A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 2: Experience Does Not Always Inspire Learning.

A lovely summer day, the kind of day that inspires so much hope and happiness in little ones, especially when:

“We go to the carnival today!”

Biff said it the moment I opened the boys’ door that morning. He talked about it all through breakfast, all through the agony of waiting for Grandma to come at lunchtime. He plowed through his food in a few minutes and literally hung by the door. He peed on command in the potty, found his shoes and sat without kicking.

We met my kid brother and his family, up from Arizona to visit relations, for an afternoon of kiddie rides and giggles. Yes, this the same place I wrote about previously that grips a peculiar air during the off-season, when all is metal bones and concrete in the cold.

But in summer’s light, sweet air, the heebie-jeebies are forgotten. Smiles abound.

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Biff and Grandma–yay, carousel!

Until, of course, this:

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It was one of the last rides of the afternoon. Bash had been throwing tantrums, while Biff had been an excellent listener. I felt he deserved a reward, and could pick the next ride. Of course, he picked the ferris wheel. Why not? We had ridden it last year without  trouble. He jumped about in line, beyond stoked, and sat quite still in his seat, enamored with the heights. I, of course, was petrified that he’d make a sudden move at any given moment, and gripped his arm and shoulder the entire ride.

And then, we were back to the ramp, our turn done. I let go.

I let go.

I let go, and he ran from the bench and fell off the ramp and his feet in the air and head down and I heard the screams and saw the blood and thought my boy, I killed my boy, my boy is dying right in front of me because I let go.

I cry even now writing this.

I gripped him and the towels on his head as people swarmed to me, to us. Bo got Bash and Blondie to my relatives and ran over. Ambulance, a policeman, it all…and me crying and pleading for it to be okay and I was so sorry because I knew if I had held on….

Biff calmed down far, far sooner than I, I think because a policeman was talking to him for the first time. Biff asked him his name, what he was doing there, did he want to ride the ferris wheel, too? My little Biff spoke so smoothly without stopping that the EMTs and officer thought the chances of concussion too small to be a concern. After a stupidly long wait at urgent care where even Biff tells me to “Calm down, Mom,” we came home to see the others going on a short walk.

What did Biff do? He launched himself from the car to run down the street after them.

He tried to run alongside the cars as family departed.

He jumped from furniture because he was Superman.

He head-butted Bash because, brothers.

With me, holler-pleading all the while, “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING from those stitches?!?!”

Writing’s rather like that, on two fronts.

We get very set in our ways, we writers. Something works for us once, and superstition swells about it. If people liked the prologue we wrote that one time, let’s always use it. I wrote my best dialogue in that chair; therefore, I’m annexing it to my workspace. I only get good ideas at dinner. I can only write in complete silence. These ruts form, and form quickly.

But life doesn’t “do” ruts. The other prologues kinda suck. The chair breaks. The new work schedule has you on the job right through dinner. Kids dare to age and, like, need stuff.

As writers, we’ve got two choices: despair, or crack on. I’ve done the despairing, and let me tell you, it does you about as much good as a fall off the ferris wheel ramp. What does cracking on mean? It means taking what you’ve learned from your environment’s changes and adapting. It means learning to write with noise, to write in any position, to try new story structures and styles. It means trying, learning, growing, just as our characters do when conflict rises in their worlds.

Sometimes.

It occurred to me while pulling Biff and Bash apart yet again that experience and learning do not always go hand in hand. It seems to, because in books that’s how writers so often have it work out. It makes the plot all nice and tidy, don’t you know. Well, you don’t know, because sometimes, human nature just doesn’t jive that way. Bash, who got stitches in June from running around the house and crashing into a wall’s corner, continues to run around the house. Biff…well I told you about him. Even Blondie, who got stitches last year from jumping on the bed, continues to jump on furniture (sans beds) and trampolines any chance she gets.

That night after urgent care, with me still in tears wondering how, how can we keep these kids from killing themselves, Bo said, “With these guys, the only way they’ll stop moving is if they can’t move. It’s going to take a broken limb. Or two. Or probably three, knowing them.”

And I think we need to remember that our characters’ lives can be like that, too. Job wasn’t tested with only the loss of wealth, or only the loss of a loved one. He lost his entire family and all he possessed, even his health, before God blessed him anew. When a character totally alters over something piddly, we as readers call it out because we know human nature doesn’t switch so suddenly between “nice” and “jerk.” It evolves in time, and time rarely paces problems for our convenience. So why should we make it convenient for our heroes? Rather a boring read, I’d think.

Though I admit, I wouldn’t mind some boring days on the mother-front, such as yesterday, when all three were content with little super-hero cars built from Legos. I watched Biff fly the little Superman around and make friends with Doomsday. I remembered his feet in the air, the blood. I grabbed him, kissed his head.

And found myself chasing him down the hall because he’d grabbed the helicopter Batman from Bash’s side of the table and was now laughing maniacally from the bathroom with Bash ready to inflict fists of vengeance. Biff’s is a spirit that simply cannot be broken.

And yes, despite everything, I love it.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 3

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Part 3: I Despised You Three Chapters Ago, But NOW…

As I said in my preface post a week or so ago, Deep Secret utilizes a romance arc we often see in stories and films: the terrible first impression (cue the trombone) that ends in happy love (cue the strings).

Thankfully, the story is so, SO much more than this. The romance arc is one of many character/conflict arcs in the novel, all of which weave beneath not one but TWO quest problems for the male protagonist Rupert: to find a new Magid (one who uses magic to keep the multiverse moving in the right direction) for Earth, and to find the heir for a nasty chunk of worlds called the Koryfonic Empire. While Jones tells the story with three different points of view, Rupert’s is the dominant, so readers tend to feel from his angle.

Now, to follow my “traditional” lovey-dovey arc points:

Who-The-Heck-Are-You. The female protagonist Maree is one of five candidates Rupert’s been recommended to interview for a new Magid. He is most eager to find her because a) she’s the only candidate in his country and b) she’s just a touch younger than him. He imagines her to be pretty, smart, and free to attach to him.

The search does not bode well. He first meets Maree’s mother, who sums him up in one look: “You think too well of yourself…. Posh accent, shiny shoes, expensive raincoat, not a hairout of place—oh, I can see well enough why you let her down…Let me tell you, if I’d seen you when she first took up with you, I’d have warned her. Never trust a cravat, I’d have told her. Nor a mac with lots of little straps and buttons. Clothes always tell” (p.22-23). Rupert blows her off, though he does throw the cravat in the fire when he gets home. Rupert continues to build up an amorous vision of Maree from what he learns of her— someone who’s strong and capable with talents she doesn’t know she has. And then he meets her.

After a long car chase he finds her dancing in the middle of a street in deadlocked traffic: “She was a small, unlovely woman in glasses, with a figure like a sack of straw with a string tied round it. And she danced. She bent her knees, she hopped, she cavorted. Her ragbag skirt swirled, her untidy hair flew and her spectacles slid on her barely-existent nose” (p.61). All amorous ideas vanish. He is angry. He refuses to have anything to do with her despite her talents. In fact, he continues to be angry for several days, and in this anger, prepares the fatelines of the other candidates so he can interview them all at once during a fantasy/sci-fi convention.

When we first read from Maree’s perspective, we learn she’s crossed in love—that is, horribly depressed after a bad break-up. She has no money and battles her aunt over everything. When she receives a letter from someone calling himself a lawyer, her hopes lift that good change is coming. And then she meets him.

After a battle with the aunt over Nick (the third perspective in the story), Maree and Nick drive off into town and find themselves in an unlucky situation. To break the bad luck they do their Witchy Dance in the middle of the road. Someone steps out to confront them: Rupert, the supposed lawyer: “Oh he was angry. I looked at him. I looked at his great silver car and then back at him. He was a total prat. He had a long head with smooth, smooth hair, gold-rimmed glasses, a white strappy mac and a suit, for heaven’s sake! And instead of a tie he had one of those fancy silk cravat things” (p.90).

Memorable first impressions, to say the least.

I-Can’t-Stand-You. Rupert is so enraged Maree didn’t fulfill his romantic expectations that he works magic to ensure she can’t be near the convention where he’ll interview other Magid candidates. He is determined not to see her again, or think of her again—except anger has its own magic, too, and his dwelling on Maree causes her fateline to be entwined with the other candidates’. He sees her at the convention, and she sees him, and they are equally horrified: “[his] face was just turning away from me with much the same horror on it that I was feeling, seeing him” (p.130).

And yet, already, feelings begin to shift, just a touch. When we get this horror-face-trade from Rupert’s perspective, we also know he observes a change in Maree: “…she had neatened up considerably from the witchy bag-lady I had encountered in Bristol…She looked almost human. I watched Rick Corrie dart up to her…I got the impression he fancied the woman in his shy way. There is no accounting for taste” (p.140). Why should Rupert care if someone took an interest in a girl he loathed mere days ago? But Rupert does care, and by the following morning his intrigue over Nick’s bizarre morning routine (read the book just for this bit—BRILLIANT) leads to calmer talk between the two, and later in the day Maree and Rupert manage a civil conversation. Each notices things about the other, but none of these are worth discussing when there’s an injured centaur on the loose.

Wow-That-Was-Surprisingly-Impressive. When Maree tells Nick Rupert creates computer games (every Magid needs a cover life), Nick goes bonkers and insists she make introductions. They spot Rupert, try to catch up to Rupert…and end up hiking through worlds instead as they follow him. They are impressed with magic and Rupert’s Magid life, but they don’t get a chance to share this as Rupert’s too livid with them for following him unprotected.

Not long after an injured centaur leaps out of one world and into Earth’s—right in front of a car. Rupert, Nick, and Maree get the centaur out of sight, and Maree, being a vet student, takes it on herself to stitch the centaur up. She is professional, calm, and collected; she even clips her talon-nails (growing since the break-up) in order to do the stitching properly.

“Come along! Barked Maree, disposing of her last fingernail. Snip!

“Yes’m,” I said.

She caught my eye and grinned at me. “Sorry.” In the bathroom, she confided in a whisper, “This is the first time I’ve done anything like this. I’m nervous.”

“You could have fooled me!” I said. She pushed her glasses up and gave me a proper smile at that. It made me as warm as the flush on [the centaur]’s face. I began to feel that it was worth being volunteered, if it meant that Maree was starting to approve of me a little. (p.203)

I’m-Jealous-When-You-Fraternize-With-Others-But-Don’t-Know-Why. Yes, Rupert has officially taken a liking to Maree. He admits as much to readers after their first casual talk ends—“…she disappeared while I was flagging down Kornelius Punt, and I hardly knew whether I was relieved or aggrieved” (p.157). When Punt talks to Rupert about hitting on Maree, Rupert finds himself angry, mortified…and more and more preferring Maree to the other Magid candidates.

 Don’t-Risk-Your-Life-I-Love-You-Shoot-I-Forgot-To-Say-That-Out-Loud. Back in the Koryfonic Empire Rupert discovers more murder and trouble with some potential heirs. He also finds Nick and Maree, who were lured in by the injured centaur. Nick’s mother (who is evil on so many levels) opens an inter-world portal through Maree, stripping her, and leaving her half-dead. Rupert carries Maree to his car to drive back to earth: “It was no trouble to lift her. Her body weight was exactly half what it should have been. I stood up with her easily and was puzzled to discover that holding her like this, light, limp, and frost cold, was one of the most sexual experiences I have ever had. I also had to fight myself not to cry” (p.238).

One thing can save Maree, but it is a Deep Secret: a hidden knowledge so powerful it is broken and divided among the Magids so that no one has too much for him/herself. Rupert knows the Deep Secret of Babylon could save Maree, but how many verses of the knowledge were out there to get? One can’t call up a deep secret without knowing how to use it. All the while Maree’s half-presence lay before him: “Feelings I had been carefully trying not to admit to blocked my throat and tore at my chest. It was a dry, strong, physical ache, as if someone had forced me full of little broken pieces of concrete” (p.251). In the end Nick screams something Rupert now feels, too: “I wasn’t alive until Maree came to live with us! She makes that kind of difference—she’s that kind of person!” (p.252).

Using Babylon takes a long time, and requires other Magids to fight off curses and evil Koryfonic folk while Rupert stands guard to the opened Deep Secret. The Babylon secret involves a road into a world NO one, not even those who control the Magids, can find, and Maree must walk, half-dead as she is, that entire road and back. Rupert desperately wants to go with her, but knows he can’t because he must keep the portal to the road open. Nick goes with her, and gladly. Rupert spends the hours dwelling on everyone and everything, but most of all on Maree. He contemplates how unhappy she was, yet she “thrust her way beyond with angry fingernails…I hoped her life would be better now. I ached to let her have something better. I wanted her to come back more than I have ever wanted anything. Ever” (p.300).

Let’s-Spend-Forever-Together. An excellent twist here on Jones’ part. Maree does return from Babylon, in full health, but more, too—she is back in the same garb and with the same spiked nails as she had when she danced in traffic and infuriated Rupert. These two get a chance so few of us could ever hope to get: a second chance at a first impression.

A small, small measure of the change was that she now looked good in her woeful old garments. She looked astonishingly good.

As I saw all this, Maree looked up and saw me. A look I had not seen before—one of pure delight—filled her face. I don’t think she had ever been truly happy in her life before. Now she was, because she had seen me.

Maree’s face was a glowing heart-shape of pleasure. She looked up at me and said, “Really?”

“Yes,” I said. “Really.”

At this, she stepped back a bit and pushed at her glasses in her combat-manner. “I’m not a very good investment,” she said, with that sob in her voice. I had missed that sob. “I warn you.”

“Neither am I,” I said. “Wait till I tell you.” (p.316)

There’s still angry Koryfonic people with thorns and lasers to deal with, but this is where the romantic arc ends.

Why did I find this a satisfying love story? More than anything, I think it was because Maree and Rupert were so, well, human. They were not perfect physically, emotionally, or mentally. Their flaws stood out prominently at first, because sometimes what we consider shows of strength (Rupert’s fine garb, Maree’s spiked nails) are really charades to cover the real feeling: loneliness, or bitterness. Like any relationship, we have to see more than just the lion’s mane and fancy raincoat. We have to SEE the strength, the knowledge, the determination. The humor, the selflessness. It’s all there. But it is NOT always tucked inside a Standard Pretty Person hidden beneath a temporary shroud of frumpiness. We love, and that love brings out beauty in the other that no one else will likely ever see. That’s part of what makes love so amazing. Let’s try to remember that as writers, too. Pretty’s nice, Beautiful’s de-wonderful, but Love, True Love, gives any character that deliciously secret view of another that sets readers’ hearts and imaginations alight.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 1

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Part 1: I can’t be in love, you idiot

One of the many brilliant moves in Howl’s Moving Castle is the emphasis on wizard Howl’s heartlessness. Sophie, the narrator, establishes this in the first reference to Howl: “He was an utterly cold-blooded and heartless wizard and no young girl was safe from him if he caught her on her own” (p.5). Rumor has it he seeks young girls to devour the souls from their hearts. This only adds to Sophie’s problem: spinelessness. Being the eldest of three sisters she assumes herself doomed to a life of tedium and spinsterhood. She cares for her younger sisters and hopes for their fortune in love and happiness, but already by 18 she has given up on chances for her own.

Their first brief encounter comes towards the end of Chapter 1. We have no clue who Howl is, nor does Sophie. But somehow she acquires attention from the “dashing specimen” who, according to Sophie, pities her (p.19). This only shames Sophie, and she literally runs away from the man before he can say anything else.

When the Witch of the Waste comes to Sophie’s town on the hunt for Howl, she learns of Sophie’s encounter—among other things I can’t mention yet—and curses Sophie with old age.

Oddly enough, Sophie doesn’t mind. Oh she gets angry later, but until the final chapter of the book, Sophie remains an old woman. So how in Ingary does romance blossom between a 20-something wizard and a 90-year-old woman?

First off, Sophie grows a spine. She no longer fears to speak her mind or act on impulse: “As a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (p.83). She also does not fear calling Howl out on his rude or selfish behavior. Since the plan is for Sophie to break a magical contract between Howl and his fire demon Calcifer so Calcifer can break the old-age curse, Sophie declares herself Howl’s new cleaning lady even though she “can’t clean [him] from [his] wickedness” (p.75). She calls Howl out on all sorts of things, especially when he is seen courting her sister Lettie for what Sophie assumes to be Lettie’s soul.

Howl remains quite the enigma throughout the book, as Sophie’s narration isn’t always reliable. Multiple readings, though, help give the audience a touch more perspective. When Howl first meets old-age Sophie in Chapter 4, he hints to his apprentice that he knows more about Sophie than he can let on:

“Howl’s not wicked,” Michael said.

“Yes I am,” Howl contradicted him. “You forget just how wicked I’m being at the moment, Michael.” He jerked his chin at Sophie. (p.75)

Howl criticizes Sophie with equal vivacity, especially her nosiness into every nook and cranny of his castle. In Chapter 5 he lays Sophie’s true problem bare, even though she doesn’t know it:

“You’re a dreadfully nosy, horribly bossy, appallingly clean old woman. Control yourself. You’re victimizing us all.”

“But it’s a pigsty,” said Sophie. “I can’t help what I am!”

“Yes you can,” said Howl.

Howl wants Sophie to know she IS capable of a fate different than what some old superstitious saying dictates for her. But Sophie isn’t listening, and on the first read, most readers aren’t, either.

Despite all of Sophie’s nosiness and bossiness, Howl never makes Sophie leave. He gives her jobs, even ones he can complete with magic. When Sophie suffers a small heart attack, Howl is genuinely concerned and strengthens her heart with magic. He even opens up in Chapter 14 about his inability to love. The references to his heartlessness have persisted by means of Calcifer and the apprentice Michael, who explain Howl’s wooing process: he beautifies himself and professes undying devotion to a girl until she confesses her love in return; then, he dumps her. When Howl and Sophie are alone in Chapter 14, he relates the same process to spiders and their webs, but unlike Calcifer and Michael, he does not see it as selfish at all:

“That’s why I love spiders. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.’ I keep trying,” he said with great sadness. “But I brought it on myself by making a bargain some years ago, and I know I shall never be able to love anyone properly now.” (p.281)

This not only foreshadows the magical contract between Calcifer and Howl, but also proves Howl considers Sophie as more than just a cleaning lady.

Sophie also ceases to see her place in Howl’s castle as a mere ends to her curse. She is relieved when Howl gives up on her sister, and jealous of his fresh attention to the strange and beautiful Miss Angorian. She does not like when people mistake her for Howl’s mother. And when Howl asks her input on what kind of lifestyle they should lead when hiding from the king, she shares ideas without hesitation.

This move comes at a price: Howl’s castle merges with an old shop in Sophie’s home town. It is the same shop run by her parents for years. Sophie looks around, sees herself back where she began, and is totally miserable (“…it’s being the eldest, really. Look at me! I set out to seek my fortune and I end up exactly where I started, and old as the hills still” (p.342)). It doesn’t help that Howl reveals who she really is to everyone and accuses Sophie of holding onto the age curse because she “liked being in disguise” (p.369). Sophie refuses to accept this, but her sulk afterwards does reveal that she’s never seen a chance for herself when compared to her sister, and especially no chances with Howl when compared to Miss Angorian. So the old age stays, and we’ve only got two chapters to go. Howl appears to be apologetic, even upset that Sophie won’t speak to him. But too much has been going on with the villain (you know, plot and all), so no time is spent in boring conversation about love and feeling. There’s a witch to battle.

By this time events have revealed Sophie has her own magical gift: she gives life to things. She successfully charmed hats in Chapter 1, though she didn’t understand what she had done until Chapter 12. Her charms apply to clothing as well, such as the suit she mended for Howl early in the story. She fears the suit’s charm (“built to pull in the girls” p.239) worked on her sister, and later in the story, she blames the charm for her own feelings about Howl. But when Howl reveals he hasn’t worn the suit in ages, Sophie has nothing to blame but her own heart.

The fate of Howl’s heart is finalized in the final chapter. Determined to make up to Howl for her poor behavior, Sophie tries to save Miss Angorian from the Witch of the Waste, only for Howl to defeat the witch instead and explain Miss Angorian was really a fire demon, just like Calcifer. They rush back to the castle and find Miss Angorian with Calcifer in her hand. Beneath his flame beats Howl’s heart, a trade made under contract to lengthen his life and strengthen Howl’s magic. Sophie attacks Miss Angorian, not Howl. Sophie successfully gives life to Calcifer so he can separate from Howl’s heart. And Sophie gives new life to Howl’s heart…in more ways than one.

Six pages left, and Sophie is finally her true self, in and out. Youth back, but spine intact, she no longer fears what the future may bring: in fact, she embraces it. Howl does remember Sophie from their first meeting. He held no pity, but hope that the old Sophie who had the nerve to command a fire demon and hunt down the Witch of the Waste would be “that lovely girl I met on May Day” (p.426). The two never kiss, or have any other such cliché moment. Even his proposal keeps with his slightly-snotty but kind character, as does Sophie’s slightly-snarky but delightful response:

Howl said, “I think we ought to live happily ever after,” and she thought he meant it. Sophie knew that living happily ever after with Howl would be a good deal more eventful than any story made it sound, though she was determined to try. “It should be hair-raising,” added Howl.

“And you’ll exploit me,” Sophie said.

“And then you’ll cut up all my suits to teach me,” said Howl. (p.427)

No angst. Only a few pages of love-talk. LOTS of pages of magic and attitude and adventure. We are not jilted out of a romance here, but as the plot moves the characters don’t have much time to think about love, and when they do, it is too difficult to contemplate for long. So why force the subject to the forefront where it does NOT belong? The characters didn’t want to believe themselves in love; they had to reach that epiphany on their own which, I think, makes that epiphany all the more satisfying for the reader. So, don’t feel that if you have teenage protagonists they MUST swoon and despair and go googley-eyed over someone. Let love surprise them like a snowball at recess. Quietly form, aim, and fire with precision. The shocking strike and beautiful fall-out will be all the more perfect.

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Writer’s Music: Philip Glass

dracula-1931-philip-glass-kronos-quartetSo far, I have written about music that unsettles, saddens, or makes my characters wary of the unknown. But only one composer has the air of pure conspiracy about him: Philip Glass’ Dracula is a beautiful example of this.

(Admittedly, I wanted to tell you how Notes on a Scandal is the ultimate example, but then my husband introduced me to Glass’ score for the original classic Dracula, and that rather won me over. I’m bound to write about Notes later on, anyway.)

Even though the score is performed by a string quartet, the melodies can grow to overwhelming levels and suddenly shrink as Glass demands. Also, thanks to the strings, the melodies maintain a dangerously light feel, like spider webs gracing your neck in a walk through an abandoned building. But don’t underestimate the cello and viola—their dogged perseverance with rhythm give every track a sense of inevitability that, sooner or later, good will succumb to evil.

From a child’s perspective, the adult world is one big conspiracy to unravel. My human children never receive the answers they seek from their troll masters, so they must seek them out on their own. The track “Renfield” helps me imagine a party thrown by one of the troll masters, the perfect opportunity for the children to break into the secret library and find answers. These children are terrified, but if they don’t maintain their pretense of happy servitude, they will be caught, or worse, disappear just like any other “discontent.” Seek out Dracula, and listen as the formal veneer over your characters fades to reveal their true fears and desires.

Selection: “Renfield”

Click here for more information on Philip Glass and his music: http://www.philipglass.com/