Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

graveyard-scan1

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

a6859b891dfcb6a9469607491390c010

But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

graveyard2_540_custom-2d036eb1811d091e2f9af94953da0b562bc4528e-s300-c85

 

 

Advertisements

The Art of Voice-Changery, Part 1

Henson-oz-performing

A writer’s imagination runs through many worlds, histories, and lives. The danger of one writer and an infinite creativity? That only one voice ever speaks.

Changing voices has got to be one of the toughest challenges for a writer. I’ve read some failures, and believe you me: the story just tanks due to pov confusion, or loses all flavor due to deja vu. I mean, just imagine if all the Muppets sounded like Ernie. How lame would that be?

My Shield Maiden series…Shield Maiden Quartet? Oooo, A Quartet of Maidenry!

Sorry about that.

Anyway, I have four very different protagonists in this set, and that different-ness MUST be clear to readers. In Middler’s Pride Gwen went from show-off jerk to decent human being. Now I need to maneuver into the head of another recruit named Wynne, the protagonist for my next book, Beauty’s Price. Wynne has motives wholly unlike Gwen’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates. How to create this gentler, more provincial voice?

Hmmm.

I stare blankly at my bookshelf: Conan Doyle doesn’t exactly come to my mind for strong heroines. Nor does Colin Dexter, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters…blast. And Agatha Christie’s heroine Miss Marple is too old for what I need.

Surely my Diana Wynne Jones shelf won’t fail me!

Wait, hang on. No, these girls are all too fierce. They were great for helping me with Gwen, like Hildrida from Drowned Ammet.

drownedammet“Betrothed?” said Hildy. “Without asking me!…You might have asked me if I minded, even if I’m not important. I’m a person, too.”

“Most people are,” Navis said, rather desperately scanning his page. He wished he had not chosen to read the Adon. The Adon said things like “Truth is the fire that fetches thunder,” which sounded unpleasantly like a description of Hildrida. “And you are very important now,” he added. “You’re forming an alliance with Lithar for us.”

“What’s Lithar like? How old is he?” Hildrida demanded.

Navis found his place and put his finger on it. “I’ve only met him once.” It was hard to know what else to say. “He’s only a young man–twenty or so.”

“Only–!” Words nearly failed Hildy. “I’m not going to be betrothed to an old man like that! I’m too young. And I’ve never met him!”

Navis hastily got his book in front of his face again. “Time will cure both those objections.”

“No, it won’t!” stormed Hildrida. “And if you go on reading, I’ll–I’ll hit you and then tear that book up!” (270-1)

Oh, there was Charmain from House of Many Ways, but she’s too bookish. She’s practically dragged into the plot. Wynne goes willingly.

And then, I see a small bundle of books by an author I only started reading in the last year:

Jane Austen.

I used to wear it as a badge of pride that I had NOT read her work. Way too many of my classmates oohed and aahed her stories, and I couldn’t get why. It’s not like anyone got poisoned or shoved out a window, let alone shot.

I pause with Pride and Prejudice in hand. Elizabeth Bennet is considered one of the great female heroines, isn’t she? Her voice is strong and unafraid. Her wit shines often, but her raw emotions have their moments, too. I particularly love her retorts to Mr. Darcy when she’s certain he loathes her, such as this one early in the story:

51uWyPyyBnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her–

“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all–and now despise me if you dare.” (35)

With every chapter read, Wynne’s voice starts to form. I can see her now, the one of sense in a family filled with silly pride and, well, prejudice. Wynne’s parents will be much like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet: a mother obsessed with status and appearances without the wit to show any, and a lackadaisical father who’d rather not parent if he can help it. Both Wynne and Elizabeth have four sisters of age to marry, and most of them idealize marrying a man of good fortune. But while Elizabeth is the second eldest of the Bennet sisters, I want Wynne to be the youngest. Her youth will keep her from that desperation the others feel in needing a man to marry.

Early in P&P, Mrs. Bennet tries to force a match between Elizabeth and a cousin of some means, but who is also a simp and a kiss-ass. Elizabeth has absolutely no patience with him, and cuts the proposal off cold, much to her mother’s annoyance. Wynne will be in a similar situation, as one man wants to marry all five sisters, much to the parents’ surprise and relief. Only Wynne is dead set against the match, throwing her family into chaos, and the man into…well, a rather dangerous frame of mind.

But back to voice.

Gwen’s attitude is superior, dismissive, callous. She thinks you don’t know and/or care about anything half as much as she does, and she’s not afraid to treat you as such. When I used Michael Dellert’s #13WeekNovel Prewriting Questions to explore Gwen, I got some pretty blunt answers. Take the first two, for instance:

middlers-pride-7“How would you describe yourself?”

No brood mare, I’ll say that for free. I can carry lumber like any man. I can go into the woods of Irial all alone and haul honey, berries, and kindling on my back. I can hear better than any of our watchmen—I’M the one who caught Bricius thieving ól from the brewery.

How could they possibly think I’d go off to be a broodmare when I’m far smarter than any young soldier of these parts?

Not. Bloody. Likely.

 “So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

Oh, catching Bricius thieving not enough, then? Fine. Well one time, I was keeping watch for the caravan of southern traders—we’d heard they would come by our thorp, and our slopes are sweet with honeysuckle and dry, good camping grounds—and saw some strange men loitering about the edge of the stables on the far side of the thorp. None of ours, I’ll tell you. They had saltwater mud…don’t ask, I just know these things. One must if one’s to venture into the world for vengeful reasons.

Anyway, they were hanging about, eyeing up the horses, and I knew they were plotting something devious. We keep fine horses here in Easavainn Mills, perfect for ambushing a caravan and fleeing off to the north with all the other devious gnomes and wild people.

Yes, gnomes are devious. Don’t interrupt.

Well, I told the veteran’s sergeant Cinaedh about the men. He said they were scouts for the caravan, and simply waiting for it to catch up.

Scouts? What do scouts need with our horses then?

Pish and spit. They were planning something.

But being but a young lass of 10, what was I to do?

I did the only thing I could do to disarm the enemy: I stole their washing while they bathed in the river and scattered it around the forest.

Thanks to me, the caravan arrived safely, and no one was harmed.

Already you get a sense that Gwen doesn’t listen to anyone. She’s got her own principles, and by the gods she’s sticking with them. In her mind, she was victorious against an evil everyone else was too stupid to notice. There’s no correcting her here or anywhere.

Wynne, on the other hand, has no aggressive confidence. She has been kept apart from others her age by the prejudice of her parents, and feels herself wilting beneath their expectations. The river Gasirad is all that keeps her alive until she meets a certain young fellow…

Jean Lee“How would you describe yourself?”

I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live in Hafren. My mother is also of a business frame of mind, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.

We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Yet neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways pleasing to the heart.

“So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.

Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in Hafren were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children flee their chores for adventures, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Gasirad. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the Hafren road stones without escort or knowledge of the land. To walk with but a river as my companion northward, through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town. To set foot in a new place without any word of introduction, without any desire to share my family name, and walk up to the first child I see, and to say, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance. How Mother would have scolded! I was a walking scandal with mud, petals, and sweat littered about my dress, boots, and hair.

The child was a boy with the body of a reed, brown and thin, and the eyes of a hungry owl.  “Loads.”

“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, and found my tongue on the verge of knotting itself. “Wh-what about adventures by the river Gasirad? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting of an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.

The boy’s smile reminded me of the Gasirad in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”

“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”

Changing voices isn’t just about getting into the new protagonist’s head. There’s a technical aspect, too. Just look at the Gwen and Wynne answers again. Wynne doesn’t do super-short sentences like Gwen does. Wynne doesn’t direct condescending smack-talk to the reader like Gwen does. Wynne’s prose needs to be as flowers picked for a crown: “She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart.” Unlike Gwen, who often scoops handfuls of word-mud to sling at the reader: “Not. Bloody. Likely.”

Whether you reuse the same exploration techniques or not, you’ve got to give your new hero time to open up, especially if she’s never known that kind of attention before. Intimacy comes with time, patience, and a sincere desire for feeling. You can’t rush it–you may as well demand a seed to blossom in your hand. That’s what I’m noticing about Wynne: her love for what matters gives her voice a sweet warmth–rather like apple cinnamon tea on a cool spring morning. It’s that warmth that draws us to her, to learn what kindles it.

But we’re not the only ones drawn in. And therein lies a danger I must further understand. Austen may not be able to help me with the fantasy elements, but I know what can…

History Don’t Do Cameras

Ever since the loss of our babysitter to the warmer climes of Arizona, Bo and I have lost all chances of a “night out.” (For the record, we did try three other babysitters, but those, um, didn’t exactly work out.) We have managed a few outings in the daylight hours, however, thanks to relatives willing to watch Blondie and the twins. That’s how we got to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* and tour the Pabst Mansion.

Why the Pabst Mansion? Bo and I aren’t beer connoisseurs. I can’t fathom whatever’s brewed under the current Pabst label is anything like the Pabst beer brewed in the 1800s.

250-history-bookWell, back when I was working on that old WIP (the one with Dorjan), I struggled with details for the primary setting of the story. I found my inspiration in a photography collection of the Pabst Mansion: rich, yet not obscenely so. Large, but not unwieldy. Down to earth and still elegant.

Now that Bo has become a stronger ally in my writing life, I asked if he wanted to go with me to the Pabst sometime. I wanted to see the history with my own eyes, breathe its air and touch its remnants. Bo thought for a moment, then got on the phone with Grandma Varinski to watch the kids. He had originally proposed an afternoon at the art museum (Yes, Milwaukee has one), so this seemed an acceptable alternative.

Acceptable indeed. I didn’t know Captain Pabst had been such an avid art collector. Work spanning back to the 1600s hung inside the mansion walls…

But I get ahead of myself.

We arrived on yet another cloudy day. Winter left behind its zombie ice-crusts along the roadside: too damn tough to melt. Despite standing on a major thoroughfare, Bo needed me to guide him to the mansion. Marquette University dominates this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, making it easy to look at an old building and think it the school’s.

We step into what looks like a chapel to await the tour.

20170204_104131

I look upon the walls and windows…and get depressed.

What has happened to this place? Why’s it being held together by packing tape and pint glasses?

Worst of all, I have to pee. I hate having to pee while stuck in sweater tights.

So of course I had to ask the only male staff person about a bathroom. “Yes, if you’ll follow me.” He walked towards a door…into the mansion.

Weeeeee, I was getting in early!

Were one to be shrunk and escorted inside the Fairy Queen’s pixie dust tree, then one would know what it felt like to leave the decaying chapel and enter the mansion. It’s not that everything was all glittery or jewel-encrusted or such. It was the color: the warmth in the woodwork, the landscapes painted above the doors, the touch of gold and iron in all the right places. I cupped my phone in my hand, eager to snap some early photos before the tour–

–only my escort stuck with me all the way to the mansion’s bathroom and back.

Damn.

The tour began with an older women who sounded like she’d smoked through her formative years but had quit a while ago. She explained that we were actually in the beer pavilion Captain Pabst had commissioned for the World’s Fair in 1893. It was rebuilt as a sort of sun-room for the mansion. Then, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee took up residence in the Mansion in the early 1900s, it was converted into a chapel. Once the Catholic Church sold the Pabst property in the 1970s, much of the mansion had, like this chapel, fallen into disrepair. All restorations are funded through donations–and tours–and they try to work room by room. So far, they had the first two floors done. We would see them, and the work being done on the third floor.

I was practically hopping at Bo’s side. I couldn’t stop grinning. I had nearly emptied my phone of all precious moments of children doing childreny things to get as many shots as possible–

“No pictures, please.”

DAMMIT!

So, um…I don’t have pictures from inside the mansion proper.

But I do have some photos scrounged up from the Internet!

Oddly enough, the Pabst’s website used to have a sampling of the photos taken for their book. Why they took them down I don’t know; they provided some closeups of the amazing woodwork as well as a few rooms.

Entering the third floor was like stepping into a whole new building. The Catholics had plastered this sad, generic whitewash over the walls and altered much of the plumbing in order to “modernize” the house. Granted, many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but it was clear by seeing rooms in the midst or restoration just how long it would take before the mansion was completely restored. I found a great article on OnMilwaukee.com which shared some photos of restoration in process. You can see in that bottom right photo where they’re repainting the original patterns; the bottom left shows stencilwork that had been covered up by the “modern” paint.

The tour covered only the residential portions of the mansion, but I hope to return for one of their special nights of touring the basement and attic, too. Just look at that shot: there’s a story hidden in those depths, I’m sure of it.

pabstmansionbehind_fullsize_story1

One of main reasons I started this website was to share the imagery of my state and how it inspires me as a writer. I know some of you do this, too–Shehanne Moore has some stunning captures of her beloved Scotland, for example. Why? Because where we come from as writers is also where our characters will come from. Does that mean all my characters will be from Wisconsin? Probably not. But they’re all going to come from some place inside me: from my fears and loathings, loves and joys. They may never smell the air around the Circus World Museum, but they will all be a part of me, just as Wisconsin is a part of me.

The Pabst Mansion, this often-overlooked piece of homeland, inspired the setting for the first story I took seriously as a writer. And to share it with my husband, who still doesn’t like reading my fiction but loves my passion for writing because he loves me, made it all the more beautiful.

dbfc8430-3d0d-404d-962c-9eacc6e9886f

*Last month I conversed with a few of you about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I noted a review that I felt nailed the film’s failures (character development/plot) as well as achievements (that final space battle!). Now mind you, it’s a video made by nerds for nerds, so their sense of humor may not be your thing. But if you don’t mind some goofy sketches and crude language, watch away!

FanFic Fears & Other Bits of Potluck Clean-up

CM_JUL15_FEATURES_AnnaLouise6-e1435680443162Another lovely element of the writer’s psyche: we know how to clean up.

Oh, we may hate it. Put it off. Try to pawn the duties off on someone else to clean our messes for us. But we who are serious about craft and creation know the story will always need a good cleaning-up. How else will others see the language and imagery when there’s used napkins and half-eaten coconut oatmeal raisin cookies all over? And who brought those, anyway? Those raisins are disgustingly deceptive…

Anyway.

I imagine that, in moments like this, we’re all rather like my grandmother.

20160713_134527

Yes, the one with the cheesy grin is me.

She took her place as Church Basement Lady very seriously. If there was to be a funeral or some sort of fellowship hour, count on her to bring a pan of date bars and some hot ham for sandwiches. Where are the cups? She knows. Out of sugar? She’ll get some. Zounds, but the tables are a mess. Don’t worry: Marge and her crew will handle the clean-up.

And handle they did…in their own way.

Grandma and the six other ladies loved that time: the congregation gone, pastors elsewhere, they could smoke and cackle over gossip while hobbling among the tables gathering half-empty plates and forgotten snack cups. They’d use washcloths they had crocheted themselves to wipe down the tables and chairs. They’d drink that God-awful coffee, each leaving their own distinct shade of magenta lipstick on the styrofoam cups.

So let’s sit around the last table, you and I, and fill this air with old perfume and nicotine. Drink the dregs, and share our thoughts about all things past, present, and future in this meager life of hope and faith.

~*~

Last week I mentioned writing some thoughts on children’s literature for writer and illustrator A.J. Cosmo. Yesterday he posted some of these thoughts. Please click on over to read, “How Dark is Too Dark in Kid’s Lit?”

Poet Mike Steeden also sent me his review of my e-book collection of Lessons Learned. Not gonna lie–I teared up. I’ve only been in the blogosphere for a little over a year, but the friendships and partnerships formed are stronger than many I have in the physical world around me. Mike and I only started speaking–what, a month ago? And to receive such reactions from him spurred me to interrupt Bo on the toilet just to show him.

LESSONS LEARNED

‘Lessons Learned’, is a title that at first glance implies big picture aspirations gathered from history that make for a better future. In essence, albeit by way of cameo this book, should one be either a writer or an avid reader (or both) is just that…a backward glimpse at excellence; a message understood affording a more accomplished appreciation and/or production of what possibilities lie ahead.

An ever so silky smooth muse upon the works and thinking process of the prolific fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones, this book intelligently and painlessly dissects her extensive portfolio in a manner that new, indeed seasoned writers of the ‘now’, should they take heed of Jean Lee’s words, will be ‘better than before’.

For those, like this reader, unfamiliar with the works of Ms Jones, ‘Lessons Learned’ commences with a most agreeable account and crucial ‘hook’ as to how Ms Lee discovered the author, as well as providing a pertinent point glimpse as to, in colloquial terms, ‘what she was all about’.

As such, the book lives up to its title as it captures those lessons learned by the author herself in compiling the same and those, like me, grateful that such lessons are being passed on here.

Ms Lee debates a host of Ms Jones attributes, from genre and fictional character evolvement concepts that fascinate beyond measure. Also, as one who has had stabs at writing verse for children yet finding – in my case at least – the fun of silliness lost on more adult forms of poetic art the chapter ‘Don’t Sacrifice the Fun for Grown-Ups’ was particularly pertinent and educational.  Later in the book the ‘what is normal’ for a child as opposed to an adult – may be obvious in hindsight, yet not always in the forefront of the mind-set of those who ‘aspire’ – was another ‘lesson learned’.  Additionally, the importance, yet oft times overlooked first line attraction drawing the reader in is reinforced through specific example from Ms Jones’s portfolio.

‘Lessons Learned’ is an insightful analysis of a clutch of plainly super novels and furthermore, of the birth of a book and the specifics of its conception, thus making this well aimed tome a thing to serve as a vital aid for the writers far and wide.  Far, far better than an account of mere chronological subject matter vis-à-vis Diana Wynne Jones.  Moreover, the notes on ‘brevity’ caused this overly wordy reader to hang his head in shame (in a good way I stress)! The concluding chapter, ‘Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday’ conveys much about Jean Lee’s compelling way of thinking, an insight into both her own and Ms Jones mind in much the same way as a lyric might to an undisguised songwriter.  

Most important of all though is that there is a certain magic in Ms Lee’s didactic words that will remain intact, not stored away in some dark recess of my head for some time to come. 

Well done indeed Ms Lee!

How could I NOT interrupt Bo on the toilet with a review like that?

(Oh, and if you have no clue what I’m talking about with this e-book collection thingey, email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com and I’ll send you one. Yes, free. Friends share. 🙂

Yesterday I enjoyed reading smexy historical romance writer Shehanne Moore‘s interview (well, her power-hungry hamsters’ interview) of adventure fantasy writer Michael Dellert. They discussed the influence of place, as well as time, upon a writer, and how important it is to know how the when and where will impact the characters. Click here for the interview.

At one point Dellert states the following: “I think some writers sometimes make the mistake of plopping very contemporary attitudes down in a location that can’t support them. For example, in my medieval setting, literacy isn’t common.”

I know why he said that.

Me. 🙂 Well I’m sure I’m not the ONLY reason, but this specific example comes from the freewrites I’ve been working on for a Middle Grade story to take place in his created universe. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old named Gwenwledyr (Gwen for short, thank God) and her quest to become a true Shield Maiden of Droma. The freewrite prompts currently have me picking apart her psyche. Here’s an example:

Prompt: “I struggle with…”

What do you need to know THAT for? My struggles are my affairs, not yours.

Don’t stare.

FINE. Fine fine fine.

It’ll come out worse around others, but don’t you DARE speak of this without permission.

I don’t read really well. Actually, remove the “well.” I don’t read, really. Being the middler of the Not-Loved Woman meant I didn’t get the attention Muirgurgle and Nutty receive. They, THEY received educations. What makes them so special? One’s a boy, and one’s pretty. So what is it, their mothers? Must be. I hear of Muirgurgle’s mom spoken of, and pretty often too, by Father and some of the staff. She sounds like she was a sweet one. Maybe if she had lived a bit longer, that sweetness could have been gifted to Muirgurgle and he wouldn’t be the twit he is today.

Nutty’s mom is…around. Father’s a bit touchy about her. She goes off to meditate, see, a lot, and he’s wondering if she’s meditating with a little help, if you catch the nudge nudge there.

Sorry. I’m a *laaaady.* I shouldn’t speak of such things.

Hmm. Well actually, as a Shield Maiden, I *should* be more respectful of my elders.

When they earn it.

And right now our stableman Fiachna gets more respect from me than THAT woman.

But I have to be GOOD about it, see? That’s a struggle, too. Put on the Good Girl mask when others are around. Prim. Polite.

Even when Nutty asks me to read through a message, like the one that came from Dunsciath. THE message, from the king, that said he agreed to letting me become a Shield Maiden.

I held that message IN MY HAND, and had no idea what it said. Nutty and Muirgurgle laughed. Father politely told me what was going on.

Never have I wanted to read so badly in all my life.

Maybe another Shield Maiden could teach me….but that means talking about this to ANOTHER person besides you.

Damnation, but people are irritating.

I sent this to Michael, and that’s when he most graciously reminded me that illiteracy would be the norm of the period.

In my head I said:

DAMMIT THIS IS WHY I DON’T WRITE FAN FICTION IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSESESES I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL THE GOD DAMN RULES ARE AND WHY THE HELL SHOULD I BOTHER

In the message I typed:

No, I didn’t know that. I presumed their class would know at least a little. Ok. That alters things.

Which has led me to wonder about the very concept of fan fiction, and what really defines it. I suppose such a talk could go on for ages, but as this post has already gone on for ages, I’m going to set out two of these styrofoam cups and tip my ashes into the one with fewer dregs.

That’s the setting cup.

And this one with the lipstick will be the character cup.

It seems to me, being a noob in the online writing universe, that fanfic either fixates on a particular person (or two, like *cough* 50 Shades *cough cough*), or on a universe. I’ve got piles of Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Doyle that my dad enjoyed: Holmes in the Midwest, Holmes vs. The Phantom of the Opera, and so on. People took the character, and gave him more adventures. Hell, my very, VERY first picture book I can remember making had to do with a monster kidnapping a little boy and Superman flying in to save him.

Damn. My first story’s a fanfic.

Maybe for some writers, fanfic with characters is a bit like training wheels on a bike. Uncertain how to create originals, they move around with others until they’re confident enough to balance without help. That seems to be the case for me, anyway.

And if that’s the case, writing in another’s setting should be like training wheels again, right?

Only it’s not. As I told Michael some time ago, I felt like I was writing blindfolded. I couldn’t SEE where these characters stood because I don’t know Droma like Michael does. He’s spent years building this world, and now I’m just in there, picking up and dropping and throwing stuff around like my sons. Blondie will tell you: those two are destroyers.

And I felt no better.

Michael, bless him, kept it simple: yeah there’s a map, but that part of Droma isn’t defined.

I thought about Jason Voorhees. He’s been on my thoughts a lot since the start of motherhood. He. Is. A Character. People just looove toying around with his past, uncovering what makes him immortal, that real relationship with his mom, all that garbage. Bo, being a fan of slasher films, will even get into comic books based on the characters from time to time. One particular volume by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti stuck out, in part because of this image:

1468502940364

Just…look at that. (If you have the stomach, sorry–I know slashers are NOT for everyone.)

This image of ghosts rising up from the lake’s floor is the foreshadowing of what’s to come: Jason lets one character hold his machete, and in that instance, we see the true past of Camp Crystal Lake: of settlers who butchered entire tribes of natives, of a shaman’s curse, of the countless drownings, fires…

Gray and Palmiotti don’t do anything fancy with Jason. Jason’s Jason. Instead, they define the place.

The characters are mostly my own. I don’t know them all just yet, but little by little they’re coming into focus; you can read more of my freewrites on my facebook page if you’d like. A few already have traits established by Michael, but they, too, have blanks to be filled in.

With the freedom to define the place, I feel like I’m no longer confined by another’s universe. Yes, I do need to abide by some laws of history and progress. (What do you mean, they didn’t have the number zero? GAH! Next you’ll be telling me they don’t have alloys or mustard gas.) These laws, though, are rather like the foot-high picket fence people put around flowers because it looks cute. Yeah, it sucks to trip on, but otherwise, you can step over and around it without hurting yourself.

I need to stop hurting myself.

I need to stop treating that little fence like some sort of electrified contraption.

I need to let Gwen show me around. Introduce me to people. Take me to where she saw the the Cat-Eyed Man.

I need to grip the grass in my fingers. Balance on large rocks that look like a giant’s toes. Smell the river air mix with hidden herbs. Listen to the bees work through the glens.

Time to wrap this up, my friends. I’ll get the lights if you can grab that garbage bag. May the coming week find you in strange places with stranger company.

That’s how the best stories–and gossip–are born.

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

Eco, from my meager understanding, was an extremely brilliant individual. Speaker of many tongues, student of many histories–i.e., a brainy dude. One can expect that when an intellectual someone wishes to write  a story set in the distant past, that someone will immerse in all aspects of the culture, and come forward with a riveting tale.

For the record, I LIKE The Name of the Rose. I do. But at the same time, I’m not sure how to feel about all of this:

20160512_133121

Just look at all those not-English words! I mean, I figured there would be some Latin. It is a mystery inside a monastery set in fourteenth century, after all. But I have my limits. And there are GOBS of sections like this. Was I warned? Yes. “You can usually get the gist from context, but then you miss out on crucial stuff. Keep a dictionary handy.”

Outwardly I gave an absent assent, but inwardly my mind is groaning as loud as a kid told she can’t lift shirts to poke belly buttons anymore. (Am I the only one who had a daughter go through this phase?) I read from 5-6am if work and/or kids permit. The last thing I want to do at 5am is conjugate a pluperfect verb and decipher which noun is in its ablative case. No. Thank You.

Thankfully I discovered a blog that did all the translations–Rapid Diffusion. This, I always kept handy when I read Eco, and yes, having the translations does make a difference.

So is it wrong to make readers work? No. Granted, the idea of translating all that Latin intimidated, but it did not deter. I still had my Latin books from high school, so I was totally ready…to contact my classmate who could translate Latin as she read it without notes or dictionaries or anything by the flipping brilliant age of 16. (Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.) I wanted to read this book. I knew this book was going to require more of me than other literary fare. I didn’t care. I wanted to read it. If my friend couldn’t help me, then (insert gulping sound) I would give the translating a go.

In an earlier post, I discussed Diana Wynne Jones’ lament over the dumbing-down of fiction for adults, while kids don’t mind working their brains to appreciate a story. When I first cracked open The Name of the Rose and saw all the Latin, I thought of this. Maybe translating several dozen pages’ worth of Latin is a touch extreme, but shouldn’t books written for adults be at least a LITTLE challenging? I like my chocolate muffins of fantasy or mystery, sure, but veg is good for the body AND the brain, and Eco provides a cornucopia of veg with this novel. Yeah, I had help with the Latin, but the history is so complexly woven with the mystery, and the dialogue so dense without action (a topic I very much want to discuss in another post) that my brain had to chew it all, slowly, before fully appreciating what it had just devoured.

904cea2232616.56012d54f1266I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past. Writers fill their worlds with what matters to the story; to pass over a description, a conversation, or a verse in another language is, well, rather akin to ignoring someone in conversation, isn’t it? Just, turning up the nose and continuing on with the person you like because he’s the interesting one.

No.

A writer should not overwhelm their story with innocuous minutia, and a reader should not skip around and still expect to understand the story without a hitch. Both parties must work, and work hard, to truly bring a book to life.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

 

Know. Your. Setting.

My husband Bo is not one to read fiction. He prefers reading nonfiction about the fiction-makers: biographies on actors, the making of films, the rise and fall of movie studios, and the like. Sometimes, Bo shares something with me that I MUST pass on.

We all scratch our heads over certain stories’ successes. How one novel reaches best-seller status despite its writing or cliche character/plot/etc. How one screenplay reaches the screen and another does not. Peter Bart’s Fade Out chronicles how this happened in MGM and, as a result, knocked the studio off the pedestal to the ground.

This excerpt is just one of the many bizarre instances Bart shares in his book. After reading it, I hope you’ll ask yourself: Do I really know my story’s setting? Do I really know my characters? Because if you can’t answer that with confidence, someone is going to call you out on it. Hard.

First, here is the premise of Road Show (spoiler alert: this movie never made it to production) as told by Peter Blart:

The central character was a rock-solid American cattle rancher named Spangler (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself besieged by voracious creditors. When thieving truckers try to charge an outrageous price to transport his 250 head of cattle to Kansas City, Spangler opts for the ultimate act of defiance. He will drive his herd to market the old-fashioned way–a classic cattle drive past the turnpikes and the billboards and the Holiday Inns and the Big Macs. Assisting him will be his wife, Opal, and his friend Leo (Tim Hutton), a schoolteacher who is desperate to learn what the “real world” is like. Along the way, there is danger and adversity, but Spangler prevails–he gets his cattle to Kansas City. (Bart, 1990, 72-72)

Now that you know the story involved with the incident, let’s learn about the incident, shall we? The other players involved are Richard Brooks, slated to direct, and Denne Petitclerc, writer and “battle-hardened veteran of the movie wars” (Bart, 1990, 80).

Having read the Getchell draft of Road Show, Petitclerc said he was troubled by the curious absence of conflict. Once Spangler decides to defy the venal truckers and launch his cattle drive, the story seems to dissipate rather than build, Petitclerc reported. A tentative romantic triangle between Spangler, Leo, and Opal never develops into anything.

Indeed, nothing seems to develop!

When Petitclerc posed his analysis of the script to Brooks, he listened carefully and said he agreed. After tossing ideas back and forth for several hours, a working plan was agreed to. Petitclerc would start his rewrite, consistent with their discussions. Brooks, meanwhile, would go to Kansas to scout the actual locations and hopefully come up with some fresh solutions to the story problems.

“I’m not good at dealing with things in the abstract,” Brooks said. “I have to get a sense of real people and places.” And, having said that, he got an even better idea: He would also invite his two leads, [Jack] Nicholson and [Tim] Hutton, to join him on his jaunt through Kansas. Having waited so long for the picture to start, they might be energized by the trip and get into their characters.

The actors readily agreed, and they all took off. Once during this trek, Brooks phoned to say it was going well. The only setback thus far, he said, was that Jack Nicholson almost got arrested for mooning other motorists on the turnpike.

Upon returning from the trip, however, Brooks quickly fell into a dark mood. “He’s worried,” Donna Dubrow reported. “He won’t tell me what’s wrong, but he looks miserable, and he’s popping glycerine or some kind of a pill for angina pains. He’s worried, and therefore I’m worried.”

A week later, Petitclerc turned in a stack of revised pages, but Brooks would not return his phone calls to disclose his reaction to them. An aide reported seeing clumps of pages atop Brook’s desk with epithets like “garbage” and “trash” scrawled in the margins.

Brooks himself burst into my office one day to explain, in his usual disconnected way, what was bothering him. “It’s the goddamn story,” he said, pacing the room, “the whole premise. It starts from there.”

“What starts from there?”

“If a rancher like Spangler felt he was being fleeced by truckers, he’d go out and rent his own goddam trucks, that’s what he’d do. I realized that driving around Kansas, talking to people. And he sure as hell wouldn’t start a goddam cattle drive, because he couldn’t get the goddam cattle across the goddam turnpikes, and even if he could, the goddam bridges wouldn’t hold up under a thundering herd.”

Brooks stopped in his tracks. “You know what I think?”

“What?”

“No one involved in this movie ever went to Kansas, that’s what I think. There are a hundred things in this script that wouldn’t be there if anyone had visited Kansas. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve visited Kansas!”

Having said that, Brooks exited my office. (Bart, 1990, 80-81)

Believe it or not, it took MORE hi-jinks to ensue before they finally shut this project down.

Anyway, I hope this bit of history gives you pause. It’s so easy to set our stories anywhere, real or imagined, but unless we can fully explain how our world works, or how our characters work, we are setting our stories up to fail. Know your place. Know your people. Or you will find yourself knocked off the pedestal and face-down in the dirt.

Click here for more on Peter Bart’s FADE OUT.

 

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Simple Terms Can Have Magical Meanings

18488119._UY200_One of the plights of fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, magical realism, and whatever other subgenre marketing has made up, is LANGUAGE. I am not speaking of strong writing, or believable dialogue. I’m talking terms.

When one’s creating worlds, or altering the one we’ve got, there may be a temptation to mess about with how things are named. If you have the creative wherewithal to study language, dialects, poetics and the whole shebang, then go with Godspeed. I, however, am an impatient sod, and want the story up and on the screen as quickly as possible. Who has time to (shudder) study terminology?

Diana Wynne Jones’ work reveals a very clever solution to this problem: take terms with which readers are familiar, and twist their meaning. Not a lot—just enough to give readers a real-ish sense of an unreal concept. Here are some examples from various works. Perhaps after reading these you’ll discover there is a simpler, more effective approach to terms in your world that will allow you to tell a story rather than explain it.

FARM: the portion of society a magical being controls, such as crime, transportation, or music. (Archer’s Goon)

AYEWARDS/NAYWARDS: in a multi-verse, these refer to the which worlds are strong in magic, and which are not. For instance, to move “naywards” is to move into worlds where magic has but a weak presence. (Deep Secret/The Merlin Conspiracy)

DEEP SECRET: a piece of an extremely powerful spell (Deep Secret)

RAISE THE LAND: to call up a dragon made of magically potent land. (The Merlin Conspiracy)

FIELD OF CARE: the area which one of magical ability must tend and protect. (Enchanted Glass)

REIGNORS: tyrannical rulers of the galaxy (Hexwood)

SEVEN-LEAGUE BOOTS: magical shoes that will help one cover miles in just a step. (Howl’s Moving Castle)

51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_MAGID: one who administrates the flow of magic to influence global events for the good throughout the multiverse (Deep Secret/The Merlin Conspiracy)

As you can see from this wee list, Jones’ terms are nothing exotic, but common and rooted in everyday knowledge. Yet their magical application makes them unique. Even Magid, which may sound otherworldly at the outset, has the same root as “magistrate.” That term will register in readers’ heads, and they won’t be confused when they learn what a Magid does.

If you are world building or altering, think carefully on your terms. Rather than splicing together all sorts of rad-sounding syllables to form words NO one will understand, consider using the common tongue. You may find some magic there whose simplicity will remain with readers long after the book is closed.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.