Hullo hullo! I hope you’re healthy and safe, wherever you are. Today was…well, it was a Monday, make no mistake. But we did get through the morning, and I did get to work this afternoon on revising a short story to be submitted to local publisher Something Or Other Publishing (SOOP).
For those who recall my Free Fiction installments from oh so long ago, there was a tale called “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer.” I’ve been spending some time revamping this tale for a submission to one of SOOP’s anthologies, and the submission is now complete! All that’s left is for you, dear readers, to vote.
I didn’t just want this post to be a “meet MY needs” kind of post, though. Tonight while slurping down some reheated beef soup I was paging through Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction and came across a page that all writers could appreciate.
(Well, all writers could appreciate this entire book, but that goes without saying.)
This excerpt comes from the chapter “Inner versus Outer” discussing that ever-nasty writer problem of showing vs. telling. Enjoy!
Writing out what characters feel ought to be a shortcut to getting readers to feel that stuff too, shouldn’t it? You’d think so. After all, it’s through characters that we experience a story. Their experience is ours. Actually, the truth is the opposite. Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.
Here’s an example: His guts twisted in fear. When you read that, do your own guts twist in fear? Probably not. Or this: Her eyes shot daggers at him. Do you feel simmering rage? Meh. Not so much.
Such feelings fail toexcite us because, of course, we’ve read them too many times. Thosedaggers have dulled. What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived–they’ll ring false and fail to ignite the reader’s emotions. ….
Human beings are complex. We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath. There are emotions that we minimize, hide, and deny. There are emotions that embarrass us, reveal too much, and make us vulnerable. Our emotions can be profoundly trivial or so elevated that they’re silly. What we feel is unescapably influenced by our history, morals, loyalties, and politics.….
We’re clear. We’re vague. We hate. We love. We feel passionately about our shoes yet shrug off disasters on TV. We are finely tuned sensors of right and wrong, and horrible examples for our kids. We are walking contradictions. We are encyclopedias of the heart. ….
With so much rich human material to work with, it’s disappointing to me that so many manuscripts offer a limited menu of emotions. I want to feast on life, but instead I’m standing before a fast-food menu, my choices limited to two patties or one, fries or medium or large. …They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels, which is true, but this is also a limited view.
So how does one create emotional surprise? …
Be obvious and tell readers what to feel, and they won’t feel it. Light an unexpected match, though, and readers will ignite their own feelings, which may well prove to be the ones that are primary and obvious. third-level emotions. That’s the effective way of storytelling.
Gosh, I love this book. I’m going to keep stealing time away to re-read Maass whenever the kids are busy with school stuff. Craft-talk like this does wonders to the creative fire, especially when it’s revision mode. Do you have any craft books you’d like to recommend? Please do in the comments below!
Stay tuned! I’ve a lovely indie author interview coming! No, I didn’t forget about the homeschool lesson plans or music. We’re getting there. 🙂
Schoooooooool’s out, for, summer….schoooool’s out for-ever…..
Well, not quite. To stem the spread of COVID-19, many states are shutting down schools for the next three weeks. That leaves me with Blondie, Biff, and Bash every day while Bo goes to work (until they close that). I’ll need to teach online. They’ll need to do homework online. Everything will have to be done at home, period. No zoos, no museums, no libraries. Just us and our computers so long as the Internet holds. Maybe a park, too, if the day’s nice, which ain’t lookin’ too good this week.
In a word:
At least we managed to get a visit in at the library on Saturday before they closed today. Blondie’s got some novels on wolves, Bash gathered books on building robots with Legos, and Biff stuffed his arms with as many truck books as possible.
Don’t forget all my comic books downstairs, Bo texts me. We’ll make this work.
Not gonna lie–it’s hard to feel that all that positive right now. I’m sitting on my bed, staring out the window like I so often did during those bloody months of post-partum depression. All those people out there, the birds, the flowers. All right out there, yet another world away from what I feel in the moment. Sitting in this spot again, knowing I can’t take the kids anywhere…damn, but I can feel that depression lurking beneath my bed like a monster out of Calvin and Hobbes.
We’ll make this work.
Okay. We’ll make this work.
I know you’re out there, fellow parents, wondering how the hell you’re going to make this work, but you will because you must. We all must.
It won’t gel right away. I’ve already written today off with its lousy trips to the grocery store and dentist (“Where’s the pizza? We can’t make muffins without eggs! I want a toy EVERY DAY! I’m going to race through all the dentist chairs and spin them like crazy!”). But we can’t write off the next three weeks. Tomorrow morning I’m going to get the kids up a little while after their normal wake-up time, and at breakfast, we’re going to make a plan for reading time, creating time, play time, cleaning time, screen time, the lot. Schedules are vital for sanity around here, especially with twins who suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder. Biff especially thrives on the order he expects in his classroom, and now EVERYthing is in disarray. Bash doesn’t necessarily fear failure right now, but how will he react to online school work? And Blondie bummed because as of right now, her piano recital, her choir stuff, her play dates…all cancelled.
And then there’s me, who was so determined to finish her short fiction and share it this week, continue her Star Wars analysis.
We’ll make this work.
That starts with chucking the pessimism.
Let’em have their bears powered by fart rockets today with commercial breaks featuring poop pizzas. Tomorrow, we build the plan for a new normal. Tomorrow, we will make this better.
“But I don’t KNOW what to do, I don’t KNOW!” Bash sits between me and the occupational therapist, head in his hands. Tears run down his nose and splatter on “Glass Man,” the Unthinkable that blows a small problem way out of proportion. The space after I can defeat Glass Man by____ is blank.
“All I know is ask the teacher for help!”
The therapist and I trade looks. Bash was all fun and smiles for the initial physical activities, but now that we’re talking about tackling disruptive behaviors, he’s shrinking in his chair. The kid so fearless on the trapeze and crash pad is curled up and shaking, his glasses on the table streaked with dried tears.
Inside I ache, on the verge of crumbling just as he. His hands are too small to be holding his head like that. He shouldn’t feel the Fear like this so soon in life. This is the kind of Fear that crushes imagination, courage, hope.
I should know, carrying the burden as I do now. But not then. Back then I feared climbing a tree, sure, but not reading with my classmates. I may have feared taking my bike down that vertical drop of a gravel road to the park, but I never worried so much about my math that I threw away my test and hid in the school basement, only to find out later I had gotten every answer right.
I cannot solve this for him, I tell myself time and again as I stroke Bash’s back, doing my damndest to keep my outsides calm as the therapist tries to look into Bash’s face.
“But you did such a great job on Energy Hare-y!” she says, her voice just bubbly enough to be excited without patronizing. Her freckled face and ponytail give her the look of a high school baby-sitter, though her diplomas on the wall reflect a solid ten years of medical education. “You said you should take a break, and that’s just the thing to help a body get the wiggles out and find new focus.”
“This sounds an awful lot like Rock Brain,” I add, pointing to another Unthinkable. “He’s got you stuck real hard.”
Stuck is right. For every tough behavior—inability to sit still, outbursts over small problems, fleeing in fear of failure—Bash’s answer has been, “Ask the teacher for help.”
Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Ask for help. I tell my students that every week. I’ve told Blondie, Bash, and Biff to do this when tackling something new and/or hard. Never be afraid to ask for help!
This is even truer when it comes to matters of mental health. Illnesses like depression and anxiety can isolate a person and make them feel incapable of connecting to another human being. I experienced this first-hand during my years of post-partum depression. Holding one baby boy while another slept, I’d stare out the bedroom window to see other people walking dogs, grilling food, swimming in pools. They were all neighbors, yet impossibly far away. The walls of the house seemed impenetrable. I felt like I was losing my sense of Self, of hope. I’d pray to get through the day, hour, minute without succumbing to the voices inside telling me how easy it was to just walk out of the house and not come back, to make the boys cry for a reason…
Though my sons’ birth cracked open the darkest pieces of me, they were also my inspiration to hammer those pieces to dust. Now Bash is facing his own darkness, one that tells him over and over that he is stupid, that he can’t do anything, that his teacher will be mad because he’s wrong, he’s wrong in everything, that he can’t do ___ because he’s never done it before so he’ll fail and everyone will laugh.
I want so badly to lift the Fear off his shoulders and carry them myself. I want to hold his hand and guide him to the right answers at the right time. I want to see him succeed…
But he will not succeed if I do everything for him.
Some battles must be fought alone. We can provide the tools, the support, the whatever-else-needed, but in the end, the fight is Bash’s and only Bash’s.
It’s not an easy truth for writers to face, either.
Fear looms over us with every submission and book review. For some of us, Fear grips us before we even put the story to the page. I don’t have the time to write well like real authors. I can’t afford to spend time on something that’ll fail. It will fail. No way anyone could like something I write.
It’s a Charlie Brown moment—we just can’t do anything right, not even what we love.
Better to run and hide our creative selves from the world than face the disapproval and derision sure to come.
The therapist gently tugs on Bash’s arm. “Let’s do another break, huh? How about riding the scooter down the ramp five times, and then we’ll try beating Glass Man?”
Bash slowly rolls off my lap. His body’s bent forward so low his hands practically touch the floor as he approaches the scooter. He flops belly first onto the scooter, his legs crooked up into the air. He grunts little grunts, his fingers tap little taps on the scooter, floor, ramp.
He pulls. Just a little. Pulls more. Just a little. Pulls the first two wheels onto the ramp. Just a little.
“Let me help you,” the therapist says, but Bash moves past her hands. Back toward her hands. Away from her hands again. The ramp’s only four feet, and Bash covers those first three feet a lot—up and down, side to side. Yet he does not give up. When he slaps the sticker at the top of the ramp with his palm, he gets there himself.
It’s just a few seconds down the ramp and across the room. But it’s enough to crush the sadness and fill Bash with wild and happy giggles. He runs back to the worksheet, “I can breathe!” he says, and shows us how he can fill his tummy with air and blow out his fingers like birthday candles.
The therapist claps. “That’s great! Say, that’s the perfect way to beat Glass Man.”
Bash grins and hops over to his sheet. He writes BELLY BIRTHDAY BREATHS so big it covers the picture of Glass Man completely.
It’s another Charlie Brown moment, when one’s determination finally eclipses the Fear.
We find the breath in us to move forward across a land of glass and rock and discover we are not such fragile stuff at all. We are capable of incredible feats of imagination and bravery, for there is no greater Fear than the Fear we carry within. Only when we shirk that Fear can we share stories from the deepest, truest places, the kinds of places readers yearn to find.
So take up that kite, writers. You may get tangled, the kite may get torn, but there is always tomorrow and the promise of another chance to fly, and fly far.
Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.
This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)
Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanistis calling for western speculative flash fiction:
Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Nametrilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)
As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.
That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.
So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.
(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)
Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.
Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.
“How Does Your Garden Grow?”
In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!
Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.
More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.
Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.
Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.
“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”
Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.
Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.
“Triangle at Rhodes”
Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.
And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.
When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.
The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.
Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.
“The Affair at the Victory Ball”
Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.
Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:
Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”
And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.
Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.
“The Cornish Mystery”
It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?
Ah. That is why the reader reads on.
So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.
National Novel Writing Month called to my imagination with the promise of storytelling in spite of all life’s commitments. Thousands take up the challenge, so why can’t I? And I was realistic about this, too. I knew 50,000 words was impossible, but surely there could be SOME way to accomplish a meaningful amount of words. I’ve done it before, and dammit, I could do it again!
But if you saw my banner for November, you might already know what changed the course of my plans.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the motherhood. I managed to turn Biff’s day of fever into a quick morning of writing.
No no–it was the teaching. Yeah, the final projects from my University students were once again a big drain on time, but those at least I knew how to manage. The subbing among six different school districts, however, was constantly unpredictable. A small agreement of a three-hour stint would change into a six-hour haul among several different grades. I’d show up expecting to work with a special needs kid only to find out I’m actually teaching 1st grade math to kids more eager to stab each other in the eye with pencils than to just sit the Godfrey Daniel down. (You can decipher that bold phrase if you channel your inner WC Fields.) This doesn’t even include the 5am phone calls of, “Can you come in today? All day. There are notes here for your duties, I think. We’ll look when you get here.”
It was a busy month. Busy, and rough. I’d be rushing from hours spent with a kid who refused to use kleenex and therefore had a steady stream of mucus running from his nose into his mouth while eating his snack and then coming up to hug every single adult and myself and to give us high fives with those same boogery hands and I had to prevent myself from gagging all over this kid OLD ENOUGH TO USE A FRICKETY FRACKIN’ TISSUE and then get my own kids, NOT let them hug me so I wouldn’t spread whatever germs are smeared in green on my person, and grade finals.
And the typical bits of motherhood don’t vanish,do they? Blondie needed to work on her piano. Biff and Bash needed to do their homework, and they needed to attend their occupational therapy. All three needed to be fed with actual food, not just, you know, dog bowls on the floor. (Though that would be SOOOO much easier.)
At the beginning of November, I was certain I could use the same tactics I had in previous years to write while parenting and teaching. And if my life’s course was still just motherhood and teaching online for the university. it could have worked.
But this fall, the course of my life changed when I added the substitute jobs. The river no longer flowed in the way I understood it. It went from this…
I missed writing so much.
I wanted life to continue its typical course with my writing floating atop. I might row for ten miles one day, just around the bend the next. But at least I’d be writing again.
Yet at least two weeks of November passed with no writing at all.
I had failed.
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
That failure hung on me like twin boys determined to make me a tree. It hung on me like the face my daughter used to make when I’d say time and time again, “Not now.” It hung on me like the words my husband couldn’t say because I had to work. I had to do more. There was always more to do.
And that, Dear Friends, is when it’s time to stop.
You may think you can walk upon the river’s stones. You may think you can continue on your course your way because you are you.
That’s what I thought. I put on my sensible shoes and figured I could portage my writing across the rapids without *too* much trouble.
I was so bloody determined to carry my writing through these unpredictable waters that I failed to look on what I had done as any sort of accomplishment.
I had written 12,000 words of a new story and shared share every one of those words with you.
It’s so easy to get caught up in what we fail to do, isn’t it? We get daily notifications of a gazillion new authors all hot’n’fancy with readers we’d LOVE to have for ourselves. We check out the new best-seller brew-ha-ha and wonder what on EARTH inspires people to spend money on such’n’such garbage when there’s *our* stuff ready and waiting. We hear of yet another remake/re-imagining/reboot/re-whatever and wonder why no one notices the bounty of fresh fiction we create.
We look so longingly at the accomplishments of others that we forget what we ourselves have accomplished. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did work to help keep Blondie in music and Biff and Bash with their therapy. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did inspire my daughter to start her own. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did get to split my sides laughing while Biff and Bash shared their favorite quotes from a Captain Underpants read-a-thon (Seriously, Biff sat and read an entire novel out loud with Bash silently listening. It was AMAZING.)
So Friends, please don’t dwell on what wasn’t finished. There will always be a course to travel, and it will always be a mystery beyond the bend. What matters is that you take a step, then another, then another. One day you may take one hundred steps, the next one thousand, the next, just one. Every single step–every single word–is something to be proud of.
~Stay Tuned Next Week!~
I’m going to start posting on Sundays instead of Thursdays, so now you have to wait until next Sunday for some awesome writing music, updates from Blondie, and perhaps some writing craft study on an old holiday favorite. More author interviews are underway as well, so be sure to stop by and see who’s on the hot-seat in the coming weeks!
However, as book reviewer and author S.J. Higbeehas often noted, many authors and/or publishers feel compelled to stick waaaaaaaaaaaay too much information into the book blurb. (Click here for just one of MANY reviews where Sarah touches on the problem of chatty blurbs.) Where is the line between too much information and too little? We want to give readers a taste of the story inside, but we don’t want to ruin their appetites. We want to engage readers without killing all the story’s surprises or subverting all the expectations.
Which got me to thinking about M*A*S*H. Yes, the TV show.
I never watched M*A*S*H as a kid, nor did I know about the original book on which the film and television series are based. I only knew that whenever the theme song started playing on the TV, I went off and did something else.
Just listen to that mellow song played alongside these doctors and nurses treating soldiers near enemy lines. The show’s opener had the look and feel of some medical drama, the last sort of show Little Me would want to watch.
Then I learned after marrying Bo that this show was a comedy. A COMEDY?! How the heck is someone supposed to catch the comedy vibes from that opener? The melody’s a sad one; heck, the original song’s called “Suicide is Painless.” We see no happy or positive expressions on people’s faces, only the urgency of aiding the wounded. There is absolutely nothing present in this theme to tell one that they’re about to watch a comedy. Imagine if a book tried to pull this same stunt with their cover art and blurb. How do you think the ever-watchful Goodreads community would respond?
As writers, we need that blurb to give readers a genuine sense of the story-world they’re about to enter. Usually just a few elements of the genre are enough to tell readers, this is what you’re in for. If you dig X, then you’ll love this.
Since television themes are always held to a similar degree of requirement (unless it’s M*A*S*H, apparently), let’s use a few more for examples: Bonanza, Twilight Zone, and Dragnet.
Not one of these theme songs is all that long, but we get enough out of the music to know the genre of each show: the twang of the western guitar, the dissonance of an eerie suspense-filled horror, the stalwart drums of justice. With just a few seconds, these themes accurately and concisely provide the audience a sense of the stories that will accompany the themes.
Now I’m not saying that chattiness is always bad. Heavens, Rod Serling’s speech for Twilight Zone’s theme is iconic. Then you have shows like Dukes of Hazzard and A-Team, which just so happen to be Bo’s and my favorite TV shows from childhood. Both are spot-on with their carefree guitar and military snare, and both directly address the audience with the premise of the show (only the A-Team don’t need no Waylon Jennings to sing because they got Mr. T, fool!). These themes are slightly over a minute long, but they don’t overwhelm the audience with information. We only get what we need: Protagonists and Problems. It’s up to us to stay tuned for more.
So what happens when that blurb of a theme does give us more?
This is where I think we enter the “chatty” territory, the “too much” territory. Allow me to force more of my 80s upbringing on you for examples.
Okay, I’ll let the monotonous “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” sung over and over in the background slide because it’s like a companion to the drums. But do we really need to hear the traits of every main character in the opening of EVERY episode? She-Ra and Masters of the Universe did that, too, always breaking down every damn character so you would know just who the good guys and bad guys are, and who knows the secret identity stuff and who doesn’t, because apparently you, you snot-faced lump of Cheetos-dusted child, are too dumb to catch on to any of this when watching the show.
And I think this is what really gets to me about those chatty blurbs on books today. It’s like the publisher/writer thinks they have to talk down to the reader to ensure they understand the story’s premise and conflict. Sure, no one wants the reader to feel confused, but the consequence of over-talking is that we make the reader feel inferior.
Yes, there are some that like having all the dots connected for them, but not this gal, not this gal’s kids, and I have a feeling that you don’t dig being babied, either. Plus, it says something about us as writers when we don’t trust our own storytelling skills to adequately show readers who’s who and what’s what inside the story itself.
There simply comes a time when all we can–all we should–give readers are duct tape, a lemon, and a broken magnifying glass. If they’re intrigued with the few pieces you leave for them to find, then you can bet your MacGyver-lovin’ boots they’re comin’ into the book for more.
Anyone else have a favorite television theme to share? I was trying to figure out how to squeeze in Hawaii Five-0, but I just couldn’t make it work, dammit.
No, he didn’t get this book for me; he bought it for his parents, my grandparents, whom I’m pretty sure never cracked the cover. You can bet your boots my brothers and I did, though. I was fascinated by these bizarre animals and people with 1950s glasses and beehive hairdos. The puns were atrocious, the wordplay crazy. My favorite running series in all the collections, however, had little to do with language and aaaaaaall to do with the situation.
How did Gary Larson come up with these combos? Every pairing seemed so outlandish, and yet I always laughed, even when I was small, because Little Me knew:
That’s a baaaad idea.
Even if you’re not a fan of forcefully brewing trouble, there’s no denying that we as writers thrive on trouble–aka, conflict. There’s got to be a struggle between person and nature, person and person, person and self. There’s a quest, an escape, a threat to overcome. Somewhere, whether in our world or in our imaginations, there must be something happening, ingredients to brew the trouble that make for a delicious story.
A recipe for disaster, if you will.
Recipes with ingredients only Gary Larson seems to come up with: poodles and falcons, sky divers and alligators, marching bands and migraine doctors. These are all common, everyday things in our world, but when mixed together the story–the conflict–is anything but ordinary.
Lord knows that as a parent of two Calvins and a Hobbes, my shelves are stacked with cookbooks of mayhem.
If you’ve never heard of Calvin and Hobbes, you MUST read them. Today.
Calvin’s best friend is a tiger named Hobbes. To all the world, Hobbes is a stuffed animal, but to Calvin, he is the ultimate friend and ally in a boring world.
When Bo found his collections of Calvin and Hobbes comics, Blondie and the boys snatched them up and still haven’t let go. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see the kids so engaged with a character. Calvin deals with a lot of kid issues like bullies and school woes, but he also gets into some very grown-up topics like environmentalism and death.
On the other hand, Calvin is, well, something of a troublemaker.
This comic feels like some hilarious yet horrendous portent of days to come with Biff and Bash. (No, Blondie doesn’t get off the hook. Hobbes instigates just as often as he cautions.) Calvin can be rude, foolish, and downright diabolical, but I cannot stop loving him for one simple reason:
Calvin can take any thing, any place, any one, and create a universe of adventure.
He inspires Bash to be his own Stupendous Man, complete with sidekick (Bash’s wee Bumble, Captain Ice Cube).
He inspires Biff to find magic on the snowy slopes, even after losing two teeth in a sledding accident.
Calvin’s dad even inspires Bo’s parenting style.
Yeah, I didn’t get to do much writing this summer, but I still consider the past few months well spent because I got to be a reader–no, that’s not the right word. A listener. I was blessed to listen and watch Biff, Bash, and Blondie work together to create hilarious adventures featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, Wall-E the trash bot, Optimus Prime, Lego Batman, the USS Enterprise, and more. Every plot point was preceded with a “How About ___?” and a “Yeah, and then ___!”. No villain’s ever truly villainous, and no hero’s ever truly perfect. Settings switch from Sodor to Cybertron to Gotham City and back again without characters ever missing a beat. I marvel at how their voices run through the story together, pulling each other along…and yes, sometimes one voice knocks another down, and I must end the story with a cliffhanger. They get so frustrated when their stories diverge with the same characters, and one wants the others to follow. I wish I had perfect motherly advice to give them, but considering my own experiences with collaborative writing went up in flames, all I can manage is a welp, kiddos, maybe you should just tell separate stories for a while.
And they do. Less excitedly, but they do.
Creative teamwork is a delicate thing, and I’m still very clumsy at helping it stay together. But after this summer I’m determined to keep trying because when together, my children imagined stories as magical as dandelion seeds flying through a northern wood.
I’ve got an indie author interview on the way, as well as a fun exploration into theme music. We also need to do some serious pondering of the fairy tale, and how two storytellers of film and page came together to build a country’s history out of…fairy tales?
Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was
a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so
commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak
that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted
even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who
heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into
the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my
writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more
than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was…
terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons
will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written
and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud
makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for
believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of
speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my
opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but
human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better
connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be
accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can
connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like
their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling
in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel
and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason
you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so
someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s
supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets
round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think
their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs
of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever
goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating
under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting
is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim
to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your
writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study
books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a
crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available
online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet
screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t
know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your
credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t
validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s
probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick
contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what
they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even
if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will
probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script
to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read
everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the
local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real
books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I
read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And
then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my
nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading
encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read
so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty
books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any
author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book
from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The ThreeMusketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Caveby Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly,
if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t
have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation
skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake
hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when
they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30
or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write.
I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on
the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once
a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping
lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full
dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in
the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish
swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere
in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I
didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I
was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very
clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so
I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking
after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I
already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only
parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say,
with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this
consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans
down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it
left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the
figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down
in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off.
All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene,
usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main
character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I
start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it
morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done
in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now,
because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it
not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time,
I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write
like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the
affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are
old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while.
There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian
Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last
ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to
write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall
and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very
inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending
on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for
instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because
my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist,
swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out
my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival
course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need
to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off
the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had
an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it
was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer
techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting,
practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and
weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I
had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and
use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in
living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that
direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and
picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to
home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s
end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like
get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never
made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it
out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it
really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus,
so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have
otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being
immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of
flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a
sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations
and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape
into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry
is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is
exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where
those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it
takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and
perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my
divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of
knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for
everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a
reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where
I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a
Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially
to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve
been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral
code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up
against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the
end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out.
In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled
into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one
I think the biggest influence on my writing
is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are
so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real
and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there
on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I
can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about
injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but
in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or
that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own
myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad
things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on
that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on
a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down
that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling
you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing
a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand
why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home.
While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really
do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You
have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about
that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or
you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and
get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or
you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some
“writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and
make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their
life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive
I’ve been a working writer, writing every
day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did
it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes
for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the
thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently
I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build.
No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully
prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re
no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new
reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My
goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every
day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re
going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid,
realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)
So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.
The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)
Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.
But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.
(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)
The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.
Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…
Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.
Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.
In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.
Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.
Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.
It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.
This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”
So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!
The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.
In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”
The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.
The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”
At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.
Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.
All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.
The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.
When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.
You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.
And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.
The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?
If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?
But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.
Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.
Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.
Gah, now I’m just rambling.
I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.
Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.
Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.
Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!
Blondie finished the school year with a straight-A report card. She was particularly proud of her last story for writing class: “The Invention that Changed the Chicken World.” It’s a suspenseful tale of action and intrigue as Zach, a lowly chicken residing on a dairy farm on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, discovers that special rocks from the volcano will help him build a jet pack. He successfully builds a model only to be discovered by a nefarious squirrel…well here, you read it:
Little did Zach know that two sinister eyes were watching from the trees. Later Zach was walking back to the coop when suddenly, a squirrel jumped in the way! He was wearing an eyepatch on his right eye! Worst of all, he was pointing a GUN AT HIM!!!
“Gimme your rocks, sonny. Then you can have anything you want,” said the squirrel calmly.
“What do you want with MY rocks? Go get your own!” shouted Zach. The squirrel leaped at him, took the rocks, adn sprinted away. Chickens, you might say, aren’t very fast. Zach, however, was just the opposite. Zach ran like a lightning bolt and caught up with the squirrel and took the rocks.
Blondie, “The Invention that Changed the Chicken World”
The tale continues, but Blondie refuses to read it out loud for me, the stinker. 🙂 Her story was such a hit with Biff and Bash that Biff even started his own story:
Blondie’s promised us all more stories about Zach the chicken this summer, and I’m excited to see Biff truly enjoy drawing and writing. Bash, meanwhile, is turning out some amazing creations with Lego; even we will set them apart so that no one else can wreck them.
But even though the kids are wrapping up their school year, my current term at the university has a ways to go. Plus, I’ve taken on a new job as substitute teaching aid at another town’s school district. It’ll help the family income, plus it gives me a chance to work with kids aged 4-18. If I want to write for these people, I should probably, you know, hang out with them’n’stuff…
(Side Question: Why the heck does anyone think four-year-olds can learn to walk on stilts? These kids can barely remember to use a kleenex, let alone tie shoes, and we trust them to walk with GIANT METAL RODS?!)
The plans had been to publish the entire series over the course of a few years, starting with Books 1 and 2 to come out pretty close to each other. We individually published six short stories over the summer and fall to help promote the first novel, and on October 31, 2018, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen hit the shelves.
Well. You might have noticed the second novel’s not out yet.
The folks at Aionios Books chose not to continue with my series.
Am I bummed? Of course I am. It feels like that moment in A Fistful of Dollars when Clint’s caught by the baddies after helping a girl escape. They beat him to a pulp, taking extra care to cripple his shooting hand. One look at him, and you’d think he’s a goner.
Only he’s not. He manages to escape despite his injuries and hides away in an old mine. Over the course of his recovery, he slowly, surely, tenaciously, teaches himself to shoot with his other hand.
Yeah, I may be down, but I’m a professional, dammit. It’s a wild world out there in indie publishing, and every fighter’s got to do what he/she can to survive. Aionios made the call they felt was best for them. So, we just need to do our own parts in helping Fallen Princeborn: Stolen stay alive while also adventuring off in our own directions.
In my case…well, first I’m learning to shoot with the other hand.
This means I’ve got to do a complete overhaul of my platform: website, social media, the whole kit’n’caboodle. Don’t be surprised if a link’s down one day and up the next–we’re talking years’ worth of posts to revise.
I intend to rework and re-release my six short stories of Tales in the River Vine.
I’m also excited to publish a new tale, a tale that hearkens to those wild days of territories stitched with railways and bounty hunters ready to kill for a few dollars more…
“Between you and me, I doubt they’ve got the know-how to outsmart Night’s Tooth.” Sheriff Jensen narrows his eyes at the poster like he could scare it. “No proper description of the man, and a modus operandi as bizarre as hell.”
“Why bizarre?” Sumac pulls the poster from its pin and stares thoughtfully at Night Tooth’s name.
Now the sheriff goes all quiet again, thinking. He’s really sizing Sumac up this time, like as not making sure Sumac’s not crazy as a loon. “Because they find bite marks in the rail cars’ walls, that’s why. This man’s got a wolf with him, somethin’ big as a bear and twice as smart.”
That’s a whap Sumac’s not expecting. No doubt his lady employer would have a good laugh over that one. “Well, as I see it, Sheriff, some creatures are born into killin’ like others are into dyin’. I reckon Night’s Tooth is of that first camp, wouldn’t you?”
The wind whistle-whines against the glass. Another train cries out from the rails beyond La Crosse’s commercial center.
Sumac smiles. He knows he doesn’t have to answer.
And, God-willing, before 2019 ends I’m going to publish the next installment of the Fallen Princeborn series.
The name sucks the air clean out of Charlotte’s mouth. Her lungs shrivel, her mind bleached like bones in the desert—
Someone stands out in the middle of the Wild Grasses. Pale arms hang perfectly still against a sparkly shirt. The breeze plays with red hair too bright to mistake. It carries the scent of bus and berries to Charlotte’s nose and stings her eyes to tears. A pink bubble inflates out of the mouth. Baby blues shine like search lights.
Pop. “I’m still waiting for you, Charlie.” Pop.
The Voice rushes to the bellows within Charlotte, brings air and feeling back to her lungs. One, two, don’t let Orna get to you.
Charlotte heaves a breath as deep as she can. Her legs don’t want to move, she can’t move, but she will move. She forces one foot forward, then another, commands her back to straighten, and she screams, “I know who you really are!” She chews the unsaid words “you bitch!” like gristle, wishing desperately to spit them out at The Lady wearing her sister’s shape like some Halloween costume. But even the shape of Anna forces the hateful speech to stick between Charlotte’s teeth. “Go back to your hole!”
should have died in the Pits, Charlie. She’s got something a lot worse planned
for you now.”
“’She’?” It was just a tiny word, but its reference jabs the Voice in Charlotte’s heart good’n’hard.
Blues grin like some damn playground secret.
“Don’t fuck with me, Orna.” Charlotte’s walking before she knows it, wading into the Wild Grasses, arms swaying fists, teeth clenched, “You’re the one never leaving this land alive, I swear!”
The berry and bubble gum stink to Charlotte’s nose now, all its pungent sour sweetness driving its way up into her sinuses and stinging behind her eyes.
More and more red hair blows over the Baby Blues, more hair than Anna ever had, and it grows longer, longer. She’s engulfed in hair like some Ginger-fied Cousin It.
Charlotte’s almost close enough to grab a lock and yank it off. “Take my sister off!” She lunges forward—
But Cairine’s teeth close upon Charlotte’s shirt, her nose a sharp chill on Charlotte’s neck. Cairine pulls Charlotte back as a bubble pops under all that impossible hair. A new voice grinds under Anna’s punctuated soprano:
“Let’s not rush. I’m still owed a sweetheart.”
Red hair spins round, tightens, stretches, into a giant red bubble. It floats above the wild grasses and pops to the echoes of girlish laughter.
In the meantime, I’m excited to spend June celebrating my dear friend Anne Clare–she’s releasing her debut novel this summer!
I’ve known Anne for decades, and like me, Anne’s been balancing teaching, family, and her writing life. For years she’s been researching and crafting a story that spans countless miles and years–just like our friendship. xxxxx
I am so, so proud of you, Anne!
I’ll be interviewing Anne and the impeccable James J. Cudney, who has another cozy mystery on its way to bookshelves next month.
What else lies in store? Oh, some world-building craft, methinks, and a study of the incredible Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. I shared one composition of his weeks ago, but it haunts me still. Let this song carry you on its magic into next week, where we sit, and listen, and imagine together.
I Lang hae thought, my youthfu' friend, A something to have sent you, Tho' it should serve nae ither end Than just a kind memento: But how the subject-theme may gang, Let time and chance determine; Perhaps it may turn out a sang: Perhaps turn out a sermon. - Robert Burns