Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on.

My husband Bo presented me with quite the Hercule Poirot Christmas this year–half a dozen books and a set of television adaptations. (And a wallet. Wahoo.) “I scoured your shelf, so I know you don’t have any of these.” I nodded as I admired the old-school paperback covers vs. the latest hardcover editions. Where did the fun go?

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But today isn’t about cover design. Today I meant to study the effect a claustrophobic setting has on characters. Agatha Christie applies such a setting all the time in her mystery: the lonely manor house, the steam ship, the train, the island, even an airplane. I had picked up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas earlier this month knowing the story from its television adaptation, so I was eager to study her writing for this element.

Maybe it’s the ebb and flow of frustration and grief. Maybe it’s the stress thunked down on my shoulders every Christmas, the “you’re a preacher’s kid, get over here and make pretty songs” sort of thing. Or maybe Christie simply had to meet a deadline and, for once, allowed herself to not give a shit.

The story’s idea has oodles of promise: a nasty old invalid of a patriarch who loves setting his adult children at each other’s throats, mysterious new relatives, and sketchy house help all in a manor house for a proper English Christmas. But on Christmas Eve there’s a nasty crash and unearthly scream inside the patriarch’s locked room. They break in the door to discover signs of a terrific struggle and blood everywhere.

Cue Poirot on page eighty-four. EIGHTY-FOUR.

Granted, I knew I’d been spoiled a little by seeing the television adaptation first. Of course they revised the story to get Poirot there a lot sooner. But Christie spends forty-six pages solely on introducing the different family members. These little vignettes of their lives that could have easily been learned through a “catching-up” scene with them all in the manor house Christmas Eve. Thus the tension, plot, and setting would have been established much sooner–and therefore engaged readers much sooner.

The clues are also much more heavy-handed this time as well, which, after reading The A.B.C. Murders, felt very off. Take these lines of the patriarch’s dialogue all said before the murder:

“There’s only one of you that’s taken after me–only one out of all the litter.” (42)

“It’s going to be a grand Christmas! All my children round me. All my children!” (43)

“Not a son among them, legitimate or illegitimate.” (56)

“I’ll swear to Heaven I’ve got a better son somewhere in the world than any of you even if you are born on the right side of the blanket!” (74)

Get it? The killer is, of course, one of the family, but not “one of the family,” nudge nudge. And these are just the references pre-murder; more are made afterward. The characteristics don’t help, either: the patriarch has a couple quirks that of course all his sons do, including the characters present who are not yet known to be his sons, killer included. For instance:

Harry threw his head back and laughed. (53)

Stephen laughed, throwing his head back. (64)

Superintendent Sugden threw his head back and laughed. (198)

Then, there’s the murder itself. It’s an amazing murder, what with the unearthly cry, the blood, and the destruction. All done in a room locked on the inside. They work out the key was turned with pliers–okay, sensible. After only three and a half pages are spent in the room where the murder takes place, they spend the next forty-five pages talking to each family member. Just…talking. Rather felt like I was back with Eco and Name of the Rose with all the talking…

The ending comes with very little action around Poirot. Poirot has everyone gathered, as usual, but once he gets into how the murder is committed, he speaks of things that were never mentioned earlier, things like sodium citrate and animal’s blood being added to the victim’s blood. Plus he treats the bastard clue like it was some amazing discovery when it’s been one of the only topics discussed the entire book.

After the killer’s reveal, the final few pages share these one-paragraph scenes of the family members returning to life. It felt as frayed and unsatisfying as the beginning. Consistency, I suppose.

So, what went wrong here? I don’t know. Maybe it was the absence of Hastings–a stable narrator would have toned down all the p.o.v. shifts Christie used here. This could have been a very tight short story without all the meandering among family members; she published short fiction at the same time as novels, so it’s not like that was out of the question. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas was published after phenomenal mysteries like The A.B.C. Murders and Death on the Nile, before  And Then There Were None (considered by many to be her masterpiece), and at the same time as Appointment with Deathyet another fine mystery.

ALL writers, great and going-to-be-great, have their A-game and their B-game. Even my all-time favorite, Diana Wynne Jones, had her clunkers (I’m looking at you, The Pinhoe Egg.) This is clearly Christie’s B-game, and no wonder–Appointment with Death is a complex murder set in the raw beauty of the Middle East. Since this was also published in 1938, I can’t help but wonder if she worked on Appointment and Christmas at the same time, and therefore, dedicated her A-Game to Appointment. She made sure Christmas was an enjoyable read, sure, but it wasn’t the real priority. She wrote and moved on.

I’ve often been told that “perfect is the enemy of done.” While I don’t agree with that statement, there is something to a steady progression forward rather than putzing and putzing and putzing and PUTZING. Life, especially a family and a job, don’t allow for countless revisions of a single story–I learned the hard way such stagnant sameness only worsened my depression and buried my creativity.

Nudge your creativity away from the familiar. Venturing into the unknown is the stuff good stories are made of.

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These Words Are Knives & Bridges

I’ve been unfolding and refolding this paper for months.20161116_091359

“It’s very possible it won’t go the way you think it will,” my therapist says, tissues at the ready.

How she thinks I think it will go:

Tears. Blubbered admissions, plea for forgiveness. Transparency. 

How I think it will go:

Hissed threats. Bruised skin. Fear of his car in my driveway, don’t you DARE tell ANYONE

Thursday

Biff’s been coughing a lot. I get an email from the school that there have been cases of hand, foot, and mouth in his grade.

Our boys are doomed to get it. They’ll get it tomorrow, and Saturday I will have to drive by myself to Milwaukee to face The Monster all alone and even if in a coffee shop I don’t care, I’ll be alone and he’ll talk me out of what I know like he’s always done and I feel so fucking weak–

Bo has to remind me multiple times that Biff has boogers, not a fever.

“But what if they get sick? We can’t put this off.”

Bo doesn’t know.

Neither do I.

A text from him: Are we still on for Saturday?

I don’t breathe while I text back: Yup.

Friday

Jittery. Half-listening to my kids. My daughter has a family fun night in the evening. I don’t want to go. I can’t concentrate on nice things. I can only think of burning coffee being thrown in my face, of being shut out by my family for making the past matter.

I unfold the paper while my daughter plays freeze tag with friends. I do not know these other parents, and tonight I’m not the kind of parent to chat with, anyway. So I read, and read again. My eyes stay with that last line:

If repentance does not occur, the victim can still forgive by offering bold love,

but relationship cannot be restored.

My relationship with The Monster has felt like the rope bridge in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, only without a blind Terry Gilliam asking me what my favorite color is before flinging me into The Gorge of Eternal Peril. I’m scared as Hell to get on it. I never know where to grip. I don’t dare trust a single board with my weight lest it gives and I fall. I fail.

And I cannot fail.

My kids cannot afford such a failure.

I’ve been climbing this rope bridge for 6 years now. Time’s only made it worse. Time will continue to make it worse.

For the sake of my children, for the sake of my sanity, one of two things needed to happen:

We must repair the bridge together, as a family, one and whole. This would mean family therapy–that we all, like my mother and his wife–be told about the past, so that we may work through the penitence and forgiveness together. To build trust, together.

–Or–

Cut the ropes. Walk away.

I describe this image to Bo for the umpteenth time as we get ready for bed. He pulls the quilt up and over my bare arm. “Jean, no matter how many times you rehearse, it’s not going to go that way.”

Hours in the dark with tears and threats and withered hopes. Sharpened knives on frayed ropes.

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Saturday

The air cuts my lungs with leaf-smoke and frost-thaw. I want to hold Bo’s hand as he drives, but traffic is heavy, and deer collisions common. Biff and Bash are thrilled to be going to Great-Grandma’s house, a glorious place filled with trucks, helicopters, and all the donuts they can eat. Blondie is not quite as talkative, having lost yet another tooth down her gullet. (Anyone else have a kid swallow THREE out of six baby teeth? The tooth fairy in our district’s getting exasperated.) We arrive, get the kids settled. I do not take off my coat.

“Where are you and Daddy going?” Blondie’s lone front tooth is also perilously loose. The kid’s going to have to live off of ice cream pretty soon.

I can’t picture the meeting place–it’s a coffee shop unfamiliar to me. I can only feel the hate and fear rippling from the future into this moment with my daughter, whose birth cracked all the old hurts open. “Out,” I say. “Just for a little while.” I kick my inner self for making such a glib promise.

I do not say goodbye to my sons.

Bo gives vague answers to his grandmother’s questions about what we’re doing and follows me out.

We arrive.

The wind’s nasty as we walk. The skin of Bo’s hand is so calloused I can barely sense his warmth.

I step in. The shop’s empty but for one older gentleman at his computer. An open space, easy to overhear others. Do I watch my words? Do I get into detail, spit my own acid of memory in his face for the baristas to hear? Do I–

He’s already there.

He sits in the one nook of the place, a pair of leather chairs stuck into the corner where one can find the restrooms.

He waves.

I want to turn around.

I want to turn around and just not do this.

I want to leave and breathe air and be by other people, people who haven’t hurt me.

Bo orders coffee. Looks at me.

Does he see the panic? Does he see how I’m shaking?

Fight or Flight.

This is what families do for each other

No.

He will never say that to my children.  He will never do any. of. that. Not to my children.

No.

He already sits in one leather chair. I sit in the other, facing him. There’s no support, and I sink back. My instincts wobble–this off-balanceness is unexpected. Awkward chuckles from all of us as I right myself. Bo cannot sit by me, so he sits across from us.

I breathe.

The barista brings a customer over to talk about the beans on display behind me.

FUCK.

How–how am I to use the words I need to use with strangers flittering in and out like house flies?

He picked a place like this on purpose.

Wait.

No, I did.

I didn’t want to risk being alone. Well there’s a consequence to that, Jean. This, strangers or no, is your shot.

Find the right words.

“We need to talk about the past.”

And we do.

Sort of.

“What you did to me made me hate myself, hate my life. I wanted to die for so, fucking, long. I didn’t feel like a human being. Bo helped me find that again. I thought, I thought it, what you did, could be in the past, just, back there, done. But motherhood changes that. I see you, and I see my kids, and all I can think of is what you did to me.”

He says nothing. He leans forward. He is shaking a little.

“I’m tired of being so angry and afraid all the time. I want my family to be safe. But the past has consequences, and one of those consequences is that I cannot trust you. I’m incapable of trusting you. And if you have any respect for my feelings, you’ll understand when I ask that you do not go near my kids if Bo and I aren’t around. Even if they’re at my mom’s. You, you just don’t go.”

He holds his chin in his hands. He says a very quiet “I understand.”

I think of The Monster I knew as a child, the golden boy as tall as a tree and just as wide, with fists that let loose stars before my eyes when he hit me. I see The Monster sitting before me now, hunched over. Shaking. Eyes on the floor.

I look at him, my demon. I’m looking at him with my spine straight. I’m not shaking anymore.

“We’re a family, all of us, but I…” I pause, yes, I can say what I’ve been rehearsing– “I feel like I’m only connected to you by a single rope. If we’re going to be a true family, we need family therapy to build the bridge together.” Pause. Do I threaten to cut him off, here and now?

He’s not disagreed, or lashed out in any way.

I was told he might need time. Jeez, how many years has this moment needed to come into existence?

“I’m not asking you to agree to that right now. But the therapist has strongly encouraged me to tell my mom so she understands why I act as I do when I’m around you.” He goes very still. “Just…just…trust starts with transparency. Family therapy would give that.”

He nods, and starts…well…questioning himself and giving one-word answers. Does he have a lot of regrets from that time of his life? Yes. Does he think about what he did? Yes. Does he respect why I’m asking what I’m asking? Yes.

For all those questions, he never flat-out says: Am I sorry? Yes. Did I fuck you up? Yes.

At one point he says: I don’t know what I could say that could make any of it better.

Now I want to scream: YOU COULD FUCKING SAY YOU’RE SORRY

But I don’t want to have to demand it. It wouldn’t be any better than asking Bash to tell Blondie sorry for kicking her. Just a hollow parroting.

I want him to want to say sorry and say it. To finally hold himself accountable for what he did to me.

But I can see from the question-answers, from the tangent he enters about his marriage, about my mother, that this moment isn’t coming unless I demand it.

I want it to come from him because he wants it to come.

And if the past is any indication of the present, that will never happen.

So I cut his tangent off and tie it back to the family therapy. “I’m not asking that we start it now, but it will have to happen if I’m ever to trust you. I hated you for so damn long.” I pause, and the words surprise even me: “I don’t hate you any more, for the record.”

He coughs. Thank you for saying that, he says.

I nod, a little bewildered inside. But what else explains how I dug myself out of all the anger and self-loathing to reclaim my humanity? How else could I both find and keep love, experience joy, challenge my skills with language? For all the Hell I experienced at his hands, I still managed to live.

To thrive.

I am stronger than he is.

And now he knows it.

I look at the words I’ve been wearing to keep up my strength since we agreed to meet.

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I look back up, and say it:

“I forgive you.”

We part.

Not sure what other shoppers think as I fall in and out of sobs. Bo is glowing. My shakes are back, and my coffee’s cold. But Bo still manages to kiss my snot-coated lips and whispers, “I am so proud of you. You did it. You looked him in the eye, and you told him. And he knows I know, which proves you’re not afraid to talk about it anymore.”

I think about the bridge. I had walked into that coffee shop with knife in hand, ready to cut it and The Monster loose completely. That didn’t happen. A small part of me dared to hope he’d want the bridge repaired for the sake of the family. That didn’t happen, either. The future remains in the mist, guarded by a blind man whose questions–and the consequences of their answers–remain unpredictable.

As Sir Lancelot says: “Ask me the questions, Bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.”

Nor am I.

~*~

Thank you all, from the heart and soul of me, for sharing this journey that started with Growing Pains” and continued through “Lessons Learned from Zoe Zolrod: First, Face Myself and Second, Find My Voice.”  You cheered with me in “And through the mist you’ll find hope.” Now here we are, on the precipice of a new chapter in my life. Thank you, dearest kindred spirits, and God bless you. 

Lesson Learned from Charlie Brown: Dream Big.

mv5bnte5nzmxnzkwnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwotq0nzk5nze-_v1_When one walks under the weight of depression, life itself aches. Despite therapy and the writing regimen both creative and confessional, I have felt little hope for the future. My school has me on reserve to teach not just 40, but potentially 80 students. Bo’s schedule has gone haywire, and we find ourselves in survival mode. I can’t get ten minutes’ peace on the computer when the boys were awake. The church wants me to do A, B, and C in a month–wait, actually 7 days. That’s fine, right?

All this over the past few months, plus taking notes on The Tellinga memoir about recovering from sexual abuse by @ZoeZolbrod. I had already shared two parts of my reflection: of facing the pain within myself, and coming to terms with how an abusive past impacts motherhood.What remains is the final, most painful facing: that with The Monster himself. It will end with either reconciliation and healing with my family as a whole, or severance, and the destruction of several blood ties. We await on when the children can be watched, when life will make it “convenient,” and all the while my lungs knot when my mother brings him up, of having him over for the holidays, and sleepovers, and….

A rather not-fun time, that.

Music, thankfully, alters my insides for the better.

Desperate for a change from Veggie Tales sing-a-longs, I got a copy of The Peanuts Movie soundtrack. My folks both enjoyed Peanuts comics, toys, and cartoons, and that joy passed down to me and my kids. When word came of a new film, I remained skeptical.

Now? My whole family loves it, and I strongly recommend you watch it with or without little ones. Oh, the kids love it when Snoopy the World War I flying ace saves his beloved Fifi, and Bo enjoys all the tightly executed homages to the beloved Charlie Brown Christmas, but I see something else: I see the journey of a writer.

No, not Snoopy (though he’s quite the author with his typewriter!). Charlie Brown.

He’s the odd one out, the one never really understood by others. He keeps trying to succeed with his passions such as kite-flying, but just. Can’t. Do it. The same old obstacles, like the kite-eating tree, snatch his hope away. He’s scoffed and ridiculed by his peers. When a new kid–the little red-haired girl, no less!–moves onto his street, he is awestruck. All he wants is a chance to show her the real him, the Charlie Brown no one else sees.

“Charlie Brown is not a quitter.” -Charlie Brown

How many of us have felt misunderstood, simply labeled and discarded as hopeless cases? How many of us come down with “a serious case of inadequacy,” as Charlie Brown puts it?

He tries different things to impress her: he prepares a magic act, only to give up his chance so he can help his sister Sally instead. He learns to dance for the winter dance competition, only to slip and set off the sprinkler system. He spends the weekend reading War and Peace and writing a book report for their team grade only to watch his paper get shredded by a toy.

Time, and time, and time again he gives his all and gets nothing in return. Even the star he wishes on falls from the sky. All he can count on is his dog, who remains loyal and loving no matter the disaster. (Dyane, I can’t help but think of you and Lucy!)

When I hear Christophe Beck‘s piano melody for Charlie Brown’s moments of defeat, I’m on the verge of tears, especially here, during his school assembly.

And yet, despite all the hopelessness, Charlie Brown dreams on. He sees the success of another kid’s kite-flying attempt, and hopes for his own. Don’t we have those moments as writers, too?

Then, out of beyond-nowhere, the little red-haired girl wants to be his summer penpal. His. Charlie Brown’s. All he’s been through, all he was ready to give up on, and…and he didn’t even DO anything this time! Why, why now? She tells him: she had watched him and all he went through over the year, and felt him a friend worth knowing.

How many of us have reached out with words, and wanted nothing more than to feel a reader’s hand find ours?

Perhaps you’ve been feeling nothing more than the football pulled out from under you. That the world has deemed you a failure because:

“You’re Charlie Brown, that’s why!” -Lucy Van Pelt

Well, guess what? Charlie Brown may be gullible enough to still run for Lucy’s football, but he’s also a thoughtful, kind, and giving person who never gives up, no matter how many kites he loses. He dreams of a chance to meet someone who can see him for all he is and could be, not just his failures and shortcomings.

Dream big, fellow writers. Charlie Brown is worth knowing. So are you.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Define Your Own “Normal” Sibling Ties

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412The concept of slight-of-hand—whom you think you can or can’t trust is all upside down and sideways—is not unique to Jones by any means. What IS worth noting here is how that method plays out when the protagonist is a child. Because of his limited world experience, what he defines as “normal,” or as “loving,” can be VASTLY different from humanity’s norm. Because of this, the actions of, say, a sibling, can always be spun to fit the child’s understanding of love.

Take Eric “Cat” Chant in Charmed Life. A strange boating accident leaves him orphaned with his elder sister Gwendolen, whom everyone adores, including the protagonist: “Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her” (p. 1). Here is a boy who, with this perspective, will always think well of his sister no matter what she does because, as far as he knows, she is the only family he has. They are cared for, and SHE is adored by all the witches in their community (it’s a bustling magical world, this place).

But no adoration comes from Gwendolen to her brother. None at all. She gives him cramps, she turns his violin into a cat, she constantly calls him “idiot” and “stupid.” Yet Cat accepts this all as normal because with Gwendolen, this attitude IS the norm. It didn’t help that a clairvoyant predicted Gwendolen shall rule the world.

Enter murmurings of The Dark Stranger, the one to help Gwendolen conquer the planet. He also happens to be one whose very name makes witches and warlocks shudder: Chrestomanci. Because their foster mother is terrified of the man, so is Cat. Of course, Gwendolen decides that HE must be the one to teach her magic, and forces him into their lives.

It takes little for an adult to terrify a child, especially when they are so sharply dressed and curtly spoken. Chrestomanci meets Cat first, and chides him for scrumping apples. He then meets Gwendolen and agrees to heading their instruction in magic (regardless of the fact Cat has not shown any talent whatsoever).

The children are taken to Chrestomanci Castle, which is all gorgeous and foreboding and whatnot. Chrestomanci does not teach them, and the tutor with their charge won’t bother with witchcraft lessons until they prove knowledgeable in other subjects. Gwendolen does not like this, surprise surprise, so she proceeds to initiate pranks all over the castle—fields of mole hills, shifting the forests, calling up apparitions, transforming dresses into snakes, and so on.

Chrestomanci’s power is felt and, to Cat, seen. Chrestomanci grew often when he used his power, or even with instilling commands into others: “He looked so tall like that that Cat was surprised that his head was still under the ceiling. ‘There’s one absolute rule in this Castle,’ he said, ‘which it will pay you all to remember. No witchcraft of any kind is to be practiced by children…’” (p.42).

Because of Gwendolen’s prank campaign against Chrestomanci, Cat is naturally inclined to see Chrestomanci as the villain and Gwendolen as the…well, as the sort of good. He does not care for her pranks, either, especially the apparitions, yet she is his sister. She is the ally. She is the one who cares for him and wants him to be okay. Right?

It takes a lot for a child to fully understand how good—or bad—a family member is, especially when that family member is all you care about.

By the book’s end, Gwendolen IS queen of a parallel world, and she intends to keep it that way through Cat.

“Now, where was I?” Gwendolen said, turning back to the Nostrum brothers. “Oh, yes. I thought I’d better come back because I wanted to see the fun, and I remembered I’d forgotten to tell you Cat has nine lives. You’ll have to kill him several times, I’m afraid.… I’ve been using his magic ever since he was a baby.” (p.197)

The hints have been there, throughout the story, but now, Gwendolen is perfectly blunt: Cat was only good for his magic. She had already killed him four times before—his previous lives were the apparitions she summoned to scare Chrestomanci. No. Love. At all.

Nothing matters for a moment. Cat doesn’t care if the evil warlocks and witches under Gwendolen want to kill him and use his life to take over other worlds. What did it matter? He had no family, no one who cared about him.

But he does have family. Chrestomanci is himself a Chant, and he refuses to let Cat give up. When the others go searching for an enchanted cat containing one of Cat’s nine lives so they can kill it, Chrestomanci does something no one else has done before: he shows he believes in Cat.

“Cat,” said Chrestomanci. He sounded almost as desperate as Fiddle. “Cat, I know how you’re feeling. We hoped you wouldn’t find out about Gwendolen for years yet. But you are an enchanter. I suspect you’re a stronger enchanter than I am when you set your mind to it.”

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “I don’t know how to do anything.”

“You’ve more ability in the little finger of that hand than most people—including Gwendolen—have in their entire lives.” (p.201)

The battle over, and Gwendolen sealed in another world, Cat comes to terms with his reclaimed magic and prospects of a new life with Chrestomanci. It is not the normal he knows. Thanks to the love found in Chrestomanci’s family, it will be far, far better.

Sibling relationships, or the lack thereof, have a profound impact on characters and readers alike. Don’t be afraid to use this connection to make—or break—your protagonist.

Click here for more information on CHARMED LIFE.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: What She Plots About When She Plots About Love Pt. 2

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Part 2: Wistful In & After

Archer’s Goon is glorious fun on many levels. Not only does all the magic occur in a typical city—the magic also manifests in typical fare, like the sudden appearance of go-go dancers or surveillance through light bulbs. The magic is exposed and eventually beaten out not by a single hero, but by family, forced together by magic and determined, despite their many dysfunctions, to stick it out.

Love has a mixed effect on three and a half characters: Fifi, the college student living with the Sykes; the Goon, who is determined to get 2000 typed words out of Mr. Sykes; Archer, one of the wizards who controls the city; and Awful Sykes, age 8.

Awful and her elder brother Howard first discover the Goon in their kitchen. He has come to collect the 2000 words Mr. Sykes always writes every three months. Why does he write them? No idea. But the unknown boss who’s required them is angry he hasn’t received the latest installment, so if Mr. Sykes doesn’t rectify the situation their lives will be in trouble. Both Mr. and Mrs. Sykes take the Goon’s presence in stride, but Fifi, Howard, and Awful can’t stand him. Yet despite the poor first meeting, Awful and Goon make a tentative connection over, of all things, a puking contest. (Well she IS 8, and she didn’t earn the nickname Awful for nothing.) Fifi does her best to help Howard rid the house of the Goon, but to no avail: mystery arises over who gets Mr. Sykes’ words and how he/she uses them, and no one’s more curious than the seven wizard siblings who run the city.

Each wizard goes after the Sykes in his/her own way. Dillian, the beautiful sister who runs the police, admits to the theft and still tricks Howard, Fifi, and Awful to leave her home without them. This is the first time where Fifi’s looks require the reader’s attention:

“Oh!” Fifi said. “I’d give my ears to look like Dillian! Wasn’t she glamorous!”

[Howard] looked at Fif’s peaky little face and frizzy light brown hair and laughed again. (p.72)

No, I’m not saying physical appearance is everything, but 13-year-old Howard’s note of Fifi’s appearance makes it sound like Fifi couldn’t figure into anyone’s desires like that. Even the school boys in Chapter 2 and 3 like to mock Howard for walking around with Fifi like she’s his girlfriend.

But Fifi does become an object of desire to no less than two characters: the Goon, and Archer.

Eldest of the wizard siblings, Archer meets Fifi with Mr. Sykes and the kids when Sykes thinks Archer is the one who’s wanted the 2000 words. An argument erupts between Sykes and Archer, but Fifi remains bashful, speaking only in whispers. Chapter 5 marks the beginning of Fifi’s shift from a supporter of the Sykes to a doleful, lovelorn devotee to Archer. She still helps Howard and Awful with home things, like learning how to live with marching bands going eternally up and down the street and leaping over the moat around the house and silencing a massive drum kit and stealing food all because of magic. Every wizard who demands Sykes write for only him/her only drives Sykes’ heels further and further into the ground. His defiance against Archer, though, is blasphemy to Fifi.

While Fifi fawns over images of Archer, the Goon has fallen for Fifi. Yup, he’s still there, this monstrous tree of a man, and has actually settled into the household because, well, he’s supposed to get those 2000 words. Chapter 6 ends with the Goon’s confession to Howard about his feelings for Fifi, feelings which make him a bit difficult. He won’t stop staring at her, and he only scares her when he tries to help her survive the chaos about them. When Archer takes Fifi out on a date, the Goon’s behavior worsens.

That day the Goon dismally drew a large heart in purple crayon on the kitchen table and sat throwing his knife at it, over and over again. The heart was shortly covered with dents, but it made no impression on Fifi’s heart in any way. (p. 153)

When Fifi moves out to marry Archer, her shift in alliance is complete. Love has taken someone we initially considered a protagonist and turned her antagonist. The Goon’s dejection makes him so pitiable the Syke children feel for him and are a bit nicer to him. So, the one readers presume to be the antagonist now seems to be a protagonist. Or is he?

Turns out the Goon is not just a goon—he’s one of the wizard siblings, and he’s livid with the only wizard sibling we have yet to meet for trapping the rest of their bizarre family in the city. He attempts to restrain the Sykes family in the sewage treatment plant until the last wizard sibling reveals himself and owns up, but the Sykes manage to escape. Howard decides to hunt down this last wizard sibling himself so his family’s persecution will stop: Mrs. Sykes has grown gravely ill, and even though Awful is awful, she should not have to fear being beaten up by wizard-run gangs.

Turns out Howard is the last wizard sibling. In a twist only Jones could pull, Howard realizes his older self has hidden away all sorts of magnificent technology in the future; he also realizes his older self was a pompous, self-centered jerk. When he tried to get back into the present, he aged backwards into a baby and was found in the snow by the Sykes, who adopted him. He grew up in a loving family. He grew up knowing why family mattered. And knowing this, Howard did not want to re-grow up into that pompous jerk. The Goon is really his brother Erskine, who’s been trying to make Howard remember so Howard will destroy the spell that’s kept all the siblings in the city. And, after all the years apart, he wants to be brothers again.

During the Goon and Howard’s visit into the future to uncover Howard’s true identity, Awful stumbles in and ages herself.

Awful grew as [Howard] watched. By the time she was on the third step she was a large, fat schoolgirl in a maroon uniform, with a sudden strong look of Shine… She heaved up onto the fourth step. There she was suddenly skinny and Awful again, but nearly six feet tall, with a scornful grown-up look. Then she came up on to the marble floor and became a student about Fifi’s age, but much better-looking.

[Howard] gasped. He had no idea Awful would grow up that pretty. Beside him, Erskine’s eyes popped, and a great admiring grin spread over his little face.

“Marvelous!” said Erskine. “Chip off the old block!” (p.274-5)

Now no, Awful launches herself back down the stairs and returns to her proper child state, so nothing happens between Awful and the Goon. However, after the bad wizard siblings are shot into space, the last few paragraphs allude to a very strong possibility…

 Behind them Erskine luxuriously stretched long Goon arms. “Go and travel now. See the world,” he said. His eyes slid to [Mrs. Sykes] pleadingly. “Come and see you every year?” he asked.

Howard looked at Erskine warily. He rather thought Erskine’s eyes had flicked on to Awful after that.

It was quite possible that Erskine would come back one year, saying he had taken a look at the world and decided he would like to [conquer] it. When he did, he would offer Awful a share. (p.323-324)

So, after all the Goon’s longing, he doesn’t get the girl…yet. Readers are left to bet the Goon would make a strong play for Awful when the time was right. Considering her terrible antics throughout the story, readers can also bet Awful wouldn’t say no. Why don’t we get this in the story? Because such a scene has to take place in the future. Yes the characters literally walked into the future at one point, but this scene requires some living and maturing to happen first. That stuff’s not relevant to this specific story arc, which means the Goon/Awful connection must be considered an eventual romance. I can recall at least three other Diana Wynne Jones books where the “eventual romance” is foreshadowed: Year of the Griffin, House of Many Ways, and Wild Robert. I could also count The Many Lives of Christopher Chant on a technical level because the main characters do not become romantically involved, but as this book’s a prequel inside the Chrestomanci series, readers already know romance is on the way.

When writing for Young Adult or New Adult, there is this instilled Romeo/Juliet need: our main character MUST find his/her other half; otherwise, life just isn’t worth living.

Bugger that. Maybe your protagonist needs to grow up by dealing with life solo for a little while. Sure, hints of love down the road aren’t bad, but why thrust them into the story like a kid smashing an action figure against a Matchbox car? The dude’s not going to fit, kid, let it go. The same goes for writers: sometimes there just isn’t room. If the story’s fun without love, don’t force it in. If you want love to have a little fun of its own out of the spotlight, let it, and watch for the fresh twists in character that will only enhance your readers’ experience.

As My #Daughter Turns Five

Blondie3

Blondie observes a toad cross our walk

“What’s that noise, Mommy?”

“Sounds like a dragon waking up for some breakfast.”

“No it’s not. It’s the washing machine.”

Your persistence with reality annoys me. “Then why did you ask?” I leave you in bed and hunt down your brothers.

 ~*~

For you, imagination must be pre-created by others, people in cellophane and places punched out of cardboard. To look outside the wrapper is to look into The Nothing.

 ~*~

Biff is reading, Bash is talking to helicopters. You are nowhere to be seen. I approach your bedroom door and hear small murmurs. I knock. You open the door, knowing it’s me. (That is, until your brothers learn to knock and wait. Then your room is doomed.) I see you have opened your fairy house, a three-room house built out of an old suitcase that my father had made for my dolls, and that I had recently altered with butterflies and flowers to suit fairies. All the fairies sit on the furniture in a half circle facing you.

“What are the fairies up to today?”

“I dunno.”

“Are you getting ready for a big adventure?”

“No. They’re just sitting here.”

O-kay.

“Are they having a party?”

“No.”

I try a movie reference. “Are they going to get the blue pixie dust back from the pirates?”

“No.”

I see her dragons perched nearby. “Can the dragons come over to visit?”

She scoffs at such a notion. “Dragons can’t go into a fairy house. They’re too big!”

“Well…are you having fun?”

She shrugs.

Someone small, male, and irksome is into the kitchen pans again. “Well I guess I’ll close the door.”

“Yeah you do that.”

I do. Biff and Bash leap into the hallway with cookie pans and drying racks. “Hi, Mommy!” They throw the pans back onto the hardwood floor. “BOOM! Do it again!”

I hear a small yell as I chase little wiggling butts—“Don’t let them into my room!”

 ~*~

There is a box in our basement filled with audiocassettes I made when I was 5, all stories and songs I made up. Yes, I used storybooks we had, but I turned those images into places to explore. I gave characters voices and motives. They had fights and adventures. My imagination could take me into the page and deeper, until the real world was but a small hole high above me. When the typical story books didn’t satisfy me, I started making my own. I spent hours drawing out the different scenes and then “published” the esteemed work with a fancy glittered cover and purple string binding.

 ~*~

You grunt with increasing frustration as Bash makes yet another go at the dragons in your lap. “No, Bash, mine!” Biff rattles your door again. “Stop it, Biff!”

“WE ARE DONE!” Ahem. “Time to color, okay?”

“Crayons?!?!” Biff and Bash never have access to writing utensils unless I am desperate for peace, and today qualifies. They race to their chairs at the table, knock the chairs together, push them too far away to reach the table, whine, push them too close to get into the seats, whine again, and then just whack each other in the heads because, brothers.

You quietly get into your seat and settle your head in your hands. Bored already, and the boys haven’t even finished their routine to sit down. “What are we gonna color?”

“How about we draw today?” I get some crayons and paper and spread them out on the table. Biff and Bash get right to work, seeing which color is darkest, which crayon will fly furthest when thrown backwards, and so on.

You continue to sit. I place three colors and a blank sheet between your elbows. “What am I gonna draw?”

“Whatever you want.”

You sigh.

I sigh. “How about a dragon?”

“I don’t know how.”

“It can look however you want.”

Your voice shrinks. “I don’t want to.”

“Okay then, how about a fish?” I pick this specifically since you have spent a week on ocean life in school.

“What kind of fish?”

“Any fish you want.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Oh yes you do, from school.”

You draw like you eat vegetables: resigned and hateful.

Biff and Bash are on their fourth pieces of paper. “Look a helicopter!” Bash cries out gleefully as he points to a mess of circular scribbles. Biff straightens his back up and declares his pile of straight lines are “lots and lots of trailer trucks.”

You push a paper my way. In one corner of the sheet is a small orange circle, some fins, and an eye. “There, a fish.”

“It’s a lovely fish, Blondie. Can you draw another one? There’s loads of fish in the ocean, you know. Or an octopus? What about a whale?” I push the paper back. You sit and sulk for a moment, but when you see Biff and Bash are having fun for some reason, you choose a blue crayon and begin to draw.

I manage three sips of coffee before you appear in the kitchen with your paper. “The ocean’s full now. Can I go?”

A gigantic rectangle fills the rest of the page. It is bent inward on one end and dotted slightly on the other. “Is this…”

“It’s a whale.”

“Ah, I see. And what are their names?”

“Whose names?”

“The fish and the whale. What are their names?”

“Um…” you look around. I see you debate about my coffee, about the frying pan, the sink. You settle on your brothers. “Biff and Bash.”

“What are Biff and Bash going to do? Go on an adventure?”

“No. They’re just fish. Am I done now?”

 ~*~

You are a will of your own, always have been. I love you for your curiosity, your laughter, your silly dances and cuddly hugs. And because you are growing into your own person, I must realize that what you define yourself to be will not match my expectations. I can want you to be creative, but I cannot make you. Creating stories should be fun, not a chore, and I promise you, my daughter, that I will never make you imagine any more than you want to.

 ~*~

Biff rests his nose on the table as he slowly moves two trains past his eyes and back again. Bash sits on Biff’s bed to read about trains. I hear a high-pitched, exasperated voice down the hall, followed by a strange…is that supposed to be male?

I tip-toe to your room. Quiet. The bathroom door is open a crack.

I peek inside to see you on the toilet with a Tinkerbell comic book you just received for your birthday. You do not know the story yet, nor do you know many of those characters. But I see you have two index fingers pointed on two fairies, and you are making them talk.

Then you see me. “Mo-om, what are you doing here?”

“Oh just…saw the door open, thought you’d want it locked before Biff or Bash showed up.”

“Yes, please.” You wait all through my dramatically slow closing of the door before saying in a nasal voice only small children can make, “But I don’t make flowers, I’m a skunk fairy!”

You bust my heart wide open, you skunk fairy. I want to sit and listen to your voices and learn about the places, maybe add my own and give some voices too. But then the story would no longer be yours, would it?

Let your stories be your secret. I shall keep my distance and listen for the fairy-speak, wondering what adventures hide within the pages this time and all the times to come.