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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting.

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

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

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

They. Didn’t. Matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aren’t these illustrations by Paul Zelinsky a scream?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

Just look at the drama packed into these characters! xxxxxx

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

#WriterProblems: Finding #Worldbuilding #Inspiration in #SmallTownLife

Hullo hullo, fellow creative souls! It’s lovely to have you back in this, Wisconsin’s Fake-Out Spring. (Never let the first thaw fool you. We’re bound to be snowed under for Easter.)

Once upon a time I shared some posts about the hidden pieces of historical inspiration as well as the peculiar locations in one’s small town that feel like a piece of fiction come to life.

I’d like to continue on this path today, as this pandemic has kept many in their homes. Some homes are in the midst of a bustling city, others out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not in one, but not quite the other, either. My town has neighborhoods (including one on the other side of the tracks), two gas stations, two bars, a library, and a post office. (We shan’t discuss the curious carnival or rock shop today…or the RV campground someone thought would be great to build between a cornfield and old industrial area. Yup, that’s scenic, all right.)

My town, you could say, is small. Built around a river mill and railroad, like so many other rural towns in this country. Just one of thousands, right? The kind teens are so determined to escape to “find themselves” elsewhere.

Well in all my travels through all the small towns as a kid, two towns always struck me as a little weird. Oh, they looked fine from the car: post offices, gas stations, bars, maybe a little general store, or a mechanic operating out of a shoddy barn. Bait and/or feed supplies. Houses of old siding and older brick with uneven sidewalks and prim gardens. The park playgrounds have lost their happy colors, the benches more often used for sharing crude notes than motherly conversations. I didn’t understand those notes as a kid, thinking them a sort of secret code. I bet such notes could be a secret code in a future story, couldn’t they? We’re so quick to dismiss such scrawlings as adults. We complain that the benches should be replaced, or at least painted. Then we remember that small towns often can’t afford such frivolities, and we let it all pass out of mind, just as we let the small towns we drive by pass from our minds.

Except, for me, the Ashippuns.

Let me explain.

First, there would be Old Ashippun.

Then, barely a few miles later, there would be…Ashippun.

Why on earth are there two Ashippuns, and why are they so close to one another? Was there some vicious family feud? Did someone lose land in a legendary poker game? I bet if you look at your state, province, county, parish, etc., you may just find your own version of the Ashippuns, too. Perhaps their origin stories tell the tales of escaped convicts, smuggled ales, or buried treasure. Or, perhaps their origins are blandly pleasant, full of nothing but nice people nicely settling down to build a nice town just a little ways up from the other nice town.

Or not.

Come on, I just HAD to share a bit of Hot Fuzz in a post like this. And if you haven’t seen Hot Fuzz, do. (Not with little kids, for the record.) It’s a masterpiece.

Are the Wisconsin Ashippuns rooted in seedy beginnings? Sadly, Wikipedia says we can blame the railroad for not coming close enough to the original settlement, founded a few years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. Still…the whole town didn’t move, just a portion. And the portion left behind was left to the past, to decay into posterity among the grassy hills and broken county roads. It reminds me of the small farming town where I grew up, a tiny gathering of homes around a railroad station hardly used, held at the mercy of a river that can irrigate plenty of cattle and corn farms one season or simply flood over all of them the next. No one stops at such a place, not when all the highways bypass it. Who would care about strange goings-on in a nothing sort of town with nothing sort of people?

I wondered about that as a kid. I wondered about that a lot as an adult. I wondered so hard I had to make up my own versions of the Ashippuns and put them in a story.

Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?

It would take a certain kind of soul to visit such the old, forgotten town, let alone live there. That certain kind of soul wouldn’t visit on a whim, either. There’d have to be a purpose, a special purpose, to come to a “so-called town” like this one. I was reminded of the Autumn Carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, its Autumn People eager to harvest desperate souls from small towns along its travels. Stephen King had a similar approach with the nefarious demon LeLand Gaunt selling people the one thing they desired most in Needful Things. Then another book came to mind: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker.

And I knew what I needed to write.

See, The Boneshaker is a fascinating story. You’ve a young girl named Natalie coming into her own but still fiercely protective of her sick mother as they make ends meet in a small town. Many have their own little problems in a small town, problems that surely can be solved by the miracle cures advertised by the stranger Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show. But those cures come at a price. They always do.

We still see people paying that price in the real world, don’t we? Just replace “tonic” with “essential oil.” “Mixture” for “shake.” “Sure thing” for “time freedom.”

You’ve probably seen the ads on your social media, or gotten the messages from a person you went to school with ages ago. Social media has blessed those in every small town with the ability to reach out and connect with anyone anywhere, so they gather up the school year books and find the names online, and ding! The messages pour in. They say they want to catch up…and then invite you to a “business opportunity.”

All too often, people drink the dream. All too often, people drink nothing but poison.

Herbalife. Younique. Avon. LuLaRoe. Amway. Beachbody. Mary Kay. Scentsy. Shaklee. It Works. La Vel. Monat. DoTerra. Young Living. Optavia. Norwex. Color Street. There are dozens more, rising and collapsing every few years. They promise you the world by “social selling.” You can “change the world” by working in “pockets of your time” on your phone selling cosmetics. Insurance. Vitamins. Kids’ books. Weight Loss. Shampoo. Cleaning products. They have oils that can cure Autism and cancer. They have silver cloths that can be used to clean a toilet and your face in one go. They have wax melts to calm animals and plastic wraps to eliminate your fat.

They have everything the evil doctors and big corporations don’t want you to have. Capitalist society is such a crime. You can escape it and come to the real people who care about you and want you to succeed in the true way. You can be a part of the multi-level marketing family…for a start-up fee. For a monthly renewal fee. And be sure to get your inventory updated. Be sure to try the products for yourself. Be sure to sell the life to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And if your loved ones don’t support you? They’re toxic. Cut them out of your life. You don’t need them, you have your new family…

Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”

There are many YouTube creators warning people of these multi-level marketing (MLM) scams, and plenty of news outlets continue to show just how many people who cannot afford to lose money are giving hundreds and even thousands to these companies in the hopes of “financial freedom.” The creator Munecat’s deep dive into the company Arbonne is an excellent one, I think, as it shows how this company not only scams people, but grips them tight with cult tactics. Click here if you’d like to see it. I’m still working out how I can talk to my own family members and friends involved with the companies like Norwex and Optavia. They’re spending hundreds to have the right nutrition powders and latest cleaning cloths on the off-chance someone on their Facebook pages will buy them. There are women in my church who swear by Shaklee vitamins to the point they won’t take their own kids to the doctor because “those are just pills. These vitamins are made from plants, from God’s earth.” Heck, I have a friend who keeps changing MLMs, always changing her “business” to whatever sounds good at the time and insisting that “this time” it will work. Right now? Board games. Yes, there’s an MLM for frickin’ board games.

I suppose “The Hungry Mother” is born out of that frustrated confusion, that desire to show my loved ones they are not in any sort of family with those companies. To an MLM, they are nothing but dollar signs.

Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.

When I queried journals about “The Hungry Mother,” I emphasized the current double-pandemic of our country: the grip of COVID, and the grip of MLMs taking advantage of frightened, unemployed people. I’d like to think this is why a Wisconsin e-zine accepted “The Hungry Mother” for its Spring 2021 issue available March 1st.

I hope you’ll check the story out, and please, PLEASE do what you can to encourage loved ones to leave these MLMs. Such “business opportunities” promise nothing but loss: loss of money, loss of friends, loss of family, and loss of one’s own integrity.

~*~

Admittedly, I get weary of the small town life at times. The kids, too. It’s just the same library, the same playground, the same streets day after day. I’m very blessed the three little Bs enjoy taking off into their own imaginations, using whatever space ship, robot, or dragon will carry them into any Elsewhere they can think up.

Thank goodness they enjoy drawing! I wish I could say the same. When Aionios Books asked me to make a map for my first book Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, I cringed the whoooole time. It makes sense in MY head, I wanted to say. Who needs a map?

But after studying Tolkien’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings at our small town library, I better understand why such maps can be so important.

The book is a lovely collection of Tolkien’s brainstorming in art form. From sketches on scraps to detailed drawings with color and scale, the book reflects on just how immersed Tolkien was in Middle Earth. As the magazine Wired‘s review of the book explains:

HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it….The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.

This is such a vital point, one that I need to remember as I dive into series writing with multiple lands and locations. Though these places only reveal themselves to me as I write them, I must still map their locations and details so they are not simply forgotten like the small towns of the real world. Readers need the guide, and frankly, so do writers. We can’t afford to switch locations around or forget where the mountains are. Even if the mystery of borders is a part of the story, the writer needs to know them. And if you’re a writer like me who doesn’t really know them until the story’s done, then you better map them as you go so that when the time comes to revise, you can walk the same road without losing a step.

I suppose the biggest obstacle I face with drawing is, well, my pride. I am NOT an artist. I am fine with that. But to be required to look at my own drawings, even for reference, just makes me squirm as one may squirm with having to dissect a dead frog. Blech. And Tolkien makes it look so bloody easy!

But The Art of the Lord of the Rings is an important reminder that Tolkien wasn’t aiming for perfection every time. Just look at that drawing of Helm’s Deep. He did that on a student’s examination paper! He didn’t care. It came to mind, and he drew it. How much detail and how “good” it was didn’t matter. He just had to get it down so he wouldn’t forget it when he did have the chance to write.

The world [Tolkien] built extended into his art. His art breathed life into the corners of that world he would never find the time to write about. At the same time, those drawings, maps, and doodles also helped readers immerse themselves in his never-before-seen invented realm, “a world,” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis once noted, “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it.”

From Wired

THAT is the lesson to be learned here. What one draws and how one draws it shouldn’t prevent a writer from exploring a story-world, especially when one is building anew. Besides, technology allows writers new options if they don’t wish to draw their own. My fellow indie fantasy authors Wesley Allen and Michael Dellert both have extensive maps for their stories, but they didn’t publish their own sketches. Wes loves using special map-making software, and I confess–it looks pretty sweet! Michael commissioned a designer online to craft a polished map, and it’s a perfect reference to include with any of his stories.

So, it’s time I “Suck it up, Buttercup” and get mapping. After all, Charlotte’s not the only one who must explore the unknown. Two brothers must win a race through worlds to beat the crying sky, and Meredydd and her comrades must find where the Cat Man hides before he poisons the gods of their land.

Time for these teens to leave their small towns behind and discover what they are truly capable of.

~STAY TUNED!~

More interviews on the way, of course! I’ve also got to do a school presentation on names, and considering the importance of naming characters, I thought I’d share some points of discussion with you, too, you lucky devils. 🙂 I’ve also been reveling in some fantastic adventure music which is bound to get your own characters racing to victory, so don’t stray far! We’re too close to Hell to back down now…

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

#AuthorInterview: #indie #fantasy #writer @miladyronel discusses #writing #upsanddowns, #redflags in #publishing, and other journeys spurred by #books.

Put that Wisconsin snow globe down already!

Hello hello, fellow creatives! I hope you are well and safe where you are. As a friend of mine said on Facebook, Wisconsin seems to be stuck in a snow globe that some cosmic child keeps shaking.

Winter may be magical, but I think we’re all up for a different kind of magic, wouldn’t you say? Let’s add some fantastic wonder to our writing and reading lives with the help of the ever-magical dark fantasy author Ronel Janse van Vuuren.

Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts, Ronel, as well as your stories. I see you’ve got a stunning free ebook available for those who sign up for your newsletter. You describe Unseen as a trio of stories that dive into folklore about the mistress of the veil. I love how deep you dig into folklore and mythology to craft unique stories for modern readers. What kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Thank you. I get an idea for a story. Then I flip through one of my folklore books (whichever one catches my eye that day) and I’ll read through the entries until something clicks. Then I’ll go and research whatever I found on sacredtexts.com where all the books about folklore and mythology that have lapsed copyright live online. To keep everything organised and backed up, I’ll create a blog post about it (even if it’s something that has to be scheduled for two years from now) and look at how the thing was used recently in books, movies or games. It takes about two days to do all the research for a blog post and to write it. So, for example, for “Once and Future Queen” there’s the background of the Rift, Faerie, Seelie and Unseelie Courts, Solitary Fae and magic (all which already have their place in previous books and are all fully researched with blog posts written). But the Season Courts and the Elementals were only vague ideas when I planned this book. So four days for the folklore.

But I also used acid attacks, pottery, police procedure, and gardening in the book. I didn’t have to do much research on gardening – only the meaning of flowers – or any research on police procedure (know enough from personal experience). Which left acid attacks and pottery. Both subjects can pull you down the Pinterest rabbit hole. For the acid attacks, though, I just stick to following @stopacidattacks on Instagram because there are so many resources – and heart-breaking photos.

So for “Once and Future Queen”, I took a week to research everything I needed to know before writing. Plotting is a whole other beast!

Noooo kidding. I was just working on a synopsis for a new trilogy, and worldbuilding the hazy bits is EXHAUSTING. Do you consider plotting to be the toughest part of your artistic process, or would it be something else?

To stop dreaming and to start doing. I create all these stories in my head, talking to characters for hours – and then I remember that I can’t plug a USB cable into my head and download the story to my computer, I actually have to type it. And my head works a lot faster than my fingers (despite typing at a crazy speed that means replacing my keyboard three times a year).

Heavens, that’s a lot of keyboards! I wish I could type that fast, but I get distracted by kids learning from home…or a phone call from the principal when they’re at school. (Sigh) That just does my creativity in. What is your writing Kryptonite?

Shiny new ideas. And stationary! Weird, but these can keep me distracted from what I’m actually working on. I shouldn’t be left alone anywhere that notebooks, pens or anything else deemed “stationary” can be found. I even have a Pinterest board about stationary… https://za.pinterest.com/miladyronel/got-to-love-stationary/

Ha! This is why I can’t hang out in used bookstores or at library sales. I’m always distracted by the possibilities! You mention another big struggle with focus, though, regarding your ADHD, especially after you published your first book. How did publication change your process of writing?

Yes! First, I had to rein in my ADHD. It meant that I had to change the set-up of my writing cave (desk faced away from windows, drapes drawn during the day, internet access hidden until nightfall, phone set to aeroplane mode, etc.) to optimise focus. Then I had to work out an editorial and a writing calendar. It took some time, but I finally have one that is flexible enough to be changed if I have sick days (I hate getting flu because someone two streets away sneezed) or if I get the chance to join an online writing summit (the Women in Publishing Summit the first week of March every year is well-worth attending). I’m usually six months ahead with my work. Before I made this shift, I would jump from project-to-project never finishing anything – I still have folders full of half-finished ideas that I’m turning into amazing stories.

I have quite the list of half-finished ideas, too. Heck, some of them are even on this site, if one wishes to check out What Happened when Grandmother Failed to Die. 🙂 Would you say writing energizes you, or does it exhaust you?

Planning, plotting and researching are energising phases, mainly because it’s all new and shiny – and I can do it in any order which suits my ADHD quite nicely. Writing, on the other hand, is exhausting. Not only does it require me to slip into the mind and skin of the character, feeling what the character is feeling, experiencing what the character is experiencing, and going through time at hyperspeed, it also takes a lot out of me mentally, emotionally and physically to be in that mental space for hours at a time (and it’s painful on my carpal tunnel, leaving me with swollen hands at the end of the writing day). For example: after writing one complete story line in one sitting in “Once and Future Queen”, I was in tears à la Joan Wilder in the opening scene of “Romancing the Stone”. Yeah. Hopefully readers will have the same reaction.

I think we all hope our books pull at something deep within our readers, just as other books have done to us. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel and why?

“Ushig” by Annemarie Allan is my favourite novel that seems to be invisible on Goodreads. I bought it a decade ago on an online store (as a paperback – I love paperbacks!) and it was so dark and thrilling I just had to read it again to figure out whether I liked or hated it. It introduced me to the Celtic water horse, the ushig, and made me want to learn more about the different types of water horses across cultures.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Unfortunately, yes. For a long time, almost a year, I struggled to read. I pretended that it was because of bad grammar or something silly story-wise that pulled me from the book, but it was as if I just couldn’t read. Then I found this amazing series about faeries by another South African author and it was like coming up for air. Maybe the books are better in my head than they actually are, but after reading three (there are nine primary works and three companion books) I felt like I loved reading again. So I space reading the books out in case reading becomes dull again (it took me two years doing it like that to read the entire series).

Click here to read my reviews about the “Creepy Hollow” series.

Thank you for the recommendation! Such books really motivate us to find the settings that inspire their authors. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

I’ve done virtual pilgrimages to New Orleans (vampires, am I right?), several locations in France (the Bastille, anyone?), and Bath (Jane Austen knew her stuff). My first literary pilgrimage happened by chance when I was a tween: I read this amazing book I had borrowed from the school library (can’t remember the title, though it had something about running in it) and it mentioned a local stadium. A few weeks later, my primary school had a sporting event there and I could see the characters from the book competing in their final sprint. It was absolutely amazing. One day I’d like to do those virtual tours in person so I can experience the physical and imaginary spaces meet as I did that day when I was twelve.

YES–I’d love to visit the lands that inspire my favorite stories. Folks, if there is a place you would love to visit on a literary pilgrimage, please share it in the comments below!
Now, back to writing. You write a good deal of fantasy, both in series form and as standalone stories. Series writing is often the “hot” thing to do from a marketing perspective, but let’s face it–a lot of stories can be told in one book! Can you describe your process for choosing whether a story requires one book or more? 

With my current on-going series, the decision was made to do several short books as it isn’t conforming to any publishing norms: the first book (for free on most online retailers) has a couple of flash fiction pieces (defined as a story shorter than a thousand words) followed by the folklore from original (very old!) sources. It serves as an introduction to the series. The second book, exclusive to newsletter subscribers, contains three connected short stories followed by a bit of folklore. Books three and four are flash fiction collections, books five, six and seven are short story collections, books eight, nine and ten are novellas, and the last five will be even longer as they connect storylines from all the books before them.

Readers will either love or hate this way of telling the story. But with so many storylines and characters that tell the bigger story, it was the best way for me to tell it and for readers to consume it (in bite-size pieces). I’ll probably release a box-set when all the books are done (hopefully by the end of this year!).

But for other stories, I stick with one escalating problem per book. In “Magic at Midnight”, Amy saving her pegasi no matter the cost was the core problem, everything else just sort of happened and anything that would have dragged the story beyond one book was cut. There might be more books set in that universe at a future date, but then the series will be connected through a shared universe, not because Amy’s story was dragged out.

Personally, I like to look at TV series to see when they’re dragging a thing out too long. For example: “The Vampire Diaries” ends perfectly at the end of season four when Damon and Elena end up together. The point of the series was to get her to choose her true love between the Salvatore boys, and when she chose the Salvatore I liked, it should have ended. Torturing Damon in season five, Elena being removed from the series in season six, mama Salvatore coming to town in season seven, and the Sirens in season eight were all filler until Damon and Elena end up together anyway. The point? Know what your story is about and cut anything that doesn’t belong.

Excellent advice! There are many traps for writers aspiring and established alike, and we all fall into them at some point. What are the worst you’ve seen?

Most traps are set in “everyone knows” or strongly believing something because it is “what everyone says.” As you move deeper into the writing world and especially the dark side, as Mark Dawson calls indie publishing (he’s a big-name indie author, FYI), you learn that you have to forge your own path and do things your own way. But here are the biggies that is especially prevalent among South African aspiring writers and I believe everywhere else:

  • Believing everything Stephen King says in “On Writing” to be gospel. (It’s a good book, but there are other great books about writing, too. See my Goodreads shelf for inspiration.
  • Believing that being published through a big publishing house is the only right way to be published.
  • Believing that having an online presence as an author shouldn’t be done until a publisher tells you to do so.
  • Being so desperate to have that publishing deal, that they’ll sign their rights away without thinking twice.

These are definitely major assumptions we’ve got to work on changing. Considering your experience in writing and publishing, what would you say is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

There are several. Some I even fell for as a newbie author. To be absolutely safe, I suggest checking out “Writer Beware” run by Victoria Strauss.

Two I would warn about, though, as they aren’t talked about enough.

  • Reviewers asking for money. It happens. It’s even acceptable in some places. Even on BookSirens (the best place to find reviewers in one spot) has good reviewers asking for a fee. But here’s the thing: Amazon doesn’t like paid reviews. And if a reviewer contacts you because “they love the blurb and the cover is so gorgeous” you shouldn’t feel flattered: just delete the email. This was a costly lesson. Not only didn’t the reviewer deliver on her end (despite shining testimonials and seeing all the proof that it is money well spent), she got my surname wrong. Building your own review team organically is the best way to get honest, proper reviews for your books.
  • Sponsors of competitions offering more services for your book. Look, at first I didn’t think twice about it. I knew nothing about indie publishing and thought the amount the “self-publishing with support” company was asking to convert my book into an ebook was reasonable (the prize of printed books I’d won was worth more than twice that). The promises of promotion and all the other things that sound good (getting your book into a brick-and-mortar store) didn’t happen. And despite telling them what the price for the ebook should be, I found it for five times the price on the (only) store they’d published it to. With Amazon, you can easily convert your own ebooks (with Kindle Create) and your paperbacks (either with Kindle Create or with their templates) for free, you can hire freelancers on Upwork to do it for you, and you can format your ebooks easily on Draft2Digital for free. It doesn’t have to cost as much as the printing of a couple dozen books – for an epub “that you can load to Amazon” (tip: Amazon prefers mobi or Kindle Create (kpf) files).

Thanks you SO much for taking time to chat with me, Ronel! Let’s wrap up with a little marketing advice that helps fellow indie authors avoid those unethical practices and helps them connect their stories to readers. What have you found to work with marketing your own books? 

Being authentic. Readers want to connect with the person behind the words. It’s not always easy. I mean, going through the process of your furbaby dying is excruciating enough without sharing it on Instagram, but sharing those real moments in your life help readers to feel like they really know you. The same with sharing a new haircut. Some things are off-limits, like the parts of my life connected to others who don’t want to be on the internet, but I share enough without over-sharing. It works a lot better than doing cover reveals, blog tours and all the other “must-do” marketing things put together. (Though I still love doing cover reveals and blog tours.)

Thank you for having me.

Anytime, Ronel! Folks, I hope you can check out Ronel’s site and all her amazing books.

~STAY TUNED!~

A random library selection has taken me down some new roads of worldbuilding. I hope you’ll join me as I ride the rails and roads through some fantasies of other-wheres…

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

#Indie #AuthorInterview: @SavyLeiser Discusses Tough #Storytelling, the Importance of #OwnVoices, and the Joy in #Writing #RealStories of #RescueDogs in @FureverBooks

Happy December, one and all! I think we would all love to enjoy some stories with our morning dish of treats, wouldn’t you say?

Luckily I have just the thing.

As I was researching the murky world of network marketing (aka, multi-level marketing) for my short story “The Hungry Mother,” I came across an indie author who spreads awareness of networking marketing’s scams while also writing YA novels and books dedicated to rescue dogs and funding rescue shelters. My friends, please welcome Savy Leiser!

Let’s jump first into how hard you help promote other writers and voices. I was deeply moved by your June video on OwnVoices and Diversity in fiction. You emphasize the vital role sensitivity readers play in bringing a story to bookshelves—and how publishing companies need to pay more attention to them. Have you noticed any shifts in the publishing world to be more inclusive, or no?

Thank you! I’m glad you liked that video. From my perspective, I’d say yes, there has been a shift to be more inclusive. However, I’m always cynical regarding big corporations. A lot of the pushes for diversity by larger publishing houses seem to be performative. I recently posted a video called “Books I’m Reading for Bisexual Visibility Day,” and after reading A LOT OF BOOKS, I noticed a consistent pattern: the books that were self-published or published by small presses had way better representation. I think a lot of times, big publishers study and adapt to market trends (which is reasonable from a business perspective) but a lot of the push for inclusion comes from indie authors writing what they want to write and putting it out there, not taking no for an answer. I’ve talked about this in other videos too; sometimes I worry that publishing houses are scared to publish m/f romances with bisexual characters because it’s easier to box something into the market as a “LGBTQ+ romance” or a “straight romance” — but indie authors are doing a great job with that already.

It definitely seems to make a big difference when indie authors have that extra creative control. I remember you saying something about a neat new way readers can get a hold of awesome indie reads. What was it, again?

Yes! Another YouTuber, Amara Franklin, just launched an indie books subscription box! It’s called the Indie Bookworm. Here’s the website: https://theindiebookworm.com/

Ah, that was it–thank you! Let’s peruse your own books for a bit. You first published The Making of a Small Town Beauty King back in 2016. This coming-of-age novel brings to life many family struggles in a small-town setting many of us can relate to. What inspired the seed of this story to take root in you, and how did publishing Beauty King change your process of writing?

My original inspiration for this novel was the town where I went to high school. Most people know I’m from Chicago (and still live here!) but when I was younger, my family moved to rural Pennsylvania for a few years, and I went to high school in a Philadelphia suburb with a town fair. Our fair had a beauty pageant, where a few of my friends won awards over the years. I always considered entering but I was never good at adapting to traditional beauty standards. As a teenager, I had that constant conflict of what empowerment for women meant; did it mean a lack of pressure to adhere to beauty standards, or freedom to adhere to those if you choose? (This is a theme I explore in Sculpt Yourself as well.) When I was in college, I decided to explore these feelings in a screenplay for a class, and after I graduated I decided to turn it into a novella.

As one who helped care for her grandmother during her last years suffering dementia, the premise of your novel One Final Vinyl really struck a cord with me. Does this story have roots in your own life? What inspired the road trip your protagonists (a teen and a ninety-year-old woman) take?

Yes! This book has two main inspirations: my own grandmother and another 86-year-old woman I met and never saw again. My grandmother, Kasia (my parents recently adopted a new dog that they named after her! And I’m planning out a big tattoo of her name to get on my arm soon) was one of my primary guardians during my early years. When my mom was working 4 shifts, I spent most of my time at my grandma’s house, so she and I were really close. She started showing signs of dementia when I was in high school and she passed away when I was 19, which took a huge toll on me. A couple years later, an 86-year-old woman appeared at my front door in the middle of the night. She had driven away from her retirement home and gotten lost, and she also seemed to show signs of dementia. While we waited for her daughter to come get her, she and I spent the evening having Christmas cookies and tea while she told me about her childhood in the Great Depression. I’ve never seen her since then, and I’m not sure if she’s still alive, but that kind of interaction, where two people randomly cross paths like that, hit me really hard emotionally, especially since she reminded me of my grandma whom I’d lost recently. Sometimes I’d ponder, what would happen if I’d spent more time with her? What would’ve happened if someone randomly met another person like this and ended up on a road trip? Eventually, the pieces for the story came together for me.

You work damn hard taking readers into places they may not have been ready to go on their own, but through your characters they can tackle issues like self-worth and body image. Sculpt Yourself is a powerful example of this. As a writer, how do you balance telling a good story while also sharing an important message with readers?

I like to think of writing as my way to normalize a more equal world. We all have specialties and our own strengths we can use to make the world better. I’m not going to change laws; I’m not a politician or a lawyer. But I AM a writer, so I can use my storytelling abilities to get someone to think about an issue through a new perspective or to portray a world where those ideologies would be possible. To strike that balance, I focus on the characters and their relationships to one another first. In Sculpt Yourself, the focus is much more on Amber’s relationship with her sister and with her new girlfriend than it is with the sci-fi elements of Lipamorph’s development. I tried to create well rounded characters with a variety of viewpoints that could discuss these topics in an authentic context; that way, it feels like a story, not like I’m hitting the reader over the head with a message.

And thank you for that! I’m all for having an important message in a story, but not at the cost of telling the story well. Would you say writing energizes or exhausts you?

Both, LOL

HA! Fair enough. I know I’ve gone through those same spells where I can get a rush from a flurry of writing only to want a nap a few hours later. (Not that my kids would ever allow that, but I digress.) Establishing a creative atmosphere has been a HUGE challenge with the twins remote learning this year. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?

Being lonely. I’m a hardcore extrovert. I used to do my work in public, at coffee shops, or at random places throughout Chicago. But now there’s a pandemic going on. I also used to sell books primarily at events, like conventions and art fairs. But now there’s a pandemic going on! The pandemic has been REALLY rough on my business and my creative process and I’ve had to adapt a lot.

I could loan you my kids for a week if you’d like to re-create the hum of social noise, lol! Even reading can be a struggle sometimes. Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Definitely! I go through periods where I’ll read like 12 books on my Kindle in one day, and then go months without reading anything. My reading habits definitely aren’t consistent.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

I read the book Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan for Pride Month in 2018. That book uses POV in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen: a combination of plural first-person POV through a Greek-chorus style setup, combined with an omniscient third-person POV of all the main characters. That book sticks with me because of how much it made me reflect on how authors can use character points of view to their advantage in storytelling.

What is your favorite childhood book?

I loved the American Girl books, and that company was actually a huge inspiration for the model I followed with Furever Home Friends. (Books and toys combined to help kids learn!) I loved the series about Molly from World War II. I have my doll of her displayed on top of my bookshelf.

Oh my gosh! I looooved the American Girl books, and I still have my Kirsten and Addy dolls. I learned so much about life in the 1800s and the struggle to build a new life after traumatic experiences. I’ve dabbled with writing historical fiction with my own novella Night’s Tooth, but I threw enough fantasy into it that the history’s a bit, um, loosey-goosey. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

That depends a lot on the book. For the 4th Furever Home Friends book, Kringle’s Christmas, the research was completed in one afternoon when I interviewed the owner of the shelter where he was living all about his story. For #SavvyBusinessOwner, I talked mostly about my own personal experiences, so I just launched into that book without a whole lot of research. It depends a lot on the project.

What would you say are common traps for aspiring writers?

Twitter!

Darn tootin’. I have to set a timer for myself so I don’t fall down the social media rabbit hole. It’s so tempting when we tell ourselves “but that’s where the small presses are! I could query!” Then here we are, two hours later, still reading reaction tweets about DC comics or something. As an indie author who has launched her own books as well as recently signed on with an indie press, what do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

That’s hard to say. The industry is vast and includes a lot of different types of companies, writers, creators, and readers. I don’t want to publicly trash talk any specific publications right now, but I do have a problem with the barriers put up to keep small businesses from achieving success on the level of the established big 5 publishing corporations. For example, if your book gets published with a big press, you’re more likely to get reviews in established periodicals that schools and libraries receive in the mail and use to make their purchasing decisions. Some reviewers will only accept books sent to them by publishing companies rather than individual authors.

I suppose that’s partly why you do a LOT as an indie writer when it comes to maintaining and building your platform. Could you share at least one method of marketing that, after three books and your awesome new #SavvyBusinessOwner: A Book for Small Business Owners!, you’ve found to be effective?

Thank you! Honestly, my YouTube channel has been the most effective form of marketing for me. With the internet being such a prevalent force in people’s lives (especially during the pandemic!) people are more likely to become fans of content they can receive for free. I think of all the webcomics I read for free online, and then went on to buy that creator’s book when they released one, or the YouTubers who created entertaining videos, who I eventually bought merch from or joined their Patreon. My YouTube channel is at almost 10,000 subscribers, which happens because I gave people video content for free. As a result, 10,000 people now know who I am and are AWARE that I have books out, even if they’re not interested in them. The hardest part of marketing is making people aware you exist. I talk about this process a lot in the “Screaming into the Void” chapter of #SavvyBusinessOwner.

Now I may be going out on a limb here, but if I were to guess your writing mascot, it would be your dog. One of the reasons I wanted to interview you was I LOVED the drive behind your book series Furever Home Friends. Please share what this wonderful series is about—and how there are matching comfy dogs and accessories that would make perfect presents for the dog-lovers in our lives!

Thank you! Furever Home Friends is my biggest, longest-running project, and I’m really proud to see this business growing.

For some background, Furever Home Friends is a series of picture books, stuffed animals, toys, and accessories based on real rescue dogs. Each book tells the story of a dog’s journey to adoption and includes a photo of the real-life dog in the back.

For each of our main book characters, we have a plushie friend of that dog that you can “adopt” on our website (that’s just a cute way of saying you’re buying the plushie, LOL) and accessorize with little dog-sized accessories that I created on a 3D printer. We donate 10% of our profits to animal shelters.

Thank you so much for sharing your incredible stories, Savy! I can’t wait to see what your imagination creates next. For those excited to check out Savy’s work, visit her YouTube Channel for a hub of her social media links as well as her Furever Home Friends series.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m determined to visit with you all before December ends because by golly, Christmas is my favorite holiday and I MISS YOU ALL. I want to talk about music and holiday storytelling, AND I’ve almost won Bo over to the idea of baking a Christmas Pudding. We shall see!

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

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

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

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

First, let’s talk plot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#writerproblems: Expectations and Payoffs in #Storytelling Done Right (or, #writingtips from #YouLetMeIn by @millacream)

Nothing grinds my storyteller-gears like set-ups that go nowhere. As writers, we don’t want to be too predictable, but we also know that subverting expectations is a HUGE risk that does not always pay off. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams is notorious for his “Mystery Boxes,” a method where one establishes several plot questions and mysteries early in the story to hook the audience and keep them riveted. Do Mystery Boxes have a place in storytelling? Of course. The problem comes when the content inside the Mystery Boxes fails to meet expectations.

(Darnit, I never did get to talk about Rise of Skywalker! Let’s tag that onto 2021, I guess.) For some, the Mystery within disappoints and unravels all the joy leading up to that moment. But then there are other Mystery Boxes that intrigue us from afar, that enchant us with every step we take to get nearer, that compel us to study it, to puzzle its workings until at last, it is time to open it, and what we discover within answers the Mystery while still leaving us searching for more.

And you do want to know, don’t you? Want to know if those stories your mother told you are true. If I really killed them all. If I am that mad.
This is the story as I recall it, and yours now too, to guard or treasure or forget as you please. I wanted someone to know, you see. To know my truth, now that I am gone.
How everything and none of it happened. (17)

The marvelous S.J. Higbee recommended Camilla Bruce’s suspense-filled tale of dark fantasy…or horror-fantasy? I’ll call this a suspense-fantasy with a taste for blood. Anyway, Sarah highly recommended the novel, and her recommendations do not come lightly. When my copy came in at the library, I tore through Bruce’s narrative in just a few days. It wasn’t for the world-building, mystery, or drama–all of which were aces in this book, for the record. Actually, it was Bruce’s work paying off expectations that really impressed me.

Let’s start on the very first page, a prologue of sorts in the form of a newspaper clipping detailing renowned writer Cassandra Tipp’s disappearance.

She has a history here, Officer William Parks Jr. said. The officer is no doubt referring to the trial following her husband’s violent death 38 years ago, where Cassandra Tipp was a suspect. The murder and its aftermath launched Mrs. Tipp’s writing career; her fame partly due to her therapist, Dr. V. Martin’s book about the case, “Away with the Fairies: A Study in Trauma-Induced Psychosis”, which briefly climbed the bestseller lists.

Woah! So this famous romance novelist was suspected of MURDERING her husband?! We haven’t even started the story yet, but we are intrigued. As readers, we picture what we think a romance novelist is like. Tipp presumes her nephew wonders the same thing as he and his sister embark on the directions Tipp’s lawyer gave for the two to inherit their mysterious aunt’s money: “How could a childless widow write so much about romance and love?” (15). The two find a manuscript in Tipp’s house, the final manuscript she will ever write. The lawyer’s directions to the siblings were clear: the manuscript must be read in order to find the code word needed to access the inheritance. When the two read the above excerpt from page 17, we readers are now wondering whether or not we’re entering Unreliable Narrator territory. After all, there was a doctor who said this Tipp lady was psychotic. And not just any psychotic, but a psychotic writer, which means Cassandra Tipp isn’t going to simply tell it like it is. Oh no–this character’s life comes in a fragmented sequence, shifting about in time, alluding to people and things in different eras of her life so you are always curious about something.

Take the opening of the next chapter on page 19. Tipp describes her husband and what he was like.

Who doesn’t love a redeemed villain, an angel with the alluring taint of sin? I never was so blind, never wanted him for being dangerous; I already had a dangerous lover–already knew the taste of sin. No wonder the ladies were cross, though, when his gorgeous body was found in the woods.
But I’m moving too fast, we’re not there yet. A lot of things happened before that.
One thing you must know: I was never a good girl.

As you can see, Cassandra Tipp is not going to “spill the tea” so easily, which means Camilla Bruce isn’t going to give away all this story’s secrets so quickly. This moment contains an example of something Bruce–and thereby the protagonist Tipp–does to “set up” the readers and stretch their expectations: she alludes to the promise of telling it all, and then diverts readers with something else, be it another experience or the introduction of a new character, like the Faerie named Pepper-Man. The promises are shared frequently throughout the book, such as two chapters later, when Cassandra Tipp interrupts her experiences to address her niece and nephew from within the manuscript:

This isn’t the story you expected. You were expecting a repenting sinner’s last confession. Expecting me to cry on the page, admit my wrongdoings and beg your forgiveness. Instead you et this: childhood memories. I am sorry about that–sorry to disappoint, but the truth of it is, I cannot recall a world without Pepper-Man in it, and him being in it was the beginning of it all.
We will get to the bodies eventually. (33)

Not just “body.” BodIES. Don’t ask about those bodies yet, though, for we have been promised to learn “eventually.” The word choice here hints to readers that whatever explanation will come about the bodies is a long way off. At this point, however, I doubt many readers are complaining, for now there’s this Faerie companion to try and understand. Camilla Bruce does not completely open Pepper-Man’s Mystery Box, for protagonist Cassandra Tipp is given multiple “claims” from the Pepper-Man on how he came to be in her life. All that matters is that he is in her life, changing as she changes both mentally and physically. As a girl, Cassandra is in constant conflict with her mother, a woman who hates nature and wild, unkempt creatures. The fighting is often violent, and results in Cassandra spending most of her time locked in her room.

I would think back on this time of ceaseless fighting later, when I was the one who had to fight–in vain–to make a teenage girl see reason. It’s as hard as catching a slick fish, the way she skitters and twirls out of reach. (53)

WHAT?!

Please keep in mind, Cassandra Tipp is telling us on page 53 that she “was the one” fighting with a teenage girl–that is, that Cassandra Tipp is a mother. Yet didn’t we hear in the very beginning that she was childless?

Indeed we did. Another Mystery Box has been set before us, one just as bright and intriguing as the murdered bodIES. Is Camilla Bruce going to keep presenting these boxes, or is she going to start opening some?

Considering I don’t want to open all these boxes before you get a chance to read the story, I will allow us to peek into a couple, just to prove that You Let Me In isn’t the Dark Faerie version of The Force Awakens.

Recall how the prologue alluded to the murder of Cassandra Tipp’s husband and her place in the case. Camilla Bruce sprinkles the promises that Tipp will tell us at various places in the first 100 pages, each promise revealing just a smidge more new information. Take this excerpt of a conversation between Tipp and her psychologist Dr. Martin:

“I did kill him, T-; I mean, but that was a long, long time ago.”
“You see, we disagree about that. I remember very well meeting you and T- at your house, and he seemed very much alive to me. Very much flesh and blood. Very much a man.”
“He was supposed to appear so,” she said patiently, as if I [Dr. Martin] were a child. “But it wasn’t really real, you know. When the spell finally broke, his body would just be twigs and moss again.”
“That is not what the police found in the woods.” I kept my voice calm. “They found several body parts. All of them were human.” (69)

Oh…so, we are not just dealing with a body. We are dealing with “parts” in the woods. This sounds vicious, cruel, inhuman.

But that is all we are given. So we must read on.

And now, my young friends, it’s finally time to talk about Tommy Tipp and what happened to him in those woods. (83)

….

You would be confused at this point, I guess. This all happened long before you were born, yet you have met Tommy Tipp many times. He was my husband for over a decade, so how could he have died at twenty-four? Tommy was not what you thought he was, but then I have told you that already.
If you keep turning the pages, I will tell you just what he was. (102)

You see those page numbers? Almost 20 pages go by, and Cassandra’s truth about Tommy Tipp is still not complete. Camilla Bruce carefully paces the information so that as one Mystery Box is slowly opened we are constantly distracted by a different Mystery Box, such as Cassandra Tipp’s aforementioned “teenage girl.” Cassandra Tip rarely mentions her in the first 100 pages.

“Denial, my dear,” Dr. Martin said. “Denial is a powerful drive.”
“Mara says that you are the one in denial, and that she will leave a token on your pillow tonight to prove it.”
….
Mara said later that she had indeed visited the doctor that night leaving half a leaf and acorn by his side. Dr. Martin never mentioned it, though, so either he had not seen it…or maybe–just maybe–he too was in denial. (76)

It is not until after Cassandra’s wedding to Tommy Tipp–and that Mystery Box, as it were, was fully opened–that Camilla Bruce lets us pay more attention to Mara.

“A faerie bride,” she whispered. “That is what my mother is.”
“A faerie child,” I whispered back. “That is what my daughter is.”
~*~
I guess that through all this you have started to wonder about Mara. Who is this person so dear to me, yet absent from your mother’s memories, this woman who draws me to the mound and calls me Mother? The young girl I have been fighting with–and warning you about, though perhaps not strongly enough?
I’ll tell you about Mara, and how she came to be. (121-2)

This is a section where readers’ wonderings about an unreliable narrator strengthen. Dr. Martin’s study of Cassandra Tipp becomes more scientific, more “expert” in matters of the mind and how it copes with trauma. Cassandra herself gives us two different tales of what happened to her body as a teenager. Camilla Bruce does not direct readers one way or the other. All readers know is that questions remain, and the answers to those questions are rarely easy. Or safe.

…questions about what happened later–those other deaths that occurred…I guess I owe you some answers about that. The “family tragedy.” The violent end. Somebody ought to know what really happened.
And so I keep writing–and you two keep reading. (137)

I’ll end my analysis here, so as not to ruin any more surprises for you. Obviously I highly recommend You Let Me In for an unsettling, thoughtful read to pass the time on a chilly autumnal day. But I recommend this book even more to my fellow writers, for we all can use a good reminder of what it means to pay off those expectations. No matter how much our Mystery Boxes sparkle with magic and intrigue on the outside, the inside–the payoff, the promise, the end–must be just as unique as that which enticed readers in the first place. If not, then our stories will be forgotten beneath the tattered scraps of expectations our readers throw away.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another lovely interview with an indie author coming up! I’m also hoping to share some highlights from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen as we grow nearer to its release later this month.

Throw in the twins’ virtual schooling and my promotion to full-time teaching at the university, and we’ll have an interesting October, indeed. x

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

#writingmusic for your #adventure in #storytelling! Plus an #ARC update for my #YA #Fantasy.

Happy weekend, Friends! It’s been a bugger of an August so far. We’re doing the best we can with the time we have–like a couple of trips to the beach while helping my mom clean out her house to sell it–but it’s pretty clear my three B’s are in desperate need of a break from one another. With many lockdown measures still in place, they’re acting like grumpy Pevensies stuck together on a rainy day.

If only a game of hide and seek would reveal a mysterious portal elsewhere, you know? Whether that portal be an old wardrobe, a forgotten door, or a painted forest, we are all looking for those gateways to adventure. Earlier this summer I was finding my own escape through the banjo, violin, and other instruments of the Appalachian Mountains, following the sounds of Edie Brickell and Steve Martin in their songs of love lost and found again.

But while their music calmed my heart, it didn’t spark my writing, a must when I was finishing a couple short stories and finalizing a novel for its ARC release. I needed another portal, one of magic, of danger…

…and a little hope.

The soundtrack for Back to the Future has been on constantly in our house since Bo showed the time travel scenes to the kids. Biff now runs around yelling, “Doc, the flux capacitor isn’t working!” Bash rides his bike with the cry, “we gotta go back to the future!” (Blondie politely tolerates it all.) And really, what isn’t there to love in this Alan Silvestri score? The little excerpt you’re (hopefully) listening to right now from the second film starts with one of my favorite cues: the violin, piano, and chimes trilling downward like falling magic. There’s mystery in the minor, and just a touch of danger in the french horns as Future Doc must take do what he can to prevent Past Doc from seeing him.

The main theme for Back to the Future is one of THE great themes for adventure: the swelling cymbals and bombastic brass sweep you away into the impossible journey through time–not to the major landmarks of history like some Wild Stallions, nor to the future of other galaxies like certain Doctors. No no, just into the past of one boy’s family, where he is able to inspire his father and mother to be the strong, loving people he needs in his present. Like John Williams, Silvestri loves his brass, but the heroic, staccato brass can only carry us so far without the legato of running strings echoing accelerating us to 88 miles per hour so we, too, can vanish with a trail of fire behind us.

Oh, the 1980s did have a marvelous run of music, didn’t they? Here’s one I just had to share from another favorite composer, James Horner. When you think of Horner, you usually think of Star Trek, Aliens, or Titanic. Ah, but he’s done so many others, including this little guilty pleasure of mine…

Bo often pokes fun about Horner. “It all sounds like Wrath of Kahn and you know it.” NO, I say, even though…yeah, there are bits that will always make me think of Star Trek II (which is one of the greatest scores ever and yes, I will need to do a post dedicated entirely to that score sometime.). But as another fan commented on YouTube, the common threads in Horner’s music feels like it binds all these different universes together, making this life just one more epic adventure tied to the next. I love that concept, and come on–who wouldn’t want the stampede of trumpets, the melodic violins heralding their arrival? The galloping drums transport us across the vast alien landscape to rescue our kidnapped love doing their best to hide from a villain who sees all, knows all.

But more than anything, it’s the trumpets at the two-minute mark that just melt me. Oh, what a hero’s theme. The utter defiance in the face of omnipotent evil. No matter what mischief is worked, the hero comes through in those trumpets, riding on, never stopping until he rescues the one who was taken from him.

Of course there has been good music after the 1980s. Take The Pirates of the Caribbean, where the first film has a wonderfully lush score for its swashbucklers. Hans Zimmer is connected to this series, but the first film was composed by Klaus Badelt, who has worked with Zimmer on other scores like The Prince of Egypt and Gladiator. Badelt’s theme starts fast and never lets up for a heartbeat. Here the orchestra moves as one, crashing up against us as the ocean waves beat a ship’s hull, and the cannon smoke blinds men in their climb up and down ropes to protect the sails and seek out the forbidden land for treasure.

Or you may abandon the ships for an adventure on the land, where the desert is your sea, and your only hope is to drive on, drive fast, and never, ever, let them catch you.

Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) has become a go-to creator of action and adventure scores over the last twenty years. Whether you’re web-slinging with Spider-Man, defending a Dark Tower, or driving a mobile city to devour another, Holkenborg knows how to balance instruments and synth to create a force of unnatural power. You must move forward, you must heed the drums, you must flee the dissonance. You must summon all courage as the bass carries you, and when the strings break free from the percussion, you must fly or perish.

There is also adventure to be found in the music without a film. When I interviewed author Michael Scott oh so long ago, he recommended listening to trailer music on YouTube for writing inspiration. If it weren’t for him I would have never stumbled across the track that inspired my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth.

Unlike the western scores I shared at Night’s Tooth release, this music has no direct correlation to the western genre. It’s just drums, hands, guitars, and a whole lot of guts synthed together. When I first heard this, I imagined gunslingers running among bullet-torn walls while a hunter poises himself for transformation, snarling as he becomes a creature of night and fire and vengeance.

Jean Lee’s western, Night’s Tooth, takes readers back to the world of the River Vine, but in a different era- the Old West. Elements of a western, of real history, and of terrifying fantasy combined to make this a real page turner.

Amazon Reader Review

As Night’s Tooth approaches its birthday, I’m debating making the novella available in print as well as an e-book. I could maybe add some extras to the novella to make it worthwhile…a few of my other Princeborn short stories, perhaps? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

I’m also wrapping up preparations to share the ARC of my second novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen at the end of August. If you’ve not read the first novel but are interested in doing so, I’d be happy to connect you with it for a review!

I’ve been around a while and read my fair share of Fantasies, but it’s rare to find an artist who so capably commands her medium as does Jean Lee.

Her evil characters transcend malevolence, while her good characters are flawed enough to be their worthy opponents. I’ve never witnessed such a clash of forces and such mayhem as battled in the climax. I was literally exhausted when I finished it.

It’s good to know there are many books remaining in Jean Lee’s arsenal. We’ll be enjoying her brilliance for years to come.

Amazon Reader Review

Booksprout is a handy hub for catching ARCS from favorite indie authors, so if you’re keen for early access to Chosen, please visit my Booksprout page. If for whatever reason it’s not working and you’d like to have an ARC for a book review, just let me know!

Here is a quick taste of Fallen Princeborn: Chosen…

Ashes touch the air.

And a cackle.

A shriek, far and away.

Two entrances out of the Pits, both unlocked. One out in the woods.

And one inside Rose House.

“Liam!” Charlotte slams the patio door, locks it—idiot, it’s fucking glass—and bolts for the library.

Liam has yet to move, eyes closed, breath still slow.

“Liam you have to wake up!” Charlotte shakes him, cups his cheeks, brings her face close–dammit, this isn’t time for that. So she slaps his cheek instead. “Liam!” She yells in his ear.

Pounding, pounding below her feet.

They are coming.

Writers, we must keep fighting for our right to adventure. We must fly upon the backs of eagles, take to the line among those defending our personal Narnias, and conquer the darkness that would douse our creative fires. Let us share the music that carries us to victory and brings life when all would seem lost.

For the adventure. For the story. And for the music that inspires them both.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ll be sharing an extra post to announce when Fallen Princeborn: Chosen ARCS are readily available. I also have an interview lined up with a wonderful indie author as well as a return to the Queen of the Fantastic.

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

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: one #narrative #pov does not fit all #stories.

In Wisconsin, summer is a time for nature immersion. Whether you hike in the woods, take to the lake in a boat, or hunt for bugs’n’birds’n’fairies, this is the season for journeys into the wilderness of the North Woods.

Every venture “Up Nort'” requires mysteries for road reading. Since Bo had gotten me some Poirots for Mother’s Day, this seemed like the perfect time to catch up on them. (Bo can’t read in the car because a)motion sickness and b)my driving style freaks him out.) What was meant to be a little simple escapism turned into a reflection on narrative point of view and how it helps–or hurts–a story’s ability to hold a reader.

Back when I was researching the nonfiction writing workshop I had to give at my university last month, I came across an article that referenced “Fleming Method.” This method, the author said, called for blasting through a story by writing only key elements: the dialogue, the action, etc. All the other elements were to wait for the next draft. Doing this allowed Ian Fleming to complete the initial draft of Casino Royale in a few weeks.

After reading Sad Cypress–published years before Casino Royale–part of me now wonders if Christie came up with the Fleming Method before Fleming did.

The premise is clear-cut.

Beautiful young Elinor Carlisle stood serenely in the dock, accused of the murder of Mary Gerrard, her rival in love. The evidence was damning: only Elinor had the motive, the opportunity, and the means to administer the fatal poison.

Yet, inside the hostile courtroom, only one man still presumed Elinor was innocent until proven guilty. Hercule Poirot was all that stood between Elinor and the gallows.…

The story itself is divided into three parts: Elinor’s flashback through all the events preceding the murder, Poirot’s investigation of the murder, and then the trial. Again, clear-cut.

Yet when I finished the book, I let out a “hmph” and tossed it onto the car’s dashboard.

Bo’s not used to me doing that, especially after what was, by all accounts, a good morning. We had successfully completed a walk and lunch at a beer garden with the kids–a HUGE accomplishment when two out of three are picky eaters. “Wasn’t the book okay?”

The mystery itself, I explained was fine. There’s a love triangle of sorts, a girl gets murdered, Poirot eventually shows up to investigate, yadda yadda. But the way Christie tells it was weird.

Bo gave me a look. “What do you mean?”

I show him a thick pinches of text–Part 1, the flashback. It’s all quite narrative, with descriptions, exchanges, changes of scene. Part 2 changes point of view character-wise, from the accused murderess to Poirot. Again, we’ve got multiple elements of storytelling. Grand. Part 3, however, drops almost all pretense of story-telling and moves forward almost entirely through dialogue–that is, through the exchanges between witnesses and lawyers during the trial. After 200 pages of “traditional” storytelling, 50 pages of almost pure dialogue jolted me so much I found myself nothing but irritated with the story when the mystery was resolved.

Bo considered. “Has Christie done that before?”

I don’t think so, I said. The cynical teacher in me imagined Christie was on a time crunch, didn’t much care for the story, and decided to just slap together the ending so she could move onto something she did want to write. Or maybe she was so mentally drained from writing And Then There Were None the year before that she needed to put out SOMEthing to appease the publishers. But I don’t know for sure, I said with a shrug, and the reception on this road sucks too much for me to do any deep digging.

“So how does Christie normally write a mystery?”

I stared at Bo so long that Biff scolded me. “It’s rude to stare, you know!”

How did Christie “normally” write a mystery? Was there such a thing as “normal”?

I looked at the other books I had packed along: Dumb Witness, After the Funeral, and Death on the Nile. I thumbed through them, sharing observations with Bo as I went…

Dumb Witness

Everyone blamed Emily Arundell’s accident on a rubber ball left on the stairs by her frisky terrier. But the more she thought about her fall, the more convinced she became that one of her relatives was trying to kill her.…

On April 17th she wrote her suspicions in a letter to Hercule Poirot. Mysteriously, he didn’t receive the letter until June 28th…by which time Emily was already dead.…

This story had a mix of methods I both liked and disliked. The first few chapters involve a lot of head-hopping amongst the characters of the victim-to-be’s family. I have written about this head-hopping before–nope, not a fan of this “I’m thinking murderous thoughts” to “and I’m thinking murderous thoughts, too!” to “oh, we’re just aaaaaaall thinking murderous thoughts, aren’t we?”. After those opening chapters, however, the unreliable-yet-charming Captain Hastings takes over as narrator until the end of the book. I’ve also written about benefits of the unreliable narrator for mystery writing, and in Dumb Witness those benefits were seen once again: clues quickly dismissed by the narrator Hastings carry crucial importance, and characters Hastings suspects or respects often tend to be something else entirely.

I always enjoy a trip alongside Poirot and Hastings; the two have a wonderful chemistry that allows for light-hearted moments, such as when the victim’s intelligent dog takes such a liking to Hastings that Hastings feels he knows what the dog is saying.

If Christie had written every Poirot mystery with Hastings, though, the misdirections would grow tedious, the joviality stale.

In other words, we’d get bored.

After the Funeral (also known as Funerals are Fatal)

“He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

When Cora Lansquenet is savagely murdered, the extraordinary remark she had made the previous day at her brother Richard’s funeral suddenly takes on a chilling significance. At the reading of Richard’s will, Cora was clearly heard to say, “It’s been hushed up very nicely, hasn’t it. But he was murdered, wasn’t he?”

Did Cora’s accusation a dark truth that sealed her own fate? Or are the siblings’ deaths just tragic coincidences?

Desperate to know the truth, the Lansquenet’s solicitor turns to Hercule Poirot to unravel the mystery. For even after the funeral, death isn’t finished yet . . .

I hope you like head-hopping, because this story moves from character to character in an entire family tree throughout the whoooole novel. For the record, I didn’t throw this book out the car window because a) I recalled some of the plot from the David Suchet adaptation, but not all the bits and that was really irritating, and b) the kids would have yelled at me for littering, which would have been even more irritating.

But, I must admit, there was something else here, a good something that kept me wanting to remember the solution. For all the head-hopping, there remained a consistent uncertainty between characters, a singular dread of not feeling entirely comfortable around one’s own family, of relief for getting money and the simultaneous guilt for being thankful someone died so that money could be given. By giving these characters that mutual guilt and suspicion, the narrative no longer jostles readers about. We’re still following that dread, catching the little things that make the characters unique instead of having those things hit us in the face page after page after page to remind us who’s who.

Death on the Nile

The tranquility of a cruise along the Nile was shattered by the discovery that Linnet Ridgeway had been shot through the head. She was young, stylish, and beautiful. A girl who had everything . . . until she lost her life.

Hercule Poirot recalled an earlier outburst by a fellow passenger: “I’d like to put my dear little pistol against her head and just press the trigger.” Yet in this exotic setting nothing is ever quite what it seems.

I feel like this is the mystery that inspired spoofs like Monty Python’s Agatha Christie sketch or the movie Clue–you know, where someone says, “I saw the ___ who did it!” And just before that someone says a name, the lights go dark, a shot rings out, someone groans, and thud–another murder.

(I’m likely quite wrong on this, but that sort of scene is in Death on the Nile, so it’s all I can think about now.)

Blessedly, Death on the Nile is told with an omniscient narrator who mostly follows Poirot about, only occasionally lingering with other characters if there’s a romance arc to propel along.

The narrator never focuses readers away from what Poirot’s doing, nor does the narrator give unnecessary attention for the sake of distraction or red herrings. Being a third person limited point of view, readers don’t get insight into Poirot’s head, either, so we still don’t learn the full solution until Poirot’s ready to “do his thing,” as it were. And that’s fine.

It’s all fine.

Honestly, it is. The head-hopping, the unreliable narrator, the traditional omniscient–each are appropriate approaches to telling a story. Even a chapter of pure dialogue has its place. What matters is that the chosen method encourages readers to continue the story. Can the reader get the information by following one character around, or are multiple viewpoints needed in order to get the big picture? Would readers enjoy the guessing game that comes with unreliable narrators, or does the plot require a more neutral voice to share it? Does the scene’s power come in what is said, or what is not?

It never hurts to experiment and find which approach is the best fit for the story at hand, for like our kids, every story is different. So long as we consider the heart of the story–spurned love, broken family, desperate greed–we can take a step back and consider how readers should reach this heart. We don’t want it to be a simple straight path, nor the path we know so well we could write it blindfolded. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the understanding in that?

So, try directing readers to different characters to help them appreciate the multiple relationships. Let them follow the outsider to reach that inside perspective. Leave them with one soul and see if they will trust that character–or not.

Just don’t commit the Unforgivable Writing Sin, one that leads to readers abandoning your story to the Did Not Finish shelf, never to be journeyed again:

Thou Shalt Not Bore.

Have you ever been intrigued by an author’s choice in narrative point of view? Befuddled? Disappointed? I’d love to hear about it!

STAY TUNED!

Interviews, music, and fantasy fiction lie ahead! I’ll also provide more updates regarding my new novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and how YOU can get your hands on an ARC.

(Yes, I know this says 2019, but IT’S HAPPENING, dagnabit, and that’s what counts!)

Thank you for companionship on this writing journey. You help make my corner of the world a brighter, saner place. x

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

#writerproblems: Balancing #WritingGoals in #storytelling and #Blogging During These #Uncertaintimes

Mama Robin calls
as morning’s dew captures light


Never mind writing haiku without coffee is hard.

Anyway.

‘Tis July first! The year is officially halfway over, and with all that’s happened in the world, I know many would prefer to wash their hands of 2020 and be done with it.

But then there are folks like me, who see a half-year of potential rather than a full year wasted. Lamenting opportunities lost only breeds bitterness and anger. Now is the time to grow onward and upward with whatever we have.

Even if all we have is a page of fantastical hopes.

Fellow Young Adult author K.M. Allen posted a couple articles recently about her own struggles with time management during the lockdown life and balancing the writing we do for our platforms vs. the writing we do for, you know, storytelling and whatnot. (Allen used a much better term–“The Art of Authoring.”) Her posts got me thinking about my writing mindset, and how I’ve tended to lump aaaaaaaaall the writing together into this single act. Writing a blogpost? Still writing. Writing notes on history? Still writing. Writing an actual honest-and-true story? Still writing.

Were my extra teaching jobs and graduate school work still a part of my life, this kind of writing would be enough. Heck, I’d be ecstatic if I found time to blog while writing term papers. But these extra factors are not a part of my life right now. Sure, University work still is–I even presented on nonfiction writing at the Lit Fest earlier this month. While researching I stumbled across a Writer’s Digest article called “The 9-Minute Novelist,” and that got me thinking…

Why not me, too?

I know I’ve bemoaned my struggle with time before–when my kids were toddlers, when they attended school but only part-time, when everyone’s home on summer break, etc etc etc. When lockdown life began, I thought for sure I could do do a little, just a little, writing. But too often I allowed blogging, researching, plotting, and those other -ings replace the actual DRAFT-ing that needed to happen.

Some are quite adept at blending one task to create another–history notes get typed up into the blog to help show a writing update, for instance. I know I used my 2019 attempt at NaNoWriMo as a chance to both draft and post all at once. It worked for a little while, just as the notes-turned-blogposts can work for a little while, too.

With the coming school year’s attendance procedures impossible to predict, parents like myself have to be prepared for more of “School at Home” while also working in or out of the home. (And of course, just as I type this, Bash has come into the room. “What is it, dude? I’m trying to work,” I say. “But I wanna be by you,” he says with the smallest possible voice, and moves all my materials to snuggle up by me. Oh, little kiddo.)

Some days the kids are great at occupying themselves, and other days not. Parent-Writers, we know setting aside “hours” to write, even once a week, just isn’t realistic. Heck, I’m amazed when the kids leave me be for twenty minutes in a row.

And that’s the key here: working with the minimum amount of time, not the maximum. Let’s consider what non-kid stuff requires our attention in the day, and where we can find those nine–or ten–minutes to write.

(Yes, I’m back to the old bulletin board. I need my visual schedule!)

One Hour

Risky thing, setting aside an hour. Either a movie better be on that ALL the kids will watch, or someone else needs to be in the house with the kids. My online classes are an hour long in the evenings when Bo is home. If I do a movie during the day, that is my one chance at an hour block. This time’s usually needed for grading, a task that I can safely break from and start back on when kids intervene. Writing-wise? That hour better be had outside of the house.

(Aaaand now Biff is in the room, poking Bash with his toes. “Why don’t you two read something?” *Two pairs of eyes continue staring off into space as toes continue poking legs*)

Thirty Minutes

Done right, half an hour can be a very productive time. One can write proposals for a conference, respond to a few students, or catch up on the late grading. As a writer, thirty minutes is perfect for looking through research, scoping out potential publishers, or drafting.

(Aaaaand now Blondie pokes her head in with a page she just has to read from Dogman: For Whom the Ball Rolls. “Yes, kiddo, thank you. Now go and occupy YOURSELVES. I am not here to entertain you!” Three bodies sluff off, complete with drooping shoulders and groans of “I’m too tired to build Lego.”)

Twenty Minutes

This is probably where one can feel the sprint effect–that is, there’s not a minute to waste. Good! Too often I fall down the social media hole with Twitter or YouTube. We must make every minute of that twenty count, be it drafting, editing, grading, or…gasp…exercising.

Again, being realistic with myself. I know I won’t set aside an hour for it, not even half. Twenty…yeah, I could swing that, if the mood strikes. Plus I can drag the little “what are you doing nooooow?” buckos right along with me. Win-win.

Ten Minutes

Okay, THIS has to be the golden number for one who’s got kids and job AND writing in life. Even my attention-lovers can be occupied by books, drawing, or Snoopy Monopoly for ten minutes.

So many lovely moments can be made in just ten minutes: reading a story aloud to kids. Drafting dialogue. Answering student questions. Editing a scene. Playing catch outside. Prepping for class. Networking on social media. Writing a Goodreads review.

Maybe it hurts a little inside to think I’m only spending ten minutes with my kids/story? I can’t do that! They deserve better! We need to remember this important point.

The day is no mere ten minutes.

I’m usually up from roughly 4:30am to 9:30pm. Want to guess how many minutes there are in seventeen hours? 1,020 minutes. Or, 102 slots of Ten Minutes.

102.

You are not giving your kids 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. You are not giving your writing 1 slot out of 102 and you know it. Don’t beat yourself up over organizing your time. If you don’t organize your time, then you will always feel like something is being set aside for the sake of the other, and that fear will lead to nothing but bitterness, anger, and the Dark Side.

Nothing has to be sacrificed here. Honest and for true. You just need to jigger those expectations over what you want to do and when. Take me, eager to publish the sequel to Fallen Princeborn: Stolen before 2020 ends. If I set aside 10 minutes to edit every day, I can make that goal. I want to expand and re-publish Middler’s Pride, too. 10 minutes a day can get me there. I’d LOVE to get “Hungry Mother” in an online magazine, finish the novella What Happened After Grandmother Failed to Die, work on the OTHER Princeborn novella I’ve sketched out–

And I can do all those things. I will do all those things. And you can, too.

Ten minutes at a time.

STAY TUNED NEXT FORTNIGHT!

Yup, two weeks. Part of this “jiggering” of expectations means blogging can’t overwhelm the story-writing. I’m going to follow K.M. Allen’s idea of blogging every other week, scheduling my own posts for the first and fifteenth of every month. Thank you all so much for your patience, kindness, and encouragement, and I hope you’ll be back when I share the interviews, analyses, music, and doodles waiting in the wings!

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

#LessonsLearned from #DianaWynneJones: Small #Family #Conflict Can Grow Into An #Epic #Fantasy

For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.

Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.

“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”

“Why does David go away to school?”

“Why is David’s family so mean?”

Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.

“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.

I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”

I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…

I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…

Anyway.

Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.

Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)

One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.

“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.”
David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)

Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.

Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)

While this cover also gives away Thor’s hammer,
there’s also a lot of magical whimsy with the way
Luke ribbons his fire amidst the garden.

The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.

“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.”
Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.”
“What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.”
“Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately.
“I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)

It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.

It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.

“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.”
It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did.

[said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)

David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.

This style initially reminded me of the mosaics of Rome until I scoped out ancient Norse carving.

“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)

****

Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)

Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.

And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.

Sound familiar? It does to David.

The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)

This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.

Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.

When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.”
“Run for what?” said David.
“Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)

Now this cover’s got more of a Young Adult feel, what with the spitfire of Luke standing defiantly with his arms crossed and his firey hair blending with the flames surrounding him.

Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”

I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.

Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.

Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.

David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”

“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.

“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”

Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.

It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)

Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.

Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.

~STAY TUNED!~

I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!

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