#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 11

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

Well, here I sit with my coffee cut by unsweetened almond coconut milk.

Sigh.

But I’m a third way through….okay I’ve already technically failed, but Bo is a third way through, and that’s what counts! He’s been scouring Alton Brown’s Good Eats episodes for different ways to prepare vegetables and meat, and has found a few that can fit under Whole30 with a little tweaking…not that I remember their episode names. But I will recommend Good Eats to anyone who loves good food and is curious about the science that makes food good in the first place. Alton’s popcorn recipe’s a great introduction to his show’s style.

In these days of sugar withdrawal, it’s really damn hard to focus my brain. I can see the scene, but then there’s that need to transcribe the color and emotion and my fingers are tripping on the keyboard. I may as well be Biff going “;ALISHASL;IGBAS’;OFASDJKLFG;’OTY23PORKNG;SALDFBHASDLKFASKULTROU” on the keyboard. “I’m super-typing, Mommy!” Twice now I’ve stuck my coffee in the freezer to warm it up. I’ve tried sticking the milk in the oven, stopped only because the gallon jug’s too tall. Here’s hoping I don’t try to eat the food toys Bash left on the table from the Feast he made for the Transformers the other day.

The dread of yet another snow storm coming in the night’s not helping my mood, either.  Oh, God, you do have a sense of humor aaaaaaaaaaaaaall you’re own.

I did have a sweet moment of solitude outside, though, in that moment between seeing Blondie off on the bus and getting Biff and Bash ready for school.20190211_071202

Birdie tracks!

We have lots around the front of our house, but there was something about seeing this lone bird’s tracks stamped all around the porch, over the sleds to the old tree stand and back. The boys will wreck these tracks when they come out for school. Heck, I’ll probably wreck them when I take out the garbage.

So I snapped a shot, a good reminder that I need to refill the bird feeder before the storm arrives. We’re apparently the only feeder on the street, for anywhere from 6-15 birds will huddle in the bushes by our house and fight over chances to perch on the feeder. A hawk’s worked this out too, and has left the remains of his breakfast on our front yard more than once. He even tried to snatch a bird one afternoon, but they escaped. He sat on our porch railing, then, for a good ten minutes, waiting for the wee ones to return. He flew off, yes, but I have a feeling he’s just hanging out a few yards down, watching and waiting.

Those predators, folks. They cannot be denied.

Speaking of, I’m rather proud of the predators in my novel and free fiction. Care to check them out? You’ve got six free short stories to choose from, the first of my free exclusive stories on the site, aaaaaaaand my novel, which is currently on sale for a wee 99p. Spread the word to your fantasy-lovin’ friends!

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 10

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

The good creamer is gone.

I am officially without my sugar.

I guess you could say that this is my REAL day 1 in Whole 30, buuuuut let’s not and say we did.

Don’t ask about the creamer-substitute.

~*~

Doing my best to emphasize laughter over fighting with Biff and Bash. Praying the boys take the laughs with them to school tomorrow and not the fighting.

~*~

Blondie drew me a Valentine of Nancy Drew and her “assistant” catching a ghost. I showed my Nancy Drew books with her, asked her if she wanted to read one, but she said no. It’s hard to sell a mystery to Blondie that has no talking dog as a sidekick.

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~*~

My use of creamer must have delayed the traditional Whole30 timeline, as explained in the first chapters of the book:

Day 1: No big deal/what have I done

Days 2-3: The hangover

Days 4-5: Kill all the things

Days 6-7: I just want to nap

Days 8-9: Nooooo! My pants are tighter!

Days 10-11: The hardest days

Days 12-15: I dream of…junk food?

Days 16-27: Tiger blood!

Day 21: I am so over this.

Days 22-25: The scale and mirror are calling…

Day 28: 28 is as good as 30…right?

Days 29-30: Holyoprahitsalmostoverwhatamigoingtoeatnow? (Yes, this is the actual heading.)

Day 31: Deep breathing, and maybe some wine.

I’m supposedly on “The Hardest Days,” but pretty sure my body’s on the “nap” stage. My brain’s three seconds behind everything. I’ve started this paragraph over four times now. I just want a glass of wine and to call it a night.

This doesn’t bode well for the next week.

Month.

Whatever we’re in.

~*~

Okay, need to leave you on a good note…a musical note!

The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. Without the roots you have no fruits so it’s better keeping the roots alive because it means better fruits from now on.

Willie Dixon

Came across this quote in my research of blues music and loved it. There is a feeling in blues music that just cannot be matched in other genres, at least not precisely. Maybe it’s this simplicity so many songs have, or that the notes and lyrics gut one so. It’s the kind of music that can warm you and make you cry all at once.

Quite a different feel from the fire and rage of The Who’s Quadrophenia, wouldn’t you say?

But it fits one of my WIPs in the best sort of way.

Now if my brain would just catch up to my body…

 

 

Don’t forget that my novel’s on sale all month! Tell your fantasy-lovin’ friends it’s loads of awesome for only 99 cents.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Author #Interviews: #indie #writer @pjlazos discusses #writing & #family, caring for the #environment, & finding the right #writingcommunity

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I connected with P.J. Lazos online as a fellow indie writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her discussions on environmental issues, writing, human virtue, and family are so compelling that I just had to introduce her to all of you. 

First, let’s talk about you. Your biography reflects many passions: a passion for truth as a journalist, a passion to fight for what can’t as an environmental lawyer, and a passion for words as a writer. Which of these passions shown itself in you first, and how did it influence your other passions?

I think my strong sense of justice started in childhood.  My mother had a baby who died at three months old.  I was three years old at the time and remember thinking how unfair it was for our family, but especially for my mother who was devastated by the loss.  I think I tried so hard to make it right for her, but of course, what could I do.  Maybe the words grew out of that experience — definitely the emotion.  I remember journaling when I was a kid although then it was called “keeping a diary” an no where near as in vogue as it is now so clearly the name change helped.  As for my bit with the environment, well, my mom used to wrap me in a blanket and tuck me under the big oak tree in the backyard and I would lie there and have a conversation with the tree, or at least that’s what it looked like in the video, so I think that started then, too.

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Your Six Sisters series delves into the nuances of family life and all its beautiful imperfections. Now I’m not going to strictly ask if this is autobiographical, but were any characters inspired by family or friends in your life? What drew you to share their stories?

That’s funny.  My brother-in-law from my first marriage — I still maintain a solid relationship with my ex-husband and former in-laws — asked me the same question about List of 55.  The answer is complicated.  No, in that the over-the-top behaviors of the characters in that story were definitely not us, but yes in that the underlying emotion behind a break-up was definitely there.  You don’t have to have a specific experience to write about it convincingly as long as you can access the emotion behind it.  For example, I remarried and my now husband’s first wife died when their two kids were very young.  Hearing that story from his POV allowed me to access his unbearable loss and I created a character — David Hartos in Oil and Water — loosely based on my husband who was also a commercial diver.  He provided me with insight into how a heart completely busted open by grief struggled to raise two kids as well as how the world of commercial diving worked.  I think that as writers, a piece of you lands in every story you ever write, but some are just more autobiographical than others.  The part of List of 55 where the central character has a miscarriage — that precise situation did not happen to me, but I did have a miscarriage in a bathroom stall at 30th St. Station in Philadelphia and I think it may have been the saddest, most horrific moment of my life.  I tried to write about it before, but it never came out with the gravity I wanted to convey so I put all that angst into Belinda’s character and that’s what I got.  Sometimes it’s easier to process your own pain through a made up character. Isn’t that a staple of psychological counseling for kids, and aren’t we all just kids walking around in adult bodies, still harboring all the crap and still relishing all the joys we experienced in childhood?

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Now, your most recent novel, Oil and Water, is an environmental thriller. Considering your legal expertise, I imagine you didn’t have to do a ton of research for this novel…or is that being presumptuous?

Yeah, I wish it worked that way for me, but it doesn’t.  I started with doing some initial research about converting trash into oil and about the Marsh Arabs and the wetlands in the Fertile Crescent (which you would remember from studying Egypt or Mesopotamia), but a lot of the rest, like you, I googled as I went.  I have enough information in my head to get me started, but my memory isn’t always a straight arrow so I need to fact check.  My favorite kind of fiction is where you learn something so I wanted to be sure I was passing on real time information.

As the premise of Oil and Water brings readers to difficult questions about our dependence on fossil fuels, your website Green Life Blue Water also informs readers of some amazing environmental initiatives that are doing their communities some good. Are there any current programs you’d like to highlight right now?

Rain gardens and aquaponics!  I’m a member of the Junior League of Lancaster, a group that’s been operating in Lancaster since 1923.  This is my 8th year in the League and I love being part of a volunteer women’s organization.  We are doing some really cutting edge stuff like building rain gardens which are basically bowl-like depressions planted with hydrophytic plants that hold stormwater and rain water in high flow times as a way to divert it out of combined sewer system.

This year we’re adding aquaponics to the mix which is basically a fish tank with food growing on top — veggies, herbs, whatever you want (well, maybe not pumpkins).  The fish poop fertilizes the plants so it’s a self-contained system.  We’re doing a pilot project at an elementary school here in Lancaster, installing four tanks in four second grade classrooms and putting together some curriculum to go with it.  We want to make a “pizza garden” with basil, oregano, cherries tomatoes, and a few other things so when the kids harvest the food in the tank we can throw them a pizza party.  So lots happening:  how ecosystems interact, close up look tan water and nutrients, nutrition, and more, I’m sure.  Hands on learning is really the best way to get those kind of lessons across.  I just learned that the Aztecs were the first to do aquaponics.  The called it Chinampas.  So you see, I’m learning something, too.

You are also a member of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, correct?  Can you tell us a little about this program and how writers can join?

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I actually don’t do that anymore.  It was quite fun, but a friend of mine asked me what I had to be insecure about since she loved my writing.  That started me thinking about The Law of Attraction and how what you think about all day long is what manifests in your life so I stopped participating in IWSG and started participating in WATWB, We Are the World Blogfest, which had just started.  WATWB happens on the last Friday of every month and it showcases positive news stories as a way to counteract all the negativity in the world, an “accentuate the positive” approach to news and life.  I also found this group to be more “my people”, writers all, but focused on social justice, environmental issues, a better life for all people.  Plus you get a real lift from reading the stories people post.

Lastly, what advice would you like to share with those who are unsure how to explore their family or other passions with writing?

Journaling is always a great way to get started.  I always kept a kind-of notebook, but when my daughter was born, a friend gave me a beautiful black sketch book with lovely, creamy paper.  I had four months off from work, plus another four on a very part-time basis, I wrote a journal in earnest, a love letter to my kid that I intend to give her one of these days when she’s ready to read it.  Her dad and I split before she was born and I wanted to get everything I was feeling down on paper.  We joke now that she came out screaming because I was so angry when I was pregnant.  Unless I’m reading her wrong, today, like me, she laughs readily and sees both the irony and the gifts in most situations.  I don’t write in a journal as much as I used to, but I have a blog and much of what I would write in the journal goes in the blog.  One thing I would suggest and that I myself need to get back to is morning pages, something Julia Cameron suggested in “the Artist’s way.”  A brain dump every morning to get the gook out and start fresh — something that both reaps and sows benefits.  Your mind is clearer, and you’re not as much of a jerk to the the person behind the counter who gets your order wrong or the one who cuts you off in traffic. It helps you to be more chill, in addition to generating ideas, and we all could use more of that.

~*~*~*~

My deepest thanks to P.J. for taking time to time to talk to us! You can find her Amazon page here and her Twitter page here.

Would you like to be interviewed on Jean Lee’s World, or plug your creative work in my newsletter? Contact me and let me know!

Oh, and I just gotta say how cool it is that four of my Tales of the River Vine are STILL in the Top 10 Free YA Fantasy Monster Fiction.

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That’s two months now, and going strong! Thank you thank you THANK YOU!

I do hope you’ll leave a review on my novel letting me know which characters you dig–and which you want  to see more of! I’m brainstorming up some more Tales. xxxxxx

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

#Author #Interviews: #historicalromance #writer @ShehanneMoore discusses #character development, #series #writing, #research, & starting a #smallpress #publisher

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Shehanne Moore is a Scottish born author who writes gritty, witty, more risky than risqué, historical romance, set wherever takes her fancy–stories that detail the best and worst of human behaviour, as opposed to pouts and flounces. To celebrate the new release of two titles under her London Jewel Thieves series, I asked Shey to stop by and talk about how she creates such uniquely engaging characters and thrusts them into situations that promise spectacular fireworks.

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Let’s first begin with what you write—smart, sexy, historical fiction. You delve into various time periods with your books, such as the 9th century in The Viking and the Courtesan and the 19th century in Splendor. What process do you go through when choosing the right century for a story’s setting? That is, if Splendor took place in another century, would it still be the Splendor we know?
Probably not. The stories are influenced by the time, the characters too, although they don’t always abide by the constraints of them. Mind you Splendor would be a shopaholic , running up debts galore in any time because some things are timeless. She’d be having to manage everything too. So I guess a bit of both would be true. I generally stick to the Georgian/Regency period—it’s a sort of genre in own right. BUT I do like to dabble and I do spend time thinking of how I will set a book physically within that period, in terms of imagery etc.. There’s also things that happen when I write.

I mean there was never meant to be a Viking in The Viking and The Courtesan. That was a straight Regency. But then halfway through chapter two, the little voice whispered, ‘You know that Viking story idea you have, the one you’ve never really got the idea for the heroine ‘s goal in? How about you just use it here?’ Much as I want to ignore that little voice, I can’t.

Such a question should mean I ask you about research, too. I know you’re very passionate about your research to keep the period lifestyle true to history.  What’s your process in making the research phase as productive as possible?

You know people think I do a lot of research. I don’t . Too much can kill a story and read like a Wikipedia cut and pastes. At the end of the day I don’t want to know every detail of the time a story is set. I can read a history book for that. I want to read of the things that are universal. The things that stand the test of time. But I have always loved history, especially social history, ever since I can remember. I guess that’s what I have at my fingertips when I write. And of course, I will check a historical timeline detail where it is pertinent to a character, or setting, if I want a certain backdrop.

One thing I love about all your books is that these characters are layered with feeling. They desire, they hate, they aspire, they love, they fear. Your books are so, so much more than the “meet-cute” kinds of romances out there populated by characters with little more than a single quirk each. These characters can get downright wicked, like Devorlane Hawley in Loving Lady Lazuli. How do you bring together both light and dark natures into your characters to keep your stories compelling and un-put-downable?

Now Jean, it’s all right, I won’t set the dudes on you and the check is in the mail. You are way too kind. I just love characters. I want to write about the human condition and let’s face it sometimes it’s downright ugly. Okay, Devorlane Hawley, for example, page one, is not a man you would want to meet. He’s plainly gone to hell in a hand cart, is behaving outrageously and now he’s come into the dukedom because his older, perfect brother is dead, he’s for turfing out his sisters, his late mother’s ward, installing some floozie he’s scoured London to find and setting up a pleasure palace in the ancestral home. By page two/three he’s noticing that his home is nothing like he remembered, it’s a mess, his oldest sister is a drunk and that’s needling at what humanity he has, because it’s plain these years have been hard and the family have regrets. The fact is he’s the family black sheep, the man who made the kind of messes we can all make when we’re young. And that law-abiding, God fearing family let him go down for a crime he never committed, largely for  the sake of peace. By the end of chapter one he’s spotted the woman who did commit that crime and his goal instantly changes. Now he’s becoming the architect of his own doom in many ways.

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No-one’s all bad—I think it’s important to remember that when you write. But we are all flawed in some way, a bundle of contradictions, the sum and substance of our life experiences. That’s what I’m trying to blend. Ultimately underneath everything Devorlane Hawley isn’t a bad man. In some ways he’s man interrupted by his earlier experiences– and what has shaped his life since has been hardship and brutality. So the race is on then to see if he can become the man he could be, or are the flaws going to get in the way. I spend a lot of time peering through my fingers going… I wouldn’t have done that, to my characters when I write. AND I let them drive everything. I seriously never have any idea where a story is going next.

Yet another thing I dig (someday I’ll learn to write questions better), particularly where the  London Jewel Thieves are concerned, is that the series doesn’t just revolve around one heroine; rather, each book focuses on a different character of a group. I love how these different perspectives give us a richer look into their world, as well as fresh looks at characters we’ve met in the other books. Which heroine came to you first? Did she bring all the other thieves with her, or did they start telling you their own stories later on?

Good question. Actually the heroine of a short story I have yet to turn into a full length, came first. The idea was there of the jewel thief gang and being forced into stealing because for one reason or another they’ve fallen into the clutches of the man who runs this gang. BUT Cassidy Armstrong aka Sapphire from Loving Lady Lazuli came first in terms of the writing. Originally it was a standalone but as I wrote it, and I was working the background, I thought of that short story and the whole thing just fell into place. The idea of giving the women the name of a jewel, of the Starkadder Sisterhood, and of setting the books after the gang has broken up. So it’s about them having to find their feet by whatever means and keeping one step ahead when there’s prices on their heads.

Lastly, congratulations on beginning your own small press! I’m so excited to see what Black Wolf Books will bring to readers—your own books, and the books of other authors. You’ve been writing for publishers for a number of years, but now you are both publisher and writer. How would you say your earlier experience prepared you for this change? What’s been the biggest “culture shock,” as it were, with donning the publisher robe?

Thank you so much Jean and ALSO for having me here today AND congrats on your own forthcoming release. Sure to be a rip along read. I have wanted to set up Black Wolf Books for about four years now but life got in the way. But I’m there now. I think the writing industry is in a constant state of flux. When I first subbed back in 2012, you still went the traddy route. Yes there were self published books but not so many, nor the same amount of tools to do it. I mean Amazon makes it so damned easy actually now. I have a lot of experience in the writing business that goes way back before 2012 and I’ve been able to use most of it now.

I think the biggest shock…well learning curve was formatting for ebooks and for paperback. Amazon does make it easy I just got in a flap till I mastered it. I initially paid a formatter for the print version for Splendor. I was too scared to do it, in case I messed it up. But when it came back like a dog’s dinner, I stood at the foot of the mountain and told myself to get up there. That it wasn’t anything like the time I took over the editing and design of a magazine and didn’t know how to draw a text box…

Are you looking for submissions right now? If so, what kind and do you have
any guidelines to share?

Well we are not officially open in that I didn’t want swamped. I wanted to feel my way, get out my books, and the Mr’s book, before dealing with what could be an avalanche. And often I think publishers can take on way too many authors without concentrating on the ones they have. But we already have a signing of a YA author who has a trilogy. So I say to folks, contact me through my blog contact right now. And really so long as it’s good, I’m not laying down all kinds of conditions.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this is that I’ve seen a lot of authors get raw deals, not been able to get a book out cos it’s not fitting the mould, despite having books out. My aim in setting up BWB is to help authors. Believe me, I know how brutal this biz can be.

Lastly lastly I’m hoping you’ll allow the little Hamstah Dudes, that precocious batch of knowledgeable cuties  who share amazing author interviews & writing advice on your site, to come on over for a moment and have the last word, as they’ve been very good and patient all through our chat.

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Many thanks to Shey for sharing her experience and stories with us! And don’t worry, Hamstah Dudes–Blondie’s working on a Halloween picture just for you. Hopefully I can stop by Shey’s site to share it! 🙂

Shehanne still lives in Scotland with her husband Mr Shey. She has two daughters. When not writing intriguing, and of course, sizzling, historical romance, where goals and desires of sassy, unconventional heroines and ruthless men, mean worlds do collide, she fantasizes about cleaning the house, plays the odd musical instrument and loves what in any other country, would not be defined, as hill-walking.

She can also be found at
https://shehannemoore.wordpress.com/
@ShehanneMoore
https://pinterest.com/shehanne

After visiting the lovely Lady Shey, I do hope you’ll check out FREE fiction for some weekend reading, or my novel that’s FREE with KindleUnlimited!

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

When your old #writing experiment transforms into a series of #free #shortstories, you find yourself in #RiverVine.

Some explores aren’t planned.

We only want to check out what’s behind this one corner before we continue on our way. Peek into this one strange window and then go back to our business. Stick our heads into this one rabbit hole, then move on with our lives.

Only we fall in.

And we don’t always climb out.

In the winter of 2017, the music of John Carpenter set my creative cogs turning round and round a character from an old WIP. But I was already set on my path among Shield Maidens and OCD sorcerers. I only had time to peek into the princeborns’ universe and spy their battles waged in their universe before moving on.

But now with Aionios Books I’ve found the rabbit hole and tumbled back into Wisconsin’s secret places. The more my editor Gerri and I dig into the world-building of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, the more I find myself going over the old notebooks and sketches. Then  “Normal’s Menace,” the short story popped up–Oh yeah, my point of view experiment from last year…I sent it to Gerri for fun because it featured my pastry-obsessed crusader for children, a wolfish fellow named Dorjan. Gerri enjoyed it so much she suggested writing a series of short stories on the various characters involved in the River Vine world.

While I hadn’t been planning to spend time running around and away from the series’ narrative arc, I gotta admit–it’s been really fun. As I learned when experimenting with point of view, short fiction is all about the powerful, passionate moments. All the world-building, the character development, conflict and such–none of it can afford to be a slow burn, because moments don’t burn slow in short fiction. Anger, regret, desire, fear, defiance–when these feelings ignite within us, they burn our spirits until we crumble into ash, or forge us into something new.

These are the moments I now hunt for on the fringe of River Vine. They appear in the not-quite-common places: breaking up with a girlfriend…who is capable of eating you. Disagreeing with a boss…who promises to burn your legs off. Telling off a stranger…who somehow knows your nasty secrets.

Enter “The Boy Who Carried A Forest in His Pocket,” the first short story in Tales of the River Vine.

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My sons love to pick up tree seeds and bring them home. Biff is very methodical about it, fixating upon the number of seeds he can stuff into his pocket, while Bash is already growing them in his mind. “What if they make trees in my pocket?” he asks as he skips along at my side. “Then my bed can be in a tree, and my comfies can sleep in trees, too!”

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From this, my first short story grew.

“Just.” Jamie tosses his glasses onto the grass. “One.” He blinks, and suddenly Buddy sees nothing but light, beautiful, soft, warm, violet light, like he can sleep in a bed of violets, like he’s clothed in the royal robes of Jerusalem. “Trick.”

“Just. One. Trick,” Buddy echoes. He is very tired. Sugar crash, a voice in his mind says, and he believes it.

“The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket”

Each of the six short stories in Tales of the River Vine will be free to download as they are released one at a time in the coming months on Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these stories, too, so please be sure to read, review, and share.

2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in new editions. Stay tuned!

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

What’s the dearest gift a #writing #Parent can give a #Daughter? Time.

Blondie zips her Mega Man sweatshirt and pulls its puffy hood up over her long, tangled hair. It’s a Friday night. Daddy’s home. Biff and Bash are racing each other to see who’s going to need stitches first. I ain’t stickin’ around for that.

I’m going to take my daughter out for her birthday.

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What else does a writer give her daughter for her birthday? Her own creative writing handbook, of course!

When writing grew in its priority, it swelled most in my daughter’s space. I’d make her go play on her own when the boys napped, always busy with “school stuff.” She’d even “teach” on a toy computer next to me, just to be close.

I see her now, on the verge of 8, and pray I haven’t set the “Cats in the Cradle” prophecy in motion:

As a parent working from home, it’s already a challenge finding those hours when I can teach kid-free, let alone grade papers and handle student questions. Plus, there’s that awful tradition of the American Summer Vacation. What kind of society demands parents handle their own kids all day for three months in a row? Outrageous!

Blondie’s equally annoyed. “I wish school was all year,” she says in the car, half-reading, half-looking out the window. “I never get to see anyone in summer.”

I wince at this truth. Planning play-dates with kids across three different towns sucks. Other parents put their kids in half a dozen leagues and classes every summer. We can’t  afford a birthday party for Blondie, let alone soccer club. “At least you can attend summer school in the morning like your brothers this year, and make some new friends.” I silently thank God yet again that the school administration allowed Blondie to sign up for their free summer program even though she’s enrolled elsewhere for the regular school year. With all these kids on our street, she’s bound to connect with somebody, and then all the cross-county play-dating could stop. What a time-saver!

Blondie winces at this truth. “I guess.”

Wisconsin doesn’t feel like stepping out tonight. Thick grey clouds block any sign of sunlight. The rain is cold, but not hard enough to clean my windshield of some presents dropped by the robins. “You’ll have lots of time to work on your stories this summer, too. And your inventions.” Every story Blondie has written over her 2nd grade year is now piled on my desk. I want to keep them somewhere special. I want to show her in ten years’ time how she loved writing about puppies and dragons going on adventures despite family funerals involving cancer. I want to show her how smart she was with punctuation and grammar at such a young age, how her voice was already taking shape, even then.

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For now, I get a shrug. “Can you tell me where we’re going now?”

“Nope.” When I told Blondie we couldn’t afford a party…when those big blue-grey eyes looked down, and her big-girl nod of, That’s okay, Mom, like all the other That’s okay’s when I needed to teach, to write…for once, I just wanted to say:

No, that’s not okay, Kiddo. You and I are gonna have some fun together. No boys, no work. We’re gonna go to a party place with lots of music and lights, and a giant disco ball just like you wanted. We’ll have pizza and roller skate and fall on our butts and laugh. For one night, I want you to be the center of my world.

I wanted to tell her all these things, but Bo and I decided it would be better as a surprise. The girl never expects me to be the one to take her anywhere. I’m hoarding my time like coins in an R2-D2 piggy bank: ten minutes reading here, half an hour editing there. A free hour is like finding a soggy ten on the sidewalk. Two hours? A twenty wedged in a park bench.

But when I got that big-girl nod, I locked myself in my bedroom and pulled the R2-D2 piggy bank out of the closet. The minutes jingled like so many pennies scrimped and pinched from across the years. My daughter’s years.

That’s okay, Mom.

I bring the hammer down.

~*~

“We’re here!” I turn off the engine. Skate World flashes on and off in bright yellow. Clusters of families and teens already line up to enter. “This is gonna be so much fun!” I unbuckle my belt and turn around, ready to take her hand and step out and under disco lights.

Her belt is not unbuckled.

Blondie’s eyes dart between the sign and people, never me. “Oh.” Pause. “I didn’t know we were coming here.”

“Surprise!” The bubbles grow in my voice to counter the confusion rooting within. “I know you had so much fun here last year with your friends, I thought this year we could come together, just you and me. No brothers or anything.” I grin.

She does not. “Oh.” Pause. “Are you skating, too?”

“Of course! I’m gonna fall on my butt a lot, but it’ll be fun!” My voice keeps sliding down exclamation marks. I don’t know how many more are left before the bottom.

“But,” Blondie fidgets with her belt—not the buckle, “that’s just a friend place.”

“I see other kids going in with their moms and dads. We can too!”

“But.” This “but” shakes in the air, left out in the cold, rainy space, “but someone bad might be in there.”

I have no exclamation points to counter this. “Someone bad? Kiddo, what are you talking about? It’s just all kids skating and falling on their butts, just like us.”

“But, but, but—”

“But WHAT?” I snap.

Now, she looks at me. Her tears sparkle beneath the Skate World light. “What if someone laughs at me?” Her mouth trembles, and she sobs with such a fear that I am dumbstruck. “Please don’t be mad!”

She must see my face and I can’t lie: part of me is.

I smashed that bank. I brought all those coins and ripped bills of time to exchange for some memories, dammit. I didn’t give up an entire evening of work time to drive through four towns to pull into a parking lot only to have a sobbing child refuse to leave the car over made-up situations about a place she’s only visited once before in her life.

I. I. I.

I take one last look at the flashing lights and laughing kids. Start the engine. Turn around.

“That’s okay, Blondie.”

~*~

Mullen’s is an ice cream parlor on the edge of Watertown’s main drag. I went here with my grandparents after walking the river’s boardwalk to feed ducks. My friends and I often walked here on weekends at the boarding school, eager to trade some cafeteria wages for fried cheese curds and a sundae.

Tonight, it’s just Blondie and me.

Blondie pokes a pink finger through a hole in the brick wall. “Woooow, this place is oooold.” I glare right back at the old biddy with her tidy glass of ice water tisking Blondie’s impertinence and let the waitress show us all the available flavors. Blondie picks two scoops of vanilla with lots of sprinkles, and leads me to the red vinyl seat by the window so she can watch the cars rush by in the rain.

I tell her stories of running through the downpours back to school to make curfew, of the loud screen door always slamming on my little fingers when my own grandmother would get me a treat after an eternal visit to the fabric store. Blondie listens, eats. Smiles.

No disco ball could possibly shine brighter.

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#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday.

While I frantically prepare a presentation on Diana Wynne Jones for my university’s literary conference, please enjoy an essay on I wrote last year but never posted.

I distinctly remember the sensation of pins, countless pins, all over my body.

“Stand still, Jean.”

The pins held paper shapes to my clothes, and I’m sure my skin.

“Turn this way, Jean. No, this way.”

My grandmother and my mother titted and tatted over the pattern and its potential for Sunday best. I stared at the green shag carpet and thought of a great green plain that led to a waterfall there, where my grandparents’ blue comforter ruffled by the floor. To mountains, where the white metal closet door clanged shut as my grandfather got his hat and announced he was taking my kid brother for a drive to the park.

Sure. He gets to go to the park. I have to be a mannequin.

Grandmother lets out a loud arc of a laugh that verges on a bark, but there’s a music to it, too, like an old opera singer.

“Stand up straight, Jean” Mom says.

Grandmother laughs until my scowls subside. The scent of old cigarette smoke clings to her fingers as she removes some pins, HOORAY!…only to re-pin the back paper shape down a bit.

Blast.

So I take off inside me across the green plains for the white mountains, and wait for life to be not-boring.

~*~

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Isobel, Diana, and Ursula. Photo from Publisher’s Weekly.

Diana Wynne Jones took the initiative to make her life not-boring. As the eldest of three, she was required to look after her sisters, and occasionally other village children, while her parents ran a conference center where adults could spend a week or weekend to experience some culture. Nine years old, and in charge of cooking and cleaning for two kids younger than she. To entertain them she would write stories, endless stories, since their parents would not allow made-up stories in their meager library.

I, too, made up stories for myself. They rescued me from the boredom endured in fabric shops as my mother and grandmother pondered over fabric costs and pattern catalogues. I could see roads through the patterns, beasts in the shapes. There wasn’t a monster my trusty Pound Puppy Spike and I couldn’t handle.

Except for one.

~*~

Diana Wynne Jones’ mother often called her a “clever but ugly delinquent.” Jones and her sisters were never the priority when compared to work, which left the kids to fend for themselves. Often there was no food in the family residence, and if the kids went into the conference center, the cook shrieked at them to get out. The sisters’ garments were often cast-offs from the orphanage while the parents always had proper clothes. Diana’s sister Ursula even knotted her own hair to keep it out of her eyes. It took 6 months for their mother to notice. Sister Isobel was nearly strangled by the neck when they strung her up to fly about like a fairy. God forbid if they got sick; Diana went to school with chicken pox, German measles, scarlet fever and more because their mother insisted all their illnesses were “psychological.” No grown-up noticed them. Knew them. All they had was each other.

That kind of past is not easily forgotten.

~*~

time-of-the-ghost-1Published in 1981, The Time of the Ghost is Jones at her most autobiographical: neglected sisters whose lives mirror much of Jones’ childhood accidentally awaken an evil god. Time is not one of her most popular books—I’m not sure if it’s the time-jumping or human sacrifice that get people, but any time I hear of Jones, it’s never over this book. Maybe it’s because of her life story, and people take one look and think, “Yeah, right.” When I look at the nightmares of my own past, I know how friends and family would react to the revelation of the Monster who made them: “Yeah, right.”

It’s a harsh epiphany, realizing one’s “normal” childhood doesn’t fit the pattern of others. Memory darns the past to be presentable to the eye: there. Fit to be seen.

So long as no one looks underneath, and sees the desperate stitches and knots that hold the perception together.

Perhaps this is why I connected to Diana Wynne Jones as fiercely as I did: she pulled the old pain out of her closet, put it on, and stepped out into the world. Sure, it had the dark red glitter of a wicked fantastical god stitched on, but it was still her.

It only took her several decades to do it.

And if she could do it, then God-willing, so can I.

 

 

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.

#Lessons Learned in #Writer’s #Music from the #RollingStones: Don’t Misunderstand your #Villain.

sympathy_for_the_devil_coverA rare moment when I get to listen to music of my own choosing during the daylight hours. The moment comes with sacrifice: no writing.

Normally, when I take the boys to school, I walk to a bookshop a few blocks away and settle in for a morning of school work and writing. Today, however, was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school one town over. “You can come this time, right Mommy?” Her toothless smile looked tenuous. She was so used to hearing “I can’t come because I’d have to bring the boys.” “I can’t leave the boys behind.” “I can’t when I have work, honey.” I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve written before how hard it is to get time without her brothers. This time I gave her a hug and said, “I can’t come for the whole thing.”

She groaned.

“But, I can be there in the morning for a little while.”

Blondie’s smile broke loose and spread to her toes, throwing her into a hopping frenzy. “You can dance with me at brain break! And see my desk! And hear my story!”

So here I am, driving between schools, with, of all things, the Rolling Stones blasting because it’s the only CD that’s not Weird Al” Yankovic or Veggie Tales. “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on, and my mind starts to wander…

Why, of all beings in the big ol’ Cosmos, would we give sympathy to the Devil? Yet, well, as writers, that is what we want to do. I’ve read stories where the villain has less development than Snidely Whiplash of the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, all cackles and mustache twirling, and have been utterly, utterly bored.

Now 2-D characters do have their place, like, say, Michael Myers of Halloween, but slasher films are where cookie-cutter characters thrive best: The Virgin. The Jock. The Slut. The Jealous Boyfriend/Girlfriend. The Nerd. Etc.

When it comes to novels, we need more than one-note characters: we need songs, harmonies, percussion, the whole sonata. And not just from the hero.

We want to be just as intrigued with the one whom the hero is up against.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

There’s something to the tribal feel of the percussion here counter-balancing the piano. A unique style of class. It makes me picture a man with tailored suit and cane, someone at ease in the bar who for all his drink loses not one iota of wit, something like Alex from Clockwork Orange. Just listen to that opening stanza: He’s polite. Rich. Cultured. Seasoned. Sounds rather like a philanthropist, doesn’t he? One who smiles sincerely as he offers you a drink and a stool in return for your ear…

…and soul.

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

He starts with one of his oldest and dearest triumphs. You’d think this would turn you away, that you’d never want to listen to someone who sealed the fate of Christ. Yet you’re still sitting there, because here’s a man who reveals Christ had doubt. He takes the Big Good Guy and shows He’s no better than the rest of us. Everything feels a bit more level now, doesn’t it? Those Hoidy-Toidies ain’t got nuthin’ better than us.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

How curious this man wants us to guess his name. But he, like most villains, wants to be known. Understood. And what drives him? All villains need something to keep them on the path they’ve chosen.

And for this particular fellow, it is one of the most basic and most frightening of motivations.

He’s bored.

All that he shares with you is part of his “game,” and as he shares, the music builds and you find yourself awestruck and horrified and fascinated all at once…

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

How can we possibly sit at this man’s side and listen to him share all this like it doesn’t matter?

Hey, a game is not supposed to be serious. A game is fun, harmless.

But his actions are everything but. Why, why listen?

Because we like him. Because he’s not simply “evil”–he is a complete creature with a nature that gets bored and wants to have fun.

Just.

Like.

Us.

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

This must reside in the core of our villain’s creation: they must have some essence of us, of the everyday person. Even the most alien of villains can have a nature with passions and repulsions. When we forget to give our villain a nature, we deny our heroes a true conflict. Without conflict, we deny our readers a true story. And you know the cost of such a sin.
So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah
Songwriters: KEITH RICHARDS, MICK JAGGER© Abkco Music, Inc.For non-commercial use only.
Data from: LyricFind

Lesson Learned from the Marx Brothers: Heed the Zeppo Factor.

animal_crackers_movie_posterI originally wanted this post to be about the importance of unique characters. That when characters overlap, you have to cut whomever’s the most superfluous. Considering the current love of the Marx Brothers in our house, I was going to use Zeppo Marx as an example.

For those even more of a Philistine than me, the Marx Brothers began as a vaudeville group put together by their mother. All could sing, dance, play instruments, and verbally spar like nobody’s business. When the talkies came a’callin’, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo left Broadway to perform in a filmed version of Cocoanuts and four other musical comedies for Paramount. When they transferred to the MGM film studio, Zeppo dropped from the act. The films they did for MGM, most notably Night at the Opera, made boatloads of money, so therefore the loss of Zeppo must have improved the films. Right?

20170117_071743Well….n-n-no.

Bo’s adored the Marx Brothers since the age of 6. Introducing them to the kids has been a huge treat for him. Bash in particular adores the music segments, and can even mimic Harpo’s faces during a piano duet in The Big Store:

I showed Bo my old post. He shook his head. “See, you can’t…no. Look.” He crossed his arms. Books, films, and documentaries played on fast-forward across his eyes. “It’s true that Zeppo doesn’t really stand out. You’re right that he plays the connection to the flimsy excuse of a plot in those movies. But when he’s gone, they still have a pretty boy for a lead. The three Marx Brothers are tighter as a unit, yeah, but they’re not the real stars of the movies anymore. They’re just a part of the story, and the stories suck. There’s a reason I never made you sit through Day at the Races.”

“So,” I hold off Biff and his giant metal eighteen-wheeler, “it’s the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story?”

Bo considered. “Yes, I suppose so.” And then he went on about a lot of other nuances and exceptions, but I’ve had wine, so I don’t feel like typing all that.

The point is, even a character who doesn’t seem to stand out can have an impact on a story; it’s just that impact may not be felt until its absence. The Marx Brothers are all about fine-crafted comedy: perfectly-timed stunts, word-play that’ll make a priest blush, and music performances any obnoxious toddler will watch in blessed peace. Each Marx Brother contributed particular gifts: Groucho’s wordplay, Chico’s music, and Harpo’s innocent deviltry. While all the brothers had talents in all the corners, each picked one to dominate. Sure, Harpo played piano with Chico sometimes, and Chico sometimes sparred words with Groucho, and Groucho sometimes joined Harpo in the physical schtick, but these cross-overs never outlast the bit at hand.

And then, there’s Zeppo. He was just as talented as the other three: sing, dance, play, banter. All of it. He was a hit with them on Broadway, even though he never cared for the attention. But the triumvirate of comedy–physical, verbal, musical–were filled in by his brothers. What unique trait did he bring that they couldn’t?

marx-brothers-cocoanuts

The eye-candy, of course!

Yup, they made him the pretty boy character. He was the one who kept whatever passed for a story going. When he was given a chance to actually be funny, like in Animal Crackers, he’s great, but otherwise he’s just…there. Several scenes pass between Zeppo appearances in the films, and he’s never really missed. Groucho’s foil is usually Margaret Dumont, so even the straight-man role is filled. After Duck Soup and the announcement of MGM “acquiring” the comedic group, Zeppo took advantage and left the group.  A tighter group should lead to tighter comedy, only it doesn’t. Why?

Because as Bo said, the MGM films don’t highlight the comedy.

Therein lies the dilemma.

MGM was all about appealing to the broadest audience possible. This meant expanding the films to be more than just Marx Brothers’ antics; the movies had to contain a stronger story and popular music numbers, too. MGM proved their point with the massive box office successes of their three Marx Brothers films, but any fan of the Paramount films can see that the Marx Brothers simply aren’t allowed to be as funny in the MGM films. Story was given priority at the sacrifice of the characters. When one looks at the Paramount films, one’ll find plots little Bash could out-write in a single afternoon. The comedy, though, is king. The four Marx Brothers have free reign with their banter, music acts, and physical antics, which makes for hilarious viewing every time. One does not watch Duck Soup for its political drama; one watches it for Chico and Groucho verbally sparring over a nut stand. One does not watch Monkey Business for the drama of gang rivalry; one watches it for Harpo driving steamship’s crew crazy.

As writers, we must always be conscious of how many characters we have in play. We must be wary of repetitive characters, of too many or too few characters. We must also remember that the changes we make with our characters can have a subtle ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. Sure, the three Marx Brothers were a tighter comedy unit, but their films did not in any way improve. The four Marx Brothers make one easily forget about the need for plot, but one’s always left wondering, “What’s with Zeppo?”

When you choose to revise your cast, think carefully what impact the absence(s) will have. Don’t just study the plot for new rips; study what binds the characters, too. The needed mending might not be noticeable at first, but once you spot it, the story won’t be the same until you make it right.