A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 4: Know When to Collaborate.

Time is not my friend this month. Hell, it ain’t even a church acquaintance. It’s more like the medical assistant at the kids’ clinic that I had to call once a week for two months straight due to stitches in and stitches out and sickness and more stitches in and more stitches out: initially helpful, then busily surprised, then downright annoyed I need time made for me yet again.

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Good morning!

So yesterday I woke up, struggling to keep my face above the flood of first week student issues, and wondered: What can I possibly blog about this month? I really want to study Agatha Christie’s use of multiple povs in And Then There Were None and how despite being inside everyone’s heads, we still didn’t know the killer until the epilogue. I want to explore the struggle of following God’s Calling in life when all the certainty of that road is thrown asunder by yet another Calling…also, apparently, from God.

But, as said, time is not my friend, not with a literary conference to prep for, school prep for my own kids, my own school to work for, some birthdays to celebrate, and grieve, too.

My mind remained muddled as the boys launched themselves out of bed and right into their sister’s room. Blondie was having a special sleepover at Grandma’s, which meant all her toys were up for grabs. Eventually I lured them out with breakfast and books, especially Truckery Rhymes, our latest acquisition from the library.

Mornings are slow-going here even on school days, so I didn’t think much of their gabbing instead of eating. But then I listened…

Mind you, this isn’t all of it, and of course I wrecked the moment by opening my big mouth. In those minutes, though, I forgot my stress…well most of it. Collaborative story-telling can quickly digress into fighting when Bash won’t say what Biff tells him to. But this moment of imagination shared reminded me what a difference a partner makes.

Writing can be like that.

I still haven’t told many friends, and hardly any family, about the writing life. That lack of “real life” support means more freedom to write about the raw, festering pieces of my past, but also means I can’t count on others to help me in, well, months like this, when time is too beleaguered by “real life” to give any more for our passions.

That’s why I thank God every day for you, Friends, for being here. For sharing how you struggle to balance writing with everything else. How despite it all you still create because you must. Me, too. And that “me, too” ties all the unseen in me with you.

middlers-pride-7Now sometimes, that sharing goes one step further. Last year Michael Dellert gave me a character and a corner of his fantasy world to make my own. It seems he approves of what I’ve done so far with young Gwen in her story Middler’s Pride, for he’s asked to co-write a short story starring some of his Droma natives and my pompous–but decent (mostly decent)–Shield Maiden. It promises to be quite an adventure for me, since I’ve never written a story with another writer before.

Like Blondie, I usually do my creating solo.

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Blondie & her first epic, “The Wrong Pants.”

Jean LeeCurrently she’s got her heart set on making comic books, starting with a special edition collection of Super Mario Brothers stories. Me? I try to write about Gwen’s fellow Shield Maidens whenever I can, which hasn’t been more than once a week, if I’m lucky. But I’ll be damned if I give that scrap of time up to despair. If I only get one hour a month to write, then that’s what I get. The light is brighter in me when I write, stronger, happier. To give this up will only darken the way I see the world and myself. My family will not be submitted to that darkness, not again.

Bloodshed aside, summer has not been without illumination. Books are explored, toilets are used without a battle, and friendship continues its tenuous wrappings from one child to the next. They drive each other crazy. They make each other laugh. They lock each other out. They smell each other’s feet. They thrive together. They thrive apart.

And I love it.

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Biff of words, Bash of action, Blondie…um, gone at Grandma’s. 🙂

 

 

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Presumptions

Summer’s heat crawls up the hillside where Bo and I watch the boys. A park outing is always special, especially one that allows for a walk down to the lake. We take our time along the wildflowers, point out all the fishing boats. Laugh in the shade over ice water and brownies.

I often see social media sharings from other mothers chronicling their museum outings, concerts, parks, kid yoga, blah blah blah. They assume I can meet them at the parade, or out to eat. Every time, I have to say no, and why.

My sister-in-law keeps pressing us to attend Green Bay’s city-wide celebrations: pumpkin trains, egg hunts, Christmas parades. Every time, Bo says just Blondie will come, and why.

Your boys can’t be THAT bad.

I look at them. I’d love to say: you weren’t there when Biff head-butted me repeatedly in the temple to the point where I could see nothing but stars and barely walk. You weren’t there when Bash had such bad diarrhea in the library that I had to change him by the movies and hiss at Biff to please for the love of GOD do not tip over the book cart, oh GOD he’s going to bring it down on himself Bash no DON’T GET UP stay THERE you STAY no NO NO. You weren’t there that evening, when the librarian called me at my home to explain that my sons’ history of “deeply disturbing other patrons” had gone too far today, and if I could please bring them back when they were “ready” for a library.

This wasn’t even the first library from which they’d been banned.

And yet other mothers think I joke. That my sons can’t be that bad.

My mother insists the boys are autistic. No boy hits their mother like that. They should be listening. Following directions. They’ve just turned four, they should be BETTER than what they are now.

I look at her. I’d love to say: your elder son threw furniture at you when he was 19. He punched holes in walls. Does that mean he’s autistic?

Bash holds my hand and walks an even pace with me up the hill, back to the playground. “Mommy, you’re my best friend.” The sun sets off the dark brown in his eyes and the white of his toothy grin. A tiny gap between the top two–may his grown-up teeth never take that from him. “Best friends come true.”

This from the boy I almost let die on the roadside.

We reach the playground, and Biff cries out, “Forks, we gotta get out of here!” He runs round us, growling with those toddler vocal cords. “Look out, I’m Big Mouth!” Turns, points at me, “You’re Scooper. Hi, Scooper.”

I start to say hi but Bash turns on his gravel-voice and says, “Big Mouth, we gotta squash cars!”

Off they go. Bo stands alongside me; my hand reaches for his out of instinct. Our sons climb ladders, bark orders about lifting loads to each other. Their small tanned hands grab mulch–aka, the “squashed cars”–and “dump” the cars down the slide to be scrapped.

The boys ignored each other for years; Bash even thought he was another Biff, so we had to tell him every day that he was someone else. When church members, relatives, or strangers saw the boys they always cooed, “They must have so much fun together!” and I always had to shoot that presumption down.

This past year has seen such a change in them: all of them, together and apart.

Bash’s imagination continues to wow and warm me. He wants to tell stories, so many stories about his trains or trucks. Every now and again I’ll borrow read-aloud stories for listening to in the car; Bash has memorized all these cues and builds on them: “Thomas wheezed weakly, and moved down the line. Suddenly, James arrived with a heavy load. ‘Oh no, the rain is coming!’ he peeped.” Barely 4, and he understands more about dialogue/action balance than I do.

Sometimes the boys tell stories together. Hell, I just thought the playing together without yanking hair or thumbing eyes to be amazing, but their creativity combined always pulls me from my work to their door–out of sight, mind, lest my presence sets their world off-balance. Lightning McQueen got lost in the desert, Dusty and Blade Ranger can save him, woosh! Then a brief argument over who gets Chug, then a concession–a concession! without fists or tears!–then back to the story, because it’s not worth arguing about Chug when Lightning’s in trouble.

When the boys are in no mood for each other, Biff can often be found in his bunk, reading. I mean, READING reading. At that age, Blondie had a helluva memory, and knew many stories, but not how the words she heard connected to print. Biff knows what he sees, and WE know he knows because he’ll pick up new books and bam–read’em. Sometimes I get a shriek of “MOMMY!” which most would presume an oh-my-god-get-to-the-hospital-pain cry, but no: he’s still in his bed, looks down at my panicked face, and asks, “What’s this spell?” After rolling my eyes, because of course it would be this and not a broken leg, we go through the letters and work out the word. If a book has no words of which to speak, such as his picture book of 1,000 vehicles, he makes up conversations and adventures between the wee trucks on the page.

I see my sons, and I see such imaginations that want to grow, and explore. Imaginations that deserve to be better stimulated than with trips to the park, but there is still little I can do with them out of the house and on my own when their tempers are so vicious. Museums and zoos invite nothing but running and tantrums with these guys. Events with loads of people make them nervous, ornery, angry. So we make the best of Bo’s free time with the simple things. And for these two, time on a hillside among wildflowers is far more than simple: it’s an adventure.

Blondie stares out the front window. Tonight’s the night: back-to-school shopping. Doesn’t sound like much, but we’re to go when Bo gets home from work, just her and me. No boys.

“Are you sure they’ll have the BB-8 lunchbox?” she asks for the 3,649th time.

“If they don’t, Daddy will go to Toys’R’Us tomorrow to get one.”

“Okay, and you’ve got the list?” she walks briskly on her toes over to my purse as though we’re by a swimming pool with over-attentive life-guards. “List, wallet. Mommy, your phone!” She packs it, then hands me the purse. “Here, you hold onto this.” I take it, despite washing up dishes and hunting down the boys’ pajamas. She’s been counting down the days for this, time out with just me. When I was small, I positively loathed such trips with my mom. Outings like this promised a dressing room, a pile of stuff we likely wouldn’t get because it wasn’t on sale enough but I had to try them all on anyway, and then I would have to walk around the store in said items because Mom never hung out by the dressing rooms for more than thirty seconds.

Yet my daughter thinks this the greatest thing in the world, because it means she gets me all to herself.

It’s been one of my greatest fears as a parent ever since the doctor chirped, “Oh there’s TWO in there!”: letting Blondie fall to the wayside.

And she has. I’d be a liar to say she didn’t. Everything’s been about what we can do “because of the boys.” Trips to the museum, the zoo, to special places with other relations are always done with Daddy because I need to stay with the boys. Mommy always stays with the boys. The boys, boys, boys…

20160809_204106The first thing upon entering the store: we find the lunchbox. She pays careful attention as we work through her list as well as her brothers’. All things gathered, and a cool new shirt for the first day (“Saturn has headphones on? That’s so weird!” she laughs) we get in line to check out. It’s late for her, but I ask anyway: “Should we get a treat for being so awesome?”

Her eyes go wide beneath her thin blond curls, hands cupped to her mouth, “Can we go to the place with the, the Thomas train flying around, and the Superman, and the submarine, and the train, and the…”

It’s late. It’s already past her bedtime, not to mention mine. But this isn’t about me. This is about a little girl who’s been told “Not now,” “we have to help Biff/Bash with A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H/I/J/K/L/M/N/O/P,” “I’m sorry the boys screamed/ran/fought/ect. Did you still have fun?” day after day after day. And those days are going to continue.

But today doesn’t need to be like that.

So I smile, stifle a yawn. “Sure, Kiddo.”

 

Ella’s Deli has been around for ages; though the Madison neighborhood has changed, it remains its quirky self, complete with carousel. We get there just in time for a ride before it’s closed for the night.

We order our ice cream inside and wander about.

Blondie laughs at the dancing feet, works the mini-carnival. Scarfs down super-chocolatey ice cream at a table depicting a Lego battle. We talk about what we see, what I remember about my own childhood visits here. I put her favorite Veggie Tales song on repeat for the whole 30-minute ride home as she marvels at the stars, the lights of the city and how they fade in the country. The dark farmland makes her nervous, so I drive one handed, the other squeezing hers behind me. Usually she hollers from her way-back seat: “Mommy, you’re supposed to have both hands on the wheel,” but tonight there are no boys, so she gets to sit by Mommy, and Mommy gets to hold her hand.

~*~

One of the great stressors of this life–this writer’s life, mother’s life, wife’s life and all-other’s life–is the the struggle to balance that which keeps me sane with those who need me to keep life liveable. The kids have grown since I wrote “To Create in Bedlam”: no longer placated so easily, far more fearless, emotional. Independent, yet together, too. Yes, together. Sometimes Blondie spends afternoons in the pool with Biff. Sometimes she and Bash go spelunking in his bottom bunk. And then there are those days where all three actually play together. These three: the one whom I nearly left on the road, the one who tried (and still tries) to play with fire, and the one who wanted the others to be returned to the hospital for months: they, together. Never in those first three years did I dare assume this would happen. Childhood told me as much: my elder brother was a nightmare. My kid brother came to me for a while, when we were both very small, but then The Monster came for me, and for him. Not in the same way, but yes. For him.

It is the single hardest regret I carry to this day: that I did not protect, or help. That I merely hid, and thanked God it wasn’t me that day. I left my kid brother to fend for himself, to build his own inner walls for escape. We attempted to bridge ourselves together in the teenage years, but already it was too late. My elder brother had decided the younger should be his friend, so off I drifted to the side, and remained there, as so many home movies show: apart. The runt of the litter.

My mother has it in her head that we siblings have always been and continue to be close. It is not a bubble I have the energy to pop. And while she sees what she wants to see, I watch my children fight one minute and laugh the next. Tickle each other, flee from each other. But they always come together. They always stop when one is hurt, or scared. Hug, and give kisses to make it better.

Today, and I dare presume for always: Best friends do come true.

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Writer’s Music: Anne Dudley II

That which we read often cannot help but influence how and/or what we write. In this case, having immersed myself in The Name of the Rose and Hedge King in Winter, I find myself drawn to @Inessa_ie‘s recommendation of Anne Dudley’s score for Tristan & Isolde.

Period music has its uses: atmosphere, for one. As much as I enjoy John Powell’s powerful narrative, or Philip Glass’ delicious tension, they simply do not always lend to a particular time period. One of my stories contains several characters of bygone ages–The Dark Ages, for instance. Over the course of the story, the protagonist finds herself inside the memories of these characters. How to make the present connect to the past? With music.

“A Different Land” helps me hear the past so I can help readers see it. A lovely melody passes between the oboe and violin while the harp provides the undercurrent on which the song travels. Dudley does not use brass too often in the score, which I find to be a benefit: a romance this delicate–and tragic, sorry–requires a lighter sound, and the balance of strings and woodwinds, with just a touch of percussion, gives us precisely that.

Perhaps your characters are about to embark on a journey to a different land. Perhaps that journey is really for you. Whatever the case, bring Tristan & Isolde. Listen as Dudley’s score and the landscape unite to create new harmonies for your world.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 3

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Part 3: I Despised You Three Chapters Ago, But NOW…

As I said in my preface post a week or so ago, Deep Secret utilizes a romance arc we often see in stories and films: the terrible first impression (cue the trombone) that ends in happy love (cue the strings).

Thankfully, the story is so, SO much more than this. The romance arc is one of many character/conflict arcs in the novel, all of which weave beneath not one but TWO quest problems for the male protagonist Rupert: to find a new Magid (one who uses magic to keep the multiverse moving in the right direction) for Earth, and to find the heir for a nasty chunk of worlds called the Koryfonic Empire. While Jones tells the story with three different points of view, Rupert’s is the dominant, so readers tend to feel from his angle.

Now, to follow my “traditional” lovey-dovey arc points:

Who-The-Heck-Are-You. The female protagonist Maree is one of five candidates Rupert’s been recommended to interview for a new Magid. He is most eager to find her because a) she’s the only candidate in his country and b) she’s just a touch younger than him. He imagines her to be pretty, smart, and free to attach to him.

The search does not bode well. He first meets Maree’s mother, who sums him up in one look: “You think too well of yourself…. Posh accent, shiny shoes, expensive raincoat, not a hairout of place—oh, I can see well enough why you let her down…Let me tell you, if I’d seen you when she first took up with you, I’d have warned her. Never trust a cravat, I’d have told her. Nor a mac with lots of little straps and buttons. Clothes always tell” (p.22-23). Rupert blows her off, though he does throw the cravat in the fire when he gets home. Rupert continues to build up an amorous vision of Maree from what he learns of her— someone who’s strong and capable with talents she doesn’t know she has. And then he meets her.

After a long car chase he finds her dancing in the middle of a street in deadlocked traffic: “She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose” (p.61). All amorous ideas vanish. He is angry. He refuses to have anything to do with her despite her talents. In fact, he continues to be angry for several days, and in this anger, prepares the fatelines of the other candidates so he can interview them all at once during a fantasy/sci-fi convention.

When we first read from Maree’s perspective, we learn she’s crossed in love—that is, horribly depressed after a bad break-up. She has no money and battles her aunt over everything. When she receives a letter from someone calling himself a lawyer, her hopes lift that good change is coming. And then she meets him.

After a battle with the aunt over Nick (the third perspective in the story), Maree and Nick drive off into town and find themselves in an unlucky situation. To break the bad luck they do their Witchy Dance in the middle of the road. Someone steps out to confront them: Rupert, the supposed lawyer: “Oh he was angry. I looked at him. I looked at his great silver car and then back at him. He was a total prat. He had a long head with smooth, smooth hair, gold-rimmed glasses, a white strappy mac and a suit, for heaven’s sake! And instead of a tie he had one of those fancy silk cravat things” (p.90).

Memorable first impressions, to say the least.

I-Can’t-Stand-You. Rupert is so enraged Maree didn’t fulfill his romantic expectations that he works magic to ensure she can’t be near the convention where he’ll interview other Magid candidates. He is determined not to see her again, or think of her again—except anger has its own magic, too, and his dwelling on Maree causes her fateline to be entwined with the other candidates’. He sees her at the convention, and she sees him, and they are equally horrified: “[his] face was just turning away from me with much the same horror on it that I was feeling, seeing him” (p.130).

And yet, already, feelings begin to shift, just a touch. When we get this horror-face-trade from Rupert’s perspective, we also know he observes a change in Maree: “…she had neatened up considerably from the witchy bag-lady I had encountered in Bristol…She looked almost human. I watched Rick Corrie dart up to her…I got the impression he fancied the woman in his shy way. There is no accounting for taste” (p.140). Why should Rupert care if someone took an interest in a girl he loathed mere days ago? But Rupert does care, and by the following morning his intrigue over Nick’s bizarre morning routine (read the book just for this bit—BRILLIANT) leads to calmer talk between the two, and later in the day Maree and Rupert manage a civil conversation. Each notices things about the other, but none of these are worth discussing when there’s an injured centaur on the loose.

Wow-That-Was-Surprisingly-Impressive. When Maree tells Nick Rupert creates computer games (every Magid needs a cover life), Nick goes bonkers and insists she make introductions. They spot Rupert, try to catch up to Rupert…and end up hiking through worlds instead as they follow him. They are impressed with magic and Rupert’s Magid life, but they don’t get a chance to share this as Rupert’s too livid with them for following him unprotected.

Not long after an injured centaur leaps out of one world and into Earth’s—right in front of a car. Rupert, Nick, and Maree get the centaur out of sight, and Maree, being a vet student, takes it on herself to stitch the centaur up. She is professional, calm, and collected; she even clips her talon-nails (growing since the break-up) in order to do the stitching properly.

“Come along! Barked Maree, disposing of her last fingernail. Snip!

“Yes’m,” I said.

She caught my eye and grinned at me. “Sorry.” In the bathroom, she confided in a whisper, “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this. I’m nervous.”

“You could have fooled me!” I said. She pushed her glasses up and gave me a proper smile at that. It made me as warm as the flush on [the centaur]’s face. I began to feel that it was worth being volunteered, if it meant that Maree was starting to approve of me a little. (p.203)

I’m-Jealous-When-You-Fraternize-With-Others-But-Don’t-Know-Why. Yes, Rupert has officially taken a liking to Maree. He admits as much to readers after their first casual talk ends—“…she disappeared while I was flagging down Kornelius Punt, and I hardly knew whether I was relieved or aggrieved” (p.157). When Punt talks to Rupert about hitting on Maree, Rupert finds himself angry, mortified…and more and more preferring Maree to the other Magid candidates.

 Don’t-Risk-Your-Life-I-Love-You-Shoot-I-Forgot-To-Say-That-Out-Loud. Back in the Koryfonic Empire Rupert discovers more murder and trouble with some potential heirs. He also finds Nick and Maree, who were lured in by the injured centaur. Nick’s mother (who is evil on so many levels) opens an inter-world portal through Maree, stripping her, and leaving her half-dead. Rupert carries Maree to his car to drive back to earth: “It was no trouble to lift her. Her body weight was exactly half what it should have been. I stood up with her easily and was puzzled to discover that holding her like this, light, limp, and frost cold, was one of the most sexual experiences I have ever had. I also had to fight myself not to cry” (p.238).

One thing can save Maree, but it is a Deep Secret: a hidden knowledge so powerful it is broken and divided among the Magids so that no one has too much for him/herself. Rupert knows the Deep Secret of Babylon could save Maree, but how many verses of the knowledge were out there to get? One can’t call up a deep secret without knowing how to use it. All the while Maree’s half-presence lay before him: “Feelings I had been carefully trying not to admit to blocked my throat and tore at my chest. It was a dry, strong, physical ache, as if someone had forced me full of little broken pieces of concrete” (p.251). In the end Nick screams something Rupert now feels, too: “I wasn’t alive until Maree came to live with us! She makes that kind of difference—she’s that kind of person!” (p.252).

Using Babylon takes a long time, and requires other Magids to fight off curses and evil Koryfonic folk while Rupert stands guard to the opened Deep Secret. The Babylon secret involves a road into a world NO one, not even those who control the Magids, can find, and Maree must walk, half-dead as she is, that entire road and back. Rupert desperately wants to go with her, but knows he can’t because he must keep the portal to the road open. Nick goes with her, and gladly. Rupert spends the hours dwelling on everyone and everything, but most of all on Maree. He contemplates how unhappy she was, yet she “thrust her way beyond with angry fingernails…I hoped her life would be better now. I ached to let her have something better. I wanted her to come back more than I have ever wanted anything. Ever” (p.300).

Let’s-Spend-Forever-Together. An excellent twist here on Jones’ part. Maree does return from Babylon, in full health, but more, too—she is back in the same garb and with the same spiked nails as she had when she danced in traffic and infuriated Rupert. These two get a chance so few of us could ever hope to get: a second chance at a first impression.

A small, small measure of the change was that she now looked good in her woeful old garments. She looked astonishingly good.

As I saw all this, Maree looked up and saw me. A look I had not seen before—one of pure delight—filled her face. I don’t think she had ever been truly happy in her life before. Now she was, because she had seen me.

Maree’s face was a glowing heart-shape of pleasure. She looked up at me and said, “Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

At this, she stepped back a bit and pushed at her glasses in her combat-manner. “I’m not a very good investment,” she said, with that sob in her voice. I had missed that sob. “I warn you.”

“Neither am I,” I said. “Wait till I tell you.” (p.316)

There’s still angry Koryfonic people with thorns and lasers to deal with, but this is where the romantic arc ends.

Why did I find this a satisfying love story? More than anything, I think it was because Maree and Rupert were so, well, human. They were not perfect physically, emotionally, or mentally. Their flaws stood out prominently at first, because sometimes what we consider shows of strength (Rupert’s fine garb, Maree’s spiked nails) are really charades to cover the real feeling: loneliness, or bitterness. Like any relationship, we have to see more than just the lion’s mane and fancy raincoat. We have to SEE the strength, the knowledge, the determination. The humor, the selflessness. It’s all there. But it is NOT always tucked inside a Standard Pretty Person hidden beneath a temporary shroud of frumpiness. We love, and that love brings out beauty in the other that no one else will likely ever see. That’s part of what makes love so amazing. Let’s try to remember that as writers, too. Pretty’s nice, Beautiful’s de-wonderful, but Love, True Love, gives any character that deliciously secret view of another that sets readers’ hearts and imaginations alight.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 2

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Part 2: Wistful In & After

Archer’s Goon is glorious fun on many levels. Not only does all the magic occur in a typical city—the magic also manifests in typical fare, like the sudden appearance of go-go dancers or surveillance through light bulbs. The magic is exposed and eventually beaten out not by a single hero, but by family, forced together by magic and determined, despite their many dysfunctions, to stick it out.

Love has a mixed effect on three and a half characters: Fifi, the college student living with the Sykes; the Goon, who is determined to get 2000 typed words out of Mr. Sykes; Archer, one of the wizards who controls the city; and Awful Sykes, age 8.

Awful and her elder brother Howard first discover the Goon in their kitchen. He has come to collect the 2000 words Mr. Sykes always writes every three months. Why does he write them? No idea. But the unknown boss who’s required them is angry he hasn’t received the latest installment, so if Mr. Sykes doesn’t rectify the situation their lives will be in trouble. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sykes take the Goon’s presence in stride, but Fifi, Howard, and Awful can’t stand him. Yet despite the poor first meeting, Awful and Goon make a tentative connection over, of all things, a puking contest. (Well she IS 8, and she didn’t earn the nickname Awful for nothing.) Fifi does her best to help Howard rid the house of the Goon, but to no avail: mystery arises over who gets Mr. Sykes’ words and how he/she uses them, and no one’s more curious than the seven wizard siblings who run the city.

Each wizard goes after the Sykes in his/her own way. Dillian, the beautiful sister who runs the police, admits to the theft and still tricks Howard, Fifi, and Awful to leave her home without them. This is the first time where Fifi’s looks require the reader’s attention:

“Oh!” Fifi said. “I’d give my ears to look like Dillian! Wasn’t she glamorous!”

[Howard] looked at Fif’s peaky little face and frizzy light brown hair and laughed again. (p.72)

No, I’m not saying physical appearance is everything, but 13-year-old Howard’s note of Fifi’s appearance makes it sound like Fifi couldn’t figure into anyone’s desires like that. Even the school boys in Chapter 2 and 3 like to mock Howard for walking around with Fifi like she’s his girlfriend.

But Fifi does become an object of desire to no less than two characters: the Goon, and Archer.

Eldest of the wizard siblings, Archer meets Fifi with Mr. Sykes and the kids when Sykes thinks Archer is the one who’s wanted the 2000 words. An argument erupts between Sykes and Archer, but Fifi remains bashful, speaking only in whispers. Chapter 5 marks the beginning of Fifi’s shift from a supporter of the Sykes to a doleful, lovelorn devotee to Archer. She still helps Howard and Awful with home things, like learning how to live with marching bands going eternally up and down the street and leaping over the moat around the house and silencing a massive drum kit and stealing food all because of magic. Every wizard who demands Sykes write for only him/her only drives Sykes’ heels further and further into the ground. His defiance against Archer, though, is blasphemy to Fifi.

While Fifi fawns over images of Archer, the Goon has fallen for Fifi. Yup, he’s still there, this monstrous tree of a man, and has actually settled into the household because, well, he’s supposed to get those 2000 words. Chapter 6 ends with the Goon’s confession to Howard about his feelings for Fifi, feelings which make him a bit difficult. He won’t stop staring at her, and he only scares her when he tries to help her survive the chaos about them. When Archer takes Fifi out on a date, the Goon’s behavior worsens.

That day the Goon dismally drew a large heart in purple crayon on the kitchen table and sat throwing his knife at it, over and over again. The heart was shortly covered with dents, but it made no impression on Fifi’s heart in any way. (p. 153)

When Fifi moves out to marry Archer, her shift in alliance is complete. Love has taken someone we initially considered a protagonist and turned her antagonist. The Goon’s dejection makes him so pitiable the Syke children feel for him and are a bit nicer to him. So, the one readers presume to be the antagonist now seems to be a protagonist. Or is he?

Turns out the Goon is not just a goon—he’s one of the wizard siblings, and he’s livid with the only wizard sibling we have yet to meet for trapping the rest of their bizarre family in the city. He attempts to restrain the Sykes family in the sewage treatment plant until the last wizard sibling reveals himself and owns up, but the Sykes manage to escape. Howard decides to hunt down this last wizard sibling himself so his family’s persecution will stop: Mrs. Sykes has grown gravely ill, and even though Awful is awful, she should not have to fear being beaten up by wizard-run gangs.

Turns out Howard is the last wizard sibling. In a twist only Jones could pull, Howard realizes his older self has hidden away all sorts of magnificent technology in the future; he also realizes his older self was a pompous, self-centered jerk. When he tried to get back into the present, he aged backwards into a baby and was found in the snow by the Sykes, who adopted him. He grew up in a loving family. He grew up knowing why family mattered. And knowing this, Howard did not want to re-grow up into that pompous jerk. The Goon is really his brother Erskine, who’s been trying to make Howard remember so Howard will destroy the spell that’s kept all the siblings in the city. And, after all the years apart, he wants to be brothers again.

During the Goon and Howard’s visit into the future to uncover Howard’s true identity, Awful stumbles in and ages herself.

Awful grew as [Howard] watched. By the time she was on the third step she was a large, fat schoolgirl in a maroon uniform, with a sudden strong look of Shine… She heaved up onto the fourth step. There she was suddenly skinny and Awful again, but nearly six feet tall, with a scornful grown-up look. Then she came up on to the marble floor and became a student about Fifi’s age, but much better-looking.

[Howard] gasped. He had no idea Awful would grow up that pretty. Beside him, Erskine’s eyes popped, and a great admiring grin spread over his little face.

“Marvelous!” said Erskine. “Chip off the old block!” (p.274-5)

Now no, Awful launches herself back down the stairs and returns to her proper child state, so nothing happens between Awful and the Goon. However, after the bad wizard siblings are shot into space, the last few paragraphs allude to a very strong possibility…

 Behind them Erskine luxuriously stretched long Goon arms. “Go and travel now. See the world,” he said. His eyes slid to [Mrs. Sykes] pleadingly. “Come and see you every year?” he asked.

Howard looked at Erskine warily. He rather thought Erskine’s eyes had flicked on to Awful after that.

It was quite possible that Erskine would come back one year, saying he had taken a look at the world and decided he would like to [conquer] it. When he did, he would offer Awful a share. (p.323-324)

So, after all the Goon’s longing, he doesn’t get the girl…yet. Readers are left to bet the Goon would make a strong play for Awful when the time was right. Considering her terrible antics throughout the story, readers can also bet Awful wouldn’t say no. Why don’t we get this in the story? Because such a scene has to take place in the future. Yes the characters literally walked into the future at one point, but this scene requires some living and maturing to happen first. That stuff’s not relevant to this specific story arc, which means the Goon/Awful connection must be considered an eventual romance. I can recall at least three other Diana Wynne Jones books where the “eventual romance” is foreshadowed: Year of the Griffin, House of Many Ways, and Wild Robert. I could also count The Many Lives of Christopher Chant on a technical level because the main characters do not become romantically involved, but as this book’s a prequel inside the Chrestomanci series, readers already know romance is on the way.

When writing for Young Adult or New Adult, there is this instilled Romeo/Juliet need: our main character MUST find his/her other half; otherwise, life just isn’t worth living.

Bugger that. Maybe your protagonist needs to grow up by dealing with life solo for a little while. Sure, hints of love down the road aren’t bad, but why thrust them into the story like a kid smashing an action figure against a Matchbox car? The dude’s not going to fit, kid, let it go. The same goes for writers: sometimes there just isn’t room. If the story’s fun without love, don’t force it in. If you want love to have a little fun of its own out of the spotlight, let it, and watch for the fresh twists in character that will only enhance your readers’ experience.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 1

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Part 1: I can’t be in love, you idiot

One of the many brilliant moves in Howl’s Moving Castle is the emphasis on wizard Howl’s heartlessness. Sophie, the narrator, establishes this in the first reference to Howl: “He was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard and no young girl was safe from him if he caught her on her own” (p.5). Rumor has it he seeks young girls to devour the souls from their hearts. This only adds to Sophie’s problem: spinelessness. Being the eldest of three sisters she assumes herself doomed to a life of tedium and spinsterhood. She cares for her younger sisters and hopes for their fortune in love and happiness, but already by 18 she has given up on chances for her own.

Their first brief encounter comes towards the end of Chapter 1. We have no clue who Howl is, nor does Sophie. But somehow she acquires attention from the “dashing specimen” who, according to Sophie, pities her (p.19). This only shames Sophie, and she literally runs away from the man before he can say anything else.

When the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie’s town on the hunt for Howl, she learns of Sophie’s encounter—among other things I can’t mention yet—and curses Sophie with old age.

Oddly enough, Sophie doesn’t mind. Oh she gets angry later, but until the final chapter of the book, Sophie remains an old woman. So how in Ingary does romance blossom between a 20-something wizard and a 90-year-old woman?

First off, Sophie grows a spine. She no longer fears to speak her mind or act on impulse: “As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (p.83). She also does not fear calling Howl out on his rude or selfish behavior. Since the plan is for Sophie to break a magical contract between Howl and his fire demon Calcifer so Calcifer can break the old-age curse, Sophie declares herself Howl’s new cleaning lady even though she “can’t clean [him] from [his] wickedness” (p.75). She calls Howl out on all sorts of things, especially when he is seen courting her sister Lettie for what Sophie assumes to be Lettie’s soul.

Howl remains quite the enigma throughout the book, as Sophie’s narration isn’t always reliable. Multiple readings, though, help give the audience a touch more perspective. When Howl first meets old-age Sophie in Chapter 4, he hints to his apprentice that he knows more about Sophie than he can let on:

“Howl’s not wicked,” Michael said.

“Yes I am,” Howl contradicted him. “You forget just how wicked I’m being at the moment, Michael.” He jerked his chin at Sophie. (p.75)

Howl criticizes Sophie with equal vivacity, especially her nosiness into every nook and cranny of his castle. In Chapter 5 he lays Sophie’s true problem bare, even though she doesn’t know it:

“You’re a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean old woman. Control yourself. You’re victimizing us all.”

“But it’s a pigsty,” said Sophie. “I can’t help what I am!”

“Yes you can,” said Howl.

Howl wants Sophie to know she IS capable of a fate different than what some old superstitious saying dictates for her. But Sophie isn’t listening, and on the first read, most readers aren’t, either.

Despite all of Sophie’s nosiness and bossiness, Howl never makes Sophie leave. He gives her jobs, even ones he can complete with magic. When Sophie suffers a small heart attack, Howl is genuinely concerned and strengthens her heart with magic. He even opens up in Chapter 14 about his inability to love. The references to his heartlessness have persisted by means of Calcifer and the apprentice Michael, who explain Howl’s wooing process: he beautifies himself and professes undying devotion to a girl until she confesses her love in return; then, he dumps her. When Howl and Sophie are alone in Chapter 14, he relates the same process to spiders and their webs, but unlike Calcifer and Michael, he does not see it as selfish at all:

“That’s why I love spiders. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’ I keep trying,” he said with great sadness. “But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago, and I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now.” (p.281)

This not only foreshadows the magical contract between Calcifer and Howl, but also proves Howl considers Sophie as more than just a cleaning lady.

Sophie also ceases to see her place in Howl’s castle as a mere ends to her curse. She is relieved when Howl gives up on her sister, and jealous of his fresh attention to the strange and beautiful Miss Angorian. She does not like when people mistake her for Howl’s mother. And when Howl asks her input on what kind of lifestyle they should lead when hiding from the king, she shares ideas without hesitation.

This move comes at a price: Howl’s castle merges with an old shop in Sophie’s home town. It is the same shop run by her parents for years. Sophie looks around, sees herself back where she began, and is totally miserable (“…it’s being the eldest, really. Look at me! I set out to seek my fortune and I end up exactly where I started, and old as the hills still” (p.342)). It doesn’t help that Howl reveals who she really is to everyone and accuses Sophie of holding onto the age curse because she “liked being in disguise” (p.369). Sophie refuses to accept this, but her sulk afterwards does reveal that she’s never seen a chance for herself when compared to her sister, and especially no chances with Howl when compared to Miss Angorian. So the old age stays, and we’ve only got two chapters to go. Howl appears to be apologetic, even upset that Sophie won’t speak to him. But too much has been going on with the villain (you know, plot and all), so no time is spent in boring conversation about love and feeling. There’s a witch to battle.

By this time events have revealed Sophie has her own magical gift: she gives life to things. She successfully charmed hats in Chapter 1, though she didn’t understand what she had done until Chapter 12. Her charms apply to clothing as well, such as the suit she mended for Howl early in the story. She fears the suit’s charm (“built to pull in the girls” p.239) worked on her sister, and later in the story, she blames the charm for her own feelings about Howl. But when Howl reveals he hasn’t worn the suit in ages, Sophie has nothing to blame but her own heart.

The fate of Howl’s heart is finalized in the final chapter. Determined to make up to Howl for her poor behavior, Sophie tries to save Miss Angorian from the Witch of the Waste, only for Howl to defeat the witch instead and explain Miss Angorian was really a fire demon, just like Calcifer. They rush back to the castle and find Miss Angorian with Calcifer in her hand. Beneath his flame beats Howl’s heart, a trade made under contract to lengthen his life and strengthen Howl’s magic. Sophie attacks Miss Angorian, not Howl. Sophie successfully gives life to Calcifer so he can separate from Howl’s heart. And Sophie gives new life to Howl’s heart…in more ways than one.

Six pages left, and Sophie is finally her true self, in and out. Youth back, but spine intact, she no longer fears what the future may bring: in fact, she embraces it. Howl does remember Sophie from their first meeting. He held no pity, but hope that the old Sophie who had the nerve to command a fire demon and hunt down the Witch of the Waste would be “that lovely girl I met on May Day” (p.426). The two never kiss, or have any other such cliché moment. Even his proposal keeps with his slightly-snotty but kind character, as does Sophie’s slightly-snarky but delightful response:

Howl said, “I think we ought to live happily ever after,” and she thought he meant it. Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try. “It should be hair-raising,” added Howl.

“And you’ll exploit me,” Sophie said.

“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me,” said Howl. (p.427)

No angst. Only a few pages of love-talk. LOTS of pages of magic and attitude and adventure. We are not jilted out of a romance here, but as the plot moves the characters don’t have much time to think about love, and when they do, it is too difficult to contemplate for long. So why force the subject to the forefront where it does NOT belong? The characters didn’t want to believe themselves in love; they had to reach that epiphany on their own which, I think, makes that epiphany all the more satisfying for the reader. So, don’t feel that if you have teenage protagonists they MUST swoon and despair and go googley-eyed over someone. Let love surprise them like a snowball at recess. Quietly form, aim, and fire with precision. The shocking strike and beautiful fall-out will be all the more perfect.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.

Click here for more on HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.

Coming Up on Jean Lee’s World…

My apologies: familial obligations have sequestered me in Wisconsin’s North Woods for a few days. Internet reception is sketchy at best, not to mention time dedicatable (new word!) to writing. However, I would like to take this moment to provide a layout of what I intend to cover over the next few posts. It breaks my rhythm, but I think you’ll understand.

The stories I enjoy writing vary from Middle Grade to New Adult-friendly protagonists. NA allows for a level of conflict and emotion that I just wouldn’t dare inflict on the MG crowd; however, NA also has this, well, “thing” about romance/sex/love/all of the above/etc.

I have little patience for stories whose major plotlines revolve around “Who will s/he end up with, Beautiful A or Passionate B?” This stems from an upbringing with the likes of James Bond, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes, who left heart-heavy matters to the boring people. When THEY gave their hearts, people died or fled. No one ended up together happily ever after. “Happily ever after” meant the hero beat evil and was alive enough to do it again in another adventure. (Yes, each of these heroes did have their close circles of Those-Cared-For, but I think that topic warrants a separate study.) So, when I pick up a story, I want one that moves with happenings, talkings, doings. No heavy-duty dotings, please.

Diana Wynne Jones understood this all too well. Love matters in her stories, but there is always a quest to suffer through or a problem to solve. Therefore, romance is usually not a high priority for the characters.

That doesn’t mean the romance has no impact—quite the contrary. So, I’d like to take the next few posts to share…

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love

I’ll begin with Howl’s Moving Castle because a) I’d love an excuse to read it again and b) it is a brilliant example of love growing within the heroes when they do not desire it at all. Then I’d like to discuss Archer’s Goon a bit, a snort-inducing urban fantasy. It utilizes romance as a way to exploit the “villain” and exemplifies a tactic I’ve seen Jones use more than once: foreshadowing the romance to come AFTER the written story ends so as not to force the romance where it doesn’t belong. Finally, I want to work through Deep Secret. Admittedly this one took a while for me to dig, but it does employ what readers may recognize as a more “traditional” romance arc: the Who-The-Heck-Are-You, followed by I-Can’t-Stand-You, which leads to a moment of Wow-That-Was-Surprisingly-Impressive. After this comes I’m-Jealous-When-You-Fraternize-With-Others-But-Don’t-Know-Why, thus building towards Don’t-Risk-Your-Life-I-Love-You-Shoot-I-Forgot-To-Say-That-Out-Loud, and then climaxes with Let’s-Spend-Forever-Together. Yes, that sounds cliché, but Jones uses that normal(ish) arc inside a zany situation: real magic-users who must navigate their way through a sci-fi/fantasy convention in order to save a parallel world.

So, I’m off to breathe in the sunrises, storms, and campfires. Take a moment over the next few days and watch the heavens ebb and flow above you. When you’re ready and I’m with Internet, we can talk about love.

Firefly Night

 

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Photo from Reddit.com

I watch Blondie chase fireflies. Her first time up late and outside, she runs and giggles and squeals, “Hello there, little lightning bug! Hey, wait for me!” Few stars care to share themselves before the sun disappears, but Bo comes across Venus and Jupiter together. “The second star to the right!” Blondie tugs my hand and points beyond our world. “That’s where Tinkerbell and the fairies live. Can we go there?”

 

“In your dreams, Blondie, sure you can.”

“But I want to go for real.”

“I know, kiddo.” Magic’s for dreams and stories, I want to say, not real life. But she’s five. What does she know?

~*~

I am returning from the library in the next town. Biff and Bash have been living up to their names moreso than usual, so when Bo offers to handle bedtime solo, I flee.

The sun’s brilliance wanes. A thin haze rests upon the treetops. It is the first cloudless sky in days, and I wonder if I shall see some constellations before I reach home.

The stars do not bother. Too much competition.

Never have I seen so many fireflies at once. On either side of the road, from curbside to distant tree lines, slowly circling every corn stalk. Blondie would have called them dancing fairies. I would have agreed.

I find myself jealous of Creation.

Had I built this moment myself, in my head, I could stay in it as long as I choose. I could add more colors to the fireflies and the sunset. I could add a chill in the air to make it more comfortable. I, I, I. I wanted to be in control.

Stories allow that. I can revisit a scene from years ago and rewrite characters’ choices. Natures. Trim every unpleasantness away.

But where is the life in such manipulation?

At some point, I have to stop the fixes and simply let the characters go the ways they wish. I am tempted often to analyze what I’ve done: if I give it just one more go, I can get it right.

But will it really be “just one more go”?

~*~

We cannot see the ripples of consequence until after the stone is thrown. Some of us don’t have hope great enough to fill the palm of one hand; instead, we carry a pebble, a little nothing that could never touch another. Or, like me, some lumber about with a boulder that defines everything, everything we perceive ourselves to be. I aimed my boulder as best I could for graduate school, certain it would teach me the beautiful secrets of writing. Instead, I learned to hate it. It took years of postpartum depression for me to try writing again, and discover its power to heal. I can’t delete the dark thoughts I battled to reach this point. I don’t want to. Because I wouldn’t know, really know, who I am if not for those internal scars.

I still stare into that water sometimes, though, and wonder how much longer I should have held on to that damn boulder. What friendships I should have saved and not abandoned. Which hearts I should have sought and not ignored. I can stare, and stare…and miss the beauty of a hundred fireflies dance around my daughter.

So I do my damndest not to stare. Creators who watch nothing lose control of their worlds, and characters who immerse themselves in nothing can only drown. I am a mother of children who see me as the foundation of their world. I am a wife to a man who dared throw his pebble into the water at, of all things, the sight of me. I am a woman who wants to share her imagination with those who walk away from the water and enter the fireflies. Perhaps we will see each other amidst all the little glows, perhaps not. To miss the dance this year is not the end—one of the best miracles about fireflies is that they come back. Until then, we can look for stones to skip, and, when we’re ready, launch them across the water and make it beautiful. That, to me, is magic.