#writerproblems: #characterdeath in #storytelling (Part 1: Noooo, Billy!)

You know the scene.

The kind that makes you go, “NOOOOOOOOOO!” because a beloved and/or cool character is about to die.

Every time. Seriously, every time I see PredatorI say, “Nooo, Billy!” at the screen. As a member of the audience, I’m invested in seeing the characters’ survival against the Predator. I want to see the characters’ skill sets aid them in overcoming the conflicts and obstacles that await them before the journey’s end.

This can be said as a reader of any high-stakes story, really. Look at a few big SFF series for examples. We want Captain Kirk and his crew to survive. We want Harry Potter and all his friends to survive. We want the Fellowship of the Ring to survive. We want Katniss Everdeen and her loved ones to survive. We want Luke Skywalker and his friends to survive.

We know these people are fictional, but there are facets of these characters that connect within us. This makes us care about them, so of course we go “NOOOOO!” when Dumbledore is struck down by Snape, when Prim and dozens of others are bombed by a device made by the Katniss’ oldest friend, Gabe.

And then…

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…and then there are the deaths that just don’t feel necessary.

Now I just want to pause here that I’m talking about this as both a reader and a writer. I get that pain and consequence have to occur in a high-stakes story. You can’t threaten death without delivering at least a little bit of death or you risk hollowing out the stakes.

What bothers me as a reader and worries me as a writer are those unnecessary character deaths. You know you’ve encountered stories with this problem. That’s why I showed the aforementioned Predator clip of Billy. Billy, the biggest and buffest bad-ass of Dutch’s team, stops on the tree-bridge to face the Predator. Why?

xqbict878a3zOn screen, we’re not given a reason apart from MANLINESS. Just look at him, stripping down and cutting his own chest. It’s the ultimate bad-ass standoff!

Only in the story, it’s not the ultimate bad-ass standoff. That’s for Dutch (also stripped down) and the Predator.

So why did Billy have to die?

As a “reader,” I could shrug to “noble sacrifice,” except no other death has bought the survivors time or advantage. Billy would know that. I could also shrug to “acceptance,” since earlier in the film Billy says, “We’re all going to die.”

But as a writer, I think I really know why.

It’s because you can’t have an ultimate bad-ass standoff between TWO good guys and a bad guy. Plus, in terms of physique, Billy and Dutch are an equal match. Heck, I think Billy could have beaten Dutch in arm wrestling.

So Billy had to die.

hta_animated-book-cover_catching-fire_02It feels like when there has to be a bit of death in the story, writers sometimes choose the character most similar to the protagonist. Take Finnick Odair from the Hunger Games trilogy: he’s strong, knowledgeable, another survivor of the Hunger Games (also: pretty). We meet him in Catching Fire, grow connected to his personality and backstory, root for him when he gets married….aaaaand watch him die on the assault on the Capital. Now it can be argued his arc’s complete, so the audience knows who he is. SOMEone’s got to die in a war; his death will have the strongest emotional impact while primary heroine Katniss can continue on.

Fine. Fair enough. At least Finnick got to die on page/screen, UNLIKE BILLY.

Notice how after all his bad-ass preparation, we never get to see Billy fight the Predator. We just hear his anguished scream, and know he’s dead.  Such off-screen deaths drive me nuts. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is guilty of this, too, both in book and on film, when it comes to characters like Professor Lupin and the Auror Tonks. They die during the battle at Hogwarts while Harry’s elsewhere, so we never see their final moments. They’re just dead.

Wow, I went off longer on this than planned. Dammit, Billy, you got me all wound up!

I get that I have to accept beloved characters dying. I just want those deaths to MATTER. You bet your ass I cry when Beth dies in Little Women. I bawl when Clint Eastwood’s character Walt is shot in Gran Torino. I refused to believe Hercule Poirot was really dead in Curtain until I went online for evidence to prove otherwise…and couldn’t find it. Even Dobby, that goofy little house-elf Dobby, had me sobbing both while reading and watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I hated that these characters had to die.

But their deaths help spur the protagonists–and the narrative–forward. Without their deaths, there is less at stake; therefore, there is less concern for the characters.

Now I have waaaaaay more to say about character death, but Bo’s up and given me the giggles by saying, “Billy will always be in the chopper of your heart.” Yes, yes he will!

So let’s pause to talk. Is there a story with a character death that really frustrates you? Should I kill more characters in my own books?

Lastly, be sure to stay tuned to my monthly newsletter. Big changes are coming, and I don’t want you to miss out!

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writerproblems: #sacrifice in #storytelling & in the #writinglife

My NaNoWriMo word count shames me. I owe another writer interview answers. I’m supposed to reach out to a few other writers about co-promotion. I need to market. I need to plan. I need to write.

Yet there’s a tiny, sick little boy at my side, asking for Mommy’s comfort. How long will those tiny hands and tinier voice reach out to me, a source of love in his world?

Oh Bash. You are the source of love today.

I left writing behind that day to nestle with Bash and Hoppy to read Care Bears, talk about school, Christmas, and any think his little six-year-old mind could think.  At one point he looked outside and saw the half-moon, pale and shy in the blue sky. “Look, Mommy, a Dream Moon!”

What kind of dreams does the Dream Moon give?

“Dreams of looooove,” he says with that sly grin of his, eyes all squinty. Then his forehead furrows. “Or nightmares. That’s why you have to go to the Apple Castle and talk to Prince Hoppy.” And so the story went, filled with candy races and carrot swords.

Most stories we read contain sacrifices a bit more grandiose than lost writing time.

~*~

We have all of us had our bloody days, Charlotte. For many it is easier to remain in them than to change. To change requires to face a past stained by screams. (4)Eight years of love went into this novel. One of the most important themes I got to explore in those eight years was that of family. Families are not always connected by bloodlines. So, so often, families are made with stronger stuff: love, respect, kindness, compassion, and…well, sacrifice. On this day of family and gratitude, I’d like you to have Fallen Princeborn: Stolen for free.

Yup. Totally free.

All I ask in return is that you leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Every review, and I mean EVERY review, helps a writer’s visibility in the virtual market.

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writerproblems: #writing the cracks into the tough exteriors of #character

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My sons dress in their Transformer costumes  with giggling hops. “Trick or treating!” They chime over and over, so thrilled to begin the candy feast early with a special Halloween event at the zoo. My little Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are ready to roll out against Decepticons and other devious evildoers in the name of candy.

20181013_160513Our exteriors say so much about us. I’m not just talking about donning the armor of alien transforming heroes, but our behaviors around other people. How we are around others can differ vastly with how we think, act, and exist in solitude. We–and our characters–are so often “more than meets the eye.”

 

hungergamescover.jpgLet’s consider a few examples, beginning with the well-known Katniss Everdeen of Hunger GamesThe story opens with Kat being tender to her younger sister Primrose on the morning before the Reaping, when candidates are selected for the Hunger Games. When Prim’s name is chosen, Kat cries out to volunteer in her sister’s place. Prim tries to stop her, but Kat refuses to give in.

“Prim, let go,” I say harshly, because this is upsetting me and I don’t want to cry. When they televise the replay of the reapings tonight, everyone will make note of my tears, and I’ll be marked as an easy target. A weakling. I will give no one that satisfaction. “Let go!” (23)

From here on out, Kat is about as gruff and curt as she can be with nearly every other character in the book. She knows what it means to hunt, starve, and lose a loved one.  Kat’s determined to survive for her family’s sake, which means she will not let any other tributes figure out her skill set or weaknesses.

But I want to note here that Kat does have a tender heart. It’s been burned, yes, but it’s there, visible any time Kat’s with her sister (and her eventual love interests, but blah blah on that for this post). Had Suzanne Collins merely wrote Kat as a hunter without family–that is, made Kat nothing but her tough shell–then what would Kat’s motivation be? The entire tone of the narrative would change from one of survival to protect to…acceptance? Glory? Who knows?

Heroes and villains both can have these tough exteriors with the occasional crack. And cracks they must have, or again, readers will think the character nothing but the tough shell. Take two of the primary characters in The Boys— Homelander, leader of the elite superhero group The Seven who is also the primary antagonist of the series, and Butcher, leader of The Boys, the group created to keep superheroes in line.

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Each has their tough exterior: Butcher can be a right bastard to people, ready to literally rip someone to shreds for being a “supe.” Homelander, all posh and elegance in front of the cameras, is all too eager to make Starlight have oral sex with him in order to join The Seven. He’s also gathering up all the superheros to support a takeover of the American government, all too eager to cut the corporate leash upon him with a blink of his eye lazers.

Yet this same Homelander will cry in a fetal position in the bathroom, asking himself why he can’t remember ripping up human beings with his teeth. This same Butcher didn’t always swing fists or revel in pain. He had a wife once. He had love once. And because Butcher once knew love, he’s willing to give his fellow Boy and friend Hughie a chance to save his girlfriend Starlight before Butcher attempts to wipe every supe off the planet.

These cracks don’t have to appear often. If they did, then readers and other characters aren’t going to see a “tough” exterior at all. These cracks need only be visible at a few important moments for the sake of plot, conflict, or other narrative element.

0ec02f8f9ecca578aff44696813f0596.jpgConsider the classic A Christmas Carol (Yes, I know it’s only October, but hey, there’s ghosts in this.) The Ghost of Christmas Past has brought Scrooge to his years of apprenticeship under Fezziwig. The Ghost points at Apprentice Scrooge and the other youths praising and thanking Fezziwig and says:

“A small matter…to make these silly folks so full of gratitude…He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge. (49)

See that? For a brief moment, Scrooge is no longer the “Scrooge” we saw at the beginning. The bitter miser has been replaced with a man of passion for his first employer and mentor. Only when the Ghost of Christmas Past studies him and calls attention to the crack does Scrooge seal his exterior back up again. But thanks to this moment, the Spirit and readers both know there is more to Scrooge than the opening pages suggest.

I’ve been thinking about these tough exteriors a good deal with my Fallen Princeborn series, especially with my latest short story,  “Tattered Rhapsody.” The last story in my collection Tales of the River Vine centers on heroine Charlotte: her ragged, “goblin-bent” form of broken fingers and boney limbs. Her quick words and quicker fists. Her music. Her sister. And, at last, a moment of true hope.

One of the elements within a timeless story are complete characters: not just HEROES made only of dash and daring, or VILLAINS only vile and wicked, but people. People who don an armor to protect their inner selves, who only reveal those inner selves when least expected by readers–or themselves. What hopes and fears hide behind your characters’ armor? Set them alight, and let readers see–just for a moment–the cracks in the tough exterior.TatteredRhapsody-TitleImage

Thanks so much for reading. As previously mentioned, the last short story in my collection is now available FREE on Amazon, Nookand other outlets.

TalesRiverVine-Cover-COLLECTION-wBranchesShe’s only eighteen, yet scars cover her body.
Both hands are cut and bruised. One finger is broken.
Yet when she touches a keyboard, angels and demons collide.

She has only two cares: her music and her younger sister.
Because they’re all she’s got—
They give her life meaning.

Meet Charlotte Aegir, a gifted pianist, a troubled teen trapped in an abusive home with no way out—
Until she’s offered the chance of a lifetime, a chance to save herself and her sister.

But little does she know that she’s headed for River Vine, an enchanted land where an ancient race of predatory shapeshifters reside, and where protecting those she loves comes at the awful price of sacrificing everything she holds dear.

This is Charlotte’s story: that turning point in her hard, young life before she awakens into the world of the Fallen Princeborn.

Grandma's Special Herbs

Stolen-KindleCvr-MARKETINGIt’s been so exciting to read comments and reviews from readers. If you snatched a free copy of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen during my ARC giveaway, I hope you’ll share your thoughts on Amazon and Goodreads! You can share your thoughts on the short stories there, too. Seriously, every review makes a HUGE difference for these stories’ visibility on the global bookshelf. Even Kirkus Reviews has some pretty sweet things to say about Stolenclick here and see!

For those waiting to purchase a copy: next week, folks. Next. Week.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

Ahem.

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writerproblems: #creating #trauma in #character #histories

Nobody cries crocodile tears quite like Bash.

“This is a SAD BIRTHDAY!” he wails, complete with a “WAAAaaaaAAAAaaaa” that could drown out a fire truck. My mother holds him, soothes him, to no avail.

Why the tears? Because “There are NO TOYS ARE PRESENTS! I WANT A TOY!”

Meanwhile, Biff sits content with his new collection of Disney Cars stories, and Blondie–who already shed her tears over the fact that today isn’t her birthday–eyes the cupcakes, knowing she at least gets sugar and a race car ring out of the deal.

Despite having received toys at the party hosted by in-laws less than 48 hours ago, Bash continues sobbing until bedtime. “This was a SAD BIRTHDAY,” he declares again, thoroughly traumatized.

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Annoyed as I am, I can’t bring myself to scold him for his meltdown. Our basement flooded two weeks before his and Biff’s 6th birthday, sending the house into chaos. Everything is everywhere. Stuff’s crammed into the garage, piled in the living room. There’s a mattress and box spring tipped on their sides in the hallway. Decorations are somewhere in the labyrinth of tubs frantically filled as water seeped up through the seams of the house’s foundation. We’re all stepping on each other’s toys, books, and nerves.

It’s lousy.

But is it traumatic?

Sure, if you spin it right. Horror fiction’s got a knack for taking anything–like a ruined birthday party–and turning it into motivation for a killing spree.

But if you’re not out to birth a slasher, then what qualifies as “traumatic”?

TRAUMA : a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time. medical : a serious injury to a person’s body.      Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary
So often trauma is used as the seed to germinate our characters’ motivations. We want our pro/antagonists compelled to act in such a manner as to drive the narrative forward. Sometimes that drive comes from the goal that lies ahead: the love interest, the home, the chance for redemption, etc.

 

But sometimes that drive comes from what lies behind in the histories of the characters, and what lies behind them is often traumatic.

The most popular “trauma” I find in storytelling is personal loss. Take comic books, for instance. How many become superheroes because they lost a loved one? Batman–parents. Spider-Man–uncle. Green Arrow–parents. Punisher–family. Nightwing–parents. Flash–mother. Captain Marvel–parents. Daredevil–father. The list goes on for a looooooong time.

Now I’m not saying that personal loss isn’t traumatizing. I should know: I’ve watched grandparents waste away. I drove to the hospital thinking my father ill only to be told at the door he’d died of heart failure. Everyone else already knew, but didn’t want to say anything until after I’d arrived.

Loss fucking sucks, and you’re damn right it changes you.

But there is something cliche about a backstory of personal loss driving one to heroics. Must a character always become a warrior for justice when his parents are shot in a dark alley?

51j9XTR5oZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_No. Take Jude in Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince. A Fae general comes into her house, kills their parents before her eyes, then takes her and her sisters back to the land of the Fae to raise them as his own. Is Jude driven to heroics?

She kills at least two people and readies herself to kill more out of loyalty to her new Fae court. She’s got the drive and calculating mind of her “new” Fae father.

Not sure what Bruce Wayne would make of that.

Trauma doesn’t require death, either. Consider Starlight from the comic book series The Boys. Of all the young superheroes, it is she who’s given the chance to leave her ultra-conservative group Young Americans and join the Seven, the most powerful group of heroes on the planet. She gets there, thrilled to take the last test and make a difference…

…only to discover the test is having oral sex with Homelander and two other members.

Do they force her? Use their own superpowers to render her helpless?

No.

Starlight consents.

And for the rest of the series she has to struggle with that decision and all its consequences.

Trauma’s not just about losing a piece from our lives, but a piece of ourselves. I know this first-hand. When your body becomes someone else’s thing, you don’t want it. You don’t want to take care of it. You want it to remain separate, the real you buried in the bile churning at the bottom of your gut. You separate your soul from your body because if you don’t, then your soul’s as worthless as your body, as much a nothing to be spat upon and left in the alley. That separation means survival.

But survival and living with oneself are two very, very different things. Trauma, from my experience, does not inspire love.

More like the opposite.

We survive. And we hate that we survive.

Athanasius-TitleImageAthanasius, one of the little boys in my first short story “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket,” was so desperate to flee his “survival” of an abusive home that he happily left with the first stranger he met. Fallen Princeborn: Stolen opens with Charlotte running away from an abusive home. We learn in the opening pages that she’s a fighter, so much so she’d rather punch out your teeth than listen to you talk.

That drive to violence–to hurt others before they can hurt us–that’s what trauma teaches us. This can easily drive a character to do terrible things to those around her. But it is also this drive that can be nurtured to make one want to defend others before they get hurt. It all depends on the character’s environment when the seed of trauma is planted.

Again, there doesn’t need to be some dark, extraordinary experience for a “traumatic event” with long-lasting impact. In my serialized novel Middler’s Pride, Meredydd recalls a moment in childhood when an evil sorcerer attempted to curse her family’s land, but was thwarted when child Meredydd interrupted the spell. Sounds pretty traumatic, running into an evil sorcerer. Yet Mer’s driven, obstinate attitude was the same before and after this event. Apart from shaking hands, her body’s the same before and after this event. So what drives her onward into the story’s narrative?

Markee'sA childhood without affection. No one abused her, killed a loved one in front of her. Heck, the girl never even broke a bone, or went a day without a full belly. But year after year of watching her step-siblings receive love and attention while she must catch scraps of love from others outside her family…that can hurt far more than any magic curse.

So consider carefully, writers, whether or not your character truly needs trauma in her past for present-day motivation. Death can make its mark, but sometimes the mark need only be a scar, a touch, a moment of undulated terror. Or perhaps it need only be the gathering of little things, subtle as water beneath the ground to eventually flood over your character, altering her nature for the better.

Or worse.

PrettyRooms-TitleImageAnd what natures are to be found in one pretty little room beyond the Wall? Find out in “No More Pretty Rooms,” the fourth installment in my short story collection Tales of the River Vine, coming September 15th!

Once upon a time, in the hinterland behind a wall of ancient magic, a cruel prince was imprisoned with his fellow shapeshifters. He was born of a wicked king and a very wicked queen, and is ruled by a beautiful but evil mistress who’d slithered up from the Pits below…. Is redemption possible for those who feed on the hearts and dreams of men?

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

#writerproblems: catching #characters

Often times writers are told to go people-watch for character inspiration. This is certainly all well and good if your senses are allowed to wander about the town, in the library, at the pub, and so on.

And then, there’s parenthood.

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(Yes, both Biff and Bash are missing their top two front teeth. God has a sense of humor.)

I thought for sure a trip to the North Woods would give me at least some opportunity to catch a few interesting characters. After all, this is the land of the columned white arrow signs. You better keep your eyes open for these, or you’ll never know where stuff is.

 

 

This is the land of quiet waters, of river-kissing mists departing with dawn’s light.

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Of eagle homes hidden among the oaks and evergreens.

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Unfortunately, the only eagle we spotted all week was this one:

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Still, the kids were all able to find their special little somethings. Blondie found snail shells.

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Bash found his grumps.

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Biff found his chainsaws.

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No, he didn’t grab one (this time). Bo was able to keep the kids a safe distance away from the carving demonstrations at the Paul Bunyan festival.

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I’m not sure what was so Paul Bunyany about it–there was no blue ox, no giant lumberjacks. Plenty of beer and football signs, though. Nothing says Wisconsin like sports and alcohol!

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Just guess how many of these signs are about drinking. I dare you.

Surely a festival drawing in a wide range of tourists and locals would provide SOME opportunity for characters, right? Bo knew I wanted to walk around with my camera, so he took advantage of the chainsaws and stuffed the kids with chocolate-covered graham crackers so I could take a quick look around.

I did spot one crazy individual. Honestly, who dares wear Chicago Bears gear in Packer territory? This woman’s lucky she didn’t get a cow pie thrown at her back.

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Biff notices my absence all too soon, and jumps over to my side of the street. Despite the lumberjack quartet trying to strum banjos and harmonies, Biff belts the theme to “Ghostbusters” at the top of his lungs and dances down the walkway. I hold up my phone to take a video of him singing, but then…oh, but then…

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Who in Sam Elliot is THIS? An older man–70s, I’ll say. Jeans and flannel despite summer warmth. Cowboy hat. Glasses, mustache. Baby carrier. Dog. A wide-eyed, scared-stiff, shaky little dog. In the baby carrier.

Character. FOUND.

So don’t fret if you can’t get out much, writers, or you’re not able to let your eyes wander. Sometimes it’s when our focus is distracted from the hunt that we find what we’re hunting for, and then some.

Speaking of hunting, if you’re looking for a wicked read to welcome Autumn, then I do hope you’ll check out my debut dark fantasy YA novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.

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In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.

Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte is running away with her younger sister Anna. Together they board a bus. Little do they know that they’re bound for River Vine—a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shapeshifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.

You can snatch up a paperback on Amazon today! If you’ve got an e-reader, I have a couple different versions of the novel available: the green edition, which is the first part of the novel for just 99 cents, or the platinum edition containing the complete novel and bonus content. All online versions are FREE on Kindle Unlimited, too!

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

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

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

Nothing wrecks a good story like a lame villain.

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

Not cool.

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

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

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

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Physical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Intellectual

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

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

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

“Are you a victim too?”

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

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

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

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

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

But things would change.

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

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

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

To plan.

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Emotional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May your own villain be as Dr. John Dee: 

Extraordinary.

Flawed.

A devil in need of sympathy.

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of chapter.

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

And, it’s only page 8.

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

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

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

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

End of chapter.

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

Well. We’ve got to see that.

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

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

End of chapter.

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

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

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

End of chapter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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My Self-Imposed #NaNoWriMo to #write in a #summer of #motherhood. (Or, To Create in Bedlam II: Turbo.)

When Aionios Books offered me a contract, I lost all feeling in feet and fingers. I just waved my arms like Wallace scheming to land on a moon full of cheese.

Bo looked at me with a Gromit-ish eye roll, but was proud, nonetheless.

Part of the plan put to me by Gerri Santiago involved splitting my manuscript for Fallen Princeborn: Stolen into two books. She explained that the word count was a bit much for Young Adult.

150,000 words is too much? That’s only 600some pages of…you know, a debut novel from an author hardly a soul knows.

Okay, let’s split it.

The most apt place for the severance comes at the end of Fallen Princeborn‘s second act: the heroes have just battled one crew of baddies and are regrouping before the baddie crew arrives. With Stolen’s new arc set, Gerri has been helping me see areas where world-building can use more color, where pov voices require more definition–you know, the stuff I bother other writers about in my interviews. As Book 1 blooms all bright and pretty, Act III-turned-Book 2 looks more and more…wee.

I open the “book” and scope out its word count.

50,000.

Uh oh.

Where’s the book?

A single act does not a book make. It introduces fresh villains, sure, but Book 2’s narrative can’t pick up immediately where Stolen leaves off without some fresh establishment of the core cast, touching up on the setting, redefining the voices of the protagonists and narrator, and bringing in EVERYTHING THAT MAKES A STORY.

Oh dear.

No, Writer Me, don’t panic. That’s still 50,000 words of material to utilize. Those characters who only got a cameo so they could be saved for later? Let’s flesh’em out now. That whole new breed we introduce but don’t really dwell on? Visit their realm and see what makes them tick. The new villains we get to meet in these 50,000 words? Give’em more words. Let them breed a bit more treachery, let them show their gilded goodness before their truly nasty mettle. And just what are these people, anyway? Let’s wade into the murky swamp of Magic’s history.

Thanks to the severance, these trying times for the heroes have a chance to be truly trying. Why cram all these dramatic moments together? This is a book, not a movie trailer.

But while Fallen Princeborn originally had eight years to mature, Book 2 needs to be rewritten in half a year while maintaining some semblance of motherhood over the little Bs, teaching, writing book reviews, website stuff, and more. These obligations are not going away. By hook or by crook, Book 2’s manuscript must be completed by June’s end.

That’s only, oh, another 50,000 words…the same word count challenge for National Novel Writing Month.  This means writing at 1700 words a day, or fall short of the finish line.

Panic?

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Ever try to write with a five-year-old sitting on your head?

 

No.

Panic wastes time and energy. No.

I once wrote about writing and parenting with all three kids at home. Time to pull out the old plan and crank it up from past needs to present.

First, contact the school district and enroll all three in summer school. Now I have mornings sans kids for about half the month.

Next, dig through all the kid movies. What hasn’t been watched in a while? Save it. Use it during the first chunk of June. If the kids are engaged, they won’t fight for a couple of hours.

Talk to Bo. Work out any days he can get home early, or when home projects can be done on week nights so the weekends can be saved for extra writing time.

See how other writers maintain their NaNoWriMo-ness when NaNoWriMo ain’t goin’ on. Fantasy writer John Robin, for instance, has a great idea for maintaining the NaNo drive off the clock.

https://epicfantasywriter.wordpress.com/2018/05/25/an-ongling-nanowrimo-with-more-flexibility-and-how-you-can-join-us/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2

Yeah, there’s a deadline, and yeah, it’s frickin’ scary. Some days I might only get 1,000 words done, or even less, and then other days crank out an insane 5,000. The point is we can’t afford to think about the time we don’t have. We must embrace the race to write. Steal every minute we can. There will be stumbling blocks, there will be plot holes, but we’ll get to those in the editing. For now, it’s time to hurl ourselves into the story and run.

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What’s the dearest gift a #writing #Parent can give a #Daughter? Time.

 

Blondie zips her Mega Man sweatshirt and pulls its puffy hood up over her long, tangled hair. It’s a Friday night. Daddy’s home. Biff and Bash are racing each other to see who’s going to need stitches first. I ain’t stickin’ around for that.

I’m going to take my daughter out for her birthday.

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What else does a writer give her daughter for her birthday? Her own creative writing handbook, of course!

When writing grew in its priority, it swelled most in my daughter’s space. I’d make her go play on her own when the boys napped, always busy with “school stuff.” She’d even “teach” on a toy computer next to me, just to be close.

I see her now, on the verge of 8, and pray I haven’t set the “Cats in the Cradle” prophecy in motion:

As a parent working from home, it’s already a challenge finding those hours when I can teach kid-free, let alone grade papers and handle student questions. Plus, there’s that awful tradition of the American Summer Vacation. What kind of society demands parents handle their own kids all day for three months in a row? Outrageous!

Blondie’s equally annoyed. “I wish school was all year,” she says in the car, half-reading, half-looking out the window. “I never get to see anyone in summer.”

I wince at this truth. Planning play-dates with kids across three different towns sucks. Other parents put their kids in half a dozen leagues and classes every summer. We can’t  afford a birthday party for Blondie, let alone soccer club. “At least you can attend summer school in the morning like your brothers this year, and make some new friends.” I silently thank God yet again that the school administration allowed Blondie to sign up for their free summer program even though she’s enrolled elsewhere for the regular school year. With all these kids on our street, she’s bound to connect with somebody, and then all the cross-county play-dating could stop. What a time-saver!

Blondie winces at this truth. “I guess.”

Wisconsin doesn’t feel like stepping out tonight. Thick grey clouds block any sign of sunlight. The rain is cold, but not hard enough to clean my windshield of some presents dropped by the robins. “You’ll have lots of time to work on your stories this summer, too. And your inventions.” Every story Blondie has written over her 2nd grade year is now piled on my desk. I want to keep them somewhere special. I want to show her in ten years’ time how she loved writing about puppies and dragons going on adventures despite family funerals involving cancer. I want to show her how smart she was with punctuation and grammar at such a young age, how her voice was already taking shape, even then.

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For now, I get a shrug. “Can you tell me where we’re going now?”

“Nope.” When I told Blondie we couldn’t afford a party…when those big blue-grey eyes looked down, and her big-girl nod of, That’s okay, Mom, like all the other That’s okay’s when I needed to teach, to write…for once, I just wanted to say:

No, that’s not okay, Kiddo. You and I are gonna have some fun together. No boys, no work. We’re gonna go to a party place with lots of music and lights, and a giant disco ball just like you wanted. We’ll have pizza and roller skate and fall on our butts and laugh. For one night, I want you to be the center of my world.

I wanted to tell her all these things, but Bo and I decided it would be better as a surprise. The girl never expects me to be the one to take her anywhere. I’m hoarding my time like coins in an R2-D2 piggy bank: ten minutes reading here, half an hour editing there. A free hour is like finding a soggy ten on the sidewalk. Two hours? A twenty wedged in a park bench.

But when I got that big-girl nod, I locked myself in my bedroom and pulled the R2-D2 piggy bank out of the closet. The minutes jingled like so many pennies scrimped and pinched from across the years. My daughter’s years.

That’s okay, Mom.

I bring the hammer down.

~*~

“We’re here!” I turn off the engine. Skate World flashes on and off in bright yellow. Clusters of families and teens already line up to enter. “This is gonna be so much fun!” I unbuckle my belt and turn around, ready to take her hand and step out and under disco lights.

Her belt is not unbuckled.

Blondie’s eyes dart between the sign and people, never me. “Oh.” Pause. “I didn’t know we were coming here.”

“Surprise!” The bubbles grow in my voice to counter the confusion rooting within. “I know you had so much fun here last year with your friends, I thought this year we could come together, just you and me. No brothers or anything.” I grin.

She does not. “Oh.” Pause. “Are you skating, too?”

“Of course! I’m gonna fall on my butt a lot, but it’ll be fun!” My voice keeps sliding down exclamation marks. I don’t know how many more are left before the bottom.

“But,” Blondie fidgets with her belt—not the buckle, “that’s just a friend place.”

“I see other kids going in with their moms and dads. We can too!”

“But.” This “but” shakes in the air, left out in the cold, rainy space, “but someone bad might be in there.”

I have no exclamation points to counter this. “Someone bad? Kiddo, what are you talking about? It’s just all kids skating and falling on their butts, just like us.”

“But, but, but—”

“But WHAT?” I snap.

Now, she looks at me. Her tears sparkle beneath the Skate World light. “What if someone laughs at me?” Her mouth trembles, and she sobs with such a fear that I am dumbstruck. “Please don’t be mad!”

She must see my face and I can’t lie: part of me is.

I smashed that bank. I brought all those coins and ripped bills of time to exchange for some memories, dammit. I didn’t give up an entire evening of work time to drive through four towns to pull into a parking lot only to have a sobbing child refuse to leave the car over made-up situations about a place she’s only visited once before in her life.

I. I. I.

I take one last look at the flashing lights and laughing kids. Start the engine. Turn around.

“That’s okay, Blondie.”

~*~

Mullen’s is an ice cream parlor on the edge of Watertown’s main drag. I went here with my grandparents after walking the river’s boardwalk to feed ducks. My friends and I often walked here on weekends at the boarding school, eager to trade some cafeteria wages for fried cheese curds and a sundae.

Tonight, it’s just Blondie and me.

Blondie pokes a pink finger through a hole in the brick wall. “Woooow, this place is oooold.” I glare right back at the old biddy with her tidy glass of ice water tisking Blondie’s impertinence and let the waitress show us all the available flavors. Blondie picks two scoops of vanilla with lots of sprinkles, and leads me to the red vinyl seat by the window so she can watch the cars rush by in the rain.

I tell her stories of running through the downpours back to school to make curfew, of the loud screen door always slamming on my little fingers when my own grandmother would get me a treat after an eternal visit to the fabric store. Blondie listens, eats. Smiles.

No disco ball could possibly shine brighter.

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#writerproblems: #technology #grief

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I stand in line at Geek Squad. Again.

The staff has grown accustomed to me over the past year, after my old workhorse of a Toshiba laptop died. Bo and I had just gotten a new desktop to replace the dead one; the budget for yet another technology expense was not there. But Bo couldn’t deny the need for a laptop–if I couldn’t, I couldn’t keep my job.

So when the staff, already astonished my Toshiba lived eight years, pointed to a Lenovo on sale for under 200 bucks, I bolted for a box and checked out. It’s not like I needed anything more than bare bones.

Silly me that “bare bones” meant a computer screen that turns off when I have more than four tabs open online. “Bare bones” meant a power cord port that breaks after six months. “Bare bones” meant a memory card that’s soldered onto the hard drive, so I couldn’t get a bigger memory card. “Bare bones” meant a memory that’s so shitty it couldn’t even function with Microsoft Office downloaded because Office is too big and I couldn’t delete the Office programs like OneNote or Access because Office is a UNIT. You want a taste of Word? Then you swallow Office whole and like it, bitches!

Barely a year owning the laptop–yes, just after the warranty expires–and I’m in line at Geek Squad because no power cord of any kind will work on the laptop now. It’s down to its last ten percent of battery. Windows 10 refuses to properly update due to lack of memory.

I put the Lenovo on the table. Again.

The Geek tries my cord. Goes into the back. Tries one of their cords. Then shrugs. “Yeah, you’re not gonna find anything. It’s a cheap computer. You need to spend at least five hundred to get a good one.”

End of service.

Fuuuuuck.

Just having the money to get the kids shoes is a problem. All three needed new sneakers this spring. That’s a hundred bucks right there.  The boys shredded half a dozen pairs of jeans this winter.

At least they’ll have cutoffs galore for summer.

I’m happy to wear stuff until the holes are so prominent I could be arrested for indecent exposure. I’ll eat what everyone else hates, what’s expired. Hell, I’m starting to give plasma to help cover the grocery bills.

Where the hell’s five hundred bucks going to come from?

~*~

If your only knowledge of pastors comes from the televised evangelists, you might assume pastors are quite the affluent folk.

If you know what a rural church is like, you know how that’s utter bullshit.

Every dollar counted at home. We lived on the hand-me-downs of relatives, on rummage sales, on gifts from farmers. Christmas meant presents from the elderly of our church, rarely from our parents.

So the useful going unused always stings me. All the more for my mother, as much of my father’s things still stand, sit, lay about. His books on doctrine. His comics. His carefully gathered Dr. Who canonized novels. His thousands of recorded sermons, bible studies, coloring pages for Sunday School. All just…sitting.

But today we’re not looking at those things. Today Mom’s pointing to a little Lego display Dad had in his study of Lex Luther in his robot fighting Superman and Wonder Woman. “Think Blondie would like this for her birthday?” she asks.

“Of course!” I say, happy every time Mom’s able to let something go without tears. I glance at Dad’s crown, wishing I could ask for it, but I know Mom still uses it with her own students.

I spot something else.

Dad’s computer backpack.

“I thought Pierce took Dad’s laptop.” Dad had bought a Sony Vaio the year before he died. Spent at least a thousand on a top model, knowing he’d need it for producing services for local broadcasts, bible study presentations, liturgy projections, the lot. Thankfully the church covered a chunk of the cost. That’s probably what kept Mom from going crazy about the price tag.

“He did. He tried to use it, but, you know. It’s hard for him.” Mom sighs and moves a few preschool assessments across the desk. Dad’s old desk.

Yeah, it’s hard.

But sometimes we don’t get to leave something untouched just because it’s hard.

“Are you using it?”

~*~

The first thing I do is change the picture: Dad and Mom outside their mission church in the Dakotas. That much I must do, because seeing him laughing there and knowing my kids have forgotten what his laugh sounds like turns the skin beneath my eyes hot.

Much of the software’s out of date, but Office still works, everything still works. The battery’s not much, but an hour of work time in the car is better than nothing.

I scroll through the files.

There’s so many.

Pictures. God, the pictures.

Pictures of my childhood, of his. I’m seeing more relations here on a dead man’s computer than I have since his funeral.

Hymns he wrote. Sermons. Notes for come-and-gone weddings and funerals.

A newsletter he was working on for Mom’s preschool to be handed out the month he died.

So many writings, begun.

Unfinished.

~*~

“Dad’s computer working okay for you?”

“Great. It’s really helped a lot.” I don’t tell Mom about the scraps of Dad I found in the backpack: post-it notes about contacting Grandma’s doctor. An old bulletin with bio stats and hospital info, all in Dad’s thin, clipped scrawl. I doubt Mom ever looked inside his backpack. I wonder if Pierce even made it so far as to open the laptop itself, with Dad’s highlighters and notes still jumbled up in the power cord.

“Good. It just seemed so wasteful, sitting here.”

I don’t tell Mom I still feel like I’m borrowing this technology with the intent to return it to Dad, say thanks. Share the struggles I’ve had with parenting, faith, maybe even writing.

But Dad’s heart broke a few months shy of his 60th birthday. Despite repair after repair to his throat, his stomach, his legs, one bad break rendered the whole lifeless.

End of service.

~*~

“Ooo, Mommy, you got a new computer!” Blondie peers over from her sketch of the Nautilus. After reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Bo, she’s fascinated with technology altered by fiction–especially if it involves a church organ. “What’s the sticker for?”

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I’ve put such a sticker on every laptop I own, A) because I love the coffee, and B) because it separates this one thing from all the other stuff in the house. I’m the only coffee drinker. Bo hates laptop-sized keyboards. Blondie wants a mouse when she plays computer games. Don’t ask what the boys do with a working piece of anything.

Now Dad’s good and faithful servant holds chunks of my own fiction, analyses, and interviews. It keeps me connected to my students. Right now it’s letting me type this post while “attending” a meeting about cornerstone projects in liberal arts education while also pulling Bash off of Biff in a fight over worms and dump trucks.

My words may not be poetic hymns or thoughtful sermons, but they are filled with study, feeling, and imagination. And now they share a space, however small, with the words of my father.

I think Dad would like that.