#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.

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#Author #Interviews: #indie #writer Christopher Lee discusses #pointofview & #worldbuilding in #writing #fantasy

n7r9UyID_400x400Christopher Lee is the indie author of Nemeton, Bard SongWestward, and Pantheon. He is an avid history buff, mythologist, bardic poet, and keeper of the old ways. Here he takes a moment to share a few favorite photos of his Colorado landscape as well as his thoughts on the challenges of point of view and world-building.

 

Let’s begin with a little about you. What was the first story you encountered that made you want to be a writer?

Ok, that is an easy one. Star Wars was the reason I became enchanted with the prospect of storytelling. When I first watched the fantasy and adventure of Han, Luke, and Leia, I was entranced. The vastness of their world, the complexity of the universe was gripping. As I grew into my teen years I became intoxicated by the idea that I would create worlds like that one day.  After years of creating a fan-fic world within the Star Wars Universe, my lifelong friend and I decided to divorce our concept from the Star Wars Universe and make it wholly our own. Since that time, I have crafted many worlds from the realm of my own dreams, and don’t believe I will be stopping anytime soon.

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You clearly enjoy creating worlds complete with vast, populated lands. What kind of creative process did you follow to develop the world of your first novel, Nemeton?

Nemeton is part of a grand epic that encompasses the whole of human history. When I first got into it I had a fraction of an idea, and zero clue about how to build a world as complex as was necessary. When it comes to worldbuilding there are literally thousands of angles to consider. I was overwhelmed at first, but I kept beating my head against the wall, and slowly it came into sharper focus. Overtime I developed an outline structure that I use in all of my worlds that dials in the world. This is my favorite process in creating because it allows me to see a completely new complex world. Nemeton relied heavily on readily available human myth. It was an attempt to blend the many voices of this world’s culture into a cohesive structure that was both believable and enjoyable. There were many hours in libraries, on Wikipedia, and scouring the internet for ancient documents that gave me a clear picture of what it might have been like to live around 3,000 BCE.

I’ve always felt writing characters of the opposite gender to be a tough gig. Any tips on how to swing this as you do for Sam of Nemeton?

51fJFbzYHGLOh dear, this is something that I struggled with mightily. I wanted Samsara to be infinitely more complex than myself and slowly came to the realization that it was going to take more than I had in my toolkit. Writing the opposite gender is full of pitfalls which can either make or break your story. As a male, it was a struggle to craft a flawed, yet empowered eighteen-year-old girl that didn’t reek of male influence. I worked with a model I have seen in my own life as Sam is loosely based on my wife. I find that this process is helpful, especially when writing characters of the opposite gender, though it is also helpful in crafting characters of your own gender. Trust your heart, it knows how people interact, but you have to make sure to be honest in your assessments and resist the urges that don’t fit with the characters personality. Another thing to do is do personality tests as if you were the character. I find that to be thoroughly enlightening.

Your other fantasy series in the works are both episodic in nature. You explain this move to episodic writing and publication on your own website, but can you share your favorite reason to write serialized fiction?

Serial fiction is fun because the pressure comes off drafting a manuscript as a whole. It is then applied to crafting self-contained episodes that carry their own arch, on a much shorter timeline. The primary reason I like this method, currently, is that it allows me to track how the audience is enjoying the story in advance. With a full novel you often have no clue how an audience would respond, save with the help of a few beta readers. When you release content in quick bursts, you can hone the book for an audience long before you publish the entire Omnibus, and therein you find a proof of a concept, which is a huge hurdle for all writers. Imagine if your audience was your agent. They are the gatekeeper of the indie author. If one of my serials fails to draw interest, I can shift gears quickly and not lose the investment of my time. I can take what characters the audience likes and continue on their journeys, or scrap the idea all together, thus not wasting inordinate time and energy on an idea that doesn’t draw interest. But probably the best reason lies is audience engagement. Episodic releases allow me time to engage the audience and talk about what they dig. This is one way you can build a truly loyal audience, by simply responding to their feedback and giving them what they want more of. 

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Pantheon, your current project on Patreon, brings multiple mythologies together in a battle for supremacy. This reminds me of the Street Fighter arcade games of childhood. ☺ What inspired you to drop these characters into your arena? 

Well a few years ago, when I was still drafting Nemeton, I fell in love with this concept of the pantheons doing battle. Who would win? It’s kind of like Avengers: Infinity War. What if we brought everyone into the same space (No pun intended, as it is a space fantasy). I sat on the idea and toyed with it until it finally fully formed in my mind. I’ve always been obsessed with mythology, reading it is what prompted me to write Nemeton. Thing is Nemeton is primarily Celtic in nature and didn’t deal with the gods and goddesses of the other western pantheons, so I wanted to draft something that gave a stage to the forgotten heroes of humanity’s past. Pantheon is that homage to the legacy of mankind, a revamped, relived story where the prominent and some not so prominent myths of mankind are reborn for future generations.

 I can only imagine how hard it can be to decide which characters to use from these mythologies, and which to cut. Can you describe this process a little?

s985776399169836318_p14_i1_w640.pngA lot of reading, researching and world-building. I basically compiled lists of the all the characters and figured out which major story-lines would work in concert with the others. The characters that play large roles in those story lines became my main POV characters. At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to tie them all together, but remarkably they all seemed to fall into place, as though the story itself was commanding itself to be written. Each Pantheon has their own story arch that will occur in Season One, mimicking major events in that cultures myth. I simply had to pick the characters that jived with that story-line and just follow the blueprint that the ancients left us, and whallla–Pantheon! I only pray that I have given it its proper due.

Unlike Pantheon and Nemeton, your other serialized fiction series Westward takes place in 1860s America. Does it feel restrictive, working with a geography and history already established in readers’ minds? Why or why not?

Well not really, in fact it liberating. I don’t have to come up with the major conflicts or story ques. I can follow what happened in history and work off that, with subplots that are character driven. Imagine taking a historical event and adding a character that didn’t exist, then weaving that character and its fictional story into the one we know. It’s challenging in its own right, but it is also very freeing because it allows you to present a fantastical element to almost any element of human history. I liken it to reading conspiracy theories because Westward/The Occultare Series relies on an underground/unseen organization that combats magical/supernatural occurrences in the human world. All you have to do is imagine that there is one operating today. Because there is…or is there?

Unlike Nemeton, you also write Westward with a first person point of view. What do you love about this intimate perspective, and what do you find challenging about it?

coverpic-1998This was a HUGE jump. After half a million words spent writing Nemeton in the Third Person Omniscient viewpoint, first person was like trying on someone else’s skin. I thought it would be more difficult than it was, but once I sat down and just started to click the keys it flowed out of me. I’ve enjoyed it thus far because I can go deeper with the character than I can in 3rd, but it does limit a great deal of what I can do. I bend the rules a bit because my characters all have a little of me in them, aka a hyperactive mind, which may not be to the liking of all readers, but hey man–this is fantasy. Suspend your beliefs when you walk through that door.

Any last words of encouragement for your fellow story-tellers?

JUST KEEP AT IT! Everyday you should be writing, or editing, or at the very very least reading. Reading is the key to learning storytelling. There is no magic bullet, no blueprint. True storytelling comes from years of absorbing great stories. Read nonfiction books about writing, about life, religion, politics, history, enrich your mind with a wellspring of knowledge you can draw inspiration from. I know I couldn’t have crafted the religious systems of Nemeton without my previous interest in druidic religion. The key is to constantly look for areas to improve, steep yourself in the craft and you will grow. Probably the most important rule is this: You don’t have to please everyone, because frankly you can’t. There are going to be people who say you suck, there are going to be readers and fellow writers who tell you you aren’t good enough. POPPYCOCK! Straight up, not all readers will like your work. Your job is to find the ones that do and continue to better your craft to eventually envelope the readers who don’t. Rule number two, take what other writers say with a grain of salt. The Indie Author’s world is saturated with advice about how to MAKE IT. It’s bloomin’ bologna. You will find limited success this way, but you risk ending up a carbon copy of all the other authors out there right now. This flies in the face of art in general. Chasing fads, writing only in one POV to please the audience, or sticking a hard line on generalized writing rules are the plagues of the writing world today. Do not stymie the thing that makes your voice different. Learn the rules, perfect your craft, and then allow your voice to shine by breaking the rules as only you can. Only you can tell your story, not your readers, not your fellow writers, YOU. You have to believe in you because no one else is going to, save a few extraordinary folks. So get to it!

 

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Many thanks to Christopher Lee for taking the time to do this interview. Check him out at his website: https://www.christopherleeauthor.com/. He’s also on Twitter: @ChristLeeEich  Cheers, one and all!