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

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When I find out an author is a big fan of MY favorite author Diana Wynne Jones, then I am required to check him/her out. ‘Tis Writer’s Law….or something. Shush, I did it, and I’m not sorry I did it because Naomi Novik’s Uprooted has such a STELLAR first paragraph you can’t help but be invested. It’s not a matter of wit, or intrigue, or setting. It’s the world-building within each sentence that plants the seeds of interest in readers to blossom in nearly no time at all.

Let me share the paragraph with you, and then we can break this sucker down.

22544764Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

 

No sweeping descriptions of the world. No colorful portraits of characters. Yet Naomi Novik fills this paragraph with information other authors would stretch across a dozen pages.

Our Dragon. A capitalized “d” means this isn’t a typical beast. This is a title, or a name, and this Dragon thing belongs, in some fashion, to the group of which the narrator’s a part.

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes. Right here, Novik won me over. How, just how many told tales have a dragon taking a person to eat it? It’s a trope, a cliche, a whatever-that-term-is. When we hear about dragons taking girls, we expect to hear about bones and death and the like. But Novik has taken this expectation, turned it on its head, and given us an entirely unexpected payoff. One sentence in, and we’re being told we can’t abide by the “typical” fantasy tropes.

…no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. Now we begin to get a sense of space, a little of time. Not a technological age, certainly, if stories can run rampant outside an area without correction. We’re also in a larger space–the narrator didn’t say “village,” or “town,” or even “city.” If there was only one community, the narrator would have used  a term to say as much. So, we can conclude we’re dealing with multiple communities in this space.

We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Again, we get a sense this is not a technological era. We also begin to get a sense of our narrator–“as though we were doing human sacrifice” has this harrumphing attitude behind it. The narrator scoffs the very idea that there’d be a “real dragon” involved, let alone any sort of willful killing.

Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. I love this sentence! We have another taste of the narrator’s attitude with the “of course,” treating any ignorant outsider with disdain. We also learn what “Our Dragon” is: a wizard, immortal, man. (By the way, I love how that’s said: “he may be a wizard and immortal”–like this is normal. It’s the narrator’s normal, clearly, but the fact the narrator acts like this is the normal gives readers yet another taste of what Uprooted’s world is like.) The fact that a mob of fathers could take on a wizard also gives us a sense of the narrator’s respect for the men in her valley. Lastly, we learn our narrator is a girl with the “eat one of us.” So, we know this is a girl that’s been raised in a society that’s had to offer their daughters every ten years to a wizard.

Why?

He protects us against the Wood. Hold on. Wood? What Wood? Woods are common in fantasy, sure. Sometimes they’re just woods, and sometimes they harbor dangerous characters. But the narrator isn’t talking about what lives in the Wood. She’s talking about the Wood itself. Something about the Wood is so powerful and so dangerous that it requires a wizard’s protection in order for people to live in this valley.

He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful. Okay, I just love the narrator’s attitude here. Yes, she’s emphasizing that the valley folk aren’t willing to let their daughters be killed every ten years, but there’s a quirky snottiness here I really dig. This is a girl who’s not afraid to speak her mind about what sounds like a cornered life: growing up near a dangerous Wood, knowing you might be taken away from everything you know and love by a wizard for ten years. She should be happy her people are protected, and she knows it.

But she ain’t exactly pleased with her potential destiny, either.

Novik grows a beautifully unique tale with Uprooted, one I’m always eager to recommend to those who love fantasy. For those who love to write other genres, I’d still recommend this book to study its craft. This first paragraph shows what can be done if one’s not just thinking about establishing intrigue, or painting a scene, or introducing a character. Sometimes it takes all three elements to grow a paragraph that is truly extraordinary.

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

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

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

 

 

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Writer’s Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

51tandu2qrl-_sy355_Do you imagine in words?

I do sometimes. When I’m working through a piece of life, as I am now with The Telling and my own history of sexual abuse, I tend to see in words. It’s a strange switch from seeing a story: I don’t smell, feel, or hear. My eyes see nothing but words an inch from my face, and even they have a fuzz to them, so it takes a few tries to decipher. The more I read, the more my senses follow, and life within me finds a focus.

 

Music helps me see more than the story. Music helps me see the language of me.

I knew how to read notes before words, having started piano at the age of 4. My father loved to write hymns, and my mother often directed choirs. We kids learned numerous church-friendly instruments, and sang in the choirs. (Bo likes to think my father secretly aspired for us to become a Christian version of the Partridge Family. Thank God THAT didn’t happen.) Even after Dad died, my mother and elder brother continued to give to the church with music, while my kid brother went on to become a pastor himself.

Despite all I have experienced–all the time-stops on those afternoons long agoor the endless days with my newborn sonsmusic and stories always propelled me forward. One word follows another; one note comes after another. They emote. Inspire. Begin. End. Define, yet live on without limit.

Which, at last, brings me to that which I wanted to share with you.

Whenever I’ve written about parenting, depression, or abuse, I pull up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Some of the tracks are more narrative than others; these I ignore. But a few have such a…it’s a tense hope. Like Mychael Danna’s Capote, the score is dominated by strings and piano. Capote, however, has more menacing undertones to it than Assassination–a result of the bass and fewer harmonies, I think. I also feel more of a time-stop with Capote, especially during the solo piano I love so much. Assassination‘s “Song for Bob” has a very slow build while strings are added, and added. A sense of resolve comes through when the violin joins at the 1:30 mark, and even though the rhythm of the harmonies repeats, the build goes on. When the piano joins, the strings seem…not forced, but their harmonies alter, and for some moments the viola provides what feels like the final monologue in a Shakespearean tragedy. The return of the original rhythm and harmonies is different, yet the same.

How like us, we who undergo the shift within to reclaim our total selves.

 

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna V

The Good Dinosaur Soundtrack Cover.jpgI never thought I would include a Disney score, especially when they have such a choke hold on their music files (shakes fist at The Nearly Omniscient Mouse). This is why you don’t see a complete song at the bottom of this post. (Update: Special thanks to fellow writer Michael Dellert for helping me find a YouTube video of the music!) But how can I not write about Mychael Danna, especially when he outdoes himself yet again?

Having lived my life in the woods and farmlands of the Midwest, I couldn’t help but adore Danna’s The Good Dinosaur. The story itself is an old one: think of a family out west working the homestead. The boy is thrust from his home by the elements, and must now cross the wilderness to return home. Now substitute the boy for a dinosaur. Ta da–movie!

Opinions on the film run a pretty wide gamut, so I’m just going to leave them be. What I love is the western flavor Danna uses in this score. It’s sweet, almost bittersweet, in the strings. The occasional fiddle tune comes along, some banjo, some woodwinds and piano. The brass swells, lone and strong. His mix of percussion at tense moments reminds us a child is the hero, that he must be so despite the terrors of the sky.

Yet of all the orchestral elements, I still find the strings to be the true stars in this score. Violins are such a unique instrument in their ability to relate whimsy or sorrow at the turn of an eight note, which I think is one of the reasons Danna uses them so much here. They bring a reader to tears when the protagonist mourns his father, to laughs when he’s running away from dino-chickens. There’s a majesty to the strings I have not heard in a long time: a melody so simple, yet elegant, like leaves rustling in the sunshine.

Poetry without words.

Click here for more on THE GOOD DINOSAUR.

(Fortunately, the Amazon page for the score has sample tracks, so you can listen to the work.)

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna IV

91ilvkdjfkl-_sl1500_One of the many reasons I write with music in the background is to help me feel outside of myself. To clarify: if there’s a feeling I’m going for in a scene, it helps to sense that feeling elsewhere than in my brain. If I hear music that reflects the feeling, I am better able to relate the feeling with language. This goes for music that lifts up as well as music that drags down.

Today, I want to focus on the “lift up” part. Mychael Danna, the unshakeable rock of my movie score library, both drags and lifts with Little Miss Sunshine. The story itself—a dysfunctional family coming together to help the young girl reach a beauty pageant—calls for such pendulum swings in mood. The genius here is that the music seems to symbolize the dysfunction: one hears some strings, but not many, drums, a squeezebox, a tuba and trumpet. Some other little percussion odds and ends, like a xylophone. These are not the instruments one hears together often, save for, hmm, a polka party? But then strings are not usually involved… ANYWAY. You have an eclectic batch of instruments with their own very unique sounds, but together, they not only create harmony, but a genuine song.

And what a song. “We’re Gonna Make It” builds as more instruments join, and while the sounds are so very different, the melodies played by each instrument are very much the same. Add to this the percussion, which builds up the rhythms with a little help from the tuba, and you’ve got a song that runs through the dirt, leaps into the air, and soars.

Help your characters see that, though odd ducks they may be, they are better as a unit than apart. Give them the hope and determination they need to rise over the conflict. Danna’s got just the wings for the flight.

Click here for more on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

#Writing #Music to celebrate Fallen #Princeborn: Stolen’s #ARC #Giveaway #Countdown

 

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I use several of Danna’s albums when I write, The Sweet Hereafter especially when I need an atmosphere of unsettlement. There is no orchestra here; often only a few string or woodwind instruments play at a time. Percussion is limited. Harmonies come and go like sunlight beneath a breaking cloudbank.

My protagonist flees an abusive home. She finally is in control of her fate…until a bizarre accident wrecks her bus. No one questions the circumstances, nor does anyone think it strange when another bus, empty of passengers but filled with everything the stranded travelers need, just so happens to come along on an otherwise abandoned stretch of interstate. Only the protagonist feels the wrongness of it all, from the ground beneath her to the sudden stillness of the trees.

I could not have closed my eyes and worked this through if not for Mychael Danna’s The Sweet Hereafter. I visualized the empty road easily enough, but I enjoy the quiet of Wisconsin’s empty places. I could not make myself uncomfortable.

And then I put the tracks “Bus,” “Bus Stop,” and “Why I Lied” together, and found myself shivering inside my protagonist’s skin.

Danna’s music also makes a writer’s point: use only what you need, and use it well. It’s all too easy to dive into sweeping descriptions of the world’s logistics. Background, right? Context? Readers need it!

No, no they don’t. Keep it simple. Share just enough to catch the reader’s eye. Keep him a few steps behind. Then, you may broaden the reader’s vision as the story advances. Danna’s “A Huge Wave” is the perfect track to reflect this idea, for the instruments build slowly from strings, to percussion, to wind instruments, to crest in volume and slink slowly away into the mists once more.

If ever you need your characters to feel unsure of the world about them, lose them in Danna.

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed