#writerproblems: #worldbuilding a #fantasy when the #writing #magic seems all but gone.

Magic.

We could all use some, I think.

But where to find it?

Ah, now that is the question. Some wander over the occasional ancient wall or two. Some play hide-and-seek in peculiar wardrobes. Some explore animal homes. Some play a forgotten boardgame. Some even purchase a kit from a store.

And let’s not even talk about the parents that spend the day graveyard-hopping with their kids (post forthcoming).

For those of us confined to a house of snits and snaps and other plastic mayhem, the hope for peace and quiet and magic feels all but gone, especially when lockdowns are extended, when schools are closed for the year, when jobs are furloughed until further notice.

Oh, I cried when Wisconsin’s governor extended the lockdown. Even though all the rational parts of me knew this was coming, I still cried. I had hoped my mother could finish her teaching tenure with her students. I had hoped my sons could continue their Occupational Therapy. I had hoped my daughter could return to her friends. I had hoped for a little time for myself, too.

But none of this is meant to be, dammit, so here we are, fearful of the outside world while driven mad by the inside one.

How do we counter this?

Magic.

Perhaps you find it in an old story, as I did. “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer” began with a photo spotted in the fall of 2018.

Something about the old woman reaching for that apple…it was like she was reaching for, for something else. For me? N-no, but something about the urgency in her manner, the aggressiveness. She needed that fruit. But why? I mean, it’s not like people’s lives depend on a single apple.

Uuuuunless they did.

And from here came the crack and thunder of magic gone wrong. People’s lives did depend on this apple, if that apple was needed in order to stop a Happening from, well, happening.

But what was Happening?

Why, a story, of course.

But sometimes even an inspiring photo isn’t enough. We need to look beyond the photo’s perimeters. What does the traffic sound like on the street? How high do the buildings tower over others? Are we in a world of electronics, or some sort of yesteryear? And smells, don’t forget smells.

(Yes, even towns can have a characteristic smell. For decades, Milwaukee was always blanketed with the smell of yeast from the Miller Brewery. Ever since they removed that level of operation from the downtown location, my nose no longer believes the rest of me when I drive to Milwaukee.)

In order to build upon that initial inspiration, we’ve got to put our sense-memory to use. After spotting the wee shop in the background named “Meatball Obsession,” I focused on my first date with Bo when he cooked me spaghetti. He loves making his own sauce, a day-long endeavor that fills the house with a rich, spicy, meatiness that makes you think the very air is edible. And suddenly I’m imagining people walking about nibbling on saucy meatballs since apples were for magic and not eating.

Hmmm. Sounds a bit silly.

Eh, why not? It’s my story, dammit. At the time I wasn’t looking for serious fare. To help me stay lighthearted, I even put on the soundtrack to Midsomer Murders while I wrote, Parker’s themes for mystery in rural life the perfect balance of spooky and delightful. The mix of smell, sounds, and sights helped me focus on building a story about a woman—no, not just a woman. Look at that hat and coat. Come on. Surely this is a Madame, one of status and prestige…even if no one else agrees. But Madame who? Hmmm…say, isn’t that my Midsomer CD over there?

(Yes, that is occasionally how things come into my stories. If something’s in my eyeline, then iiiiiiiiiiin it goes! So when in doubt, look around you.)

And one apple seems so paltry. Surely Madame Midsomer would insist on purchasing not just one apple but a dozen, certain she could stop the mayhem of her own doing from destroying the entire town. The seller, however, doesn’t like her, refuses to help, and the magical authorities take her away and everything’s fine and life is happy the end.

After posting the story on my free fiction page, I decided to send it off to an online magazine. They didn’t take it, citing the need for more developed worldbuilding and consistent tone.

Well, poop. I liked it, so the story stayed as is…until this past March.

Something Or Other Publishing reached out with information regarding their latest anthology project and inquiring whether or not I’d like to submit.

Um, sure? Except my current short fic WIP wasn’t close to being ready, and SOOP’s deadline was just a few days. What to send, what to send…

I passed “Tampering” off to another fantasy reader to get feedback. While he liked a lot of things, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the meatballs.

But. I. LIKE THEM!

And yet.

Maybe in this confinement, when we’re so ready for ANYthing to break us out of the rutted dread, I was hoping for those meatballs to just come a’ rainin’ down, blessed by the wind.

But in a short story, where the worldbuilding must be solid in only a few paragraphs, I couldn’t justify having something so oddball as obsessions with meatballs. Even one as out there as Neil Gaiman knows he has to tone things down sometimes for the sake of the readers.

A fresh challenge comes when we remove that presumed Thing from the worldbuilding. To us, that Thing embodied so much of the story, like the meatballs representing the out-there zaniness of my setting. In focusing on that zaniness, though, I forgot to give the setting any sort of history, or rules, or heck, even a name. When we over-prioritize the gimmicky Thing instead of characters or plot, is it any wonder readers question the story’s logic or tone?

This calls for serious inspiration.

I didn’t want this urban fantasy to feel too dated, but I did want it to feel different. It hit me I wanted magic to be a normal thing in this society; at first this was to be through the meatballs, but now, I wanted a calmer presence, something akin to Ingary in Howl’s Moving Castle. Witches and wizards were simply a part of life there. One went to a wizard for spells or potions to protect a voyage, help a crop, etc.

Why not let magic be as natural as a flower from the ground?

*gasp* Or the fruits of the trees?

So many possibilities opened in that moment. A quaint farming community, a town proud of its home-grown magic…because it was unique?

Or because it was dated because the rest of the world had moved on to more modern methods?

Imagine magic factory-made and shipped to big box stores, as pleasantly packaged as a box of cookies, consistently good. Not as good as home-made, mind you, but still, you know, good.

Now this story wasn’t just about a sorceress angrily fighting with a fruit seller. This story was about a community struggling under the weight of a pompous magic-wielder. A town proud of its natural magic and fed up with those who misuse it.

At last, I’d found the world built.

And its name was Pips Row.

“Hullo, Seller!” Madame clacked her way down the walk with the straightest of spines and the most pointed of chins. It made no difference to her that the Seller was addressing a small group of whiny school children and their frazzled teacher on the importance of fruit in Workings and other Spells. “So, just as there’s a fruit for every season, there’s a magic for every fruit. Why, if not for lemons, you’d never have fireworks. If not for holly berries, you’d never have snow for Christmas.”

“Isn’t that fascinating, children?” the teacher said with as much enthusiasm as a slug in a salt shaker. “While most communities import their magic from the capital’s factories, little places like Pips Row carry on the old-fashioned way.”

Old-fashioned, indeed! Madame Midsomer had half a mind to show this frumpish excuse of human being just how “old-fashioned” a Regional Sorceress could be. “Excuse me, Seller?”

“Why don’t people here buy by their magic from Merlin’s Mart like everything else?” One gap-toothed girl asked while licking sprinkles from her fingers.

The teacher opened her mouth to speak, but Madame Midsomer brushed her aside. “Manufactured powders don’t hold a snuff to the real thing, child. Now out of my way. I have urgent business to discuss with Seller.”

Out of the corner of Seller’s eye, he could see the tower of Madame Midsomer’s residence shudder ever so slightly, sending a cloud of pollen from the flowers of her creeping vines into the air. The wind coughed—an unsettling sound to any native of Pips Row.

Seller gave a tight-lipped smile to the teacher behind the little mob. “If you’ll excuse me.”

But this school group was not of Pips Row, and had so far only learned they can throw sweets without consequence. “No! The hag can shut up so you can show us real magic!” the girl said, and the lot of them pitched fistfuls of sprinkles at Madame Midsomer.

This was unwise.

Dear writing friends, do not look upon this time of lockdown as a creative drought. Peruse old works for new potential. Tap the dust off favorite reads for new lessons. Lose yourself in the emotions of music. Look upon the world outside your window, and ask:

What’s hiding in the beyond?

Thanks so much for reading my little explore into this writing experience! If you like the sound of “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer,” then I hope you’ll help its chances for publication by voting on SOOP’s website. If you’ve already voted—

~STAY TUNED!~

Photos and music and stuff are a’comin’ after I figure out yet another school-at-home conundrum.

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

#writingtips from #reading #DonaldMaass to cope with #showdonttell, and a call to #vote for my #fantasy #shortstory!

Hullo hullo! I hope you’re healthy and safe, wherever you are. Today was…well, it was a Monday, make no mistake. But we did get through the morning, and I did get to work this afternoon on revising a short story to be submitted to local publisher Something Or Other Publishing (SOOP).

For those who recall my Free Fiction installments from oh so long ago, there was a tale called “The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer.” I’ve been spending some time revamping this tale for a submission to one of SOOP’s anthologies, and the submission is now complete! All that’s left is for you, dear readers, to vote.

Please click here to vote for my story to be selected for publication!

I didn’t just want this post to be a “meet MY needs” kind of post, though. Tonight while slurping down some reheated beef soup I was paging through Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction and came across a page that all writers could appreciate.

(Well, all writers could appreciate this entire book, but that goes without saying.)

This excerpt comes from the chapter “Inner versus Outer” discussing that ever-nasty writer problem of showing vs. telling. Enjoy!

Writing out what characters feel ought to be a shortcut to getting readers to feel that stuff too, shouldn’t it? You’d think so. After all, it’s through characters that we experience a story. Their experience is ours. Actually, the truth is the opposite. Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.

Here’s an example: His guts twisted in fear. When you read that, do your own guts twist in fear? Probably not. Or this: Her eyes shot daggers at him. Do you feel simmering rage? Meh. Not so much.

Such feelings fail to excite us because, of course, we’ve read them too many times. Those daggers have dulled. What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived–they’ll ring false and fail to ignite the reader’s emotions. ….

Human beings are complex. We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath. There are emotions that we minimize, hide, and deny. There are emotions that embarrass us, reveal too much, and make us vulnerable. Our emotions can be profoundly trivial or so elevated that they’re silly. What we feel is unescapably influenced by our history, morals, loyalties, and politics.….

We’re clear. We’re vague. We hate. We love. We feel passionately about our shoes yet shrug off disasters on TV. We are finely tuned sensors of right and wrong, and horrible examples for our kids. We are walking contradictions. We are encyclopedias of the heart. ….

With so much rich human material to work with, it’s disappointing to me that so many manuscripts offer a limited menu of emotions. I want to feast on life, but instead I’m standing before a fast-food menu, my choices limited to two patties or one, fries or medium or large. …They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels, which is true, but this is also a limited view.

So how does one create emotional surprise?

Be obvious and tell readers what to feel, and they won’t feel it. Light an unexpected match, though, and readers will ignite their own feelings, which may well prove to be the ones that are primary and obvious. third-level emotions. That’s the effective way of storytelling.

Gosh, I love this book. I’m going to keep stealing time away to re-read Maass whenever the kids are busy with school stuff. Craft-talk like this does wonders to the creative fire, especially when it’s revision mode. Do you have any craft books you’d like to recommend? Please do in the comments below!

Stay tuned! I’ve a lovely indie author interview coming! No, I didn’t forget about the homeschool lesson plans or music. We’re getting there. 🙂

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

#Anxiety is not just a #parentproblem. It is a #writerproblem, too.

“But I don’t KNOW what to do, I don’t KNOW!” Bash sits between me and the occupational therapist, head in his hands. Tears run down his nose and splatter on “Glass Man,” the Unthinkable that blows a small problem way out of proportion.  The space after I can defeat Glass Man by____ is blank.

Click here for more on the Unthinkables, a unique approach for kids to overcome behavioral/social issues.

“All I know is ask the teacher for help!”

The therapist and I trade looks. Bash was all fun and smiles for the initial physical activities, but now that we’re talking about tackling disruptive behaviors, he’s shrinking in his chair. The kid so fearless on the trapeze and crash pad is curled up and shaking, his glasses on the table streaked with dried tears.

Inside I ache, on the verge of crumbling just as he. His hands are too small to be holding his head like that. He shouldn’t feel the Fear like this so soon in life. This is the kind of Fear that crushes imagination, courage, hope.

I should know, carrying the burden as I do now. But not then. Back then I feared climbing a tree, sure, but not reading with my classmates. I may have feared taking my bike down that vertical drop of a gravel road to the park, but I never worried so much about my math that I threw away my test and hid in the school basement, only to find out later I had gotten every answer right.

 I cannot solve this for him, I tell myself time and again as I stroke Bash’s back, doing my damndest to keep my outsides calm as the therapist tries to look into Bash’s face.

“But you did such a great job on Energy Hare-y!” she says, her voice just bubbly enough to be excited without patronizing. Her freckled face and ponytail give her the look of a high school baby-sitter, though her diplomas on the wall reflect a solid ten years of medical education.  “You said you should take a break, and that’s just the thing to help a body get the wiggles out and find new focus.”

“This sounds an awful lot like Rock Brain,” I add, pointing to another Unthinkable. “He’s got you stuck real hard.”

Yup, there’s a whole Rogues Gallery of these guys.

Stuck is right. For every tough behavior—inability to sit still, outbursts over small problems, fleeing in fear of failure—Bash’s answer has been, “Ask the teacher for help.”

Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Ask for help. I tell my students that every week. I’ve told Blondie, Bash, and Biff to do this when tackling something new and/or hard. Never be afraid to ask for help!

This is even truer when it comes to matters of mental health. Illnesses like depression and anxiety can isolate a person and make them feel incapable of connecting to another human being. I experienced this first-hand during my years of post-partum depression. Holding one baby boy while another slept, I’d stare out the bedroom window to see other people walking dogs, grilling food, swimming in pools. They were all neighbors, yet impossibly far away. The walls of the house seemed impenetrable. I felt like I was losing my sense of Self, of hope. I’d pray to get through the day, hour, minute without succumbing to the voices inside telling me how easy it was to just walk out of the house and not come back, to make the boys cry for a reason…

Though my sons’ birth cracked open the darkest pieces of me, they were also my inspiration to hammer those pieces to dust. Now Bash is facing his own darkness, one that tells him over and over that he is stupid, that he can’t do anything, that his teacher will be mad because he’s wrong, he’s wrong in everything, that he can’t do ___ because he’s never done it before so he’ll fail and everyone will laugh.

I want so badly to lift the Fear off his shoulders and carry them myself. I want to hold his hand and guide him to the right answers at the right time. I want to see him succeed…

But he will not succeed if I do everything for him.

Some battles must be fought alone. We can provide the tools, the support, the whatever-else-needed, but in the end, the fight is Bash’s and only Bash’s.

It’s not an easy truth for writers to face, either.

Fear looms over us with every submission and book review. For some of us, Fear grips us before we even put the story to the page. I don’t have the time to write well like real authors. I can’t afford to spend time on something that’ll fail. It will fail. No way anyone could like something I write.

It’s a Charlie Brown moment—we just can’t do anything right, not even what we love.

Better to run and hide our creative selves from the world than face the disapproval and derision sure to come.

The therapist gently tugs on Bash’s arm. “Let’s do another break, huh? How about riding the scooter down the ramp five times, and then we’ll try beating Glass Man?”

Bash slowly rolls off my lap. His body’s bent forward so low his hands practically touch the floor as he approaches the scooter. He flops belly first onto the scooter, his legs crooked up into the air. He grunts little grunts, his fingers tap little taps on the scooter, floor, ramp.

He pulls. Just a little. Pulls more. Just a little. Pulls the first two wheels onto the ramp. Just a little.

“Let me help you,” the therapist says, but Bash moves past her hands. Back toward her hands. Away from her hands again. The ramp’s only four feet, and Bash covers those first three feet a lot—up and down, side to side. Yet he does not give up. When he slaps the sticker at the top of the ramp with his palm, he gets there himself.

Bash and Hoppy almost gave me bunny ears for this pic, the goofs 🙂

It’s just a few seconds down the ramp and across the room. But it’s enough to crush the sadness and fill Bash with wild and happy giggles. He runs back to the worksheet, “I can breathe!” he says, and shows us how he can fill his tummy with air and blow out his fingers like birthday candles.

The therapist claps. “That’s great! Say, that’s the perfect way to beat Glass Man.”

Bash grins and hops over to his sheet. He writes BELLY BIRTHDAY BREATHS so big it covers the picture of Glass Man completely.

It’s another Charlie Brown moment, when one’s determination finally eclipses the Fear.

We find the breath in us to move forward across a land of glass and rock and discover we are not such fragile stuff at all. We are capable of incredible feats of imagination and bravery, for there is no greater Fear than the Fear we carry within. Only when we shirk that Fear can we share stories from the deepest, truest places, the kinds of places readers yearn to find.

So take up that kite, writers. You may get tangled, the kite may get torn, but there is always tomorrow and the promise of another chance to fly, and fly far.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Shall we try a little music by Max Richter? Or an interview from yet another lovely indie author, mayhaps? There’s always the difficult discussion of character traits and thrusting abnormal changes upon established characters for the sake of corporate whimsy. Or maybe, just maybe, Blondie will finally get off her duff and WRITE SOMETHING!

Oh, I kid the kid. She’s been working very hard at school and on the piano. Considering she has a few days off coming up, though, I may very likely put her to work here. Mwa ha ha ha!

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