#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee and #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 3: Digging #plotholes with false #mystery.

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I’m not the only one who loves Robert McKee!

Nothing grinds a writer like plot holes. Hell, I STILL can’t watch the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban without griping at the screen about the absent explanation of how Lupin understands the Marauders’ Map.

No writer tells a story with the intention of digging plot holes (one would hope, anyway). If a writer loves the craft enough, that writer will do their utmost to tell a complete story, avoiding intentional plot holes like Biff avoids broccoli.

The bugger comes when the story sprawls over the course of multiple installments. Now the writer doesn’t have to reveal everything before the end of Act III. Important reveals can be put off until Act VIII, or XI, or even XIV. After all, what else engages audiences like a good mystery?

You do not keep the audience’s interest by giving it information, but by withholding information, except that which is absolutely necessary for comprehension.

Robert McKee

JJ Abrams has never been shy over sharing his love of mystery. To him, storytelling is all about The Mystery Box, as this excerpt from his 2007 TED Talk shows.

On this page, it would seem that Abrams and McKee agree. If one answers aaaaaaall the questions before the story’s even begun, why should readers care about the story? I can only imagine how readers would have felt if Rowling had wedged Voldemort’s backstory into the first book of the Harry Potter series instead of the sixth. Honestly, I know what I’d have done:

Glazed over it.

But after reading five books about this villain, seeing his various reincarnations and the consequences of his ambitions, I’m dying to know who this dark wizard is and what drives him. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has always felt like the least action-oriented book of the series, but readers are still okay with this because a degree of the mystery is being revealed to them. After the monumental battles in the fifth book, the series’ pacing allowed for a slow-down.

Regarding JJ Abrams and Star Wars, he likely felt comfortable building oodles of Mystery Boxes in The Force Awakens because he expected the later movies to open his boxes and reveal the answers. If we learned eeeeverything about the First Order, Rey, Luke Skywalker, etc in The Force Awakens, then we wouldn’t be curious to see what’s coming in the other films.

A certain amount of audience curiosity is essential. Without it, Narrative Drive grinds to a halt…. But you must not abuse this power. If so, the audience, in frustration, will tune out…. No dirty tricks, no Cheap Surprise, no False Mystery. False Mystery is a counterfeit curiosity caused by the artificial concealment of fact.

Robert McKee

Over-telling too early causes people to forget what is important and be confused by what isn’t. Under-telling, however, can be just as dangerous, and on this, Abrams is VERY guilty. Let’s walk through a few plot holes in The Force Awakens and consider whether or not these “conceals” are necessary or artificial. For comparison’s sake, I’ll use two very different trilogies, one of blockbuster scale (Hunger Games), the other not (Southern Reach).

ONE: The Beginning

I already whinged enough about how The Force Awakens simply dictated the universe must have the same stakes as the Original Trilogy without showing how the heck this galaxy far, far away started the vicious cycle all over again. This information, however, didn’t have to come in The Force Awakens. The first Hunger Games book doesn’t dive too much into the world’s history; instead, we get this information in bits and pieces throughout the second and third books. For the films, this storytelling method worked pretty well, as the first film could focus strictly on Katniss’ preparation and battle for survival in The Hunger Games at hand. In Annihilation, we have no idea where Area X came from, let alone the backstory of nearly all the characters. It’s not until Acceptance, the final book of The Southern Reach trilogy, that we learn the true motivations of the antagonist from the first book as well as where Area X came from. Had all that information been dumped on readers in the first 100 pages, they’d be bogged down and ignoring what really was important, focused instead on whatever words relay the current protagonist’s plight.

So as far as these opening stakes go, Abrams, you get a small pass.

TWO: Pilot Poe’s Survival

As I described in Part 2, the character Finn, our Storm Trooper Turned Good, escapes the First Order with Rebel Pilot Poe. They crash the TIE fighter, and when Finn awakes, he finds himself alone with Poe’s jacket. The ship sinks in the sand, and as far as Finn knows, Poe’s died in the sand already. He says as much to the droid BB-8, and the story goes on, treating the pilot as lost…

…until he shows up at the Resistance base, healthy and whole.

How’d he survive the crash?

Dunno.

How’d he get off the planet without the First Order noticing? They were all over the place chasing down Finn, Rey, and BB-8.

Dunno.

And we never find out.

Now if Poe were a tertiary character, one with little presence in the story or impact on the overall plot, we could probably evade this plot hole without much trouble. Easy peasy–Poe woke up first and got away from the ship. He left his jacket because…well it doesn’t matter. He abandoned his new friend Finn because…well, it doesn’t matter. He got off the planet without looking for his droid BB-8 because…well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he got back to the Resistance to fight another day.

That sure is a lot of “doesn’t matters” for one character’s choice, isn’t it? A character’s choice that, considering what little we do know of the character, doesn’t make sense. Poe’s the one who wanted to return to this desert planet to find his droid, and yet he vanishes from the story entirely to arrive just in time to wave happily to the droid that, by all accounts, he was determined to find. But we never see him try to find the droid, the sole motivation for his actions in the first half of the movie.

A “hole” is another way to lose credibility. Rather than a lack of motivation, now the story lacks logic, a missing link in the chain of cause and effect….Maybe the audience won’t notice. But maybe it will. Then what? Cowardly writers try to kick sand over such holes and hope the audience doesn’t notice. Other writers face this problem manfully. They expose the hole to the audience, then deny that it is a hole.

Robert McKee

What frustrates a writer like m’self so much over a plot hole like this is that it would not have taken much to fill the hole. Abrams could have kept Poe out of the plot until Finn and Rey arrive at the Resistance base, sure. We could have seen him still recovering from the crash, demanding a ship to fly back for BB-8. We could have seen him on a communicator, checking in with ships on any signs of BB-8.

A character’s absence may be forgivable, but not the absence of motivation. When Katniss and Peeta are separated in the arena, we find out later on what Peeta was doing, and his physical/emotional state show proof of this. When the psychologist separates from the biologist, we don’t know what she’s up to. The biologist shoots her at the end of Annihilation, so we’re left to assume the psychologist was up to something nefarious. It’s at the end of Acceptance that we at last fully understand the psychologist’s motivations–and what the hell she was doing at the lighthouse in the moments before the biologist shoots her.

If Poe needed to be removed from the film to give time for Rey and Finn, then so be it. But that didn’t mean Poe’s arc gets to be fast-forwarded to where it’s convenient. He needed to be off-screen following through on his motivation so that when he’s back on screen, he looks like he was off-screen for a reason.

So as far as Poe goes, Abrams, that ship don’t fly.

THREE: Talking Lightsabers That Just So Happen To Be In A Mysterious Box In A Tavern’s Basement

This is the point where I audibly said “Bullshit” in the theater.

Finn, Rey, and BB-8 travel with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to some ancient looking planet’s cantina, where the owner Maz Kanata provides sage advice. While Maz and Han talk, Rey hears something and goes under the cantina into a big storage area, where a faint voice calls from a box. She opens the box to discover what the audience immediate recognizes as Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Maz finds Rey and tells her about the force, but Rey refuses the lightsaber and runs off. So, Maz brings the lightsaber to Han.

“A good question, for another time.”

Say WHAT?!

…coincidence is a part of life, often a powerful part, rocking existence, then vanishing as absurdly as it arrived. The solution, therefore, is not to avoid coincidence, but to dramatize how it may enter life meaninglessly, but in time gain meaning, how the antilogic of randomness becomes the logic of life-as-lived.

Robert McKee

When used well, coincidences help tie together plot elements and propel the narrative along. In the first Hunger Games, for instance, it’s a pretty big coincidence that the other candidate chosen to fight for Katniss’ district has also been crushing on her for years. In Authority, the second book of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the new director stumbles upon the psychologist’s old phone and, thinking it might hold useful data, takes it home. This just so happens to be the same phone the psychologist had taken into Area X on a secret expedition, so of course, that phone has changed into something else…a something that is now skulking around the new director’s home.

On Rey’s desert planet Jakku, there just so happens to be a seller of parts scavenged from other ships, and this seller just so happens to keep some junk ships…like the Millennium Falcon.

While I have a hard time imagining Solo losing his ship, I can accept it being considered garbage; after all, in A New Hope Luke takes one look at the Falcon and says, “What a piece of junk!” So that a scavenger has allocated the Falcon on the planet where Rey just so happens to live is an acceptable coincidence.

That Han Solo just so happens to fly Rey to a cantina where a sage-like character just so happens to have a vault with a box that just so happens to have Luke’s lightsaber that just so happens to connect with Rey…

No.

That is not acceptable.

Had Maz mentioned living in Cloud City (where Luke had lost the lightsaber in his duel with Vader in The Empire Strikes Back), okay. Weird, but okay. At least there’s some sort of intent, a trail of motivation: Force-sensitive Maz discovers the lightsaber and feels its importance, so she keeps it safe until finding its owner. Or Lando’s team recovers it and gives it to Han, who entrusts it to Maz for whatever reason. Heck, in Rey’s vision of the Jedi temple burning and Luke crouched low by R2-D2, Maz could have been there ready to give him the lightsaber, but upon seeing the Knights of Ren hides instead.

Instead, we have none of these things. We have only the Mystery Box, and “another time.”

And maybe Abrams did intend to explain this Mystery Box another time. There were two more movies, after all, and he had notes for the other directors to help keep the storyline unified across the trilogy.

Only The Powers That Be in Disney and Lucasfilm didn’t see the importance of paying off those expectations. They had their own agendas, agendas that would take the galaxy far, far away into a new cosmos:

Political and social commentary.

Disney wanted a Star Wars trilogy that would inspire new and old generations alike to buy millions of movie tickets, toys, and theme park passes. Creating a story befitting the lStar Wars universe was never the top priority, not for them. Was JJ Abrams passionate about this project? Let’s just say yes. But loving a story-world and its characters is not the same as creating in that world. Abrams selected bits of the Original Trilogy he wanted to share in his own way; some of it worked, and some of it didn’t. The plot’s true shortcomings, though, can be summed up in two words:

Why? How?

Too often we are wondering how X happened, or why Z did ___. It’s one thing to have a mysterious villain, or an unknown backstory. But when a writer takes time to establish a character’s motivations only to ignore them until the plot makes it convenient for the motivations to come back, or a writer ignores the older characters’ stories so the plot’s MacGuffin can move to the newer characters, then there are serious problems afoot.

And we haven’t even TOUCHED the flippin’ Death Star 3.0 yet.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

More student assignments are coming my way in a few days, so I think we’ll have a lovely author interview next week. After that, we’ll wrap up The Force Awakens with a discussion of what makes a great villain…and why it’s unwise to go the safe route.

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

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 1: the ignored blueprints of #StarWarsRebels.

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But  the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.  

Robert Mckee, Story

It’s an opening as known as Once upon a time. It’s the sort of opening to calls upon readers to leave the reality they know and enter a story both of the future and of the past—a hero’s journey, a villain’s redemption, a coming of age, a coming together of hearts, of friends…

…and Ewoks.

In other words: timeless. (Except maybe for The Battle for Endor, but anyway.)

The dialogue over Disney’s contributions to the Star Wars universe has been….well, a pretty shitty one. We’ve reached the point where Star Wars fans are like the Yooks and Zooks of Dr. Seuss’ The Great Butter Battle, and if you know that story, you know it doesn’t end well for anyone.

So let’s just put aside our Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos for a second, lean against the wall à la Charlie Brown–

–and talk like storytellers. Not as rabid fans, or haters, or menaces, or warriors. Just people who love crafting good stories as much as they love experiencing them. And what better way to focus on the craft than by utilizing wisdom from one of the most revered voices in storytelling?

Robert McKee has been a revered voice in Hollywood for decades, as he’s taught notable storytellers like Peter Jackson, Paul Haggis, and William Goldman. His book Story is one of the few texts I’ve kept from my hellish graduate school days, as it utilizes films from several different genres to show how smart writing with character development, tension, and scene structure can build a powerful story with which audiences can connect.

It is with McKee’s craft lessons in Story I’d like to discuss the flaws that plague Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. As storytellers, I think we can all agree on some pretty important things are necessary to make a strong story, and therefore understand certain choices that both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson made with their installments. To be clear,I’m not going to bash either director. On the contrary, I think both brought some positive elements to Star Wars that shouldn’t be dismissed just because you don’t agree with all of their other creative choices.

No, the flaw lies in the foundation of the sequel trilogy. Like the parable of the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand, the recent Star Wars trilogy was built without a solid foundation. In other words, the creative powers of Disney failed to do the necessary worldbuilding—galaxy-building, if you will—for the stakes of the new trilogy to appeal to audiences old or new.

In this blog series, I’m going to utilize McKee’s words on story craft to break down where the sequel trilogy’s potential shines as well as where it dims. Every film has its moments, so I’m not going to dwell for a thousand words on one and then just rush through another.

And the truly tragic part? This could have aaaaaaall been avoided had Disney stuck with what it already built.

Story is about originality, not duplication.

Robert McKee, Story

Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rights to Star Wars in 2012, and by 2014 had created its own original storyline in the Star Wars Universe. The story was set between the prequels and original trilogy, a time when the Empire are hunting down any surviving Jedi and the Rebellion is slowly beginning to form.

Star Wars: Rebels ran for just four seasons, but in that time gained a solid following of fans, a good merchandise line, and even splinter stories in books and comics. The cast was a mix of alien and human-like folks, male and female, adults and kids, each with unique talents that came together to create a strong team to deal with a vicious gallery of Imperial foes.

The storyline fit snugly in the between the established trilogies without disturbing any of the arcs of previously established characters in the Skywalker episodes. Audiences were happy to go on adventures with the scrappy kid, laugh at the cranky droid, marvel at the piloting smarts of the lady alien, feel for the Jedi mourning the loss of his brethren…

…in other words, Disney had successfully built a solid setting in this galaxy far, far away that was unique while also adhering to the state of this galaxy as Revenge of the Sith left it.

Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.

Robert McKee, Story

You’d think that for a studio that loves making live-action remakes of their animated properties, bringing a live-action adaptation of Rebels to film would have been the easy-peasy choice for their feature debut with the Star Wars franchise. They had fans happy with the show, they had storylines all written out ready to go, characters fun and fleshed out. All the hard work of worldbuilding, character development, and plotting was already done.

But perhaps, to those Disney Powers That Be, this was the problem.

Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.

Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.

Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.

The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.

Rebels wasn’t enough like Star Wars’ original trilogy, a film series loved by millions across multiple generations. Rebels’ own successes just weren’t enough.

Disney was determined to repeat the cosmic success of the 70s and 80s, and decided the best way to do this was by treating those original films as a formula to follow.

This choice, right here, before ANY director could say “Action!”, marks the beginning of the troubles for Disney’s Star Wars films. Had they begun with a feature film cast with their own characters and followed previously tested storylines, they would have planted the seeds of goodwill among audiences while also learning the ins and outs of producing a sci-fi adventure epic that is a Star Wars film.

Instead, they chose to fly as close to A New Hope as possible. Too close, as we shall see.

~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~

Oh, I’m keen to do some analysis of the entire sequel trilogy, so you’re stuck with me on this topic for a little while. 🙂 But I’ll also throw in some AMAZING music by Daniel Pemberton I got for Christmas, plus there’s some swanky author interviews coming, too.

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

#writerproblems: When Life's River Changes Course (Or, Transforming #Writing shortfalls into Successful #WritingGoals)

Well, here we are. Thanksgiving came and went before I could even show you Blondie’s lovely art project for November.

I do so love anything that reminds me of stained glass windows. xxxxx

I had hoped to share another 1,000 or so words of What Happened When Grandmother Failed to Die with you.

National Novel Writing Month called to my imagination with the promise of storytelling in spite of all life’s commitments. Thousands take up the challenge, so why can’t I? And I was realistic about this, too. I knew 50,000 words was impossible, but surely there could be SOME way to accomplish a meaningful amount of words. I’ve done it before, and dammit, I could do it again!

But if you saw my banner for November, you might already know what changed the course of my plans.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the motherhood. I managed to turn Biff’s day of fever into a quick morning of writing.

No no–it was the teaching. Yeah, the final projects from my University students were once again a big drain on time, but those at least I knew how to manage. The subbing among six different school districts, however, was constantly unpredictable. A small agreement of a three-hour stint would change into a six-hour haul among several different grades. I’d show up expecting to work with a special needs kid only to find out I’m actually teaching 1st grade math to kids more eager to stab each other in the eye with pencils than to just sit the Godfrey Daniel down. (You can decipher that bold phrase if you channel your inner WC Fields.) This doesn’t even include the 5am phone calls of, “Can you come in today? All day. There are notes here for your duties, I think. We’ll look when you get here.”

It was a busy month. Busy, and rough. I’d be rushing from hours spent with a kid who refused to use kleenex and therefore had a steady stream of mucus running from his nose into his mouth while eating his snack and then coming up to hug every single adult and myself and to give us high fives with those same boogery hands and I had to prevent myself from gagging all over this kid OLD ENOUGH TO USE A FRICKETY FRACKIN’ TISSUE and then get my own kids, NOT let them hug me so I wouldn’t spread whatever germs are smeared in green on my person, and grade finals.

And the typical bits of motherhood don’t vanish,do they? Blondie needed to work on her piano. Biff and Bash needed to do their homework, and they needed to attend their occupational therapy. All three needed to be fed with actual food, not just, you know, dog bowls on the floor. (Though that would be SOOOO much easier.)

At the beginning of November, I was certain I could use the same tactics I had in previous years to write while parenting and teaching. And if my life’s course was still just motherhood and teaching online for the university. it could have worked.

But this fall, the course of my life changed when I added the substitute jobs. The river no longer flowed in the way I understood it. It went from this…

…to this.

I missed writing so much.

I wanted life to continue its typical course with my writing floating atop. I might row for ten miles one day, just around the bend the next. But at least I’d be writing again.

Yet at least two weeks of November passed with no writing at all.

I had failed.

“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

C.S. Lewis

That failure hung on me like twin boys determined to make me a tree. It hung on me like the face my daughter used to make when I’d say time and time again, “Not now.” It hung on me like the words my husband couldn’t say because I had to work. I had to do more. There was always more to do.

And that, Dear Friends, is when it’s time to stop.

You may think you can walk upon the river’s stones. You may think you can continue on your course your way because you are you.

That’s what I thought. I put on my sensible shoes and figured I could portage my writing across the rapids without *too* much trouble.

I was so bloody determined to carry my writing through these unpredictable waters that I failed to look on what I had done as any sort of accomplishment.

It’s so easy to get caught up in what we fail to do, isn’t it? We get daily notifications of a gazillion new authors all hot’n’fancy with readers we’d LOVE to have for ourselves. We check out the new best-seller brew-ha-ha and wonder what on EARTH inspires people to spend money on such’n’such garbage when there’s *our* stuff ready and waiting. We hear of yet another remake/re-imagining/reboot/re-whatever and wonder why no one notices the bounty of fresh fiction we create.

We look so longingly at the accomplishments of others that we forget what we ourselves have accomplished. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did work to help keep Blondie in music and Biff and Bash with their therapy. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did inspire my daughter to start her own. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did get to split my sides laughing while Biff and Bash shared their favorite quotes from a Captain Underpants read-a-thon (Seriously, Biff sat and read an entire novel out loud with Bash silently listening. It was AMAZING.)

So Friends, please don’t dwell on what wasn’t finished. There will always be a course to travel, and it will always be a mystery beyond the bend. What matters is that you take a step, then another, then another. One day you may take one hundred steps, the next one thousand, the next, just one. Every single step–every single word–is something to be proud of.

~Stay Tuned Next Week!~

I’m going to start posting on Sundays instead of Thursdays, so now you have to wait until next Sunday for some awesome writing music, updates from Blondie, and perhaps some writing craft study on an old holiday favorite. More author interviews are underway as well, so be sure to stop by and see who’s on the hot-seat in the coming weeks!

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

#Lessons Learned from #TheHobbit and #RobinHood: use the familiar to build, not burn, bridges into your #fantasy #writing.

There comes a time when one must face Truth.

Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)

So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.

The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)

I knew the animated film before the novel itself. “The greaaatest adventure / is whaaat lies ahead…”

Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.

But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.

(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)

The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.

Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…

Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.

Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.

Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.

In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.

Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.

Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.

It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.

Until now!

This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”

O-kay.

So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!

The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.

In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”

The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.

The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.

“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”

At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.

Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.

Anyway.

All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.

So.

The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.

When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.

You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.

And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.

The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?

If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?

But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.

I rest my case.

Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.

Just…done. (That, and there’s a movie review that covers all my complaints and then some.)

Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.

Gah, now I’m just rambling.

I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.

Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.

Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.

Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!

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

#Creative #Children, #Writing #Friends, and a New #Publishing #Adventure

Let’s start with something sweet, shall we?

Matching shirt day!

Blondie finished the school year with a straight-A report card. She was particularly proud of her last story for writing class: “The Invention that Changed the Chicken World.” It’s a suspenseful tale of action and intrigue as Zach, a lowly chicken residing on a dairy farm on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, discovers that special rocks from the volcano will help him build a jet pack. He successfully builds a model only to be discovered by a nefarious squirrel…well here, you read it:

Little did Zach know that two sinister eyes were watching from the trees. Later Zach was walking back to the coop when suddenly, a squirrel jumped in the way! He was wearing an eyepatch on his right eye! Worst of all, he was pointing a GUN AT HIM!!!

“Gimme your rocks, sonny. Then you can have anything you want,” said the squirrel calmly.

“What do you want with MY rocks? Go get your own!” shouted Zach. The squirrel leaped at him, took the rocks, adn sprinted away. Chickens, you might say, aren’t very fast. Zach, however, was just the opposite. Zach ran like a lightning bolt and caught up with the squirrel and took the rocks.

Blondie, “The Invention that Changed the Chicken World”

The tale continues, but Blondie refuses to read it out loud for me, the stinker. 🙂 Her story was such a hit with Biff and Bash that Biff even started his own story:

“a chick who makes a space ship”

Blondie’s promised us all more stories about Zach the chicken this summer, and I’m excited to see Biff truly enjoy drawing and writing. Bash, meanwhile, is turning out some amazing creations with Lego; even we will set them apart so that no one else can wreck them.

The little droids meet Chopper and Orgo. Orco. Or-something.

Next week the boys will finish their school year with an end-of-year party at the carnival on the edge of town–the one that leaves its bones bare to the winter months, and where Biff fell from a platform and took a steel girder to the head.

You can imagine how excited I am for all of this.

GIF appropriately from Kindergarten Cop

But even though the kids are wrapping up their school year, my current term at the university has a ways to go. Plus, I’ve taken on a new job as substitute teaching aid at another town’s school district. It’ll help the family income, plus it gives me a chance to work with kids aged 4-18. If I want to write for these people, I should probably, you know, hang out with them’n’stuff…

(Side Question: Why the heck does anyone think four-year-olds can learn to walk on stilts? These kids can barely remember to use a kleenex, let alone tie shoes, and we trust them to walk with GIANT METAL RODS?!)

Ahem.

Anyway.

Let’s move on to the lousy news next.

In January of 2018 I announced Aionios Books would be publishing my novel Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.

The plans had been to publish the entire series over the course of a few years, starting with Books 1 and 2 to come out pretty close to each other. We individually published six short stories over the summer and fall to help promote the first novel, and on October 31, 2018, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen hit the shelves.

Well. You might have noticed the second novel’s not out yet.

The folks at Aionios Books chose not to continue with my series.

Am I bummed? Of course I am. It feels like that moment in A Fistful of Dollars when Clint’s caught by the baddies after helping a girl escape. They beat him to a pulp, taking extra care to cripple his shooting hand. One look at him, and you’d think he’s a goner.

Only he’s not. He manages to escape despite his injuries and hides away in an old mine. Over the course of his recovery, he slowly, surely, tenaciously, teaches himself to shoot with his other hand.

Yeah, I may be down, but I’m a professional, dammit. It’s a wild world out there in indie publishing, and every fighter’s got to do what he/she can to survive. Aionios made the call they felt was best for them. So, we just need to do our own parts in helping Fallen Princeborn: Stolen stay alive while also adventuring off in our own directions.

In my case…well, first I’m learning to shoot with the other hand.

Publishing solo.

This means I’ve got to do a complete overhaul of my platform: website, social media, the whole kit’n’caboodle. Don’t be surprised if a link’s down one day and up the next–we’re talking years’ worth of posts to revise.

I intend to rework and re-release my six short stories of Tales in the River Vine.

I’m also excited to publish a new tale, a tale that hearkens to those wild days of territories stitched with railways and bounty hunters ready to kill for a few dollars more…

“Between you and me, I doubt they’ve got the know-how to outsmart Night’s Tooth.” Sheriff Jensen narrows his eyes at the poster like he could scare it. “No proper description of the man, and a modus operandi as bizarre as hell.”

“Why bizarre?” Sumac pulls the poster from its pin and stares thoughtfully at Night Tooth’s name.

Now the sheriff goes all quiet again, thinking. He’s really sizing Sumac up this time, like as not making sure Sumac’s not crazy as a loon. “Because they find bite marks in the rail cars’ walls, that’s why. This man’s got a wolf with him, somethin’ big as a bear and twice as smart.”

That’s a whap Sumac’s not expecting. No doubt his lady employer would have a good laugh over that one. “Well, as I see it, Sheriff, some creatures are born into killin’ like others are into dyin’. I reckon Night’s Tooth is of that first camp, wouldn’t you?”

“And yourself?”

The wind whistle-whines against the glass. Another train cries out from the rails beyond La Crosse’s commercial center.

Sumac smiles. He knows he doesn’t have to answer.

And, God-willing, before 2019 ends I’m going to publish the next installment of the Fallen Princeborn series.

“Charlie.”

The name sucks the air clean out of Charlotte’s mouth. Her lungs shrivel, her mind bleached like bones in the desert—

Someone stands out in the middle of the Wild Grasses. Pale arms hang perfectly still against a sparkly shirt. The breeze plays with red hair too bright to mistake. It carries the scent of bus and berries to Charlotte’s nose and stings her eyes to tears. A pink bubble inflates out of the mouth. Baby blues shine like search lights.

Pop. “I’m still waiting for you, Charlie.” Pop.

The Voice rushes to the bellows within Charlotte, brings air and feeling back to her lungs. One, two, don’t let Orna get to you.

Charlotte heaves a breath as deep as she can. Her legs don’t want to move, she can’t move, but she will move. She forces one foot forward, then another, commands her back to straighten, and she screams, “I know who you really are!” She chews the unsaid words “you bitch!” like gristle, wishing desperately to spit them out at The Lady wearing her sister’s shape like some Halloween costume. But even the shape of Anna forces the hateful speech to stick between Charlotte’s teeth. “Go back to your hole!”

“You should have died in the Pits, Charlie. She’s got something a lot worse planned for you now.”

“’She’?” It was just a tiny word, but its reference jabs the Voice in Charlotte’s heart good’n’hard.

Baby Blues grin like some damn playground secret.

“Don’t fuck with me, Orna.” Charlotte’s walking before she knows it, wading into the Wild Grasses, arms swaying fists, teeth clenched, “You’re the one never leaving this land alive, I swear!”

The berry and bubble gum stink to Charlotte’s nose now, all its pungent sour sweetness driving its way up into her sinuses and stinging behind her eyes.

More and more red hair blows over the Baby Blues, more hair than Anna ever had, and it grows longer, longer. She’s engulfed in hair like some Ginger-fied Cousin It.

Charlotte’s almost close enough to grab a lock and yank it off. “Take my sister off!” She lunges forward—

But Cairine’s teeth close upon Charlotte’s shirt, her nose a sharp chill on Charlotte’s neck. Cairine pulls Charlotte back as a bubble pops under all that impossible hair. A new voice grinds under Anna’s punctuated soprano:

“Let’s not rush. I’m still owed a sweetheart.”

Red hair spins round, tightens, stretches, into a giant red bubble. It floats above the wild grasses and pops to the echoes of girlish laughter.

In the meantime, I’m excited to spend June celebrating my dear friend Anne Clare–she’s releasing her debut novel this summer!

I’ve known Anne for decades, and like me, Anne’s been balancing teaching, family, and her writing life. For years she’s been researching and crafting a story that spans countless miles and years–just like our friendship. xxxxx

I am so, so proud of you, Anne!

I’ll be interviewing Anne and the impeccable James J. Cudney, who has another cozy mystery on its way to bookshelves next month.

What else lies in store? Oh, some world-building craft, methinks, and a study of the incredible Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. I shared one composition of his weeks ago, but it haunts me still. Let this song carry you on its magic into next week, where we sit, and listen, and imagine together.

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

#writerproblems: #characterdeath in #storytelling (Part 2: melting shoes and raising stakes)

In my January post about character death, we discussed the traumatic moment of a beloved character’s death. I loved reading your comments on how character deaths can be utilized to help strengthen stories. The ever-lovely author Shehanne Moore nailed it when she said:

A threat is a threat. End of. People can’t go up against the big guns and come out unscathed, or be labelled ruthless warriors and then be pussy cats. On another level life doesn’t always end happily with rose tinted sunsets.

These past few months, I’ve been struggling with the Act 1s of stories littered with murder and mayhem–mainly mayhem. It hit me, then, or at least while describing a corpse, that the Unknown’s Death can do wonders in making a story compelling to readers.

Now I’m not just talking typical Red Shirt Deaths. The lovely Cath Humphris referred to this kind of death back in January:

Which deaths irritate me? Well, it’s not so much in books, as on screen, and hopefully these days less usual to see. I mean those dramas when you can pick out who who will be ‘knocked-off’, pretty much from their introduction, because of their race or gender. A lot of the old ‘B’ movies and detective series were extremely lazy about the introduction of ‘canon fodder’ characters. It’s such a shame, because some of these stories were otherwise entertaining.

I and many others label these “Red Shirt Deaths” in honor of the original Star Trek show. Whenever the Enterprise crew explores an alien planet, some random security officer dies.

The Red Shirt Death is meant to make the “life or death” stakes clear to both the characters and the audience of that given episode. The audience, however, knows full well that Shatner and Company aren’t going to get killed, so there’s not exactly much tension when a Red Shirt dies.

But the Unknown Character Death done right can burn into your reader’s psyche and leave a scar for years, and years, and years.

I mean, you know that scene.

The kind that traumatized you as a child. The kind that glued you to the story even though your little brain’s utterly horrified and wants your body to flee to the safety of your mother’s lap, your father’s desk.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out when PG meant “Pare down the Gore.” So long as characters didn’t have sex, drop F-bombs, or remove each other’s intestines on screen, the movie was considered family friendly.

I still. Remember. That screaming.

A shoe, screaming.

You only saw the shoe in that one scene.

You sure as hell didn’t forget it.

And just look at the reactions of Detective Valiant and the other officer. They are horrified. When grown men who carry guns are horrified of a toon dying, you bet your boots a kid in the audience is cowering behind her dad while he talks about Star Trek V (Dad talked A LOT during movies.)

In this one moment, we get:

  • The judge’s disregard for toon life
  • That toons, previously thought impervious to death, can actually die
  • That the protagonist humans regard toon life with at least some respect
  • That the protagonists would rather protect a toon wanted for murder than hand him over to this judge

The stakes have officially been raised because we now have visual evidence of the consequences that will be met if Roger Rabbit is captured. We now know the lengths to which the villainous judge will go in order to have his way. Detective Valiant now knows what he’s up against.

We the audience now know what the good guys are up against, and we’re scared to death for them because we’ve seen what will happen if the bad guys get them.

Another ’80s example comes in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic Dark Crystal. The scene’s so terrifying that YouTube won’t even let me share the scene, so I’ve got to link you to the moment where an evil Skeksi is draining the life essence from a podling and traumatize you that way.

Does the podling die? No.

Then it’s not character death, Jean!

Hush, yes it is. This creature’s life has been drained. We’ve witnessed a living being undergo a damning transformation into a zombie.

This may as well be death.

Once again, this is a moment that

  • establishes the power of the evil Skeksis
  • displays the evil Skeksi’s disregard for innocent life

THAT’S IT!

That’s what makes these deaths so horrifying:

We’re watching the innocent and vulnerable be rendered lifeless.

These aren’t armed podlings. The shoe wasn’t trying to kick the judge and take him down. These are innocent, unarmed creatures completely unable to fight against the threat.

When we see them die, we realize the villains are without mercy or conscience. We must watch on to see the heroes take the villains down because those villains must be held accountable for their actions.

So.

How to swing this in a book?

Let’s return to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I wrote a post on this book some time ago as a great study in world-building; this time, let’s see how they handle a character death in the first two chapters.

On page one, we meet the expedition team into the mysterious Area X, and the narrator of this novel is the biologist. The others are the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Why no names?

I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. (9)

That’s why.

The stakes feel raised at this point. We know something goes wrong with the surveyor and psychologist, but we don’t know what. We follow the biologist and her team investigate a peculiar structure near the base camp of abandoned by previous expeditions, and wonder when things will go wrong.

We don’t have to wait long.

The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, as if she hadn’t slept.

“Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question… (38-29)

The surveyor and biologist go into the structure and walk the seemingly eternal stairs downward to discover new footprints, and beyond them, they discover:

It was the body of the anthropologist, slumped against the left-hand wall, her hands in her lap, her head down as if in prayer, something green spilling out from her mouth. Her clothing seemed oddly fuzzy, indistinct. A faint golden glow arose from her body.

Something clicked into place, and I could see it all in my head. In the middle of the night, the psychologist had woken the anthropologist, put her under hypnosis, and together they had come to the [structure] and climbed down this far. (60,63)

We’re only in Chapter 2, and one character–one of the only four characters in this novel–is already dead.

It’s not like we knew the anthropologist. The biologist seemed to barely know her, let alone care about her as a human being. But by killing a character this early in the story, we know the stakes are raised. Not only do we see what Area X can do to a human being, but we realize one of the human beings in this expedition is willing to kill to achieve her ends. We readers need to see that psychologist be held accountable. We need to see the biologist escape Area X, so we read on.

There’s a power in the sacrifice of the innocent life to the villain’s ambition.

Use it wisely.

How about you? Have you ever seen/read the Unknown Character Death used effectively? I’d love to know!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Things are going to get personal here about family, friends, and the future of Jean Lee’s World.

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

#AprilShowers Bring #AuthorInterviews! Let’s Wrap up #IndieApril with more #inspiring thoughts on #writing #serial #fiction & #publishing #indie #SerialReads on @_Channillo

Why yes, my friends, it is Tuesday and NOT Thursday. What am I doing here on a Tuesday? I didn’t want to let the last day of #IndieApril go by without promoting more lovely indie authors. Fellow Channillo writers Daniel J. Flore III & Christopher Lee didn’t get a chance to share their serial goodness when I originally promoted Channillo’s authors back in January, so I’m rectifying that now. Enjoy!


Hi, my name is Daniel J. Flore III and my poetry titles on Channillo are the Arrows On The Clock Are Pointing At Me, Venus Fly Trap, Little Silver Microphone, and Letters to the Weathergirl.

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My name is Christopher Lee and I am the author of Westward, a Channillo exclusive serial release occult fantasy that blends X-Files and the Magnificent Seven.

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What made you choose publishing your work as a serial as opposed to a collection/novel?

DAN: I have collections with my publisher GenZ, Lapping Water, Humbled Wise Men Christmas Haikus, and Home other places I’ve yet to see. Channillo has been a good place for projects of mine that I view as smaller endeavors.


CHRIS: For one I love to write as if my story were being presented as a TV show, each chapter I write feels like an episode of a show to me, so it made sense to present it this way. The format of serial publication allows me to work on my story at the same time as I get feedback from readers on previous chapters, etc which in turn helps make the story better down the road.


What benefits have arisen with plot, character development, and/or voice as you write a serial?

DAN: It’s fun to write these poem-letters in “Weathergirl.” I call it soap opera poetry.


CHRIS: It takes a huge load off of the authorś shoulder to know that they don’t have to crank out a huge manuscript in order for readers to access their work. There is a flexibility that I mentioned before that allows the writer to breath, take a step back, and then return to the keyboard recharged and excited to write the next chapter of the story, not to mention it keeps the readers hungry for more.

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I concur about that load being shirked off! However, I know one problem I have when posting my own Young Adult Fantasy MIDDLER’S PRIDE is publishing on time.

What challenges have you faced writing serials?

CHRIS: Honestly, I have not faced any, save that classic HIT THE DEADLINE. When I began to write Westward, I had a fully developed story arc with complete show/chapter ideas. This allows me to simply sit down and write the next installment, whereas had I not done so I might have run into an issue of keeping the story straight, so to speak. Ultimately it is all about consistency when running a serial. You need to market it consistently and produce the content on time so that your readers know they can count on you. After all, there is nothing worse than investing time as a reader in a story that dead ends.

DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is about a man writing to a news anchor and the reader doesn’t know if he is a deranged fan, or a fan, or her actual lover and I haven’t had any problems developing that. I’m very fortunate.

Now while I myself have never published any poetry, I find it a pleasure to read! It seems to fit well with the serial form. Because I’ve written Middler with the serial publishing platform in mind, I find myself constantly looking for little arcs or episodes to write within the larger novel-arc. How do you feel your writing and/or genre’s been affected by publishing it in a serialized form?

DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is weekly so when holidays turn up I like writing themed segments. The arrows on the clock are pointing at me was like a fun dumping ground for unpublished poems and I hope to maybe start another series like that. Venus Fly Trap kept my haiku skills sharp and Little Silver Microphone explores recordings both home and live.

CHRIS: I primarily write in the fantasy genre, which I believe is aided by the format. Fantasy in some ways suffers from the drudgery of 600+ page novels that remain inaccessible to the general public at large. Many consumers of media want smaller bites that they can digest while they ride the bus, an Uber, or just before bed, etc. Just look at Netflix and the advent of binge watching or in this case binge reading.


What do you think draws readers to read serial (non)fiction?

CHRIS: Accessibility and consistent content creation are the two major things for me. One that readers can have an a la carte or buffet experience with different genres, authors, and styles. Two is that there isn’t a huge delay between content dumps from the authors, its the exact opposite of the George R.R. Martin effect, for example waiting for years for a conclusion to the story you as the reader have invested time in.

DAN: I like to read serieses on Channillo because I find it relaxing, interesting and a cool thing to catch up with. “The Domesticated Poet” by Kerriann Curtis is one on there I enjoy for those reasons.

Do you receive any reader feedback on your writing as it’s posted? What do you do with those reader comments?
DAN: Yes, I do. I’ve gotten great feedback that has meant a lot to me. Sometimes I post quotes about my series on the work’s homepage.

CHRIS: If I am being honest, I have not received much in the way of comments via the Channillo platform, but I have been contacted via Twitter, Facebook, and email from readers who have given me some of the most constructive feedback I have gotten to date. It is a really cool experience to have that level of connection with the reader. Usually what I do with said commentary is to implement whatever makes the most sense to the story, all while keeping the core message of the reader close to heart.

What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to give serialization a go?

CHRIS: First and foremost you need to have a fully developed story before you kick the thing off. If you don’t have that, then you run the risk of hitting a dead end that could cause you massive problems. Ultimately a plan will save your booty if you get in a pinch.

DAN: Make sure you do your installments on time with interesting material to help build an audience.

I found this quote published in The Washington Post back in 2015, and I’d like you to comment on it:

Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. … Yet it requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum — a value that needn’t come at the expense of integrity.  –Hillary Kelly, “Bring Back the Serialized Novel”

CHRIS: Kelly makes a great point, though the critics of serialization see it as low art or cheap in quality, I find the process to be far more rigorous. You can simply slap crap together and throw it at the wall and hope that it sticks. In fact, you have to take even more time to craft a tight narrative, then you would in the case of a novel. To run a successful serial you have to keep your readers hooked. In the traditional method, example a fully fledged novel, once they buy your book, the transaction is largely done, you have the readers money, whether or not they come back for subsequent books is altogether another animal. With a serial, you have the flexibility that you don´t have in the traditional sense, and that is the true strength of serialization.

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, guys, and good luck building those Channillo stories! You’re reminding me I need to update what’s going on with Meredydd…

In the meantime, check out these authors and other amazing folks at Channillo. You can scope out their amazing store of stories FREE for thirty days. Who knows? Maybe you’d like to write for them, too!

Tomorrow I’ll be compiling all the indie author interviews from this month and sharing them on my newsletter, along with a couple updates on my own writing. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out!

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

#writer, your body does not define your #writing voice: a response to the #YA #cancelculture among #readers and #authors

Purity tests are the tools of fanatics, and the quest for purity ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the quest for power. 

Jennifer Senior, “Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture”

There is a darkness creeping along the edges of Twitter. Like the Nothing from Neverending Story, it haunts authors with hushed whispers until it moves in swiftly with a power unmatched by any other.

It is the Cancel Culture.

I had not heard of cancel culture until last month, when debut YA author Kosoko Jackson pulled his book from publication because he was accused of being insensitive to the Muslim community. You can read the account here. Like article writer Jennifer Senior says, there’s a strong sense of irony that this YA author pulls his book after he and others demanded YA author Amélie Wen Zhao pull her book due to evoking “an offensive analogy to American slavery.” Click here for that article. (Oh, and here’s another article I found while editing this post that mentions yet another YA book mobbed by cancel culture.) This issue’s grown to such a point that PENAmerica recently held a panel featuring a diverse array of writers and critics to discuss the matter–click here for that, as it’s a thought-provoking read.

Whether you wade through all the articles or not, I really want you to see the quote from Jackson that speaks to this stormy state of YA Literature:

What Jackson’s case really demonstrates is just how narrow and untenable the rules for writing Y.A. literature are. In a tweet last May, Jackson himself more or less articulated them: “Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during life-changing times, like the AIDS epidemic, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?”

On the one hand, I LOVE the idea of bringing all the voices from all the walks of life onto the page. No one’s voice is worth less than another.

But while the cancel culture and purists may say they are fighting for diversity, their words come off more as calls for segregation.

Case in point: American Heart by Laura Moriarity. Initially her book was awarded a starred review from Kirkus…until cancel culture called for otherwise. Not only did Kirkus pull its star, it completely altered the review. Click here for a comparison of the two reviews. The New Yorker even did an editorial on “problematic” book reviews, (click here for that) and I think writer Ian Nolan’s conclusion on criticism is worth noting here:

…criticism exists in different flavors, but its defining feature is an individualism of response. That response can be wise or unwise, popular or unpopular. A reviewer can squander authority by seeming too often at odds with good judgment. But, without critical autonomy, the enterprise falls apart. The only reason to hire a critic, instead of giving a megaphone to the crowd, is that creative work—books most of all—isn’t processed as a collective. People make sense of art as individuals, and their experiences of the work differ individually, too. A reviewer speaks for somebody, even if he or she doesn’t speak for you.

Ian Nolan, “Kirkus Reviews and the Plight of the “Problematic” Book Review

In an age when people are supposedly only making books (and movies, as the bickering over Captain Marvel shows) for certain groups of people and NOT for the general public, I would like to ask this:

Why must my body define my voice?

I am a white woman born of two white parents in the Midwest. My parents both worked for protestant churches, and together barely made enough to make ends meet. Frugality was the name of the game no matter where we lived, be it a small farming town up north, or deep in Milwaukee’s North Side.

My father was born and raised in Milwaukee in a tumultuous time. White flight, housing discrimination, police brutality, and the Civil Rights movement all boiled over to overwhelm the inner city and scald it with the Milwaukee Riots. I can’t imagine how this affected my dad, seeing the death, the pain, the hundreds upon hundreds arrested in a war for equality. Maybe taking that Call to serve his childhood church in Milwaukee is answer enough.

Milwaukee has become infamous for being one of the most segregated cities of America. We saw it then, that first Sunday: even though the church is situated in a densely populated area, only a handful of elderly white people sat in the pews. Not a single resident of the church’s neighborhood attended. No one had tried to connect with the predominantly African American community. They had merely preached to their own.

I think Dad saw this and remembered the prejudice and anger that had poisoned his town so deeply in the 1960s. It would explain what he did next.

Juneteenth Day comes every 19th of June to celebrate the emancipation of slaves in 1865 in the last “holdout” state (Texas) after the Civil War. Dad reorganized the church’s annual outdoor picnic to be held in June as close to the 19th as he could get. He invited a gospel choir directed by a friend of his in a church from Milwaukee’s East Side, another struggling area. Then he reached out to the congregation’s few young members to form groups for canvassing the neighborhood, leaving flyers of invitation to the church’s outdoor service. With a mixture of words from the Bible and Civil Rights activists, Dad preached a message of Love, Equality, Justice, and Hope.

If I am to take this cancel culture to heart, then my father should not have worked to heal the old neighborhood. He was a middle-aged white man; therefore, he cannot possibly connect with those of a different color. He should have kept with his own kind. We should all only keep to our own kinds.

That mindset might help explain how Milwaukee was deemed “America’s Most Segregated City” in 2016.

Have we forgotten what it means to look beyond ourselves?

Have we forgotten what it means to have empathy?

em·pa·thy
[ˈempəTHē]
NOUN
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Oxford Dictionaries

Why must my body define my voice?

Stories have a power completely, utterly unique: they can take a person born in one body, and transplant them into another. That body could be living three hundred years ago on the other side of the world, or three hundred years into the future buried deep beneath the earth, or even three thousand universes away. When we take the age-old writing lesson of “write what you know” and give it the Orwellian twist of “write only what you know,” we limit that power severely, dangerously.

When we limit that power, we limit our ability to empathize with one another. We lose our ability to connect with those beyond ourselves. We begin to turn away from the wealth of a diverse world, and huddle with our own kind.

No.

Do not let others take your power away. There are countless worlds inside of you, filled with people of all cultures and creeds. You have every right to bring those people to the page.

No voice should be fettered by the body it’s born in.

I’m still pretty wound up about this, so if you feel like talking, add your comments below! If you’re new to my site, welcome! You are welcome to sign up for my newsletter, check out my free short stories, or pick up my first novel, which is free on Kindle Unlimited. Thanks for coming by!

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

Lessons Learned from #HollyBlack: #write a #hero with #hopesanddreams for compelling #fiction

A lot can happen in sixteen years.

A boisterous kid becomes a moody teen.

A free-spirited college student becomes a career-obsessed adult.

A writer becomes a…writer? Yes, still a writer. But a stronger writer.

I’m looking at you, Holly Black.

This woman’s got phenomenal talent. Black’s written books that lure you to dive head-first into her world. She’s got a strong following of readers, and one look at books like The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King show why. The relationships are complex, the conflicts compelling. We want to see what these characters do next, especially Jude, the teen protagonist.

Now I’ve talked a bit about Jude before, both in my post on tragic backstories as well as dissecting one of the briefest chapters ever written. Today I want to return to Jude because of another Holly Black title, the first Holly Black title:Tithe.


Sixteen-year-old Kaye is a modern nomad. Fierce and independent, she travels from city to city with her mother’s rock band until an ominous attack forces Kaye back to her childhood home. There, amid the industrial, blue-collar New Jersey backdrop, Kaye soon finds herself an unwilling pawn in an ancient power struggle between two rival faerie kingdoms – a struggle that could very well mean her death.

So over the course of sixteen years, Black wrote two different series about two teen heroines dealing with faeries. Fairies. Fae. However you spell it.

I–and many other readers, I imagine–connected with Jude because of her hopes and dreams. Jude is a girl struggling for identity inside her mostly Fae family as well as the Fae society. She witnessed her human parents’ murder by a Fae general, was then ripped away from the human realm along with her twin sister and half-Fae sister to be raised by that same general, and now attends school with other Fae gentry. She is living, breathing evidence of her mother’s desertion, yet this general fathers Jude like one of his own. In turn, Jude yearns to train and serve the Fae royalty as a knight despite being mortal. She loves her little brother, the Fae “son” of the general and his new wife. This is a girl fighting to make a place for herself in a world not created for her. She’s so desperate to make her mark in the Fae courts that she’s willing to kill in order to achieve her dream.

And then, there’s Kaye from Tithe.

Lots of people like this book, so I assume they must like Kaye as well.

But for me…look, this isn’t a roast of of Tithe. There’s plenty of strong elements here, and when one considers this is Black’s debut novel, those elements should be all the more commended. She blends Faerie and human realms seamlessly. The Fae are quite unique between Seelie and Unseelie. The black knight Roiben provides a wealth of inner conflict: magic compels him to do despicable things under the command of the Unseelie Queen, including killing a friend of Kaye’s. When we read from his point of view, we learn just how much he hates himself because he so often he has no control over his actions. A reader’s sympathy for him grows with every chapter.

And then, there’s Kaye.

Kaye took another drag on her cigarette and dropped it into her mother’s beer bottle. She figured that would be a good test for how drunk Ellen was–see if she would swallow a butt whole.

This is the first paragraph of the Prologue. This is our first impression of Kaye.

Already I’m wincing, but maybe that’s my prudish Midwestern nature. Plenty of kids have shitty parents, drinking parents. Plenty of teenagers pick up smoking. Turns out Kaye’s mother sings in a lousy club band and is dating one of its members, the “asshole Lloyd.” During the wrap up after a gig, Lloyd for no understandable reason tries to stab Kaye’s mom but Kaye stops him. (It is later learned he’d been entranced, for the record.)

We’re only a couple pages in, and Kaye’s witnessed an attempted murder. Normally this sort of thing, especially when family’s involved, would leave some sort of mark on a person, be it physically, emotionally, mentally, or all three. This is something that spawns nightmares, phobias, fixations on danger and/or thrills.

Yet Kaye and her mother Ellen only talk about moving in with Grandma. No confusion or anger over what Lloyd did. No fear over how they’re going to live next. No anxiety over whether or not Grandma will accept them after a six-year absence. Just…

“Honey,” Ellen said finally, “we’re going to have to go to Grandma’s.”

“Did you call her?” Kaye asked. …

“It’ll be a little while. You can visit that friend of yours.”

“Janet,” Kaye said. She hoped that was who Ellen meant. She hoped her mother wasn’t teasing her about that faerie bullshit again. If she had to hear another story about Kaye and her cute imaginary friends…

As you may have surmised, this is when Kaye started to lose me.

Yet I kept reading. Openings are tough. Kaye’s got to get back to her childhood home somehow, soooo okay, this works. Now Kaye’s on the New Jersey shore, walking and talking with her friend Janet on their way to hanging out with boys.

“Kaye, when we get there, you have to be cool. Don’t seem so weird. Guys don’t like weird….don’t you want a boyfriend?”

I had to stop there.

What did Kaye want?

From my impression of Kaye’s memories of her mother falling asleep in toilets and attaching herself to loser after loser, Kaye clearly doesn’t dig the life of a traveling musician. Yet her grandmother’s demands that she attend school are met with the same lack of enthusiasm.

In fact, Kaye doesn’t talk about anything with enthusiasm except Roiben, a lone faerie she helps on the roadside.

“Look, I’m only going to be in town for a couple of months, at most. The only thing that matters is that he is cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die beautiful.” Kaye waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Perhaps Kaye is a girl who’s never allowed herself to dream. We can be like that too, I suppose–too fearful of failure, too weary of life’s obstacles to dare hope for anything beyond what’s in front of us.

So when Kaye is told she herself is a faerie who’s been glamoured to look human since birth, she…well, what do you think?

She was shaking her head, but even as she did it, she knew it was true. It felt true, unbalancing and rebalancing her world so neatly that she wondered how she didn’t think of it before now. After all, why would only she be visited by faeries? Why would only she have magic she couldn’t control?

Such a revelation alters everything: her human family’s not really hers. She’s not human at all. Any hope, any dream she had for her future must now be sacrificed–

Hang on.

She didn’t have any aspirations. This revelation, this life-altering revelation….just what exactly does it change inside Kaye?

I’m going to stop dissecting Tithe here. I’ll still recommend it for the world and for the conflicted Fae knight Roiben, but I cannot recommend Tithe for its heroine. For all her dislike against her grandmother’s “normal” lifestyle and her mother’s alcohol addled life on the road, has she honestly not once hidden a special passion for something to keep herself sane? One would think it’d be her “cute imaginary friends,” but Kaye’s first reference to her Fae visitors from childhood was “faerie bullshit.” So as of the beginning of this novel, faeries were no longer special. She keeps no journal, no art, no collection of little things she’d never dare show her mom. Even Janet, the one friend she’s been emailing from libraries, is completely blown off once Roiben comes onto the scene.

Readers care about characters who care. The character may be a jerk in many ways, but even jerks can have a soft spot. Jude committed murder in The Cruel Prince, yet I still found myself rooting for her. Why? Because she was fighting for her kid brother’s safety. Because she wanted the enemies of the old Faerie king to pay for their treachery. She gets her heart broken by one Fae boy while finding her fate entwined with another. Jude IS passion–hardly the “he’s so dreamy” passion, but the “I want my family to survive a coup” passion. The “I want to LIVE” passion.

That’s passion any reader can feel beating in his/her own heart.

Kaye never seems to feel that. She simply floats along whether she’s human or faerie, accepting whatever situation she’s placed in, fearful only of losing Roiben.

How often are we telling our teenagers not to wrap their entire lives around one other human being? To have their own hopes and dreams, because someone who truly loves them will love those dreams and help find a way to achieve them?

Love can be a powerful force in a fantasy, to be sure.

But so is hope.

So are dreams.

Which fictional hero or heroine inspires you to dream? Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks, too, for your encouragement during my saga over the full-time slot at the university. I didn’t get it, but I’m hopeful for the next time. 🙂

Don’t forget to pick up the March edition of my newsletter!

And if you’re a fan of dreamers (and stories of dreams gone fantastically awry) I hope you’ll check out my novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. It’s free on Kindle Unlimited, and my short story collection Tales of the River Vine are all free to download from Amazon, too.

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

#writerproblems: #writing a #cliffhanger vs. a #standalone in a #novelseries

I’m going to pause before I even begin in order to say how amazingly patient you all have been for enduring this 30-day blog-o-thon. I’ve been doing my damndest to catch up on reading your sites, but I have a feeling it’s going to take a month of NOT writing just to see all that you lovely folks have done during this cold, snowy month.

During one pre-dawn hour set aside for morning coffee and blog reading, I came across an old book review by the amazing Chris Lovegrove. His closing nails the very topic I wish to discuss today:


I felt a little cheated by the end. The lack of resolution for one character felt manipulative. Increasingly, fantasies these days are clearly labelled Book One of a spellbinding new series or The first volume of such-and-such saga; it wasn’t till near the end that I realised that this wasn’t a standalone novel but that I would have to invest time and maybe more money in the sequel. 

Chris Lovegrove, “Suspending Disbelief”

Indeed, what has happened to the standalone story? We are an audience of franchises and serieseseses to the point where filmmakers will divvy up a book and spread its material so thinly that a single story is transformed into a film trilogy. (cough cough HOBBIT cough cough)

When I study Diana Wynne Jones’ library (as every good and proper fantasy fan should do), I see 25 stand-alone stories. 2 duologies, 1 trilogy, 1 quartet (quartology?), and the octology of Chrestomanci. (I’m just making up number words at this point.) We won’t even get into the short fiction stuff here, or plays, or whatever else. Strictly novels. (If I missed any, let me know!)

If you go through all these novels, not one ends with a cliffhanger. Correct me if I’m wrong, but DWJ was one to practice what she preached:

My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.

Diana Wynne Jones, “Some Hints on Writing”

As far as DWJ was concerned, the story she needed to tell began and ended in one volume. Even the DWJ stories considered sequels or parts of a series are only considered such because they’re in the same universe, NOT because they’re picking up where the previous plot left off. Look at the Howl trilogy: Howl and Sophie go from primary characters in the first book to making cameo appearances in the second. In the third book they appear halfway through the novel with some importance, but still, they are not the primary protagonists. One of the primary characters of Deep Secret returns in The Merlin Conspiracy, but again, he is not the main character. DWJ utilized the same universe for multiple stories, not necessarily the same characters. Heck, Chrestomanci’s rarely a main character in his own series! (But I already wrote about that.)

I started paging through other Young Adult Fantasy stories read from my bookshelf or local library to see which stories end on a cliffhanger, and which are capable of standing alone.

Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne: She was travelling at a good pace, though, and it was not long before she disappeared up the winding path, to be swallowed into the treacherous depths of the bandit-laden forest and the company of wolves.

Cliffhanger. The protagonist’s clearly beginning another journey. Not only is the primary antagonist of the story is still in power, but we learn our protagonist is entering yet another enemy’s territory.

~*~*~

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games: Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. “One more time? For the audience?” he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.

I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.

Both. This one’s a bit grey to me. On the one hand, the protagonist has survived the Hunger Games. The primary conflict of the story has come to a close. However, we read here that the protagonist’s personal journey is not over, so there is, in a sense, a cliffhanger, just not like the life-or-death situation the protagonist’s been in for much of the book.

~*~*~

Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight: I touched his face. “Look,” I said. “I love you more than everything else in the world combined. Isn’t that enough?”

“Yes, it is enough,” he answered, smiling. “Enough for forever.”

And he leaned down to press his cold lips once more to my throat.

Standalone. You read right. Yes, I’ve read the whole series, so yes, I know there are more books after this. But I’ll give Meyers credit for giving this novel an ending that feels like an ending. As far as everyone knows, the last of the bad vampires has left the region and the girl’s got the guy. All’s right with the world.

~*~*~

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (hush, I’m an American, THAT’S the title here): Harry hung back for a last word with Ron and Hermione.

“See you over summer, then.”

“Hope you have–er–a good holiday,” said Hermione, looking uncertainly after Uncle Vernon, shocked that anyone could be so unpleasant.

“Oh, I will,” said Harry, and they were surprised at the grin that was spreading over his face. “They don’t know we’re not allowed to use magic at home. I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer…”

Standalone. When you consider the primary conflict (protecting the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort) that conflict officially ends in this book. Yes, Voldemort gets away, but his plot’s been thwarted. Even the other school-friendly subplots of making friends, succeeding in a wizarding school with a muggle’s childhood, and so on are wrapped up. The Voldemort conflict does not start creating cliffhangers until the third book, Prisoner of Azkaban.

~*~*~

Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel: Magnus reached behind himself and locked the parlor door. “Very well,” he said. “Why don’t you tell me what the problem is?”

Cliffhanger. Any time a story ends with a question, it’s an automatic cliffhanger–especially when that question pertains to a protagonist’s “problem.”

~*~*~

Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call: Early in the new year, she tells her parents that she has to leave again.

“The Nation must survive,” she says. “I can help with that.”

She sits alone on the bus, her suitcase propped up on the seat beside her so she can pretend it’s Megan sitting there instead. And off she goes through the snowy roads, Agnes and Ferg waving her away, hugging each other, their pride so fierce it burns.

Standalone. The protagonist has survived her three minutes. The fight goes on, and so will she, determined to leave her parents and teach other children how to survive the dark land of the Sidhe. By this story’s rules, she cannot be summoned back into the Sidhe realm for another hunt, so again, by this story’s rules, our protagonist is officially free.
Of course, Peadar totally subverts these expectations in The Invasion, but I appreciate how he made this novel self-contained. Had this remained a standalone, it’d still be awesome.

Off the top of my head…

Other good examples of what I feel could be considered standalone novels whether or not they’re in a series: Court of Thorns and Roses, Uprooted, Neverwhere, Chronicles of Narnia 

Know any others? Let me know!

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Other good examples of what I feel are cliffhanger novels: Cruel Prince, Mortal Instruments, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen

Ibid on the knowing and the letting of me knowing

Hey, what’s my own book doing there?

Yes, I must plead guilty. I was in a similar situation as JRR Tolkien; as you know, LOTR is one HUGE tome broken into three books for readability’s sake. The same thing happened with Stolen–my publisher kindly pointed out that people aren’t necessarily going to be drawn to a debut novel 650 pages long. Two novels, though, would split that length into readable installments. The result?

Her head nestles against Liam’s knee. The Voice in her heart sighs, too exhausted to notice a pounding, a drumming rising from deep, deep in the Pits.

A cliffhanger.

So what makes a cliffhanger tolerable and not infuriating?

Closure.

Somewhere along the way, SOMEthing must be resolved.

A series is bound to have many plot threads, and that’s fine. But if a few hundred pages cannot tie off a single thread, readers are going to get pissed.

Rightfully so, too. In a way it comes back to those expectations and payoffs: the patience of a reader lasts for only so long. The more you build, and build, and build, yet never follow through, the more readers will feel lost, disengaged, or both. Why spend time in a world that’s constantly tangled with characters never decently understood?

So sure, maybe the antagonist is still free at the end of Book 1. Maybe the hero’s journey has only just begun. Was a battle fought and one? Was an internal conflict resolved? Did a relationship come to fruition or destruction? So long as SOMEthing has been brought to a close, a cliffhanger ending will still bring some satisfaction to the reader.

Resolve nothing in that first book, and readers will resolve not to invest time in the second.

Tie a thread or two, and hold your world–your series–together.

Today’s the LAST day of my sale! If you haven’t snatched up Stolen yet for just 99 pennies, get it now while the gettin’s good!

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