#Lessons Learned from #RaphaelMontes: #Writers Don’t Need to #Write a Spectacle to Have a Spectacular Ending.

Last week’s post on Alan Silvestri’s score for Predator didn’t have any room to touch on the bombastic ending that was Schwarzenegger vs. Alien From Unknown Planet.

predator01

Man, what a spectacle. Muscle and teeth and gutteral roars vs. creepy four-pronged jaws and lazers and bombs and stuff. Lazers! Helicopters! Green gooey blood! HUGE explosions! It’s an ending that has you knocking your beer over as you cheer for Earth’s Last Action Hero. Kick interplanetary ass, Arnie!

Now, what if I told you that the ending to Raphael Montes’ Perfect Days is just as powerful as the Predator’s time bomb?

Perfect Days doesn’t end with an explosion, or aliens, or any of that. It’s a novel of the thriller genre, a tale told of one man’s love for a girl and the lengths to which he’ll go–i.e., abduction, rape, and murder–to have her.

(Spoilers abound. I still recommend the read, if you can handle this sort of thing.)

Are you familiar with the concept of “bookending”? It’s a method I recommend to my students when they don’t know how to write a conclusion paragraph for an essay. You look at how you began your work, and see what element can be brought back in the end.

In short, set up in the beginning for the pay off at the end.

No, it’s not easy, because for once it’s a pay off you don’t want readers looking for. This element needs to be something it feels like characters have walked away from, discarded, grown from, etc. Such is the case with Teo, a student on the verge of graduating med school. The book opens during one of his last classes.

Gertrude was the only person Teo liked. The other students weren’t quite as at ease around her….Teo didn’t want anyone to notice how good he felt there. He’d walk over to the metal table with his head down.

There she’d be, serenely waiting for him. Gertrude. …

In her company, his imagination knew no bounds. The world melted away, until he and Gertrude were all that was left. (1-2)

Teo, our main character, has forged a relationship with a corpse. Not physical, but intimate. Opening this way, Montes not only shows readers how uncomfortable Teo is around other people, but how much his imagination fills in reality for him; for instance, when another student makes a conclusion about something, Teo wants to laugh, “And if Gertrude could have heard that nonsense, she’d have hooted with laughter too” (3). Teo “knows” Gertrude, even though Gertrude is not this corpse’s name. He’s studied this body, and imagined all the rest. When the class–and chapter–end, so ends his time with Gertrude, and Teo is “alone again” (4). The character must now move on from this point.

So readers move on as well, and see Teo attend a party with his mother and meet Clarice, a petite free-spirit whose brief conversation leaves him absolutely smitten. He uses the university database to find her and, after another encounter, ends up striking her unconscious and taking her to the flat he shares with his mother.

He felt bad: it was the first time he had thought of himself as a villain. By stuffing Clarice in a suitcase and bringing her home, had he become a criminal? (32)

(I just had to share that line. No, this isn’t asked sarcastically–Teo genuinely contemplates whether or not he’s done something wrong. What a killer bit of pov.)

51SfedaRD6L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_For the majority of the novel, Teo has Clarice locked up in two different cabins Clarice has used in the past, cabins owned by others who are used to her coming and going. At one point in the first cabin they’ve settled into a routine of sorts, and Teo begins to open up about his personal life.

He even mentioned Gertrude….He told her a serious [sic] of funny anecdotes about things he’d done with Gertrude. Clarice found it interesting that he was friends with a much older woman and said she wanted to meet her….It made him a little ill at ease, as he didn’t want to spoil things by telling her that Gertrude was a corpse. (81)

Teo doesn’t talk about Gertrude again with Clarice, and as tensions mount in Teo’s determination to keep Clarice and avoid arrest, readers don’t think much about Gertrude, either. Teo kills Clarice’s boyfriend, rapes Clarice, and even severs her spine to prevent her escape.

Climax: Teo is driving off a ferry, certain Clarice is still unconscious in the passenger seat from the last dose of sedative. But Clarice suddenly yanks the steering wheel, and their car goes straight into a restraining wall. Teo wakes up in a hospital. Surely it’s all over, with her family and police present, asking questions.

Yet there are no charges.

He asks to see Clarice, and is escorted to her room.

When Clarice looked up at him…she stared at him with unprecedented interest… “I’m sorry, but… who are you?” (253)

She couldn’t remember having seen Teo before, or what had happened in the previous month or year…. She seemed truly perplexed that she was engaged. (254)

The advantage of her lack of memory was that he could tell her whatever he wanted; he exaggerated the details in order to make it all sound poetic and inevitable. (255)

As the last chapter progresses, we can’t help but think Teo’s won. He’s successfully avoided the police and familial scrutiny. He marries Clarice, and all is as it should be.

Clarice was having fewer nightmares, although sometimes she’d still wake up acting strangely, and it was very distressing–she’d shout and break plates of food against the wall, saying they’d been poisoned. Maybe their marriage wasn’t perfect, but there were much worse ones out there. (260)

Last page: Clarice is pregnant. A family! Teo’s happy, and “Clarice appeared to be too” (260). Teo’s overwhelmed with love when they learn they’re having a girl, and is about to speak when Clarice interrupts him.

She smiled at Teo and said, “A beautiful name came to me just now. Gertrude. What do you think, my love?”

**********BOOM**********

No last-minute duel. No savior to put all things to right. But BOOM nonetheless.

Why?

A few things.

First, we’re left wondering about Clarice. Did she really lose her memory? She still calls him “my love.” But such a name as Gertrude…oh, that does not come out of the blue. We wonder now if Clarice is no longer trying to escape, but to dominate. Perhaps she has plans of her own for Teo.

Speaking of Teo, is he going to panic and kill Clarice? He’s killed his mother’s dog and Clarice’s boyfriend, so the act is not beyond him. He’s never handled moments of Clarice’s superiority well at all. Yet she’s smiling at him, calling him “love.” Will Teo leave his wife and unborn child lifeless as he did the corpse Gertrude at the end of the first chapter, and be alone all over again?

We do not know. We will never know.

That name, that single little element, is Montes’ bookend. He took the single most vulnerable point in the Teo’s life and gave it a body–a lifeless body, but a body nevertheless. And like all bodies left unburied, they come back to haunt even the most resilient of natures. By waiting until the absolute last line, Montes leaves readers in the wake of a narrative bomb: we don’t know if blood will be shed, if foundations will be cracked, or if all will go on as before, with “distressing” moments that might, just might, lead to a peculiar food poisoning.

So as you work out your ending, writers, ask: What element from the opening chapters can help create a narrative bookend? Perhaps a person, a token, a place may return. It could be as monumental as a dream fulfilled, or as momentary as a single name whispered on dying lips. It all depends if you wish to leave your readers happily tired by the journey, or blinded by the bomb. Either way, they’ll return to you knowing thrills are hidden in every chapter, right down to the final line.

~*~*~*~*~

All aboard…for the December Newsletter!

(Oh don’t you think I’m done with Alan Silvestri yet. I’ve got a word or three to say about his score for The Polar Express.)

Subscribe so you don’t miss another round-up of terrific offerings from fellow Indie creators as well as updates on my own projects. I’d be happy to share your work, too! Just contact me with your plug and I’ll include it in next month’s newsletter.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#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.

Scott-image

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. 

800full-indiana-jones-and-the-last-crusade-screenshot

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/. 

 

 

Secrets_of_the_Immortal_Nicholas_Flamel

 

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if superheroes had no morals?

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

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

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

He refuses.

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

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

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

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

And his sexual playthings.

And the sexual playthings for other G-Men.

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

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

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

20180125_125120.jpg

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

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

20180125_125047

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

And he doesn’t care.

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

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

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

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

Not just the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds.

But the Hero Against the Monsters We Know.

#LessonLearned from #AChristmasCarol: Earn that Redemption.

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

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

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

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

Why is Scrooge dancing with the Ghost?

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

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

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

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

 

 

#writing #music: Daniel Pemberton

When I listen to the music flowing beneath a film, I search for tributaries. Could this music tell more than one story, or is its course reinforced with concrete, impossible to divert?  Some scores are simply too entrenched to draw elsewhere, such as John Williams’ work for Superman and Jaws. Other scores tell the narrative their own way with music, and in that narrative arc flow many streams of story. One need only pick the flow to follow.

John Powell is one such composer, whom I’ve written of before, as well as Daft Punk. I still remember the excitement in me when I heard they were composing for Tron: Legacy, and knew that, if nothing else, the music would be amazing.

But the less said about that film, the better. No, I wanted to touch on Daft Punk because this year I felt that same excitement in discovering a composer previously unknown to me, one whose work I’m most assuredly going to dig through in the coming months:

Daniel Pemberton.

So I’m a sucker for a good fantasy film. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has its flaws with pacing and use of characters for plot propulsion, but there’s amazing aural storytelling to be found in this “175m music video.”*

In the first moments, you already feel a knowledge of old brilliance:

That lone violin pays homage to another master composer, Ennio Morricone, and his use of a music box to elicit feelings of love lost and revenge throughout the film For a Few Dollars More.

That connection sparked in my first viewing, and brought a smile to my face. I knew I was about to listen to someone who knew the power music has in cinematic narrative.

And I was right.

This theme blends period strings and electric guitar with such a gutteral heaviness that you can feel the weight of chains upon you. You’re being marched into a bleak land of little hope. Had Pemberton amped up the pacing here, he’d have something rather steampunky (rather like Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes, I’d say), but he didn’t, and I’m glad. The rhythm of trudgery emphasizes the setting into which Arthur is born and raised.

“Gutteral” is a term I use as a compliment because it’s so bloody perfect with Arthur’s character. Guy Ritchie’s film has Arthur orphaned and raised by prostitutes in a brothel. He’s a boy of the streets, doing anything and everything to make a little money and protect those who didn’t have to raise him, but did.  Just listen to how the bows scrape along the strings to create almost-notes. The plucking and drums evoke a sense of dim lights, warm beer, and sly talk.

The human body itself is even an instrument in Pemberton’s score.

Breathing plays a role in a number of tracks, and for good reason: Arthur is a fighter, then literally on the run for his life. The breathing carries a determination to survive, but a desperation, too. He hasn’t the magical knowledge of the sage (the less said about her, the better), nor has he the confidence of his father’s knights. Pulling Excalibur out of the stone pulled him out of his own element, and he’s constantly catching up to understand just what the hell is going on. And as “Run Londinium” climaxes, Pemberton shows that all that frustration, desperation, and confusion is going to explode in the height of the fight to survive.

Okay, last one, I promise. I just had to show how, like Morricone, Pemberton uses the lone violin in the climax to bring this story full circle: from murder to vengeance. From child to hero.

Give Pemberton a listen. Watch your characters toddle, play, saunter, run. Fight. Survive. Thrive.

Live.

Click here for more on Pemberton’s Score. 

download

*A reference in Daniel Pemberton’s Twitter feed that made me laugh.

Jean Lee & the Case of the Curtain Call Conundrum

Mere paragraphs from the end, and Middler’s Pride is bloody stuck.

It seems every story’s got to have franchise potential or it’s not worth the investment. Diana Wynne Jones proved that writers can set multiple stories in the same universe and reuse characters without creating some sort of epic story arc. House of Many Ways, for instance, is the third book of the so-called Howl trilogy; Howl and Sophie are only in it as 2nd and 3rd string characters, but they do serve the plot, and readers get to see what their favorite leads from Howl’s Moving Castle are up to. Jones didn’t force Castle in the Air or House of Many Ways to have direct plot ties to Howl’s plot arc, but did maintain the characters’ presence in their established universe. I suppose that’s the sort of thing I’d like to do: I don’t want the stories to be some stiff jumpsuit of a uniform, nor a bloated mumu. I want a smart-looking ensemble, something worth stepping out in together, but can also be appreciated as individual pieces.

So, how to do it?

Protagonist Meredydd’s one of four Shield Maiden recruits. I suppose that number sounds absurdly small for military training, but I didn’t feel comfortable wielding a massive cast of extras about in every scene. Four recruits allowed me to develop their pasts in order to understand their motivations in the present and therefore discover potential stories in their futures. I could give each girl a turn at center stage with four stories: Mer the middler first, followed by passionate Wynne, then circus runaway Elle, and ending with orphan Tegan.

But my protagonists aren’t the problem. It’s the second-stringers getting my goat and letting him have a go at the laundry. Who do I need in the next story, and who could wait? Do I pull a Return of the Jedi and throw a big party with the whole cast as an Ewok band jams in the background? Ewok music’s great and all, but it just didn’t make sense for everyone Mer’s ever known to show up outside this other little village after Mer and the other girls kill the monster. I mean, does it make sense having old Cranog the jeweler showing up, or the suitor’s fly-swallowing mom? No.

And besides, none of them are Ewok-sized.

Pish and spit. Let the characters justify their final appearances.

Terrwyn, Mer’s mentor, had to come back, because I’m sure she would have beaten the crap out of me if I said otherwise.

“Leave it to you to create the messiest cures.” Terrwyn’s pipe-embers glowed as she sucked in air. The linden leaf smoke almost put Mer to sleep on Terrwyn’s shoulder, but she knew better than to give into sleep. “Sleep on the horse, wake on the ground.”  Terrwyn would ensure that saying to be truth.

Terrwyn hates to miss a fight…but she has to miss this one since it’s the recruits’ fight, not hers…hmmm. The village chief would have seen all the fires Elle sets to trap the monster. The medic from Meredydd’s home, was already at that village, but she likely left ahead of other help, like Terrwyn and…Terrwyn’s husband? He barely says boo in the early chapters. But he’s another healthy soldier, and he might be useful later. So, assuming these two come as quickly as they can, it’d make sense they ride with the chief and medic to the fires. They just don’t get there in time to help, which fits my story fine.

While I planned on Mer’s father, the one she’s been seeking approval from all along, to come to the village so they could have a moment, it hit me that Mer’s stepmother Saffir deserved some say, too. Mer had always seen the woman as silent, cold, and favoring her birth-daughter, while in reality Saffir had been too intimidated by Mer to initiate a connection. They had a great scene before Mer left for training where Saffir shares this with her. If Saffir doesn’t show up, she’d be a total hypocrite.

A ghost fluttered out, eyes wide and fixed upon the horses. “Where’s Meredydd?” Her voice sounded desperate, tired…and familiar?

Mer walked round to give Terrwyn room to dismount, and stared. “Saffir?”

“Oh, thank the gods.” She ran right through horse manure, splattering an already soiled red dress, to take Mer by both hands, which, say, weren’t shaking yet. Maybe because there were no signs of needles anywhere… “That cart rolled in, and once Aberfa told the Millers and the Millers told us your message, your father bolted to the King’s Seat for aid. We nearly emptied our larders.

I paused. So if Saffir’s here, and Mer’s father is coming, then the bratty siblings Ratty and Dud have to show up. But then, what about Mer’s friend Aberfa? Those two always supported one another, and she wouldn’t have wanted to leave Mer hanging…

Dammit!

Part of Middler’s Pride dealt with Mer’s ability to connect and trust in others. She’s just made new friends with the other recruits. Aberfa shouldn’t be forgotten, but she wouldn’t serve the story’s themes showing up here; plus, as a deaf-mute, too few people would be able to communicate with her to justify her presence at the village. So Aberfa must stay behind, just not forgotten. Saffir was in the opportune place to explain that.

Your father thought I should stay behind, but I argued the Millers can help lead the planting with Aberfa to watch their children. ‘No daughter of mine’s going to be left stranded in a land of death,’ I told him, and he did his, well, you know, that look of his when his mind’s made up. But mine was, too.” Saffir’s hold tightened, and Mer could feel her calluses, cuts, bandages.

There! Now I had Aberfa dealt with. Saffir also seemed the best way to take care of Mer siblings.

“They wouldn’t let us in at first because the plague was, well, you saw, it’s on everything. So I thought, well, one can’t clean stables with horses in it. So everyone’s out for a scrubbing. It’s been hard work, but good work. Not that your siblings agree.” Mer followed Saffir’s look off to one edge of the campground, where a grimacing Ratty stirred fabric in a lye tub. Beyond her burned a terrific fire, too great for cooking: Dud, face hidden behind his elbow, throwing what must have been clothes and wood beyond saving.

Mer snorted. “I’d expect no less.”

Whew! So, Mer’s family has more or less made its curtain call: Saffir’s supportive, Ratty and Dud don’t get to be snobs. But it wasn’t time for the father yet. He had taken off for the capitol for help…which, UGH, means I need to pull at least one person with a name from that one scene where Mer was given her enchanted sword. Hmph. Not the king, this isn’t, like, country-threatening… Aha! Why not the king’s brother? He leads the King’s Army, and I had earlier established he knew Terrwyn and Mer’s father.

But they can’t show up yet because I’ve still got unfinished business from Act II, like Captain Vala. She was too sick to ride out, fine. But earlier in the story she told Mer she hated Terrwyn’s guts. Why? Well it sounded good at the time, but now that Terrwyn’s in the same space, those two have to have some sort of meeting. Time to dig up a rough’n’ready song, one with guttural voices, drink, and the rhythm of pounding boots, and get to work:

“That’ll do, Meredydd .” Thunk. Terrwyn elbowed Mer, winked, and walked towards a fire where the gizzards lounged with bandages about their necks. No drunken laughter, but they did talk, and chuckle, and drink steaming cups with the sharp smell of colewort and willow-herb. Gods know when they last cleaned out their toxins, especially the one strewn across a bench, snoring as a saw in fresh lumber. Terrwyn paused to knock her pipe clean against the snorer’s boot.  The gizzard didn’t stir. Hold on…that mass of hair…Captain Vala!

“Wait, Terrwyn!” But too late.

THUD.

Everyone got a lesson in cursing that night, including Saffir, who blushed and gave Mer a wide-eyed look. “Well. I hope Shield Maidens aren’t expected to sacrifice their manners.”

Terrwyn cackled. “Any proper soldier knows better than to lay across another’s seat in the waking hours, your ladyship. Eh, Vala?” She peered over her shoulder.

Captain Vala’s hand slapped the bench and pulled her upright. “Terrwyn, you vindictive, self-righteous piece of—“

“Aerfen’s mercy, is that you, Vala?” Fychan’s ears glinted in the firelight as he jiggled towards them.

Never has a tree moved so quickly. Up, tall, straight, fingers running through hair to make it, erm, less of a nest, Mer supposed. “Fychan!” The exclamation came out soft and bewildered.

Oh no.

Terrywn caught Mer’s gawk. She turned her pipe’s bit towards Mer’s face and motioned it upward. Meredydd’s mouth clicked shut. “Captain Vala, have you met the wife of Lord Iwan the Courageous?”

Saffir gave a small curtsy, but Mer could see she was trying just as hard not to smile as the captain remained dumbfounded before the rolling hill that was Fychan. “You…you weren’t…but in service…”

The bench protested loudly when Fychan settled in. “Ah, life’s given me much to enjoy: good wife, good master, good friends.” His hand moved from Terrwyn, to Saffir, and to Meredydd before settling on his belly. “And good food, plainly!” His laugh spread among all around that fire except Captain Vala, whose fingers gave up trying to de-nestify her hair. “The Shield’s been kind to all your limbs, I see. Terrwyn can’t say the same, you know.”

Captain Vala staggered off. The gizzards let loose a load of questions, but Mer didn’t feel like listening. She could only see that old tree fall by another fire, trying to make sense of old memories and new sights. Bloody hard, breaking the past’s hold on the present.

The exchange goes a bit longer than I intended, but my gut tells me this is the way to go. Captain Vala needs a decent curtain call, considering she was their trainer and may not be coming back in the other books. Plus I like how Meredydd actually connects, if only for a moment, with someone she used to hold in contempt.

The other recruits also must have their moments, of course, and they’ll have the last scene to themselves, too–if I can ever get it worked out. Wynne’s the trouble. She’s the prime lead in the next book, so I’m trying to drop little bits of her life without making a huge fuss about it. It’s especially challenging because she’s the most ordinary one of the group: Tegan’s got some magickal abilities, Elle’s got fire-breathing skills from the circus, and Mer got a commission from the river goddess, her gifted magickal sword, yadda yadda yadda. Wynne’s just…there. And there is a reason for her being there, despite not really being able to kick any sort of ass, and it’s that reason that starts the second story. Therefore, I can’t give the reason yet. GAH!

Well, I’ll get there. In the meantime, we’ve got one last major curtain-call moment to do: Lord Iwan, Mer’s father. The only blood-family that she knows of, a man who denied her affection and attention over the years, who was ready to marry her off to the first halfway decent suitor he could get a hold of.

Who, in the few moments they had together in the story’s first act, does act in love for his daughter. He just doesn’t have a clue how to show it, and she was too full of hurt and pride to really see when he tried.

When it’s time for Lord Iwan to arrive with the king’s brother and reinforcements, I know The Bootleggers are not the right music for the moment. The moment father and daughter come together: that’s a homecoming.

Wynne broke the silence. “Anyone else hear horses?”

Soon everyone did, and saw the torches, too: half a dozen, led by a silver blaze who could barely stop before the chief’s granddaughter ran into the road AGAIN. Maybe that manor’s fence wasn’t just about the Cat Man’s plague…

“My lords!” Chief Murchadh whipped up the child with one hand as he held the other to the King’s brother during dismount. “Hail and welcome. We’re meager, but healing.” He held out his hand.

It was not taken.

Lord Iwan had that blasted look again of having his mind made up, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else get in his way. He butted shoulders with the king’s brother, ignored the chief, lifted a child out of his way so he could step round the snakeskin, ignoring that of course, tuning out soldiers and peasants saying hail and other nice things while his son and daughter whined about work and past Terrwyn and past Saffir and stopped inches before Mer’s feet.

His face was lined with age and dirt. Eyes red from travel. Hair falling from braids. He looked at Mer, searched her face. Ye gods, what did I do now? He opened his mouth. Closed it.

And hugged Meredydd so tight he lifted her from the ground.

End scene. Not book, but scene.

I’m on the last few pages of Mer’s story now, with these four Shield Maiden recruits set apart from everyone, waiting to come before Captain Vala and the king’s brother to hear whether or not they’ve passed boot camp. It’s a tricky bit because I want to touch a little on their backstories without bogging down what’s quintessentially a wrap-up scene. Plus, I need to bring back things that were mentioned in Middler’s Pride, like the warring tribe that’s killed loved ones of Tegan and Mer, and the Torq of Galene, something Wynne desperately wants. Plus plus, because obviously there’s not enough going on, I do want my Return of the Jedi moment with the, well, Jedi returning: of Mer looking off and seeing the goddess Mer in the distance…with company. It’ll promise a new adventure while also quietly completing Mer’s transformation, making way for another girl’s story. This closing can’t dwell too long on any one detail; after getting her pride crushed, meeting a goddess, killing a giant snake, and facing a magickal foe from her childhood, Mer’s too tired to dwell on anything for very long. Time to let the spotlight drift as Mer settles into her new self and locate our next hero: a beautiful daughter of a merchant who, by all accounts, should not have bothered with this dirty business of becoming a Shield Maiden.

Time to find out what Wynne fights for…and if she’s already lost.

Writer’s Music: Daft Punk

Tron_Legacy_SoundtrackAll the failings of Disney’s Tron: Legacy cannot tarnish two major achievements: the re-captured look of The Grid, and the score by Daft Punk.

Now when I say “the look,” I am not referring to Jeff Bridges’ animated face or any of the programs (represented by people on The Grid). I’m talkin’ light-cycles, disc wars, those enormous enemy ships, etc. I felt like The Grid had aged as it should from the 80s original: slick colors, startling clarity, eerily real.

Daft Punk must have at least known the original film, as touches of the original’s themes arise and fall in all the right places. I even tried to see if the two were noted fans of the original; I couldn’t find anything about their fan status, but I did discover that their score for Tron: Legacy won them some awards for Best Original Score.

I’m often skeptical of the electronic/orchestra mixture. One so often overwhelms the other, making the sound, and therefore the atmosphere, lopsided and ineffective. This never happens with Daft Punk, not once in the whole score. They knew when to hold off on the electronic element, such as in “Overture,” an amazing piece of brass that builds very, very slowly, both in volume and depth, until the last minute, where strings and electronic step in, giving us an epic aura of a world synthetic and real. I love this track so much that I gave it to Dorjan when I first created him for a WIP.

“Adagio for Tron” uses almost no electronic at all, either; indeed, the duo followed the classic form with strings to create a heart-breaking atmosphere for viewers who see the beloved Tron character of the original captured and transformed into a servant for the big baddie. It sounds like something written for a string quartet, with electronic compliments so subdued you almost miss them in the dramatic brass of the last movement.

Who needs a movie when you have music? Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy tells the narrative beautifully all on its own. Honestly, I could write the praises of every track. “Outlands” proves basses and cellos kick ass when escaping the enemy; electronic elements don’t make a note in this track at all, not once, and it’s a brilliant choice on Daft Punk’s part, especially as the visuals show the protagonist driving through a storm-ridden wasteland that looks nothing like the orderly Grid.

Then you have “Derezzed,” a fight scene in a Grid night club (UGH, what a plot point), which employs not one note from the orchestra. This, too, fits perfectly with the situation at hand. (The video I found for this song is actually a music video, but it’s just too damn cool not to use.)

“Fall” uses both electronic and orchestra as equal forces sending the characters into a free-fall.

But if I had to pick one more track to show why I love this score so much, it’d have to be “Disc Wars.” It achieves perfect tension in the first second with the resounding drums, then ever-moving strings countering the long notes of the electronic. The cycle of harmonies escalate while the drums remain constant. And then, a new melody of synth that moves as the strings but with a different harmony. Another wave of synth to counter the orchestral drums. Another wave to quicken the rhythm. Another wave of harmony created by strings and electronic together. And then more strings to descant and counter the long notes of the synth. And then, and then, and then–

The violins and synth of the beginning.

It’s one of the most perfect layerings of countering melodies I’ve ever heard: masterful in its drama, intense in its craft, if you ever need help as your hero faces the villain, this is your song. All of Tron: Legacy, really, could guide you through the hero’s journey, from crossing the threshold to homecoming. Feel the other-wordliness, know the battle drums, fly from death, face your foes, and return, changed and glorious.

You have but to listen, and know.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Have Mischievous Fun with Misdirection.

 

After a deep study of The A.B.C. Murders, I see just how bad-ass Agatha Christie was. She truly earned the title “The Queen of Crime.” One way she earned her crown: her use of clues.

Part of any mystery’s fun is the deduction of a clue’s status: red herring, or genuine? Mysteries must be addled with both in order to satisfy both the narrative and the reader. That woman managed to make a ton of clues both red herrings and genuine clues, and it’s never clearer than in The A.B.C. Murders. It’s so clear, in fact, that some publisher thought it was smart to throw the most important elements of the mystery onto a book cover.

042513024x

Gah, this one really pisses me off!

No, I’m not over-reacting.

Look, I get that all book covers need to attract readers, and what better way to draw readers to a mystery than by putting a mystery on the cover, right? If you pop on back to my earlier post on this story, you’ll see two covers that focus on different elements:

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27f You got your railway guide. Important, but not a giveaway.

02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6You got the killer’s shadow and A.B.C. Neither are giveaways.

3fdbce79-c391-d822-f06e-75c7fc83740f-mediumoriginalaspectdouble Typewriter: Ibid.

925034295-2887690-1_s Corpse: Ditto Ibid. Etc. Etc. Etc.

That one cover with the stockings and letter, though…THAT one is showing off a little too much. (Shout-out to Sarah Higbee for getting me into these book cover comparisons!)

Let’s start with the letters. The first arrives on page 4:

MR. HERCULE POIROT–You fancy yourself, don’t you, at solving mysteries that are too difficult for our poor thick-headed British police? Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack. Look out for Andover on the 21st of the month. Yours, etc., A.B.C.

The other three letters have this same tone: confident and mocking, with oodles of superiority. Inspector Crome of Scotland Yard, Hastings, and others dismissed the initial letter, but after the first murder each letter is treated as a window into the mind of the killer. Three of the four letters arrive some days in advance, even, as a way to let Poirot and the Yard prevent the next crime, but Poirot and the Yard’s measures are never enough. Only one letter arrives late because of an incorrect address, which the Yard puts off as an accident:

Poirot gave [the letter] to [Inspector Crome].

He examined it, swearing softly under his breath.

“Of all the damned luck. The stars in their courses fight for the fellow.”

“You don’t think,” [Hastings] suggested, “that it was done on purpose?”

Crome shook his head.

“No. He’s got his rules–crazy rules–and abides by them. Fair warning. He makes a point of that. That’s where his boastfulness comes in. I wonder now–I’d almost bet the chap drinks White Horse whisky.”

Ah, c’est ingenieux ca!” said Poirot, driven to admiration in spite of himself. “He prints the letter and the bottle is in front of him.”

The letters offer no forensic help, and only when the families of the first three victims come together does there seem to be any hope in catching the killer. In Chapter 21, Poirot deeply believes that conversation among the family members and witnesses will reveal the killer:

“Each one of us knows something about him–if we only knew what it is we know. I am convinced that the knowledge is there if we could only get at it.”

And sure enough, by the end of that chapter, a major connection is made when the third victim’s secretary recalls a stockings salesman coming to their door. The sister of the second victim mentions that her mother bought stockings for the victims the day she died. A reader can flip back and confirm what police say: a new pair of stockings was included in the first victim’s belongings.

Poirot presses the police to use the stockings angle, but they dismiss it as a coincidence. Of course they do! It’s only A MAJOR CLUE, right? And it does help: after the fourth victim is discovered, a man is spotted, bloody and bewildered, fleeing his room. A suitcase of new stockings was left behind. The man: Alexander Bonaparte Cust. A quiet man. Awkward. Shabby. Shy. Epileptic, and not medicated, so his memory has big gaps. He’s been to every location the day of a murder. He has a bloody knife, for crying out loud. The pressure to find him reaches such a fever that Cust himself walks into a police station in a daze and collapses.

So endeth the A.B.C. murders, yes? A typewriter in his room was the same used to write the letters. More stockings. More railway guides. All the clues are there….

And yet.

At the end of Chapter 31, Hastings wakes up from a nap to discover Poirot’s figured it out, and he’s going to be damned gleefully secretive about it. He’ll only say what he’s said before:

“There is nothing so dangerous for any one who has something to hide as conversation.”

Poirot meets face to face with Cust. Cust doesn’t recognize the detective’s name at all. He has no memory of the murders. Another man even remembers playing dominoes with Cust in a different part of the town where the second murder happened. And the second murder victim, a pretty young girl who liked to party, would NOT have given a guy like Cust the time of day, let alone her belt to be strangled with.

Yet the clues point to Cust. Cust even thinks he did the murders–he can’t remember those days, and as a stranger told him while reading his palm, he’s destined for the gallows…

Cust’s conversation reveals how some old clues are impacted by new clues. His character, for one, is in total contradiction with the letters. Unless the guy’s got split personality disorder, there’s no way a wuss like him is the snot who wrote the letters. He also talks about his dead-end job after the war, and the blessing that came with this selling job: a door-to-door job with a salary and commission. To any one with an iota of common sense, the idea of selling stockings door to door for a big salary and commission should sound questionable.

See what Christie did here? Those major clues–the letters, the stockings–were red herrings to take Poirot and the Yard to Cust. But those clues also reveal genuine hints of the true killer. By building us to this false climax of the killer caught, Christie increases tension a hundred fold. Despite Hastings’ skepticism (you’d think he’d know better by now), readers can’t help but read on to find out what Poirot’s discovered. I mean, I was super-peeved because my school contacted me about teaching and my son had the audacity to get sick. The wait until evening for those last fifteen pages was agony!

Chapter 34 is entitled “Poirot Explains,” for this is when all is explained to the families of the victims. Yes, it’s the typical gathering of suspects–it wouldn’t be a Poirot mystery without it. 🙂 Poirot focuses on the letters first: why write to Poirot, and not the Yard? Why commit these murders at all? Everyone else had thrown their hands up at “madness!” because that was the catchword of the day, apparently, and therefore everything’s justified. But Poirot points out that if a madman just wants to kill, why in Hades would he draw attention to himself, and therefore risk getting caught? He goes on with these contradictions found with the other clues, like the railway guide. There’s no discernable motive to be tied to Cust, or justification from any off-balance point of view.

So Poirot turns it all on its head with this base deduction about the letters:

“What was wrong with them was the fact they were written by a sane man!”

After all the “What?!?” by the victims’ families, Poirot points out how easy it is to hide something:

“When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pin-cushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of murders.”

Now the letters become a major, genuine clue: the third letter, the only one mislabeled–the one Hastings wondered had been mislabeled on purpose–was for the murder that needed to happen without interference. When approached with that in mind, suddenly the true killer comes to the forefront: the boyish, adventurous, and broke brother of the third victim. He is one who could get that pretty girl to give him her belt. He is one with the snot-attitude that fits the letters to a T. He is one with the risk-taking spirit to kill in the open one night and approach the police the next. He had met Cust, and put the idea of the gallows destiny in his head. He planned out everything, from the bulk purchase of stockings and railway guides, to sending Cust the typewriter he used to type all the A.B.C. letters beforehand. He selected Poirot to get the letters because a letter addressed to Scotland Yard won’t go astray, but a letter to a private address can!

So yes, I’m still miffed about that one book cover. It took two of the most important pieces of the mystery and stuck them on the cover, forcing them to always be at the forefront of the reader’s mind. I’m also miffed this book isn’t used in more writing classes. It’s a brilliant piece of a mind-game: the clues alter in importance depending on the latest piece of information. What was once deemed important becomes a red herring only to become important again. And the fact that Christie gives us little chapters from Cust’s point of view early on makes us think we’re keeping tabs on the killer, and yet we can tell from those snippets what a shy, shabby fellow he is, devoid of confidence or wit. She’s giving us both a red herring and a real clue with every scene.

All method. No madness.

All hail the Queen of Crime!

 

Writer’s Music: Anne Dudley

The let-down. The loss. However your characters experience it, there will come a time when the conflict snaps the characters’ will in two, and everyone needs a chance to cope.

I stumbled upon Anne Dudley’s album A Different Light in my father’s collection. Like me, he had rather eclectic taste in music. He didn’t always have patience for instrumentals, so I was rather surprised to find this.

“A Different Light” burdens a violin with most of the melody. Strings are all one hears in long, mournful chords. The solo violin seems to be lost in a disconnect from the rest of the strings, dwelling upon its own pain while the rest of the world presses forward, until the final minute–all the harmonies of sadness become one great swell, and then break apart again to fade, and to fade. When plot pauses to deal with loss, cast your characters in “A Different Light.”

Click here for more on Anne Dudley.

Click here for more on A DIFFERENT LIGHT.

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Brevity’s Fine, Too, You Know.

51WMCT93tqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Some tales require thousands upon thousands of pages. Writers paint a world, a history of that world, history of the players, the players’ quests, etc.

Some tales need only a day and 100 pages. How does Jones pull this off?

She begins with a common problem of many adolescents: a summer holiday with no access to fun. Jones amplifies the common with the not-quite-so-common: protagonist Heather is stuck at a home which is also a tourist attraction. The girl yearns for the tourists to go away, and finds herself wishing on an old mound for an old story about a warlock named Wild Robert to be true.

Enter Jones’ fantasticness: the girl’s wish comes true. She made her wish on the warlock’s grave, and her wish wakes him up. He doesn’t waste time turning people into sheep, pulling old relatives out of paintings, compiling strewn garbage into nasty monsters who chase children–Wild Robert’s capable of anything, as Heather quickly learns. Only she sees him, restrains him from doing more than pranks. By the end of the day, the characters have connected, and we finally learn all of Wild Robert’s story.

The end.

Huh?

Yup. One day. One glorious, adventurous day. It’s not like Jones cut out with the final detail of Robert’s life. Rather, she ends with the promise of future adventures:

Wild Robert’s power really did end at sunset. He must be back in his mound now….Heather remembered that Wild Robert had made her promise to speak to him again tomorrow. He had known….She climbed the stairs to her little room in a corner of the old castle, smiling. Robert was full of tricks. Tomorrow she would understand him better….Heather fell asleep thinking of ways she might even rescue the treasure that was really Wild Robert’s heart….

But those days are different stories. I’m sure that if Jones had wished to return to these characters she would have, but she didn’t have to. Readers, especially Middle Grade readers, have plenty of imagination. Jones provided a place, the players, the premise. It’s all laid out. Wild Robert gave us “a day in the life.” Now it’s on the readers to imagine the rest of the life.

Don’t think that you have to provide your readers every bloody day between birth and death. If the heart of the story is in but one event, then that’s IT. You know readers can tell when a story is padded. Knock that off. Give them the adventure. Trust them to imagine more.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.