#WriterProblems: #StoryEndings and #LooseEnds (Also, a Defense of #EarwigandtheWitch)

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Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!

Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:

I’m talking about the little Middle Grade fantasy Earwig and the Witch.

And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.

However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?

Adapting.

Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.

After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?

I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.

They. Didn’t. Matter.

Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.

Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.

So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”

The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.

“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig.
The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.”
“Nonsense!” said the Matron.
“But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.”
Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.”
Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.

I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.

Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.

Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.

Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.

For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.

Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.

The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.

[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.

After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:

“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”

Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.

THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?

Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?

Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.

Aren’t these illustrations by Paul Zelinsky a scream?

It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)

When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.

She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak,
“Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.”
Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”

When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.

But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?

A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.

So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.

And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.

~STAY TUNED!~

Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.

Just look at the drama packed into these characters! xxxxxx

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

My #BookLaunch #Countdown for #FallenPrinceborn: Chosen Continues with #WritingTips on #Plot and #Character

Hello once more, my friends! I thought it’d be fun to continue sharing some of the inspiration for my Fallen Princeborn characters, this time including some kickin’ writing advice I got from the craft books 45 Master Characters and 20 Master Plots.

“But I hate templates!” Of course, no one wants their story to be considered some sort of cookie-cutter tale. What’s cool about these particular craft books is their analysis of how far back certain kinds of stories and character types go, and in so doing shows why these kinds of stories and characters are timeless and therefore always relevant no matter what the story.

First, let’s talk plot.

It’s all right to let yourself go when you write, because you’re using the best part of your creative self. But be suspicious of what comes out. Plot is your compass…Fiction is a lot more economical than life. Whereas life allows in anything, fiction is selective. Everything in your writing should relate to your intent. The rest, no matter how brilliantly written, should be taken out.

20 Master Plots is likely a book I’ve mentioned here before, but I can’t help but re-recommend it for both inspiration and reflection on the primary shapes a story has taken through literature. Now I love pantsing my way through plot development like many other NaNoWriMo folk, but when it comes to a series, stuff has to fit, dammit, and if you don’t take time to make things fit, you are promising yourself a story-world of plot holes and problems. You may very well mixing several of the “Master Plots,” such as Rivalry, Rescue, or Riddle, and there is nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is losing sight of what those Master Plots need in order to complete the story. For instance, I know I’ve got some Riddle in mine, as Charlotte’s curious abilities to handle Velidevour magic are not yet explained. Were I to leave that unexplained book after book until the series ends, readers would understandably give me a good rap with the knuckles and ask what’s going on. Pursuit is another Master Plot I use quite often, which Tobias defines here as–

Two games never seem to fail to capture the imagination of children: hide-and-seek and tag. Try to remember the excitement of being on the hunt and finding where everyone was a test of cleverness (how well you could hide) and nerve.
Tag is like that, too. Chasing and being chased, always trying to outwit the other person. We never lose our appetite for the game. For children as well as adults, there’s something fundamentally exciting in finding what has been hidden. As we grow older, we grow more sophisticated about how we play the game, but the thrill at the heart of it never changes. It is pure exhilaration.
The pursuit plot is the literary version of hide-and-seek.

Perhaps you’ve seen thrillers, suspense, and/or mysteries referring to the “cat and mouse” chase within the story. Welp, there you go! We love this game of seeking what’s hidden, or hunting the baddie. It means a constant foray into uncertainty with high stakes, and dire consequences will befall whomever fails. This drives any pursuit within Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, and I promise you now it will only grow in the stories to come.

Liam keeps an arrhythmic staccato pace with Dorjan. Scattered leaves and pine needles hide an array of sharp rocks. Liam’s feet seem to find them all, but with the sparks of Charlotte’s touch still alight within him, he cares little about the pain. Only Dorjan’s nose matters now, tracking the scent of their quarry. He slows, checks the ground, speeds up. Slows, checks the ground, speeds up. They move like this out of the sun-baked brambles and into the tattered forest.

A branch breaks. A creature cries. But nothing is close enough, not yet.

Dorjan is the first to slow. He points where a few drops of oil speckle upon a pine’s crusted sap. The brittle cove around them bears a pathetic green compared to the lushness of the foliage surrounding Rose House.

Then Liam feels it—a prickling around his wrist. Blast it. Already the mark is alive and moving. “The Wall is close.” He strains to look past the scattered clumps of life around them but sees nothing of the Wall surrounding River Vine.

Dorjan sniffs the air. “And Campion’s got company. Two, by the smell of it. Bully for us.”

The first time I read 45 Master Characters, I had already drafted my series’ first book (Stolen), and it struck me how much this description fit Dorjan, my rogue Princeborn who’s appeared in both my novels as well as my novella Night’s Tooth. Unlike other Velidevour who don’t care much about devouring the desires of an adult or child, Dorjan takes extra care to defend human children to the point of killing his own kind, as he does in Stolen:

Human once again, Dorjan grabs Jamie by the neck and pins him against a tree. “You wonder, do you, why I do this. Why I hunt you and Campion, why I seek a duel with Cein. Know, then: I do this for Jennifer Blair, whose brother you unlawfully stole, an innocent, a borderland child. A child!” His fist breaks skin and muscle and bone. Blood splatters Dorjan and leaks from Jamie’s mouth.

“Just… human… just… human…” he murmurs like a broken toy,
hiccupping between words.

“A human worth far more than you or me,” Dorjan says with a low voice that begins with a quiver and ends on a battle cry as his fist tears in and then slams out of Jamie’s ribcage, heart in hand. The moment his last artery snaps, Jamie’s eyes deteriorate into dull gems, onyx. Then mist. Another breath, and his entire body blows away in a cloud of violet embers.

Dorjan studies the black heart a moment before pitching it far into the trees.
“Let me know if Cein and Campion get my message, will you?”

Every character needs motivation to be what they are, be it through principals, wants, needs. Whether or not that purpose lifts them up to heroics or plunges them deep into villainy is up to you, fellow writers.

…the Male Messiah may not know of his connection to the Divine, but he may just be driven to accomplish something important. In this respect, he isn’t working on a spiritual goal. It seems his whole life is for one sole purpose and that purpose affects the lives of thousands of people…The Male Messiah has the ability to see the whole picture when it comes to problems. He never jumps to conclusions or gets involved in the gossip or drama of everyday life…

As the Punisher, he’ll curse the man who has “fallen” to teach him a lesson. He wants to break the man’s ego. He’ll kill the man’s spirit to transform him into his image. He may try to justify himself to others, but they’ll never fully understand his power or the burden he carries. They view his reprimands as harsh and uncaring. Many will leave his side, unable to follow his rules and treatment…He feels his word is law.

Just one unmet need–love, hope, peace, whatever else–and one’s soul is cast in darkness. This struck me good and hard as I developed another character in Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. You will know him when you meet him, this carrier of pale fire and song.

Stay tuned for my next post to read his introduction as well as information about a cracking podcast I got to do with fellow indie fantasy author Neil Mach.

Oh, and my kindle countdown sale begins October 23rd! If you know someone who loves dark fantasy and romance, now’s the time to send them to my Amazon page, nudge nudge. 🙂

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