#lessons learned from #poetry: every prose #writer should feel the power & #inspiration of #poets.

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Poetry requires a deftness with space and language, a skill akin to lacing. Lacing needs sure fingertips, careful measurements, knowledge of the spaces as well as the threads, their knots, their weaves, none of which I’ve fully understood.

Oh, I’m not putting down prose–a great book requires all these things, too. But there’s something about the poetic line, that tight little collection of words that must balance just-so with the empty space surrounding it, that is needed more in poetry than prose. Studying such rich handfuls of language can only better the prose writer, inside and out.

I can still remember the first poem that shook me. Not a hymn, not Scripture–pshaw, I grew up around that stuff. For the first couple decades of life, that stuff  sat next to the peanut butter, mixed into the pile of bills on the kitchen table, hung on the hook in the hall. Just another part of the day.

College: changes.

For the first time, I was in a place where no one else knew my family. I wasn’t being judged by the actions of my parents or brothers. I was me.  I finally embraced my passion to write and yes, I dared choose story-telling over music. I worked to understand that which mattered inside me.

That which hurt.

For the first time, I spoke to an adult, the college chaplain, about The Monster. His hands. My despair.

Later that same day I was trapped in a poetry unit of a lit class. I didn’t get any of it: meaning, syntax, meter. Hell, I was barely listening. Blah, blah, sentence fragments words, blah, blah. I just wanted to leave, and deal.

Next in our anthology was Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.”

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Every line. Word. Space. Stuck.

Never had words burrowed into me, gripped the pit of me and twisted, fucking hurt as they twisted and pulled–because they were trying to right me. I took that poem to the dorm, and bawled for a long, long time. I still cry every time I read it.

Of course all writers want to grip readers. But there are those, like Hughes, who do far more than entertain, or inspire. They transform us. That transformation may be one of the bloodiest experiences in our souls, but we are, yes we are, the stronger for it.

~*~

College: changes.

I studied literature for a summer at University College Cork. I didn’t really fit in with those who spent every lecture drinking alcohol in soda containers and flying to London on weekends to go clubbing. Nor did I fit with the academics who’ve read Ulysses and/or Finnegan’s Wake twice and sat on the dormitory’s stoop to pontificate nature, economy, philosophy. I spent much of the off-hours alone, wandering Cork, reading Seamus Heaney, doing my damndest not to be a dunce.

I can’t tell you which poem fell upon me me first. “Blackberry-Picking,” I think.

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots

Pardon me for being evil, and breaking his stanza. I want to pause it here, because I can feel the call-back of the memory in these lines.
The title seemed simple to me. I should be able to understand a basic description, right? And being the Midwest girl that I am, raised in a farming town before getting shuffled to Milwaukee because God said so, I felt like I could even–gasp–write almost-intelligently about it. Harvest. Rural life. Childhood innocence. Yay, I understood something!

Then something else happened, something that for all my writing aspirations, I had never really considered:

Language.
The first two lines form a smooth sentence, a prosey sentence. But line 3 comes along and says: “glossy purple clot.” Suddenly I am holding something, vivid and bright. Yet “clot.” Why “clot”? Who associates “clot” with delicious fruit? We want blood to clot, I suppose. And there you have it, lines 5 and 6, describing sweet “flesh” and “summer’s blood.” Line 7 builds to “lust” and–hey! The sentence is broken! The space urges me to line 8 where capitalized, separated by the rest of the line with a period, comes the act, the want, the purpose: “Picking.”

Every word Heaney shares connects with one or more senses:

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
The “briars scratched.” The “wet grass bleached our boots.” I read these lines out loud on the sidewalk outside a bookstore, the buzz over the latest Harry Potter deaf on my ears. The way “briars,” “bleached,” “boots,” roll in the mouth, berries all their own. “Like a Plate of eyes”–a return to the flesh imagery! Emphasized with the association to the murderer Bluebeard, who hoarded wives as the young characters do berries:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Gah! Not just “grey,” or “silver,” or “fuzzy,” but “rat-grey.” Immediately, we think of pestilence, unwanted, toxic growth. More of such vivid sounds that we can taste against the roofs of our mouths and yet see, all at once: “fresh berries/byre” or “fungus, glutting.” Action moves quickly with the imagery: “fruit fermented”…”sweet flesh would turn sour.” Three words transform what is loved to what is lost.

And the ending of the poem…we have this sort of short “o” sound three times in the last four lines: “sour,” “rot,” not.” “Sour” creates tension on two fronts: that growling “r” carries on in “fair,” the positive, the hopeful, only “It wasn’t fair,” was it? And the short “o” of “sour” echoes in the harsh monosyllabic phrase, “smelt of rot.” Damn, such a slamming there. A child, stomping his boots at the unfairness, the inevitability despite the hope the narrator knows is in vain, yet holds in his jars and cans every year: “knew they would not.” The whole last line is monosyllabic, too, words falling like so many spoiled berries one tips from the can onto the ground.

I carried Heaney and all these thoughts back with me to the dorm. No, no tears today, but another epiphany, yes. For the first time, I wasn’t looking at words for what they achieve as a whole. Of course, “Blackberry-Picking” is a story in its own right, complete with characters, conflict, climax. But so much is accomplished in the little things here, too.

Every word written carries a rhythm. Listen with every sense. Capture what you can.

Repeat.

 

 

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#Writing #Music: (Occasionally) Patrick Doyle

I love my husband.

I really do.

He knows me so well: his Christmas gifts to me consist of books, music, and a good mystery series. Even the candle is scented “Oxford Library.”

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But I hold up the CD, and scowl.

“Hey, it was on your wish list.”

“That was before I saw the movie.”

“And now you have something to remember the movie by.”

“The book doesn’t count?”

“No.” And off he goes to read his new compilation of Dick Tracy comic strips.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to write about music that is uninspired, but after seeing the latest film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with dear writer-friend Ben Daniel ParmanI just can’t understand what Scottish composer Patrick Doyle was going for here. If one didn’t know the film, one would think I’d been given the score to a Hallmark made-for-television movie about railroad workers struggling with love or grief or blizzards or grief-loving in blizzards or blizzards in love or…you get it. It’s music that does not speak to its icon of a detective, Hercule Poirot. It is music that does not speak to its historic period of the 1930s. It is music that does not speak to the claustrophobic tension a snow-bound train car creates. It’s just…there. White noise to the mystery. And while some mysteries revel with distraction, a mystery–or any story, for that matter–cannot afford to annoy its audience. Which this music does. Exceedingly.

In his defense, Patrick Doyle isn’t all bad. Take his score for Brave: it has some lovely moments of both epic scope and intimate character reveal.

From what I see on Doyle’s IMDB page, the man’s collaborated with Kenneth Branagh for, goodness gracious, over twenty years. And I’m sure many of those scores are lovely. But as any author will have her clunkers, so will a composer occasionally make bland music.

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is creating the right ambience around me so I can, well, create. When the boys are trying to shove each other into the wall, when Blondie’s whining she doesn’t know what to do with herself, when the laundry and dishes and course work and cooking and….you know. It all heaps upon you, not just visually, but audibly, too. Take this very moment: I’m trying to finish this blog in the kitchen while the boys fight over a toy and the girl’s yelling at them to be quiet while The Lego Ninjago Movie plays at an obnoxious volume. I’ve got my headphones on. I put on Orient Express, and feel absolute bupkiss. I put on Brave, and feel the hint of Elsewhere swirl about my mind’s eye. I put on The Hobbitand feel the adventure promised in misty mountains cold…

Seek on, writers. Find the music that transports you from daily life’s craziness and unfetters story-telling’s power.

 

 

This #NewYear, Visit Old #Fiction To Renew Your #Writing Life.

For all the jokes out there about stories being a writer’s children there rings a subtle truth: we want every story to be its best. Like a sniffly child on timeout, they whine, “I want to be nice!” Then show you are nice, we say. “I don’t know how!” they wail.

And while my kids sure as Hades do know that kicking one another in the face does not qualify as “nice,” some stories are genuinely stumped. Is it the voice, the setting, the age of the characters, the villain? All it takes is one off-element to throw the entire body out of whack.

Such was the case with one particular WIP of mine. I first drafted it during NaNoWriMo the year of my daughter’s birth. It helped me break from my postpartum, but it also stumped me as a writer. Something always felt off: not enough gravitas. Too much gravitas. Too many points of view. Too narrow a perspective. Not enough action. Not enough quiet time.  With every draft, the story grew as I created and destroyed characters. I pulled dark bones from my past and formed the heroine round them, re-defining her psyche and voice. Could be done for my hero? Let’s try…

But all of this has taken years of coming and going, always needing time to re-settle my writing eye and ear with the heroine, remember what the heck I was thinking. When I started this site two years ago I hoped to see this WIP through its last editing stage and meet the printed page somehow, but then, well, more motherhood came, and other WIPs captured what little attention I had. Before I knew it, two years passed without a glance.

Then, shortly after Thanksgiving, in a fit of what assuredly was Shooting for the moon (heck, for Alpha Centauri B), I submitted a portion of a New Adult fantasy to Aionios Books, an independent publishing house in California.

They accepted.

I’m still tingling.

Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, my first WIP, one that’s experienced countless growing pains, will be shared with readers–READERS! (Insert mad giggles and hopping in coffee-stained sweats here) But I also know that 2018 is going to be one of the hardest years of my life. Not only am I writing here, with you and for you, and teaching, and parenting, but I must now also answer to editors and see the story from their perspective as professional readers.

Is there a lot of work to do? Hell, yes.

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Thanks to a two-year hiatus, I can tell that the voice wants to be first person present for the intimate immediacy, but I kept writing in third for eventual shifts to another character’s point of view. And I wrote in past tense for…reasons? Thanks to a long, long break, I can argue with Past Me and see there’s just no justification for such writing choices.

Of course my new fear is that I cannot find the hidden path between my hero and heroine’s voices: the path of the narrator’s voice. It’s there, but hidden under superfluous phrases and awkward description. Time to clean up the deadwood and find new footing in the old haunt.

What WIPs lay buried in your hard drive and desk drawers? Now that time has passed, pull them out. Take a look with New You’s eyes. The story still breathes. Stirs.

Wake it up.

 

 

 

#LessonLearned from #AChristmasCarol: Earn that Redemption.

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

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

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

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

Why is Scrooge dancing with the Ghost?

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

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

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

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

 

 

She’s a pantser. He’s a planner. Can This Creative Duo Really Get Along?

Creation. It’s a process both universal and unique. We all create with words, or cameras, or music. That’s universal. But how we go about it is unique to each and every one of us.

I speak often here about the inspiration found in music and photography. I know my storytelling would be lost without it, while some of you dear friends have mentioned the need for silence while writing to be free of distractions. Reasonable, I suppose.

But one thing I’ve never been good with is a plan. Oh, I’ve had them. I’ve made them for National Novel Writing Month projects so I can barrel through the major scenes and reach that precious 50,000 word goal. I’ve used them in the revision process so I can figure out where the plot went wonky.

When I’m writing an untimed rough draft, though, I loathe them.

So of course, I’m now working with one of the planniest planners out there, Michael Dellert.

mike5aMichael created his Matter of Manred universe several years ago, but more recently brought it to the page with his books Hedge King in Winter, Merchant’s Tale, The Romance of Eowainand The Wedding of EithneMichael knows his characters inside and out. He knows the land and all its settlements. He knows the population of each settlement and how much they earn. Hell, he even knows the weather on any given day.

Me? I don’t know the weather until I need the weather to do something. I don’t know my characters until they speak up. I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen over the next hillside until they get there.

And somehow, these two different creative methods are going to make a cohesive story?

I admit, when Michael first approached me about co-writing a short story, I couldn’t help but think of a story told on Milwaukee radio years ago about “tandem writing”…

“It’ll be fun,” Michael promised.

Uh huh…

“Eowain and the Boar” will tell of King Eowain’s mysterious hunt into enemy territory accompanied by his men and my Shield Maiden Gwenwledyr. He sent me a character list, a plot outline. Information about hunting and horses. I stared at it all, rubbing my temples. When I wrote Middler’s Pride, I just went where Gwen took me. I didn’t think she’d actually make friends. I hoped she’d have a change of heart, and she did…sort of.

While I enjoy writing with Gwen’s mischievous and superior attitude towards everyone, I still get antsy working with characters whom I didn’t, well, raise. It’s rather like having a bunch of kids over for a birthday party: you want them all to get along and play the games nicely together, but you really don’t know those kids. You don’t know if they’re just going to shove each other down instead of race, or wreck one another’s airplanes before the flying contest starts, etc.

So I just did what I always do: I let Gwen blab.

54ac121481fa5e11e12f29c32bcfa83bYou again. I begin to think you loiter about awaiting entertainment that pleases you. Well, let the records show I am no bard, fool, or minstrel. Indeed, Master Peculiar Wayfarer from—ye gods, wherever people find your attire acceptable—I am a legend in these parts. I’ve slain magick-wielders, dueled soldiers, battled cursed warriors, wreaked vengeance—

Alone? Er, no, not entirely. I had a few of my fellow Shield Maidens along with me. They helped a bit.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re like her ladyship—you want answers about that hunt, don’t you? Can’t say I blame you. It was a curious affair, to say the least, what with the king and his—

Hmm.

You’re not from their side, are you? I have seen a few of them with that sort of, I’ll say, look of the hair. No?

Amazing how quickly Gwen’s voice takes over. If I let her speak, a story started to spill out. Maybe this could work after all!

But I don’t know the King. Or the other characters. Or where we’re even going.

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Well, neither does Gwen. So for now I think I’ll let Gwen show me which characters she gives a toss about, and which she doesn’t even bother learning names. Somewhere in her incessant epic-weaving will be the pieces Michael needs to stitch up with his own narrator, the young acolyte Adarc. Somehow, two people who have never met in person will take two narrators who’ve never met in their universe tell a story. The story must be clear. It must ring true. It must be an experience felt in the senses and beneath.

Just like any other story.

But as the joy of storytelling is known to all, the joys felt by story-teller and story-listener are unique. And here we fade to a cold winter’s night, where a queen sits, heavy with child and fearful for her husband and king, waiting to learn the truth from two young adventurers…

 “You just make yourself comfortable, your ladyship, while Master-Know-It-All Adarc finds a midwife or three to catch your child…because—well, let’s face it, your ladyship: this isn’t the happiest of stories.”

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Want to hear Michael’s side of things? Click here.

And be sure to check out Go Indie Now on October 4th for a little chat Michael and I have about collaboration.

 

 

The Art of Voice Changery, Part 2

In my previous post on voice changery, I spoke of finding the right book with a character to inspire the voice of your hero. This isn’t to say you’re trying to build a carbon copy of a character you really liked in another book—hardly that. Rather, it’s all about discovering the unique rhythms, quirks, and language of your hero’s speech. I’ve got four different female heroes to write about in my series, and sure as Hades don’t want them all to sound the same. Wynne, key protagonist in my current WIP Beauty’s Price, is inspired by Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen tells Elizabeth’s story with a sweet–and some well-timed sassy–lyrical prose. The rhythm and melody rise and fall and rise again, just as the heart of Elizabeth as it slowly wakens itself to love another. This sort of sweet, lyrical connection between style and emotion is just what I want for Wynne.

But reading the words of another isn’t enough for me. I’ve often talked about the importance of music in helping me write. I needed to find a theme for Wynne, one that would help me see her part of life in Droma and get into her head.

First, her life at home. I remembered dedicating several pages to Gwen’s thorp and the woods surrounding it. Wynne would need something similar…sort of. Her father is a trader, so they won’t have their own manor to run. They’ll live in a trading town…one along the river Gasirad…not that I knew the trading towns of Droma, so I had to bother Michael Dellert for more about his universe. Together we worked out the perfect town for Wynne, one that was along the river and not too far from Aneasruthán for her participation in Middler’s Pride.

The Dells of the Wisconsin River

The Dells of the Wisconsin River – unique sandstone formations that occur only in a couple places in the world.

Now Wisconsin is rich in waterways, many of them hidden by bluffs and valleys. I see…something. I see Wynne on a hillside, looking down upon the Gasirad, wide and strong by her town, wide enough for two lanes of barges, following and fighting the current. I see a collection of wooden buildings, enough to warrant some streets. I see the watermill to the north to help those who farmed, and a tannery at the south, wreaking havoc on the land around it with all its filth and toxins.

And I see Wynne really, really hating that.

I have a few photos of Wisconsin like this, but a bit too industrial for my liking:

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La Crosse

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Port of Green Bay

I need a visual of something on a smaller scale. But you saw my town; even those built around the river have long since stopped treating the river as anything other than a pretty touch to the town’s atmosphere. Oh, look, a charming river with a charming bridge. And there’s some charming families catching fish for fun, how all so very charming.

4a24c1593c13ced51058f9512617b540So I need to think of a town dependent upon its river, like Hafren, and I have to keep history in mind, or Michael will kick my creative butt. Considering the early Medieval style of everything, I have only one frame of context from which I can easily draw: Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries. (Like it’d be anything but murder mysteries.)

I popped in St. Peter’s Fair for a visual. I found an excerpt from the episode online, if you care to view it:

Not my usual dose of photography, but I knew it would help to see people interact within a medieval town. Too often we’ve romanticized life of that period (something the amazing Terry Jones discusses in Medieval Lives, a series both hilarious and instructive), and I wanted something not afraid of dirt. The splintering planks upon the homes. Various piles of horse dung in the road. Chickens with curious escaping skills. Few windows. Few rooms. Few extras in life. Fences, though, those would be useful.

Forms were taking shape. Time for some color and life:

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Time for music.

So far I had been digging through scores of period movies, such as Harry Gregson-Williams’ Kingdom of Heaven. It’s on this score where I found the music that embodied the busy trading center that is Hafren:

The reeds are soft with summer, and Gasirad sings when the sun shines upon her. Listen with me. Does not the water over stones make you think of lyre strings? I like to sit here, where the tannery does not hurt the water so. The goddess has been kind so far, but I have no doubt a day will come when she finds herself too sickened by Hafren’s industry, and we will all wake to find our river gone. Never underestimate a goddess—or any girl, I think—of strong mind.

North of Hafren, the water dances like my feet. When the sun warms skin, when the bees feast among the blossoms, when the fish leap from water for dragonflies, I am able to forget the grime and odors of town, and turn to kinder, better things.

My father is due to arrive with a caravan today, and my mother has stressed all daughters must be present for his arrival. Will you walk with me, at least to town? It is but a few rolling hills away.

I am thankful for these fertile slopes. Gasirad’s happy waters grow stronger crops here. Take care with your feet lest you find yourself trampling a seedling or droppings. I do not like to task Hafren’s farmers. Visiting caravans are rarely kind to them, and never face punishment for gleaning. Step this way, please, to the oxen-path. Oh, Gasirad. You flow as falling stars before Hafren, yet we send you off soiled and used. Abused, I should say, but a merchant’s daughter is not allowed such thoughts. Trade is life, and industry is trade. At least the tannery is there, a short ways south of town, so the water is not so terrible until Hafren’s end. The mill for carrying water to the fields is at the northernmost, see it? Rather hidden by the trees, I know, but if you ignore the farmer yelling at the mule, you can just hear the clack-clack of the buckets tipping.

Hafren is neither thorp nor city. There is a street of homes, true, and it connects to the hostel street, which turns there, sharply, for the ancestral shrine, annoying river and land caravans alike. We  must have good pasture for livestock, a stretch of sand for small boats and long docks for bigger barges. Our high street is dedicated to eateries and hostels. We are a perpetual hayloft for travelers, with our own wares barely noticed. Perhaps that is best. Those attracted to our town are not the sort I care to think about.

Mind our rock fences–they are rather low, I’m afraid, just enough to scrape one’s ankle terribly if not careful. Turn here. Market street may look wide enough for a joust, but that is only because the selling carts have left for the day. They sit in the middle, and the shops remove their shelf-shutters, and this place soon overflows with traveling caravans, farmer’s wares, the tannery’s wares, and tinkers. Even artisans from villages nearby will come once a month before midday to set up near the edge of market for the sake of shadow from the sun.

Why do you look at me like that? I have lived here long enough to see a pattern, that is all.

Ah, here we are. Yes, the house with the wooden fence at waist height. Can’t afford to block the view of potential suitors. Just as an artisan proudly displays his wares, my mother makes an exhibition of her children for potential wooing. We’re quite the collection, my sisters and I.

While Wynne grew up in Hafren, readers are new to this corner of Droma. I needed that flavor of town life, which was only barely tasted in Middler’s Pride. The rhythms would be familiar to Wynne, its melodies bittersweet. After all, she was never allowed to befriend anyone in the town. She witnesses life happening, but can only interact with it as a bird in a cage.

This sense of isolation, love, and desperation reminded me of Anne Dudley’s score to Tristan and Isolde. I’ve used this score before, but I’d never felt it bond with a story so well as with this one. The story of lovers kept apart vibrates in the strings as the piano keys slowly dance round a hope, the smallest hope that refuses to leave the heart.

Wynne’s heart never loses hope, or love, no matter the confinement or pressure put upon her. I need to continue exploring music to find her spirit (and perhaps the spirit of her antagonist, too), but capturing her heart’s song has helped me discover more of her voice: the hope that fills it, the sadness that trails it.

Find the heart’s song of your hero, and watch her deepest passions resonate with the setting, other characters, and most importantly, your readers.

 

 

The Art of Voice-Changery, Part 1

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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…

Constipated

5bf3e97af6decac557b6b499cc6e30a4Our family lives in the toilet.

“That’s not Lightning McQueen. That’s Lightning McPoopie!”

“Can Mater swim in pee-pee water?”

“What happens when someone eats poop?”

“I don’t want toasted cheese, I want toasted poop!”

Ever since Bo and I went on the offense in the Potty Wars, everything’s become poop and pee-pee water. It’s the subject of every car ride: “Do you need to use the potty before we go? Did you make pee-pee water and poop, or just pee-pee water?”

It’s the subject of most text messages between me and Bo: “Did either boy poop yet today?” “How does something this big come out of a butt that small?” (Yes, he includes photos.)

It comes up every breakfast and bedtime routine: “Did you use the big toilet or the little potty?” “DON’T RUN WITH THE POTTY FULL OF PEE-PEE WATER!”

It’s a source of bragging rights for Blondie: “I don’t need the little seat any more, Mom!” “I made two sausage poops after supper!”

It’s a source of pride for Bash: “I used the potty at school today, Mommy!” “I made five big poops! Can I have a new train?” (Trains make for great bribes. Bash has his own steam and diesel fleet…squadron…collective? Murder of trains, I don’t know what their group’s called.)

And then, there’s Biff.

I don’t know whether to admire his will-power or have him checked for an extra colon. He wears underwear without (much) of a fight. Yay! He’ll pee in the potty without a problem. Yay yay! But no poop.

I let him have as many peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches as he wanted. Raisins galore. Pouches of prunes and broccoli and any other fiber-rich produce I can think of (yes, pouches. Eating fresh produce is a whooooooooole ‘nother war I’m not ready to fight yet.) Nothing after two days. Three days. Four days. Five days. And he still goes on stealing food from his brother whenever possible. Where in Hades does he keep it all in that little body?

Patoots aren’t the only places that get backed up. I’ve been feeling it in my head, too. And all the poop talk doesn’t exactly lend itself to inspiring imagination, especially when I’m struggling with one. Bloody. Line.

middlers-pride-7The ending for Middler’s Pride needs another scene so Gwen could stand before her trainer, father, and king’s brother to find out whether or not she passed boot camp. Considering how long Gwen had waited to have her father’s undivided attention, I couldn’t just gloss over this moment.

Chapter 54

The world lost its clarity in all those campfires. Only the stars above had a sharpness to them. Some of those stars told stories, too, of battles and heroes. Some told the way East, North, West. South. South and East lay the Khaibe.

Gwen felt her feet move—they were moving east, to the campfire, rank, and family—and wondered: How many steps east and south would it take to reach the Khaibe?

But first stop:

“And this will be Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil,” Captain Vala’s voice sounded bile-free for the first time in weeks. Well, bully for her. She still had the look of someone who’d been kicked by a horse, especially when Cinaedh spoke.

“Would you look, lovey!”

“Don’t. Call me. Lovey.” Terrwyn’s glare almost, almost, brought a laugh out of Gwen. But this was serious business, despite Cinaedh.

“Oh pish, look at our girl, she’s lost it at last!”

Lord Lorcan smoothed away a drawing between he and Terrwyn, something that looked like a large hand. “Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil, I’ve been told you of all the recruits followed all orders to the letter.”

“I did my best, Sir.”

“That you bested all with spear, sword, axe, and dagger.”

“Mostly, Sir.”

“That you carried an ox’s burden upon your shoulders.”

“I did? Oh, yeah, I did, Sir.”

“That you discovered a lethal creature of magick in the forest and took measures to destroy it.”

“Not alone, but yes, Sir.”

A pause. Saffir glowed through her own fatigue, hand firmly upon Lord Aillil’s. In that moment, he still looked upon Gwen with such…warmth, kindness, but more than that. He was looking at her as one of his own.

But…

“Well, Captain Vala, if you’re in agreement—“

Those rat-heart eyes beat slowly, be it due to drink or recovery. “I am.”

“Then Gwenlwedyr—“

“My lord, can I say something?” Lord Aillil’s brow furrowed. Uh oh. But it wasn’t right, and Gwen so badly wanted it to be right. “Perhaps Captain Vala and Chief Murchadh haven’t said, but I want it known that I was, well…” Is there even a formal way to say it?

Lord Lorcan stroked his braids with his three-fingered hand. “Yes?”

Hold your hands tight behind your back. Stand straight. Believe in truth. Your truth. “I was a git when I first came here. I was pompous and nasty and rude to all no matter what their rank.” Chief Murchadh allowed a laugh to rumble through him, stirring his granddaughter to sleepily ask if a storm was coming. “It took, well, it took giant rats and those girls over there who are far, far better souls than me and divine intervention to make me see that. Gods know what I’d be like without them. Dead by poisonous snake, for a start.” Terrywn set her pipe upon her knee. Her eyes never left Gwen’s face. “I won’t have my entry into the Shield Maidens based on pretty tales, Sir.”

Another pause, and it was a big one. Well, mostly big. Cinaedh’s earrings jingled as he looked at Lord Lorcan, Captain Vala (who blushed), Terrwyn, everyone. His eyes sparkled like silver. “See? I told you she lost it!”

“Lost what?” asked Lord Lorcan.

Terrwyn tapped her pipe against her iron leg with a thin clang clang. “The chip on her shoulder. Can’t imagine where she got it from.” She slowly looked at Lord Aillil and stuck that pipe firmly between her teeth for a fresh puff.

Lord Aillil looked down. The warmth, it was fading! Wait, no, not fading. Just a bit swamped by something Gwen had never seen on him before, but it was something she was starting to know pretty well: shame.

“Ah.” Lord Lorcan leaned forward and looked upon Gwen with kind eyes. “I do take these things into consideration, recruit. I met you as you were, and I see what you have become. And you, Gwenwledyr, are as true a Shield Maiden as Captain Terrwyn. You do your kith and kin proud.”

Saffir’s grin had a magick all its own—pity it didn’t run in the family. But no matter Nutty and Muirgurgle, this was her moment. Gwenwledyr’s moment.

Saffir nudged Lord Aillil, and his gaze lifted up to Gwen. Eyes bright, sadness gone, Father said: “Yes. She does.”

In that moment’s passing comes the end of Gwen’s story. Anything after is drawing things out. I mean, she does need to get back to her fellow recruits to sit and soak up what she was told. But I can’t afford to let her–well, me–ramble on. So that final scene needs to be lickety-split quick, a sense of completion for Gwen, but not the other Shield Maidens.

Hmmm. Well, I’ve always loved the way Diana Wynne Jones gave her stories a sense of character completion but not world-completion, soooooooo:

To the Diana Wynne Jones Shelf!

I find four stories that stand alone just fine, but also have sequels and pseudo-sequels: Cart and Cwidder is the first of the Dalemark Quartet; Charmed Life begins the Chrestomanci series; Howl’s Moving Castle has two other stories set in the same universe; the multiverse magic-enforcing Magids are introduced in Deep Secret and come back in at least one other story.

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412Charmed Life: Young protagonist Cat Chant has just finished helped Chrestomanci defeat Cat’s wicked elder sister Gwendolen. The boy’s a wreck: he just found out the last blood relative he had had been keen to kill him and steal his magic. He’s left with Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci’s family, and a girl named Janet, stuck in Cat’s world thanks to Gwendolen’s spell.

Janet looked at Cat and laughed. And Cat, though he was still a little lonely and tearful, managed to laugh, too.

Cat’s had it lousy from infancy on. The book begins with him clinging to his sister, whom we later learn not only killed their parents, but has killed Cat himself several times. The reason he’s even called Cat is because Gwendolen said he has nine lives, which, in this magical multiverse, means Cat’s destined to be a sorcerer like Chrestomanci. This little kid’s got to accept that all he knew was not as it was. By his final response, we know he’s having a hard time with that, but we also know he already has a stronger, better “sister” in his life, who is able to act positively with him and bring out the better things in him. Life will be okay.

71sst0-sdELHowl’s Moving Castle: With the Witch of the Waste and her nasty fire demon defeated, Sophie frees Calcifer and Howl from their curse. Calcifer takes off, and Howl proposes to Sophie. He promises lots of hair-raising adventure–only to be interrupted by Calcifer’s return, back in the fireplace where he always burned, ready to help the magic of the castle.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Howl said.

“I don’t mind, as long as I can come and go,” Calcifer said. “Besides, it’s raining out there in Market Chipping.”

I love the sense of home this instills. All Calcifer has wanted is to be free to leave the castle’s hearth, and with the curse broken, he can finally do so. Readers already know Sophie and Howl are happy and geared for a crazy life together; now we know Calcifer has found where he belongs, too.

Deep Secret: Most of this book works with two points of view: Magid Rupert and p51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_otential-Magid Maree. The last chapter, however, is from Maree’s cousin Nick. Why? Well, only Nick could really explain how Maree’s life was recovered from the Deep Secret of Babylon, and the Magid leaders of The Upper Room wanted that information. The book ends with Nick’s determination to cheat The Upper Room and remember all that had happened despite the erasure of his memory.

Blow that about deep secrets! Rupert and Maree say that the basic job of a Magid is to gradually release the special knowledge anyway. And besides, I want to remember. It strikes me as one of the best ways of forcing that Upper Room to make me a Magid too. That was what I’d been going to ask for, until I had to ask for Maree instead. Now I’ll have to get to be one another way round.

This particular last line feels far more open to a sequel than the other books, even though Jones hadn’t been planning a sequel. It took a particular request from a child during signing–“I don’t think Nick’s story is done yet!” that got her started on the pseudo-sequel The Merlin Conspiracy. 

51UbR9v-AwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Cart and Cwidder: This one’s a bit peculiar. Moril has used the magic cwidder’s song to close a mountain pass. The nasty threat of South Dalemark has been stopped, young Moril’s siblings are safe, and now he’s ready to abandon them and go on more adventures with another singer named Hestafan.

“Please,” Moril said to him, “will you take me with you when you go?”

“Well,” Hestafan said dubiously, “I was thinking of slipping off now, when nobody’s noticing.”

“I know you were,” said Moril. “Take me, too. Please.”

Hestafan looked at him, a vague, dreamy look, which Moril was positive saw twice as much as most people’s. “You’re Clennen’s other son, aren’t you?” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Tanamoril,” said Moril. “I’m called Osfameron, too,” he added, as an inducement.

Hestafan smiled. “Very well then,” he said. “Come along.”

Aaaaand then we hear nothing of these people until the fourth book.

Of the four, this one has the feel of a story that would be picked up immediately in the next volume, but that’s not the case. Jones doesn’t do that anywhere, actually. Oh, she’ll jump back and forth in time–Crown of Dalemark, the fourth book, does exactly that–but there’s never an immediate linear continuance. She merely leaves it open.

Endings are not easy. I find them the hardest part. You don’t know whether to stop with everyone just at the end of the adventure, and not knowing what really happened to Aunt May or Uncle Joe, or to make sure that the right people are going to be happy and the wrong people not, or even whether to go on and tell what happens in the next twenty years….

My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.

– Diana Wynne Jones, “Some Hints on Writing”

So, what do do?

Well, I want more than linear continuance. Beauty’s Price works with Wynne’s perspective, which will call for a slight rewind into the last few scenes. Now the danger with that is getting repetitive and boring readers before Wynne’s story has a chance to really start. So, at the end of Middler’s Pride, I have Gwen note a few things about Wynne’s strange behavior and leave them unexplained. This will allow me to give the roots of Wynne’s behavior at the start of Beauty’s Price and establish what’s at stake in her life.

First, though, Gwen’s got to bow out.

So again, me, what do do?

  1. Complete Gwen’s transformation. Show Gwen’s no longer the pompous know-it-all.
  2. Act I mirror. I’m a sucker for coming full circle. It probably comes from teaching basic essay structure for over ten years. But what to mirror? Not her pride. The flies are dumb. Not the swimming. Not the suitor. So, what? Well, she does do the “defend our honor!” in both Acts I and II, so that could be useful. But it’s not enough…well, she reminds herself that she is Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden. In all her daydreaming she was giving herself different names…ooooo….
  3. End it open. The problem established at the beginning of the four Jones stories are all solved, but Jones doesn’t dictate that the universes are ever closed. I dig this–it gives the readers a chance to imagine what happens next. While I do have plans for Gwen after this night, she doesn’t know that. Besides, there’s one thing on her mind that must be done before winter’s tide…

Gwen stood by Tegan and faced those farmlands around the thorp. Beyond them lay the forest, then the river. She imagined she saw tiny floating candles—no, silly, fireflies. Dancing fireflies. And birdsong? Yes, that, too. Even the river’s rush whispered of victory.

Hail, Gasirad.

May your current never weaken.

May your fish be fat and plentiful.

May your plants grow thick in every season.

May your water’s song never end.

I think I see you, Gasirad, listening to our prayers as fresh orchid petals fall as snowflakes upon your hair. I don’t think you’re alone, either—the other trickster is back with you, and I’m guessing she’s got something to tell us when the time’s right. Your torque, maybe, to bring healing to the land. Or revenge against the Cat Man. Or trap a cursed breed of bloodthirsty trout, who knows?

Well here I am, River Goddess, always ready to defend your honor, for you called me a Shield Maiden. And if a goddess calls you something, then you bet your boots your are that something.

So.

I am Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden of Droma.

Killer of the Magickal Snake.

Slayer of the Cursed Snake of Poisoned Doom.

Eh, too long.

Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden and Giant Snake-Slayer.

Ooooo!

And Scourge-To-Be of the Khaibe!

Man, I have got some serious legending to do this summer…

However you choose to end your story, don’t let the story’s end be the end of that world. Let the promise of more wet the air like a coming storm. The rain may fall, it may not. But rest assured, readers will feel that promise on their skin. They will look up to wonder…and hope.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Let Dialogue & Point of View (Mis)Lead Readers.

Nothing annoys like repetition. “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “No.” “Can I have a chocolate chip cookie?” “Not until supper’s done.” “Can I have a cookie now?” “I said no.” (pause for approximately twenty seconds) “Can I have a cookie now?” (exasperated scream and toss of graham crackers) “Oooh, crackers.” (munching) “Can I have a cookie?” (head bangs wall)

I feel the same way when I read repetition–not just in my students’ essays, but in novels by those who should know better. The characters in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had some very annoying spells of repetition that revealed no inconsistencies in circumstances or any sort of human nature. They were just part of the interrogation. Other lines had equally annoying bouts of foreshadowing directed at…nothing.

“He’s like the faithful old retainers of fiction. I believe he’d lie himself blue in the face if it was necessary to protect one of the family!”

bookcoverI wanted to believe Christie was better than that with her dialogue. I wanted to see some proof. So I took a risk and picked a story I knew would be more dialogue than anything: Five Little PigsIt’s a cold-case situation: a young woman comes to Poirot asking him to discover the truth about her parents. Everyone says her mother poisoned her father; the mother was tried and executed for it. Yet her mother’s last letter claims innocence. The daughter, now fully grown, wants to know the truth.

The truth must be found in the memories of others, and to get those memories Poirot must dig through dialogue.

 

There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation!

Hercule Poirot, The A.B.C. Murders

Poirot speaks with a few legal members involved with the court case, and then five other people present in the home at the time of the murder. This comes to nearly 240 pages of conversation.

And none of it felt dull, let alone repetitive.

Clearly, Christie’s attentions were more focused on this story. One can feel it in the tight prose and pacing. Her descriptions of the characters are brilliantly precise:

Philip Blake was recognizably like the description given him by Depleach–a prosperous, shrewd, jovial-looking man–slightly running to fat. (58)

[Poirot] would never have recognized [Elsa] from the picture Meredith Blake had shown him. That had been, above all, a picture of youth, a picture of vitality. Here there was no youth–there might never have been youth. (104)

The dialogue also reveals a lot about the characters, such as the governess.

“Men–” said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says, “Bolsheviks,” as an earnest Communist says, “Capitalists,” as a good housewife says, “Black beetles,” so did Miss Williams say, “Men.” (117)

Besides the court personnel, who only witnessed the characters after the murder, there are five perspectives being tapped for details from the same time frame. This should welcome lots of repetition, considering these people are coming to the same house, dining together, conversing together, and so on.

Yet the repetition doesn’t happen. I’ll use one moment in the plot for an example.

Painter Amyas has brought his model Elsa to live at the house while he paints her. His wife Caroline does not like her; it goes without saying Elsa and Amyas are having an affair, which is normal behavior for Amyas and his models. Something seems different this time, though, and Amyas’ friends, the brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, warn him as such. Amyas shrugs them off. Caroline’s teenage sister Angela also lives at the house under the care of the governess Miss Williams.

What follows are four accounts of the same moment in the book: when Elsa announces to all she’s going to marry Amyas…despite Amyas still being married to Caroline. The police officer shares bits and pieces of Philip Blake’s account, so for the sake of sticking with points of view present at the situation, I’ll keep him out.

Philip Blake (considering the length, I felt photos the easiest way to share):

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Elsa: And in the end I broke down. Caroline had been talking of some plan she and Amyas were going to carry out next autumn. She talked about it quite confidently. And I suddenly felt it was too abominable what we were doing–letting her go on like this–and perhaps, too, I was angry, because she was really being very pleasant to me in a clever sort of way that one couldn’t take hold of.  And so I came out with the truth. In a way, I still think I was right. Though, of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had the faintest idea what was to come of it. The clash came right away. Amyas was furious with me for telling Caroline, but he had to admit that what I had said was true. (183-4)

Miss Williams: On this day, September 17th, as we were sitting in the drawing room after lunch, [Elsa] came out with an amazing remark as to how she was going to redecorate the room when she was living at Alderbury. Naturally, [Caroline] couldn’t let that pass. She challenged her and [Elsa] had the impudence to say, before us all, that she was going to marry [Amyas]. She actually talked about marrying a married man–and she said it to his wife! .. [Amyas] came in just then and she immediately demanded confirmation from him. He was not, unnaturally, annoyed with [elsa] for her unconsidered forcing of the situation. Apart from anything else, it made him appear at a disadvantage, and men do not like appearing at a disadvantage. It upsets their vanity. He stood there, a great giant of a man, looking as sheepish and foolish as a naughty schoolboy. It was his wife who carried off the honors of the situation. He had to mutter foolishly that it was true, but that he hadn’t meant her to learn it like this. (194-5)

Angela: The very first intimation I had of the whole thing was what I overheard from the terrace where I had escaped after lunch one day. Elsa said she was going to marry Amyas! It struck me as just ridiculous. I remember tackling Amyas about it. In the garden at Handcross it was. I said to him: “Why does Elsa say she’s going to marry you? She couldn’t. People can’t have two wives–it’s bigamy and they go to prison.” Amyas got very angry and said, “How the devil did you hear that?” I said I’d heard it through the library window. He was angrier than ever then and said it was high time I went to school and got out of the habit of eavesdropping….I stammered out angrily that I hadn’t been listening–and, anyhow, I said, why did Elsa say a silly thing like that? Amyas said it was just a joke. (199-200)

Notice the extensive detail Philip provides as opposed to, say, Miss Williams. Philip’s bias against Caroline and for Amyas highlights special touches of tension in his telling: “Elsa had got under her guard all right.” “Poor old Amyas…he went crimson and started blustering.” Then you have Miss Williams noting how Caroline “did not lose her dignity,” and later “walked like an empress” from the scene (193). Elsa’s telling revolves primarily around her feelings more than anything else, and Angela’s gets into something new: that Amyas  said it was all a joke.

Sure didn’t sound like a joke in that room.

One moment, told again and again, yet with new language and observations every time. This layering through multiple viewpoints gives readers the pleasure of digging for the unknown information and hidden emotions not known from the police account. Christie takes great care pacing out these plot reveals, too–Angela’s account, for example, isn’t given until the second to last chapter of the book.

The key here is that the information differs with each account: there’s always something new to learn. Even the lack of telling can be telling. Notice how Elsa breezes over this moment? You’d think she’d want to rub in how Caroline reacted to being told her husband was leaving her. Yeah, there’s a reason Elsa doesn’t share too much.

(Dunh dunh DUUUUUUUNH)

Now I get that this style of multiple points of view will not fit many kinds of story, nor can every story be told in a series of conversations. But if I’ve learned anything from my own point of view experiment, it’s that one’s got to try different styles of storytelling. Even if what you create isn’t fit for human eyes, you still stretched your brain. All those story-starts I did with Dorjan are going to remain stopped. They’re not going anywhere. But in writing them I did get to thinking about that character’s life, and other pieces that may be worth telling. And then, I got to thinking about other characters from the story and their lives…it goes on.

We don’t always find the right voice for a story in the first go. It might require a process of elimination to discover the true narrator. Or, maybe you’d rather have the different perspectives tell the story together. After all, Christie took a bunch of conversations and wove them into a taut mystery readers couldn’t leave alone. Just imagine what that kind of layering could do for your own fiction.

PS: In the spirit of Sarah J. Higbee’s weekly book cover studies, I wanted to share some of these designs for Five Little Pigs. Frankly, I feel gripped by none of them: not the childish ones, certainly not the giant pig. The one with the flowers is way too busy, and the beer glass of all things emphasizes THE biggest clue in the mystery. I see why later covers tended to focus more on the painting, as it is the catalyst for the murder.

 

Point of View Blows Up in My Face (or, the end of the “Normal’s Menace” experiment)

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(Photo credit:YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Point of View makes–and breaks–good stories. Sometimes omniscience helps move the story along at a good clip, but other times it burdens readers with tangential thoughts and details irrelevant to the story at hand (I’m looking at you, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…gosh, I hated that book…).  If we choose to write from inside a character, or even alongside one particular character, then we’re limited to that character’s knowledge–or lack thereof. We’re stuck with the vocabulary and worldviews, and we better stick with them, or else. Readers have a knack for calling bullshit on adult terminology coming from a five-year-old, or a character knowing the particulars of past events never actually discussed.

When I first brainstormed “Normal’s Menace,” I imagined it a story for Dorjan, a secondary character from an old WIP. I also wanted to make good on an oath I had sworn to some other indie artists about naming a story “Quiet Mound,” which…um…okay, so that part didn’t happen. I ended up commandeering something else from their work, for which I’m sorry, but it was just too damn perfect to use. Incognito Cinema Warriors, I humbly beg your forgiveness for stealing the most perfect name in the world:

Captain Whiskers.

That’s when the story in my head shifted away from Dorjan and re-centered itself around Millie, a lonely kid who befriends a strange cat that’s able to bring her daydreams to life. Not long after the cat arrives, Dorjan comes to take the cat away.

In my previous post, I shared what happened from Millie’s perspective. The next phase of this experiment intended to re-tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective and mark out each telling’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note the word “intended.”

Oh, I tried. I tried three damn times to get a handle on this story from Dorjan’s point of view. Yet each take, just…it was like trying to hold a snowflake. I had it, it was so sparkly and awesome, and then–plop. Just another drop of water on the cement.

Here’s Take #1:

Nothing sets my hackles off like a stray pissing on the rules. They want all of home’s comforts without the obligations to obey. And who’s to tell them otherwise? The mother, father? One likely can’t talk outside of instinct, while the other is gone completely, or dead.

Well, as an exile, let me just say: no.

You don’t get to play that way.

Our kind treats central America as a sort of wasteland, a place to mow down the strange growths of life and culture they consider unimportant in the big scheme of things. They did it with Rome, with Germany, then got bored and decided to find a new sandbox to trample. The dullest corners they transformed into prisons. My family’s in one. Why not me? Because I was a bloody coward and hiding at the time, that’s why. Shut up, I’m not talking about it.

But a mixed blessing, as Uncle says. No one’s teaching the rules anymore. No one’s tracking the new breeds.

So I do what I can in this land: the Midwest, I heard it called. When I catch wind of a new litter, I teach what I can. When strays wander in, I take them to a crossing to live with others.

I stopped. I didn’t want to get long-winded about Dorjan’s family, as they’re the center of my WIP. This short story needed to focus on taking Thorn down, not Dorjan’s family tree.

Okay, start again. Take #2:

The problem with strays is that they don’t want to understand the rules. They like the taste of a child’s dreams and think nothing of devouring a young soul whole. They don’t care about exposure of our kind, or the impact upon the social mores rippling throughout the class system of various societies and blah, blah IT’S DAMN WRONG.

Thorn learned the hard way. Twice. Not often one survives the first lesson.

 The first time came with his arrival to boundary lands between the prison and the rest of life as you know it. A farm with guest lodgings sits there. If you are fully grown and hold your life in any worth whatsoever, then I strongly recommend guesting yourself elsewhere.

The farm was run by normal human beings, whom I usually left alone in order to avoid being shot. Several more had shown up that day for a party of sorts—lots of children, fire-cooked meats, freshly baked pies, and snowballs everywhere. The air positively reeked with celebration. If I hadn’t stayed to enjoy the smells from behind the barn, then I would have missed Thorn altogether.

He wandered in from the highway, looking like a blown-about broken twig. I caught a whiff of his foreignness, and watched.

The adults ignored him. Just another cat on a farm.

But the children… one little boy waddled over in his pillowy pants. “Kitty!” He said, all precious. The others stopped their snow-battle and ooed and aaahed and starting petting him…

…and they stopped talking. They all huddled about him, barely breathing. All are like that when their dreams are unleashed and souls exposed.

He was going to devour them all without a second thought.

None of the adults had guns.

I had to do it.

I ran.

The children didn’t even scream when my muzzle pushed them aside. Parents did plenty of that, though.

Someone screamed about a shot gun while I chased Thorn down the drive and off the borderland. I would have sunk my teeth in him then and there, but the Lady’s henchman got him first, and flew him off into the prison.

I stopped. Again, this path would take me into the inner workings of the WIP. A short story doesn’t have time for extensive backgrounds or world-building. If I continued this way I’d have to explain who the henchman and Lady are, why they’re in the prison, why Dorjan can come and go from the prison but his family can’t….AAAAARGH!

Ahem.

Start again, this time at Millie’s farm. That should avoid the need for history, yes? Take #3:

I shake the water out and sniff to gauge my surroundings: still winter. Another farm. The little pisser hasn’t left the region, then.

The ground has a lot to offer a nose, too. Cat. Human: female. Rubber. Peanut butter. Something grape-ish. Tobacco. Gunpowder. The last two were faint. The first two were strong, dangerously so. Hope that peanut butter keeps the human stuck to the ground, because humans haven’t the heart’s fire to survive the water road. Curious it comes to a pond rather than a proper exit. Must have been a place of magic for the Old Ways…

I study the land for his path.

DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT.

No. All wrong. I’m diving into terminology I won’t have time to explain. I could treat the situation with the air of magical realism and make readers deal with it, but why should they? They’re not attached to the character or the situation. They’ve no reason to work at keeping up.

By sticking with Millie, we don’t have to explain why things happen as they do. Millie doesn’t try to figure out how Captain Whiskers does what he does; she accepts it and moves on. She lets the mystery remain a mystery for herself, but also lets readers pick up on odds and ends from the details she shares. For instance, readers know the cat is capable of physically changing things, like Millie’s pocket knife. We learn he’s feeding off her somehow, what with all his getting fat by licking her person and eventually her blood. We also know that Millie doesn’t connect the dots because she’s too fixated on escaping reality. Through Millie’s perspective readers receive an intimate look at the power the cat has over her.

This story is about a girl’s life ensnared by a cat.

Were I to tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective, everything alters: the stakes, the motivations, all of it.

Therein lies the reason I stopped time and again: Dorjan has no real stake in this situation. Millie’s the one with, as Shehanne Moore and Sarah Higbee aptly put it, the most to lose. If I wanted Dorjan to be the narrator, then the story needed to center around him.

There would have to be a first meeting and a sin against Dorjan to set him hunting. This would require establishing another setting, the rules Captain Whiskers/Thorn goes about breaking in such a way to motivate Dorjan to wreak deadly justice–basically, a lot of world-building that can’t fit into a short story. Now I admit, it’s tempting to go into that bit of his life. His fierce desire to protect mortal children is a subplot in my WIP, and I wouldn’t mind exploring where that comes from.

But that, as Maz Kanata says in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is “another story for another time.”

Only that IS the case here rather than a cheap cop-out to avoid a plot hole. Millie is the one who interacts with the cat, who suffers at the paws of the cat, and is left to die by the cat. If I tell this story from Dorjan’s perspective, he’d have to witness that whole arc, not just the end. How the hell would that happen? Or something would have to happen to make Millie tell all of this. That sounds as much fun as a sit-down with a librarian over appropriate behavior for children around a microfilm machine.

Experiment conclusions: stick with Millie’s point of view. Oh, and change that title. “Normal’s Menace” sounds…not kid-like, that’s for sure. And while I wanted to use “Quiet Mound” and fulfill my oath, the story isn’t about the mound. It’s about the cat.

“The Stray.”
Ah…now there’s a title…
That snowflake, I caught on my tongue instead of my hand.
Totally worth all the plops.