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

 

 

Can a Protagonist be a Jerk in a Story Worth Reading?

“No, I could never read this book again.”

The eighteen of us sat in a classroom no janitor’s touched in weeks, evidenced by the dust bunnies on my backpack, not-looking at whomever dared to speak. The first term of grad school, my first class analyzing story and craft. Overwhelmed, I poured through critiques others wrote only to be thumped for not sharing my own “untainted” thoughts. Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers was the first I tried to study free of the evil critic taint.

“Why?” 18828

“Because I don’t like Charlie. He’s an asshole.”

“So you don’t think a story can sell if you don’t like the main character.” Half the room nodded with the teacher, whose demeanor reminded me of a spectacled old grizzly bear.

I half-raised my hand. The teacher, a loud atheist who found my faith “quaint,” peered at the table-space before me to make sure I had no pile of articles painted by highlighter. “Jean?”

“Well,” I coughed, hated talking in that space, squirmed in the plastic chairs all universities think are somehow comfortable for hours of lecture, “A story can still be good just because you don’t like someone.”

My classmate turned to me, confident in her age and skill. “But I don’t care about him.”

“That doesn’t make the story less good.”

Yeah, I wasn’t much for eloquence back then. Not that my classmate was wrong, per say. Who wants to root for a jerk’s success? But there are other characters in the story beside the protagonist, so I think it depends on this question:

Will the story transform your character, or does your character transform the story?

The Rachel Papers fulfills the latter: Charles Highway makes his mark on Rachel and a number of other people, but remains an unchanged blighter from start to finish.

middlers-pride-7In my current work, Middler’s Pride, main character Gwen begins as a pompous ass. Oh, she’s nice enough with some characters back home, but once she meets the other Shield Maiden recruits in her training group, she declares herself superior, a legend who simply hasn’t been noticed yet. The latest scene I drafted amplifies the conflict between her and the other girls:

III.ii.

The river ran noiselessly, like a shadow. One could leap over it on horseback without trouble. If one could get a horse here. A hand barrow would do the trick, made with her wrecked tunic and some thick sticks and haul the weapons a few at a time. The ground, though… Despite the fresh sun, the land felt cold, sticky, and damp, like mud in the earliest of spring. Yet the trees were in full summer leaf, and the rabbits and family of deer who fed on the meager ferns and asters took no notice of Gwen. Good. A few snares should mean decent eating through the whole month. The mushrooms didn’t look all that bad, either. Tegan must be used to a much fatter landscape.

Near the Khaibe, maybe?

What did she know about the Khaibe, that the name would draw such hate into her face? Maybe she grew up near them, too. Had family.

Gwen pulled out the clay token Aberfa had made for her. It filled the palm of hand, its lines from the Bread Code they’d created as children. Friend. Always.

Girl chatter. The rabbit and deer scattered. UGH. They arrived as though bound together, like some sort of band, or, group, or…whatever. And what was Tegan doing with them, anyway? Some friend she was, chumming up with Elle and Wynne for no reason. Aberfa understood loyalty.

“This can’t be the River Gasirad,” Elle leapt about like a lame doe and landed atop an old tree stump next to Gwen. “It’s so puny.”

Wynne still heaved deep breaths, but managed to say, “It’s not. I live. By the proper. This connects. There.” She pointed south. “Not far. Rode. The barges a few. Times.”

A low ripple of cracks, low, swelled up, THUNK—Elle’s foot fell through the trunk, but the rest of her remained safe and sound thanks to Gwen’s lightning reflexes. Elle smiled in thanks. Great. Just let GO.

“Hold still, Elle,” Tegan brushed the dust and splinters. Paused. “Hey, Gwen, look at this.” Finally! Gwen untangled herself from Elle and knelt next to Tegan. Sure enough: “It’s like the plants from yesterday.”

Gwen took a deep breath, fixed her gaze so that she saw only Elle’s calf. “And the stag under the curse of the Cat Man.” Time the eyes, don’t move too fast. This must be a dramatic moment of the legend’s tale…

Elle thrust her fingers into it like an idiot. “Doesn’t feel much like a curse to me.” She held her fingers towards Wynne like she would know any better. “I mean, it’s a bit smelly. Sure this isn’t just old bat scat?”

Tegan took some and rubbed it between forefinger and thumb. “From what you said, Gwen, this stuff seems awfully watery. And more grey than black.”

“Remnants of old black magick, then?” She wasn’t going to be dumb enough to rub her skin in that stuff. Idiots. “Look, we have orders. We have to clean the weapons, which means carrying them here.”

“And ruin our clothes like you ruined yours?” Elle’s laugh sounded like a dog barking at the wind. “No thank you. We think it’ll be loads easier to carry water to the fort instead. Boil it up. Clean the weapons that way.”

Gwen bit the inside of her lip. “We?”

The three of them looked at each other like this “we” was perfectly normal. That of course they would work together. Gods forbid they not listen to orders. Again. Oh that’s right, they’re not.

“We were ordered—“

“And we’re going to do fulfill that order, Gwen.” Why was Tegan looking at her like some rabid animal? “We’ll clean the weapons, but carrying them here is foolish. We can’t afford to ruin what little we have to wear. You really want that black mold stuff on your armor?”

Gwen felt her feet step back. No. She couldn’t retreat. But she didn’t want her armor wrecked before it saw battle, either. “We’re here to train, build our strength. Become proper soldiers.” Well. She eyed Wynne. “Some of us, anyway. Gods know what you’re doing here.”

“Hey!” Elle stepped into Gwen’s eye-line and gave glare for glare. “We’ve all of us reason to be here, and become soldiers. Not all of us have been trained straight from the cradle, or whatever it is you did with your precious Shield Maiden Nanny.”

“Don’t you—“ Gwen formed a fist and swung.

Elle caught her fist. Held it.

Try the other fist? It won’t stop shaking…

Those damned red eyes are daring her to.

“You can help us here, or you can walk away.”

Her fist shook inside Elle’s. So. Humiliating. Her eyes burned like fire, all those legendary scars, too–

How dare she look a legend.

How dare they not…listen, and just…

“Fine,” she said with clenched teeth, and pulled back. Walked around.

“You dropped this.” Wynne’s hand shook as she held it out: Aberfa’s talisman.

Shaking hand.

They even take her weakness from her.

Gwen snatched the talisman away and marched back to the fort, black thoughts circling.

They’re not listening to orders because ol’ Captain Tree Trunk is incompetent.

Terrwyn’s too far off, blast it.

Well.

Captain Vala just needs to be informed of the situation. And once she sees how they disregard her orders, then, THEN there will be some proper teamwork under the true leader of this group.

The true legend.

Gwen’s the kind of girl I would have feared and hated in school. I would never want to hang around her, let alone be related to her.

Yet I created her. I WANT her to be this way right now. Why?

Because Gwen, like so many kids, gosh, like so many of us grownups, has to realize she isn’t the hot shit she thinks she is. Countless stories include that change: take my primary influences for Middler’s Pride, Michael Dellert and Diana Wynne Jones. drownedammet

A Merchants Tale_Final Cover.inddThe protagonist Corentin in Dellert’s The Merchant’s Tale is a young guy who treats the others in his caravan like nobodies, but by the end he’s willing to respect them and listen to (most of) what they have to say about traveling through Droma. In Jones’ Drowned Ammet, Mitt sees the aristocracy as a bunch of gluttonous leeches while Hildrida looks on commoners as nasty imbeciles. Of course they’re stuck on a boat together, and treat each other like crap for a good long while. But unlike Charles Highway, these two cannot help but be influenced by events, and therefore change their perspectives.

the_dawn_treader_coverAs a reader, my first experience with this kind of character was that turd of a cousin Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the selfish idiot who refuses to take in the world around him until his selfishness puts him under a curse that only Aslan can break. Eustace finally must face that he cannot do it all. He cannot save himself.

That moment has stuck with me through the past couple of decades—not just because of my faith, but in a story, I see that moment as being The Ultimate Moment. The protagonist cannot save herself her own way, or be the lone savior of her world. It is through the sacrifice of the most treasured elements within her that a new power comes through love, friendship, light. Everything, the presumed inevitable end, the web-ties of the characters, all alter because of that fall to her knees in surrender. Such changes snap and re-bind the page to the reader herself, for she knows the really good stuff is coming.

Now to give it.

eustace-as-a-dragon-eustace-from-narnia-20929101-530-276

Pride of Place

20150905_162501The concept of theme alluded me for years. I’d read various articles, listen to graduate school classmates deliberate and professors pontificate, but still not “get” it.

A story entertains readers, gives them a chance to escape the everyday. It can teach a lesson, too, I suppose–rather like parables: “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” But isn’t theme something readers interpret for themselves? I couldn’t correlate the characters with the writer’s intent. Characters are supposed to be their own entities, moving about the stage the writer creates. Writers create people, not marionettes. If I want to see stringed creatures tugged about and opening their mouths for voices projected from behind a curtain, I’ll attend a puppet show, not read a book.

Yeah, no. I was pretty wrong about that. About theme, I mean. But I didn’t really understand how wrong until a few days ago.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve taken on a Middle Grade fantasy based in Michael Dellert’s Matter in Manred series. The characters and setting were not mine at the outset: I guess you could say I adopted them. I love them like my own, and while they certainly piss me off some days, I refuse to give up on them. They’ve even made me brave enough to share freewrites and scenes on Facebook.

The latest scene I shared on Facebook was a dinner gone horribly awry. The protagonist’s parents have invited another family to dinner in hopes of acquiring a suitor for the protagonist, Gwen. The scene ends in a debacle, of course. Awesome. Great.

Now what?

Well, I knew I had left the progatonist’s mentor in a hot-temper; she wouldn’t wait to make her feelings known. I’ll have her show up and get things moving.

Life got muddled for a bit after that.

Gwen didn’t know who overturned which chair first, or whose cup flipped across the table, or how Murtagh and Nutty got barred from leaving when Demmán came in with warm water and cloths for cleaning. But you better believe that when the door broke open to a stormy gust of stink and Fiachna’s whine of, “I’m sorry my lords she made meeee!” everyone stopped to look.

Terrwyn’s iron leg reflected the fire. Fists at hips. Braids half-kept in leather strips. Raindrops fled away from her face and down her leather coat.

Eyes over all. Even Nutty looked down and away when that glare was on.

Gwen wanted to hide under the table. Somehow this was all her fault. She didn’t get to her home when Terrwyn said, and now everything was wrong, and Terrwyn was mad, and—

“My lord, is it not time to visit your family’s shrine?” She spoke with such a polite calm that even the visitor-mother felt it acceptable to sit while Demmán cleaned her up. Her eyes, however, shone with the white-hot heat of a forge.

Lord Aillil brushed the remains of his dinner of his tunic. “Ah.” He coughed. Raised his eyebrows at his friend, who nodded in kind. “Yes, you are right. Muirgius, you will pray with me later. Please tend to our guests while I escort your sisters and mother.”

“But it’s my ancestor—“

“Since your…duties…prevented you from tending the gate, you can pay your proper honors now.”

Muirgius dropped the half-squashed apple cake, defeated. Gwen struggled not to smirk as she walked out to him stammering, “So, ah, a good walk? Oh yes, you rode. That carriage must have cost…”

The moment their other house-servant Iarél closed the door behind them Saffir hissed, “What duties?”

“Damned if I know,” Aillil halted himself time and again to keep behind Terrwyn. No one went near Terrwyn for fear of getting her bellows going again. “Iarél lost him by the mill. He wasn’t bothering Aberfa, as far as Pyrs knows.”

Nutty walked by Gwen, face pinched at everything she laid her eyes on. “I thought you weren’t the trickster with the flies.”

Gwen said nothing. She knew better…especially when Terrwyn’s leg swung so with that angry gait.

“It certainly explains where the miller children get it from. The whole lot’s dumber than a sack of seed. Dumber than Aberfa.”

Gwen grabbed Nutty, made her eyes bulge out at the sight of soot on her pretty dress. She cocked a fist ready to take out a few pretty teeth but—

“Aberfa knows better than to insult her peers over nothing.” Terrwyn stood, cane between her legs, at the altar. Gwen looked for her mountain-land: it had turned in upon itself, and continued to turn, slow, like a spinning wheel transforming cloud to the thread of lightning…

Saffir stood some feet away, at the shrine’s outer edge. Her muslin, stained with grease and wine, fluttered about her spotted face. “Mind your tongue, Neued.”

“But since when do we go to the shrine? This belongs to Muirgius’ mum, not us.”

“Since I needed to remind you that this suitor was for your sister. Not. You.” Saffir pulled a ring off Neued’s finger and put it on her own. “You cannot marry before her. I trusted you with one thing: to get Gwenwledyr ready while I tended the dinner. And what do I see? You dressed in her clothes.”

Soot, grease, dirt, hay. Somewhere under all this lay a dress of some sort. Blue, maybe? Gwen honestly couldn’t remember, it’d been a few days. She had some boots with holes by the ankle and heel. Her hair thick and coarse as a hedge.

This wasn’t the kind of body to go in a dress like that. She wasn’t the person. The thought made Gwen feel sick all over again. Even Nutty’s swelling tears did nothing to make her feel better.

“She’s not my real sister, and he’s not my real father.”

Gwen never thought she’d seen Saffir get color in her cheeks before.

“Neued. That is enough.”

A rumble from above, and from Lord Aillil.

Terrwyn remained still as a lone fly buzzed into their circle.

Lord Aillil caught it, crushed it. “Go back with your mother. And remember her words. Well.”

Neued stomped off past her mom. Saffir’s gaze shifted as Lord Aillil wipe the fly on the grass. “Gwenwledyr…” She bit her lips, blinked away a rain drop. “Oh, if only you were a proper daughter!”

My face scrunched as I forced myself on, despite Biff screaming to “FIND the shiny truck! Find it, FIIIIIND IIIT!” and Bash grabbing at my coffee any chance he could, even after I made him his own cup. (Oh hush, he ain’t your kid.) Writing when the kids are around is always hard, but lately the boys have almost no patience when I’ve got the computer out. My stomach throws some acid into my throat every time I say, “No, you can’t sit in my lap. No, I can’t read a story. No, no no no…” But the logical part of me swallows it back down: One hour. You are allowed one FUCKING hour for YOU. 

Time up, scene done.

I didn’t like it.

Kinda hated it.

I sent it to Michael with an “ugh. I don’t know. Gwen may as well not even be there.” Michael agreed: “Gwen’s lost in it.”

At first I blamed the scene itself: too many people, too much going on. I’m not a good enough writer to handle so many characters interacting at once. Even in a play, action and dialogue are limited among two to three at a time while others shift into the background. (Unless you’re into musicals and dance numbers, which I am not. At. All.)  I didn’t like the guests being present for Terrwyn’s entry. I didn’t like Gwen being the only one NOT doing anything. I didn’t like how whiny step-sister Neued was. And the plot-drop about the suitor felt dumb.

Michael suggested a smashcut to the shrine, and to focus “on Gwen’s conflict.”

I shirked at the thought of a cut, but Michael was right: I wasn’t putting Gwen first. The protagonist of any story needs to be front and center. If she’s not physically in the front and center, then the other characters MAKE her the front and center. That’s why the dinner debacle felt right: she wasn’t participating, but she was the topic of conversation.

What was this story called? The Middler’s Pride.

What was missing? Gwen’s pride.

The dinner had cut her down; now she needed to cut back. But the story had to move forward, and that wasn’t going to happen until I established the relationships with her parents. From Gwen’s point of view, she’s treated like crap. She makes that clear within the first few pages, and the dinner debacle seems to prove it.

But pride does funny things to one’s perceptions, such as seeing how one’s treated by others. Back when I brainstormed this story out, I saw the arc being Gwen’s transformation: how her pride feels like an asset when all it’s been is a deceiver, and only when her pride is totally crushed does she find proper strength in herself and through others.

Huh. Well, what do you know: a theme.

But I didn’t want to pull the characters’ mouths with strings to make them say what I wanted them to say. I wanted to give them the chance to be themselves, so Gwen could naturally rise, fall, and rise again with this transformation.

This meant whatever happened after that dinner party needed to give her pride a chance to show as well as move the plot. Since her father’s the one that gets Gwen to Act II, why not him?

Nope.

Not going back.

Not ever ever EVER.

Never mind the cold water, or the cloud mountains’ destruction above her as rain started again. Gwen wanted nothing to do with the manor or any other piece of Easavainn Mills. She’d rather stay in the river until the goddess Gasirad herself said otherwise.

Gwen swam against the current, its fingers clutching her dress, boots and hair. It pulled her down. Roared in her ears. But she always pulled harder, up to the surface, and down again. She swam this way around the thorp to the mill itself, where the water kept the wheels ever-turning. Then she’d stop, float downstream, and start again when the shrine came in sight.

On her third trip down stream, she caught scraps of Terrwyn’s tongue-thrashing:

“—only child DOING anything—“

“—talk to horses more—“

“—handing off like grain—“

“—BE a father for two bloody minutes—“

She wanted to look, she really, REALLY wanted to look, but no: Gwen kept her eyes to the water, to the feel of fish fighting past her, and pressed back. Every stroke felt like a question:

Why? Me? Why? Me? Why? Me?

New fingers, tighter and stronger and—formed! Fingers pulled her down she could SEE hands, and Gwen knew eyes of rainbow stared at her in waves of pitch-black hair, lips moving, but she didn’t understand—

Gwen kicked up, hard, harder, and threw herself out towards the small dock she and the baker’s dozen used for fishing. Fingers just grazed the splintered edge—

Caught.

Pulled up. Out.

Lord Aillil held Gwen off the ground with hands as big as bear paws. His dark eyes gripped hers, his nostrils flaring.

Gwen dangled, caught sight of Terrwyn seated by the shrine, striking flint against her iron leg to light her pipe.

One heaving breath.

Two.

What to do?

“Thanks.”

Lord Aillil blinked, set her down. Gwen couldn’t remember the last time he’d held her, or even stood this close. “You always swim fully dressed?”

Gwen shrugged. Even shrugging hurt, but it beat talking.

He studied the river’s current while tucking fallen locks behind his ears. “Takes a warrior’s strength to swim like that.”

A flicker of linden leaf shone against Terrwyn’s face. Gwen thought of the hunting trips with her father and step-brother. Of her traps that worked, her successful spears. And how she was denied to continue once Muirgurgle became an adult because HE was the son. He was the one who was supposed to be the strong one. The warrior.

But talking was hard. It was always hard. So she said: “Yes, it does.”

Rain weighted Lord Aillil’s hair, pulling it back down in long, earthy strips. “What do you want, Gwenwledyr?”

Oh, the things that popped into her head…

The lost hunting trips.

The refusal of the family weapon, a spear imbued with magick from long ago.

The denied chances to sit on his knee.

The denied chances to leave the thorp with travelers who spoke to her more in one hour than her own father spoke to her in days.

“I want what’s mine.”

Lord Aillil started to shake his head.

“It’s all I have, and I want it. I want to answer the blood-feud.”

“No.”

“Those people drove my mother out of her home, they killed her family. My mother’s spirit deserves justice.”

No.”

“It’s all I want! I don’t want a husband or land or title. I’m not asking you to give up your family. I’m not asking you to give anything.”

Gwen puffed herself up. She no longer shivered. Even her hands remained still. She survived the trickster in the deep. She survived pestilence and fire. She survived houseguests.

She was Gwenwledyr, and she would. Be. Heard.

Lord Aillil’s right hand twitched at his side. He lifted it, almost reached through the space between them…but scratched his beard instead. His eyes drifted from the nearby manor and stables towards the water, the forest. When he looked on her again, a strange glitter filled them—raindrops, perhaps. “Yes, you are.”

Of course. He thinks I’ll take a horse. Gwen readied herself to say otherwise, but the wind picked up, blowing old kindling for the shrine down the hill. Some leaves and twigs fell upon them, others into the water, where colors sparkled underneath. Eye-shaped colors.

“Come inside. It is late, and the fire is warm.”

Gwen spat a leaf out of her mouth. “No.”

Lord Aillil bit his lip, smelled the air, and shook his head. He couldn’t even look at her, cleaning his eyes as he turned away. The moment his foot touched Easavainn earth, his gait and posture returned. A coin sang and sparkled as he flicked it through the air to Terrwyn, who caught it with ease. The moment he reached the hilltop Terrwyn called to Gwen: “Come along. I’m cold and tired. So are you.”

Gwen was. By gods, she was. Everything felt heavy, in and out. The coin still smarted. “So he’s paying you to keep me now, is he?”

Terrwyn puffed as she hobbled. “No.” The thorp center opened beneath them: a circle of lamplights and hearth-fires. The smell of warmed cider and bread set Gwen’s stomach roaring for its supper. “I merely wagered you’d refuse.”

Lord Aillil’s the biological parent, so it makes sense for him to be the first to interact with her after the dinner debacle. Plus, he’s the one Gwen’s mentor Terrwyn would ream out (being a former soldier herself), which allows her anger from before the dinner to come back into play.

I also wanted readers to have a chance to see Gwen alone with her father. All they’ve heard and seen is his formal self, his pride-filled self. Sound familiar? That’s when I knew Gwen needed to look a lot like her father rather than the dead mother. They mirror each other more than they know, and in this scene, I think Lord Aillil finally realizes it. This spurs him to petition the king to enlist Gwen in the Shield Maidens, and help her become the warrior she thinks she already is.

The idea of Gwen swimming just to swim, just to prove she could, felt like the right show of pride: it’s a solitary task, one no one can really interrupt…except a goddess. Yeah, that bit excited me when I thought of it: the river goddess comes to Gwen for help to begin Act III. Why not have her first appearance here and now?

Yes, letting the scene be just Gwen and her father made me remove the stepmom and stepsister. Not a fan of that at first, but when this one-on-one with the father worked, it seemed only right Gwen be the center of a scene with her stepmom, too. I didn’t want Saffir to fit the “evil stepmom” stereotype. I wanted her to apologize and reach out to Gwen in her own way. Nutty/Neued already had her establishing scene with Gwen; we don’t need another one. A one-on-one with Saffir could finish establishing the “normal” life in their society before Gwen is exposed to something totally new. It would also give Gwen a chance to buck, shut down, and cover herself in pride yet again.

Theme itself really does have pride of place in the elements of story. All the choices we make about the setting, the characters, all that happens or does not, hinges upon theme.  It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Set the Stage with Just the Right Amount of Character.

140290I wish I could tell you what set me on Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries first. It might have been the PBS Mystery! episodes starring David Suchet. My folks may have recommended her, but they never read her work. Or maybe a librarian long ago recommended Christie to me, tired of me checking out the same illustrated edition of Holmes stories again. Whatever the case may be, I was hooked, and still am. While school friends passed spare time in study hall with Dean Koontz, Jeanette Oke, or J.R.R. Tolkien (the Spanish edition…because plain old Elvish ISN’T HARD ENOUGH), I was lost in The A.B.C. Murders, Hallowe’en Party, or Death on the Nile.

Dame Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916—100 years ago!

Wow, a century of Hercule Poirot…ahem. Sorry, I just thought that was really cool.

Mysteries carry some unique strengths and limitations compared to other genres that I’ve read. On the one hand, you have the ease of using the same protagonist as often as you’d like. You can develop his/her character slowly over the course of five, ten, twenty books. And those books don’t have to connect–each can be a stand-alone story. You may want to be like my son Biff, who loves to climb a single rock, jump off, then run over to another rock further down the park, or you may be like my daughter Blondie, who will start with the first rock, and carefully move from one rock to the next, determined to travel the park upon this road of stone until she reaches its end.

Other characters, though, just don’t get that same treatment. Few can. Unless one’s a recurring villain, or a foil for the detective, there simply isn’t the page space for ample character development. I used to strongly believe the contrary until I took up Styles with a more critical eye. To be clear, I don’t consider this a strike against mysteries; mysteries simply don’t need to be totally populated by complete human beings I could reach out and touch. Nor am I expecting a whole new world built just for a mystery. When I read a fantasy, I want to see a new world, or a new layer to my world. When I read a mystery by Agatha Christie, I know she’s writing stories that take place on this planet, with the same laws of physics, history, etc. There’s no need for her to extensively explain what’s going on in the world in 1916 for readers to have some sort of appropriate context.

What she does need to do is introduce the cast—that is, the potential victim and suspects—in a tight amount of space. A mystery can only be a mystery when there’s a crime either about to be committed or committed already. In a book of 13 chapters, one shouldn’t have to wait until Chapter 6 for the first crime. In Styles, we get the “The Night of the Tragedy” in Chapter 3 (thus the chapter title). That means we need the cast established before that. Two chapters. Is that enough?

(It occurred to me just now that there’s one exception to this cast establishment: the law enforcement character if the detective is outside of the law. It doesn’t exactly make sense for the law to show up until after the crime’s been committed.)

Let’s see when and how Christie introduces her suspects—I mean, characters.

Chapter 1: “I Go to Styles”

The book opens with a first-person narrator, whose name—Hastings—isn’t used until the fourth page.

  • The first paragraph tells us Poirot is his friend.
  • The third paragraph gives something of Hastings as well as introduces another character: I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’s sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish.

Yes, yes—it’s rather like Dr. Watson, being a veteran of the war, wounded and sent home. But unlike Watson, Hastings is no medical professional. We learn he’s a bit of a loner, unsure of what to do with his life. For the sake of this story, that’s all we need for the start.

John Cavendish only gets a couple snippets of description over the first two pages:

  • Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years.
  • John practiced for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled down the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother to increase his allowance.

We often hear writers should use dialogue to get as much information to readers as possible, yes? Christie does that here. Other characters are introduced over the course of the conversation Hastings and John Cavendish have here at the beginning of Chapter 1.

  • “Your mother keeps well?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?”
    I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John ‘s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her.
  • Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.
  • John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother’s remarriage and smiled rather ruefully. “Rotten little bounder too!” he said savagely. “I can tell you, Hastings, it’s making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—you remember Evie?”
    “No.”
    “Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She’s the mater’s factotum, companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not precisely young and beautiful, but as game as they make them.”
    “You were going to say—?”
    “Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being a second cousin or something of Evie’s, though she didn’t seem particularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is an absolute outsider, anyone can see that. He’s got a great black beard, and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottoned to him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she’s always running a hundred societies?”
    I nodded.

Almost three pages in, and we’ve already met or heard of six characters. Not too shabby!

By the bottom of the fourth page Hastings and John Cavendish arrive at Styles. First we hear of a new character—

  • “I wonder if we’ve time to pick up Cynthia. No, she’ll have started from the hospital by now.”
    “Cynthia! That’s not your wife?”
    “No, Cynthia is a protogee of my mother’s, the daughter of an old schoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came a cropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother came to the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. she works in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away.”

And then we start to meet the aforementioned characters.

  • Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had an impression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with feet to math—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
  • “My wife, Hastings,” said John. I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body.
  • The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsome white-haired lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features, stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion of deference in his manner…. I looked with some curiosity at “Alfred darling.” He certainly struck a rather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. It struck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous…. Strange infatuation of an otherwise sensible woman!

During tea—for, being English, they simply must have tea—we get a couple more arrivals, and the first mention of Poirot among the characters.

  • Cynthia Murdock was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and vigour. She tossed off her little V.A.D. cap, and I admired the great loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the hand she held out to clam her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she would have been a beauty. (“Would have been”? Jeez, Hastings, what kind of lady-snot are you??)
  • He looked about forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Some violent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my window as he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in the last fifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John’s younger brother, Lawrence Cavendish.

Notice who’s still missing? While Poirot isn’t met in Chapter 1, he is spoken of when Mrs. Cavendish asks Captain Hastings what he wants to do now that he can no longer be a soldier:

  • “Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective.”
    “The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”
    (I rather like how Sherlock Holmes isn’t the “real” thing because it’s not, you know, the “proper” side of legal service.)
    “Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvelous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere mater of method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.”

Chapter 2, “The 16th and 17th of July,” allows for a surprise meeting outside the post office:

  • As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologized, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly.
    Mon ami Hastings!” he cried. “It is indeed mon ami Hastings!”
    “Poirot!” I exclaimed.

We quickly learn that Mrs. Inglethorp has provided residents for Belgian refugees, and Poirot is one of them. And so is set the stage…

~*~

As I read through these introductions, I loved Christie’s touch in using Hastings as the narrator. The ease of establishing the cast via “catching up” dialogue was not boring, and totally plausible. It is also none too surprising how much attention Hastings gives the young females, while the chum John Cavenish gets hardly a physical detail. We have to trust Christie’s tactic through Hastings that such omissions don’t matter to the story, while the excessive descriptions we do receive, such as the “alien” Alfred Inglethorp, must bear some importance. I find this one of the great challenges in writing fiction: what MUST be established vs. what can be left to the individual reader’s perception. It’s so tempting to define EVERYthing so the reader has no choice but to see the story as we do, but honestly, does it matter what the narrator wears, or what the maid looks like? No. But they are not the detective, the focal point of the mystery. And sometimes, those physical details say just as much about the character as their speech, interests, or method of deduction. Poirot takes great care in his appearance, from the style of his mustache to the polish of his shoes. He pays attention to the tiniest of details on himself, and around him…unlike, you know, everyone else, including Hastings.

I couldn’t help but smile as I read Hasting’s description of Poirot to Mrs. Cavendish. It just so happens to provide some amazing foreshadowing for the case to come—

–that is, for his telling of the case. If there’s anything else to be learned from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it’s the joy of storytelling through an unreliable narrator.

To be concluded…

*(insert lightning crash and maniacal laughter here)*

51QqtG6LchL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

 

 

 

 

Darth Vader Was Polish, & Other Lessons Learned

Upon Bo’s insistence, I took a break from grading school work, social media, kids, the lot. The plan: meet my friend Rachel (not the one recovering from a brain tumormost Lutheran mothers were compelled to name kids of my generation Rachel, Sarah, or some form of Kristine) at Polish Fest.

Milwaukee is a hub of summer festivals. Summerfest is the “world’s biggest music festival,” apparently, and there’s German Fest, Pride Fest, Bastille Days, Feste Italiana, India Fest, Irish Fest–just, gobs of stuff. I don’t live in Milwaukee, so attending these goings-on is a rare treat for me. I decided to take advantage of childlessness and attempt something  Inesemjphotography does brilliantly all the time:  chronicle life.

20160617_171739

What did I learn? Capturing people is hard! Take these monks, for instance. (Seriously, take them–ba dum CH!) I was too nervous to stop in front of them and flash the camera like they were some sort of oddity,even though they were an oddity in Milwaukee, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were doing there.  Had they come down from Holy Hill?

20160617_171150

Later Rachel and I discovered a few more inside the Polish Fest grounds by a beer stand. Apparently the monks had made the beer….not that I got a picture of that…

We enjoyed some Still Stormin’ polka by the festival’s entry. A few even took to dancing, like this fellow in the red shirt. (By dancing, I mean a slight bending of the knees mostly in rhythm with the bobbing of his head. That’s how I dance, anyway.)

Determined to spot interesting characters, we meandered about.

This particular gentleman was something of a clay mound of curmudgeonness. His eyes moved only when people came anywhere near his art.

Lake Michigan. It can look beautiful by Milwaukee if you time it right. Never look upon its shores after a storm; city sewers dump disgusting horrors, and you can’t help but wonder if the film Wall-E is a reality not far off, after all.

Some displays, and a sun I decided had to be artfully captured over the dragon’s head, and therefore rather lost the Wawel Dragon.

“I hope this isn’t a secret effigy,” Rachel said of the doll. And I have to admit, the way these dolls were tied onto the posts, I was rather worried if those Milwaukee blacksmiths had other activities planned for their forge’s fire.

My attempt at people pictures was feebler. More feeble? I’m amazed no grammar check popped up with feebler. Who says feebler?

The sun wreaked havoc on my shots. The sky itself had barely a cloud, but once the sun reached a certain point in the sky, all my shots looked like I had a thin coating of Vaseline on the lens.

At least I found more monks. Rachel kindly obliged for a shot, too. 🙂

Over the course of the evening, I also learned just how hard it is to capture characters. Professional photographers have an eye for the elements of setting and person that create a “scene” or a “character.” When one is NOT a professional, and is determined to FORCE such shots to happen, one doesn’t get much. Rather like writing, isn’t it?

Thankfully, Polish Fest gave me a few lucky breaks, sunlight aside. These ladies were cultural assistants, driving around the festival and answering questions.

20160617_173308

Some sort of run/walk relay was about to start. I’m not sure why that would require elf-heads, but then, this was my first Polish Fest.

20160617_173912

Saw this and felt a pang for my kids. Blondie and Bash would love to be nude all the time, if not for, you know, public decency and all that. (Biff is the shy one for some reason.)

I also couldn’t help but be impressed that the mom had successfully tied that balloon to her daughter’s hair, and it stayed throughout the clothing change.

20160617_173146

But here, here stood my ultimate failure on this photographical excursion:

20160617_173624

I know, they’re just a couple. But she in a loud, newer Star Wars shirt with Darth Vader and his lightsaber on full blast, he with a mustache that HE KEPT HIDING FROM MY CAMERA BLAST HIM

Ahem.

He with a mustache that would have made Hercule Poirot proud.

Sentence fragments aside, I felt like I had finally found my characters. I would have loved to eavesdrop on their conversation and discover what brought them here. Heritage? Boredom? A secret meeting of sci-fi mystery enthusiasts?

But alas, they moved purposefully away from my loud phony speech as I “CHECKED MY PHONE” for…whatever, I forget. Pretty sure I’m not made for undercover work…but then, Poirot wasn’t much for undercover, either, and he was still one of the world’s greatest detectives.

Poirot

And to top it off, they ran out of paczkis.

Slumping abounded.

20160617_175455

It seemed best to pack it up, camera-wise. My timing was off, the sun was horrible. Only so much quality could be had from a smart phone’s camera, anyway. And there wasn’t anything to really notice. Maybe I’m being hard on Milwaukee, or maybe I’m being hard on Polish Fest. Maybe I just don’t get out enough, but I thought for sure such a niche festival would have drawn a more unique flavor of life out of the community. Right now, all I could taste was the very American cheddar cheese in my pierogi.

20160617_201232

“Let’s at least try some culture,” Rachel said with a nod toward a long tent off the main walkway. I follow, still slumped. No paczkis. No nationally renowned polka bands with dancing contest. No delectable paczkis. No fascinating people who stand still in a dramatic fashion at the right moment to be preserved for all posterity. No powdery paczkis with oozy raspberry goodness in the center. No cooking demos instructing one on how to make her own paczkis lest such a tragedy were to befall one again.

We walked in, and I lost my slump. Still no paczkis, but there was a fascinating man with some sort of mini-telescope around his neck spinning wool into thread. Angry, spooky pottery. Straw creations that hailed me back to my childhood, when I had tried to follow a Swedish pattern for straw Christmas ornaments. Polish women who had made hats for the Resistance back in *mumble white noise date lost mumble* and were now making them to sell, along with flower wreaths. “Try them on!” They had that sort of loud-laugh-command voice, the kind where they sound light-hearted, but that’s only because they’ve got rolling pins at the ready under the table.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my very Polish grandmother-in-law, it’s that you don’t mess with an old Polish woman.

Guess I didn’t need to hunt for characters so much as be a character. It helps to have a good sport for a friend, too. 🙂

So, overall, a good day. I learned photographing people is best left to professionals, and that Polish Fest should be visited at midday, when paczkis are freshly filled with gooey yumminess and polkas echo up and down the midway.

While I may not be able to share a paczki with you, I can still share this: my Lessons Learned collection is complete. All my posts about Diana Wynne Jones together at last, plus two more essays I never put on the site (I believe the term is “bonus content.”). Sign up for email notification when new stuff’s posted, and I’ll send the collection your way. If you already walk this journey with me, email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com. It’s the least I can do for having the honor of your company.

In the meantime, I’ll wander in the twilight, sharing a breath of lake air with monks and yearning for the sugary delights of far-off lands.

20160617_203541_HDR

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: The Prologue

119073No, I didn’t have a brain-freeze and misspell Diana Wynne Jones that badly. I’m taking a wee break from Jones to fulfill an obligation I set for myself a decade or so ago.

Back when my dad walked with the living, he also read. Profusely. Not just Scripture and Bible commentaries—he was an avid reader of Dr. Who and Star Wars, as well as mysteries cozy and hard-boiled. We often shared mysteries, even unwittingly giving each other the same books for Christmas.

This shared love spilled into shows and films, and has resulted in why on earth I’m typing this post right now.

Already a fan of the Ellis Peters books and Mystery! series Cadfael starring Sir Derek Jakobi, Dad didn’t have to ask me twice about watching a different medieval mystery. The Name of the Rose was…well, it was a bit dark for a child of single digits, but I wasn’t afraid, since James Bond the Monk just HAD to win out in the end. When I discovered it was also a book, I knew I had to read it.

Aaaand then I saw how big the book was, and decided to wait a bit.

Does sixteen years still qualify as “a bit”?

Anyway.

The only other experience I’d had of Eco came from The Count of Monte Cristo, where he wrote a lengthy introduction about how the novel is one of the best and worst ever written.

Perhaps not the best first impression of the writer, considering how much I adored Count.

So admittedly, I cracked open The Name of the Rose with a teeeeeeny bit of skepticism.

A prologue.

Hmph. Aspiring writers hear a lot of mixed messages about prologues. Use’em, don’t use’em. They detract, they provide an excellent spot for necessary info. I’ve personally read prologues that had more action/drama than the actual novel.

First person narration. In the second paragraph Adso, the narrator, informs us he’s old, and he’s going to tell us of “wondrous and terrible events,” which he clearly must have survived if he’s writing it all decades after the fact.

Well there goes that tension.

Sass aside, The Name of the Rose really does require the prologue. Unless you’re a medievalist—heck, even if you are—there is a LOT of historical context required to fully understand the tumult of Church and political conflict, how they amplified and worsened each other. You’ve got sects of monks being burned, a pope and an emperor trying to outfight and outwit each other. Frankly, I’m still not entirely sure how that all breaks down, but one thing’s certain: the structure of the known western world depended on The Church, and The Church was not secure. It had cracks like those of a mug knocked off the table (by two mischievous little boys, of course): the mug’s intact, you can put liquid in it and it won’t leak. But you can see the fissure-veins, and you know it won’t take much for the mug to shatter in your hand.

All right, I accept prologues are capable of contributing to the story.  Will I make use of one? Doubtful. But I will appreciate a prologue that sets the stage and lays out the players without ruining the story itself.

So far, so good, Eco. Let’s see what else you’ve got.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

Coming Up on Jean Lee’s World…

My apologies: familial obligations have sequestered me in Wisconsin’s North Woods for a few days. Internet reception is sketchy at best, not to mention time dedicatable (new word!) to writing. However, I would like to take this moment to provide a layout of what I intend to cover over the next few posts. It breaks my rhythm, but I think you’ll understand.

The stories I enjoy writing vary from Middle Grade to New Adult-friendly protagonists. NA allows for a level of conflict and emotion that I just wouldn’t dare inflict on the MG crowd; however, NA also has this, well, “thing” about romance/sex/love/all of the above/etc.

I have little patience for stories whose major plotlines revolve around “Who will s/he end up with, Beautiful A or Passionate B?” This stems from an upbringing with the likes of James Bond, Batman, and Sherlock Holmes, who left heart-heavy matters to the boring people. When THEY gave their hearts, people died or fled. No one ended up together happily ever after. “Happily ever after” meant the hero beat evil and was alive enough to do it again in another adventure. (Yes, each of these heroes did have their close circles of Those-Cared-For, but I think that topic warrants a separate study.) So, when I pick up a story, I want one that moves with happenings, talkings, doings. No heavy-duty dotings, please.

Diana Wynne Jones understood this all too well. Love matters in her stories, but there is always a quest to suffer through or a problem to solve. Therefore, romance is usually not a high priority for the characters.

That doesn’t mean the romance has no impact—quite the contrary. So, I’d like to take the next few posts to share…

Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love

I’ll begin with Howl’s Moving Castle because a) I’d love an excuse to read it again and b) it is a brilliant example of love growing within the heroes when they do not desire it at all. Then I’d like to discuss Archer’s Goon a bit, a snort-inducing urban fantasy. It utilizes romance as a way to exploit the “villain” and exemplifies a tactic I’ve seen Jones use more than once: foreshadowing the romance to come AFTER the written story ends so as not to force the romance where it doesn’t belong. Finally, I want to work through Deep Secret. Admittedly this one took a while for me to dig, but it does employ what readers may recognize as a more “traditional” romance arc: the Who-The-Heck-Are-You, followed by I-Can’t-Stand-You, which leads to a moment of Wow-That-Was-Surprisingly-Impressive. After this comes I’m-Jealous-When-You-Fraternize-With-Others-But-Don’t-Know-Why, thus building towards Don’t-Risk-Your-Life-I-Love-You-Shoot-I-Forgot-To-Say-That-Out-Loud, and then climaxes with Let’s-Spend-Forever-Together. Yes, that sounds cliché, but Jones uses that normal(ish) arc inside a zany situation: real magic-users who must navigate their way through a sci-fi/fantasy convention in order to save a parallel world.

So, I’m off to breathe in the sunrises, storms, and campfires. Take a moment over the next few days and watch the heavens ebb and flow above you. When you’re ready and I’m with Internet, we can talk about love.