In these weeks where light bleeds to night bleeds to light–
–I lose my creative fire to static.
Not the static of radios or televisions. I speak of life’s static, day in, day out. After celebrating the release of my novel Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, I knew I had to brace for the impact of a full-time grading load, something I’d not known since before Blondie was born. The music of writing gave way to podcasts and commentaries upon YouTube as I worked, a low hum of wordy noise I would hear without really listening.
After a few weeks inside a classroom, Biff and Bash’s school closed back down and returned to virtual. While not nearly as chaotic as the spring, the boys are bored by the diet of worksheets and videos. Even the extra aid for Bash is now going to be yet another face on yet another screen for yet another period of the day. It is difficult seeing my sons and thousands of other children lumped into this remote learning landscape where so little learning is done at all. (For some excellent insight into the matter, please check out this article from ProPublica.)
But as I must remind myself: this is something over which I have no control.
So we build our little forts of sanity, we three, as Bo goes to work and Blondie attends her school in-person in the next county just a few miles away (which, wouldn’t you know, has not had to shut any school district down thanks to careful quarantining and safety measures.) Biff gathers up the sofa cushions and blankets and hides away with his BBF (Best Bear Friend) to work or read. Bash burrows into his bedroom with his rabbit and robots to tell stories and craft a world of folded paper. I remain in my room with my computer to teach, to grade, eternally typing. The sounds of teachers, educational videos, commentaries, Transformers episodes, Mario games–all of it culminates into this white noise that propels one forward on the outside while restraining one on the inside.
Until some thing–some curious, unexpected thing–cuts through the static with kinetic dissonance.
What was this? Something vicious is lurking, its jaws snapping…I was preparing to teach, had no time to listen…yet I listened.
Paws drummed the ground. Wildness was coming, coming out of the frontier to scratch, to eviscerate–
But they couldn’t, not when class had to begin.
After class, I opened YouTube to see what music had slipped into the cracks of all those commentaries. It was a soundtrack–for of course it was–to a film I had only seen once.
Another surprise: the score had been saved to my computer long ago. No need to search for the individual tracks. It was time to travel beyond the static down a road unknown.
The solo violin guides me, too awestruck not to follow. Piano trickles as a river nearby. I feel like a Lost Girl yearning to remember her Neverland, hands open at my sides, fingers outstretched on which a tire fairy may perch.
Then the dissonant flutes remind me danger is afoot, and someone has blocked the piano’s river. A single note tap tap taps, and I must return to teaching, to parenting.
But not with the static. That, I leave in tatters upon the ground.
Re-discovering The Village‘s score by James Newton Howard has been a magical addition to this topsy-turvy autumn. Hillary Hahn’s craft as a violinist is nothing short of stellar (she even discusses recording for the score here!), and I look forward to finding more of her work to add to my recordings of Mari Samuelsen. Hahn’s violin is the perfect protagonist in this sound-story, the musical shadow of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in the film, and Howard’s score captures the spirit of this isolated little world surrounded by forbidden wilderness.
No matter what howls from the winds, the strings dance at forest’s edge. They dare one another to move a step too far.
It is up to us, the storytellers, to decide who steps first.
We all lose our Neverlands every now and then. We just need the right voice to guide us, be it a story, a friend, a star, or a song. As your friendship keeps my creative sparks alight, may this story’s song ignite your own imaginations with adventure and hope.
I’m really excited to share an indie author who writes some amazing children’s literature for a furry important cause. 🙂 We will also need to dive into a few holiday-ish things before 2020 ends, because it’s me so of course we must. xxxxx
And to all who have read and helped promote my novel–THANK YOU! These words feel too small for the feelings that match them, but they are all I can write now that the kids are fighting. Sigh.
Hello, you amazing creatives, you! While I fuss about with preparations for my new teaching responsibilities as well as the launch of my new novel, I want to introduce you to an awesome YA fantasy writer who has a flair for bringing magic into the everyday world. K.M. Allan is a stellar indie author who loves sharing tips on writing and “authoring” on her website, and I’m thrilled to have her share some of her lessons learned with us.
Even though I’ve loved writing all my life, I still feel like I’m a newbie to this whole writing thing. What would you consider to be traps for aspiring writers? Never knowing if you’re good enough. All writers have a level of Impostor Syndrome, but as an aspiring writer, it can be very crippling. You’re constantly looking for others to validate your work and tell you if it’s good enough when you should learn how to judge that for yourself. Another common trap, and one that I learned when I was first starting to query, is thinking you need to pay to have a submission professionally edited or assessed before sending it out. While you need to make sure what you’re sending out is as polished as you can make it, and definitely have it read by someone else to see if the writing works and there aren’t any typos, but it’s unnecessary to pay for these things.
That’s a great point! I have a short story submission I need to finish tweaking without stressing about it. Does writing energize or exhaust you? It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m writing and it’s going well and the ideas are flowing, it’s very energizing. If I’m editing, especially the nit-picky type of editing like looking for weak words to remove, it can be very exhausting.
Uuugh, the editing! I had to lock myself in a room to force myself through those final edits of my novel. Hands down, editing is the hardest part of my writing process. What would you say is the most difficult part of your artistic process? Definitely motivating myself to write. I love writing and always enjoy it when I do, but sometimes the motivation to sit down at the keyboard, especially when there’s a huge task ahead, can be hard to do. I think the fear of writing perfectly also hinders the artistic process. I definitely have ideas for how I want a scene to play out, and getting the words to create that same picture so others can see it too, can be difficult.
Selecting the right character for the focal point of the story is one of the crucial decisions a writer makes as they craft a story. Your Blackbirch series follows a male teen protagonist. Can you explain the process that led to the choice of choosing a male lead and not a female? This is a bit of a hard one to answer. The writer in me has always considered one of the female characters, Kallie Jacobs, to be just as much a lead as Josh. She’s in the first scene of book 1 with him and is one of the first characters the reader meets. Book 2 is mostly her story and contains a scene where she saves Josh, which is what gave me the initial idea to write the series. From a reader’s perspective, though, the story of Blackbirch starts with Josh Taylor and what happens to him, so by default you could say Josh is the lead. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part to choose a male lead over a female; it was just how it ended up being once the plot came together on the page.
I’m a sucker for worldbuilding studies, especially when rules for magic are involved. Can you walk us through the process of the magic system in your Blackbirch series? The source of Blackbirch’s magic (or magick, as it’s referred to in the books) comes from an ancient form of power. Eve Thomas, the book’s self-proclaimed witch, tells the MC, Josh Taylor, that the magick used to belong to ancient gifted humans but it became too much for them and was shared into every living thing, tainting and weakening the magick. There are some, like Eve, who believe greater sources of the power exist and are hidden in magical objects like crystals. She believes that if you find them, you can harness the power for yourself. What Eve doesn’t know is that Josh possesses the power Eve has been searching for. How he got that power and what he does with it is a big part of the first book in the series. In the second book, he learns more about the magick from a girl named Kallie who also has power like him. In that book, it’s revealed the power gives special abilities or gifts to whoever has the power, and these gifts are unique to them. If a witch dies, then whatever gift they possessed and their magick is gone forever, making it a rare and dangerous thing to have.
Magical Realism is a very unique niche in the urban fantasy sub-genre. What was it about the worldbuilding process that made you feel this was the right direction to take your story as opposed to something in a different time or place? I didn’t know Magical Realism was the genre of my book until I started looking at what I needed to categorize it as when I was first querying, and then later picking the right category for self-publishing. I wasn’t aware it was a unique niche, so correct me if I’m wrong hehe. When I first started writing this series I was inspired by TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell (the original TV series, not the reboot) and the YA books I’d always read. These were all set in modern times, so it made sense that my series was also written in a modern-day setting. It never occurred to me to write it in another time or place because that’s not what I like reading or watching.
As a little preview for readers here, would you like to share a favorite exchange, description, or moment from your latest Blackbirch installment? Yes, I would, thanks. This exchange is from book 2, Blackbirch: The Dark Half and happens right around the time Kallie Jacobs is first pulled into the world of magick when she witnesses the death of a friend. Kallie has always had a natural ability to see the future, and that comes into play when a witch named Melinda uses it to help Kallie—with fatal consequences.
“Don’t move,” a woman whispered in Kallie’s ear. “And don’t scream.” The hand dropped from her mouth, followed by the arm around her waist. “My friend,” Kallie’s voice cracked. “He’s hurt.” “Your friend is dead.” Kallie shook her head, as if it would somehow erase the truth. The woman’s hand returned to her, fingers combing through Kallie’s blood-tangled locks. Who was the person trying to comfort her? The lined face and long blond hair weren’t familiar. The woman tilted Kallie’s face toward herself. They didn’t know each other, yet the lady’s blue eyes trained on her like she was staring at an old friend. “Surely you knew about the boy. You foresaw it.” “How… how do you know about that?” “I was watching the two of you when you entered the forest.” “Why didn’t you help us?” The woman glanced over her shoulder; in the direction the man had run. “I can’t interfere.” What kind of bullshit was that? “Who is that man?” “It would be better for you if you didn’t know.” “It would have been better for me if you helped!” Kallie scrambled to her knees. The woman grabbed her wrists, holding her in place. “Don’t ignore the things you see, or you will lose everything.” Heat rushed to Kallie’s cheeks. “Are you threatening me?” “You threatened yourself. And that boy’s life.” Kallie twisted her hand free, slapping it across the stranger’s face. “I did not kill Jerry!” She flexed her wrist, her stomach sinking as finger shaped welts surfaced on the woman’s cheek. The lady touched her reddened skin. “When we don’t ask for our gifts, they’re hard to accept.” “I didn’t ask for anything.” The woman nodded, the deep lines around her mouth sagging. “But you still have it.” Her hand reached back to Kallie’s blood-stained hair and Kallie flinched, worried the woman was going to slap her back. Instead, her touch tapped across Kallie’s forehead. How did this woman know about the pictures she saw in her head? Kallie yanked herself away, spying a tattooed wrist. Black ink in the shape of a witch’s pentacle stained the blond woman’s skin. “You’re the witch! You did this!” Kallie clenched her hands. “I didn’t see anything real until you started watching me.” “I started watching you because you began to see what was real.” “No! You made this happen. You knew Jerry would die, that’s why you’re here.” “You knew it too.” “My vision of Jerry wasn’t real. It didn’t feel like the others.” Her usual visions came to her like snapshots, surfacing in her mind without any effort on her part. The image of Jerry in the water had been different, forced, jammed inside her head like an intruder. Like it was placed there… “By someone else,” she whispered the end of her horrified thought out loud. “What did you do to me?”
I’ve got some bonus posts on the way to celebrate my own novel’s release!
I want to share the inspiration for my new antagonists, music for those moments of action and tension, and more. My first novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, will also be on sale during the last five days before Chosen‘s release.
For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.
Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.
“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”
“Why does David go away to school?”
“Why is David’s family so mean?”
Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.
“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.
I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”
I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…
I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…
Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.
Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)
One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.
“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.” David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)
Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.
Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)
The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.
“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.” Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.” “What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.” “Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately. “I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)
It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.
It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.
“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.” It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did. … [said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)
David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.
“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)
Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)
Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.
And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.
Sound familiar? It does to David.
The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)
This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.
Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.
When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.” “Run for what?” said David. “Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)
Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”
I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.
Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.
Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.
David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”
“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.
“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”
Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.
It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)
Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.
Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.
I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!
Happy Wednesday, all! Uffdah, it’s already been ten days of sharing dragons, bountyhunters, and love for the fantastical that authors like Diana Wynne Jones inspire us to create. In these days of life at home, nothing’s so precious to one’s sanity like imagination. Applying my own imagination to storytelling has been a life-saver for my mental health. One of those stories, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, will be on sale this weekend. You’re more than welcome to climb over The Wall and be lost from the world, if you so wish.
Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte runs away. She takes her bratty younger sister Anna with her, swearing to protect her. However, when their bus breaks down by a creepy old farm, the inconceivable happens—Anna is wiped from human memory.
But something inside Charlotte remembers. So she goes over the Wall in a frantic rescue attempt, accidentally awakening a once cruel but still dangerous prince, and gaining control of a powerful weapon, his magic dagger.
Charlotte’s only chance to save Anna hinges on her courage and an uneasy alliance with some of the very monsters that feed on humanity.
I also thank God every day that my kiddos have been blessed with creative spirits they have, because I’m pretty sure life here would be far more dire if they didn’t know how to escape these walls on their own. Jones understood all too well the lessons to be learned from a child’s imagination, and she shares those lessons in the essay “The Children in the Wood.”
Any book, whether realistic or fantasy, is a self-contained world with the reader in control (if you do not like the game the writer is playing, you can always stop reading). My feeling is that children got most from books which work along the same lines as they do—in other words, by ‘Let’s Pretend’. I am not saying that a fantasy needs to ape children’s games, but I do think it should be not unlike them in a number of important respects. Above all, it should be as exciting and engrossing as the games in the wood. I aim to be as gripped by a book I am writing as I hope any reader will be. I want to know what happens next. If it bores me, I stop. But a book has an additional asset: it seems to be real. If you say in a book that a certain thing is real, then in that book it is real. This is splendid, but it can also be a snare. I find I have to control any fantasy I write by constantly remembering the sort of things children do in their games.
Notice, for instance, that the children in the wood are very wisely not pretending too many things at once. They say ‘Pretend we’re all queens,’ or ‘Pretend we’re explorers,’ and part of the point of what follows is to find out what this entails. In the same way, I find it works best to suppose just one thing: Pretend you are a ghost, or Pretend your chemistry set works magic, or Pretend this dog is the Dog Star. Then I go on to explore the implications of this supposition. Quite often, I am totally surprised by the result.
I also bear constantly in mind the fact that pretending is a thing most usefully done in groups….it is obvious that all other characters in a fantasy ought to be very real and clear and individual, and to interact profoundly—real, colourful people, behaving as people do. ..The third thing I bear in mind is the peculiar happiness of the children wandering in the wood. They are killing one another, terrifying one another and (as queens) despising one another and everyone else too. And they are loving it. This mixture of nastiness and happiness is typical of most children and makes wonderful opportunities for a writer. Your story can be violent, serious, and funny, all at once—indeed, I think it should be—and the stronger in all three the better. Fantasy can deal with death, malice and violence in the same way that the children in the wood are doing. You make clear that it is make-believe. And by showing it applies to nobody, you show that it applies to everyone. It is the way all fairy tales work.
But when all is said and done, there is an aspect to fantasy which defies description. Those children in the wood are going to grow up and remember that they played there. They will not remember what they were playing, or who pretended what. But they will remember the wood, and the big city all round it, in a special, vivid way. It does seem that a fantasy, working out on its own terms, stretching you beyond the normal concerns of your own life, gains you a peculiar charge of energy which inexplicably enriches you. At least, this is my idea of a fantasy, and I am always trying to write it.
May all who write fantasy aspire to do so…lest they be tossed into a dungeon and tortured! Mwa ha ha ha!
Say, that would be a good place to start our Fantasyland chat tomorrow…ahem. Anyway.
Soooooo my puppet plans for the day went so-so. Each kid had a snit at some point: Blondie in making the puppets, Bash in writing his play, and Biff in performing for his family. Still, the kids had TONS of fun at various points of the day creating their robots, rockets, and superheroes. We also took breaks to watch the ultimate puppet show, The Muppet Show. The episode with John Cleese is always a favorite!
I also had a lovely chat with long-time friend, Anne Clare. It always lifts the spirit to connect with an old friend and fellow creative who adventures with teaching and parenting at home as I do. Be sure to stop by her site and say hello!
This week we also found the library that contained the last book to Blondie’s current fav series: Last Dogs by Christopher Holt. She’s found a lot of escape in this series, and I didn’t want to cut off her escape time by missing one of the books.
Escape is very important in times like this, and I hope you each have found that beloved book to transport you out of the current chaos (feel free to share it in the comments below!). I’m excited the stories I’ve written have helped others escape; nothing helps me reset like escaping into my fantasy writing. Diana Wynne Jones also considered fantasy stories to be a delightful bit of escape and adventure for children, but she also reminds writers that fantasy is much more than that for children. Through fantasy, children discover how to be their best selves.
…many writers, not only those who say imagination drives you mad, get the wrong idea. They assume that because a thing is “made up” it is unreal or untrue (disregarding the fact that any kind of story except the most factual biography is always “made up”). They see a child reading a fairy story, or constructing his or her own fantasy, and they at once conclude that the child is retreating into make-believe simply to get comfort in a melancholy situation.
Fantasy certainly does provide comfort–and who is not entitled to a little comfort if they can get it? For those who need that, it is the mind’s perfect safety valve. But a child reading, say, a fairy story is doing a great deal more. Most fairy stories are practically perfect examples of narratives that fit the pattern of the ind at work. They state a problem as a “what if” from the outset. “What if there were this wicked uncle? That evil stepmother who is a witch? This loathsome monster?” Stated in this way, the problem (parent? bully?) is posed for the widest possible number of people, but posed in a way that enables the reader to walk all around it and see the tights and wrongs of it. This uncle, witch or monster is a vile being behaving vilely. As these beings will invariably match with an actual person: parent, sibling, schoolfellow, what a child gains thereby is a sort of blueprint of society. Reading the story, he or she is constructing a mental map–in bold colors or stark black and white–of right and wrong and life as it should be. Turning to the cruel parent or schoolfellow, where right and wrong are apt to be very blurred, this child will now have the mental map for guidance.
An important part of this mental map is that the story should usually have a happy ending–or at least an ending where justice is seen to be done to villains and heroes alike. This is again part of life as it should be. The mind, as I have said, is programmed to tackle problems, joyfully, with a view to solving them…it is important that the blueprint instructs them to aim as high as possible.
If you bear in mind these responsibilities as you write, you need have no fear that any child will mistake the blueprint for the actual world. Children recognize the proper workings of the imagination when they are allowed to see it and may quite well remember your story, joyfully and gratefully, for the rest of their lives.
As you all continue on your adventures through the fantastic, I hope you’ll take a moment to remember the authors who inspired you with their monsters and warriors, and how those stories brought you here, to your Wyrd and Wonderful place, to create a new world of monsters and warriors to inspire a new generation of readers drawing up their own blueprints to becoming their best, their brightest, their most unique selves.
SMELLS are everywhere and strong, and, except for those of ENCHANTRESSES and INCENSE, unpleasant. Even DANGER has a Smell–the REEK OF WRONGNESS. There is somethingin the chemistry of the land that makes Smells. It is probably a fallout effect of MAGIC, but see also SOCKS and TROUSERS.
While it’s true that springtime in Wisconsin has some unpleasant odors–fertilizer, anyone?–there are also the gorgeous smells of budding fruit trees and daffodils, fresh-cut grass and firepits.
Nothing gets my mouth watering like the smell of a meat over a fire, be it a grill or a firepit. Blondie, too, is always happy to see Bo cooking hot dogs outside, or to have a weenie roast with my mom. The twins…well, like me they enjoy setting marshmallows on fire. Unlike me, they don’t eat them in a s’mores, the weirdos.
Since yesterday’s schooling time was…um…not great, let’s consider the contented joy of cooking night fires preparing our favorite savories and sweets…and how those in Fantasyland so rarely seem to have either. Then I’m going to share a couple slow cooker recipes that Bo and I have enjoyed here because, well, being in lockdown and unable to go camping, we need to bring the taste of s’mores in SOMEhow.
FOOD. See STEW, SCURVY, STEW, WAYBREAD (also known as Journey Cake) and STEW–though there are occasional BIRDS, FISH, RABBITS and pieces of cheese. Generally the diet is an unvaried one, although MARSH DWELLERS can work wonders with ROOTS. Puddings are unknown except occasionally in the Courts of KINGS. Tourists who suffer from diabetes should be quite safe.
WAYBREAD OR JOURNEY CAKE is a flat cake, infinitely nutritious and weighing almost nothing, on which Tourists may sustain themselves for long periods. In appearance, it seems to be halfway between a ricecake and a ship’s biscuit, and in substance, it is truly remarkable since those eating it are never hungry and absolutely never suffer from any deficiency disease (see SCURVY). In some areas there is also a kind of grass capable of being eaten instead of Waybread, but this seems to grow only when your Waybread has run out. It is strange that the inhabitants, given the remarkable properties of Waybread and grass, do not choose to live entirely on one or the other. The reason must be that neither tastes of anything very much. After a month of eating them you will even be glad of STEW.
WATER. You may drink or wash in any Water, however scummy, while on the Tour, except in the MARSHES, where it is full of wriggly things. Water in Fantasyland does not harbour germs. The only other Water it is unwise to touch will be either near the home of an ENCHANTRESS or on the trail left by a WIZARD. This may turn you into things or show you disturbing pictures.
STEW (in which thick and savoury translate as “viscous” and “dark brown”) is the staple FOOD in Fantasyland, so be warned. You may shortly be longing passionately for omelette, steak, or baked beans, but none of these will be forthcoming, indoors or out. Stew will be what you are served to eat every single time. Given the disturbed nature of life in this land, where in CAMP you are likely to be attacked without warning (but see BATH), and in an INN prone to be the centre of a TAVERN BRAWL, Stew seems to be an odd choice as staple food, since, on a rough calculation, it takes forty times as long to prepare as steak. But it is clear the inhabitants have not yet discovered fast food. The exact recipe for Stew is of course a Management secret, but it is thought to contain meat of some kind and perhaps even vegetables. Do not expect a salad on the side.
While the following casserole isn’t exactly fast food, either–or easily transportable–it is quite yummy with its hint of Thanksgiving. Plus it’s a great way to utilize stuff likely sitting in your pantry and freezer. I got it from Fix-It and Forget-It: 5 Ingredient Favorites, a book that’s been a big help in slimming down our grocery list.
Ingredients: * 1lb lean ground turkey * 2 cups frozen mixed veg * 1/4 cup Italian dressing * 1tsp steak sauce optional (I’ve yet to use it) * 16oz can wholeberry cranberry sauce * 6oz pkg. stuffing mix for turkey
Combine ground turkey, veg, Italian dressing, and steak sauce (if using) in the slow cooker.
Pour cranberry sauce over top. Sprinkle with dry stuffing mix. I also slice up 3 tablespoons of butter to spread across the stuffing, too.
Cover and cook on low 6-8 hours or on High 3-4 hours.
Honestly, I burned a firewood-scented candle while eating my helping of s’mores cake. I love love LOVE the smell of campfires, and the Fix-It and Forget-It: Slow Cooker Dump Dinners and Desserts book gave me a chance to transport myself to that beloved setting while the kids ran around the house in a sugar rush. Yes, this dessert is SUPER sweet, so take it in small doses. 🙂
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
My YA Fantasy Novel Fallen Princeborn: Stolenwill be just 99 cents during Memorial Day weekend (May 22-25). If your neighborhood’s still on lockdown like mine is, let’s escape together in the hidden farmlands where magical portals await…
Desperate, they crossed over The Wall to hunt Humans. But they made one mistake. They took Charlotte’s sister.
In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shapeshifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.
Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte runs away. She takes her bratty younger sister Anna with her, swearing to protect her. However, when their bus breaks down by a creepy old farm, the inconceivable happens—Anna is wiped from human memory.
But something inside Charlotte remembers. So she goes over the Wall in a frantic rescue attempt, accidentally awakening a once cruel but still dangerous prince, and gaining control of a powerful weapon, his magic dagger.
Charlotte’s only chance to save Anna hinges on her courage and an uneasy alliance with some of the very monsters that feed on humanity.
Welcome to River Vine, a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.
Whew! I think that’ll do it for today. I’ve planned a puppet-themed school morning for the kiddos, so we’ll see if this goes gloriously well or gloriously awry…
Anybody else have to do laundry on Mother’s Day? I did my best setting the twins off to put away clothes while Blondie helped me fold. The job got done…eventually. Bo grilled despite the snow/rain outside, so our tummies were warm and full by the end of the day. 🙂
There are many world-building curiosities DWJ clearly had fun poking at in her book, attire being one of them.
CLOTHING. Although this varies from place to place, there are two absolute rules:
Apart from ROBES, no garment thicker than a SHIRT ever has sleeves.
No one ever wears SOCKS. See also CLOAKS, COSTUME, and KNITTING.
COSTUME. It is a curious fact that, in Fantasyland, the usual Rules for CLOTHING are reversed. Here, the colder the climate, the fewer the garments worn. In the SNOWBOUND NORTH, the BARBARIAN HORDES wear little more than a fur loincloth and copper wristguards (see CHILBLAINS and HYPOTHERMIA). However, as one progresses south to reach the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS, one finds VESTS and BOOTS added to this costume. Further south still, the inhabitants of the VESTIGIAL EMPIRE wear short SKIRTS and singlets and add to this a voluminous wrapper on cold days. Thereafter, clothing steadily increases in thickness and quantity, until one finds the DESERT NOMADS in the tropics muffled to the eyebrows in layers of ROBES (see HEATSTROKE).
UNDERWEAR is optional and largely nonexistent. It is believed that some form of loincloth or drawers is sometimes permitted, but the Management is naturally coy on this subject. Bras are certainly unknown, but in the case of dancing girls may be replaced by sequined things with tassels.
SOCKS are never worn in Fantasyland. People thrust their feet, usually unwashed, straight into BOOTS.
BOOTS. In Fantasyland these are remarkable in that they seldom or never wear out and are suitable for riding or walking in without the need of SOCKS. Boots never pinch, rub, or get stones in them; nor do nails stick upwards into the feet from the soles. They are customarily mid-calf length or knee-high, slip on and off easily, and never smell of feet. Unfortunately, the formula for making this splendid footwear is a closely guarded secret, possibly derived from nonhumans (see DWARFS, ELVES, and GNOMES).
Ah, sharing Diana Wynne Jones always brings a smile to m’face. We’ll see how the antics with our schooling at home help me choose tomorrow’s selection. In the meantime, stay healthy and keep on walkin’!
Yet another spring day of sunshine, robins, aaaaaaaaaaaand that s’mores cake just sitting in the fridge, callin’ my name…
How are you, Friends? I’m not quite as grumpy as I was last week, but honestly, I’m still feeling pretty downtrodden. The extension doesn’t allow for nonessential travel, and…gosh, can’t time outside’n’elsewhere be considered essential? Please?
Escape through photography is one thing–there are plenty of amazing nature photographers out there capturing intimate moments in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, we can’t just take my family on a walk through the park. Parks have playgrounds, and playgrounds are still off-limits. This led to Bo and I brainstorming our day-trip to the graveyards–four, to be exact. We visited the graves of grandparents and parents buried in dilapidated Catholic plots, forgotten farmland sites, suburban stone-less grids, and MANSIONS!
Doesn’t that look like a mansion? It’s got this huge church in it, and castle-like sitting room, and crypts, and statues, and a Hall of Presidents, and I’ll stop rambling so you can just see for yourself in the gallery on their page. The kids actually had quite a bit of fun on this graveyard run, looking for the really old graves, checking out all the unique names in the mausoleums, admiring the veteran statues, and simply loving the warm, windy day.
Brighter days have led to Biff’s pleas being answered at last: I got the bikes down. After a couple of weeks with training wheels, Biff’s soaring off on his two-wheeler…
Bash is so, so close to Biff as far as speed and balance, but once again anxiety has been rearing its ugly head, and Bash panics the moment I let go of him and falls. He’s made his feelings quite clear on the subject.
Bash’s teacher sent a phone book’s pile of worksheets to be completed this month, while Biff’s teacher simply emptied the boy’s desk into a plastic bag aaaand that’s it. So…is Biff done, but not his brother? Oh, Biff’s expected to keep doing stuff online. Soooo is Bash. Then do we both with these worksheets or not?!?!
The school crap’s getting old, people. I’m not going to just throw in the towel like a professor with just one first-grader, but the utter disconnect between expectations from the boys’ teachers is frustrating. I’ve tweaked the school schedule yet again to try and get through as much of their work in the morning as possible, with Bible History, Math, Reading, and Writing as our daily core and then ending on a special, like Science, Geography, Art, or History. I overlap whenever possible–drawing maps, for instance, or building something like people did in the olden days (they want to build a fort like a cathedral now–thanks, Nova!)
But because the boys each have such different things they’re supposed to do for each subject, even these few things take time with the play breaks they need throughout the morning. It’s all I can do to keep up with them while, yes, once again Blondie has to tend to herself. Thankfully, this doesn’t perturb her too much; she chats with her friends online via the school computer while completing assignments. Any connection to friends beats fighting with little brothers any day, yes? I’m also impressed with a theme in her writing over the spring involving these dog/dragon/ghost folk building their own planet for alien tourism.
Now I just need to get her back to her Alley Heroes, am I right? 🙂
Speaking of writing: yes, I’m doing my best. I’ve submitted a short story to my university’s literary journal, and I’m still writing another I hope to share with you. The idea came from a very vile looking park bench and a pair of towns I’ve passed through many times in my life; Ashippun, and Old Ashippun. Two communities, very near one another, and yet they have very different feels about them. The idea of a town starting in one place only to be abandoned for the sake of progress stuck with me, and I hope to put that sense of (dis)place into my WIP, “Hungry Mother.”
Nicole carefully places the Bella Café sticker over the tell-tale yellow arches. “My coffee,” she tells the child. “Want some?” Please don’t want some, Christ your teeth look like rocks.
The girl tucks a few greasy strands of hair behind her ear, revealing the rest of her lopsided face. No doctor could save that face. “Nah. I’m waiting for the water.” She points to the old water pump in the middle of the park.
Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of arborvitaes is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes, and that yes is due any minute.
“Don’t you have water at home?” Nicole can’t imagine allowing her own daughter to play in this rundown park, let alone drink water from some forsaken pump. Carl and his skank Sandra probably would. I bet they don’t even follow my rules for brushing her hair.
The child plucks a centipede off Nicole’s bench. With all the bird-crap and graffiti littering the park’s picnic shelter, Nicole had been forced to pick a bench out among the tired, mushroom-eaten pines, and even this bench has quite a few cuts and words scrawled on it. “It’s not the same,” the child says, watching the bug travel from one muddy hand to another.
Nicole brings her Serenity Cloth to her face as though to dab a drop of coffee, but really she just needs to breathe the lavender oil and think, Christ kid stop touching that thing and take a bath. Where is your mother? “Would anyone across the street be able to help?” Not that there’s much to look at across any street in Old Sanctuary. Crawling vines of small red flowers cover almost every building surrounding the central park—post office, gas station, all of it. Only the trailer park sign looks new:
THERE’S NEW LIFE AT OLD SANCTUARY ESTATES! JOIN US TODAY!
New life. What a joke.
Two people stand by the sign in casual conversation: an old man as grimy as the child, and a woman around Nicole’s age…clean, that’s all Nicole knows without seeing the woman’s face. The dress looks like some over-bleached 90s relic cut and sewn for a slightly better fit. A woman like that’ll value her dollars, will try to take care of things herself, won’t bother with big names telling her what to do, like stores or doctors. Perfect.
The child releases the centipede on the bench. It crawls over the words MY PRETTY GIRL IN RED AND CURLS and stops next to Nicole’s left thigh.
Nicole sweeps herself up, dress spinning as she grabs her ___ bag and laughs nervously. “Well you have fun with…” she almost points to the centipede, then spots CURLS. “Say, maybe your momma can put your hair in curls today. Won’t that be pretty?”
The child shakes her head. “It’s talking about you.” The child hobbles over to the broken swings and flops forward to lay her stomach on the seat, her legs and arms dangling like a spider from a thread.
Hopefully I can keep this piece under 1.5K so it fits more easily with magazine submission guidelines. In the meantime, I’ve pulled Middler’s Pride off of Channillo and hope to revamp it for an ebook later this year…or 2021. I should probably be realistic with my timeline here, as I, too, am going to be in school.
I’m going back to school.
In order to make myself look more awesome for a full-time gig, I’m going back for another Masters degree, this time in instructional design. It’s an accelerated track, which means I’ll be in the crunch for eighteen months or thereabouts. I’m praying this won’t hinder my ability to blog too much, buuuuuuut I better be realistic with myself here.
Still. This academic journey doesn’t start until June, so we have some time to edit a novel. Write a story. Email a friend. Discover new music. Hug a child. Trade fart jokes. Wash a chalk-covered stuffie. Steal Easter candy. Read a book. Drink coffee. Savor tea.
Take one day at a time, and pray for things to change for the better.
It’s high time I share something from something I’ve read, wouldn’t you say? ‘Tis the month of Wyrd and Wonder, after all!
Or perhaps we shall return to that Star Wars swamp. We’ll see what the kids allow me to do. x
“But I don’t KNOW what to do, I don’t KNOW!” Bash sits between me and the occupational therapist, head in his hands. Tears run down his nose and splatter on “Glass Man,” the Unthinkable that blows a small problem way out of proportion. The space after I can defeat Glass Man by____ is blank.
“All I know is ask the teacher for help!”
The therapist and I trade looks. Bash was all fun and smiles for the initial physical activities, but now that we’re talking about tackling disruptive behaviors, he’s shrinking in his chair. The kid so fearless on the trapeze and crash pad is curled up and shaking, his glasses on the table streaked with dried tears.
Inside I ache, on the verge of crumbling just as he. His hands are too small to be holding his head like that. He shouldn’t feel the Fear like this so soon in life. This is the kind of Fear that crushes imagination, courage, hope.
I should know, carrying the burden as I do now. But not then. Back then I feared climbing a tree, sure, but not reading with my classmates. I may have feared taking my bike down that vertical drop of a gravel road to the park, but I never worried so much about my math that I threw away my test and hid in the school basement, only to find out later I had gotten every answer right.
I cannot solve this for him, I tell myself time and again as I stroke Bash’s back, doing my damndest to keep my outsides calm as the therapist tries to look into Bash’s face.
“But you did such a great job on Energy Hare-y!” she says, her voice just bubbly enough to be excited without patronizing. Her freckled face and ponytail give her the look of a high school baby-sitter, though her diplomas on the wall reflect a solid ten years of medical education. “You said you should take a break, and that’s just the thing to help a body get the wiggles out and find new focus.”
“This sounds an awful lot like Rock Brain,” I add, pointing to another Unthinkable. “He’s got you stuck real hard.”
Stuck is right. For every tough behavior—inability to sit still, outbursts over small problems, fleeing in fear of failure—Bash’s answer has been, “Ask the teacher for help.”
Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Ask for help. I tell my students that every week. I’ve told Blondie, Bash, and Biff to do this when tackling something new and/or hard. Never be afraid to ask for help!
This is even truer when it comes to matters of mental health. Illnesses like depression and anxiety can isolate a person and make them feel incapable of connecting to another human being. I experienced this first-hand during my years of post-partum depression. Holding one baby boy while another slept, I’d stare out the bedroom window to see other people walking dogs, grilling food, swimming in pools. They were all neighbors, yet impossibly far away. The walls of the house seemed impenetrable. I felt like I was losing my sense of Self, of hope. I’d pray to get through the day, hour, minute without succumbing to the voices inside telling me how easy it was to just walk out of the house and not come back, to make the boys cry for a reason…
Though my sons’ birth cracked open the darkest pieces of me, they were also my inspiration to hammer those pieces to dust. Now Bash is facing his own darkness, one that tells him over and over that he is stupid, that he can’t do anything, that his teacher will be mad because he’s wrong, he’s wrong in everything, that he can’t do ___ because he’s never done it before so he’ll fail and everyone will laugh.
I want so badly to lift the Fear off his shoulders and carry them myself. I want to hold his hand and guide him to the right answers at the right time. I want to see him succeed…
But he will not succeed if I do everything for him.
Some battles must be fought alone. We can provide the tools, the support, the whatever-else-needed, but in the end, the fight is Bash’s and only Bash’s.
It’s not an easy truth for writers to face, either.
Fear looms over us with every submission and book review. For some of us, Fear grips us before we even put the story to the page. I don’t have the time to write well like real authors. I can’t afford to spend time on something that’ll fail. It will fail. No way anyone could like something I write.
It’s a Charlie Brown moment—we just can’t do anything right, not even what we love.
Better to run and hide our creative selves from the world than face the disapproval and derision sure to come.
The therapist gently tugs on Bash’s arm. “Let’s do another break, huh? How about riding the scooter down the ramp five times, and then we’ll try beating Glass Man?”
Bash slowly rolls off my lap. His body’s bent forward so low his hands practically touch the floor as he approaches the scooter. He flops belly first onto the scooter, his legs crooked up into the air. He grunts little grunts, his fingers tap little taps on the scooter, floor, ramp.
He pulls. Just a little. Pulls more. Just a little. Pulls the first two wheels onto the ramp. Just a little.
“Let me help you,” the therapist says, but Bash moves past her hands. Back toward her hands. Away from her hands again. The ramp’s only four feet, and Bash covers those first three feet a lot—up and down, side to side. Yet he does not give up. When he slaps the sticker at the top of the ramp with his palm, he gets there himself.
It’s just a few seconds down the ramp and across the room. But it’s enough to crush the sadness and fill Bash with wild and happy giggles. He runs back to the worksheet, “I can breathe!” he says, and shows us how he can fill his tummy with air and blow out his fingers like birthday candles.
The therapist claps. “That’s great! Say, that’s the perfect way to beat Glass Man.”
Bash grins and hops over to his sheet. He writes BELLY BIRTHDAY BREATHS so big it covers the picture of Glass Man completely.
It’s another Charlie Brown moment, when one’s determination finally eclipses the Fear.
We find the breath in us to move forward across a land of glass and rock and discover we are not such fragile stuff at all. We are capable of incredible feats of imagination and bravery, for there is no greater Fear than the Fear we carry within. Only when we shirk that Fear can we share stories from the deepest, truest places, the kinds of places readers yearn to find.
So take up that kite, writers. You may get tangled, the kite may get torn, but there is always tomorrow and the promise of another chance to fly, and fly far.
Happy Monday, one and all! Yes, I know I’m a day late, but I’ve got the best of reasons: I got to spend ALL of Friday with Blondie at her Parent Visitation Day.No calls from the boys’ principal this time. Just me sharing hugs and silly faces with Blondie during her classes and scribbling “Captain Poop” on the name slot of her Spelling Test because I’m mature like that.
It was worth putting off the pile of grading and my interactions with you all because when you’ve got little loves in your life, you’ve got to make every hug count.
So, now that the brunt of grading has been completed and I’ve successfully ignored all calls to substitute teach in this county, let’s wrap up our look at The Force Awakens and prepare for our shift into The Last Jedi with a little talk about villains.
As far as Disney’s sequel Star Wars trilogy is concerned, I consider the villains to be at their strongest in The Force Awakens because they had the most potential here. Each villain has a unique look, sense of purpose in body language, and dialogue that consistently carries the story along. Each had a strong mix of elements that could leave lasting impressions on readers.
THE PRINCIPLE OF ANTAGONISM: A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.
A big reason Episodes I-VI are still loved today is the cast of antagonists. Darth Vader was other-worldly with his powers and costume, yet impossibly human when he tells Luke he’s his father. The Emperor, a specter of white skin beneath a black hood, didn’t just carry power in his Force lightning, but in his voice, his speeches chipping away at Luke’s hope until the final showdown when Vader finds redemption in saving his son. The prequels take those two villains and re-cast them as protagonists, revealing the roads taken that transform Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader and Senator Palpatine into…well okay, Palpatine was also evil in the prequels, but he wore the good-guy disguise. We were still watching that transformation of shedding the good-guy pretense and becoming the Emperor.
In both trilogies, there were transformations at work. The heroes were growing, yes, but so were the villains, and THAT is just as important if not moreso.
Rather than spending your creativity trying to invent likable, attractive aspects of protagonist and world, build the negative side to create a chain reaction that pays off naturally and honestly on the positive dimensions.
In any story, there must be a clear sense of cause and effect: if the hero does something, that’ll ripple over to the villain in X way. If the villain does something, it’s going to impact hero like Y. Audiences are quickly bored with a villain that simply twirls his mustaches and goes right on with the same schemes that tried and failed before.
Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.
A female storm trooper of authority–something audiences had not yet seen in Star Wars. Phasma had a cold-blooded voice and towering presence that could make anyone run for cover. The actress’ screen time in Game of Thronesproved she was capable of combat and other feats of bad-assery, so audiences expected to see some wicked work done by this daunting leader of First Order troops.
But it’s awfully hard to effectively show how bad-ass you are when you’re not even in the story for two whole minutes.
No joke. These are all her scenes in the first film.
For a character that looks like she should have plenty of conflict potential with Finn, the Storm Trooper Turned Good, we get practically nothing. The character is relegated to a few snippets of dialogue and a bit of fan service with the “trash compactor.”
Supreme Leader Snoke
Ah, the character that bred a thousand fan theories… Snoke’s hardly in the film–like Emperor Palpatine, Snoke only appears in hologram communication in this first film. Like Phasma, Snoke looks good. The towering projection of him dominates not only the villains of the film showing who’s in charge, but looms over audiences, too, freaking them out with his deformities twisted by shadows and ghostly light. Kylo Ren and General Hux are both eager for his approval, which adds an extra layer of conflict among the antagonists.
Not bad, right? A bunch of yes-men in uniforms quickly makes for dull viewing. Intrigue in the ranks is a great way to sneak in extra plot twists, shifts in power, etc. Mystery never hurts, either. This Snoke guy must be pretty powerful if he heads The First Order (wherever they came from), and if he’s trained Kylo Ren in the ways of the Dark Side, he’s got to be a powerful Force user, too. As much as I hate seeing too many Mystery Boxes in one film, JJ Abrams knew what he was doing in planting just enough information about Snoke to intrigue audiences and keep them talking about a character who’s only on screen for a few minutes.
Just as Vader had a very old Peter Cushing (I mean, Grand Moff Tarkin. Look, I only knew him as Peter Cushing even as a kid, okay? Peter Cushing was AWESOME and don’t let anyone tell you different.), Kylo Ren had a military counterpart that worked with him as much as he worked against him. The General Hux character of Force Awakens is sharp, curt, quick to please his Supreme Leader as he is to put down anyone beneath him. Ambition oozes from his body language and dialogue, especially in his speech to the troops.
The more powerful and complex the forces of antagonism opposing the character, the more completely realized…story must become.
Again, there is potential here. This is a character that feeds on power, thrives on stepping over the masses groveling at his feet. General Hux is no Force user, but he has forces of thousands at his command. Should a character like he choose to clash with one like Kylo Ren and/or even Snoke, there could be some fascinating political theater here. He’s a powerful speaker, for instance–he could persuade legions to follow him. Trick troops into thinking they’re carrying out Snoke’s commands. Pit lower-ranked commanders against one another. This general looked and sounded capable of all of this. Had the movies followed through on these established traits, they would have had some mischievously tricky plot threads to bind audiences to future stories.
For those who don’t know, Kylo Ren was born Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. In The Force Awakens, Ren is seen not to revere not his parents, but his grandfather, Darth Vader. For him, the temptation is from The Light, not Dark Side. He led other Padawans to become The Knights of Ren and destroy Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Temple and almost killed Luke Skywalker in the process. Some of this echoes the character arc of the now non-canonical Jacen Solo of several Star Wars novels, son of Han and Leia, TWIN BROTHER of sister Jaina who starts as his ally and ends his enemy.
Empathetic means “like me.” Deep within the protagonist the audience recognizes a certain shared humanity.
So, so many of us have fought against that “which is in our blood,” have struggled to be anything BUT our parents, yearned to be something bigger than ourselves. More than any other character, it is Kylo Ren with whom audiences connect. No one condones his determination to remain on the Dark Side, but audiences fight for his redemption, even here, because they know who his parents are. Even after Kylo Ren kills his own father, audiences know there is “good in him” like Luke knew there was good in Vader. Audiences want to see this character succeed–not as a villain, but as a villain-turned-good.
What went wrong?
Death Star 3.0, for starters.
Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth. Weak stories, desperate to hold audience attention, degenerate into multimillion-dollar razzle-dazzle demo reels.
The dissonance is subtle at first, but it swells quickly. For all the hype over Captain Phasma, it occurs to us in her last scene with Finn that she’s hardly done anything throughout the story. For all the booming threats from Hux, he becomes inept when he himself is faced with a threat. For all the “Ye GODS” Force-wielding moments Kylo Ren has early in the film, by movie’s end he can barely duel Rey, who’s never held a lightsaber in her life.
But the worst offender by far is that Starkiller Base. You and I know it as Death Star 3.0 because that is PRECISELY what it f’ing is.
What Abrams and/or Disney thought could be pulled with this stunt, I do not know. George Lucas succeeded with his reveal in the first Star Wars because it hadn’t been done before.
Even the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi feels redundant, but because Emperor Palpatine is on board, audiences are willing to set aside the déjà vu and see how this new conflict unfolds.
“But look!” Disney seems to say. “This time it’s a whoooole planet and it can blow up a bunch of planets at once! It’s bigger, better, more blastier than ever!”
Yuh huh. No it’s not.
Cliché is at the root of audience dissatisfaction, and like a plague spread through ignorance, it now infects all story media… The cause of this worldwide epidemic is simple and clear; the source of all clichés can be traced to one thing and one thing alone: The writer does not know the world of his story.
All four villains in The Force Awakens had the potential to become something special in the Star Wars universe. Each had characteristics and made choices that affected a protagonist, creating promising conflict for the upcoming films. Had Disney’s “creative team” followed the antagonists’ choices to the logical next step, they could have given audiences thrilling adventures with minimal cases of déjà vu.
But Disney wasn’t about making something new, at least not with The Force Awakens. They wanted something that would ignite the nostalgia in my generation and engage my generation’s children to invest their time, money, and Christmas lists in whatever Disney slapped the Star Wars seal on. I have no doubt that JJ Abrams and any other director involved with Star Wars sincerely enjoys the classic adventures in the galaxy far, far away. But the potential of their Mystery Boxes, villains, and heroes was crushed beneath the demands of The Mouse’s Committee.
Heed this, writers, and heed it well. When a writer doesn’t take time to explore the potential of his own story-world, instead choosing to depend on what is considered “a sure thing” in the publishing industry, a writer ends up no only disappointing audiences but his own storytelling spirit. Never is this clearer when an antagonist’s traits are altered, choices limited, or ambitions doused for the sake of a trend or gimmick. As author Michael Scott once told me:
I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal…I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.
Do not damage the potential of your own story’s villain for the sake of pleasing some committee. Know your story. Know what drives the Dark so that you may better create its counterpart in the Light. If you ignore one, the other’s arc will burn to inconsequential ash.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
We’ll see if I can get Blondie to say what she’s been up to, Miss “I want to write book reviews on my own website!” xxxxx I’ve also got some choice words about the state of literacy in Wisconsin, few of them good.
Or we might just talk about mental health. Or music. Frankly my mind’s so fried from grading I’m amazed this post got written.
This blog shall stop at nothing and stay there, bringing all undiscerning readers up to date information about significant items of interest and intrigue that will certainly be interesting to someone somewhere at sometime. I shall also try to avoid being vague.