#writersproblems: Expectations & Payoffs in #Storytelling

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?

Let’s look first at delaying them. Take Sara Waters’ The Little Stranger.

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.)

71bBVB2Q8LLThe 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 Roses a 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.

Say WHAT?

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.

23766623Yet 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.

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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 like The Stray” and The Boy Who Carried A Forest In His Pocket” and not feel duped or betrayed. (Click on the titles for the free downloads, by the way. Be sure to share your thoughts on them, please!)

 

 

 

 

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.

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#lessons Learned & an #Author #Interview with Michael Scott, Part 2: #write a #villain worth #reading. Thanks, @flamelauthor!

I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal.
Michael Scott

Nothing wrecks a good story like a lame villain.

Be it Mustache Twirlers, Righteous Avengers, or World Conquerors, such villains have nothing to them apart from their evilness. And no matter how grandiose that evilness is, evil without any depth is boring.

Not cool.

A villain’s got to have more than just evil intent to be worthy of page space. A villain needs interests, feelings, and hopes all their own.

I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.
Michael Scott

In my post on the Rolling Stones’ song “Sympathy for the Devil,” I shared my realization that villains “must have some essence of us, of the everyday person.” I think this is why Michael Scott‘s villain Dr. John Dee makes such a magnificent antagonist to Nicholas Flamel in The Alchemyst: he is presented as a complete individual, one with facets physical, intellectual, and emotional.

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Physical

He was a small, rather dapper-looking man, dressed in a neat charcoal-gray three-piece suit that looked vaguely old-fashioned but that she could tell had been tailor-made for him. His iron gray hair was pulled back from an angular face into a tight pontytail, while a neat triangular bear, mostly black but flecked with gray, concealed his mouth and chin. (5)

Right here, in our first sight of Dr. John Dee, we get a sense of Dee’s style. He’s one for theatrical elegance, right down to the very scent of his aura when ignited:

Dee closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “I rather like the smell of brimstone. It is so…” He paused. “So dramatic.” (20)

Chapter 6 builds on this physical image of Dee, with limousines, leather coats, and the latest technology. The man’s even got a favorite ringtone: the theme from The X-Files (which, oddly enough, was MY favorite show back in the day. *Gasp* a sign of my inner villainy!). While a little detail like a favorite ringtone may not sound worth writing, such a little detail gives us a sense of a man amused by what humanity considers paranormal, one who might watch such a show just to see what humans get right. Heck, maybe Dee has a crush on Gillian Anderson.

My point is, a villain sharing his personal tastes in some fashion, any fashion, helps readers see a complete person on the page.

We also see that Dee’s not so disconnected from the world as to think he can do what he wants without affecting the environment. For example, when his undead army fails to capture Flamel and Co. but succeeds to destroy a chunk of a town, there’s a newspaper account of him holding his movie company accountable for the damage and promising to make reparations. Dee’s physical wealth gives him the ability to cover up his magical actions, including the kidnapping of Nicholas’ wife Perenelle. He’s bought Alcatraz as a prison for her…with a sphinx for a guard. Where else could one hide a sphinx near San Francisco?

An icy shiver ran down Perenelle’s spine as she realized just how clever Dee was. She was a defenseless and powerless prisoner on Alcatraz, and she knew that no one had ever escaped The Rock alive. (315)

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Intellectual

Dee is, indeed, a wickedly clever individual. He understands alchemy, necromancy, sorcery, and more. He can call up the consciousness of a dead member of the Elder Race, one of the most powerful beings on the planet Earth, and command it to speak truth.

Even though he has not been able to study the powerful book known as the Codex because Flamel guards it, he remembers several elements of its contents, including a prophecy involving twins heralding a powerful change for all races, magical and non-magical, that walk the earth.

So when twins Sophie and Josh are separated in Chapter 37, Dee uses his wit to corner Josh’s fragile mental state. He knows just the lines to say to make Josh feel like Dee is full of truth, and Flamel is the proper liar. Lines like:

“Are you a victim too?”

“It seems we are all victims of Nicholas Flamel.”

“Do you know how long I’ve been chasing Nicholas Flamel, or Nick Fleming, or any of the hundreds of other aliases he’s used?…Flamel never tells anyone everything,” he said. “I used to say that half of everything he said was a lie, and the other half wasn’t entirely truthful, either.” (338-40)

Terms like “victim” and “lie” are just enough to keep Josh second-guessing if Dee is being truly helpful or truly villanous. This buys Dee enough time to cast a spell on Josh to numb his senses so he can go hunting for the others.

But no scene quite shows the inner motivations of Dee like the end of Chapter 32, after the Dark Elders leave Dee to chase Flamel and Co. southward.

Dee shoved his hands in the pockets of his ruined leather coat and set off down the narrow path. He hated it when they did that, dismissed him as if he were nothing more than a child.

But things would change.

The Elders like to think that Dee was their puppet, their tool. He had seen how Bastet had abandoned Senuhet, who had been with her for at least a century, without a second glance. He knew they would do exactly the same to him, given the chance.

But Dr. John Dee had plans to ensure that they never got that chance. (298)

Dee has been granted immortality by the Dark Elders in return for his service. He’s led their armies, he’s spent years wandering Otherworlds and Shadowrealms, he’s fought monsters that would frighten the blackest of natures. If you had ten years to wander around in an Otherworld of ice, that’d leave you time to think.

To plan.

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Emotional

Dee absolutely believes he is doing the right thing; he has to believe that Flamel and Perenelle are in the wrong.  –Michael Scott

Michael Scott takes care to give us consistent glimpses into Dee’s feelings via changes in point of view. Not only do we see the progress of the story from Flamel’s narrow escapes and feats of magic, but we also see the story from Dee’s prepared traps, skillful attacks, angry defeats.

By focusing solely on the twins’ POV, we would only get a tiny glimpse of what was happening. Similarly, with Flamel, we get just another tiny slice. By giving us Dee, and the other POV and perspectives, we get a bigger, broader and wider story. Also, it teases the reader slightly (and this is something which is explored in more detail as the series progressed): are the Flamels being honest? We, the reader, know they are lying to the twins, so suddenly, everything we know about them is thrown into doubt. Maybe, just maybe Dee is telling the truth. –Michael Scott

Dee is just as passionate about achieving his plan as he is cunning in his means to fulfill it. This man even carries one of the greatest swords of humanity’s heroes: Excalibur.

Dr. John Dee lifted the short-bladed sword in his hand. Dirty blue light coiled down its length, and for an instant the ancient stone blade hummed as an invisible breeze moved across the edge. The twisting snakes carved into its hilt came to twisting, hissing life. (267)

Surely a hero wields a heroic sword, doesn’t he? Yet Dee uses it to kill an Elder and destroy an entire Shadowrealm. That doesn’t sound heroic.

But we readers started this series with Flamel. We’ve connected the term “hero” to Flamel, not to Dee–which is ironic, considering the author Scott’s own words:

17402605…for the longest time, [Dee] WAS the hero of the series. It was called the Secrets of Doctor Dee, with Machiavelli, who appears in book two, as the villain of the piece. However, Dee never felt “right” for the role. Because my rule for the series was that every character had to come from history and every creature from myth, I wanted to stick as closely to the “real” Dee as possible. And while the real Dee was many things, he was not a hero.  –Michael Scott

Like the “common” villain, Dee has his moments of confidence, and rightfully earned, too: when he first takes the Codex, when he kidnaps Perenelle, when he kills an Elder. His skills and knowledge shine in these moments.

But unlike the “common” villain, Dee does not assume his plans are fool-proof. He often has to create new attacks on the fly. He’s often afraid to deal with the Dark Elders, but he has no choice and seeks their aid.

“Fixing a smile on his lips, he rose stiffly to his feet and turned to face one of the few of the Dark Elders who genuinely terrified him.” (92)

Now normally I’d say fear makes a villain whiny, or at the very least obnoxious. But with Dee, this simply shows he’s capable of more than confident arrogance. Just as a hero fears failure, so does this villain. Both hero and villain are desperate to succeed, but unsure they can. This dual uncertainty, emphasized with the multiple points of view, drives readers to turn one page after another, eager to see who gets the power tipped into his favor in the next chapter, and the next chapter, and the next.

He was a real man, extraordinary in so many ways, but incredibly flawed.
Michael Scott

May your own villain be as Dr. John Dee: 

Extraordinary.

Flawed.

A devil in need of sympathy.

download (2)Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/. 

 

 

 

 

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#lessons Learned & an #Author #Interview with Michael Scott, Part 1: #writing a #pageturner. Thanks, @flamelauthor!

Readers expect a world created from our words, a place of wonder and depth. If they get bored–and as a reader, I know I’ve gotten bored–they will tune the story out. They will shelve it among the “did not finish” works in Goodreads, and they will bid our titles adieu. There are, after all, a gazillion other writers out there.

So how do we keep readers in the story? How do we get them to whisper, “just one more page” for the seventeenth time?

After reading Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst, I can safely point out two elements that kept me reading: the cliffhangers between each chapter, and the book’s antagonist. In this post, we’ll focus on the first.

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Let’s consider Chapter 1. We’ll have to start with the first line in order to fully appreciate the chapter’s end. (I’ve already covered story starts in other posts about Holly Black and Diana Wynne Jones, if you care to look.)

“Ok–answer me this: why would anyone want to wear an overcoat in San Francisco in the middle of summer?”

Nothing outrageous. Just a little oddity that might call attention to a casual passer-by, as it calls the attention of teen Sophie. She sees a few coated individuals and “small, rather dapper-looking man” enter the bookstore across the street where her twin brother Josh works. They’re kind of weird, but that should be it, right?

Scott then takes us to Josh’s perspective. When foul odors suddenly permeate the bookstore’s basement, he decides to go up for some air.

He popped his head out of the cellar door and looked around.

And in that instant, Josh Newman realized that the world would never be the same again.

End of chapter.

In the first couple pages, Scott establishes something is off in the Normal Life of our protagonists, but we don’t know how off. At chapter’s end Scott makes it clear that it isn’t the teens’ summer that changes, or even their Normal Life. It’s the world.

And, it’s only page 8.

We need to read how this simple meeting, this little one-off from Normal, could mean something cataclysmic.

Over the next few chapters, the teens are on the run with Alchemyst Nicholas Flamel, keeper of an ancient book called the Codex. The Codex holds the secret to immortality as well as the forgotten histories and magics of Earth itself. The Dark Elders, once gods but now forgotten, want that book more than anything, and they’ve sent Dr. John Dee, an old apprentice of Flamel’s, to retrieve it. Immortal through his service to the Dark Elders, Dee will spill any blood and unleash any power necessary–and we see in The Alchemyst that Dee has a massive magical arsenal at his disposal.

17402605Come Chapter 6, we are following Dr. John Dee’s point of view. Dee has stolen most of the Codex and abducted Nicholas’ wife Perenelle, but Josh managed to rip the last few pages back before Nicholas helps the twins escape. Furious, Dee contacts his masters for a little help.

Then he snapped the phone shut and looked over at Perenelle Flamel. “It would have been so much easier if they had just given me the Codex. Now the Morrigan is coming. And you know what that means.”

End of chapter.

Perenelle Flamel may know what “that means,” but we have to study the context a little to catch on. “The Morrigan”–a definite article means this not just a beast or creature, but a specific being, an individual entity unique and separate from others met so far. “So much easier if they had given me”–if surrendering to a killer is the “easier” option, then we know whatever’s coming is more violent and nasty than Dee’s been. Dee feels confident in telling Nicholas Flamel’s wife about “the Morrigan” because he expects this Morrigan to get results. Since we’ve seen some of Flamel’s magic, this must mean the Morrigan is a very powerful individual capable of killing Flamel.

Well. We’ve got to see that.

Closing the chapter on a sinister, ominous image can also hook readers for the next chapter. Chapter 8 has Flamel and the twins trapped in ally Scatty’s residence. We end as Dee begins his assault with creatures under his control.

Below them, three huge Golems, trailing flaking dried mud, were pushing their way through the wide-open alley door. And behind them, in a long sinuous line, came the rats.

End of chapter.

I LOVE the use of the word “sinuous.” Read out loud it sounds like a snake’s slithered into the room. Visually, readers picture rats doing something they know to be unnatural. Since when do rats move in a single-filed line? Plus there is a common loathing of rats: bringer of disease and destruction, full of little pointy teeth and hands. When you see one, you know there’s a few dozen more not far behind. Maybe some people think of Ratatouillebut being an 80s child, I think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. 

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Scott also has some fun playing with the reader’s expectations. Chapter 10’s climax is a lovely example of this.

Sophie pulled her cell out of her pocket and flipped it open. “Aren’t you going to work some magic?” she asked hopefully.
“No, I’m going to make a call. Let’s hope we don’t get an answering service.”

End of chapter.

By this point, the twins are accustomed to seeing Dee utilize his powers to combat the villain. The fact he uses a phone for such a mundane action makes Reader Me want to know: Who on earth could this guy be calling to combat a monstrous cloud of crows bent on tearing them apart? The only way I can learn the answer is by reading on.

Being a pushy, curious sort, I asked Michael Scott how he worked out building strong chapter endings with multiple points of view.  His answer reflects an important writing strategy: planning.

I started with a single sheet of paper and wrote out my idea for the entire series. I could see that there were six very neat breaks in the narrative.

I then wrote out the idea for each book on six sheets of paper. Then I went in and plotted them sometimes in fairly fine detail. That allowed me to pace out the chapters.

I always tried to end a chapter with a hook which would leave you dangling so that you had to read the next chapter (which was often not a continuation of the story), to get back to the main story. So your plotting is chapters 1,3,5 are all one story, and 2,4,6 are a separate, but linked story.

I love my narratives to adventure into the unexpected, but even I like to keep a map on hand in case I get lost. Readers will only appreciate tension and high stakes if the story stays focused on those things. If writers dish out too much tension at once, any slowing of the plot jars the pacing beyond repair. Like the 90s blockbuster Speedyou have to keep the story moving fast, or risk blowing up your reader’s engagement. If you attempt a slow burn and fail (and I just read a novel guilty of this, so stay tuned in August), you’ve lost readers before you could even get to the story’s objective.

So you need action, but not too much at once. You need climaxes in that action, but not so much to make later climaxes feel, well, anti-climactic. No wonder, then, that Scott not only took time to outline The Alchemyst, but the ENTIRE six-book series of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. How else can he tell the story from both the heroes and villains’ perspectives without missing a beat?

And I’m not going to lie–Dr. John Dee is my favorite part of this book. Next week, we’ll explore with Michael Scott what makes this villain–and therefore the well-written villains–worth reading.

download (2)Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/. 

 

 

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#lessons Learned from #DianaWynneJones: Mentors deserve #character arcs as much as #Heroes.

A common writing topic among my adult learners is an argument for better mentor programs among urban and rural youth. The majority of my students have lived many chapters before school: military service, lost jobs, parenthood, health problems, jail time. And in those chapters they had one adult who was there for them while their own loved ones wouldn’t, or couldn’t, support them. Time and again, their stories testify to the power one good grown heart can have in an uncertain life.

Such is the power of a Mentor, an amazing presence one can have in real life, as well as in fiction.

51473OvY5zL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgSometimes it’s not a bad idea to refuse a Call until you’ve had time to prepare for the “zone unknown” that lies ahead. In mythology and folklore that preparation might be done with the help of the wise, protective figure of the Mentor, whose many services to the hero include protecting, guiding, teaching, training, and providing magical gifts….Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero’s Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure.  -Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

One element irks me about this Mentor business, though: these characters often don’t get much time to grow. Adults so often come pre-set in Young Adult and Middle Grade: they represent all that’s wrong with the story’s universe, or they’re created soley for cannon fodder to inflict emotional damage on the young hero. Of course those that mentor will provide and guide as Vogler mentions, but when it comes time to act, the Mentor either cannot help, or will not. Even Dumbledore, one of THE Mentors in the fantasy genre spanning Middle Grade and Young Adult, admits in Order of the Phoenix to purposefully withholding information from Harry so he could be a kid for a little longer. Well, that withholding led to Harry dragging his friends into an ambush and Sirius Black getting killed off. So I guess Dumbledore does grow, but it takes, you know, FIVE BOOKS for that to happen.

Why not give the Mentor a chance to grow throughout the plot, right there alongside the Hero?

Diana Wynne Jones’ Enchanted Glass shows not only the power of the Mentor/Hero relationship, but the strength of a story that allows both characters to develop.

Now being a Middle Grade fantasy, the book’s blurb will of course talk about the child character, Aidan:

Aidan Cain has had the worst week of his life. Creepy, sinister beings want him dead. What’s a boy to do?

When you open to the first page of the story, however, you don’t hear about Aidan at all:

When Jocelyn Brandon died–at a great old age, as magicians tend to do–he left his house and his field-of-care to his grandson, Andrew Brandon Hope. Andrew himself was in his thirties.

Say what? Why are we meeting this guy first?

51BWYaYblWL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Jones spins the Hero’s Journey round and round and upside down and settles it just the way she wants. In a way, Andrew and Aidan are both heroes, even though Andrew ticks a lot of the boxes for Mentor: he takes Aidan into his home, helps him cope with the loss of his family, protects him from the sinister, teaches him about magic and the curious lives hiding about the town, such as the giant who comes to the shed to eat overgrown vegetables every night.

At the same time, Andrew has to grow, too. When we meet him, he is very quiet and mild. This softie-sort of demeanor makes the grandfather’s staff think they can boss Andrew around.

“And I do hope you’ll continue to work for me just as you did for my grandfather,” he said.

To which she retorted, “I don’t know what you’d do if I didn’t. You live in a world of your own, being a professor.”

“I’m not a professor,” he pointed out mildly.

Mrs. Stock took no notice of this.

They couldn’t be clearer of their opinions of Andrew than in their actions. Heck, Mrs. Stock won’t even let Andrew move the furniture around. Every time he redoes the living room, she spends the whole day moving it back, pissed to blazes at him for taking the piano out of its “hallowed corner” and the chairs and lamps away from their “traditional places.” She punishes him with terrible casseroles, but Andrew just ignores them.

Ignoring isn’t the same as growing, though. We start to see his spine stiffen as he deals with the gardener Mr. Stock (no relation). Mr. Stock is obsessed with growing the best veg for the summer fête, and he uses Andrew’s garden to do it while ignoring the lawn, flowers, trees, etc. If Andrew dares ask Mr. Stock to see about the flowers or lawn, Mr. Stock takes to dumping veg rejects in the kitchen, kicking the stained glass door as he goes, rattling glass panes everyone knows to be exceedingly old…and, as it happens, magical.

The magic in the glass is just one of the many things Andrew does not remember. He needs his own Mentor (found in another gardener, no less) to help him sift through the past for all the vital magic lessons from his grandfather, plus learn about the odd bits and pieces about the field-of-care, like the curious counter-parts, and the strange Mr. Brown who’s taken over a chunk of Andrew’s land.

The climax comes with serious growth in both hero and mentor: Aidan’s able to tap his inner magic to create a fire no invader could penetrate, and Andrew remembers enough of his grandfather’s teaching to summon the powers of his enchanted glass to send the Fairy King back to his own home. Only now, with this success, is Andrew seen as someone to respect, as Mr. Stock admits (to himself, anyway):

He picked up the great marrow and seemed about to hand it to Andrew. Then it clearly struck him that Andrew was too importantly powerful now to carry produce about.

But this victory wasn’t just Andrew’s power, or Aidan’s. It’s a team effort between Hero and Mentor to deal with the Fairy King and his little minions from the get-go until the final thunderclap of magic and acorn flood.

Such is the growth I strive to create in my own characters populating Fallen Princeborn. The protagonists have their own valleys of struggle to walk through, but so does their mentor. He’s forgotten what hope is, and has given up on any sort of change to heal his world. When my heroine arrives, however, and brings a storm of chaos with her, he begins to feel hope again. Experiences hope again. And in that hope, he starts to find the old courage and strength that once held him fast against the enemy.

Even good grown hearts know pain and doubt. They deserve a chance to heal and grow, just like a hero. Heroes of any age want to look up to someone, but they need to relate to someone, too. The Hero’s Journey needn’t be completed by the Hero alone. Let readers walk the Mentor’s Journey, too, and experience a path through the story-world so often left unknown.

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#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #fiction: #TheCall by Peadar Ó Guilín

In my previous world-building study, I noted the mix of normal and abnormal details to help create an other-wordly atmosphere in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Nature is the focus of such details, as someone or something is altering the environment.

Not all stunning stories have to dwell on the environment, however. Sometimes a writer can build the world with pieces of society, of the “normal” one experiences when moving about in daily life. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s  The Call, that normal is, well, pretty f’d up. But a girl like Nessa isn’t going to let the new normal of her world dictate when she dies: not the doctors who want to put her to sleep because she has polio, or the Sídhe who hunt all of Ireland’s adolescents in the Grey Land.

51yePoz3hgL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_To look at how Ó Guilín builds this “normal,” I’m going to focus on the first ten pages of the novel.

Page 1: “She knows nothing about the Three Minutes yet.” This second sentence starkly contrasts the first line about Nessa turning ten and overhearing her parents argue. That’s a pretty bland normal–kids hear their parents argue all the time. But what is this “Three Minutes”? The fact it’s capitalized tells us that whatever this is, it’s important. It’s something worth arguing over. The rest of the page tells us parents are desperate to hide the Three Minutes from all children under ten. Why? We have to keep reading.

Page 2: “Oh for Crom’s sake.” What ten-year-old says this? Biff and Bash are eager to cram “poop,” “patoot,” and “pee pee water” into as many conversations as possible. I’ve heard a few kids Blondie’s age say “damn,” “shit,” and even one “bitch.” But never “Crom.” Does this have to do with where she lives? We don’t know the place yet.

“This is the first hint of the fear that will never leave her again; that will ruin her life as it has ruined the life of everybody in the whole country.”  Okay, something is definitely wrong in this country. There’s a desperation among adults to keep kids as innocent as possible. Referencing pagan deities instead of the common God when cussing. The Three Minutes must be pretty nasty. But what is it? We have to keep reading.

Page 3: “She has never asked herself where all the teenagers were.” Now we’re genuinely unsettled. That’s a huge chunk of population utterly absent, and not just from a town, but from a country. What in Sam Eliot is going on?

“But if she refuses to let the doctors put her to sleep, this is the future: Sometime during her adolescence, the Sídhe will come for her, as they come these days for everyone. They will hunt her down, and if she fails to outrun them, Nessa will die. Before we were unsettled, but now we’re downright scared. Not only is euthanizing disabled children considered both logical and preferential to letting them live, but all children at some point must be prey to some group. If you don’t know what the Sídhe are, you can gauge by Ó Guilín’s choice of the phrase “they come these days for everyone” that this group is damn powerful. The chances of human beings having that kind of grip on an entire country’s psyche is possible, but something about Nessa’s “hysterical, horrified” screaming when told about the Three Minutes says we’re not dealing with our normal human villainy.

Page 4: “Everything is old and everybody is old too.” Nessa is at a bus station, where old folk stand guard, sell tickets, drive the bus, and so on. Ó Guilín points out Nessa and her friend Megan are the only youths there, again to emphasize how little young blood there now is in this environment.

“The tired engine burps fumes of recycled vegetable oil so that everything smells deep fried.” Not only is this a great sensory detail, but it also builds on the previous hint about everything being old. Why would the bus be operating on vegetable oil? If the bus looks ready to fall apart, then surely new buses can be built, right?

Page 5: A big, middle-aged police sergeant waits by the bus, brandishing an iron needle four inches long…he swabs it with alcohol and jabs it into the arm of everybody getting on….”My apologies! Iron’s supposed to hurt them.” As far as we’re told, everyone around Nessa looks pretty normal. Whatever these Sídhe are, they have the capability to look like us. Damn.

When Megan steps up to face the needle, the sergeant makes extra sure she’s no spy. She takes the iron well enough, but the second he withdraws it, she kicks his feet from under him and twists his arm up behind his back so that the adult, twice her size, is on his knees before her. Kid fighters have been in stories for a while, but this is a very blatant disregard for the adult authority in society. I love this touch: so many adults in this environment are elderly and withered. They’ve been utterly inept at stopping the Sídhe from doing whatever they do to kids, so the kids have to take it on themselves to be the violent warriors in order to defend themselves.

35009643Page 6: Shortly after Lifford, they roll over a bridge into what used to be Northern Ireland. Nobody cares about that sort of thing anymore. The only border recognized by the Sidhe is the sea that surrounds the island from which they were driven thousands of years before. No human can leave or enter. No medicines or vaccines or spare parts for the factories that once made them; nor messages of hope or friendship; nothing. WHAM. Ó Guilín brings reality down like an ambush of arrows. This is why everything is so old. This is why there are no young people from elsewhere. And what’s better (for the reader) and worse (for the characters) is the motive Ó Guilín gives in one line: “the island from which they were driven thousands of years before.” Ireland was theirs, until the humans took it.

What enemy could be more terrible than one that’s ancient, magical, and really, really angry?

Page 8: “We’ve had a Call,” she cries. “Driver! You have to reverse! Reverse!” A boy vanishes from the bus, and the Three Minutes begins. If the bus does not reverse to where the boy vanished, what happens? Considering the panic of the driver as his passengers direct trailing traffic to go around them for the reversal,  it must not be good.

The boy’s body reappears and thumps down hard onto the floor. Nessa is relieved to see that it’s not one of the really awful ones. Okay, I have to leave out Ó Guilín’s description, because when he continues describing what “isn’t” awful, it just makes me shiver with what does constitute as “awful.” Let me just promise you that the boy–and Megan’s reaction to him–make you as a reader determined to find out the breadth and depth of the Sidhe’s “sense of fun” (9).

Page 9: A few of the old people are crying and want to get off the bus, but it’s not like the early days anymore. They might disturb the body as they try to step over it, and that’s just not allowed…the Recovery Bureau agents [will examine] him properly in Monoghan. So this way of life isn’t just in Nessa’s town, or even county. This is a country-wide deal, with the government just as invested as everyone else to figure the Sídhe out.

Page 10: The Sídhe stole him away for a little over three minutes, but in their world, the Grey Land, an entire day has passed, panic and pain in every second of it. With this revelation of the time difference we get a taste of the horror it means to be Called for the Three Minutes. Surviving anything horrific in our reality for three minutes is hard enough–hell, the inability to breathe or see while driving kids home from school  was f’ing agony, and that was without being chased by vengeful hunters. So now we know that these kids can’t just run for three minutes–they have to be capable of outrunning, out-hiding, and outwitting these Sídhe for an entire day and night. What can we humans possibly do to prepare young people for this kind of torture?

We have to keep reading to find out.

As tempting, as “easy,” as it is to simply explain how our story’s world operates, we must remember that readers open our books to experience a piece of life in motion. Life doesn’t pause, pop up a screen, and run a slideshow explaining how things work. We have to catch the snippets of lessons as we can, and pray to the gods we didn’t mishear. As you blaze the trail through your story, consider where such snippets may be placed, be it in a hero’s school book, a symbol under a rock, or in the mouth of a bat. Make the lessons and discoveries worth the hunt.

35292343After you answer The Call, where will you stand: for humanity, or for the Sídhe? The Invasion, Ó Guilín‘s latest chapter about the Sídhe of the Grey Land, is now available in the UK from Scholastic. It comes to the US March 27th. 

#lessons Learned from #GarthEnnis and @DarickR: #Write #Heroes Who Know No Odds.

We’ve all read, have maybe even written, the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds. There’s usually an evil army involved, a small band of good ragamuffins, a touch of something magic or uber-powerful, and KABLAM! Good guys win–with a death or two–but Victory! Woohoo!

But I’m not here to talk about the heroes against typical maniacal-laughter-evil.

I’m talking about the hero against Monsters. Monsters so many of us know too damn well in our childhood nights, in our present nightmares.

And no one carves such a moment like Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson in The Boys.the_boys1-e1305121951979

The Boys was a comics series that ran in the mid-2000s and remains the only series Bo and I read together. In fact, we would take turns with the kids just so the other could read the latest issue. Then, with kids in bed, we would talk, giddy with awe and fascination over how screwed up this world is, but so bloody true at the same time. We couldn’t wait to see the villainy behind the villainy. We both cried at the series’ climax. I would love to do a few more posts to study character development here, because there is just…damn, it’s GOOD.

But you have to be prepared for it. The premise for the world itself is simple:

What if superheroes had no morals?

Everything we know in this reality’s superhero mythos gets turned on its head with that question. The super “heroes” in The Boys are nothing but publicity stunts, but these are genetically modified publicity stunts: these “heroes” and “villains” have all the powers, but this time, all their “battles” and such are planned by the corporation that owns them.

The Boys are those that keep the corporation and “supes,” as they’re called, from decimating the planet.

Hughie is the newest member, and whose perspective is used to tell this arc. His girlfriend dies during a “fight” between two supes whose lightning speed leads to Hughie’s girlfriend being crushed against a wall, her arms still in Hughie’s hands. The corporation tries to buy his silence.

He refuses.

So Butcher, leader of The Boys, picks him up, modifies him, and puts him to work.

6203292One such adventure involves infiltrating the G-Men after one of their original members commits a public suicide. As you may have guessed, the G-Men is Ennis and Robertson’s version of the X-Men. And like the X-Men, there are gobs of different G groups, all of which give their humble beginnings to John Godolkin, the Professor Xavier of the G-Men. Like the X-Men, the G-Men are sold to the public as outcasts and runaways, taken under Godolkin’s wing to become a strong fighting force, a family spanning generations. And family they are: there are the adult groups, the teen group G-Wiz, and even a child group, Pre-Wiz.

That child group is nothing but six-year-olds.

Hughie and The Boys uncover the G-Men’s orphan ploy is just a cover: Godolkin literally  plucks children off the streets, modifies them, and turns them into “heroes.”

And his sexual playthings.

And the sexual playthings for other G-Men.

If one member dares speak of anything to anyone, they are killed by a fellow G-Man. Period.

This happens, and viciously too, to the teenager telling Hughie and The Boys. A G-Man transports himself into the scene just long enough to drive his fist through the boy’s skull–“Silence is golden!”

The Boys turn, and there stands every member of every G group.

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Hughie’s horrified. As you can see, the other members of The Boys are not. They’re sizing up the situation, and yeah–it’s pretty grave.

When the leader Butcher is prepared to leave, Hughie turns, sees the body of the boy…

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That moment. That right there. Hughie’s one guy. One guy against dozens upon dozens of supes. He knows what they’re capable of.

And he doesn’t care.

Because he’s going to kill himself some fucking monsters.

I still remember reading this for the first time, and bawling. Pull off the costumes, and this is one soul up against the child molesters who always get off, who are believed perfect, wonderful, amazing. There’s no way one soul can stand against such a force.

But that soul stands against them anyway. He doesn’t give a piss if he stands alone. He just knows that he’s standing, dammit, and taking down whomever he can with him.

That. That, is a hero readers will root for to the very last page of the very last story.

Not just the Hero Against Insurmountable Odds.

But the Hero Against the Monsters We Know.

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

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There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

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But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

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When Fiction Lives Down the Street

My town…

Hang on.

I can’t really call it that yet.

The thing about being a preacher’s kid is that we often moved where Dad felt God needed him most. This meant my family never really planted roots in any one town for very long. The concept of a “hometown” is still a bit lost on me, but I think Bo and I have found a place where our kids can grow, safe and happy.

There’s just one major street through our town, a farmer’s highway that connects several farming communities like ours to the capital.  We’re a very rare Wisconsin town: for having over 3,000 people, we can’t seem to keep our two bars open. Disgraceful!

Now, I called you here to this bland, wet street for a reason.

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Take a look at that big building with the peeling white paint.

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No name but “Mercantile.”

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We moved to this town two weeks before the boys were born (lesson learned: NEVER move while pregnant with twins), and in all that time I’ve never seen this store keep actual hours. It’ll go months without opening, and then suddenly early one Saturday morning its door will be open with stuff on the stairs. Weeks closed up. Monday night: open. Days closed up. Wednesday midday open, but Wednesday afternoon, closed. No pattern, no time. It’s gotten to the point where Bo and I will text each other every time it’s open, which of course only happens when we’re on the way to or from something with kids in tow.

One time I came home after grocery shopping with the kids to give Bo an hour’s quiet. “It’s open!” I say first thing. There’s no question what “It” is. “If you wanna go, I’ll stay with these guys.”

“No way,” he says while marking yet another historical inaccuracy in his umpteenth book about the Three Stooges. “I’m not losing my soul to Max Von Sydow. You go in.”

Max Von Sydow?”

“The movie Needful ThingsRemember?”

“Ooooh.” We’d watched the film based on the Stephen King book some time ago. The story was meh, but Von Sydow was wicked fun as LeLand Gaunt, demonic proprietor of a store selling only one’s most desperate desires. Somehow this conversation led to a wager about Stephen King books and films: We’d both read a King book with a film version and compare stories. I chose Needful Things while Bo chose The Shining (which I’d read and will NEVER read again.)

The films won, but that’s not the point here. As I read Needful Things, I started getting the heebie jeebies anytime I drove past the “Mercantile” of our town. Fiction’s supposed to be set in an Elsewhere, a source of escape. It’s not supposed to creep into my reality and stake a claim. Is it?

The display window of Needful Things had been cleansed of soap, and a dozen or so items had been set out there–clocks, a silver setting, a painting, a lovely triptch just waiting for someone to fill it with well-loved photographs. (43)

Suddenly Hugh looked like a tired little boy up long past his bedtime, a little boy who has just seen what he wants for Christmas–what he must have for Christmas, because all at once nothing else on God’s green earth would do. (77)

Here [Keeton’s] thoughts ceased. He was standing in front of the new store, Needful Things, and what he saw in the window drove everything else slap out of his mind for a moment or two. (212)

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There was a lot more merchandise in Needful Things on Friday; that was the important thing.

There was a music box, old and ornately carve–Mr. Gaunt said he was sure it played something unusual when it was opened, but he couldn’t remember just what…Mr. Gaunt did a fine business that day. Most of the items he sold were nice but in no way unique. He did, however, make a number of “special” deals, and all of these sales took place during those lulls when there was only a single customer in the store. (166-7)

Were we to enter that store, what would be waiting for Bo? For me? I remember posing that question to Bo once, and receiving a shrug in return. I think I know why, though. Despite Bo’s Amazon wish list being 14 pages long (at least shopping for him’s pretty easy) (and for the record, mine’s TWO pages, so, yeah), we’re both rather clear about what we miss most of all: our folks. That seems to be protagonist Alan’s immunity to Gaunt: still in mourning after the loss of his wife and son, Alan has no desire for any thing.

Alan stood looking into the display window for a long time. He found himself wondering what, exactly, all the shouting was about…Rosalie had made Needful Things sound like northern New England’s answer to Tiffany’s, but the china in the window…was rummage-sale quality at best…He cupped his hands to the glass in order to see beyond the display, but there was nothing to look at–the lights were off and the place was deserted. (223)

Still, I don’t think I’ll be taking any chances with my soul for a box of Diana Wynne Jones’ old story notes any time soon.

As if having such a store like “Mercantile” wasn’t eerie enough, we have our own carnival stationed year round. During the summer, it’s a nice place to take the kids for the afternoon. The rides are mostly geared for their size, being a collection of old drive-in theater cast-offs.

Once summer’s done, though, the place is stripped down to bones for winter. The pavement grips its quiet abandon. An old home with older memories, and neighbored by, of all dramatic places, a cemetery.

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A carnival should be all growls, roars like timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.

But this was like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks. (51-2)

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How does this NOT make one think of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes? I knew the movie as a child, and read the book in college. The book wins for better imagery, character, plot, and everything else in spades (though Jonathan Pryce was brilliant for Mr. Dark, and as I listen now to the score by James Horner, I will concede that Disney managed to get a couple things right).

In-season, though, it’s easy to forget these things. Even in the book, Will and Jim see an ordinary carnival come daylight:

And the deeper they went, the more obvious it became they would find no night men cat-treading balloon shadow while strange tents plumed like thunder clouds. Instead, close up, the carnival was mildewed rope, moth-eaten canvas, rain-worn, sun-bleached tinsel. The side show paintings, hung, like sad albatrosses on their poles, flapped and let fall flakes of ancient paint, shivering and at the same time revealing the unwondrous wonders of a thin man, fat man, needle-head, tattooed man, hula dancer… The train? Pulled off on a spur in the warming grass… (61)

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They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth. (72)

But with the coming of the cold months, I wonder if this place truly sleeps. I wonder if there is a night, when this small town turns off the porch lights, when the autumn fire pits burn the last bad beer on the embers, when the moon’s face hides because it knows what’s coming, when the stars aren’t quite aligned for rightness…I wonder.

With a pop, a bang, a jangle of reins, a lift and downfall, a rise and descent of brass, the carousel moved….It was running backward.

The small calliope inside the carousel machinery rattle-snapped its nervous-stallion shivering drums, clashed its harvest-moon cymbals, toothed its castanets, and throatily choked and sobbed its reeds, whistles, and baroque flutes. The music, Will thought, it’s backwards, too!…Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries…(77)

I wonder.

 

Presumptions

Summer’s heat crawls up the hillside where Bo and I watch the boys. A park outing is always special, especially one that allows for a walk down to the lake. We take our time along the wildflowers, point out all the fishing boats. Laugh in the shade over ice water and brownies.

I often see social media sharings from other mothers chronicling their museum outings, concerts, parks, kid yoga, blah blah blah. They assume I can meet them at the parade, or out to eat. Every time, I have to say no, and why.

My sister-in-law keeps pressing us to attend Green Bay’s city-wide celebrations: pumpkin trains, egg hunts, Christmas parades. Every time, Bo says just Blondie will come, and why.

Your boys can’t be THAT bad.

I look at them. I’d love to say: you weren’t there when Biff head-butted me repeatedly in the temple to the point where I could see nothing but stars and barely walk. You weren’t there when Bash had such bad diarrhea in the library that I had to change him by the movies and hiss at Biff to please for the love of GOD do not tip over the book cart, oh GOD he’s going to bring it down on himself Bash no DON’T GET UP stay THERE you STAY no NO NO. You weren’t there that evening, when the librarian called me at my home to explain that my sons’ history of “deeply disturbing other patrons” had gone too far today, and if I could please bring them back when they were “ready” for a library.

This wasn’t even the first library from which they’d been banned.

And yet other mothers think I joke. That my sons can’t be that bad.

My mother insists the boys are autistic. No boy hits their mother like that. They should be listening. Following directions. They’ve just turned four, they should be BETTER than what they are now.

I look at her. I’d love to say: your elder son threw furniture at you when he was 19. He punched holes in walls. Does that mean he’s autistic?

Bash holds my hand and walks an even pace with me up the hill, back to the playground. “Mommy, you’re my best friend.” The sun sets off the dark brown in his eyes and the white of his toothy grin. A tiny gap between the top two–may his grown-up teeth never take that from him. “Best friends come true.”

This from the boy I almost let die on the roadside.

We reach the playground, and Biff cries out, “Forks, we gotta get out of here!” He runs round us, growling with those toddler vocal cords. “Look out, I’m Big Mouth!” Turns, points at me, “You’re Scooper. Hi, Scooper.”

I start to say hi but Bash turns on his gravel-voice and says, “Big Mouth, we gotta squash cars!”

Off they go. Bo stands alongside me; my hand reaches for his out of instinct. Our sons climb ladders, bark orders about lifting loads to each other. Their small tanned hands grab mulch–aka, the “squashed cars”–and “dump” the cars down the slide to be scrapped.

The boys ignored each other for years; Bash even thought he was another Biff, so we had to tell him every day that he was someone else. When church members, relatives, or strangers saw the boys they always cooed, “They must have so much fun together!” and I always had to shoot that presumption down.

This past year has seen such a change in them: all of them, together and apart.

Bash’s imagination continues to wow and warm me. He wants to tell stories, so many stories about his trains or trucks. Every now and again I’ll borrow read-aloud stories for listening to in the car; Bash has memorized all these cues and builds on them: “Thomas wheezed weakly, and moved down the line. Suddenly, James arrived with a heavy load. ‘Oh no, the rain is coming!’ he peeped.” Barely 4, and he understands more about dialogue/action balance than I do.

Sometimes the boys tell stories together. Hell, I just thought the playing together without yanking hair or thumbing eyes to be amazing, but their creativity combined always pulls me from my work to their door–out of sight, mind, lest my presence sets their world off-balance. Lightning McQueen got lost in the desert, Dusty and Blade Ranger can save him, woosh! Then a brief argument over who gets Chug, then a concession–a concession! without fists or tears!–then back to the story, because it’s not worth arguing about Chug when Lightning’s in trouble.

When the boys are in no mood for each other, Biff can often be found in his bunk, reading. I mean, READING reading. At that age, Blondie had a helluva memory, and knew many stories, but not how the words she heard connected to print. Biff knows what he sees, and WE know he knows because he’ll pick up new books and bam–read’em. Sometimes I get a shriek of “MOMMY!” which most would presume an oh-my-god-get-to-the-hospital-pain cry, but no: he’s still in his bed, looks down at my panicked face, and asks, “What’s this spell?” After rolling my eyes, because of course it would be this and not a broken leg, we go through the letters and work out the word. If a book has no words of which to speak, such as his picture book of 1,000 vehicles, he makes up conversations and adventures between the wee trucks on the page.

I see my sons, and I see such imaginations that want to grow, and explore. Imaginations that deserve to be better stimulated than with trips to the park, but there is still little I can do with them out of the house and on my own when their tempers are so vicious. Museums and zoos invite nothing but running and tantrums with these guys. Events with loads of people make them nervous, ornery, angry. So we make the best of Bo’s free time with the simple things. And for these two, time on a hillside among wildflowers is far more than simple: it’s an adventure.

Blondie stares out the front window. Tonight’s the night: back-to-school shopping. Doesn’t sound like much, but we’re to go when Bo gets home from work, just her and me. No boys.

“Are you sure they’ll have the BB-8 lunchbox?” she asks for the 3,649th time.

“If they don’t, Daddy will go to Toys’R’Us tomorrow to get one.”

“Okay, and you’ve got the list?” she walks briskly on her toes over to my purse as though we’re by a swimming pool with over-attentive life-guards. “List, wallet. Mommy, your phone!” She packs it, then hands me the purse. “Here, you hold onto this.” I take it, despite washing up dishes and hunting down the boys’ pajamas. She’s been counting down the days for this, time out with just me. When I was small, I positively loathed such trips with my mom. Outings like this promised a dressing room, a pile of stuff we likely wouldn’t get because it wasn’t on sale enough but I had to try them all on anyway, and then I would have to walk around the store in said items because Mom never hung out by the dressing rooms for more than thirty seconds.

Yet my daughter thinks this the greatest thing in the world, because it means she gets me all to herself.

It’s been one of my greatest fears as a parent ever since the doctor chirped, “Oh there’s TWO in there!”: letting Blondie fall to the wayside.

And she has. I’d be a liar to say she didn’t. Everything’s been about what we can do “because of the boys.” Trips to the museum, the zoo, to special places with other relations are always done with Daddy because I need to stay with the boys. Mommy always stays with the boys. The boys, boys, boys…

20160809_204106The first thing upon entering the store: we find the lunchbox. She pays careful attention as we work through her list as well as her brothers’. All things gathered, and a cool new shirt for the first day (“Saturn has headphones on? That’s so weird!” she laughs) we get in line to check out. It’s late for her, but I ask anyway: “Should we get a treat for being so awesome?”

Her eyes go wide beneath her thin blond curls, hands cupped to her mouth, “Can we go to the place with the, the Thomas train flying around, and the Superman, and the submarine, and the train, and the…”

It’s late. It’s already past her bedtime, not to mention mine. But this isn’t about me. This is about a little girl who’s been told “Not now,” “we have to help Biff/Bash with A/B/C/D/E/F/G/H/I/J/K/L/M/N/O/P,” “I’m sorry the boys screamed/ran/fought/ect. Did you still have fun?” day after day after day. And those days are going to continue.

But today doesn’t need to be like that.

So I smile, stifle a yawn. “Sure, Kiddo.”

 

Ella’s Deli has been around for ages; though the Madison neighborhood has changed, it remains its quirky self, complete with carousel. We get there just in time for a ride before it’s closed for the night.

We order our ice cream inside and wander about.

Blondie laughs at the dancing feet, works the mini-carnival. Scarfs down super-chocolatey ice cream at a table depicting a Lego battle. We talk about what we see, what I remember about my own childhood visits here. I put her favorite Veggie Tales song on repeat for the whole 30-minute ride home as she marvels at the stars, the lights of the city and how they fade in the country. The dark farmland makes her nervous, so I drive one handed, the other squeezing hers behind me. Usually she hollers from her way-back seat: “Mommy, you’re supposed to have both hands on the wheel,” but tonight there are no boys, so she gets to sit by Mommy, and Mommy gets to hold her hand.

~*~

One of the great stressors of this life–this writer’s life, mother’s life, wife’s life and all-other’s life–is the the struggle to balance that which keeps me sane with those who need me to keep life liveable. The kids have grown since I wrote “To Create in Bedlam”: no longer placated so easily, far more fearless, emotional. Independent, yet together, too. Yes, together. Sometimes Blondie spends afternoons in the pool with Biff. Sometimes she and Bash go spelunking in his bottom bunk. And then there are those days where all three actually play together. These three: the one whom I nearly left on the road, the one who tried (and still tries) to play with fire, and the one who wanted the others to be returned to the hospital for months: they, together. Never in those first three years did I dare assume this would happen. Childhood told me as much: my elder brother was a nightmare. My kid brother came to me for a while, when we were both very small, but then The Monster came for me, and for him. Not in the same way, but yes. For him.

It is the single hardest regret I carry to this day: that I did not protect, or help. That I merely hid, and thanked God it wasn’t me that day. I left my kid brother to fend for himself, to build his own inner walls for escape. We attempted to bridge ourselves together in the teenage years, but already it was too late. My elder brother had decided the younger should be his friend, so off I drifted to the side, and remained there, as so many home movies show: apart. The runt of the litter.

My mother has it in her head that we siblings have always been and continue to be close. It is not a bubble I have the energy to pop. And while she sees what she wants to see, I watch my children fight one minute and laugh the next. Tickle each other, flee from each other. But they always come together. They always stop when one is hurt, or scared. Hug, and give kisses to make it better.

Today, and I dare presume for always: Best friends do come true.

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Hats in Passing

2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2011

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

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

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

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2012

Hats supply ample opportunities for giggles.

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

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2013

Hats confuse grown-ups.

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

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

“Girl.”

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

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

She’s perfect.

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2014

Hats add that perfect touch.

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

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

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

“A fairy princess!”

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

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

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

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

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

And I laugh, happy to be defeated.

Lottie Halloween 2014

2015

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

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

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2016

Hats age us…a little.

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

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

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

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

Oh…

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

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

“Mo-om. Not so loud.”

“Why not? We’re awesome!”

You laugh. “No we’re not.”

Hmmph. “Well, I’M awesome.”

More laughter. “Only a little bit.”

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

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

So, get that hat on before you catch pneumonia!

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