My Self-Imposed #NaNoWriMo to #write in a #summer of #motherhood. (Or, To Create in Bedlam II: Turbo.)

When Aionios Books offered me a contract, I lost all feeling in feet and fingers. I just waved my arms like Wallace scheming to land on a moon full of cheese.

Bo looked at me with a Gromit-ish eye roll, but was proud, nonetheless.

Part of the plan put to me by Gerri Santiago involved splitting my manuscript for Fallen Princeborn: Stolen into two books. She explained that the word count was a bit much for Young Adult.

150,000 words is too much? That’s only 600some pages of…you know, a debut novel from an author hardly a soul knows.

Okay, let’s split it.

The most apt place for the severance comes at the end of Fallen Princeborn‘s second act: the heroes have just battled one crew of baddies and are regrouping before the baddie crew arrives. With Stolen’s new arc set, Gerri has been helping me see areas where world-building can use more color, where pov voices require more definition–you know, the stuff I bother other writers about in my interviews. As Book 1 blooms all bright and pretty, Act III-turned-Book 2 looks more and more…wee.

I open the “book” and scope out its word count.

50,000.

Uh oh.

Where’s the book?

A single act does not a book make. It introduces fresh villains, sure, but Book 2’s narrative can’t pick up immediately where Stolen leaves off without some fresh establishment of the core cast, touching up on the setting, redefining the voices of the protagonists and narrator, and bringing in EVERYTHING THAT MAKES A STORY.

Oh dear.

No, Writer Me, don’t panic. That’s still 50,000 words of material to utilize. Those characters who only got a cameo so they could be saved for later? Let’s flesh’em out now. That whole new breed we introduce but don’t really dwell on? Visit their realm and see what makes them tick. The new villains we get to meet in these 50,000 words? Give’em more words. Let them breed a bit more treachery, let them show their gilded goodness before their truly nasty mettle. And just what are these people, anyway? Let’s wade into the murky swamp of Magic’s history.

Thanks to the severance, these trying times for the heroes have a chance to be truly trying. Why cram all these dramatic moments together? This is a book, not a movie trailer.

But while Fallen Princeborn originally had eight years to mature, Book 2 needs to be rewritten in half a year while maintaining some semblance of motherhood over the little Bs, teaching, writing book reviews, website stuff, and more. These obligations are not going away. By hook or by crook, Book 2’s manuscript must be completed by June’s end.

That’s only, oh, another 50,000 words…the same word count challenge for National Novel Writing Month.  This means writing at 1700 words a day, or fall short of the finish line.

Panic?

20180530_194458 (2).jpg

Ever try to write with a five-year-old sitting on your head?

 

No.

Panic wastes time and energy. No.

I once wrote about writing and parenting with all three kids at home. Time to pull out the old plan and crank it up from past needs to present.

First, contact the school district and enroll all three in summer school. Now I have mornings sans kids for about half the month.

Next, dig through all the kid movies. What hasn’t been watched in a while? Save it. Use it during the first chunk of June. If the kids are engaged, they won’t fight for a couple of hours.

Talk to Bo. Work out any days he can get home early, or when home projects can be done on week nights so the weekends can be saved for extra writing time.

See how other writers maintain their NaNoWriMo-ness when NaNoWriMo ain’t goin’ on. Fantasy writer John Robin, for instance, has a great idea for maintaining the NaNo drive off the clock.

https://epicfantasywriter.wordpress.com/2018/05/25/an-ongling-nanowrimo-with-more-flexibility-and-how-you-can-join-us/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2

Yeah, there’s a deadline, and yeah, it’s frickin’ scary. Some days I might only get 1,000 words done, or even less, and then other days crank out an insane 5,000. The point is we can’t afford to think about the time we don’t have. We must embrace the race to write. Steal every minute we can. There will be stumbling blocks, there will be plot holes, but we’ll get to those in the editing. For now, it’s time to hurl ourselves into the story and run.

nano

 

 

 

#Writing #Music: Alexandre Desplat

1200x630bb.jpgI know you’re staring at that album image. Hear me out.

I read the Twilight series upon the recommendations of a few friends and countless students, and yes, I saw the movies, too. For all the…debates about this series, I’ll say, I do want to touch on something done right and well by an artist entangled in the franchise: Alexandre Desplat.

I did not know his name before New Moon‘s release, but one look at his IMDB page and you can see this composer’s built an amazing resume of work over the past thirty years. And honestly, if not for Desplat’s score, much of this movie would fall flat.

Like Steve Jablonsky’s scores for the Transformer films, Desplat brings gravitas and power to a story that…well, it wasn’t written for me.

Just take a listen to his theme for the second film. It’s got a hint of melodrama, yes, but that befits the ages of these characters. Desplat uses the simple elegance of the piano a good deal throughout the score, creating a sense of gentle frailty. The strings follow the piano’s lead, heightening the tension. Whenever the oboe plays a faint bitterness comes into the song, befitting New Moon’s premise.

A quick recap: in the first story, a girl falls in love with a sparkly vampire.

In New Moon, the vampire breaks up with the girl in order to protect her from his kind.

Break ups: every romantic arc seems to have one, doesn’t it? Not to mention we’re dealing with a teenage girl. Love is here, now, not twenty years from now. The world is in this moment. To lose what makes this moment bright is to lose the world.

Lord knows such a moment can collapse into a syrupy mess in book and film alike. But of all places, this is where Desplat truly shines in his score. The piano begins with a gentle meeting with the strings; there is a sweetness to the melody, but a sadness, too. When the basses and cellos get involved, the atmosphere itself grows weighted and difficult. You know something’s coming.

And just before the 3:00 minute mark, it comes: heightened strings and trilling winds. A lone trumpet in a minor key with the strings to emphasize the shattering of harmony.

Nothing is as sweet as before. The harmonies are harsh, the rare percussion pounding the finality.

The characters are broken.

And thanks to the music, you know the sound and weight of that heartbreak.

Just because the romantic break-up is a common device doesn’t mean your story has to be common about it. These characters matter to you. Their feelings matter to you. If the plot breaks them apart, your readers must see and know that shattering inside and out. Let Desplat’s music be the device that gently pushes the moment over the edge to fall, to break, and to start again.

 

#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #writing #fiction: #Annihilation by @jeffvandermeer

You know how last week I insisted that writers have to make themselves take a break? 24 hours after posting that, I ended up in the hospital. A month of not really sleeping mixed with flu culminated in an inability to breathe or see while driving my kids from school. Nothing like a trip in an ambulance to get one thinking about one’s priorities.

So, after a weekend of Bo telling me to sit still, Bash snuggles, Blondie stories, and Biff reading ad nauseum about trucks, I’m…still kinda sick, but not, you know, idiot-sick.

Seriously, people: take breaks.

This year, I wanted to dedicate a chunk of my “Lessons Learned” posts to an element of writing dear to my heart, one that can make or break a story set in a land not our own: world-building.

91SrDcfzkkLIn a way, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy takes place on our humdrum Earth (or does it? Dunh dunh DUUUUUNH). Something has come to Earth and transformed a stretch of coastal landscape in the United States. It has created a border. It does not let what is inside return…unless it wishes to. And those that return are never the same.

Annihilationthe first book of the series, strictly focuses upon the twelfth expedition into beyond the border into the place now labeled Area X. Here is where the world-building plays to Vandermeer’s favor. He needs to make Earth unearthly. He needs to engage and invest the readers into exploring this place.

He accomplishes this with the first paragraph:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Let’s dissect this a little. Look at that first line: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there.” Already, our narrator has come upon something unexpected. “Plunges into the earth“: I love that word choice of “plunges.” A strong action, driven action, and yet not violent, as opposed to “pierces” or “penetrates.” The terms for the landscape fit our narrator, whom we learn in the next paragraph is a biologist.  The paragraph itself ends on two contradictions: “untroubled landscape” is certainly not what one would think of when it comes to an otherworldly invasion on our planet. “Could yet see the threat” counters the “untroubled” while also agreeing with the first line of a tower not meant to be there.

One paragraph in, and we already have a sense of what is both familiar–“black pine 51ZMTRrWB8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_forest,” “marsh flats,” etc–and what is foreign–“the tower.” VanderMeer utilizes natural details readers can easily visualize while “plunging” a singular uniqueness into the scene, an entity guaranteed to taint all the “normalcy” around it, therefore turning the entire scene into something abnormal.

I’d like to share two other paragraphs, both from the first chapter, that further build on this natural/unnatural mix of detail.

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge directions, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So many sensory details are given here. The middle of the paragraph provides the pretty visuals with the moss and the trees, but the water detail unsettles you, doesn’t it? Because “normal” water isn’t still like that. VanderMeer also pulls a smooth move on readers with the moaning line. He begins the paragraph with it, but then spends time on other details before returning to the moaning, as if to show us the “normal” touches that are once again infected by the singular foreign element. The last line of this paragraph is a killer-subtle bit of foreshadowing, as you’ll see in the next paragraph from later in the chapter.

The biologist and another member have ventured into the tower, where they find words written on the wall. Those words are made of living organisms. Here VanderMeer makes use of his narrator’s skill set to build a world inside a word:

So I stepped closer, peered at Where lies the strangling fruit. I saw that the letters, connected by their cursive script, were made from what would have looked to the layperson like rich green fernlike moss but in fact was probably a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism. The curling filaments were all packed very close together and rising out from the wall. A loamy smell came from the words along with an underlying hint of rotting honey….I leaned in closer, like a fool…someone tricked into thinking words should be read…Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out.

I think you know where this is going: something gets into the biologist, something she does her damndest to hide from the others.

In this paragraph you get a taste for the level of natural detail our narrator takes in, one who has the experience to see and understand what is natural to Earth’s ecology, and what is not. As readers, we are gripped by the mystery of Area X–as Vandermeer planned, I’m sure. Even though I haven’t given you the whole chapter, the fact that “fernlike moss” is growing to create not only words, but cursive words in English, should be enough to send a shudder through you. Something foreign is here, and yet knows enough to communicate with our own language. It has taken what we thought unique to humanity, and transformed it into something new, just as it has with everything previous expeditions have left behind…including the expeditions themselves.

You’ll have to read the book to appreciate that last point.

VanderMeer’s balance between the relatable and the alien sensory details is spot-on throughout the trilogy. In the first chapter of the first book, where this balance is at its most precarious, Vandermeer takes the greatest care in luring readers to follow him, lulling them with the familiar, until the subtle strange beneath the black glass water floods the way back and we have no choice but to enter the tower, and descend further into his world.

Your own world need not be built from scratch. Dig your fingers deep into the earth and build the trench to set your land apart. Claw out the flora and fauna. Now, with all set before you upon this table, what shall fill your world? What will your readers know, and what will they look upon with a stranger’s eyes, wide and watchful?

#lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: In #Fantasy #Writing, Not All Rabbits Wear Waist Coats.

Cover_of_Fire_and_Hemlock“Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy?” My friend thumbs the book’s pages as a frown spreads across her face. “I mean, it’s good, kinda, but there isn’t much, you know, different, in it.”

Blasphemy! I think. But I know what she means. There’s no spectacle about Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. It’s a damn good fantasy, but it’s subtle with that fantasy. It’s not one of those sweeping epics with sky-burning battles of global proportions, powers that can wrinkle time and send us in one earth and out another, or characters filled with magic up to their eyeballs.

Now don’t get me wrong: these can be good fantasies. Heck, I’m in the midst of editing one for publication right now. However, a common trouble with such spectacular epics is that the character doesn’t often move the story along. We’re not reading for the characters so much as for the battle, the quest, the romance, etc. When the story zooms from the epic-ness to the characters and lets them dictate the story, we have a much more personal perspective, but we then we don’t sweep the epic.

47I’d like to focus on Fire and Hemlock‘s beginning to make this point. Let’s take a classic like Alice in Wonderland for comparison. Alice enters Wonderland because she follows a White Rabbit in a waistcoat down its rabbit-hole:

There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!’ (when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural); but when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoatpocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.

1book1

(Gosh, what a long sentence.)

(Anyway.)

The image of a talking, clothed animal–who tells time!–running through our world snags a reader’s and promises some zany adventures to come. With Fire and Hemlock, the story opens with….wait for it…a girl not really packing for college.

Magic! Adventure! Alakazam, Alakazoo!

But there is magic already at work, if you listen to the heroine Polly:

And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet–here was the odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it….Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there…Why should she suddenly have memories that did not seem to correspond with the facts? (4-5)

This begins Polly’s journey back into the memories that had somehow been hidden within her. The “Rabbit-Hole” moment comes in her first memory, when she and her friend Nina are running around in black dresses for a game, get separated, and Polly stumbles onto the peculiar estate of town, Hundson House:

51lj8FZS+QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When Polly came out into the open, it was not a road after all. It was gravel at the side of a house. There was a door open in the house, and through it Polly caught a glimpse of Nina walking up a polished passage, actually inside the house…cautiously, she tiptoed up the passage. (12)

Polly finds herself in the middle of a funeral and wishes to slink out, but 10-year-olds don’t always know how to do that sort of thing. Thankfully a young man named Tom helps by offering to take her for a walk out back.

The sun reached the dry pool. For just a flickering part of a second, some trick of light filled the pool deep with transparent water. The sun made bright, curved wrinkles on the bottom, and the leaves, Polly could have sworn, instead of rolling on the bottom were, just for an instant, floating, green and growing. (23)

Here readers get their first clue that this place is not as normal as her Gran’s. She may not be talking to blue caterpillars or playing croquet with flamingos, but Polly’s definitely stumbled into a group of people where “normal” no longer applies. By the novel’s end we discover that Laurel, the woman whom Polly mistook for Nina earlier, is none other than the Queen of the Fairies, and she wants Tom to sacrifice himself for the King of the Fairies.

It’s a slow build from funeral to Fairy Court, and almost entirely grounded in normal places like Polly’s hometown. But the beauty of such a subtle fantasy is that it makes you peer at the stubborn door at your own gran’s, or sneak down that one badly lit aisle of the supermarket, and wonder:

What else is going on back there?

 

#Writing #Music: (Occasionally) Patrick Doyle

I love my husband.

I really do.

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

20171225_134054

But I hold up the CD, and scowl.

“Hey, it was on your wish list.”

“That was before I saw the movie.”

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

“The book doesn’t count?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

#LessonLearned from #AChristmasCarol: Earn that Redemption.

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

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

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

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

Why is Scrooge dancing with the Ghost?

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

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

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

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

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: How Much Stock Should One Put Into a Title?

Memorial Day weekend in a North Woods cabin: restful, right? Lots of time to write surrounded by nature and all its spring glory, riiiight?

Well when one spends a long, rainy weekend with in-laws and three hyper-active children in a space roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment, “restful” does not come to mind.

Thankfully, parenthood has given me the ability to read despite screams and comfy animal battles about my legs and thrown cars and training potties full of urine positioned in dangerous places upon the floor, so I decided to allow myself some time with a couple mysteries Bo gave me at Christmas:

20161228_111320

At the outset, the titles didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Christie’s titles always connected to the story, so I was sure that when I opened up The Big FourI would indeed be reading about a group called The Big Four. Sure enough: the antagonist of the story was a crime syndicate run by a group of bosses known as The Big Four. Poirot saves the planet, everything is awesome, I got to read an entire book in one day, which I hadn’t done in ages. Could I get through another book before the weekend was out?

I began Murder on the Links with high eagerness. I wasn’t planning on doing a close study of these books for this blog–I wanted to read for fun. (Crazy concept, I know.)

But the more I read, a question began to niggle my inner writer. Something felt off about this story. Oh, the plot read plausibly with a strong balance of clues and red herrings. The dialogue was so-so, but not nearly so heavy-handed as Poirot’s Christmas. What the hoobajoob was wrong here?

I closed the mystery, completed, and saw it: the title.

One look at the title, and one expects golf to play a major role in the story. After all, the Nile was quite the set piece in Death on the Nile.  Murder in Mesopotamia was as exotic as it sounds. The train doesn’t just fade into the background in Murder on the Orient Express. Murder is definitely committed under the sun; ergo, the title Evil Under the Sun.

Bo noticed my scrunched face as I glared at the golf course on the cover. “What’s wrong?” I explained my niggle. “Well, did the murder happen on the golf course?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

The-Murder-on-the-LinksAnd that was the thing, I guess, that really got to me: technically, the title fit. The murder itself occurred on land being turned into a golf course. Christie didn’t fib. Murder did indeed happen on the links.

But with the other stories I mentioned, the place was more than just a location. Whatever was mentioned in the title carried influence into the story, be it through the culture, method of crime, strategies of investigation, etc. I thought back to other stories I’ve covered in my “Lessons Learned” posts and their titles–were any lame titles in those?

Howl’s Moving Castle: Heroine Sophie is cursed and seeks help from the Wizard Howl. His castle moves because of a curse between Howl and a fire demon that Sophie promises to break. So, pretty important.

Charmed Life: Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolyn are taken on by the great sorcerer Chrestomanci to learn more about magic. There’s more magic in Cat than he realizes, which is finally revealed with his sister’s villainy. By book’s end Cat is destined to be the next Chrestomanci. That’s about as charmed a life as you can get.

Five Little Pigs: Poirot sets out to solve a murder committed 16 years ago. He considers the five living suspects like the five little pigs; the rhyme comes up every time he meets another suspect.

The Name of the Rose: I admit, I had to read a bit more into this one. I knew there was some sort of connection with language, since the mystery fixates upon the danger of language and ideas.  How fitting, then, that Eco found a poem reflecting that a thing destroyed is preserved in its name. I found Eco’s own explanation for the title:

 

media

Eco states in the Postscript to the Name of the Rose that Bernard’s poem is also the source of the novel’s title and last line —

Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”
(Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)

— meaning that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.

“Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book’s title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to arrive at his own conclusions.”

With Murder on the Links, however, golf had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The setting bore no real influence upon the clues, the body, or even how characters moved about the scene of the crime. The course is where the murder just so happened to, well, happen. It could have been on the grounds of the mansion or in the ditch of the freeway–it would have made no difference.

Perhaps that, more than the title, was what bothered me. Or it was because the title gave importance to something that carried none–a red herring from the off.

I remember feeling annoyed like this once before with Louise Erdrich, an amazing American author whose award-winning novel Love Medicine was my one reading joy from those years in graduate school. It was a family drama spanning years–not normally my thing at all, but her portrayals of the Native American life and landscape gripped me from the start. I read more of her work after school, but stopped with Beet Queen. Why?

33315Because this Beet Queen chick didn’t show up until the last few pages, dammit!

Now granted, I can see now that wasn’t entirely true. The character who grows up to become the Beet Queen–the beauty queen of the town–is born halfway through the book, and the first half of the book is about the family into which she’s born–that’s typical Erdrich. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the title fixated upon that final moment, that social title bought by the girl’s family so that she could feel special at last. Now I can see that the title embodied the desperation of the family to do what it could for the love of this girl, to make her socially acceptable, to make her happy…and how this girl, a rather selfish brat, held it all in contempt. Family drama, spanning generations. The title fit.

Murder on the Links, a fine mystery, has a title that pays heed to the least important aspect of the crime. I suppose being bludgeoned by a five iron or discovering a collection of heads in a caddy’s locker would have all been a bit much, but it’s nice to see titles that connect on more than just a technical level.

What of your title? Does it embody the struggle, the hero, the villain? Does it give a wink and a nudge towards a special clue to reveal the truth? Or does it just hang there, stating its purpose and nothing more? After all, some stories have made such titles work brilliantly for them: The Lego Movie, The Peanuts Movie, The Care Bears Movie, The Lego Batman MovieBut notice how all these titles are a)geared for children using b)easily identifiable toys/characters OF their childhood for c)a visual presentation. Kids know they get to watch Legos, Snoopy, and so on. That’s all they want.

But in stories to be read, we want titles that grip and hold. Don’t warp that grip into a bait-and-switch. What influences the characters? What place affects the plot? What taunts your hero from afar, that if he could just push himself a little bit more, he can touch it, taste it, know it? Your answers hold the key to a title of relevance, spirit, and strength.

Hats in Passing

2010

I stand over your bassinet as Bo packs up our things. In a few minutes we’ll step out of the hospital, and you’ll see the sky and feel spring air for the first time. Everything is a first when you’re only two days old.

Wisconsin springs are absurdly unpredictable. This May day is calm, a little breezy.

A breeze? She’ll get pneumonia! We must cover all appendages. What do you mean, we don’t have a winter coat?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Bo hands me socks and a beanie hat, and holds up the blankets. Ah, yes, we’ll layer her with blankets like fat on a polar bear. She. Will. Survive.

I slide your feet into socks so small. The hat would barely cover my closed fist, yet there: it fits you.

There you lie, half-asleep. My little girl. My perfect blessing.

000_0026

2011

Hats bear magical properties. For example, they prevent illness. If a child has no hat for one outing, she is doomed to weeks of snot-addled breathing and green streaks on her face, hands, clothing, etc. And then pneumonia.

In aspiring to fulfill her role as grandmother, your grandmother knitted you a sweater and matching hat. She began the project when you were the size of a papaya inside me, and we did not yet know what little bits you bore. Your grandmother, like all practical Midwesterners, was determined you would get plenty of use out of it.

Barely a curl on your head, barely walking. Shy with people, yet fascinated with the world’s beauty: you study flowers, dirt, and fabric art with the same intensity. So long as you have your trusty snack cup filled with cheerios, you are always up for a new adventure.

104_0344

2012

Hats supply ample opportunities for giggles.

You have begun to voice your taste in what you wear and what you want to do. You always wear this hat for indoor activities–reading, ponies, matching pictures. You discover words mean something: they announce what you want, what you see. What scares you, what delights you.

104_0593

2013

Hats confuse grown-ups.

When given the choice between the frilly sunhats of bows and ladybugs, and a baseball hat with a M.A.S.H.-era helicopter, you pick the baseball hat. No doubts. “It’s a helicopter!” you squeal. Your grandmother asks a few more times about the sunhats. Nothing but head shakes, that hat gripped in your tiny hands like it’s the last ticket out of Vietnam (or Korea, really, what with the timeframe for M.A.S.H.,  but anyway).

You wear this hat EVERYwhere we go, be it to dino-digs at the zoo, the bird-laden soccer field by the park, the beach. It hides your curls and confuses passers-by: “That’s a sweet little guy you got there.”

“Girl.”

They squint at the Pinkie Pie shirt, laugh a little, and move on.

Yup. My little tomboy. No poofy skirts or hair-styling dolls for this one. She’s all about gears and bones and colorful hyper-active ponies.

She’s perfect.

106_1691

2014

Hats add that perfect touch.

Autumn in Wisconsin can be just as temperamental as spring. After weeks of days warm enough for swimming, the season takes a nose dive into frost and sleet. Just in time for Halloween, of course. (Why someone hasn’t designed costumes to go over winter coats is beyond me.)

You and I meet in the war-room–aka, your bedroom–to discuss the situation.

“What would you like to be for Halloween, kiddo?”

“A fairy princess!”

I bite my tongue for a second. This detour from gears to fairies has been…tolerable, but the princess stuff…all frailty and “woe is me” and waiting to be saved rather than gettin’ your greasy wrench and building something awesome. “Well, it’s going to be really cold for trick or treat. Your wings won’t fit under your coat.”

You ponder this. “But I can wear”–you hold up a fleece sweatshirt–“under my dress.”

“What about the crown? People won’t see it under your tinkerbell hat.”

“I’ll wear THIS one!” and you hold up a pink and silver oddity. The poms hanging down under the crown look like puffy, glittery braids. You go on like this, covering yourself in fleece, and then I manage to slide the thin, shiny tutu down and over it all.

You stand there, wand in one hand and bucket in the other, beaming in triumph.

And I laugh, happy to be defeated.

Lottie Halloween 2014

2015

Hats can be absurd, especially when they’re not hats.

(I’m honestly not sure what’s on her head. A sack for building blocks, I think.)

0216141849a

2016

Hats age us…a little.

I walk into Blondie’s classroom for the come-if-you-feel-like-showing-interest-in-your-child conference. Her teacher, a fine example of stalwart farmstock, smiles and hands me Blondie’s report card which, considering this is kindergarten, is surprisingly complex.  I decide to study all the S’s, N’s, and I’s later. “How is she doing with the other kids?” As one with a friendless childhood, this question often preys upon my mind.

Her teacher’s eyes light up, and she pulls back with a gasp. “Oh. My. Gosh. We had our read aloud time, and Blondie just, she just blew them all away. I was ready to help her with Olivia Goes to Venice, but she knew all the words. The second-graders she reads with all come to me, saying ‘She’s amazing!’ She reads like a second-grader. Better.” She recommends some chapter books to me, eager to see how you handle the challenge.

I’m wowified. I knew you could read well, but you do it so rarely within earshot. More often than not you’re studying pictures of bizarre fish/bugs/lizards, or outerspace, or dinosaurs. You’re fascinated with creation and all its workings, visible and invisible.

I wait outside for you to finish up your day. Too warm for a winter coat, but there’s a breeze, so, hat. You walk down those steps with your hands on your backpack straps. The Spider-Man beanie has tamed those whispy fly-about curls into a lackadaisical mess. Sweatshirt and backpack, you’re a college student in miniature.

Oh…

Not yet. Don’t you grow up on me too fast, Blondie.

You manage to get into the car despite my shower of kisses and tickles and praises. I blast The Who, because church-school parents can be a bunch of curmudgeons. (I should know, being one and all.)

“Mo-om. Not so loud.”

“Why not? We’re awesome!”

You laugh. “No we’re not.”

Hmmph. “Well, I’M awesome.”

More laughter. “Only a little bit.”

“Hey!” But I laugh, too. My kid’s a reader. A brilliant reader. A genius who will discover new species of fish-eating insects and live on the moon and invent the REAL hover-board.

Your noggin’s a perfect miracle, just like the rest of you.

So, get that hat on before you catch pneumonia!

20160322_152037