#lessons Learned & an #Author #Interview with Michael Scott, Part 2: #write a #villain worth #reading. Thanks, @flamelauthor!

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I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal.
Michael Scott

Nothing wrecks a good story like a lame villain.

Be it Mustache Twirlers, Righteous Avengers, or World Conquerors, such villains have nothing to them apart from their evilness. And no matter how grandiose that evilness is, evil without any depth is boring.

Not cool.

A villain’s got to have more than just evil intent to be worthy of page space. A villain needs interests, feelings, and hopes all their own.

I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.
Michael Scott

In my post on the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil,” I shared my realization that villains “must have some essence of us, of the everyday person.” I think this is why Michael Scott‘s villain Dr. John Dee makes such a magnificent antagonist to Nicholas Flamel in The Alchemyst: he is presented as a complete individual, one with facets physical, intellectual, and emotional.

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Physical

He was a small, rather dapper-looking man, dressed in a neat charcoal-gray three-piece suit that looked vaguely old-fashioned but that she could tell had been tailor-made for him. His iron gray hair was pulled back from an angular face into a tight pontytail, while a neat triangular bear, mostly black but flecked with gray, concealed his mouth and chin. (5)

Right here, in our first sight of Dr. John Dee, we get a sense of Dee’s style. He’s one for theatrical elegance, right down to the very scent of his aura when ignited:

Dee closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “I rather like the smell of brimstone. It is so…” He paused. “So dramatic.” (20)

Chapter 6 builds on this physical image of Dee, with limousines, leather coats, and the latest technology. The man’s even got a favorite ringtone: the theme from The X-Files (which, oddly enough, was MY favorite show back in the day. *Gasp* a sign of my inner villainy!). While a little detail like a favorite ringtone may not sound worth writing, such a little detail gives us a sense of a man amused by what humanity considers paranormal, one who might watch such a show just to see what humans get right. Heck, maybe Dee has a crush on Gillian Anderson.

My point is, a villain sharing his personal tastes in some fashion, any fashion, helps readers see a complete person on the page.

We also see that Dee’s not so disconnected from the world as to think he can do what he wants without affecting the environment. For example, when his undead army fails to capture Flamel and Co. but succeeds to destroy a chunk of a town, there’s a newspaper account of him holding his movie company accountable for the damage and promising to make reparations. Dee’s physical wealth gives him the ability to cover up his magical actions, including the kidnapping of Nicholas’ wife Perenelle. He’s bought Alcatraz as a prison for her…with a sphinx for a guard. Where else could one hide a sphinx near San Francisco?

An icy shiver ran down Perenelle’s spine as she realized just how clever Dee was. She was a defenseless and powerless prisoner on Alcatraz, and she knew that no one had ever escaped The Rock alive. (315)

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Intellectual

Dee is, indeed, a wickedly clever individual. He understands alchemy, necromancy, sorcery, and more. He can call up the consciousness of a dead member of the Elder Race, one of the most powerful beings on the planet Earth, and command it to speak truth.

Even though he has not been able to study the powerful book known as the Codex because Flamel guards it, he remembers several elements of its contents, including a prophecy involving twins heralding a powerful change for all races, magical and non-magical, that walk the earth.

So when twins Sophie and Josh are separated in Chapter 37, Dee uses his wit to corner Josh’s fragile mental state. He knows just the lines to say to make Josh feel like Dee is full of truth, and Flamel is the proper liar. Lines like:

“Are you a victim too?”

“It seems we are all victims of Nicholas Flamel.”

“Do you know how long I’ve been chasing Nicholas Flamel, or Nick Fleming, or any of the hundreds of other aliases he’s used?…Flamel never tells anyone everything,” he said. “I used to say that half of everything he said was a lie, and the other half wasn’t entirely truthful, either.” (338-40)

Terms like “victim” and “lie” are just enough to keep Josh second-guessing if Dee is being truly helpful or truly villanous. This buys Dee enough time to cast a spell on Josh to numb his senses so he can go hunting for the others.

But no scene quite shows the inner motivations of Dee like the end of Chapter 32, after the Dark Elders leave Dee to chase Flamel and Co. southward.

Dee shoved his hands in the pockets of his ruined leather coat and set off down the narrow path. He hated it when they did that, dismissed him as if he were nothing more than a child.

But things would change.

The Elders like to think that Dee was their puppet, their tool. He had seen how Bastet had abandoned Senuhet, who had been with her for at least a century, without a second glance. He knew they would do exactly the same to him, given the chance.

But Dr. John Dee had plans to ensure that they never got that chance. (298)

Dee has been granted immortality by the Dark Elders in return for his service. He’s led their armies, he’s spent years wandering Otherworlds and Shadowrealms, he’s fought monsters that would frighten the blackest of natures. If you had ten years to wander around in an Otherworld of ice, that’d leave you time to think.

To plan.

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Emotional

Dee absolutely believes he is doing the right thing; he has to believe that Flamel and Perenelle are in the wrong.  –Michael Scott

Michael Scott takes care to give us consistent glimpses into Dee’s feelings via changes in point of view. Not only do we see the progress of the story from Flamel’s narrow escapes and feats of magic, but we also see the story from Dee’s prepared traps, skillful attacks, angry defeats.

By focusing solely on the twins’ POV, we would only get a tiny glimpse of what was happening. Similarly, with Flamel, we get just another tiny slice. By giving us Dee, and the other POV and perspectives, we get a bigger, broader and wider story. Also, it teases the reader slightly (and this is something which is explored in more detail as the series progressed): are the Flamels being honest? We, the reader, know they are lying to the twins, so suddenly, everything we know about them is thrown into doubt. Maybe, just maybe Dee is telling the truth. –Michael Scott

Dee is just as passionate about achieving his plan as he is cunning in his means to fulfill it. This man even carries one of the greatest swords of humanity’s heroes: Excalibur.

Dr. John Dee lifted the short-bladed sword in his hand. Dirty blue light coiled down its length, and for an instant the ancient stone blade hummed as an invisible breeze moved across the edge. The twisting snakes carved into its hilt came to twisting, hissing life. (267)

Surely a hero wields a heroic sword, doesn’t he? Yet Dee uses it to kill an Elder and destroy an entire Shadowrealm. That doesn’t sound heroic.

But we readers started this series with Flamel. We’ve connected the term “hero” to Flamel, not to Dee–which is ironic, considering the author Scott’s own words:

17402605…for the longest time, [Dee] WAS the hero of the series. It was called the Secrets of Doctor Dee, with Machiavelli, who appears in book two, as the villain of the piece. However, Dee never felt “right” for the role. Because my rule for the series was that every character had to come from history and every creature from myth, I wanted to stick as closely to the “real” Dee as possible. And while the real Dee was many things, he was not a hero.  –Michael Scott

Like the “common” villain, Dee has his moments of confidence, and rightfully earned, too: when he first takes the Codex, when he kidnaps Perenelle, when he kills an Elder. His skills and knowledge shine in these moments.

But unlike the “common” villain, Dee does not assume his plans are fool-proof. He often has to create new attacks on the fly. He’s often afraid to deal with the Dark Elders, but he has no choice and seeks their aid.

“Fixing a smile on his lips, he rose stiffly to his feet and turned to face one of the few of the Dark Elders who genuinely terrified him.” (92)

Now normally I’d say fear makes a villain whiny, or at the very least obnoxious. But with Dee, this simply shows he’s capable of more than confident arrogance. Just as a hero fears failure, so does this villain. Both hero and villain are desperate to succeed, but unsure they can. This dual uncertainty, emphasized with the multiple points of view, drives readers to turn one page after another, eager to see who gets the power tipped into his favor in the next chapter, and the next chapter, and the next.

He was a real man, extraordinary in so many ways, but incredibly flawed.
Michael Scott

May your own villain be as Dr. John Dee: 

Extraordinary.

Flawed.

A devil in need of sympathy.

download (2)Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/. 

 

 

 

 

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#lessons Learned & an #Author #Interview with Michael Scott, Part 1: #writing a #pageturner. Thanks, @flamelauthor!

Readers expect a world created from our words, a place of wonder and depth. If they get bored–and as a reader, I know I’ve gotten bored–they will tune the story out. They will shelve it among the “did not finish” works in Goodreads, and they will bid our titles adieu. There are, after all, a gazillion other writers out there.

So how do we keep readers in the story? How do we get them to whisper, “just one more page” for the seventeenth time?

After reading Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst, I can safely point out two elements that kept me reading: the cliffhangers between each chapter, and the book’s antagonist. In this post, we’ll focus on the first.

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Let’s consider Chapter 1. We’ll have to start with the first line in order to fully appreciate the chapter’s end. (I’ve already covered story starts in other posts about Holly Black and Diana Wynne Jones, if you care to look.)

“Ok–answer me this: why would anyone want to wear an overcoat in San Francisco in the middle of summer?”

Nothing outrageous. Just a little oddity that might call attention to a casual passer-by, as it calls the attention of teen Sophie. She sees a few coated individuals and “small, rather dapper-looking man” enter the bookstore across the street where her twin brother Josh works. They’re kind of weird, but that should be it, right?

Scott then takes us to Josh’s perspective. When foul odors suddenly permeate the bookstore’s basement, he decides to go up for some air.

He popped his head out of the cellar door and looked around.

And in that instant, Josh Newman realized that the world would never be the same again.

End of chapter.

In the first couple pages, Scott establishes something is off in the Normal Life of our protagonists, but we don’t know how off. At chapter’s end Scott makes it clear that it isn’t the teens’ summer that changes, or even their Normal Life. It’s the world.

And, it’s only page 8.

We need to read how this simple meeting, this little one-off from Normal, could mean something cataclysmic.

Over the next few chapters, the teens are on the run with Alchemyst Nicholas Flamel, keeper of an ancient book called the Codex. The Codex holds the secret to immortality as well as the forgotten histories and magics of Earth itself. The Dark Elders, once gods but now forgotten, want that book more than anything, and they’ve sent Dr. John Dee, an old apprentice of Flamel’s, to retrieve it. Immortal through his service to the Dark Elders, Dee will spill any blood and unleash any power necessary–and we see in The Alchemyst that Dee has a massive magical arsenal at his disposal.

17402605Come Chapter 6, we are following Dr. John Dee’s point of view. Dee has stolen most of the Codex and abducted Nicholas’ wife Perenelle, but Josh managed to rip the last few pages back before Nicholas helps the twins escape. Furious, Dee contacts his masters for a little help.

Then he snapped the phone shut and looked over at Perenelle Flamel. “It would have been so much easier if they had just given me the Codex. Now the Morrigan is coming. And you know what that means.”

End of chapter.

Perenelle Flamel may know what “that means,” but we have to study the context a little to catch on. “The Morrigan”–a definite article means this not just a beast or creature, but a specific being, an individual entity unique and separate from others met so far. “So much easier if they had given me”–if surrendering to a killer is the “easier” option, then we know whatever’s coming is more violent and nasty than Dee’s been. Dee feels confident in telling Nicholas Flamel’s wife about “the Morrigan” because he expects this Morrigan to get results. Since we’ve seen some of Flamel’s magic, this must mean the Morrigan is a very powerful individual capable of killing Flamel.

Well. We’ve got to see that.

Closing the chapter on a sinister, ominous image can also hook readers for the next chapter. Chapter 8 has Flamel and the twins trapped in ally Scatty’s residence. We end as Dee begins his assault with creatures under his control.

Below them, three huge Golems, trailing flaking dried mud, were pushing their way through the wide-open alley door. And behind them, in a long sinuous line, came the rats.

End of chapter.

I LOVE the use of the word “sinuous.” Read out loud it sounds like a snake’s slithered into the room. Visually, readers picture rats doing something they know to be unnatural. Since when do rats move in a single-filed line? Plus there is a common loathing of rats: bringer of disease and destruction, full of little pointy teeth and hands. When you see one, you know there’s a few dozen more not far behind. Maybe some people think of Ratatouillebut being an 80s child, I think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. 

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Scott also has some fun playing with the reader’s expectations. Chapter 10’s climax is a lovely example of this.

Sophie pulled her cell out of her pocket and flipped it open. “Aren’t you going to work some magic?” she asked hopefully.
“No, I’m going to make a call. Let’s hope we don’t get an answering service.”

End of chapter.

By this point, the twins are accustomed to seeing Dee utilize his powers to combat the villain. The fact he uses a phone for such a mundane action makes Reader Me want to know: Who on earth could this guy be calling to combat a monstrous cloud of crows bent on tearing them apart? The only way I can learn the answer is by reading on.

Being a pushy, curious sort, I asked Michael Scott how he worked out building strong chapter endings with multiple points of view.  His answer reflects an important writing strategy: planning.

I started with a single sheet of paper and wrote out my idea for the entire series. I could see that there were six very neat breaks in the narrative.

I then wrote out the idea for each book on six sheets of paper. Then I went in and plotted them sometimes in fairly fine detail. That allowed me to pace out the chapters.

I always tried to end a chapter with a hook which would leave you dangling so that you had to read the next chapter (which was often not a continuation of the story), to get back to the main story. So your plotting is chapters 1,3,5 are all one story, and 2,4,6 are a separate, but linked story.

I love my narratives to adventure into the unexpected, but even I like to keep a map on hand in case I get lost. Readers will only appreciate tension and high stakes if the story stays focused on those things. If writers dish out too much tension at once, any slowing of the plot jars the pacing beyond repair. Like the 90s blockbuster Speedyou have to keep the story moving fast, or risk blowing up your reader’s engagement. If you attempt a slow burn and fail (and I just read a novel guilty of this, so stay tuned in August), you’ve lost readers before you could even get to the story’s objective.

So you need action, but not too much at once. You need climaxes in that action, but not so much to make later climaxes feel, well, anti-climactic. No wonder, then, that Scott not only took time to outline The Alchemyst, but the ENTIRE six-book series of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. How else can he tell the story from both the heroes and villains’ perspectives without missing a beat?

And I’m not going to lie–Dr. John Dee is my favorite part of this book. Next week, we’ll explore with Michael Scott what makes this villain–and therefore the well-written villains–worth reading.

download (2)Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/. 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#writing #music: Mark Mothersbaugh

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61lm7CkCpqL._SS500What makes music epic?

Brass. All those horns just blasting bombastic harmonies.

Strings going to blazes and back.

Percussion pounding the heartbeats of heroes.

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

What makes music cosmic?

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

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

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

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

Who won?

Story-tellers, that’s who.

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, you want me to buy music?”

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

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

“But you haven’t seen the movie.”

So?

“Then how do you know the music?”

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

“What for?”

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

(I may have growled for good measure.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There it is: the arpeggio.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say what? Why are we meeting this guy first?

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Stock took no notice of this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #fiction: #TheCall by Peadar Ó Guilín

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.

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

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

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

And he doesn’t care.

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

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

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

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

Not just the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds.

But the Hero Against the Monsters We Know.

 

 

 

#Writing #Music: Alexandre Desplat

1200x630bb.jpgI know you’re staring at that album image. Hear me out.

I read the Twilight series upon the recommendations of a few friends and countless students, and yes, I saw the movies, too. For all the…debates about this series, I’ll say, I do want to touch on something done right and well by an artist entangled in the franchise: Alexandre Desplat.

I did not know his name before New Moon‘s release, but one look at his IMDB page and you can see this composer’s built an amazing resume of work over the past thirty years. And honestly, if not for Desplat’s score, much of this movie would fall flat.

Like Steve Jablonsky’s scores for the Transformer films, Desplat brings gravitas and power to a story that…well, it wasn’t written for me.

Just take a listen to his theme for the second film. It’s got a hint of melodrama, yes, but that befits the ages of these characters. Desplat uses the simple elegance of the piano a good deal throughout the score, creating a sense of gentle frailty. The strings follow the piano’s lead, heightening the tension. Whenever the oboe plays a faint bitterness comes into the song, befitting New Moon’s premise.

A quick recap: in the first story, a girl falls in love with a sparkly vampire.

In New Moon, the vampire breaks up with the girl in order to protect her from his kind.

Break ups: every romantic arc seems to have one, doesn’t it? Not to mention we’re dealing with a teenage girl. Love is here, now, not twenty years from now. The world is in this moment. To lose what makes this moment bright is to lose the world.

Lord knows such a moment can collapse into a syrupy mess in book and film alike. But of all places, this is where Desplat truly shines in his score. The piano begins with a gentle meeting with the strings; there is a sweetness to the melody, but a sadness, too. When the basses and cellos get involved, the atmosphere itself grows weighted and difficult. You know something’s coming.

And just before the 3:00 minute mark, it comes: heightened strings and trilling winds. A lone trumpet in a minor key with the strings to emphasize the shattering of harmony.

Nothing is as sweet as before. The harmonies are harsh, the rare percussion pounding the finality.

The characters are broken.

And thanks to the music, you know the sound and weight of that heartbreak.

Just because the romantic break-up is a common device doesn’t mean your story has to be common about it. These characters matter to you. Their feelings matter to you. If the plot breaks them apart, your readers must see and know that shattering inside and out. Let Desplat’s music be the device that gently pushes the moment over the edge to fall, to break, and to start again.

 

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

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?