Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I hope 2023 is a kind one to us all. I’m eager to work with my university to develop strong goals as an educator, an advocate, and as a writer. That includes chatting with you here, and (fingers crossed) getting something published before 2023 ends.
To start the year off right, I picked up a cozy mystery my husband Bo had given me for Christmas…in 2021, but better late than never. Miss Marple has really grown on me over the past couple of years, and since I’ve not read all her books, I wanted to see if I could cover the rest in 2023. So, here we are with her third mystery, The Moving Finger.
And I’m peeved.
Not deeply peeved, mind you. The mystery itself is rather good. A brother-sister pair settle in to the countryside for a few months while the brother recovers from a back injury. With the peaceful setting situated, the “harmless” crime of poison pen letters begins with a flurry of notes to different members of the community–Jill’s a floozie, Tim’s not your husband’s child, etc. Even the urban siblings receive a letter that they’re not really siblings. The town gossip burns bright, but no one really takes the letters seriously.
That is, until a woman apparently commits suicide. When her maid is later found murdered, the letters suddenly feel like ticking time bombs. When will the next letter lead to the next death? Cue Miss Marple….
…a few dozen pages before the end.
That’s what brings me here for a brief rant/chat with you all. I know my blogging was rather sporadic last year as I continue to find my place academically and creatively, but one thing that I hope will help is to keep my blog posts shorter than the 5k essays I’d been writing. The short story collection I began in November reminded me just how much fun creative writing can be when we give ourselves time to actually write. We must still take a moment to learn from others, though, and that’s why we’re here.
When one writes a series, one cannot just use the same group of characters over and over and over again. A story-world is usually populated by more than a dozen folks, yes? So, there must always be someone new to the mix. Perhaps that new person is a side character, or perhaps that new person is a real first-stringer, a protagonist in their own right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in an established series so long as we establish why the, well, “established” protagonists are on the sidelines. For a big example, see the Chronicles of Narnia. The four Pevensies are only protagonists in two of the books; two Pevensies are protagonists in a third with their cousin, and then that cousin is a protagonist with a schoolmate in another book. Two books have nothing to do with the Pevensies at all, yet they’re still in the series because the series is focused on the world, not those characters.
Okay, let’s look at a series based on a character–James Bond. Bo, who chides me for not having read the Bond books yet (shall I remedy that this year?) explained that The Spy Who LovedMe,Fleming’s ninth Bond novel, doesn’t bother introducing Bond into the story until around the halfway point. Because the story is told from a civilian woman’s point of view, we can’t just pop over to wherever Bond is, even though this is technically a James Bond novel. We’ve just got to wait for him to show up.
Yet I’m not peeved about Chrestomanci’s late arrival like I am with Miss Marple’s in The Moving Finger. Why?
It has to do with agency. Chrestomanci may have been late to the Witch Week party, but he took action. He dealt with the witch-burners and saved the children. He DID SOMETHING.
I’m not going to spoil the resolution of The Moving Finger, but I will say that Marple’s interactions with others can be counted on one hand. Readers don’t see her talking to police or many townspeople. She’s with the vicar’s wife, and she talks to the urban siblings. That’s it. Yet she gets the pages of explaining the mystery at the end? What did she DO???
For the record, I think the mystery’s plot is fine. The characters are a little cheesy with the romance, but not to the point of irritation. What bothers me is that Marple’s absence from the story would not alter the story’s outcome. A little tweaking of interactions with the regular cast here would lead to someone realizing the truth and catching the culprit. Miss Marple had no real agency in her own story, and that just leaves me confused as a reader: why is this a Marple story at all?
There’s nothing wrong with a different cast shining inside an established protagonist’s universe. The key is to make sure that established protagonist still has a moment to shine themselves. So long as readers know their favorite hero(ine) is still ACTIVE in the story-world, they will be happy to see others take action, too.
Happy October, my fellow creatives! September was a far more draining month than I expected: the drain on the body and soul was fierce. I was able to keep reading for my podcast for a respite from the storm, but sadly, no analysis could be made in time for September 15th or today. BUT, good things are on the horizon, so I’m hoping to take you with me on my adventure into new territory…and maybe some music, and maybe some fictional critiquing…in the coming weeks. Until then, please enjoy this post from the past about an expedition Bo and I were able to take together. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
When Bo and I asked for his relations to watch the kids so we could go on a day-date, Bo mentioned Holy Hill. “Weather’s supposed to be nice, and no youth festivals.” He eyed my camera.
Woohoo! I didn’t need those pictures of the kids on vacation anyway.
Because I had already taken several pictures of the basilica itself, I planned to save memory space for the woods surrounding it. All was gold, rich, blinding. Despite the hundreds hiking and picnicking upon the slopes, a peaceful silence remained in the air, so much so that one could listen to the leaves rattle in the breeze and dance as they fell upon the Passion Walk.
Such a set-apart place. One wouldn’t think three minutes in the car would lead to a busy highway, to golf courses and suburbs. When we build our fictional worlds, we so often must condense a universe, grind out the spaces so that things build up up up upon each other so that there’s no chance for an absence of action, let alone finding Holy Water on tap for easy access.
Passion Walk finished, we wandered past the lower chapel, read upon the history of the shrine, and—The Scenic Tower is open!
Bo waves at me to join the line. “I had my fill of that twenty years ago.”
I don’t blame him for bowing out. The tower stairs are ridiculously narrow; well, it’s not like they were built with tourists in mind, let alone so many. But the world reaches up and touches at every window. I can’t click fast enough to just, absorb. Breathe. Smile with the sun.
I don’t go up the last stair; tempting as it was, the congestion of people was driving even me into a claustrophobic fit. The plus side of going solo is that you feel no need to move as a group up and down stairs barely a foot wide.
But when I wasn’t thinking of the elderly man on the verge of losing his dentures onto the basilica roof, or the huddle of nuns (congregation of nuns? choir of nuns? pew of nuns?) with fanny packs determined to get group pictures on every landing, I was thinking about the land. The sky. How a world, even this small little bit of world, can seem so very vast with the right point of view.
Writers don’t need to create entire worlds for a story. We need only a place cradled by the horizon. Look down: there, among the trees and fields, the towns and roads, are countless hiding places where possibilities giggle and whisper in wait. Let’s count to ten.
While Bo was giving me commentary on what actor had gone on to do X or Q or T, I was noticing how certain plot threads would come and go depending on the adaptation. Now for technical reasons, I could see how a story is condensed so it can fit into a two-hour movie or three-part special. This will mean cutting characters or condensing characters for the film–normal stuff. As writers, we can debate the trials and tribulations of film adaptations until the cosmic cows come to roost, or however that saying goes.
But there was something about the Poirot Death on the Nile adaptations that left me pondering. Lots of good fiction depend on multiple plot threads to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Mysteries in particular need those extra plot threads to create red herrings and plot twists so that the solution to the mystery is a surprise to the reader. In order to populate those other threads, one must have a sizable cast of characters.
But is a big cast really necessary for the story, or are they just filler?
THAT is the question I’d like to discuss with you today, and I’m keen to use Death on the Nile to do so. If you don’t recall the original story’s plot, the Wikipedia entry covers it fairly well. (The entry also mentions the film adaptations I’ll be mentioning here, too.) I’ve also snagged the original cast list from Litchartsso we can see what Agatha Christie saw fit to print. I’ve actually trimmed a few folks out, trying to limit us to the folks who rode the Karnak during the majority of the novel.
ALSO: Spoilers abound. Writer problems trump “spoiler-free” descriptions any day.
THE ORIGINAL CAST OF THE 1937 NOVEL (PRETTY SURE, ANYWAY)
Hercule Poirot: This is a given.
Linnet Doyle: the spoiled rich English lady who marries Simon Doyle and gets murdered.
Jacqueline De Bellefort: Linnet’s best friend who was engaged to Simon until Linnet gets involved. Also, one of the story’s murderers.
Simon Doyle: the youngest son of a well-to-do family, so he loves fancy things but has no money for them. Loves Jackie but marries Linnet. Also also, the other one of the story’s murderers.
Colonel Race: I didn’t remember him from other stories, but apparently he befriended Poirot before Death on the Nile takes place. (Edit: I had to look this up–they do meet in Cards on the Table.) He is present on the riverboat Karnak due to a potential Communist and/or Anarchist threat, but from a storyteller’s standpoint, he is the trustworthy one Poirot can speak freely about his observations so readers know what’s going on.
Andrew Pennington: An American trustee for Linnet Ridgeway due to family connections. There’s a partner, but he barely factors in, so we’ll not bother with him.
Mrs. Salome Otterbourne: a writer of sensational, sexualized fiction who drank more the less her books sold.
Rosalie Otterbourne: Daughter of Salome–and because of the alcoholism, her mother’s keeper. This leads to Rosalie being very difficult for folks like Poirot to interact with.
Mrs. Allerton: the “nice” character of the novel, and essentially Poirot’s gateway into meeting all the other passengers of the riverboat Karnak.
Tim Allerton: son of Mrs. Allerton, eventual lover of Rosalie Otterbourne, and cousin of Joanna Southwood who enjoys hanging out with Linnet before the trip to Egypt. He helps Joanna steal jewelry and make forgeries, and on this boat, it’s his job to switch their fake pearls with Linnet’s real ones. This leads to one of the minor plots of Linnet’s missing pearl necklace being a possible motive for murder.
Miss Marie Van Schuyler: wealthy old American lady who bosses her cousin Cornelia and nurse Miss Bowers around throughout the novel. She’s also a kleptomaniac, which adds to the pearl necklace subplot.
Cornelia Robson: a nice girl who becomes a tool for Linnet and Simon and an object of the affections of Mr. Ferguson and Dr. Bessner.
Mr. Ferguson (Lord Dawlish): a Communist who is hateful to pretty much everyone except Cornelia, infatuated with her genuinely kind nature. Secretly a member of a very well-to-do English family. His brazen comments about how awful rich people and capitalism are material for the political agitator subplot.
Miss Bowers: nurse to Miss Van Schuyler who isn’t actually treating the old lady for anything. She’s there to keep the kleptomania in check and return things Van Schuyler steals, which means there is a “mysterious” return of the necklace, only it’s a forgery, and…yeah, the necklace subplot is a bit much.
Signor Richetti: a middle-aged Italian archaeologist that Poirot meets on an excursion near the hotel (which Ferguson also came on). He turns out to be the political agitator that Colonel Race is after. He has absolutely nothing to do with the deaths on the Nile. He’s just there to be ominous and threatening.
Louise Bourget: maid to Linnet and Simon Doyle, Louise initially appears to be a minor character, until suddenly she takes center stage when she becomes the second murder victim.
James Fanthorp: a young English lawyer for Linnet Ridgeway, the nephew of the lawyer William Carmichael. I vaguely remember this guy.
Dr. Bessner: a middle-aged European doctor on board the Karnak who takes care of Simon after his leg injury and who eventually proposes to Cornelia Robson. Yes, Cornelia chooses this dude over the English Lord, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.
Fleetwood: an engineer on the Karnak who attempted to marry one of Linnet’s old chambermaids, despite the fact that he was already married to an Egyptian woman. Linnet prevented the marriage, which made both Fleetwood and Louise extremely angry.
So, we have our cast, and it’s not a small one. We have our primary players who drive the plot forward with their secret and not-so-secret actions, and those who make stuff happen for our primary players to react to.
Death on the Nile primarily takes place in Egypt, broken up with stops at hotels and busy locations. The named characters ride on the S.S. Karnak up the Nile River together, and it is on this boat that the murder and mayhem take place. In the original novel, Ustinov adaptation, and Suchet adaptation, most of the characters have negative, tenuous connections to Linnet Doyle–her father bought out one character’s business, ruining the family, for instance. In another example, we see that in the Ustinov adaptation, Dr. Bessner’s clinic is about to lose its funding because Linnet Doyle is changing her father’s financial ties. But not all characters have these connections, and that is okay. Something we must remember as writers is that when a story is taking place in a public space, there will be strangers to the story. There are plenty of other visitors to the hotels in Egypt, and the riverboats are common transportation for tourists. Readers don’t expect every tourist on a boat to be connected to every other tourist on the boat. That’s what makes the old connection between Mrs. Van Schuyler and Linnet Doyle a surprise. On the surface, Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim have no connection whatsoever to Linnet Doyle, but when Joanna’s name is mentioned, a shady connection reveals itself.
To put it another way, it’d be as if the Hogwarts School was only populated by Harry and his friends, and Draco and his friends. The school just has four teachers at any time and that’s it. None of the other students and faculty matter, so trim them out!
Readers expect a school to be populated. They expect a city to be populated. They expect a passenger boat to be populated.
Of course, Agatha Christie had plans for the characters she put on the Karnak, but at the outset, having this large group made sense because it’s a tourist’s boat. It’s supposed to be busy and crowded. But it’s not necessary to make all those characters obviously connected. She didn’t make intricate connections between every student and every teacher in Cat Among the Pigeons, either; sometimes, you just need people there because people are supposed to be there. They are, essentially, moving scenery. And because those extras are treated like scenery, we readers are not expecting backstories on all of them. We don’t know all the backstories of all the crewmembers on the Karnak, nor are we looking for them. They are there to simply fill in the scene.
In the most recent Branagh version, however, this entire cast–yes, all those people–are the wedding party for Simon and Linnet Doyle. Considering Branagh’s time in Shakespeare, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this strategy. Now the entire cast’s presence on the boat is justified. Such a move, however, means all the secretive, surprising connections are thrust out into the open. The chances for surprise go way down. And the fact some of those connections are negative at the outset makes it all the stranger some of these people are invited to the wedding. For instance, Branagh transforms the Dr. Bessner role part into another doctor who was Linnet Doyle’s former fiance. The man is clearly fawning after Linnet until she dies. Why is he at this destination wedding? No idea. But we need our suspects, dammit!
More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!
As previously noted, having this size of a group means one can have some other plot threads. These smaller plot lines give the writer a chance to break up the major plot and allow little breaks from major events without bringing the story to a standstill. After all, if all the major plot points of Death on the Nile were smushed together (marriage/murder/second murder/third murder/reveal), you’d have an overwhelming episode of a television show rather than a movie, let alone a novel. So having other plot lines allows the writer to build curiosity in the reader. What did that dollar fragment in the maid’s hand mean? Wait, who is Mr. Farnthorp, really? Why is the Signor so upset about his note? Why is Rosalie Otterbourne so protective of her mother?
Now even in a novel, one can have superfluous plot threads. Yes, Dame Christie, included. Take the Signor Richetti character. His sole purpose is to be the reason Colonel Race boards the Karnak. He is a sulky man who has no connection whatsoever to the Doyles or anything going on. He gets to have one angry interaction with Linnet Doyle, and that’s it. There’s a reason that all three adaptations of this novel omit this character. One could remove the “political agitator” subplot and affect absolutely nothing else in the story, which is why the films consistently cut him out.
The pearl necklace subplot is altered from film to film. Sometimes the pearls are forged, sometimes they are just stolen. Sometimes it’s the klepto old Miss Van Schuyler, while in the Branagh version the character created to replace Col. Race took the pearls in order to have a clean start with his love, Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother is a jazz singer hired by the Doyle’s for this destination wedding thing. Unlike the political agitator plot, the stolen pearls provide a worthwhile red herring to Linnet’s murder–someone may have murdered her out of hate, but maybe they were just greedy for the money in those pearls. Greed doesn’t require a previous relationship or connection, and such greed allows strangers to become suspects. In a mystery set on a tourist boat, such a move makes sense and therefore requires characters to flesh it out.
More Subplots = More Characters to Keep Track of. UGH.
So you saw that list I made earlier. Let’s face it–that list is huge. Macbeth has roughly the same number of named characters. There’s a reason films often condense or omit characters from a movie: it’s just too much. The Suchet adaptation, for instance, eliminates three characters. The Ustinov adaptation deletes six. Branagh cuts a few, but then also adds some different ones to fill in the gaps. Yet these adaptations were able to tell the same essential story.
This means the effects of cast changes are felt far more in the subplots than in the major plot. Branagh’s adaptation, for instance, pushes love as the major motive for everything: the pearl necklace is stolen for love. Linnet is murdered for love. The maid–and the necklace thief–are murdered to protect love. By reorganizing the characters and how they connected, Branagh altered the very subplots those characters served.
And…sure, I guess that’s okay. But when there’s only one real reason folks are doing anything, you suck a lot of mystery out of the story.
Yes, having a big cast is a pain. Keeping track of multiple motivations is a pain. The Ustinov adaptation made this painfully clear with the connections they created for motives: Mrs. Otterbourne was getting sued by Linnet for libel (and Rosalie would go far to protect her mother, wouldn’t she?); Dr. Bessner’s clinic was going to lose funding; Communist Ferguson openly despised Linnet’s wealth and wanted to see her dead; the trustee Pennington was embezzling Linnet; even the nurse Miss Bowers blamed Linnet’s family for ruining her own. You couldn’t take a step on that boat without bumping into someone with the motivation to kill Linnet.
Keeping track of all those motivations and connections is very, very hard, for on top of making them exist, you have to make them matter. This means dedicating page space (or screen time) that adequately gives every plot thread relevance and urgency to the overall storyline. The more plot threads you have, the more complicated your pacing will have to be, too, for the major plot thread can’t be out of sight for long.
So if you the writer are not sure you can make it all weave together, DON’T DO IT.
There is nothing wrong with keeping to a few plot threads and a small cast. There’s a reason “cozy” mysteries typically use a small group of characters: readers can track them easily, their motivations are easy to track as a writer, and any change to those characters is easier to distinguish because there’s less moving scenery to distract a reader. As one who has read mysteries for a few decades, nothing infuriates a reader like goofed character/plot connections. It messes up the story, and it makes you the writer look like you don’t know your own story-world.
Now I’m sure that, assuming you made it to the end here, you have your own thoughts on stories and the size of their character cast. I’d love to hear them!
And what’s your favorite book cover from the assortment in this post? I admit, I love the clean, cool colors of this one.
I’ve another indie interview on the way! Plus we could wander the Holmesian countryside if you’d like, dissect the plot and characters of my own fiction, find inspiration among the sounds of nature, or take up a dragon to fight Napoleon. Mystery and adventure await!
Gardening is really an extended form of reading, of history and philosophy. The garden itself has become like writing a book. I walk around and walk around. Apparently people often see me standing there and they wave to me and I don’t see them because I am reading the landscape.
My love of nature is great, though my show of it is meager. The shadow of expectation, I suspect–my mother is an avid gardener with a number of bird feeders for the cardinals, orioles, woodpeckers, chickadees, and various other breeds flittering among Wisconsin’s trees. Those feeders are always stationed outside a window near the kitchen table, where no matter the season, my mother can enjoy her meal with the company of the nature she tends so lovingly.
Meanwhile, the bushes around my home have withered and died. Hostas–I think they’re hostas–have grown so wild and tangled in the back that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rats of NIMH had made a second home beneath their roots. Our single shade tree’s losing its bark and many of its branches refuse to bud. Even the small potted cactus my mother had given me years ago for some sort of greenery in the house has long since died.
Years ago, I would simply blame all this botanical death on motherhood. I couldn’t focus on a garden with Biff and Bash running rampant. I couldn’t afford to garden when the basement flooded and we had to replace things like the furnace and air conditioner. I couldn’t afford to garden when the kids were in school because I was only working part-time and money’s needed elsewhere. I can’t afford to garden because I’m working full-time and time is always needed on the computer, not outside.
Yet my mother worked full-time all my life, and her gardens surrounding any home always thrived. Why?
The love was there. The passion. Just as she loved the beauty in growing things, I love the beauty of stories, of helping them grow. What has one to do with the other?
When I’m writing, I think about the garden, and when I’m in the garden I think about writing. I do a lot of writing by putting something in the ground.
We do our damndest to bring nature to us through artificial means–ambiance videos of forest sounds, for instance. Pretty desktop pictures of gardens.
Yet no matter what pretty picture or sound we acquire on our screens, we’re drawn to our windows, to our doors, our porches. We want to feel the breeze that lifts the dandelion seeds to the air. We want to smell the fresh earth tilled by farmers beyond our borders. We want to see those first bright shoots of green reach for sunlight. We want to reach for that sunlight. We want our senses to revel in Nature because we want our readers to feel the worlds we create for them to explore.
We must break through that thick dark that buries us, and reach. We must break through, and grow.
The gardener just has to accept that gardening is not a set-it-and-forget-it activity…A gardener must know his plot. He must think about what he wants it to look like. Then it is the daily cultivation that leads to beauty, in a landscape and a life, too.
No small feat, this.
The soil and all its mysteries, the shadow of my own mother’s accomplishments–I find myself taking small steps into tending nature. Caring for birds felt a safer, easier place to start. After all, it’s just a matter of supplying birdseed, yes? Plenty of wild birdseed to be had. But then there’s all those specialized suets and seeds for special birds, special feeders for different breeds. Damn, there’s a lot to work out. I begin with a general birdfeeder and a suet holder for the woodpeckers.
Chickadees, sparrows, cardinals galore! The children especially love to spot the pairs of cardinals and guess where their nests could possibly be. Mornings are filled with birdsong outside our front window. I can stand with coffee in hand to watch the sun rise above houses and farmland, the sky awash in orange and pink behind those early risers perched upon the feeder. It’s a daily joy to see so many birds make themselves at home on my porch. The morning doves have even taken to hanging out upon the roof. Of course, this also leads to hawks occasionally stopping by for breakfast and leaving their leftovers in our yard, but that just creates a fresh science lesson for the kids.
No woodpeckers, though.
Not a one.
And still, I leave the suet in hope one comes.
Bo kisses my head as I once again stare at the suet holder. He shakes his head. “That suet’s getting moldy out there,” he says, and hooks a plastic bag on my fingers. He’s right, of course. Only a few small steps into nature, and I’m already stumbling.
But is that not the way with writing, too? Even the safest, smallest of steps into story-worlds isn’t without some risk of falling. We’ve all the unfinished prose and poetry that pain us to think on. Does the pain prevent us from writing?
Perhaps for a while. But never forever. We find new words, new worlds. We peer into the gifts from loved ones and find new seeds, a new feeder.
Since Death on the Nile is coming to video in early April, I’m just going to save my next Christie post for when I can rent the film and watch it. I refuse to be foiled by a lack of a babysitter! More indie author interviews are also on the way, and Blondie’s just about done with the third chapter of her Elementalsstory.
Hello, my fellow creatives! March is a finicky time in the Midwest. Spring teases us with snow and ice one day and warmer, green days the next. We require snow pants and boots in the morning, but by the afternoon we’re running around without any winter gear at all. I’ve used music to escape the icy mud only to find myself lost in another time, another place…
Sadly, that different time and place was not a crime scene on a riverboat in 1930s Egypt. Our babysitter backed out, so Bo and I were unable to see the new Branagh adaptation which I wanted to include in my analysis of Death on the Nile.
No, I actually found myself going back in time to my early days here as a blogger. Back in 2016 (around 200 posts ago?! Zounds!), I was just finishing up my rough draft of Middler’s Pride, the first of a Young Adult fantasy series set in another realm. The second book, Beauty’s Price, featured characters based heavily on the Bennet sisters, so revisiting this music…rewatching the film—rereading the story…it got me re-evaluating projects past and present.
Many of us work as well as write. When I taught part-time, I managed to have time for writing and publishing while bringing in a little income. Teaching in higher education full-time, though, eats a lot of time, and teaching online means one is never really separated from students or the work. I discussed this struggle in 2021, and that struggle has never subsided. The goals I set for myself were not reached. Sure, I got a short story published in an online magazine, but that wasn’t the same as self-publishing my novel in 2020. We so often beat ourselves up for these misses.
But putting oneself down is not going to lift oneself up. Quite the opposite.
So, I’m putting 2021 down as a year I published SOMEthing. Still a win. 2022? I will still publish SOMEthing. I’ve got a short story I’m proud to query. And listening to Pride and Prejudice has me thinking of my Shield Maidens and wondering…
Perhaps the Princeborns are just going to have to have a break this year. Perhaps Idana is where I need to be.
I have one novel down, a second partially done. Notes on the third, and the fourth…well that one’s in the “I kinda know what I want” stage. Middler’s Pride was in the online reading library Chanillo for a while and had gotten some strong input on the free writing forum Wattpad, so I’m hopeful that a little revision could go a long way in getting Meredydd back to the virtual bookshelves.
I could even share my character brainstorming for her here with you, which would allow time writing blog posts to convert into time with the story. I could re-share some of my old posts, such as the music that inspired my worldbuilding, analyses of the craft that went into the stories to see what has changed, what has not…hmmm…
Remember back when authors could just worry about telling good stories and someone else handled the other stuff? Anybody remember that?
We all fight like hell to get our stories to others. When my first novel was picked up by a small publisher, I was ecstatic to have the help, but the majority of the marketing was done by me. The time it takes to market, to query, to network, to gather reviews, to format the book, to design the cover…it’s basically a full-time job on top of writing on top of whatever we do to actually earn the money to keep writing. All too often, it’s the actual storytelling that keeps ending up on the backburner in order to prioritize everything else. And it sucks. A lot.
Isn’t the point of writing to WRITE?!
Now folks can say that this is what Fiverr is for, and hire people to do the little stuff so you can focus on the big stuff. That’s all well and good when you can afford the help, but many of us are on tight budgets as it is. Sure, I’ll save up to use Fiverr for a kickin’ book cover, but I can’t hire someone to market for me. Few of us can. That’s why we’re blogging here and sharing pieces of ourselves on social media. Some folks manage to balance TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, and Lord knows what else. We’re guest posting and reviewing and collaborating and virtual touring and all the things to connect with one more writer, one more reader. Those who can balance all this, you are AMAZING. Those who are struggling, you are also AMAZING. Why?
Because we all struggle finding that balance and working out what methods fit us and which don’t. I enjoy connecting with fellow creatives here on WordPress. I enjoy sharing things on Twitter. Once in a while I get to Instagram. But don’t ask me about TikTok or those other things. Fellow indie author Anne Clare made an important point she learned that when it comes to the author’s platform, it’s far better to do a little bit well than a lot badly. Considering time and energy here, I am taking that lesson to heart. That’s why you don’t see me on Facebook anymore, and rarely on Instagram.
Which brings us to my experimental venture of 2020…
After nearly a year of posting weekly podcasts for Story Cuppings, I wanted to share a couple of takeaways here. This podcast was to “force” me to read more, which it has, but to also reach new readers, which it hasn’t. For those of you who have listened, thank you for always sharing your thoughts and encouragement! I know not everyone has time for this sort of thing, and that is completely acceptable. For those who comment, thank you for sharing your reading journeys with me as well! It’s just that hope to connect with the crowd that does have time for podcasts has not gone the way I hoped, and that got me wondering why. Two major answers come to mind:
I’m not consistent with the material I read.
The podcast title.
I like focusing on first chapters of novels. I stand by that concept. After all, how often are we told as writers that we have to hook readers in the first few pages or we lose them? So focusing on the story and craft in those opening pages is still worthwhile to me. Plenty of other folks do book reviews and book podcasts on the whole story. To me, the first few pages can be incredibly instructive. Plus, it allows the podcasts to be kept reasonably short–mine average between 16-22 minutes–so producing them does not take long.
But I DO need to be more consistent with what I’m reading. I’ve read old things, genre-specific things, indie things, and now library things. Out of all the things, the library-related podcasts have gotten the most reaction, so I think I will just stick with what I find on the New Release shelf. It makes me pick stories that are already in the public eye, and it makes me try genres and authors I’d have never considered before.
Next, the title just doesn’t relay the podcast’s premise well. I thought it did, but upon reflection, who knows what a cupping is? I had to look it up. It sounded novel (pun intended) because the term is used for tasting coffees, and plenty of folks had wine/book themes. Why not a coffee/book theme? But after nearly a year of not hooking listeners from beyond my current community, it’s time to change the title. Just as a book’s title needs to hook readers, so does a podcast title need to hook listeners. The title needs to be crystal clear in relaying the podcast’s intent, soooo let’s try this title out and see how it goes over:
Well, what do you think? I’d love your input! You have been such kind souls and dear supports these seven years. 250-some blog posts later, you are still here with me, sharing these writing wins and woes. You’ve seen me through parenting adventures awful and amazing. Your support is a foundation in my world, and for that, my dearest friends, I cannot thank you enough.
And let us hear from you now, my creative kindreds! Are you reviving old projects, or revealing new untold worlds never explored by your characters? Are you giving yourself time to recollect and refresh, or perhaps a moment to reflect on what deserves a revisit…or a respite?
Here’s to a splendid spring for all of us. To a beautiful year for all of us. To brighter, better days for all.
I’m always happy to cheer you on–especially this year, as I’m recovering from COVID. Thankfully our symptoms are mild and we are pacing ourselves carefully. Be thankful for every healthy moment!
In the meantime, I’m happy to have an author interview with someone I’ve followed for some time in the indie author sphere but have never had a chance to interview until now. My friends, please welcome Craig Boyack!
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
This won’t have anything to do with the written word, but it was still powerful. All of my elders went through World War II in some fashion. They would quote statements made by the leaders of the day, and as a child, you knew they were important. Some of this carried through the Kennedy years, but then Nixon came along and everything changed.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Hopefully, everything. I love how new things evolve that capture our imaginations. Things like Steampunk or Cyberpunk come along and get us thinking a new direction. Urban fantasy is another take on this concept.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Wow! Tough question. I’d have to say none, to be honest. It isn’t like I can actually visit Jurassic Park or Diagon Alley for real. This has to do with the kind of stories I write.
My wife and I visited New Orleans a few years ago. Two of my novels had scenes there, but the visit was after the fact. We took a midnight Voodoo tour with a guide that was quite fun. Got to visit a couple of Voodoo shops along with Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Decent place to visit for someone who’s written pirates.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
This has to be the hardest question here. I spent many years reading the “appreciated” novels. I worked my way through Jaws, Mountain Man, Clan of the Cave Bear, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, etc. I didn’t read many that didn’t draw popular attention. I also read a lot of classics.
These days, I mostly read work by friends. All of them are under-appreciated. Such is the life of an indie author.
‘Tis the life of an indie author, indeed! I love that you and several other amazing writers have come together to create an inspiring and educational site for fellow creatives. Can you please tell the tale of the genesis of Story Empire and how this collaboration has benefited your writing life?
Story Empire is something I’m quite proud of. It all started when Mae Clair and I were talking about doing some mutual promotion for the Halloween season. She wanted to bring in some others to share the effort. We never did do that promo, but created the blog instead.
Our goal is to share things we’ve come across with other writers. We don’t charge, and people are allowed to disregard something that doesn’t fit their style. It’s a great place to discuss the topic of the day. We’ve been around long enough that it’s become a good resource for authors. I find myself pointing out the search tool in recent posts, because there is quite a bit that could help a struggling manuscript.
As a personal benefit, I get to hang out with some incredible authors and hope some of their talent rubs off on me. These people are genuine friends and we chat frequently about all kinds of things.
I get disappointed by how many schemes are out there charging for promotion that doesn’t work. There doesn’t seem to be anything that charges less than the promotion might bring back, and most of them are losing propositions. We all want more readers, and are willing to spend a reasonable amount on promo. It seems there is no magic bullet to make that happen.
Would you say publishing your first book, Wild Concept, changed your process of writing? If so, how so?
I hope I’ve changed. I leave these older books online as artifacts of my journey. To be honest, they’re a little rough around the edges compared to what I produce currently. Still, Wild Concept, has an intriguing main character, and a decent theme about prejudice and controlling influences.
The process is much the same. Use my weekends to hack out as much as I can. Spend weeknights trying to repair the speed writing I did. Repeat the process.
I’ve taken up some changes, like storyboarding and working ahead, but the process is largely the same.
Lisa Burton will always be with me. She still shows up on the blog when I have some spare time to dedicate. She still poses for posters to advertise my new books, and goes on the occasional blog tour.
Lisa Burton Radio was a ton of fun, and it moved books for indie authors. The best part is that it was free. Eventually, I started begging authors to participate to keep it going. I decided those authors had to have skin in the game, too. If they didn’t put some effort into my free promos, why should I. Those hours are best spent elsewhere.
I would encourage authors to try something different. Lisa’s posters are still quite popular, and they give someone an image for Pinterest. They look good on social media. Since there is a link to my work, it does nothing but help me.
As one who’s a big fan of writing music, I got a big kick out of the playlist you share in correlation with your Hat series. Firstly–do you struggle writing while people sing? I always get muddled with my words when someone else is singing words. 🙂 Secondly–do you prefer to build the music playlist before you begin drafting, or does the playlist grow as you write?
I’ve often considered taking the playlist down, and haven’t updated it for a while. I think it has three likes in two years. Music inspires me like nothing else. I like to reference it in my stories.
Having said that, I can’t write with it either. Even instrumental pieces steal my focus. These days, I have an extensive playlist on my phone. I listen to that during my commute, and it entices the Muse to ride along.
It comes from things I’ve enjoyed over the years, but I take effort to put a new spin on them. If I write about a popular movie-class monster, readers automatically know what I’m talking about. I’m not afraid to create my own, but those can be a lot harder to sell. When my vampires turn out to be rodeo cowboys, I think readers are pleasantly surprised.
You have a fair amount of novels as well as short story and microfiction collections. Can you share a bit of your process in working out whether a story requires a few hundred words or a few hundred thousand?
Process? What process? I believe a story should be as long as it needs to be. Obviously, I put some thought into it, but if I wind up with a short story instead of a novel, I’m not disappointed. I will say, The Hat Series consists of short novels on purpose. My reasons are two-fold.
First, I like to have something for everyone. If all a reader has time for is a bit of micro-fiction, I like to have something available. Short novels are a good market for me.
Second, because of the style of comedy, I’d rather leave readers wanting more than wear them out with it. That way they come back next year to see what the characters are up to. Lizzie and the hat bickering are funny, but there is a chance of having it go on too long.
Let’s face it–we all have that writing Kryptonite. Mine strikes me down in the form of a phone call from my sons’ principal. What’s yours, and how do you overcome it?
It’s hard to complain about it, but I need solo time to write. Someone else watching television, music in another room, even company will stop me cold. I find that I get what I need, and make room for all the other things. Sometimes we just have to put it aside and take life as it comes.
Speculative fiction can be a tough gig. You have to ground readers somehow, but you alsowant to push the limits of the suspension of their disbelief. How do you balance leaving readers to work things out with taking care of the reader and guiding them by the hand through your story-worlds?
That is tough, and you have to understand that every reader is different. I want to net as many happy customers as possible, but have to allow for a few to escape. Some tales require more work than others. Science Fiction, or Fantasy come to mind. Since The Hat Series is more Urban Fantasy, I don’t have to dedicate as much space to world building. We all understand parking garages, roundabouts, and food trucks.
What would you say are common traps many aspiring writers fall into, and how can they avoid them?
The biggest one I hear about is writer’s block. I took steps years ago to combat that. The Muse serves me well. I get more ideas than I know what to do with. If I find myself dwelling on one, I write it down. They start in the Notes app on my phone.
If they want to grow, I usually start a rudimentary storyboard. I add to this over time, and eventually, they start looking like finished outlines. I never find myself lacking for something to work on that way.
Thank you for inviting me over. I love that our community supports each other, and I try to return the favors.
Thank you so much for chatting with me this fall, Craig! I hope your writing adventures are as magical as the season ahead.Stay tuned to my podcast–I’ll be highlighting one of your books!
Blondie promises to collaborate with me this December! What is she going to give us? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m really excited!
I had planned on exploring the fun of writing humor with you today, but the torrent of finals has not yet subsided. As my husband Bo reminds me time and again, it is VITAL to respect my limitations. The finals will soon be graded, and then I can return to sharing more than story cuppings with you.
In the meantime, let me share some music and one of my favorite stories from Diana Wynne Jones about her writing life. I first shared these posts back in 2015 when I participated inNational Novel Writing Month. Six years later, this music still grips me and these words still inspire me.
Take heart, my fellow creatives! Whether or not you join in thirty days and nights of literary abandon, your stories will always be there inside you. You will find the time to write them, and you will find a way to share them.
We all will. x
Originally Posted November 1, 2015
National Novel Writing Month is upon us. You’ll have to pardon me as I wish to dedicate my time write–feeble as it is–to the challenge of 50,000 words in 30 days.
So rather than blog, per say, I shall share music I find useful for various elements of story. For starters, a starter: music that marks the beginning of adventure. James Newton Howard’s score for PETER PAN has an excellent bit of fantastic to inspire you: a light giddiness that builds into the dramatic departure of the known for the unknown.
Are you ready to embark on Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon? Don’t be afraid. Let your story hold out its hand. Take it, and fly.
Originally Posted: November 8, 2015
In celebration of passing the 15,000 word mark, some music.
There’s something blissfully cool about the first meeting of two companions, be they friends or moreso. John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon has one of the most beautiful themes ever created in the spirit of friendship, and that this friendship transcends the ordinary makes it all the more powerful. Treat your characters to a first meeting that is nothing short of memorable.
Originally Posted November 15, 2015
John Powell again? You bet.
In celebration of reaching the halfway point of my story, I think it’s time for a chase. Any story, especially one with murder, kidnapping, and other intrigues, has got to have a chase. Plus, this chase from BOURNE SUPREMACY has some excellent percussion/string sequences for fighting. Now, set a fire under those characters and set them a’runnin’.
Originally Posted November 22, 2015
At some point, I hope, your characters seek something that will help fulfill a goal, or quest, or what have you. In my case, my characters are seeking a member of their group who’s been taken. Stakes are always high in such situations, and it gives a writer the challenge of laying clues that readers MUST be able to see without feeling obvious, for characters to drop verbal clues without sounding like they’re being dropped. It’s a delicate balance, not often achieved in a single draft. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t try, and if a little bit of mysterious air can help, all the better. Let Alexandre Desplat’s music from the final Harry Potter story help provide the necessary ambiance for the mystery woven in your plot.
Originally Posted on October 27, 2015: “Just Bash on and Do It.”
With National Novel Writing Month just a few days away, I think it’s worth pausing my own nonfiction and lessons from my favorite writer until December. However, to help those who also revel in the Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon, I shall continue sharing Writer’s Music posts throughout the month.
That said, I wanted to talk about something from Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections that feels especially appropriate on the cusp of NaNoWriMo.
In 2011, Charlie Butler interviewed Jones in her home. At one point he asks about her writing process, and if others, such as editors, see the work in progress. Jones is very clear that this is NOT how she works:
I hate being edited, because my second draft is as careful as I can get it. I try to get it absolutely mistake-free, and absolutely as I feel the book needs to be. Then some editor comes along and says, “Change Chapter Eight to Chapter Five, take a huge lump out of Chapter Nine, and let’s cut Chapter One altogether.” And you think, No, I’m going to hit the ceiling any moment. Then I call for my agent before I get my hands round this person’s throat.
Thank God it was the days before computers. I said, “Send me the typescript back and I’ll see what I can do.” So she did, and I cut out the bits she told me to alter, in irregular shapes, then stuck them back in exactly the same place with Sellotape, only crooked, so it looked as if I’d taken the pieces out and put new pieces in. And then I sent it back to her, and she rang up and said, “Oh, your alterations have made such a difference.” And I thought, “Right! Hereafter I will take no notice of anybody who tries to edit my books.”
Now while I can only dream of having this woman’s confidence and ability to write sideways and backwards and ALWAYS create something awesome (such as Hexwood), she still marks the point that it is the SECOND draft she makes perfect. Her first draft was always written by hand, and she accepted that chunks of it would need to be done over: “If you want to make your story as good as you can get it, you have to go over it and get it right.”
For some of us, who are on draft #8 (ahem), “getting it right” in only one or two rewrites still sounds like a miracle. But it is nice to know that one whose plots knot every which way and still produce these beautiful woven works does not expect it to be right the first time. Yet another reason NaNoWriMo is so wonderful for writers: it forces us through that first draft–in Jones’ words, “Just bash on and do it.” Then, with the time crunch gone, we can take our time, pick the story threads apart, and concentrate completely on “getting it right.”
I hope you enjoyed that little trip back in time! I’m still lost in the past myself, as my 2019 crack at NaNoWriMo resulted in the start of a story that transcends seasons, a tale of bloody magic set in the deadly quiet snows of Wisconsin’s northern wilderness. All Hallows Eve may have passed, but Winter is on Wisconsin’s doorstep. It is only a matter of time before snow and spirit meet…
Hello, my fellow creatives! Wisconsin’s a stubborn one where changing seasons is concerned. One wakes to chilly frost and clouds of breath, but by afternoon one’s ready for shorts and squirt gun chases round the yard. It won’t be long, though, before Autumn paints our forests, and the smells of smoke and harvest fill the air, air perfumed by the Autumn People…
But let us speak of them a smidge more next time when we dare to listen to music of the monsters. For now, let us speak of a crafting quandary that I’m sure many of you have fallen into over the years: When is the worldbuilding too much?
You stand outside Blue House with a chocolate bar in one hand and a pocketknife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.
Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1887, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That half a dozen juniors can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.
You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.
Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.
So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.
Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house with garbage in the windows. Is that—fuck, what is that?
Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.
There’s, like, this eyeless doll in a noose at the top window. The hell is up with that? You asked, and laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the ear marks all of them. His glare shut you up quick enough.
Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in next door during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.
Let’s pause here.
380 words so far. My intention was to treat this story as flash fiction, which meant I was already nearing the halfway mark of my word limit. So far, I’ve got characters, setting, and conflict–yay! I had started in action, and the flashback gave me opportunity for a bit of context before returning to the action…but wait.
Part of me really wanted to see a history behind Blue House. The setting felt isolated, a single puzzle piece to an Any-where. Could this be an Any-where sort of town like the Janesville Doll, or did there need to be something more here, something dark and sticky beneath the surface?
Oooo, let’s try dark and sticky, I think. Let’s explore the history a bit. Perhaps…oh, perhaps this is a land quite unlike ours, perhaps something like a modern fantasy land with cars and things, but magic, too….rather like the story-world I fixed up in The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer, a short story I enjoyed creating a couple years back. I’ve always loved the idea of a collection of stories set in a world. A chance to meander, as it were, and see how a single world creates so many unique experiences. This could be such a tale, one sharing the world with Midsomer! That would take some worldbuilding….
You walked into the cafeteria with long strides, pissed and arrogant. Maybe you figured everyone would look up to you, The One Who Wasn’t Afraid. But they weren’t. No one would look you in the eye when you approached the tables except for me and Cam. But I made sure to grab you and sit as far away from Cam as possible. Not that anyone else dared sit by us anyway. They’d all written you off for dead by then.
What are you doing here? Dumb question. I had to make more sense. Seriously, what is your family doing here? Failed there, too, but you humored me.
It’s so stupid. Dad was up there in Dragonlord Manufacturing until he pissed off the top boss, fuck all if I know how because he just tells me to shut up and pack up, we gotta go to Finis Gate. You slice up an apple and pull a chocolate bar out of your pocket, pairing a square with a slice to pop in your mouth. Mom makes videos about fixing houses so she just grabbed the crappiest place here to live in. ‘Cept for that shit Blue—
You laughed when I stabbed the table with a knife. Must be a normal thing to do at Capitalis schools. Don’t talk about that place or what’s in it.
But what IS in it? Y’all act like I burned cats alive.
IT is…Finis Gate’s penance. I had no choice. I had to rush the details while Cam made his way over. Five generations back, a witch birthed a son during a Hunter’s Moon. You know the saying about kids born under a Hunter’s Moon: they’re born for Death’s Hunt.
No laugh from you that time. Yeah.
Kid kept talking to the dead and scaring everyone. Town threatened the witch to leave Finis Gate or else, but she wouldn’t. Neighborhood kids taunted him from the sidewalk, like, showing him how they’d hurt him if he ever left his house. People just figured the witch would take her boy and leave to get away from the crap, but—
Cam nicked a bit of chocolate away from you. You didn’t like that, either. The witch-boy hung himself in the attic instead. He stuck that chocolate into one cheek of his mouth and folded his arms as he leaned against the windowsill by our table. Witch Wrath. It’s a bitch.
Notice how the first part (ending with “Idiots”) began in the present and then moved into a brief flashback. The new addition after “Idiots” adds plenty of worldbuilding, sure. It has a sense of the fantasy realm to it, what with “Dragonlord Manufacturing” and a town’s acceptance of a curse from a witch long dead (they think). It shares a sense of history for why the Blue House is feared and a source of its power. The scene also deepens the conflict between the new kid (“You”) and Cam, which can further justify following through on such a dangerous dare.
However…oh, however. This addition added another 400 words. On average, flash fiction can’t exceed 1000 words. I barely have enough space to finish the story, let alone flesh out this world. And there’s another major problem with this draft, too: pacing.
The story has spent far more time in flashback than in the present. The pacing of the story was set in those first couple of paragraphs in the here and now, but afterwards we spent hundreds of words not in the now, but in the past that’s already done and gone. And with only 100 words left to return to the present, the story itself will feel incredibly lopsided. Ergo, the pacing of the story is completely off-balance.
Time to try again. Let’s rewind ourselves back, back to the narrator calling the new kid’s parents Idiots.
Do we go back to the present then and there?
I’d like to, but we’ve not seen the new kid actually take the dare. We’ve not seen the wager, and the present action is due to that “Blue House Dare.”
So, we must venture into another flashback, but it must be brief.
The story of your laughter got Cam’s attention. Of course it did. Cam’s used to getting off on scaring littles with the legend of a witch’s blind son who was so ridiculed by the town that he hung himself in the attic. He’s used to getting kids so scared of that Blue House that at least one will piss himself on the next bus ride passed Blue House. He’s not used to an audience his age, let alone getting mocked in return.
Because you just had to laugh. You dipshits are scared of a doll and some lights?
Cam pointed to his own shock of white hair. We thought it was shit, too. Until we faced The Doll.
It bleaches your hair. Nice.
It fucking claws for your eyes, you douchebag.
And not whatever freak lives in the house?
No one lives in Blue House but the witch. Take the Dare and find out.
I pried you two apart, not that it did any good. Fuck off, Cam, not everyone’s gotta throw themselves at the witch to prove something.
But apparently I do, you said, so bloody sure of yourself.
191 words. I managed to get the witch in, though the Why and When have been removed. That bums me out, but when it comes to worldbuilding in a flash fiction structure, one just cannot say All The Things. One has to leave some things a mystery. And while this is a flashback, it is a quick-moving dialogue between Cam and the new kid. It sets the dare in motion. It shows the new kid’s cock-sure attitude, which also helps us know why the kid’s standing in front of Blue House. And the pacing no longer lags in history, but instead quickens in the snap-exchange between two teenagers.
And best of all, we now have a little over 400 words left to us to return to the present and get back into the action. That is a far, far better balance of past/present than before!
Let’s return to the now, shall we? And best be clear about the now-ness, too. A connecting detail will help.
You toss your candy wrapper to the ground and open the pocketknife. The click silences the crickets and whispers across the street. You look at the half-dead maple Cam told you about and the worn knot where his gang each took their first step on the climb upwards. He didn’t mention that the maple’s been half-dead since the 1887 fire, too, like so much of this forsaken town. The only living branches are those that touch Blue House, so those are the ones you climb.
I can’t watch you. I can’t.
Something is moving in Blue House.
Not in the attic. Not, at least, from what the dim, angular light shares on the sidewalk. The Doll’s shadow barely, just, sways, from the noose, like it always does.
No, Blue House itself, something moves in its walls away from the shuttered windows. Behind the dead vines and chipped paint there is—I hear it—an inhale.
Or it’s from me because your foot slipped, I don’t know.
But those shutters, it feels like they’re the eyes, not the eyelids, watching me, Cam and everyone. Like they’re glaring at the Sunderson Porch for having survived the punishing flames that destroyed everything else. I’m too damn close, but I cannot, will not, move, let alone shout at you to get the fuck down and live, dammit.
You slide yourself along the branch running parallel to the attic window. The pocketknife blade glints the cursed light.
I stare at you, beg you with my eyes to please come down don’t DON’T.
You wave like this is all some lark.
A damned lark.
The sound of your body scraping along the branch grates my ears. The attic light’s got your legs. You tap the windowsill with the tip of the pocketknife and grin at me.
The Doll’s shadow stops swaying.
I shake my head, shake it hard, shaking it like it’s going to come off my shoulders you have to GET OUT but if I talk, will the witch hear me? I don’t know I’ve never seen anyone TAP the windowsill let alone TOUCH THE GLASS. I even hear Cam crawl out of his space and hiss, Stop! STOP!
You laugh. Why? It’s open. You slip in.
The attic light flickers off.
Never have we seen the attic window dark. We cannot see The Doll. We cannot see you.
Cam and I stare and strain for something, anything.
Anything but silence.
The attic light flickers on.
The window is closed.
And The Doll looks upon us all with bright green eyes.
End of story. 997 words.
On the one hand, I feel good about it. If you have any input on making this tale more awesome, please let me know! I kept it under 1000 words. The story has a clear ending, complete with return to the new kid’s “bright green eyes.” (Pretty proud of that, to be honest.)
And yet I feel a smidge disappointed. Not a lot, but still. I had wanted this sleight of hand with the witch and the new kid. When I wrote that addition about Finis Gate, the Dragonlord Manufacturing and the witch’s son, I imagined the “Hunter’s Moon” saying to create some sort of connection between the doll and the new kid, one that could be turned upon Finis Gate in an epic final reckoning.
But epic reckonings are rather hard to put into 1000 words. (At least for me.)
I lamented to dear school friend and fellow indie author Anne Clare. Being the wise soul that she is, Anne had the solution. “Well why can’t you have it both ways? You did the flash fiction for your university. Now do the longer version for something else.”
See, this is why writers need friends. 🙂
OF COURSE! In order for the story to be flash fiction, the conflict and worldbuilding had to be as minimal as possible. Since the conflict of the dare is the driving force and not the world, the interactions of characters had more priority than the worldbuilding of the town. As a regular short story, though, I’ve got another 500-1000 words at my disposal to provide more worldbuilding and history while also re-tooling the motivations of the characters. How curious that one story-start could travel such very different paths! Have you ever found yourself at a crossroads of storytelling? I’d love to hear about it!
And so, my fellow creatives, I am looking forward to traveling through Finis Gate and learning more about this witch of Blue House. May your own journeys down story-roads lead you to unexpected detours…or, perhaps, past less traveled places you mark on your maps for later.
It’s been a while since we talked about music! And I’ve some more chatting with indie authors to share, as well as that long-awaited discussion about humor writing. I’m not avoiding it, promise.
(Well maybe a little because I feel so very inexperienced in discussing it, but consarnit, one must rise to the challenge!)
Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!
Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:
And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.
However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?
Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.
After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?
I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.
They. Didn’t. Matter.
Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.
Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.
So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”
The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.
“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig. The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.” “Nonsense!” said the Matron. “But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.” Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.” Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.
I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.
Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.
Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.
Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.
For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.
Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.
The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.
[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.
After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:
“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”
Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.
THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?
Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?
Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.
It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)
When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.
She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak, “Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.” Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”
When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.
But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?
A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.
So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.
And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.
Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.
Good morning to you, one and all, on this Happy New Year’s Day!
After spending most of December digging my way out of a mountain of grading (finishing Christmas Eve of all days), I awarded myself a chance to visit your online studios to balance with the lack of physical travel here. Everyone chose to come to our house for Christmas instead–in spurts–which meant my three young Bs reveled in FIVE Christmases. Bo did his darndest to keep the house clean while I did my darndest not to give everyone food poisoning for the holidays. (Thank God for slow cookers.)
We. Are. Tired.
But we are also healthy, warm, and safe, all blessings to be thankful for.
With the departure of Christmases and the arrival of snow, I returned to my writing goals from this past summer with fresh perspective. With better understanding of the time involved for both the boys’ schooling as well as my own, I brainstormed a writing to-do list for the next five months of 2021.
Academic article. Not a creative endeavor, but still a writing task worth the mention. A colleague and I had presented for a literacy conference in summer and hoped to utilize our research for an educator’s textbook this winter, but the project fell through. Still, it would do our professional development good to submit our work as an article for a journal, and it would be nice to let the educators I interviewed that their lessons learned would be shared with others somehow. This is priority work to be completed before Easter.
Fallen Princeborn 3. Finish the novel’s outline, especially regarding a major character’s transformation. My hope is to have a draft completed by the end of 2021 or early 2022, so having an outline done before summer will make drafting much easier.
Author Platform. I like my website, and don’t intend on changing its format any time soon. It’s just a matter of staying on course with bi-monthly posting. Facebook, however, is another matter. It just isn’t my bag as an author, and I’m hoping I can lose it and still utilize Instagram for a live feed idea that’s been buzzing in my brain for a while. It all depends on schools opening and the twins returning to the classroom…
Middler’s Pride. God-willing, I’d like to revise, expand, and publish this on Amazon before 2021 ends, so I need to be finished with revisions before the children’s summer break.
What Happened When GrandmotherFailed to Die. Our recent snowstorms have carried my thoughts to this story often. I’d like to get back to it, if only for brief intervals, to see if its cast can survive one night in the Crow’s Nest.
If 2020 taught us anything–apart from WASH YOUR F’ING HANDS–it’s that we must be flexible to survive. Sure, thriving would be great, but let’s just work on surviving right now. I sound like a broken record, I’m sure, speaking of goals so often and surviving the writing life. But adapting to an ever-changing environment–especially one with a pandemic involved–requires a fluidity that stubborn minds like mine struggle to keep. Writing it out helps me find hope in the plan, and so perhaps reading this helps inspire you be okay with trading the grandiose plans for small-scale goals like these.
It also helps to work with old stories, plots the imagination has walked many times and won’t stumble upon too often when drafting time appears. Starting a new story with all-new worldbuilding, characters, and so on would be certain overload at this point. I suppose that’s one reason I have the Grandmother novella on the to-do list–it’s a one-off I’d like to see done so my imagination can stamp FINISHED on it and re-distribute those energies elsewhere. If you have any tips on keeping old stories fresh until you can return to them, I’d love to hear it in the comments below! Or, you’ve perhaps talked about this already on your own sites. If so, please share the links with me so I can check them out. Many thanks!
As I spent Christmas weekend reading your poems, stories, analyses, and updates, a anxious niggle started to grow in my mind. What if my next term of 150 students would drive me into another hiatus? I’d hate to get lost in yet another realm of static and monotony without connection to the kindred spirits who bring creative joy to my life. Such connections are what keep us alight and alive, are they not?
I was reminded of this, all too deeply, just before Christmas.
The phone rang in the morning just as Biff and Bash were logging onto their chrome books for lessons. I hate answering the phone. I hate trying to keep the boys in line while talking on the phone, my attention always split and missing important points and then feeling a fool for having to ask those points be repeated, thus prolonging the phone call and keeping the boys in line and sounding like a witch when a child inevitably brings a cup of juice/cocoa/water too close to the computer and practically spills it everywhere while the speaker on the phone must rehash the call’s purpose AGAIN thus prolonging the bloody phone call more and the vicious cycle goes on and JUST DON’T CALL ME IN THE MORNING EVER.
The area code for the phone number, though…it looked old and familiar. This person did not live around here, or in Wisconsin at all. Yet I…I knew there was something familiar, something homey about it…but what?
I answered. “Hello?”
“Jean?” The voice creaked with age. “It’s Ed. Ed Smith, your neighbor from Escanaba.”
Recognition shocked me. Ed and his wife had looked 100 when Bo and I lived in a remodeled (and possibly haunted) bakery up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan ten years ago. “Ed! Hello, my goodness, it’s lovely to hear from you!” My mouth was full of bubbly incoherent greetings. Heaven knows what Ed made of them.
“I wanted to call and say thank you for the Christmas card. Gosh, your kids are looking so big. Quite a handful, I bet.”
Biff and Bash’s fight over who got the Snoopy Halloween pencil for the math lesson was loud enough to be heard across the street, let alone the phone, so I just laughed and said, “Every day is an adventure. How’s Molly?”
“Oh. Well…” Papers shuffled near him. He grunted–I imagined he had found a place to sit in their little living room of green chairs and giant crocheted doilies. “Well she still has Alzheimer’s pretty bad. She lives in the nursing home, you know the one down T__ Street. Been there three years now.”
“Mom, Bash won’t give me the pencil!”
“Biff is teasing me!”
I held the phone away from my face long enough to give a low, heavily enunciated command: “Work it out. NOW.” I went to my room and closed the door, mentally running through Christmas cards of the past. Did they ever mention Molly having Alzheimer’s? Did they ever send one to mention it? I couldn’t remember, damn my memory…I said something about proximity, that it was good he was still nearby to see her.
“Oh yes. Harder now, though, with the snow.” A faint tapping on his end–drumming his fingers, perhaps. “Still can’t go in, so I stand by her window. Plows don’t always get the sidewalks, and my cane, can’t always navigate.
“Calling gets, oh, a few minutes talking. She’ll remember enough to chide me for somethin’,” he said with a chuckle. “But she can’t grip the phone much, see, so most of the time I’m just sayin’ her name while she tries to pick it up. Nurse usually comes in around then and we can’t talk much longer.”
Memories of my own grandmother and her last year of life plagued by severe dementia fogged this avenue of talk. I couldn’t go down this way. I would only cry, and this man did not need to hear more sorrow. So I asked about their children and grandchildren, and he explained how they visit once a week to help around the house and visit.
Not that he wanted the help, mind. “I’m doin’ just fine, I tell them, but they keep coming in and muddlin’ up my order of things.” He sighed. “Nice, though, having the company.” He grunted again–standing up?–and I heard more paper rustling. “Yup, I was reading through all the cards, and saw your kids growin’ so old. I can’t write that good, see, but thought hey, maybe those numbers in Molly’s book are still good. And here we are!” He chuckled again, though I wouldn’t say for good humor. No, this felt more like his way of sharing relief. “Got, let’s see…Bo’s number here, and this other one. Bo’s dad, I think. They still good, too?”
He read them to me. I concurred about Bo, and explained Bo’s father passing some time ago. It was not something Bo wanted to write in that year’s Christmas card.
“Well, I best not be keepin’ you. You’ve got your hands full.”
I could not bear for this conversation to end on death. “We’re doing our best with what we can. Just like you and Molly, right? Any special Christmas plans?”
“That’s right.” A little clanging–coat hangers. “All this talk on vaccines for the nursing homes, sure hope they get it here soon. It’d be nice starting the new year holding Moll’s hand again. I,” he paused, “I haven’t been able to hold her hand since March.”
I was a mess again of garbled encouragements and holiday wishes until he clicked off. And I cried.
Such a little thing, holding another’s hand. Yet not a little thing.
Not at all.
Our old friends, our old loved ones–they need to know they have not been shut away no matter what restrictions the world places upon us. Let this New Year be a time to re-connect with those you’ve not spoken to in a year or ten. Let them know they matter in your world.
Just as you, each and every one of you, matter in mine.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends. Here’s to a promising New Year of hope and light for us all.