As 2018’s National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, I thought I’d offer a little music to help those entangled in face-offs and final battles. We all could use a little muscle to pull us out and onward.
I know: you’re not here to start an adventure. You’re here because it’s time for you–and the characters of your story–to kick some villainous butt.
So let’s join up with the best of the best, the men of muscle who fly across the border and walk into a guerrilla nest without flinching. Men who chew cigars, sweat through camo paint, and say lines like “I ain’t got time to bleed” and sound tooootally bad-ass.
Predator isn’t a scifi-action classic purely because of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance, or only because of Stan Winston’s monster creation. Silvestri’s score plays a HUGE role in this story’s atmosphere, too.
Arnie’s military group is sent on what they think is a rescue mission deep in central America–until they find men of a previous “rescue mission” skinned and hanging from a tree. We see no evil, but we see its horror. Silvestri gives only a single, drum-like percussion, far off. An alien’s heartbeat, an echo of another nature. It’s never completely gone; rather, it hides in the rest of the orchestra’s bursts of harmony in the brass, strings, and percussion. The music sweeps up, sweeps down, all stealth and caution….until the two minute mark. The low brass of epiphany emphasizes the characters’ realization the situation is not what they presupposed.
Silvestri nails suspense with a moment when Arnold’s crew sets a trap for whatever’s killing them. The strings remain high, tight. No aggression in these first few moments, only fear–though no one wants to admit it. The combination of high strings and oppressive jungle makes characters and audience alike ready to snap under the pressure to wait. This moment often helps me add extra setting details to make the characters look hard for the villain as they wait for the trap to be sprung. And you’ll know when the villain comes, all brass and drums.
Silvestri and violins, man…he just knows how to set them running up and down in arpeggios to quicken the heartbeat. With opening in a dissonance, we put our survival instincts into a panic. We run with the strings, and the moment they stop we skid to a halt. The brass and piano takes up the chase, hunting us, hunting the characters, both.
And climax? Ye GODS, Silvestri knows his pacing. The first minute is almost sweetly mysterious with the strings as we think we’ve won against the fantastic thing, this hunter. We can stand over it victorious as its strange insides are exposed to us…until the brass and piano begin. They begin a steady build, add the percussion, build. Then the strings start to run and you know you’ve got to get the hell out of there before evil steals your victory in death.
We all want our heroes to win the day, but we don’t want it to be easy for them–there’s no story without conflict. We gotta make our heroes scared. It takes some serious fear to make the final victory all the sweeter for characters and readers alike.
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Last-minute call for shout-outs to go in my newsletter! I’d love to share what you’re up to with my readers. Click hereto subscribe my newsletter, too!
Do you have a favorite character from Tales or Fallen Princeborn: Stolen that you feel needs some extra page time? Please let me know in the comments below–maybe they’ll be featured in future Tales of the River Vine!
Pretty sure I’m not going to be breathing much today.
Today, from sunrise to sundown this Halloween, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen is yours.
What’s particularly awesome about this release of freeness (new word!) is that this edition includes an excerpt from the second novel, Chosen.
Not sure you want to snatch it up? Check out what these amazing writers and readers have to say about it:
The rich sensory images and tight POV kept me so tangled in the story that I had to keep reading to see what would happen next. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic between Charlotte and her sister, Anna- the love and pain and frustration that can only come from family. Charlotte’s determination to protect Anna, whatever the personal cost, endeared her to me. The dark world beyond the Wall is fascinating, the shadowy characters an intriguing blend between Light and Dark. While the story arc had a satisfying wrap-up, it also left me eagerly awaiting the next installment! –Amazon Reader
“This gripping YA fantasy about Charlotte’s encounter with the fae comes complete with a prince… but he’s no Prince Charming, while they’re definitely nothing like Tinkerbell.” —S.J. Higbee, Sunblinded trilogy
I love that this novel takes place in a fantasy realm quite different than most out there, which makes it harder to guess what’s going to happen next. Charlotte is an interesting heroine to root for, and the book is an overall good mix of adventure, humor, and romance. I got caught up in the story and read this in just a day or two, and now I can’t wait to read the next one! –Amazon Reader
“Part psycho hitchhiker movie, part road trip to Rylyeh, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen drags the reader deep into Faerie, burns it down, and caramelizes expectations.” —Moss Whelan, Gray Hawk of Terrapin
Lee writes from a third-person, present-tense point of view, but the tale is still told very much from Charlotte’s perspective, spurning exposition in favor of snippets of teenage angst. Charlotte emerges as a believable survivor—strong, determined, and devoted to her sister, but also vulnerable, with a deeply buried sense of hope…. Anna is similarly convincing as the resentful younger sister, while the fairy folk walk the line between being straightforward villains and antiheroes. The fairy realm itself is more grim than enchanting (think the Upside Down from the Netflix TV series Stranger Things), and the fact that Charlotte is trapped there—an echo of her family situation—lends an uneasy edge to the would-be romance. –Kirkus Reviews
So, whatcha waitin’ for, folks? Halloween comes but once a year. When Halloween ends, so does this offer for a free adventure into a world of magic and mayhem, family and feeling. Don’t miss out!
Be sure to leave your thoughts on Amazonand Goodreads, too, because seriously, every review means the world to writers.
Fellow Indie fantasy author Laurel Wanrow interviewed me on her site not too long ago. Read it here!
Painter and writer Sue Vincent invited me to share some imagery from Wisconsin and how the landscape inspires my writing. Check out the post here!
More guest post links and reviews will be harvested and shared over the next few days. If you have already read one of my stories, I’d love to hear what you think! There’s plenty of room on Goodreadsand Amazonfor your thoughts.
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.
(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.
Of eagle homes hidden among the oaks and evergreens.
Unfortunately, the only eagle we spotted all week was this one:
Still, the kids were all able to find their special little somethings. Blondie found snail shells.
Bash found his grumps.
Biff found his chainsaws.
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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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 check out my debut dark fantasy YA novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.
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.
You can snatch up a paperback on Amazon today! If you’ve got an e-reader, the online edition can be FREE via Kindle Unlimited, too.
As readers, we build upon our knowledge of previous stories to create expectations. If someone tells us their story is “Thomas the Tank Engine meets Dracula,” we expect some sort of life-sucking creatures living among talking vehicles. If someone says they’ve done a retelling of, say, “Alice in Wonderland with some Resident Evil thrown in,” then we expect a heroine stumbling into another world filled with zombies, puzzles, and big bad monsters.
As writers, we want readers to know they’re going to like our book. We need to show them the book has stuff they like. That’s why we cling so to the subgenres and the comparisons. “If you like Beauty and the Beast, you’ll love this! If you like ghost stories, you’ll love this!”
But there’s a problem with such expectations: They have to pay off in a way readers will accept. Is it safe to delay those expectations, or derail them entirely?
Riveting trailer, isn’t it? Eerie, dramatic, a ghost story through and through. The tension builds from the first second to the last. I saw the trailer while checking Facebook for pictures of my niece and nephew. The trailer popped up on my feed, and I was hooked! I NEEDED to read the book before I see the movie…eventually. (Hey, babysitters are expensive.)
The prose is beautiful, of course. Waters walks readers through Hundreds estate one step at a time. We see every wall, every room, every window, every garden. We feel like we’re there.
But unfortunately, this is also part of the problem. For a story advertised as “A chilling and vividly rendered ghost story set in postwar Britain,” it takes 150 PAGES for the paranormal element to reveal itself.
Think about that. What if it took Alice fifteen chapters to find the rabbit hole, and you spent the first half of the book just gabbing with her sister? What if Poirot wasn’t called to investigate a murder until the tenth chapter, the previous chapters all about him enjoying London? I’m sure he’d be fun as a tour guide, but come on–that’s not why I picked up his book.
Beautiful writing or no, if a book is categorized as under a specific genre like ghost story, then it’s fair to expect that genre dominates the book. It’s not like Waters’ characters had to see blood on the walls by Chapter 2, but I’ve no doubt that in all their wandering through the house in the first 150 pages Waters could have dropped a few peculiar touches to promise us readers that yes, the ghostliness is coming if we just hold out a little bit longer.
The same problem arises with likening a story to one we already know. Several reviews called Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Rosesa retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and many of the elements of the book pay off to that expectation: girl Feyre kills a wolf who turns out to be a Faerie, so she’s told by a Faerie High Lord named Tamlin she must come to his court as a consequence. His court’s cursed by an evil queen, and Feyre’s love of Tamlin is a key to breaking the curse. She breaks the curse, the queen dies, they all go home, the end. Not a bad following of B&B, sure. BUT: this is Book 1 of a series.
Beauty and the Beast ends with that broken curse (no matter what Disney says). Where is there to go?
Helter Skelter, apparently. In the second book, A Court of Mist and Fury, we find out Tamlin is actually a really nasty possessive jerk and one of the evil queen’s henchmen who is another High Lord is secretly a really nice guy who’s been dreaming about Feyre for years, so they get to fall in love and have lots of sex and so on.
Hearing a story is akin to Beauty and the Beast establishes a very specific set of expectations in the reader’s mind: thoughtful female, misunderstood male cursed in appearance, and their love conquers all. Maas builds the relationship of Feyre and Tamlin with every touch of love and understanding, right down to the moment Feyre’s paintings speak to Tamlin’s inner struggle in helping his people. When Feyre faces the evil queen, she says time and again she’s fighting for her love, Tamlin.
Yet in Chapter 1 of Mist and Fury, we’re hearing that Feyre is vomiting and can hardly sleep. Tamlin’s as much of a wreck, but they don’t talk. They’re going to get married, but Feyre is dreading the wedding so much she’s praying to be saved. This calls in Rhys, that other High Lord who was once the evil queen’s henchman. He carries her off to his court, and from this point we realize just how traumatized Feyre is from her trials under the evil queen. Chapter by chapter we see that Rhys is the one who truly understands Feyre, noble and kind, willing to put all he has on the line for the sake of protecting those he loves.
Gosh, this sounded familiar to me. The first impression of a brute, a cad, a wicked man who surely cares nothing about others, but upon second look is actually very kind, noble, self-sacrificing….
Hey, that’s Pride and Prejudice!
Rhys is the handsome, brooding Mr. Darcy in faerie form, deeply misjudged by Feyre in the first book because she’s so taken with her Mr. Wickham–I mean, her Tamlin. Only as she spends time with Rhys/Mr. Darcy character does she see the depth of his goodness, and therefore more clearly sees Tamlin/Mr. Wickham’s truly vile nature.
At first, I couldn’t understand why Maas simply hadn’t called this series a re-imagining of Pride and Prejudice. Readers would have walked into the series with the correct expectations. They’d have known Tamlin was all wrong for Feyre, even as the relationship grows in Thorns and Roses.
But those correct expectations come at a cost: killing the surprise.
Readers want to be surprised. They want to not know what’s going to happen next. But they don’t like a bait’n’switch pulled on them, either. So, I went back into Thorns and Roses to see if Maas had put any foreshadowing of the relationship breaking.
Sure enough, I find a few spots.
Shortly before Tamlin and Feyre talk about her art, she is wondering if she should live elsewhere so she doesn’t distract Tamlin from fighting rogue monsters.
[Tamlin] laughed, though not entirely with amusement… “No, I don’t want you to live somewhere else. I want you here, where I can look after you–where I can come home and know you’re here, painting and safe.” (206)
This is exactly what he expects of her in those first chapters of Mist and Fury–to be content painting on his estate forever and ever. He pushes this so hard he even locks her in the house so she can’t escape.
The last chapter of Thorns and Roses shares a good deal of Feyre’s pain after taking two innocent lives during the evil queen’s trials. Even when she’s back with Tamlin, she feels that something’s come apart in her.
Tomorrow–there would be tomorrow, and an eternity, to face what I had done, to face what I shredded into pieces inside myself while Under the Mountain. (416)
Maas sewed the seeds for this relationship’s end, but with expectations centered around a Beauty and the Beast kind of story, readers like myself were all too keen to ignore those seeds. Yet if Maas had allowed marketing to tie her series to Pride and Prejudice, aaaall that romantic tension between Feyre and Tamlin in Thorns and Roses would have been a waste of time.
I wish I had the answer to this writer’s problem. I want readers to read my stories and not feel duped or betrayed.
Perhaps it’s the reader’s responsibility not to think writers are going to follow a paint-by-numbers approach for a genre or a retelling.
But it’s equally the writer’s responsibility not to depend on that genre or retelling as a selling crutch. Your story has been and always will be more unique than that.
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.
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, butfelt. Heard.
Because it’s hard to write a few thousand words of novel every day when you get called into the principal’s office, called into the classroom, or simply called to take a particular child home several times over the past couple of weeks (seriously, Bash!?), I need to take a minute, and breathe.
We’ve all known these rough patches. We trip and sprain an ankle, tear the sole in our boot and step in a muddy puddle. Slow to a halt when a gaggle (herd? pack? hay bale?) of farmers turn their tractors off to chew gossip. And don’t get me started on those roads diverging in yellow woods.
Now’s the time for camaraderie and thankfulness for the authors who have walked with me in the blogosphere these past three years, and those who move me to keep on walking. Sci-fi writer J.I. Rogers‘ kind nomination provides me the chance to do just that.
Rogers is author of the sci-fi novel The Korpes Files, co-writer of Last Horizon: Collapse, and contributor to the speculative fiction adventure anthology On the Horizon.Do check them all out!
“According to Okoto Enigma, ‘Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.’ ”
Thank whoever nominated you and include a link to their blog.
Tell your readers three things about yourself.
Nominate bloggers you feel deserve the award.
Answer questions from the person who nominated you.
Ask your nominees 5 questions of your choice with one weird or funny one.
Notify your nominees by commenting on their blogs.
SJ Higbee—Because she shares so many wonderful stories, and keeps me inspired to get my own stories out there, too.
Anne Clare—Because she’s one of my oldest friends, whose faith so often helps me center my own.
Callum Stanford—Because his drive to overcome all obstacles professional and personal stirs new strength in me every time I read his story.
Questions for my nominees
Think back to the first story you ever wrote/drew. What was it about?
Does your creativity spread into other skills?
If there’s one book you wish you could UN-read, which would it be?
Favorite tea or wine? (I’m always looking for recommendations)
If you could visit one location on this lovely earth to study it for a story’s setting, which would it be?
Now me I decided to approach J.I. Rogers’ questions in a more nontraditional manner. Her questions came at a time when I was fretting in and out of prayer, and for some reason the gifts of the Holy Spirit fell into the mix, too.
Gifts of the Writing Spirit
First and foremost, there is this awe, this legit fear of the power in imagination. My memory sucks–you ask me about a major childhood event, or high school shenanigans, or what we even spoke about yesterday, and I’ll blink at you blank. But I can recall nightmares that are decades old, and haunt me still. Nightmares from the age of four, when I dreamed my parents and a man with a handlebar mustache stood talking before a gothic cathedral while unseen arms picked me up and stuck me in a station wagon’s backseat. My folks’ heads never moved as I pounded my little fists on the window. Their bodies shrunk as the gothic cathedral’s stone infested the world. I can describe the nightmare of being trapped in a house, gagged, with walls peeling open to pink, translucent tentacles. I can tell you the dream of the shadow that chased me through a dark church, flattening against the walls and then popping out, always in front of me, its bright blue eyes never blinking. And those are just the nightmares of imagination, not real life.
If we want readers to respect our imaginations, to be trapped in our worlds past 3am, talking to the the typed letters like they’re real people–“Don’t go in there! Yeah, you tell’em! Wait, you can’t walk out on her now!”–then we need to treat our imaginations and all that live in them as real.
We all know we need to read well to write well. Sure, I’ll bust out the Shakespeare and the Austen every now and again, but I’ve always found more pleasure in reading books by Diana Wynne Jones. Her worlds never feel slipshod or half-done. The characters always have a bit of snarky wit about them, and they never do anything that feels out of sorts. The pacing, too, is a great thing to watch; just when you think she may be giving too much exposition, you find out quite a bit of plot’s been moving along right under your nose. One of the best guilty pleasures is re-reading Howl’s Moving Castle for fun. It’s a beautiful example of two real characters, complete with stubborn streaks and conceited airs, still somehow falling for one another in the midst of working magic errands for a kingdom at war.
Must have coffee. Sometimes tea.
And peanut butter. Lots, and lots, of creamy peanut butter.
Ever watch or read something to learn what not to do? I find riffing shows quite useful in this department. Robot Co-Op,Rifftrax, or old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000always teach me something as they roast games and films into hilarious remains because many of their jokes are rooted in the lousy writing. They give Writer Me a Reader’s reaction to the poor character development, lame dialogue, or muddled plots a half-assed story uses. If you don’t want your story to become infamous like Manos: The Hands of Fate,then do the story RIGHT!
We all of us have talents outside of writing. Anne Clare can make stained glass windows, for instance. Shehanne Moore‘s an actor and director. We have these extra channels that help us pull our creativity out of a rut, even renew it.
Music is mine. At one point I was learning piano, violin, clarinet, and even organ. Fourteen years of lessons are going to leave their mark; that’s why I write so avidly about music, and listen to music whenever I write. It’s another realm of creation and adventure we have only to hear to believe. Even my heroine in Fallen Princeborn: Stolenis a pianist because I know how music mends the torn soul.
It’s not just about the reverence, it’s about the belief. You need to know it, feel it in the furthest reaches of your gut, in the callused skin of your fingertips. You have to move forward with the faith that you will succeed, that you will get your stories to readers. I kept that faith for thirty years: doodling stories, recording stories on cassettes, writing stories, going to school to learn about stories, hating school for what they said about stories, and then finally saying piss off to everyone and writing what I wanted to write.
And now here I am, signed on with Aionios Books, with plans to publish my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus.
When I was checking the list of what constitutes gifts of the spirit, I came across this notation for “Understanding”:
“To grasp faith’s mysteries.”
So it goes for writing.
As much as we may stand in awe of our imagination’s power, we must also journey through it to find its roots, and learn how it grows. As a child raised in a minister’s family, I was baptized in Word and Spirit: the water, the Bible passages, dove symbolizing God, etc. I was raised to believe that which the world deemed impossible: walking on water? Feeding thousands with scraps? Rising from the dead? Bah. Fairy tales.
Perhaps it was my father’s study, where Dr. Who figurines stood in front of Hebrew texts and Dragonriders of Pern sat shelved alongside doctrine commentaries. Somehow, my father’s love of fantasy and science fiction grew right alongside my faith. I accepted all the impossible: the wardrobes, the fairies, the dragons, the Highlanders–all felt as proper and real to me as Scripture.
And it’s this sense of realness, of trueness, that keeps my hope alive. There are so, so many worlds out there. Can’t you feel them? Found on a flight of whirligig seeds, hidden beneath the floorboards of the long-forgotten school outside of town. We have been baptized in imagination: we are the ones who see these places, feel their life force humming in the air. We have been baptized in hope, the hope that in our story-telling we will bring sight to the eyes that cannot see these worlds. We hope to find kindred souls who search, like us, behind the crumbling walls and through the old photographs to rediscover mysteries long forgotten.
We are blessed with such gifts to tell our stories. It is our power.
We only want to check out what’s behind this one corner before we continue on our way. Peek into this one strange window and then go back to our business. Stick our heads into this one rabbit hole, then move on with our lives.
But now with Aionios BooksI’ve found the rabbit hole and tumbled back into Wisconsin’s secret places. The more my editor Gerri and I dig into the world-building of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, the more I find myself going over the old notebooks and sketches. Then “Normal’s Menace,”the short story popped up–Oh yeah, my point of view experiment from last year…I sent it to Gerri for fun because it featured my pastry-obsessed crusader for children, a wolfish fellow named Dorjan. Gerri enjoyed it so much she suggested writing a series of short stories on the various characters involved in the River Vine world.
While I hadn’t been planning to spend time running around and away from the series’ narrative arc, I gotta admit–it’s been really fun. As I learned when experimenting with point of view, short fiction is all about the powerful, passionate moments. All the world-building, the character development, conflict and such–none of it can afford to be a slow burn, because moments don’t burn slow in short fiction. Anger, regret, desire, fear, defiance–when these feelings ignite within us, they burn our spirits until we crumble into ash, or forge us into something new.
These are the moments I now hunt for on the fringe of River Vine. They appear in the not-quite-common places: breaking up with a girlfriend…who is capable of eating you. Disagreeing with a boss…who promises to burn your legs off. Telling off a stranger…who somehow knows your nasty secrets.
Enter “The Boy Who Carried A Forest in His Pocket,” the first short story in Tales of the River Vine.
My sons love to pick up tree seeds and bring them home. Biff is very methodical about it, fixating upon the number of seeds he can stuff into his pocket, while Bash is already growing them in his mind. “What if they make trees in my pocket?” he asks as he skips along at my side. “Then my bed can be in a tree, and my comfies can sleep in trees, too!”
From this, my first short story grew.
“Just.” Jamie tosses his glasses onto the grass. “One.” He blinks, and suddenly Buddy sees nothing but light, beautiful, soft, warm, violet light, like he can sleep in a bed of violets, like he’s clothed in the royal robes of Jerusalem. “Trick.”
“Just. One. Trick,” Buddy echoes. He is very tired. Sugar crash, a voice in his mind says, and he believes it.
“The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket”
Each of the six short stories in Tales of the River Vine will be free to download as they are released one at a time in the coming months on Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook.I’d love to hear your thoughts on these stories, too, so please be sure to read, review, and share.
2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in new editions.Stay tuned!
“Mommy, we have to join the pit crew so Lightning can race across the finish line. Oh no, Doc Hudson crashed!”
Because of this, I have to watch what music I play while writing during the day. Sure, the kids know ACDCand The Who, but we’ve taken care to play only a few songs of each without certain, shall we say, bluntly crude language. I’ve already made the mistake of allowing the boys to listen to Weird Al Yankovic’s polka medley of Rolling Stones songs. Heaven help me if Biff belts out “Brown Sugar” around adults who know what he’s singing.
So of course, staring at Bo’s music collection, I grab the first kid-friendly band I see: Queen!
Yeah, yeah, I know. “Bicycle” is, um, mostly clean, and if I’m fast with the volume knob we can listen to “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But there’s always “We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “You’re My Best Friend,” and their kickin’ theme to Flash Gordon!
“Princes of the Universe” was one of three songs written by Queen for the 1986 film Highlander, a story of immortals living among humanity and dueling each other with swords because “there can be only one.” The original film wasn’t intended for any sort of sequel or series, so (spoiler alert) we find out that The Prize all immortals must fight over is the gift of mortality.
When I started writing Fallen Princeborn the fall after Blondie’s birth, I had that title before I had a setting. I didn’t really ponder why I was using the term “princeborn.” It simply fit. My immortals are created with skills and abilities that by all accounts make them “superior” to humanity. As the song says, no man can be their equal. What else are they than “born to be kings”?
In Fallen Princeborn, the antagonists are keen to do just that, while the protagonists, each broken and discarded, must learn to rise up or die trying.
Highlander went on to spawn some sequels and a television show, all of which my dad loved. So, week to week, Kid Me would hear this song while immortal men, women, and yes, even the occasional kid whipped out massive claymores, slick katanas, wicked rapiers to duel in dark alleys and ancient forests. There is almost always a Quickening: the loser beheaded, lightning floods the scene as the victor absorbs the power of the defeated immortal.
When I listen to “Princes of the Universe” now, I realize it wasn’t just the lightning and rock that stuck with me. Freddie Mercury’s lyrics buried themselves just as deep.
Here we are, born to be kings
We’re the princes of the universe
Here we belong, fighting to survive
In a world with the darkest powers
Here we belong, fighting for survival
We’ve come to be the rulers of you all
I am immortal, I have inside me blood of kings, yeah, yeah
I have no rival, no man can be my equal
Take me to the future of you all
Born to be kings, princes of the universe
Fighting and free
Got your world in my hand
I’m here for your love and I’ll make my stand
We were born to be princes of the universe
This beaten down defiance drums as hard as Roger Taylor. Even just reading these words, you can feel glares burning through you like Christopher Lambert’s eyes. Whoever’s spitting these words may be bloody and bruised at your feet, but their faces tell you they’re nowhere near defeated. No power upon this earth can break them.
Such are the heroes I am proud to give readers.
Give your protagonists a battle-song to defy the odds, and their heroics will live on in the reader’s imagination long after the final page is read.
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.)
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.
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.
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.