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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

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

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

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

#lessonslearned in #writing #fiction from #RobertMcKee & #StarWars: there are consequences to shoddy #worldbuilding. Part 4: #sidelining strong #villains of the #story for the sake of #razzledazzle #cliché.

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Much as we all love Snidely Whiplash’s mustaches, the whole take-the-girl-to-the-tracks-thing gets real old real fast.

Let’s break our four primary villains down and see what could have–should have–been.

Captain Phasma

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 Thrones proved 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.

General Hux

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Kylo Ren

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.

Robert McKee

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.

So.

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.

Robert McKee

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.

Thus begins the required “I have a bad feeling about this” line to be uttered in many, many, MANY more movies to come…

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.

Robert McKee

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.

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

#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

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

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

Miss Parts 1 and/or 2 of my Robert McKee & Star Wars series? Click a number to catch up!

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

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

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

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

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

Robert McKee

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

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

Glazed over it.

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

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

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

Robert McKee

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

ONE: The Beginning

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

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

TWO: Pilot Poe’s Survival

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

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

How’d he survive the crash?

Dunno.

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

Dunno.

And we never find out.

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

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

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

Robert McKee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A good question, for another time.”

Say WHAT?!

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

Robert McKee

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

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

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

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

No.

That is not acceptable.

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

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

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

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

Political and social commentary.

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

Why? How?

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

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

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

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

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

#writing #music: #DarkCrystal by @DANIELPEMBERTON

Good morning, all, from a wintry Wisconsin! At long last, snow’s found my corner of the Midwest. Biff, Bash, and Blondie had a blast sledding upon our wee hill. It’s the sort of blizzardy day that encourages one to tuck into a blanket and a book–not that I can, with my pile of student projects requiring grades and the kids now planning to convert the house into one giant Gotham City/Sodor hybrid because I was fool enough to leave those old toys out. Still, isn’t it a lovely thought to just wile away the day with a cozy mystery? Or, perhaps an epic adventure into the Elsewhere…

Dark Crystal is a film I’ve only watched a handful of times, and yet I can still remember the awe of my first encounter. Everything glowed, moved, lived. I knew these were puppets, and yet they felt real to me, so real that their torture under the Skeksis scared the pants off of me. Heck, I still have the occasional nightmare about that chair.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!

Dark Crystal is also one of the few creations by Jim Henson Disney doesn’t own, which is why Netflix was able to produce its own prequel series. I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical, but the music alone has won me over.

To the lovers of fantasy, the lovers of adventure: here is a theme to call you over that threshold for a hero’s journey.

Oh, Daniel Pemberton, you do not disappoint. The mix of zither and medieval instruments atop a foundation of strings inspire the feeling of a dirt track beneath leather boots, of dusty wind whipping rain-washed hair. We close our eyes to a sun first rising over old forests and older mountains, the road lost in a valley of thorns and uncertainty.

I’m such a sucker for the medieval flair in this score. The feel of history, I think, and the simplicity in its emotional expression.

The score to Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance doesn’t just count on the medieval flavor, however. The moments of synthesized melodies seems to hearken back to the 80s while also remaining distinctly…distinctly itself. “Unnatural” would be my description, an antithesis for the skin drumheads and soft flutes of before. The result unsettles the imagination, cracking it as a clawed foot cracks the ice.

When winter turns our real world bleak with cold, music like Pemberton’s reminds us there’s magic both frightening and fragile beyond the snow. We’ve only to turn our writing eyes inward, and watch music awaken Story’s Landscape.

That, and there’s nothing quite so lovely as a fluttering solo violin. 🙂

Someday, I hope to see the story actually paired with Pemberton’s music (Yes, I’m one of thooose people who has no streaming service of any kind.) Until then, I’m thrilled Pemberton’s found a way to bring the music of Henson’s original story together with his own, just as the writers of Age of Resistance found a way to create a new story in Henson’s universe.

May your own stories, whether unique to you or inspired by others, contain such magic as to enchant your readers and leave them breathless in a land of hope and shadows.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m keen to get back into my Star Wars series by studying some plot holes in The Force Awakens and how those holes affect the strength of the trilogy overall. I’ve also got some FANTASTIC interviews lined up, with the first to be posted in the next few weeks. Blondie’s also been pestering me to write on here, too, so you may be hearing from her soon. xxxxxx

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

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

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

Robert Mckee, Story

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

…and Ewoks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story is about originality, not duplication.

Robert McKee, Story

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

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

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

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

Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.

Robert McKee, Story

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

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

Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.

Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.

Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.

The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~

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

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

#writing #music: #PolarExpress by #AlanSilvestri

Hullo hullo, everyone! While most of the Midwest is buried beneath vast amounts of the white stuff, southern Wisconsin remains primarily bare. Cold, and bare. Cold, drab, and bare. Cold, drab, starless, and bare.

Whether you love Christmas for Christ or Claus or whatever else, the music of the season always carries an extra touch of magic. This year, I want to take you on a ride with that music, but not through carols or reindeer. This year, let’s take a train.

I first learned of The Polar Express via its Robert Zemeckis film adaptation in 2004. I got kids, and those kid love trains, so borrowing this film from the library was a no-brainer. The film came out during the 3-D craze, so there are several roller-coaster style sequences thrown in for…reasons.

Still, there’s a lot to love here. The original illustrations in the book are simple and elegant, so when the film brings those illustrations to life, the story glows on the screen.

From the book…
…and the film.

The brightest star, however, has got to be the score. Zemeckis recruits a composer with whom he’s been successfully collaborating for decades: none other than that time-traveling, alien-hunting, legend-wielding genius Alan Silvestri.

Silvestri utilizes the caroler element of Christmas music to build a majestic sound to compliment the orchestra: like “Carol of the Bells” or “Deck the Halls,” a portion of the choir sings onomatopoeia bell sounds while the others maintain a traditional harmony as they sing “Spirit of the Season.” When you combine the choir with a bit of brass and bells on top of sweeping strings, you have a song of majesty unbounded.

Of all the tracks, however, my favorite comes from near the film’s end. Will Santa Claus appear to these children after their adventures on the Polar Express? Do these kids truly, truly believe in the magic?

Unlike the opening to “Spirit of the Season,” Silvestri starts low, almost ominous. The bells aren’t quite traditional harmony–more like playing in fifths, perhaps, with the same low note playing over, and over, and over, so when the percussion and low brass begin it feels like a train slowly building steam to go. Something is building to happen…it picks up speed…and a melody. And drums.

Oh, those drums at 1:52 are my favorite. Like the pounding of reindeer hooves, the drums signal a change to a smashing of Christmas songs galloping by us, around us, spinning us like tops for Santa’s toy sack. While the choir dances in and out of these songs, the brass are the heroes in this track. Those trumpets nail the intense run from carol to carol with precision so perfect I fear many must have needed ice packs for their mouths after playing. 🙂 But back to the music. After the fantastic gallop of carols we return to the sweeping theme of majesty and flying magic. Santa cracks a whip made of the Northern Lights, and color splashes across the sky as his sleigh snaps out of sight into the night.

As you embark on your own seasonal adventures real or imagined, always keep the right music ready to transport you to the furthest reaches of snowy magic…or to return you to your home’s hearth of warmth and laughter.

~ STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK! ~

Blondie’s excited to share her writing and reading updates with you! I’m also eager to share more music and storytelling joys. Oh, and if you’re interested in one of my 2020 Author Interview slots, let me know!

Lastly, if you haven’t written a review for your favorite writers in a while, please be sure to do so. No gift is as meaningful to any writer, indie or mainstream, like a review from a reader. I‘ve got my two books, sure, but this is a gift that means to world to ALL writers. x

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

#lessonslearned from #AgathaChristie: #Write #ChristmasTraditions with a #Sinister Flair for some Wickedly Fun #Seasonal #Storytelling

Good morning, my friends! At last I can write to you by the light of a Christmas tree. Many still slumber in this snowless cold of Wisconsin, but thanks to coffee and sweet sounds of soft singing, I’m content to sit and write to you of Christmas traditions…and murder!

Inspired by amazing indie author SJ Higbee, allow me to share some samples of this story’s covers. First, nothing’s so ominous as a skull outline in frosting. 🙂

“It’s dying out, you know,” he said, “the real old-fashioned type of Christmas. People spend it at hotels nowadays. But an English Christmas with all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers. The snowman outside the window…”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

Two years ago I shared with you a few of the traditions Bo and I have passed on to our children. I realize, however, I didn’t stress just how important those Christmas cookies are. Telling Bo to “skip the cookies this year” is akin to telling me to “skip the music this year.” In order words: BLASPHEMY! Bo will spend hours upon hours dying the dough, organizing the cutouts, laying out the sprinkles and ships for the kids to use for decorations. He loves giving these cookies to friends and family because they embody the love his mother shared when she baked cookies in his childhood. Though dead for twenty years, her love sweetly returns every Christmas through Bo, a tradition I love to see him honor.

Traditions, especially Christmas traditions, have this way of calling us back to our childhood. Once more we feel the snap of magic in winter’s air, hear the joy in song, see beauty in the world when the candles are lit and ornaments are hung. And don’t forget the food!

“All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey–two turkeys, one boiled and one roast– and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver anymore. But all the old desserts…”

“What does all this have to do with your little murder bit earlier, Jean?” you may ask.

Okay, okay, I’m getting there.

Isn’t this one dreadfully plain? Oh, it’s pretty enough, but there’s absolutely no sense of mystery here whatsoever…unless we’re to presume the snow’s actually arsenic powder or something.

While some reread A Christmas Carol every year, I love to reread the Poirot short “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.” (No, I do NOT like to reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmasthough I’m the first to admit the David Suchet adaptation of this clunker is hilarious because they added a storyline of Inspector Japp dealing with his in-laws.) The premise for “Christmas Pudding” seems straightforward enough: a government official and a princeling ask Poirot to help them recover a jewel stolen by someone they suspect to be staying with the Lacey family at the old manor house King’s Lacey. They manage to bribe Poirot with the promise of the manor’s modern heating system–and, perhaps, some bloodshed.

“You see, it is very famous, this ruby. There is a long trail behind it, a history. Much bloodshed–many deaths!”

Poirot finally agrees to help and goes to the manor house under the guise of wanting to experience a good old-fashioned English Christmas. Though the Laceys do not know of the jewel, they do know they don’t like their granddaughter’s boyfriend, and hope this detective can help them disentangle their granddaughter Sarah from the cad Desmond, who only seems good when he tends to his mysteriously ill sister always hiding away in her guest room.

So, we have the traditional homecoming mixing with the nontraditional guests. This clash promises some engaging storytelling to come–and it does.

Hercule Poirot entered his bedroom. It was a large room well provided with radiators. As he went over towards the big four-poster bed he noticed an envelope lying on his pillow. He opened it and drew out a piece of paper. On it was a shakily printed message in capital letters.

DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE AS WISHES YOU WELL.

Hercule Poirot stared at it. His eyebrows rose. “Cryptic,” he murmured, “and most unexpected.”

A note is no dead body, but there’s a clear warning here of danger to come, and of all things that danger is connected to a Christmas dessert. I can’t imagine Bo’s cookies being dangerous, but then again, we don’t serve his cookies ON FIRE.

On a silver dish the Christmas pudding reposed in its glory. A large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it. There was a cheer and cries of “Ooh-ah.”

Folks, it is utterly impossible for this anxious-addled mother of mischief-maker kiddos to imagine serving food on fire and expecting them to EAT IT. I mean, I know you don’t eat the fire, but still.

Rapidly the plates were passed round, flames still licking the portions.

“Wish, M. Poirot,” cried Bridget. “Wish before the flame goes….”

…. In front of everyone was a helping with flames still licking it. There was a momentary silence all round the table as everyone wished hard.

There was nobody to notice the rather curious expression on the face of M. Poirot as he surveyed the portion of pudding on his plate. “Don’t eat none of the plum pudding.” What on earth did that sinister warning mean? There could be nothing different about his portion of plum pudding from that of everyone else! Sighing as he admitted himself baffled–and Hercule Poirot never liked to admit himself baffled–he picked up his spoon and fork.

At a glance, this cover doesn’t look like much effort’s gone into it: just text in frosting with the pudding for a backdrop. But I do like how the frosting drips from the letters…like BLOOD, mwa ha ha!

If the great Belgian detective admits he’s baffled, then readers know there’s a real mystery afoot. We know there’s a precious ruby somewhere in this manor. We know the the manor’s heir is dating a ne’er-do-well that is surely the ruby’s thief. But what has any of that to do with this age-old Christmas tradition?

We soon find out.

Something tinkled on [Poirot’s] plate. He investigated with a fork. Bridget, on his left, came to his aid.

“You’ve got something, M. Poirot,” she said. “I wonder what it is.”

Poirot detached a little silver object from the surrounding raisins that clung to it.

“Ooooh,” said Bridget, “it’s the bachelor’s button! M. Poirot’s got the bachelor’s button!”

Every portion of the pudding contains a little token: wedding rings, a thimble, a pig, a coin, etc. For my lovely friends across the Pond, you’ll have to enlighten me about what tokens are or are not traditional, for my two-second search on Google only alluded to coins, thimble, bachelor’s button, and a wishbone. (And again, Panic-Mom-Me would be crying “THEY’RE GOING TO CHOKE!” throughout all this. Prrrrobably for the best we don’t have the Christmas Pudding Tradition in the Lee house.) I especially wish I knew more about the traditional tokens because of what happens when the lord of the manor digs into his portion.

While not too colorful, I do love the menace of this cover. You’ve got the ruby that starts the story, an old illustration of making the pudding, and blood dropping onto a snow-like surface. I dig it!

“God bless my soul,” [Mr. Lacey] ejaculated. “It’s a red stone out of one of the cracker brooches.” He held it aloft.

…. “But what I can’t understand,” said Mrs. Lacey, “is how it got into the pudding.”

Mr. and Mrs. Lacey are both baffled about this particular “token.” Poirot isn’t–nor are we readers–but the reaction of the Laceys makes it clear that of all the tokens Tradition dictates be put into the Christmas pudding, a red stone isn’t one of them. It’s a peculiar twist on the tradition to them, but to Poirot, the pudding provides the answer to the mystery of the ruby’s hiding place.

Of course, now he has to figure out how it got there in the first place. The answer comes in yet another Christmas tradition learned when Poirot compliments the cook Mrs. Ross on her pudding and asks how she makes it.

“…As it was, that pudding was only made three days ago, the day before you arrived, sir. However, I kept to the old custom. Everyone in the house had to come out into the kitchen and have a stir and make a wish. That’s an old custom, sir, and I’ve always held to it.”

When the cook says “everyone in the house,” she means it: not only did the family members come and have a stir, but the staff and all guests–including the suspected thief Desmond and his supposed sister. This tradition provides the nontraditional guests the opportunity to hide their criminal activity in an unlikely place.

Yet why would they hide the ruby inside something everyone was going to eat? It turns out the Christmas pudding wasn’t meant to be the Christmas pudding, as the cook explains.

This is the cover of my copy. I love the balance of festive color against that vicious knife. If only the author text weren’t so huge!

“As a matter of fact, sir,” said Mrs. Ross, “it was the wrong pudding you had for lunch today…This morning, when Annie was getting [the Christmas Day pudding] down from the shelf in the larder, she slipped and dropped it and it broke…. So we had to use the other one–the New Year’s Day one.”

Thanks to the tradition of multiple puddings for the holidays, the Christmas dinner had been saved–and the ruby exposed.

Of course, then, there comes a wee spot of murder, but I’ll let you read about that on your own. Honestly, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is a quick’n’fun read for your lunch break or before dawn creeps to your window.

As you embark on your own writing adventures this December, consider the holiday traditions you’ve known since childhood. What villainy could hide under the plate of cookies, or in the shadows beyond the carolers outside? A festive promise of mystery and adventure awaits!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m lining up author interview for 2020! Some have already reached out to me, and I’m in the process of reaching out to others. It promises to be a smashing year of sharing authors we love! I’ve also got some brilliant music to share with you both seasonal and magical. Plus, let’s not forget an update from Blondie and her own storytelling as well as the importance of giving the gift of literacy to others. Here’s hoping I can get Bash back on his Transformer Christmas story, too. 😉

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

#lessonslearned from @arden_katherine: #readers don’t need to see the #horror to feel it. #amwriting #writetip

Ah, ’tis that most wonderful time of the year…when Linus camps out in the pumpkin patch, when Bo shares classic monster movies with the kiddos, when I stroll with a cup of coffee, kicking up the fallen leaves as I go.

It’s that time when Blondie creates ghost stories for every old house we pass on the way home from school, when Bash draws a collection of Frankenstein monster pumpkins for the wall, and Biff curls up beneath his Star Trek comforter with books on all things weird but true.

It’s that time when I’ll return to the stuff of childhood nightmares–in a good way, mind. Creepy story collections like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Goosebumps, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Today I’d like to add to that list with a story fit for any Midnight Society’s campfire, one a parent can spookily read with his/her child…or perhaps a brave older kid would enjoy reading with a flashlight under the covers.

That story is Katherine Arden’s Small Spaces.

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think–she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price.

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. …On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” … Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN.

From Cover Blurb

I don’t want to give away the whole story (unlike the back cover, gah!). Rather, today I wanted to share a wee epiphany I had while reading this book.

Let’s start when Ollie’s class first arrives at the farm. It’s a large farm, and isolated–no town’s anywhere nearby. This already creates a sense of being cut off from all that’s familiar to Ollie and her classmates.

A group of three scarecrows stood on the edge of the parking lot, smiling stitched-on smiles. Their garden-rake hands were raised to wave. The tips of the rakes gleamed in the sun.
Ollie kept turning. More scarecrows. Scarecrows everywhere. Someone had set up scarecrows between buildings, in the vegetable garden, on stakes in the cornfield. Their hands were trowels or garden rakes. Their smiles had been sewn or painted on.

Chapter 8

Readers feel Ollie tense up at the sight of all these scarecrows. Can we blame her? It’s one thing to have a few scarecrows up for decoration, but “scarecrows everywhere” is unsettling. Then you add the fact that none of them have proper hands, but rather trowels or rakes–no gloves, no straw just sticking out. Nope. Just sharp, pointed things.

The moment reminded me a lot of John Carpenter’s Halloween, actually. I know slashers aren’t for everyone, but I promise you this clip is blood-free. (My apologies for the opening 5 seconds of cussing Freddy Krueger. I just really wanted to use this clip!)

This scene is one of a few depicting Michael Meyers stalking Laurie. He does nothing but stand and stare at her for a few seconds before walking out of sight.

What is he doing out of sight?

We can’t answer that. Laurie can’t, either. You can see the concern and fear fill her face as her friend approaches the hedge. She knows something is off about this faceless Shape, but she can’t yet define it. She didn’t need to see any blood on the Shape of Michael, or a weapon in his hand. There’s no blood-curdling screams from the house, frantic gunshots, etc. The stillness of Michael’s Shape is enough to unsettle Laurie and put her on her guard.

The Unsettling Of The Protagonist during the first act of a story builds an incredible amount of tension. This tension grips the audience and holds them in place because they need to see what could possibly happen. Now comes the real trick for this treat: paying off that expectation.

Well we know Carpenter’s Halloween does this, or it wouldn’t be considered the masterpiece it is today. The stalking escalates to the murder of Laurie’s friends which then escalates to the cat-and-mouse fight for survival between Laurie and Michael in the third act. This escalation fits well with the genre and needs of the audience, to be sure. Sooooo how do we swing a similar escalation into payoff for kids?

Hide the horror’s action off-page.

As the blurb says, Ollie and two of her classmates run from the broken school bus into the dark forest. There they find

WE SEE YOU was written on a tree overhead in ragged, dripping white letters.
Below them another scarecrow leaned against the tree. There was paint on his coveralls; he was grinning ear to ear. He had no hands at all, just two flopping paintbrushes where hands should be.

Chapter 13

Did Ollie and two of her classmates see the scarecrow paint the letters? No. Yet the evidence before them says that it did. Do they see their classmates on the bus? No. And yet:

A scream tore through the twilight. Then a whole chorus of screaming.

Ollie and Coco hurried up the sloping path. The first of the scarecrows stood right on the edge of the fenced-in dead garden, head a little flopped to one side. Brian was standing in front of it, his hand over his mouth.
“What is it?” said Coco.
“That scarecrow,” Ollie said, panting a little. “Is–does it look familiar?”
“Yes,” Brian whispered. “Because it’s wearing Phil’s clothes. Because that’s Phil’s hat and Phil’s hair and kind of Phil’s face–if it were sewn on. That’s Phil.”

Chapter 13, 18

We do not see the school kids transformed into scarecrows. We only know the Before, and the After. It is up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the space between. And a reader’s imagination can be a very, very powerful thing.

When we describe precisely what happened, we, well, we limit the reader’s power. We define with clear guidelines just what took place and how. We walk readers around all the edges and features, showing off precisely what makes that Scary Something strong as well as weak. Of course, this method can be very useful–a reveal of method beneath the madness, if you will.

But we don’t always need to tell readers how the Scary Something works. If we do, we risk severing the Scary from the Something.

The very reason readers come to stories like this in the first place.

Do you have any favorite ghost stories to share? Let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, I’m going to wait for my copy of Dead Voices, the sequel to Small Spaces. Isn’t that cover creepily gorgeous? It’ll be perfect for a Novembery read, when Wisconsin’s lost in the transition from autumn to winter.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

I’m excited to share all sorts of creative goings-on with Biff, Bash, and Blondie! I’m hoping to talk a bit about NaNoWriMo, too. Plus there’s a peculiar bit of Wisconsin many presume to be haunted, buuuuut we shall see.

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

#writing #music: #Suspiria by @thomyorke

Rhythm.

We keep in time with it as we dance to life’s obligations. We drum our fingers to it when all else slows to drudge, we unleash our feet to it when all else is quickens to thrill.

Writing, too, has its rhythms. They can be the water flowing through a setting, the heartbeats of two characters meeting, the dialogue where all that is important is left unsaid.

The narrative rhythm quickens and slows with every story, every writer.

And sometimes there is that rare, beautiful moment where the rhythm of one story inspires another.

Welcome, Suspiria.

While both the original 1970s Italian film and 2018 film take place in a dance studio, that is about all they have in common. (If interested, click on for Red Letter Media’s thorough dissection of both the original and the remake.) As I am going to speak of the 2018 film’s soundtrack, let’s focus on the latter, where a young Mennonite American woman feels she must, she must, join a West German dance troupe that is secretly run by a coven of witches. As she grows more entwined with the magic of the school, the psychotherapist of a dancer missing from that same troupe investigates what he believes to be supernatural goings-on behind the studio’s doors.

(Oh, and that elderly psychotherapist gentleman is played by Tilda Swinton, who is also playing one of the teacher-witches. This was actually a controversial point in the press, as she didn’t admit to playing this role until after the film premiered. Just watch this little snippet of the character moving, and you just feel the age of him, the weight of this mystery upon him. Bloody amazing, that Swinton.)

And there is indeed magical goings-on behind the studio doors. The witches need to prepare a vessel for one who claims to be of the Three Mothers whom the coven worships. How do the witches prepare such a vessel? With dance.

All their magic is empowered by dance. Every choreographed movement of the female body, especially a group of female bodies, helps build their power to control, summon, bespell.

So what better way to bespell the audience than with a magical score? Thom Yorke of Radiohead weaves synth, piano, and dancing rhythms through much of the score. Sometimes we are given only sound, such as in “A Storm That Took Everything.” Like a storm outside, the world is noise, dissonant, clashing, overwhelming. (I wish I had more than an Amazon sample to give you, but Yorke limited which tracks could be on YouTube, dammit.)

Sometimes the dancing rhythm takes center stage even when characters are not dancing. “Belongings Thrown in a River” is an excellent example of this. You can just feel the 3/4 time, always used for waltzes, pull you into a hypnotic 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. Even when no witches can be seen, even outside and away from the studio, there is a power reaching out to our characters from afar.

A longer sample I can share of magical rhythms comes in “Volk,” the song played when the dancers perform what they think is a recital while the teacher-witches prepare Mother Suspiriorum’s entry into their chosen vessel, the Mennonite Susie.

The tinkling high synth that sinks down takes us, the listeners, down to the rhythm. Feel the 5/4 time, otherwise known as quintuple meter. It’s unnatural, this rhythm. It’s not one to be walked to, to run to. It is its own…until just after two minutes, and then the rhythm changes. Constantly halted, that synth, pausing you, pulling you, pushing you, a jerking dramatic control so like a puppeteer with his marionettes.

So like these dancers and their bewitching teachers.

But no song bewitched me like Yorke’s own “Suspirium.”

Again, the 3/4 time, but here with piano, a distant organ, later a flute. The rhythm is the melody is the rhythm. One feels prone to dance a walk in silence as the lyrics invoke a haunted hope of an impossible waiting, just ahead.

This is a waltz thinking about our bodies
What they mean for our salvation
With only the clothes that we stand up in
Just the ground on which we stand
Is the darkness ours to take?
Bathed in lightness, bathed in heat

All is well, as long as we keep spinning
Here and now, dancing behind a wall
When the old songs and laughter we do
Are forgiven always and never been true

When I arrive, will you come and find me?
Or in a crowd, be one of them?
Wore the wrong sign back beside her
Know tomorrow’s at peace

Songwriters: Thomas Edward Yorke© Warner Chappell Music, Inc. For non-commercial use only. Data from: LyricFind

It is through this song I found the rhythm of a story to another girl, one also drawn to a place she cannot yet understand, where her fate is entangled with past bloodied and forgotten in the snow.

It was 8:30 at night, and Grandmother still wasn’t dead.

Chloe tapped her box of Winston cigarettes against her nyloned knees, cold and impatient. Sitting at the top of the stairs hurt made her ass hurt, but the stairs started near Grandmother’s room, where Mom sat with the others. Chloe did not want to be too far from Mom, not when she sat so still and quiet in a room where Death was due to arrive at any time. 

Chloe redid her headband to keep her black hair out of her eyes, and then leaned backwards to peer through the doorway again.

Nothing had changed. A heavy, ornate lamp sat on the bedside table with a thin orange shroud draped over its shade to dim the light. The bed stood high with wooden globes for feet, globes carved into precarious connections along the frame and headboard. The blankets on the bed looked like cast-off ball gowns, all bright colors in expensive fabric stitched with gold. Gold was everywhere in that room. No shroud could hinder the light from finding the gilded edges of crucifixes, mirrors, chairs, fireplace. Old family portraits of white people sitting stiffly cover walls papered in some sort of leafy green paper. The paper is cracked and peeling in places, just like Grandmother.

A portrait taken of this generation would be very, very different.

I’m still working out some of the history and time-frame for this story so that, God-willing, come November I can launch myself into Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon.

I should also warn you all I may very well drag you into the forest around the Crow’s Nest during my month-long stay in this story-world. Stay tuned to upcoming posts about that. 🙂

Speaking of writing endeavors, Super-Proud Mom Me is getting out of the chair so Blondie can tell you all about her current writing project. Take it away, Blondie!

Thanks, Mom! I’ll take it from here. Hello, everyone! I’m Blondie, if you don’t know already. Now, my story is called Alley Heroes. A wolf named Thor needs to defeat the evil Loki. Where is it? Oh, it takes place in Milwaukee, and the magical land of Valhalla.

Methinks my daughter has been influenced somewhat by her Basher Mythology book. 🙂 Here’s her introduction. Love this girl! xxxxx

INTRODUCTION

It was a typical day in Milwaukee, or what you call typical. Under a pretty rosebush, Thor was born. What?! No, No, not the Norse god Thor! Well, maybe, but any who, let’s continue, shall we? SO, then, Thor’s parents left him behind when humans came. Thor grew up in the city alleys where it was perfect camouflage. Then it happened. What?! WHAT DO YOU MEAN, “SO, WHAT HAPPENED?” WELL, TURN THE PAGE!

Speaking of books, indie author and reviewer Colin Garrow was kind enough to review my novella Night’s Tooth. I’m so honored!

A mix of classic western and fantasy, Jean Lee’s novella is set on the edges of her Princeborn universe (see Fallen Princeborn: Stolen). Her use of language is delightful, with an unusual writing style that’s as clever as it is original. The characters are an interesting lot, too, (like the Sherriff with the squirrel-tails moustache). Drop them all into an atmospheric Clint Eastwood-type setting, and there’s plenty of action to keep the reader guessing what’s coming next.

*

*

*

*

I hope you’ll check out his site…and, well, my books, too. Night’s Tooth is only 99 cents, after all!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’ve just enough time before All Hallow’s Eve to explore spaces lost and forgotten, frightening and small. I’ll share a peculiar corner of Wisconsin before we run for the small spaces, where we must hope the smiling man of the mist will not find us….

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