#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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have to keep reading to find out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if superheroes had no morals?

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

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

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

He refuses.

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

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

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

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

And his sexual playthings.

And the sexual playthings for other G-Men.

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

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

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

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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 #fiction: #Annihilation by @jeffvandermeer

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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.

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(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?

 

#writerproblems: Tripping On Plot Holes.

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Nothing irritates readers and writers alike like a plothole.

Take the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When Lupin and Sirius Black confront Harry, Hermione, and Ron, they talk about the Marauder’s Map and how it never lies. This is how they realize traitor Peter Pettigrew is not only alive, but disguised as Scabbers, Ron’s pet rat.

harry-potter-marauder-s-map_a-G-14088189-0.jpgHow do Lupin and Sirius know about the map? Because they made it. Their nicknames—Mooney and Padfoot—are on the front. The book makes this a neat little reveal.

I doubt whether any Hogwarts students ever found out more about the Hogwarts grounds and Hogsmeade than we did….And that’s how we cam to write the Marauder’s Map, and sign it with our nicknames. Sirius is Padfoot. Peter is wormtail… -Remus Lupin, Chapter 18

The movie completely ignores it.

Without this reveal, movie-goers are left to wonder why on earth Lupin and Sirius know how the map never lies, let alone how it works. There was a special trick to opening it Harry had to learn from the Weasley twins. In this film, there’s no reason given why any adult should understand the map.

Such plotholes infuriate because they can be so easily mended with just a line or two. Just look at that excerpt from the book: three sentences provide all the explanation we need in regards to Lupin and the map.

Madam_Rosmerta_Cornelius_Fudge_Minerva_McGonagallTake another bit of the film version. Thanks to the invisibility cloak, Harry overhears Professor McGonagall talking to Madame Rosmerta, owner of The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, about the murder of Peter Pettigrew by Sirius Black. We get two crucial pieces of information: All they found was Peter’s finger, and that Sirius is Harry’s godfather. This scene only lasts a minute or two. There’s maybe half a dozen lines said. But these lines help provide some major plot points to the story: why Sirius seems to be after Harry, and how evil Sirius (supposedly) is. Without this scene, the audience wouldn’t know of any motivation of any kind for Sirius to act as he does. So why on earth couldn’t they take the time to connect Lupin and Sirius and the map?

To ignore a plothole, any sized plothole, is not only a disservice to the story, but careless, too. Why should readers care about a story when the writer can’t be bothered to care her/himself? Especially when so often these little plotholes can be fixed with just a line or two.

I discovered a similar situation in my own novel, Fallen Princeborn. My heroine initially asks a secondary character for her phone to contact a family member. One chapter later, she’s using the alarm on her smart phone. Why on earth is she asking for someone’s phone when she has her own?

It’s a small plothole. I could ignore it. Gosh, I’ve been ignoring that inconsistency in every draft.

13140843But as my favorite author Diana Wynne Jones has said:

You are doing to read [your draft] and admire all the bits you like…but, while you admire, you will come across bits that make you sort of squiggle inside and say, ‘Oh, I suppose that will do.’ That is a sure sign that it won’t do….think hard about these bits, what is wrong with them and how they ought to go to be right.
“Some Hints on Writing”

Lupin only had to say, “The map never lies. I know, because I helped make the map.” Plothole filled. In my case, I’ve only to note the heroine’s phone battery died. Another plothole filled.

When you take your editor’s walk through your draft, don’t just squirm and ignore the plot holes, leaving them for others to trip on later. Don’t be careless. Give your writing the attention it deserves, and every step readers take through your story will be a pleasure.

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

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

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

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

How?

Well to start, they’re all killers.

Yup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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