I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be drinking this much orange juice, but if I can’t over drink the coffee and I’ve already burned my tongue on tea, then I’m having OJ, dammit.
This post is the equivalent of me scribbling a note in the lecture hall in the midst of a talk on world-building. Yup–the literary conference of my university is in full-swing. I’m trying to hit as many talks as possible before I have to get the kids, because taking kids into a lecture hall–even a virtual lecture hall–is a pain in the patoot. So far it’s been a nice day, and reminding me that I better practice what the heck I’m saying for an hour, and then making sure I’ve picked the right nonfiction piece to read later in the afternoon.
Noooo pressure, Jean, no pressure.
A little wish of good luck would be deeply appreciated!
In the meantime, I’m digging this post from 2018 out of my pocket because the Oscars had Queen perform, and I do so love that band. Click here and enjoy!
Luckily a few attempts to open and close it jarred the thing free so I could still get Biff and Bash to school on time.
That early smack of stress, though, got me hittin’ the chamomile-lavender tea before breakfast. It doesn’t help my keynote’s in…48 hours. My final interview for a full-time teaching position is the day after that.
But I’m not complaining about all that again, because I’ve found the right music for a far better, far more productive mood.
Bo put this song along with many others into CDs he’d make for me to play on those long drives between home and graduate school. Now that the kids are into the Blues Brothers, we’ve been tapping the Motown, Blues, and R&B for family drives. Out of all the artists, the Four Tops remain on top for me!
Part of it’s the rhythm, upbeat and steady. How can you not tap your feet to these numbers? Part of it’s the ability to sing along–an excellent sensory distraction to keep anxiety at bay while I grade and prep school stuff.
The biggest part of all? They’re damn good songs.
If you’re feeling a little down today, pick up some Four Tops. Hum and dance those downer thoughts away. Like I tell my students, any step taken forward is one more step completed on the academic journey. For us, it’s the writing journey, mental health journey, parenting journey.
My previous music post connected with quite a few genres of storytelling: mystery, horror, and adventure. I’d like to spend a touch more time on mystery, as I’m currently writing the third novel of the Fallen Princebornomnibus, whose plot is riddled with mysteries both solved and begun.
Finding the right atmosphere for mysteries is not always simple. Is this a murder mystery with a steady body count, death threats and chases galore? Or is this mystery more slow-burn style, a hunt for the conspiracy with little blood seen but destined to be found if the mystery isn’t solved?
I love both kinds, so of course my book’s a mix of both. While scores like Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman Begins, Bourne Supremacy, and others of heavy percussion help with action-heavy moments, it’s important to find the music to counter-balance that. Mychael Danna’s Breachhas some lovely tension-filled moments, but I’d like to highlight another score of beautiful, unsettling ambiance: Alexandre Desplat’s The Imitation Game.
Once again, Desplat’s use of the piano is superb. Those first few seconds of solo piano and a low running bass note immediately establish a sense of problem, of not-rightness. The repetitive run of four notes throughout the entire track also gives that feeling of mechanization, of clockwork not in our control. The strings that swell in around the 40-second mark bring a bittersweet air to them, harmonizing with the piano, but more often in a minor key than a traditional major one. Woodwinds are held off until the last minute of the track, and here, the oboe gets a chance to shine. I’m usually not a fan of the oboe (I blame one of my elementary school classmates in band who had one and NEVER learned to play it correctly. Honestly, nothing sounds worse than an awful oboe except maybe an awful violin played by me, ahem.), but when done right the oboe provides a strong yet light tragic air to a melody before it subtly fades into the quiet.
Even Desplat’s percussion is kept relatively light.
With another arpeggio, this time in a lower key, and a few percussion instruments like rhythm sticks, Desplat creates a menacing air fitting for the wartime conflict. This story is, after all, not one of the front lines and bomb raids, but the one fought out of sight, where coded words are as deadly as any missile strike. Even xylophones and chimes are put to use, but unlike Danna’s score for Breach, though here patterned melodies provide that feel of mechanization…but not the circuitry of some computer. Here it is time to follow the journeys of logic to decode nature and language.
Whether you are a reader or writer of mysteries, I heartily recommend Desplat’s The Imitation Game to create that air of hidden conflicts and pursuits for truth. Give characters the unspoken need to embrace the mystery.
Sure, there’s some sweet Christmas music in there (Yay, more Alan Silvestri!) but also plenty of fantasy and adventure, too. It’s the sort of gathering that makes me eager to close my invites me to hide from my kids for a few minutes with headphones, a chance to close my eyes and explore the possibilities…
…but which way do I go?
It’s a crossroads moment, to be sure. Maybe I need to be like Anastasia, and wait for a sign, like a magically house-trained dog covered in Don Bluth cuteness.
Whenever I feel tired of writing, this song makes me excited to get back into it again. There’s adventure in the mind, hidden deep in trees born of words and dreams. One just needs to take that first step in to see.
Perhaps that first step transports you into the night. Something stalks you in the dark…or perhaps you are the stalker, hunting the threat before It escapes among the Innocents.
Rain begins to fall, and you fall into line, the world unsuspecting of the mystery that runs amok in night’s grit and fervor.
Perhaps that first step transports you to impossible heights. Clouds kiss your feet.
Your comrades call to you, waiting for you to join them in the descent down, down to where adventure rides sunbeams and waterfalls, tunnels through ancient tombs of fallen kings.
Perhaps that first step transports you into the heart of The Storm. Lightning flashes, and you see the grey, grassy field you’re in goes on, and on, and on in all directions but one.
Lightning flashes, and you see you are not alone.
Lightning flashes, and you see nothing.
You hear a breathing not your own.
Lightning flashes, and–
So many stories, so little time!
But I’ll make the time. I have to, since now I’m creating new fiction to be shared with newsletter subscribers. You can see the hub for it on the home page of my website now: “Free Exclusive Fiction from the Wilds.” When you click there, you’ll see whatever the new fiction is for the month: a Fallen Princeborn story, maybe, or something for my Shield Maidens of Idana. A character dialogue, perhaps, or maybe just a standalone story I felt like writing. Every month will bring something awesome, so awesome it’s gotta be locked up with passwords, mwa ha ha ha! The newsletter will have the password to unlock the fiction.
(And now I suddenly feel like I’m in a Zeldagame, going to such’n’such place for the yadda yadda key to unlock the neato treasure. Ah well, you get me.)
In the meantime, I’m still working on the novels for my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus. Still teaching and family-ing. But Bo’s got me mixed up in a challenge that, by default, I’m going to inflict on you.
In the briefest of terms, Whole30 says eat meat and produce, nothing else: no dairy, no grains. Coffee and tea are okay so long as you’re not adding stuff to them. You do this for 30 days to “reset your gut,” as it were, training it to burn fat instead of sugar for energy.
This means I’m going to try blogging for 30 days straight.
Not, you know, extensive pontificating for 30 days. Just honest reflection on how it’s going. Maybe something cool I’ve read, or some awesome quotes to get you thinking as you write or read. Some interviews of amazing Indie writers, some more music to inspire, and hopefully a “lessons learned” post about series writing that touches on a legit gripe many readers have about storytelling today.
And since I’m try to trim m’self down with Bo, then let’s just top this off with a sale on my novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.For the entire month of February, Stolen will be 99 cents.
So, bring on the February! Bring on the cold, the coffee, and the dreams of stories not yet finished, not yet begun!
Something tells me it’s going to be a crazy-beautiful adventure. 🙂
As 2018’s National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, I thought I’d offer a little music to help those entangled in face-offs and final battles. We all could use a little muscle to pull us out and onward.
I know: you’re not here to start an adventure. You’re here because it’s time for you–and the characters of your story–to kick some villainous butt.
So let’s join up with the best of the best, the men of muscle who fly across the border and walk into a guerrilla nest without flinching. Men who chew cigars, sweat through camo paint, and say lines like “I ain’t got time to bleed” and sound tooootally bad-ass.
Predator isn’t a scifi-action classic purely because of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance, or only because of Stan Winston’s monster creation. Silvestri’s score plays a HUGE role in this story’s atmosphere, too.
Arnie’s military group is sent on what they think is a rescue mission deep in central America–until they find men of a previous “rescue mission” skinned and hanging from a tree. We see no evil, but we see its horror. Silvestri gives only a single, drum-like percussion, far off. An alien’s heartbeat, an echo of another nature. It’s never completely gone; rather, it hides in the rest of the orchestra’s bursts of harmony in the brass, strings, and percussion. The music sweeps up, sweeps down, all stealth and caution….until the two minute mark. The low brass of epiphany emphasizes the characters’ realization the situation is not what they presupposed.
Silvestri nails suspense with a moment when Arnold’s crew sets a trap for whatever’s killing them. The strings remain high, tight. No aggression in these first few moments, only fear–though no one wants to admit it. The combination of high strings and oppressive jungle makes characters and audience alike ready to snap under the pressure to wait. This moment often helps me add extra setting details to make the characters look hard for the villain as they wait for the trap to be sprung. And you’ll know when the villain comes, all brass and drums.
Silvestri and violins, man…he just knows how to set them running up and down in arpeggios to quicken the heartbeat. With opening in a dissonance, we put our survival instincts into a panic. We run with the strings, and the moment they stop we skid to a halt. The brass and piano takes up the chase, hunting us, hunting the characters, both.
And climax? Ye GODS, Silvestri knows his pacing. The first minute is almost sweetly mysterious with the strings as we think we’ve won against the fantastic thing, this hunter. We can stand over it victorious as its strange insides are exposed to us…until the brass and piano begin. They begin a steady build, add the percussion, build. Then the strings start to run and you know you’ve got to get the hell out of there before evil steals your victory in death.
We all want our heroes to win the day, but we don’t want it to be easy for them–there’s no story without conflict. We gotta make our heroes scared. It takes some serious fear to make the final victory all the sweeter for characters and readers alike.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~
Last-minute call for shout-outs to go in my newsletter! I’d love to share what you’re up to with my readers. Click hereto subscribe my newsletter, too!
Do you have a favorite character from Tales or Fallen Princeborn: Stolen that you feel needs some extra page time? Please let me know in the comments below–maybe they’ll be featured in future Tales of the River Vine!
As autumn closes with a celebration of gratitude, I’d like to say thank you, fellow readers and creators, for giving my stories so much love. This weekend I found that FOUR of my six Tales of the River Vinehit the top ten in free YA monster fiction ebooks on Amazon, and they’ve stayed there.
I’m floored, humbled, and thrilled all at once. To have stories that engage so many people…it’s as beautiful as the first snowfall of the year. I can never say “Thank You” enough!
2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the
publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River
Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in fresh
~A wee excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen to whet your appetite~
Arlen sits in the other armchair, opposite Charlotte, and sips his tea slowly, all the mischievous sparkle gone. When he fixes upon Charlotte again, her stomach hardens: he bears the same expression as Dad’s partner did when he came to the door ten years ago. “We are not speaking simply of fairies and folk tales. We are speaking of that about which man no longer knows anything at all. Ancient, real, and powerful.”
Dorjan’s eyes drift toward the fire as he sucks the last of the jam off his fingers.
Charlotte spins her finger to spool the air. “Whatever. Just tell me what I need to know so I can get my sister out alive.”
“That is my point, Miss Charlotte. I doubt your sister lived past dawn.”
Need a little music while you read? I got you covered! I wrote about some of the composers and soundtracks that helped me with various points of the narrative of Stolen. Do check out their work for reading, writing, living.
While I wrangle kiddos and candy sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner with my family, please be sure to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads! Every review, and I mean EVERY review, helps a writer become more visible on the virtual bookshelf.
A rare gift comes to the writer when the story and its mixed tape of music ka-chunk and transform. No longer is the music merely the writer’s atmosphere, her source of ambience while storytelling. Oh no. The music is the heroine. The music is the villain. The music is the tension. The music is the scene.
This happened to me during 2010’s National Novel Writing Monthwhen I first began drafting Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. At the time I was only using instrumental music for storytelling, while music like The Who’s Quadropheniahelped me survive the piles of grading in my dropbox. The month had barely started, so I was early in the story of Charlotte and her sister leaving their abusive family in the Dakotas for Wisconsin. Their coach bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Another peculiar bus appears with far-too-friendly good Samaritans, and despite Charlotte’s suspicions, she gets on, too.
I tried magical feathers. I tried mysterious goo in the axles. How could I get Charlotte and her sister to the Wall if I can’t make this frickin’ Samaritan trap–I mean, bus–have a plausible reason (for humans, anyway) to break down near the farmland by the Wall? I shoved the story aside and opened up a batch of essays. In the midst of telling the umpteenth student to please remember her thesis statement in the introduction, The Who’s “The Real Me” came on…
…and I saw it.
I saw the scene. I saw it all, frame by frame like a movie trailer. I knew what had to happen: utilize the shapeshifters’ gifts, the song to feel Charlotte’s fear race like a heartbeat.
For this song, I realized, embodies Charlotte.
The percussion, guitar, and style of singing are defiant to the point of raging. The song demands anyone, everyone, to look past the surface and see the pain, confusion, and ambition to be.
In this snippet of the story, though, it is Charlotte who does the seeing. Only she sees the bus driver’s inhumane ability, and realizes they’re all trapped. I could feel all this when I first drafted the scene with the song on repeat in 2010.
Eight years later, little’s changed.
~*~ From Fallen Princeborn: Stolen ~*~
Charlotte bites back the snark and hides in her headphones again. She starts “The Real
Me,” thinking, The bus SMELLS old and gross, but nothing FEELS old and gross. Give me two seconds and I’d be out cold, it’s so damn comfortable.…
… At least food has settled Anna down. Now she’s content to walk that quarter from Uncle Mattie up and down the fingers of her right hand. Then flips to her left. The quarter continues its deliberate tumble from pinky to ring to middle to forefinger to thumb and back again. Up and down. Then down and up. Like practicing scales on a piano, observes Charlotte.
“Nice moves.” Studchin’s face betrays a lack of skills with a napkin.
“Thanks. My uncle taught me.”
Charlotte does a quick passenger check: Potential Homicidal Maniac sits as far from Anna as possible. Twitchy is de-threading his own coat. Mumbles starts singing “Lizzy likes locked things.” The Sweenils argue over who won that Waters Meet Bingo tournament. Mr. Smith sings too softly for her to hear.
Black feathers fly across their window. Violet flashes, a cackle rumbles.
Charlotte spins ’round and stares at the back of the bus.
Jamie is gone.
“Where is he?”
Anna bats those damn glitter-lashes at Studchin one more time before asking, “Who?” Slurp.
“The crazy acne boy with the bags. Where is he?”
Anna opens another cake. “Probably bathroom. Why, wanna ask for his number?”
“What’s this about numbers?” Studchin’s breath reeks of mouse turds and sugar. “Cuz I’ve got one, if you want it.” |Charlotte’s chest burns beneath the pendant. It’s burning like hell, she’s going to pass out— “Can you see the real me, can ya? Can ya?” What the—? Who the—? Who has the audacity to sing a Who song OVER The Who? Charlotte swivels around in her seat, trying to locate the source. Not Studchin, he wouldn’t know good music if a chorus of show girls sang it from a Jacuzzi of custard. Not his bandmates and, thank god, not Mumbles. Potential Homicidal Maniac? Nope. Dead silent, head still.
It’s Mr. Smith, singing right along with Roger. But how can he hear what she’s listening to on her headphones, from that far up front? Charlotte shakes her head and stares at the back of Burly Man’s head. He stares right back at her from the rearview mirror. Not even the Sweenils notice him singing. No one but Charlotte, always Charlotte.
“Charlie?” Slu-urp. “What’s going on?”
“Char—” “Can you see, can you see the real me?”
“SHUT IT.” To Anna or to Mr. Smith—Charlotte doesn’t care. Get away from my music, my head, my sister. Get away.
Ash-wind pulls on Charlotte’s nose. Black, green, black, green, black: the raven’s circling again. Get AWAY! “Can you see the real me, Preacher?”
“I mean it, where is that Jamie guy?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. Why do you care?”
“Dude, what is up with your sister?” Studchin to Anna. “Can you see the real me, Doctor?”
Ash chokes, feathers fly, song deafens, eyes glitter— “Can you see the real me, Mother?”
Charlotte sees Mr. Smith’s fingers drum along in perfect sync with the song.
And he stares right back. His teeth are painted, ablaze in his smile. “Can you see the real me me me me me me?”
The raven strikes.
Of course, using a song in a story is one thing. Getting permission to use that song is another matter entirely, as I explain in “Days of Walkmans Past.”
My deepest thanks to all fellow writers and readers who have been sharing my stories and thoughts on craft. No matter how much I beat myself up for not writing enough, reading enough, living enough, you step up and share my words and make every struggle matter. Folks, these are writers well worth sharing, reading, and befriending, I promise you.
In the meantime, I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time in years. It’s time to rewrite the third novel of the Fallen Princeborn Omnibus. I promise you even more mystery and mayhem, perhaps even a murder or two in the dank Pits dark and deep…
Are you joining thirty days and nights of literary abandon? Let me know so we can be writing buddies!
We’ve got a lot to cover, folks–studying Ray Bradbury, chatting with amazing indie writer Shehanne Moore, exploring a special facet of character development, and sharing The Who’sinfluence on my writing.
But before we go into ANY of that, let’s kick off this month of “ohmygoshiamactuallypublishinganovelthsimonth” panic–I mean, excitement–with some music I’ve known since college, music of vital importance to my telling of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Music of origins mythical and mysterious…until SoundCloud yelled at me for uploading it and pointed out the proper composer.
We begin with a simple CD created to accompany my college’s production of Medea. I didn’t make the cast that term (not that I’m still bitter about that. I’m not. Seriously. WHY DIDN’T I MAKE THAT SHOW?!), but my roommate, herself a theater major, was the stage manager and therefore in charge of all things technical, which must have been a challenge when the director decided to get all “experimental” with stage direction, set, and soundtrack.
Because this play was to be experienced like a film, apparently.
Thankfully, my roommate knew when to pull back the soundtrack so the audience could hear the cast. Yes, I put aside my inner grumblings and attended the show. I had a lot of friends up there and behind the scenes, and I wanted to cheer them on in what had to be the toughest show performed that year.
When I think back to that performance now…I don’t really remember seeing the show. I remember hearing it–my friends’ cries when the children are killed, the Greek chorus chanting, the raging howl of anger and revenge…and this music. This, this choir of Latin caution, eternally building with strings and low rumblings of percussion. The sudden sweep into thunderous drums and the harmonies of battle until the last scream pierces the air–
And all is silenced.
Fast forward to New Mom Me writing whenever baby Blondie sleeps. It’s National Novel Writing Month of 2010, and I’m writing what will be the first draft of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. It’s the moment when Charlotte first meets the book’s villain and realizes the lethal situation she and her captured sister are in. They are surrounded. They are underground.
There is no way out.
There is no hope.
I used the music of Medea to imagine the scope of impossible escape, the cold darkness that buried Charlotte and her sister underground. You can hear it, too, in the first four minutes of this track.
But as the baddies learn, you can bloody Charlotte, but you can never break her.
I’d repeat the change in music at the 4:17 marker to watch Charlotte rise up & fight back. The music careens up out of despair and dives, talons at the ready, to draw blood and breath from every evil. Over and over I listened to this music to catch the fire, the blood, the defiance, the sacrifice.
Eight years later, despite all the changes Stolen has experienced, that scene–and its music–remain the same.
Now that I know Scottish composer Craig Armstrong wrote this score, I’m excited to wander his music and pocket a few seeds to plant for stories years in the making. What music of your youth still nurtures the storyteller within? Perhaps it’s time to put on your headphones, close your eyes, and fly into the harmony of story.
~And now, a brief excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, coming this Halloween~
Rot, age, old bones, twice-burned ashes—they choke the air like gasoline. What Charlotte feels is cold. Lots of cold. All she can trust is what she sees, and what she sees right now is white, brittle wood beneath her, the lavender light pulsing more intensely now from her feet and spreading out and down the tunnel. Occasional claw marks. One bloody handprint that begins on one root and is dragged across seven more before vanishing. It’s not a big handprint. There are little traces of purple in it too, almost like purple glitter. Glitter. Didn’t Anna have purple glitter? NO. Get your freakin’ act together, Charlie, and focus. Dad, I wish you were here. “Charlie?” The voice is rich, deep, and kind. And dead. Charlotte’s free hand wavers when a new breeze of gunpowder and chili wisps by. “D-dad?” The power of this place can’t summon the dead. Dad’s buried in holy ground far from here. “He can also take you to your sister, if that is what you wish.” The pulse light beats faster from Charlotte, racing to catch up with her heartbeat, so damned fast, she prays Campion cannot hear it from his perch among the last of the tunnel roots. His eyes are swirling, almost glowing, as the rest of him turns still, like the living tree-bones behind him. “After all, this place is where dreams come true.”
~HEY! I’M SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~
Shy about promotion? Me, too. So let’s try and share our stuff together, hmm? I just started up the monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World.It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress. In the newsletter, I share not only updates on my own fiction, but I’ll share updates on your wild creative endeavors, too! Just email me at email@example.com to snag a slot in a future edition.
So many of us want only our brighest, strongest, best of selves to be seen. We don’t want anyone to know how broken we are. We build up the face we know others like to see on us, are comfortable seeing on us. Others wouldn’t know what to do with our weak, broken selves. They’ll mock our pain. They’ll shrug us off, bored of us. They’ll stand off to the side with limp arms, silent, waiting for us to fix ourselves so they don’t have to.
But for many–me included–one cannot fix one’s heart alone.
I think that’s why I’m drawn to the concept of soul mates. I know not every writer, let alone the romance writer, is keen on the idea. Real and fictional young people do fall in and out of love, after all. It’s happened to our friends and family, to characters like Feyre in Sarah J. Maas’ court series. Or there are those like my mother, widowed, daily debating if she can risk her heart with another person when the one she’d once vowed to grow old with died before his 60th birthday.
One of the most difficult things to do–more than facing one’s monsters, more than fighting one’s own murderous demons–is sharing the broken parts of one’s self with another soul. Your own two hands must grab hold of your ribs. Snap them open. Hold out that charred, cut, beaten thing called a heart, that thing you’ve done your damndest to not think about for years. It’s not like you’ve really needed it to live. Look how far you’ve come without it. Isn’t that enough?
You may tell yourself yes. You might yell yes time and time again to fill your ears with so many yes‘s it must become true.
And yet there will always be at least one echo that comes back to you:
This is where I come from when I write with the voice of my novel’s heroine, Charlotte. She’s been showing everyone her angry self, her superior self, her musical self for years. Those selves helped her wake up every day without screaming.
But what happens when she meets someone else who wears his own version of a “best” self, whose past is nothing but glass shards sharp enough to draw blood the moment they’re touched?
I have never had much of a romantic nature–Bo can attest to that–but the orchestral music of Peter Gabriel‘s New Blood has a way with my imagination, inspiring it to draw the intimate moments when two at last find the courage to discard every veneer and share all that they are–not just the brightest, nicest selves, but the bloody and broken, too.
Give your characters some time alone with the piano and strings. Let the tentative build guide their hands to open themselves and share those broken pieces. And when the strings and piano swell at last, may your characters find that even the sharpest edges fit together.
When I find out an author is a big fan of MY favorite author Diana Wynne Jones, then I am required to check him/her out. ‘Tis Writer’s Law….or something. Shush, I did it, and I’m not sorry I did it because Naomi Novik’s Uprootedhas such a STELLAR first paragraph you can’t help but be invested. It’s not a matter of wit, or intrigue, or setting. It’s the world-building within each sentence that plants the seeds of interest in readers to blossom in nearly no time at all.
Let me share the paragraph with you, and then we can break this sucker down.
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.
No sweeping descriptions of the world. No colorful portraits of characters. Yet Naomi Novik fills this paragraph with information other authors would stretch across a dozen pages.
Our Dragon. A capitalized “d” means this isn’t a typical beast. This is a title, or a name, and this Dragon thing belongs, in some fashion, to the group of which the narrator’s a part.
Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes. Right here, Novik won me over. How, just how many told tales have a dragon taking a person to eat it? It’s a trope, a cliche, a whatever-that-term-is. When we hear about dragons taking girls, we expect to hear about bones and death and the like. But Novik has taken this expectation, turned it on its head, and given us an entirely unexpected payoff. One sentence in, and we’re being told we can’t abide by the “typical” fantasy tropes.
…no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. Now we begin to get a sense of space, a little of time. Not a technological age, certainly, if stories can run rampant outside an area without correction. We’re also in a larger space–the narrator didn’t say “village,” or “town,” or even “city.” If there was only one community, the narrator would have used a term to say as much. So, we can conclude we’re dealing with multiple communities in this space.
We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Again, we get a sense this is not a technological era. We also begin to get a sense of our narrator–“as though we were doing human sacrifice” has this harrumphing attitude behind it. The narrator scoffs the very idea that there’d be a “real dragon” involved, let alone any sort of willful killing.
Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. I love this sentence! We have another taste of the narrator’s attitude with the “of course,” treating any ignorant outsider with disdain. We also learn what “Our Dragon” is: a wizard, immortal, man. (By the way, I love how that’s said: “he may be a wizard and immortal”–like this is normal. It’s the narrator’s normal, clearly, but the fact the narrator acts like this is the normal gives readers yet another taste of what Uprooted’s world is like.) The fact that a mob of fathers could take on a wizard also gives us a sense of the narrator’s respect for the men in her valley. Lastly, we learn our narrator is a girl with the “eat one of us.” So, we know this is a girl that’s been raised in a society that’s had to offer their daughters every ten years to a wizard.
He protects us against the Wood. Hold on. Wood? What Wood? Woods are common in fantasy, sure. Sometimes they’re just woods, and sometimes they harbor dangerous characters. But the narrator isn’t talking about what lives in the Wood. She’s talking about the Wood itself. Something about the Wood is so powerful and so dangerous that it requires a wizard’s protection in order for people to live in this valley.
He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful. Okay, I just love the narrator’s attitude here. Yes, she’s emphasizing that the valley folk aren’t willing to let their daughters be killed every ten years, but there’s a quirky snottiness here I really dig. This is a girl who’s not afraid to speak her mind about what sounds like a cornered life: growing up near a dangerous Wood, knowing you might be taken away from everything you know and love by a wizard for ten years. She should be happy her people are protected, and she knows it.
But she ain’t exactly pleased with her potential destiny, either.
Novik grows a beautifully unique tale with Uprooted, one I’m always eager to recommend to those who love fantasy. For those who love to write other genres, I’d still recommend this book to study its craft. This first paragraph shows what can be done if one’s not just thinking about establishing intrigue, or painting a scene, or introducing a character. Sometimes it takes all three elements to grow a paragraph that is truly extraordinary.
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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