#writerproblems: #creating #trauma in #character #histories

Nobody cries crocodile tears quite like Bash.

“This is a SAD BIRTHDAY!” he wails, complete with a “WAAAaaaaAAAAaaaa” that could drown out a fire truck. My mother holds him, soothes him, to no avail.

Why the tears? Because “There are NO TOYS ARE PRESENTS! I WANT A TOY!”

Meanwhile, Biff sits content with his new collection of Disney Cars stories, and Blondie–who already shed her tears over the fact that today isn’t her birthday–eyes the cupcakes, knowing she at least gets sugar and a race car ring out of the deal.

Despite having received toys at the party hosted by in-laws less than 48 hours ago, Bash continues sobbing until bedtime. “This was a SAD BIRTHDAY,” he declares again, thoroughly traumatized.

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Annoyed as I am, I can’t bring myself to scold him for his meltdown. Our basement flooded two weeks before his and Biff’s 6th birthday, sending the house into chaos. Everything is everywhere. Stuff’s crammed into the garage, piled in the living room. There’s a mattress and box spring tipped on their sides in the hallway. Decorations are somewhere in the labyrinth of tubs frantically filled as water seeped up through the seams of the house’s foundation. We’re all stepping on each other’s toys, books, and nerves.

It’s lousy.

But is it traumatic?

Sure, if you spin it right. Horror fiction’s got a knack for taking anything–like a ruined birthday party–and turning it into motivation for a killing spree.

But if you’re not out to birth a slasher, then what qualifies as “traumatic”?

TRAUMA : a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time. medical : a serious injury to a person’s body.      Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary
So often trauma is used as the seed to germinate our characters’ motivations. We want our pro/antagonists compelled to act in such a manner as to drive the narrative forward. Sometimes that drive comes from the goal that lies ahead: the love interest, the home, the chance for redemption, etc.

 

But sometimes that drive comes from what lies behind in the histories of the characters, and what lies behind them is often traumatic.

The most popular “trauma” I find in storytelling is personal loss. Take comic books, for instance. How many become superheroes because they lost a loved one? Batman–parents. Spider-Man–uncle. Green Arrow–parents. Punisher–family. Nightwing–parents. Flash–mother. Captain Marvel–parents. Daredevil–father. The list goes on for a looooooong time.

Now I’m not saying that personal loss isn’t traumatizing. I should know: I’ve watched grandparents waste away. I drove to the hospital thinking my father ill only to be told at the door he’d died of heart failure. Everyone else already knew, but didn’t want to say anything until after I’d arrived.

Loss fucking sucks, and you’re damn right it changes you.

But there is something cliche about a backstory of personal loss driving one to heroics. Must a character always become a warrior for justice when his parents are shot in a dark alley?

51j9XTR5oZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_No. Take Jude in Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince. A Fae general comes into her house, kills their parents before her eyes, then takes her and her sisters back to the land of the Fae to raise them as his own. Is Jude driven to heroics?

She kills at least two people and readies herself to kill more out of loyalty to her new Fae court. She’s got the drive and calculating mind of her “new” Fae father.

Not sure what Bruce Wayne would make of that.

Trauma doesn’t require death, either. Consider Starlight from the comic book series The Boys. Of all the young superheroes, it is she who’s given the chance to leave her ultra-conservative group Young Americans and join the Seven, the most powerful group of heroes on the planet. She gets there, thrilled to take the last test and make a difference…

…only to discover the test is having oral sex with Homelander and two other members.

Do they force her? Use their own superpowers to render her helpless?

No.

Starlight consents.

And for the rest of the series she has to struggle with that decision and all its consequences.

Trauma’s not just about losing a piece from our lives, but a piece of ourselves. I know this first-hand. When your body becomes someone else’s thing, you don’t want it. You don’t want to take care of it. You want it to remain separate the real you buried in the bile churning at the bottom of your gut. You separate your soul from your body because if you don’t, then your soul’s as worthless as your body, as much a nothing to be spat upon and left in the alley. That separation means survival.

But survival and living with oneself are two very, very different things. Trauma, from my experience, does not inspire love.

More like the opposite.

We survive. And we hate that we survive.

Athanasius-TitleImageAthanasius, one of the little boys in my first short story “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket,” was so desperate to flee his “survival” of an abusive home that he happily left with the first stranger he met. Fallen Princeborn: Stolen opens with Charlotte running away from an abusive home. We learn in the opening pages that she’s a fighter, so much so she’d rather punch out your teeth than listen to you talk.

That drive to violence–to hurt others before they can hurt us–that’s what trauma teaches us. This can easily drive a character to do terrible things to those around her. But it is also this drive that can be nurtured to make one want to defend others before they get hurt. It all depends on the character’s environment when the seed of trauma is planted.

Again, there doesn’t need to be some dark, extraordinary experience for a “traumatic event” with long-lasting impact. In my serialized novel Middler’s Pride, Meredydd recalls a moment in childhood when an evil sorcerer attempted to curse her family’s land, but was thwarted when child Meredydd interrupted the spell. Sounds pretty traumatic, running into an evil sorcerer. Yet Mer’s driven, obstinate attitude was the same before and after this event. Apart from shaking hands, her body’s the same before and after this event. So what drives her onward into the story’s narrative?

Markee'sA childhood without affection. No one abused her, killed a loved one in front of her. Heck, the girl never even broke a bone, or went a day without a full belly. But year after year of watching her step-siblings receive love and attention while she must catch scraps of love from others outside her family…that can hurt far more than any magic curse.

So consider carefully, writers, whether or not your character truly needs trauma in her past for present-day motivation. Death can make its mark, but sometimes the mark need only be a scar, a touch, a moment of undulated terror. Or perhaps it need only be the gathering of little things, subtle as water beneath the ground to eventually flood over your character, altering her nature for the better.

Or worse.

PrettyRooms-TitleImageAnd what natures are to be found in one pretty little room beyond the Wall? Find out in “No More Pretty Rooms,” the fourth installment in my short story collection Tales of the River Vine, coming September 15th!

Once upon a time, in the hinterland behind a wall of ancient magic, a cruel prince was imprisoned with his fellow shapeshifters. He was born of a wicked king and a very wicked queen, and is ruled by a beautiful but evil mistress who’d slithered up from the Pits below…. Is redemption possible for those who feed on the hearts and dreams of men?

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

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#writing #music: Peter Gabriel’s “Wallflower”

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There comes a time when all veneers must fall.

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 burying the memories of 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:

No.

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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.

And become one.

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Thanks so much for reading. My ARC giveaway for Fallen Princeborn: Stolen continues on BookFunnel and Instafreebie. Please help yourself to a copy, and let me know what you think!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

 

#lessons learned in #worldbuilding for #writing #fantasy #fiction: #Uprooted by @naominovik

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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 Uprooted has 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.

22544764Our 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.

Why?

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.

PS: Don’t forget we’re just two days away from my September giveaway on BookFunnel and Instafreebie!

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I’m sharing ARCs of my debut novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, to celebrate its cover reveal and the launch of my new monthly newsletter (Click here to subscribe!). I’m also hoping you’ll share what you think of Stolen with me, because this whole debut author thing is more than a  smidge terrifying. 🙂

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

 

 

#CoverReveal & #Giveaway #Countdown to Fallen #Princeborn: Stolen. Six Days & Counting!

Copy of We have all of us had our bloody days, Charlotte. For many it is easier to remain in them than to change. To change requires to face a past stained by screams.

I am so so soooooo excited for this giveaway.

I hope you’ll subscribe to my newsletter, too.

In need of some more free fiction to tide you over until the giveaway?

Check out my short fiction collection Tales of the River Vine 

on Amazon, Nook, and other platforms.

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Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

 

 

 

#writerproblems: catching #characters

Often times writers are told to go people-watch for character inspiration. This is certainly all well and good if your senses are allowed to wander about the town, in the library, at the pub, and so on.

And then, there’s parenthood.

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(Yes, both Biff and Bash are missing their top two front teeth. God has a sense of humor.)

I thought for sure a trip to the North Woods would give me at least some opportunity to catch a few interesting characters. After all, this is the land of the columned white arrow signs. You better keep your eyes open for these, or you’ll never know where stuff is.

 

This is the land of quiet waters, of river-kissing mists departing with dawn’s light.

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Of eagle homes hidden among the oaks and evergreens.

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Unfortunately, the only eagle we spotted all week was this one:

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Still, the kids were all able to find their special little somethings. Blondie found snail shells.

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Bash found his grumps.

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Biff found his chainsaws.

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No, he didn’t grab one (this time). Bo was able to keep the kids a safe distance away from the carving demonstrations at the Paul Bunyan festival.

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I’m not sure what was so Paul Bunyany about it–there was no blue ox, no giant lumberjacks. Plenty of beer and football signs, though. Nothing says Wisconsin like sports and alcohol!

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Just guess how many of these signs are about drinking. I dare you.

Surely a festival drawing in a wide range of tourists and locals would provide SOME opportunity for characters, right? Bo knew I wanted to walk around with my camera, so he took advantage of the chainsaws and stuffed the kids with chocolate-covered graham crackers so I could take a quick look around.

I did spot one crazy individual. Honestly, who dares wear Chicago Bears gear in Packer territory? This woman’s lucky she didn’t get a cow pie thrown at her back.

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Biff notices my absence all too soon, and jumps over to my side of the street. Despite the lumberjack quartet trying to strum banjos and harmonies, Biff belts the theme to “Ghostbusters” at the top of his lungs and dances down the walkway. I hold up my phone to take a video of him singing, but then…oh, but then…

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Who in Sam Elliot is THIS? An older man–70s, I’ll say. Jeans and flannel despite summer warmth. Cowboy hat. Glasses, mustache. Baby carrier. Dog. A wide-eyed, scared-stiff, shaky little dog. In the baby carrier.

Character. FOUND.

So don’t fret if you can’t get out much, writers, or you’re not able to let your eyes wander. Sometimes it’s when our focus is distracted from the hunt that we find what we’re hunting for, and then some.

Speaking of hunting, if you’re looking for a wicked read to welcome Autumn, then I do hope you’ll participate in the ARC giveaway to celebrate my debut dark fantasy YA novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.

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In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.

Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte is running away with her younger sister Anna. Together they board a bus. Little do they know that they’re bound for River Vine—a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shapeshifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.

I’m giving away 1000 copies of the ARC starting September 1st. Why? Because this book has been a part of my life as long as Blondie. It’s the book that helped me fight postpartum depression eight years ago, and those characters have become a family to me in my imagination. I’m proud of them, each and every one, and would be happy to introduce them to you if you’d be so inclined to visit either BookFunnel or Instafreebie.

 

 

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Summertime with #Family & #SummerReads with @ZoolonHub, @chloekbenjamin, @naominovik, & @ChuckWendig ‏

When there’s deadlines for two novels and six short stories, it can be pretty easy to forget about little things like family time or relaxation.

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Bash and his favorite comfy, a rabbit named Hoppy

It’s bloody hard to write when the kids are home, but sometimes they manage to occupy themselves creatively while I work. Blondie works on her comic book starring Ruff Ruff and Stormfly…

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…while Bash draws picture after picture of Star Wars droids. “Is that R2-D2?” I’ll ask. “No, that’s Q3-5A,” I’m corrected. Okie dokie!

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Biff loves to read, but he’s not much for writing or drawing like his siblings. He gets his creativity on with Legos, which suits me find for this little engineer.

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We’ve taken the kids to the North Woods a few times, and hope to do so once more before the school year starts. Princeton’s not far from the family cabin, and it hosts a weekly flea market throughout the summer. Bo has many treasured childhood memories of this market, so we always take care to visit it at least once a summer. He gets to dig through old comic tubs, and I get to take a gander at all the people.

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The booths are filled with everything from liquidation buyouts, bottomless tubs of toys from the last fifty years, handmade doll clothes, or antler home decor. Who wouldn’t want a fireplace poker made of deer antler?

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Plus there’s always a few tables laden with books–hooray! I didn’t know I needed a cookbook by the Dixie Diamond Baton Corps, but come on–you know there’s got to be good stuff in there.

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I don’t know what qualifies as “antique” outside the US, but I just cannot consider ’90s nonsense as “antique.” (I went to elementary school with people who wore those buttons, for cryin’ out loud.)

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Now I do not know how this guy does it. Poetry on demand? Brilliant! And he always had someone waiting for a poem. Either he’s that good a writer, or Wisconsinites are just that tired of all the booths selling crocheted Green Bay Packer hand towels and beer cozies.

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Speaking of writing on demand, let’s see what could make for some awesome reading for August. I’ve added these to my TBR list–I hope you will, too!

Indie Writer

51s18opOlnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Words & Thoughts of a Dyslexic Musician by George Blamey-Steeden

George has been an amazing support over the years in the blogosphere, so when he announced he put a book together, I had to give it a shout-out! He shares pieces of life and inspiration that help him create his lyrics for his three published albums. Do check this out!

Zoolon, the alter ego of George Blamey-Steeden, is a musician & sound artist living in Dover. He has a number of albums to his name, ‘Liquid Truth’ (2012), a concept album themed around Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’; ‘Cosa Nostra’ (2014) a sound art creation based upon ‘Romeo & Juliet’, plus his two latest albums displaying his songwriting skills, presently on sale via Bandcamp, namely ‘Dream Rescuer’ (2017) & ‘Rainbows End’ (2017). http://www./zoolon.bandcamp.com An accomplished musician, he has a BA (Hons) Creative Music Technology (1st Class Degree) and his passion for composing is only matched by his love of wildlife and his support of The Arsenal football club. http://www.zoolonhub.com

Wisconsin Writer

51Hr9CCR8FL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

I saw this at the bookstore under “Local Authors” and became intrigued. There’s a supernatural element here, but a family drama at the heart. The allure of such a mix can’t be denied!

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

Fantasy Writer

61s8VWfHrwL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I am so stoked about Novik’s latest! Uprooted was a joy, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’ quests and battles with quirky yet complete characters, so when I heard Novik’s got another fairy tale in bookstores, I had add it to my list.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

 Writing Craft

sku.jpgDamn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig

While it’s great getting perspective on strictly characters or strictly world-building, I want to study the art that is storytelling. Writing beautiful prose always a sweet endeavor, but to keep readers gripped, to keep them from putting down the book because they need to know what’s happening to characters they care about–now that makes me writer-proud. I’m looking forward to this one!

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho‘okipa Beach have in common?

Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling.

And of course, because I’m a writer…

If you’d like a little breather from your typical summer reading fare, stop by my own short story collection Tales of the River Vine. It’s been an amazing adventure exploring the world of my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus,with special help from my children now and then. The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket” and “The Stray” are already available, while my third story, “Dandelion of Defiance,” comes out later this month.

When does the hunter become the hunted? When the hunter fails in her hunt. Ember was sent into the human realm to select the choicest prey for her Master. But she set out to teach him a lesson instead, and now she must pay for her defiance.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

 

 

 

 

 

#writing #music: #EnnioMorricone

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Composer Ennio Morricone–how to describe Il Maestro? He is an institution, an inspiration. He gave us THE showdown music, music so powerful the Sergio Leone would construct his films movie around Morricone’s music. You don’t edit Morricone. You follow Morricone. That’s how we have some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, such as the climax from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Aren’t you just on the edge of your seats as the trumpets and drums build and build and build, the close-ups quickening and quickening until you can’t stand it anymore and SOMEONE HAS TO SHOOT and bam bam bam–just like that. Your heart remembers how to work, and you realize you’d stopped breathing for the last several seconds.

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That’s the power of Il Maestro.

I use Morricone often for writing my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus, both the short stories and the novels. No, not the western soundtracks–powerful as they are, one cannot think of anything but Clint Eastwood staring down the likes of Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef. When the narrative turns down the dark road and finds itself stranded in menace–that is when I turn up The Thing.

The score composed for John Carpenter’s The Thing is not what I would call complex, and that’s fine. An orchestra would feel strange for a Carpenter film, and Morricone knows how to draw out unsettling harmonies for maximum effect. Just listen to this theme (roughly the first four and a half minutes of the track). It’s so simple. So, so bloody simple. The synth rhythm, steady as a comatose heartbeat. The synth chords moving in their own quiet pattern in sync with the heartbeat. Nothing loud. Nothing heroic. Just this slow, slow add to the harmony: more synth around the 2:00 mark, and more around the 3:00 mark, this time off-rhythm, just slightly. Just…not quite right, just like The Thing that hides so damn perfectly at the Arctic research base. Morricone’s rhythms of sounds, of notes-not-quite-notes: he takes the synth and forms them into a bleak landscape. We see nothing with this music. We hope for nothing. We escape nothing.

Now let’s see how such a dire emptiness feels with an orchestra in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant western The Hateful Eight.

Strictly strings at first. The endless bass with a steady rhythm of violins: The Thing‘s influence, perfect for this moment of travelers approaching a lonely outpost on a mountain with a blizzard at their heels. Around 0:50 the xylophone begins a simple harmony, its repetition reminiscent of the chime of Lee Van Cleef’s watch in For a Few Dollars More. The minor key of the string’s harmonies further presses the boreboding into our psyche. We can’t not think something bad is going to happen.

This has to be my favorite track from Hateful Eight. The drums a bit faster here compared to The Thing, which gives us the feel of impending…something. Something, we don’t know what, is coming. We also get the feel of characters not sitting around, waiting for that Something to come. They’re hunting Something as much as Something is creeping up on them. There’s a multi-layered mystery here of who’s hunting who, who is who, and the treachery you know lies in every heart of the Eight just bleeds through the music onto the story.

Now for the record, I should note that Morricone considers this composition to be a bit lighter compared to some of his other work. As Michael Ordoña of the LA Times quotes Morricone:

“What I wanted to do with the two bassoons at first — and later there is a tuba and later on the contrabassoon and then the trumpet, and in the end, the male voices — I wanted to de-traumatize the dramatic content of the music,” says Morricone. “To add something lighter, more curious, more interesting. The contents of the theme remain tragic and dramatic, but the way these instruments are played, to the extreme ranges of their timbre, makes them quite lighter and ironic.”
-Article: Ennio Morricone says a hands-off Quentin Tarantino let his ‘Hateful Eight’ music flow

When I first saw this quote, I couldn’t believe it. Lighter? Ironic?! What in the brewin’ blazes is he on about?

But then I realized that whenever I write with this track, I am writing a scene with my villains from my heroine’s perspective. We are sizing up the villains through her wise-ass frame of mind, so in a way, Morricone’s music fits even better than I expected. He creates the unbeatable menace, yet also defies it with a glint in the eyes and a smirk on the lips.

Il Maestro gives writers the music of dire emptiness, where a setting must not only be seen, but felt. Heard.

Feared.

Braved.

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#lessons Learned from @HollyBlack: Start the #storytelling with #writing the departure from the #characters’ normal.

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Snagging readers is always one of the greatest challenges writers face. First fifty pages nuthin’. We gotta grab readers in the first five pages. Heck, if we can’t grab an agent or publisher with the first five sentences, we are out of luck.

Holly Black establishes just enough intrigue within her first lines of The Cruel Prince to hook readers and keep’em on the line until the last page. Let’s dissect a few of these opening sentences, as well as the entire first chapter.

(Yes, I said entire first chapter. Don’t groan yet.)

Prologue:

On a drowsy Sunday afternoon, a man in a long dark coat hesitated in front of a house on a tree-lined street. He hadn’t parked a car, nor had he come by taxi. No neighbor had seen him strolling along the sidewalk. He simply appeared, as if stepping between one shadow and the next.

Inside the house, Jude sat on the living room rug and ate fish sticks, soggy from the microwave and dragged through a sludge of ketchup. Her twin sister, Taryn, napped on the couch, curled around a blanket, thumb in her fruit-punch-stained mouth. And on the other end of the sofa, their older sister, Vivienne, stared at the television screen, her eerie, split-pupiled gaze fixed on the cartoon mouse as it ran from the cartoon cat. She laughed when it seemed as if the mouse was about to get eaten.

The first four sentences take care to show something abnormal is in the works. While the first sentence of “a man in a long dark coat” sounds ominous, it’s a common sort of ominous–oh no, a dude in a coat. Aaaaah.

The next sentence plays upon our reality’s norms and begins to trim them off: no car, no taxi. There go the typical, nondescript forms of transportation. Black’s not going to insult our intelligence and list other vehicles not used, like RVs, semis, and so on. If my son Biff’s taught me anything, it’s that kids will notice any vehicle bigger than a car, and they will make a big deal about it. “Mommy, a truck! Mommy, a bus! Mommy, an RV!”

The third line continues to nullify yet another assumption: he didn’t walk there. If Black can say no neighbor saw him “strolling along the sidewalk,” then that means neighbors are currently outside to witness such things.

But no one did. Which means that when “he simply appeared,” he literally did just that.

Now that is abnormal.

In the next paragraph we meet our protagonist Jude and her two sisters. Black has situated this family in a very typical setup: snacking and watching television.

It is this sort of normal the man of the long dark coat penetrates.

I don’t have to share the rest of the prologue with you to know there was something abnormal in Jude’s normal–her elder sister Vivienne has “eerie” split pupils. As the narrator explains, Jude and her sister accept this without question; after all, they’re identical twins, which is weird enough. For them, this is normal, and therefore requires no further explanation.

But they do get an explanation with the man’s arrival.

He is not human.

He is also their mother’s first husband, and Vivienne is his daughter. Jude’s father tries to fight him, and dies. Jude’s mother tries to run, and dies.

He takes all three girls back to his home in Elfhame.

51j9XTR5oZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Now here Black makes an interesting writing choice: while the prologue is given in 3rd person past, Chapter 1 shifts us into first person present.

CHAPTER 1

In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television.

That’s the whole chapter.

(Told you not to groan.)

What good is a one-line chapter?

For starters, Black’s story isn’t about little kid Jude and her sisters. In Chapter 2 we learn ten years have passed since General Madoc killed their parents and brought them to his home. The Cruel Prince will share the tale of these girls finding their place in–or out–of Faerie. 

Ten years is a HUGE amount of time to cover in any book, let alone a sentence. So let’s see what Black did to help us make that leap.

First, she establishes the time with “are.” The events of the prologue are done. The narrator’s in a new time.

What place? “Faerie.” For all the variety of worlds made about fairies/faeries, we do tend to make similar assumptions about what these magic folk don’t have: cars, for instance, or computers. Black builds on this concept–ruling out what isn’t in the world before building on what is–by listing the three simple things that symbolized the normal of Jude’s life: fish sticks, ketchup, television.

“Television” clearly encompasses technology of all sorts, but for a kid, no tv is, like, huge. It’s a primary resource for entertainment, education, distraction. It’s challenging enough to limit a kid’s screen time. Can you think of completely removing the tvs, computers, tablets, phones, and all the rest out of your life, let alone a child’s? Let that sink in. Now you appreciate that dose of culture shock for Jude and her sisters.

“Ketchup”–so often associated as the go-to dipper for kids. They’ll draw pictures in it, squirt each other with it. Adults can show their age if they like by using more “sophisticated” fare like oils, glazes, marinades, or sauces constructed with food processors and farmer’s markets and sweat, but if a kid’s got the choice between some organic garlic beet radish kale compote and “ketchup,” what do you think he/she will take?

Same with “fish sticks.” Microwaved, no less. One of the staples in a family’s fridge, fish sticks are a primary example of the pseudo-nutrition parents like to use to keep kids’ stomachs placated. Heck, I used’em for Blondie last night. (Biff and Bash don’t like them. Hmm, maybe they’re from Elfhame. It would certainly explain their ever-warring natures…) The easy, go-to processed food kept frozen by technology and heated at the click of its buttons is only memory to Jude.

By grouping this little trio of food, pleasure, and entertainment in the normal of Jude’s young life, and emphasizing with three No’s that these do not exist in her new normal, Black successfully jars readers out of Jude’s childhood and shifts them into the plotline for The Cruel Prince, told by Jude with intimate immediacy.

If your story needs a setup, consider how much you can pack into a single line. Think about what will separate this setup from the rest of the story, and what voice is best suited to prepare readers as well as engage them for the story proper. Do not think you must provide a detailed summary of the time passed over between setup and story; rather, consider what can symbolize that which is now lost, or gained, or transformed. Let that symbolism speak the necessary volumes for you while you lure readers into the shadowy realm that is Chapter 1.

#lessons learned in #worldbuilding for #writing #fiction: #wildwood by @colinmeloy

One of the reasons I love Wisconsin so much is its wild places.

 

–Wisconsin photos by photographer and friend Emily Ebeling and myself– 

For all the suburbs decimating the farmland, for all the whacky tourist traps and tailored nature, there are still large swatches of wilderness that cluster together in defiance of farm and town alike. You can see these swatches set off by corn, wheat and soy, or perhaps by a state road, or even by the great Wisconsin River. These barriers keep us apart, we people and the bears, coyotes, wolves, and whatever else hunts and hides among the verdant life.

It is about such barriers I’d like to speak.

Prue of Colin Meloy’s Wildwood lives near a place modern society has ignored for centuries. It’s not that no one sees it; in fact, this place is on any map of Portland:

As long as Prue could remember, every map she had ever seen of Portland and the surrounding countryside had been blotted with a large, dark green patch in the center, like a growth of moss from the northwest corner to the southwest and labeled with the mysterious initials “I.W.” (13).

When Prue asks her father about the “Impassable Wilderness” and why no one lives there, he likens it to Siberia—too inhospitable a land for people, so people simply leave it alone. End of story. Adults never talk about it, kids occasionally tease about it, but otherwise the Impassable Wilderness is simply a place no one enters, like the spooky house at the end of your street. It’s there, you know it’s there, you want to know what’s in there, but like heck are you going in to find out. It reminds me of two other books I’ve studied this year: Annihilation and Enchanted Glass. Both stories have settings outside of our perception of normal, and the settings of these stories can be seen in some capacity by those outside it.

The barrier, however, is another matter. In Enchanted Glass, Aidan and Andrew have to feel out the boundary of Andrew’s field-of-care by walking; there’s a sort of buzz in their feet to let them know when they’re on the boundary, and when they go off-track. In Annihilation, the biologist and others are hypnotized to pass through the barrier, but on either side of the barrier, there’s nothing to see. Scientists even drive animals into the barrier at one point just to mark its location. Where do they know the barrier lies? Where animals vanish completely into silence.

Unlike Enchanted Glass and Annihilation, the barrier described between Prue’s town of St. Johns and the Impassable Wilderness is quite, quite visible:

Here at the eastern side of the Willamette River was a natural border between the tight-knit community of St. Johns and the riverbank, a three-mile length of cliff simply called the bluff…The crows had cleared the precipice and were funneling skyward like a shivering black twister cloud, framed by the rising smoke from the many smelters and smokestacks of the Industrial Wastes, a veritable no-man’s-land on the other side of the river, long ago claimed by the local industrial barons and transformed into a forbidding landscape of smoke and steel. Just beyond the Wastes, through the haze, lay a rolling expanse of deeply forested hills, stretching out as far as the eye could see. (11-12)

Meloy’s taken two  extremes—Industrialization, Nature—and slams them next to one another for the clearest possible contrast between what society is familiar with, and the unknown. Like Prue, we see the height of man’s victory over land, as well as his defeat. The special touch comes with the name “Wastes”: for all of man’s business and industry, he can not maintain it. Now all that’s left is rotten, disused, worthless. It’s a sort of wasteland we as everyday readers can understand; we pass such rotting structures all the time in real life.

2But what we don’t often see is a murder of crows kidnap a baby, which is what happens to Prue in the first line of Wildwood:

How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries. (first line)

Those crows flying over the Wastes are the ones carrying her brother, and like the twister clouds, those vicious forces of nature, Prue can’t stop the “black twister cloud” carrying her brother from crossing over the Wastes and entering the Impassable Wilderness.

Now if a twelve-year-old girl is to make it into the Impassable Wilderness (and therefore give us a story), then the barrier itself can’t be impassable.  It doesn’t need to appear and disappear in different places like the windows and fairy doors in Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Callthat feels too complicated for Meloy’s universe. Crossing the barrier to rescue a baby is a serious business, so using Jones’ humor of taking Aidan and Andrew through a manure-addled pasture and a home’s loo doesn’t feel appropriate. And making a barrier erase anything that vanishes through it like Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X would be too damn terrifying—imagine being a kid and seeing a baby, already being flown off by crows, now vanish in midair. Why would Prue think the kid alive at that point?

Meloy successfully utilizes elements to create a barrier that is eerie without causing young readers to freak out:

The only thing beyond the bluff that was exposed above the bank of clouds was the imposing iron lattice of the Railroad Bridge. It seemed to float, unmoored, on the river mist. Prue dismounted her bike and walked it south along the bluff toward an area where the cliff side sloped down into the clouds. The world around her dimmed to white as she descended.

When the ground below Prue’s feet finally evened out, she found she was standing in an alien landscape. The mist clung to everything, casting the world in a ghostly sheen. A slight wind was buffeting through the gorge, and the mist occasionally shifted to reveal the distant shapes of desiccated, wind-blown trees. The ground was covered in a dead yellow grass. (33)

I love the ghostly element of the “unmoored” iron Railroad Bridge—there’s a sort of River Styxian moment here, especially with words like “alien,” “mist,” and “ghostly sheen.” Nothing thrives: trees are grass alike are dried out and shriveled to nothing.

In utilizing a smart mix of sensory details and man’s thirst for industry, Meloy succeeds in creating a barrier that imposes, haunts, and intimidates his heroine. This early encounter with danger—and bravery—assures readers that they walk with a hero worthy of attention, and that they begin a journey so full of action the challenges begin before the hero’s even out the door.

Who says crossing the threshold can’t be its own adventure?

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

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

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

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

College: changes.

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

That which hurt.

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

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

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

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

Every line. Word. Space. Stuck.

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

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

~*~

College: changes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every word Heaney shares connects with one or more senses:

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

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

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

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

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

Repeat.