must be pretty nasty. But what is it? We have to keep reading.

Page 3: “She has never asked herself where all the teenagers were.” Now we’re genuinely unsettled. That’s a huge chunk of population utterly absent, and not just from a town, but from a country. What in Sam Eliot is going on?

“But if she refuses to let the doctors put her to sleep, this is the future: Sometime during her adolescence, the Sídhe will come for her, as they come these days for everyone. They will hunt her down, and if she fails to outrun them, Nessa will die. Before we were unsettled, but now we’re downright scared. Not only is euthanizing disabled children considered both logical and preferential to letting them live, but all children at some point must be prey to some group. If you don’t know what the Sídhe are, you can gauge by Ó Guilín’s choice of the phrase “they come these days for everyone” that this group is damn powerful. The chances of human beings having that kind of grip on an entire country’s psyche is possible, but something about Nessa’s “hysterical, horrified” screaming when told about the Three Minutes says we’re not dealing with our normal human villainy.

Page 4: “Everything is old and everybody is old too.” Nessa is at a bus station, where old folk stand guard, sell tickets, drive the bus, and so on. Ó Guilín points out Nessa and her friend Megan are the only youths there, again to emphasize how little young blood there now is in this environment.

“The tired engine burps fumes of recycled vegetable oil so that everything smells deep fried.” Not only is this a great sensory detail, but it also builds on the previous hint about everything being old. Why would the bus be operating on vegetable oil? If the bus looks ready to fall apart, then surely new buses can be built, right?

Page 5: A big, middle-aged police sergeant waits by the bus, brandishing an iron needle four inches long…he swabs it with alcohol and jabs it into the arm of everybody getting on….”My apologies! Iron’s supposed to hurt them.” As far as we’re told, everyone around Nessa looks pretty normal. Whatever these Sídhe are, they have the capability to look like us. Damn.

When Megan steps up to face the needle, the sergeant makes extra sure she’s no spy. She takes the iron well enough, but the second he withdraws it, she kicks his feet from under him and twists his arm up behind his back so that the adult, twice her size, is on his knees before her. Kid fighters have been in stories for a while, but this is a very blatant disregard for the adult authority in society. I love this touch: so many adults in this environment are elderly and withered. They’ve been utterly inept at stopping the Sídhe from doing whatever they do to kids, so the kids have to take it on themselves to be the violent warriors in order to defend themselves.

35009643Page 6: Shortly after Lifford, they roll over a bridge into what used to be Northern Ireland. Nobody cares about that sort of thing anymore. The only border recognized by the Sidhe is the sea that surrounds the island from which they were driven thousands of years before. No human can leave or enter. No medicines or vaccines or spare parts for the factories that once made them; nor messages of hope or friendship; nothing. WHAM. Ó Guilín brings reality down like an ambush of arrows. This is why everything is so old. This is why there are no young people from elsewhere. And what’s better (for the reader) and worse (for the characters) is the motive Ó Guilín gives in one line: “the island from which they were driven thousands of years before.” Ireland was theirs, until the humans took it.

What enemy could be more terrible than one that’s ancient, magical, and really, really angry?

Page 8: “We’ve had a Call,” she cries. “Driver! You have to reverse! Reverse!” A boy vanishes from the bus, and the Three Minutes begins. If the bus does not reverse to where the boy vanished, what happens? Considering the panic of the driver as his passengers direct trailing traffic to go around them for the reversal,  it must not be good.

The boy’s body reappears and thumps down hard onto the floor. Nessa is relieved to see that it’s not one of the really awful ones. Okay, I have to leave out Ó Guilín’s description, because when he continues describing what “isn’t” awful, it just makes me shiver with what does constitute as “awful.” Let me just promise you that the boy–and Megan’s reaction to him–make you as a reader determined to find out the breadth and depth of the Sidhe’s “sense of fun” (9).

Page 9: A few of the old people are crying and want to get off the bus, but it’s not like the early days anymore. They might disturb the body as they try to step over it, and that’s just not allowed…the Recovery Bureau agents [will examine] him properly in Monoghan. So this way of life isn’t just in Nessa’s town, or even county. This is a country-wide deal, with the government just as invested as everyone else to figure the Sídhe out.

Page 10: The Sídhe stole him away for a little over three minutes, but in their world, the Grey Land, an entire day has passed, panic and pain in every second of it. With this revelation of the time difference we get a taste of the horror it means to be Called for the Three Minutes. Surviving anything horrific in our reality for three minutes is hard enough–hell, the inability to breathe or see while driving kids home from school  was f’ing agony, and that was without being chased by vengeful hunters. So now we know that these kids can’t just run for three minutes–they have to be capable of outrunning, out-hiding, and outwitting these Sídhe for an entire day and night. What can we humans possibly do to prepare young people for this kind of torture?

We have to keep reading to find out.

As tempting, as “easy,” as it is to simply explain how our story’s world operates, we must remember that readers open our books to experience a piece of life in motion. Life doesn’t pause, pop up a screen, and run a slideshow explaining how things work. We have to catch the snippets of lessons as we can, and pray to the gods we didn’t mishear. As you blaze the trail through your story, consider where such snippets may be placed, be it in a hero’s school book, a symbol under a rock, or in the mouth of a bat. Make the lessons and discoveries worth the hunt.

35292343After you answer The Call, where will you stand: for humanity, or for the Sídhe? The Invasion, Ó Guilín‘s latest chapter about the Sídhe of the Grey Land, is now available in the UK from Scholastic. It comes to the US March 27th. 

#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.

20180125_125120.jpg

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…

20180125_125047

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.

 

 

 

#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #fiction: #Annihilation by @jeffvandermeer

Featured

You know how last week I insisted that writers have to make themselves take a break? 24 hours after posting that, I ended up in the hospital. A month of not really sleeping mixed with flu culminated in an inability to breathe or see while driving my kids from school. Nothing like a trip in an ambulance to get one thinking about one’s priorities.

So, after a weekend of Bo telling me to sit still, Bash snuggles, Blondie stories, and Biff reading ad nauseum about trucks, I’m…still kinda sick, but not, you know, idiot-sick.

Seriously, people: take breaks.

This year, I wanted to dedicate a chunk of my “Lessons Learned” posts to an element of writing dear to my heart, one that can make or break a story set in a land not our own: world-building.

91SrDcfzkkLIn a way, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy takes place on our humdrum Earth (or does it? Dunh dunh DUUUUUNH). Something has come to Earth and transformed a stretch of coastal landscape in the United States. It has created a border. It does not let what is inside return…unless it wishes to. And those that return are never the same.

Annihilationthe first book of the series, strictly focuses upon the twelfth expedition into beyond the border into the place now labeled Area X. Here is where the world-building plays to Vandermeer’s favor. He needs to make Earth unearthly. He needs to engage and invest the readers into exploring this place.

He accomplishes this with the first paragraph:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Let’s dissect this a little. Look at that first line: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there.” Already, our narrator has come upon something unexpected. “Plunges into the earth“: I love that word choice of “plunges.” A strong action, driven action, and yet not violent, as opposed to “pierces” or “penetrates.” The terms for the landscape fit our narrator, whom we learn in the next paragraph is a biologist.  The paragraph itself ends on two contradictions: “untroubled landscape” is certainly not what one would think of when it comes to an otherworldly invasion on our planet. “Could yet see the threat” counters the “untroubled” while also agreeing with the first line of a tower not meant to be there.

One paragraph in, and we already have a sense of what is both familiar–“black pine 51ZMTRrWB8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_forest,” “marsh flats,” etc–and what is foreign–“the tower.” VanderMeer utilizes natural details readers can easily visualize while “plunging” a singular uniqueness into the scene, an entity guaranteed to taint all the “normalcy” around it, therefore turning the entire scene into something abnormal.

I’d like to share two other paragraphs, both from the first chapter, that further build on this natural/unnatural mix of detail.

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge directions, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So many sensory details are given here. The middle of the paragraph provides the pretty visuals with the moss and the trees, but the water detail unsettles you, doesn’t it? Because “normal” water isn’t still like that. VanderMeer also pulls a smooth move on readers with the moaning line. He begins the paragraph with it, but then spends time on other details before returning to the moaning, as if to show us the “normal” touches that are once again infected by the singular foreign element. The last line of this paragraph is a killer-subtle bit of foreshadowing, as you’ll see in the next paragraph from later in the chapter.

The biologist and another member have ventured into the tower, where they find words written on the wall. Those words are made of living organisms. Here VanderMeer makes use of his narrator’s skill set to build a world inside a word:

So I stepped closer, peered at Where lies the strangling fruit. I saw that the letters, connected by their cursive script, were made from what would have looked to the layperson like rich green fernlike moss but in fact was probably a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism. The curling filaments were all packed very close together and rising out from the wall. A loamy smell came from the words along with an underlying hint of rotting honey….I leaned in closer, like a fool…someone tricked into thinking words should be read…Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out.

I think you know where this is going: something gets into the biologist, something she does her damndest to hide from the others.

In this paragraph you get a taste for the level of natural detail our narrator takes in, one who has the experience to see and understand what is natural to Earth’s ecology, and what is not. As readers, we are gripped by the mystery of Area X–as Vandermeer planned, I’m sure. Even though I haven’t given you the whole chapter, the fact that “fernlike moss” is growing to create not only words, but cursive words in English, should be enough to send a shudder through you. Something foreign is here, and yet knows enough to communicate with our own language. It has taken what we thought unique to humanity, and transformed it into something new, just as it has with everything previous expeditions have left behind…including the expeditions themselves.

You’ll have to read the book to appreciate that last point.

VanderMeer’s balance between the relatable and the alien sensory details is spot-on throughout the trilogy. In the first chapter of the first book, where this balance is at its most precarious, Vandermeer takes the greatest care in luring readers to follow him, lulling them with the familiar, until the subtle strange beneath the black glass water floods the way back and we have no choice but to enter the tower, and descend further into his world.

Your own world need not be built from scratch. Dig your fingers deep into the earth and build the trench to set your land apart. Claw out the flora and fauna. Now, with all set before you upon this table, what shall fill your world? What will your readers know, and what will they look upon with a stranger’s eyes, wide and watchful?

#lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: In #Fantasy #Writing, Not All Rabbits Wear Waist Coats.

Cover_of_Fire_and_Hemlock“Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy?” My friend thumbs the book’s pages as a frown spreads across her face. “I mean, it’s good, kinda, but there isn’t much, you know, different, in it.”

Blasphemy! I think. But I know what she means. There’s no spectacle about Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. It’s a damn good fantasy, but it’s subtle with that fantasy. It’s not one of those sweeping epics with sky-burning battles of global proportions, powers that can wrinkle time and send us in one earth and out another, or characters filled with magic up to their eyeballs.

Now don’t get me wrong: these can be good fantasies. Heck, I’m in the midst of editing one for publication right now. However, a common trouble with such spectacular epics is that the character doesn’t often move the story along. We’re not reading for the characters so much as for the battle, the quest, the romance, etc. When the story zooms from the epic-ness to the characters and lets them dictate the story, we have a much more personal perspective, but we then we don’t sweep the epic.

47I’d like to focus on Fire and Hemlock‘s beginning to make this point. Let’s take a classic like Alice in Wonderland for comparison. Alice enters Wonderland because she follows a White Rabbit in a waistcoat down its rabbit-hole:

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoatpocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

1book1

(Gosh, what a long sentence.)

(Anyway.)

The image of a talking, clothed animal–who tells time!–running through our world snags a reader’s and promises some zany adventures to come. With Fire and Hemlock, the story opens with….wait for it…a girl not really packing for college.

Magic! Adventure! Alakazam, Alakazoo!

But there is magic already at work, if you listen to the heroine Polly:

And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet–here was the odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it….Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there…Why should she suddenly have memories that did not seem to correspond with the facts? (4-5)

This begins Polly’s journey back into the memories that had somehow been hidden within her. The “Rabbit-Hole” moment comes in her first memory, when she and her friend Nina are running around in black dresses for a game, get separated, and Polly stumbles onto the peculiar estate of town, Hundson House:

51lj8FZS+QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When Polly came out into the open, it was not a road after all. It was gravel at the side of a house. There was a door open in the house, and through it Polly caught a glimpse of Nina walking up a polished passage, actually inside the house…cautiously, she tiptoed up the passage. (12)

Polly finds herself in the middle of a funeral and wishes to slink out, but 10-year-olds don’t always know how to do that sort of thing. Thankfully a young man named Tom helps by offering to take her for a walk out back.

The sun reached the dry pool. For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of light filled the pool deep with transparent water. The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom were, just for an instant, floating, green and growing. (23)

Here readers get their first clue that this place is not as normal as her Gran’s. She may not be talking to blue caterpillars or playing croquet with flamingos, but Polly’s definitely stumbled into a group of people where “normal” no longer applies. By the novel’s end we discover that Laurel, the woman whom Polly mistook for Nina earlier, is none other than the Queen of the Fairies, and she wants Tom to sacrifice himself for the King of the Fairies.

It’s a slow build from funeral to Fairy Court, and almost entirely grounded in normal places like Polly’s hometown. But the beauty of such a subtle fantasy is that it makes you peer at the stubborn door at your own gran’s, or sneak down that one badly lit aisle of the supermarket, and wonder:

What else is going on back there?

 

#LessonLearned from #AChristmasCarol: Earn that Redemption.

Few stories tell the redemption arc quite like Charles’ Dickens A Christmas Carol. In the midst of Grinches and White Christmases and Peanuts and 34th Streets and Bishops Wives, my family always pulled out four different versions of A Christmas Carol to watch every Christmas: one with Mickey Mouse, one with Mister Magoo, one with the  Muppets, and one with George C. Scott. In more recent years, Bo introduced me to the Blackadder Christmas Carol as well as Scrooged starring Bill Murray.

This year, as Michael Caine follows the Ghost of Christmas Present once more to one of my favorite scenes–

(If you ever wondered what my sons are like at home, those bellboys at the song’s beginning sum it up pretty well.)

–a thought occurred to me, one that has pricked the back of my mind every year I see this:

Why is Scrooge dancing with the Ghost?

I mean, you can see it at the song’s end: Scrooge is all happy and cheery and dancing like a giant Muppet himself.

Doesn’t he still have another Ghost to talk to? If he’s already all happy and stuff, why’s he need to see another ghost? He’s already reformed. If you’re going to make a character go through three different stages towards redemption, then don’t you the storyteller need the different stages actually necessary? What’s the point of having these different stages if an internal switch simply flitches the protagonist’s changed with little effort?

This year, that niggling thought led to a talk with Bo, and the idea to watch a few more adaptations of this story and discuss whether they transform Scrooge, or merely flip his switch.

Here’s what we’ve found. Thanks for listening!

 

 

#lessons Learned from #AgathaChristie: The Omission Says It All.

Studying Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries has been a real treat this year. But like any favorite food, its taste has grown a touch stale on my writing pallette. Before I take a good, long break from one of the greatest authors of all time, I wanted to share one of the lessons learned from what many consider to be her masterpiece: And Then There Were None

And-Then-There-Were-None-HBI had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. That people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. –Agatha Christie, “Author’s Note”

One extraordinary achievement in this book is the slick point-of-view-leapfrog Christie plays to bamboozle readers from the very start. Yes, changing p.o.v. is something that has irritated me in the past, but has also been used well in her Poirot series. In And Then There Were None, Christie deftly takes readers in and out of a killer’s mind without readers ever having a clue it happened.

How?

Well to start, they’re all killers.

Yup.

We glean this from the little things, the thoughts in the characters’ minds that run to the front of the bus like a child unbuckled…

A picture rose clearly before [Vera’s] mind. Cyril’s head, bobbing up and down, swimming to the rock… Up and down–up and down…. And herself, swimming in easy practised strokes after him–cleaving her way through the water but knowing, only too surely, that she wouldn’t be in time… (3)

Well, [General Macarthur would] enjoy a chat about old times. He’d had a fancy lately that fellow soldiers were rather fighting shy of him. All owing to that damned rumour! By God, it was pretty hard–nearly thirty years ago now! Armstrong had talked, he supposed. Damned young pup! What did he know about it? (7)

Lucky that [Dr. Armstrong had] managed to pull himself together in time after that business ten–no, fifteen years ago. It had been a near thing, that! He’d been going to pieces. The shock had pulled him together. He’d cut out drink altogether. By Jove, it had been a near thing though… (9)

Many of the characters wander in and out of such thoughts–all but one. The novel itself begins with Justice Wargrave (is that not just one of the most awesome names for a judge?) en route via train to the coast, where he will take a boat to Nigger/Indian/Soldier Island.* We learn nothing of his past, whereas all the other character introductions dip into the past for at least a paragraph or two. Why don’t we see his past? We’re too distracted to ask, for he’s thinking about the mysterious island, and the letter inviting him there from one Lady Constance Culmington. He thinks about her exotic, impulsive behavior:

Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself was exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery! Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, Mr. Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… (2)

Note the words “his logic.” Why does he need to reason out something that, on its bare page, seems very straightforward? After all, the letter inviting him to the island is signed with her name. When he’s reasoning out why she’d send it, he’s not thinking about friendship or past pleasures together. Nope, he’s just thinking about why someone like her would buy an island. Why? We’re not told why.

Another curious moment arises in Chapter 2, when the judge addresses Dr. Armstrong about Constance Culmington and her “unreadable handwriting.” Who brings up that trait of all traits to someone they’ve only just met? We’re not told why.

Chapter 3 kicks the plot into high gear as a vinyl record states all the characters’ names and their murder charges. Justice Wargrave gathers up everyone’s connections to the island’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen, and shows the other guests there are no such owners, that the name simply stands for “unknown.”

Vera cried: “But this is fantastic–mad!”

The judge nodded gently. He said. “Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.” (41)

Why the hell would a judge, a man of law and order, go spoutin’ off a description that’s bound to incur panic and other extreme reactions from the guests? We’re not told why.

But by story’s end we surely know: because he knows, in his own mind, what he is.

Such little details given without context, like single puzzle pieces without a box, are as close to clues as we’re going to get. In Chapter 4, Wargrave’s the only one “picking his words with care” (43). In Chapter 6, he tells the others in “a slightly ironic voice”:

“My dear lady, in my experience of ill-doing, Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals–and the process is often fraught with difficulties. There are no short cuts.” (66)

For all my ripping over the use of outlines and plans for a story, there’s no denying that one needs to plan a mystery such as this in extreme detail in order to find what one can omit and what one can say with “a slightly ironic voice.” How else could Christie describe a man as “passionless and inhuman” (108) in a setting and plot driven by fear and humanity’s fight to survive against an unseen threat? Plus, Christie distracts readers in Chapter 10 by using characters Philip Lombard and Vera to move suspicion from Wargrave (“He gets to see himself as all powerful, as holding the power of life and death” (114)) to Dr. Armstrong (“He’s the only person here with medical knowledge” (115)). These maneuvers successfully keep readers from missing the omissions.

the-eleventh-hourThis level of subtle hint-craft reminds me of Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery. We owned the picture book when I was a kid, and yes, I broke open the super-secret solution envelope at the end to find out who stole the birthday feast. Base painted wee mice into every single picture of the book as clues to the culinary culprit, but these mice were a part of the furniture, the yard, the tennis court–only when you knew what clues to look for were you able to actually see them.

So it is with And Then There Were None: when one’s just reading, one moves with the ebb and flow through the different points of view. Only when the reader reaches the end and learns the judge is the culprit can he/she see the absence of the past, the details that don’t quite fit with such a character, and so on.

Perhaps, like me, you enjoy flying by the seat of your pants through that first draft. If you wish to create a mystery with no clear answers, though, plan to work hard on the, well, plan. Some clues need to be heard, seen, touched, but other clues can be created with an absence, removal, a tearing-outing. Only by knowing your villain’s moves from story’s end and back, back to before the story’s start, will you be able to create clues as stealthy as a mouse.

*I have to say that I find the soldier iteration of the poem better than the ethnically offensive versions. Any one of any race can be murdered, but one expects a soldier, let alone a group of soldiers, capable of overtaking a murderer.

883613._SX540_

Lesson Learned from 2017’s #TheMummy: Don’t Put the Dark Universe Before the Story.

22552559_10159496649920346_2837675341111443380_nThis week I recruited a certain special someone to help cover this particular post. Bo’s been a fan of the Universal Monster films since childhood, so when Universal announced a “Dark Universe” series of monster films, we…weren’t that thrilled.

We first discuss what kind of character would have been a far more fitting choice for introducing an audience to this “new” universe.

Next, we go into the film/book industry’s obsession with investing in a story series instead of standalone stories. It gets us going on a comparison between the beginnings of the 2017 film vs. the 1932 version with Boris Karloff.

I then jump to the ending, and Bo patiently works me through my agony of an Egyptian god being defeated solely by Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise. “The Power of Cruise Compels You!”

So, as writers, what can we learn from this film? Bo reflects on this cautionary tale of a cinematic debacle.

Aaaand my recorder gave out. 🙂 Bo and I manage a little sum-up before it dies again.

Do not make the same errors in your story-world as these Dark Universe creators: don’t let the Power of Cruise compel you to think of the universe’s marketability instead of simply telling a good story.

Thank you all for listening this Halloween weekend. Think I should have Bo come back again?