Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

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Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

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There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

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But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

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Days of Walkmans Past

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Earlier this spring the ever-lovely lady & author Shehanne Moore set me to the “Music that Means Something” Challenge: five pieces of music with meaning to be shared over five days.

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Well of course I never got to my computer in time to fulfill the challenge properly, and her own choices gave such lovely visits to her family that I couldn’t help thinking on the music of my own childhood. Plus, when I think of music from those days, I can’t help but think about Dad.

Those who knew Dad strictly as a pastor tended to assume he only listened to choirs or Christian contemporary. While he willingly listened to such things during Lent or Christmas, he rarely had them on just because. I mean, come on–St. Olaf’s choir is nice and all, but they ain’t Pink Floyd.

Yet I can’t share Pink Floyd. Oh no. I gotta share the music I hated when it was on: Renaissance.

According to my kid-self, the singer’s voice drove me nuts. The lyrics made no sense. You couldn’t day-dream anything exciting going on with the music. And worst of all, these songs go on forever. The video I found to share here was one of the short ones, and it’s FORTY-FIVE MINUTES.

But Dad just loved this stuff. Peer into his study any given night. Greek and Hebrew texts are flopped open and piled on one another with Post-It confetti. The Fourth Doctor Who stares frog-eyed from the calendar. Three cans of flat cherry Coke all on the verge of spilling on Minor Prophets. And Renaissance, because of course Renaissance, whines on that big relic of a boombox while he clacks away on the old IBM. There was no escaping it, not even on the road, thanks to that ancient 1980s wonder known as The Mixed Tape. Imagine being eight and on a road trip for twelve hours, knowing there were tapes of John Williams and James Horner soundtracks locked away like the Ark of the Convenant beneath the passenger seat, while this was on, and on, and on:

No wonder my brothers and mom slept for hours while Dad drove. Meanwhile, wee me in the way back of the van struggled to read, or just stare out the window. But sometimes, I would catch Dad’s eye. He’d smile, or start dramatically lip-singing. I can still remember the way his eyes would twinkle, like a goodbye, just before he turned his focus back to the road.

I was so very, very tempted to go with James Horner for this list, as his Star Trek scores were thankfully played during road trips, too, but I’d rather dedicate a post to Horner later. Besides, there’s another composer who had a huge impact on me.

il_fullxfull.1216505053_iphyMy elder brother was an avid reader of books by Tom Clancyso when a movie version came out, he and Dad would usually see it. The Hunt for Red October was such a hit with both of them that Dad invested in the CD. (Buying a new CD was a pretty big deal with three kids and a shoe-string budget.) I made my own cassette copy for the portable cassette player I earned with Kool-Aid points and made myself deaf with a Russian choir whenever that Renaissance tape ka-chunked into the player. It was the first time I heard a choir singing something not-religious with so much power. There was height, and depth, and terror, and joy, all in the first minute of the first song. Basil Poledouris’ score has a few slow moments, but the thrills elsewhere more than make up for them.

When my kid brother was old enough to inherit the relic boombox, he took to rooting through Dad’s CDs for music. Unlike me, who only took from Dad’s movie soundtracks, he took to the rock…sort of. Look, I just don’t know if this Alan Parsons Project song qualifies as “rock,” or even progressive rock. YouTube users say it’s “underrated.” All I know is that one night a twelve-year-old boy tossed aside his algebra and performed a lip-sync and dance routine with his desk chair to this song that could never, ever be repeated in any universe ever again, and I was the only witness.

Mom listened to these various genres with the patience only a mother can have. Some of it was to her taste, some not–she never really complained. As a kid I didn’t get it, but gosh do I ever now. I’ve let the kids have the most irritating songs on repeat for ages, just because it kept them laughing and/or quiet. This “song” was on repeat for an hour once. No joke.

So apart from some particular Christmas songs, I don’t have many childhood connections between music and my mom.

Beauty and the Beastthough, was a game-changer. My mother adored this movie, and I’ll admit, it’s one of the few animated Disney films I genuinely enjoy. Knowing how much Mom loved the story, Dad splurged when the broadway musical came to Chicago and got the whole family tickets. Mom HATES big cities, but seeing Chicago lit up for Christmas and this story performed live? Worth it.

For this list, though, I’m not picking any of the musical numbers. Those songs are okay, but they weren’t what hitched me to this story, even as a kid. Nope. It was the very first sequence, the prologue. The hushed piano and strings, like fairies flittering just out of sight. That first shot of the lush woods, the hidden castle, and those windows! Again, I grew up with stained glass being just for God. To see it tell other stories just as beautifully stayed with me ever after, even coming into my own writing.

One more song to go. (That Weird Al snippet does NOT count. It’s not a real song.)

When I met Bo, my music knowledge was, um, limited. I had my movie soundtracks, and some Christian contemporary from my years working at the Christian bookstore, and that was about it…well, and Monty Python. And The Firesign Theater.

Anyway.

Bo’s mother died of cancer when he was in college; that same year his girlfriend of over a year dumped him. He was currently studying for the ministry, but no longer felt like God wanted him there, or anywhere. The only thing that seemed to connect to him was, of all things, Quadropheniaa rock opera by The Who. He even wrote to Pete Townshend, thanking him for the music and how it helped him through this point of life.

Pete wrote back.

Bo proudly displays that postcard still.

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This was one of the first albums Bo shared with me: the narrative gripped and still hasn’t let go. The melodies hit hard, every damn one. The sounds of the sea are such a perfect touch. I loved this album so much that it became the core support of one of my protagonists. I could not write the story without those songs. But what if by some miracle of God I publish? It’s not like I could refer to these songs without Townshend’s permission.

Unless…I write to him for permission. There. Done.

Nah, he’ll never write back. What’s he going to care about some random American writing a story?

Totally forgot about it. Putzed with the story some more, finally discovering the key problem with its voice. Started reworking it.

An email a few months later from Pete Townshend’s rep: show us where the songs are used, please.

Bo: Holy cow, that’s awesome!

Me: HOLY SHIT I’M SCREWED.

Because of course, I was barely one act into my rewrite. Bo calmed me down, got me thinking about the specific scenes I knew Quad came into play. Fucking blitzed through those and sent them back in tears, because they were shit, of course they were, and now there would be no hope for this WIP at all.

An email one week later.

Townshend approves.

Peter Townshend of The Who approves.

The shock of that moment still ripples into my present.

Bphilipnov2016efore this, when my WIP was barely a WIP, Blondie barely a toddler, and the boys barely done with colic, we learned Bash had acid reflux. If we kept him upright a little while after the last feeding of the night, he–and therefore we–had a better chance of sleeping all night. To fill that time between stories, feeding, and bed-tuckings, Bo started putting on music videos. Sometimes it was Peter Gabriel, sometimes Genesis, sometimes ZZ Top, and sometimes The Who. It took some ninja-skills with the mute button to hide the occasional”fuck” and such, but The Who’s live concert at the Royal Albert Hall quickly became a huge favorite with all three. As the boys grew bigger, Biff took to playing guitar on his blanket complete with Townshend’s signature windmill move. Bash still insists on wearing one of  our three The Who shirts every day. Heaven help me the day he outgrows them.

Music always has and always will contain a piece of the divine to me. I’m not just talking about religious music, which, yes, the right hymn brings me to tears and stirs the faith into something tangible. But the right song at the right time always transcends me. I can feel the lift, the change inside. I know when hope blossoms again. I no longer cringe from the world. I want to move forward. I want to try, to do.

hope. 

know. 

live. 

The Art of Voice-Changery, Part 1

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A writer’s imagination runs through many worlds, histories, and lives. The danger of one writer and an infinite creativity? That only one voice ever speaks.

Changing voices has got to be one of the toughest challenges for a writer. I’ve read some failures, and believe you me: the story just tanks due to pov confusion, or loses all flavor due to deja vu. I mean, just imagine if all the Muppets sounded like Ernie. How lame would that be?

My Shield Maiden series…Shield Maiden Quartet? Oooo, A Quartet of Maidenry!

Sorry about that.

Anyway, I have four very different protagonists in this set, and that different-ness MUST be clear to readers. In Middler’s Pride Gwen went from show-off jerk to decent human being. Now I need to maneuver into the head of another recruit named Wynne, the protagonist for my next book, Beauty’s Price. Wynne has motives wholly unlike Gwen’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates. How to create this gentler, more provincial voice?

Hmmm.

I stare blankly at my bookshelf: Conan Doyle doesn’t exactly come to my mind for strong heroines. Nor does Colin Dexter, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters…blast. And Agatha Christie’s heroine Miss Marple is too old for what I need.

Surely my Diana Wynne Jones shelf won’t fail me!

Wait, hang on. No, these girls are all too fierce. They were great for helping me with Gwen, like Hildrida from Drowned Ammet.

drownedammet“Betrothed?” said Hildy. “Without asking me!…You might have asked me if I minded, even if I’m not important. I’m a person, too.”

“Most people are,” Navis said, rather desperately scanning his page. He wished he had not chosen to read the Adon. The Adon said things like “Truth is the fire that fetches thunder,” which sounded unpleasantly like a description of Hildrida. “And you are very important now,” he added. “You’re forming an alliance with Lithar for us.”

“What’s Lithar like? How old is he?” Hildrida demanded.

Navis found his place and put his finger on it. “I’ve only met him once.” It was hard to know what else to say. “He’s only a young man–twenty or so.”

“Only–!” Words nearly failed Hildy. “I’m not going to be betrothed to an old man like that! I’m too young. And I’ve never met him!”

Navis hastily got his book in front of his face again. “Time will cure both those objections.”

“No, it won’t!” stormed Hildrida. “And if you go on reading, I’ll–I’ll hit you and then tear that book up!” (270-1)

Oh, there was Charmain from House of Many Ways, but she’s too bookish. She’s practically dragged into the plot. Wynne goes willingly.

And then, I see a small bundle of books by an author I only started reading in the last year:

Jane Austen.

I used to wear it as a badge of pride that I had NOT read her work. Way too many of my classmates oohed and aahed her stories, and I couldn’t get why. It’s not like anyone got poisoned or shoved out a window, let alone shot.

I pause with Pride and Prejudice in hand. Elizabeth Bennet is considered one of the great female heroines, isn’t she? Her voice is strong and unafraid. Her wit shines often, but her raw emotions have their moments, too. I particularly love her retorts to Mr. Darcy when she’s certain he loathes her, such as this one early in the story:

51uWyPyyBnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her–

“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all–and now despise me if you dare.” (35)

With every chapter read, Wynne’s voice starts to form. I can see her now, the one of sense in a family filled with silly pride and, well, prejudice. Wynne’s parents will be much like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet: a mother obsessed with status and appearances without the wit to show any, and a lackadaisical father who’d rather not parent if he can help it. Both Wynne and Elizabeth have four sisters of age to marry, and most of them idealize marrying a man of good fortune. But while Elizabeth is the second eldest of the Bennet sisters, I want Wynne to be the youngest. Her youth will keep her from that desperation the others feel in needing a man to marry.

Early in P&P, Mrs. Bennet tries to force a match between Elizabeth and a cousin of some means, but who is also a simp and a kiss-ass. Elizabeth has absolutely no patience with him, and cuts the proposal off cold, much to her mother’s annoyance. Wynne will be in a similar situation, as one man wants to marry all five sisters, much to the parents’ surprise and relief. Only Wynne is dead set against the match, throwing her family into chaos, and the man into…well, a rather dangerous frame of mind.

But back to voice.

Gwen’s attitude is superior, dismissive, callous. She thinks you don’t know and/or care about anything half as much as she does, and she’s not afraid to treat you as such. When I used Michael Dellert’s #13WeekNovel Prewriting Questions to explore Gwen, I got some pretty blunt answers. Take the first two, for instance:

middlers-pride-7“How would you describe yourself?”

No brood mare, I’ll say that for free. I can carry lumber like any man. I can go into the woods of Irial all alone and haul honey, berries, and kindling on my back. I can hear better than any of our watchmen—I’M the one who caught Bricius thieving ól from the brewery.

How could they possibly think I’d go off to be a broodmare when I’m far smarter than any young soldier of these parts?

Not. Bloody. Likely.

 “So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

Oh, catching Bricius thieving not enough, then? Fine. Well one time, I was keeping watch for the caravan of southern traders—we’d heard they would come by our thorp, and our slopes are sweet with honeysuckle and dry, good camping grounds—and saw some strange men loitering about the edge of the stables on the far side of the thorp. None of ours, I’ll tell you. They had saltwater mud…don’t ask, I just know these things. One must if one’s to venture into the world for vengeful reasons.

Anyway, they were hanging about, eyeing up the horses, and I knew they were plotting something devious. We keep fine horses here in Easavainn Mills, perfect for ambushing a caravan and fleeing off to the north with all the other devious gnomes and wild people.

Yes, gnomes are devious. Don’t interrupt.

Well, I told the veteran’s sergeant Cinaedh about the men. He said they were scouts for the caravan, and simply waiting for it to catch up.

Scouts? What do scouts need with our horses then?

Pish and spit. They were planning something.

But being but a young lass of 10, what was I to do?

I did the only thing I could do to disarm the enemy: I stole their washing while they bathed in the river and scattered it around the forest.

Thanks to me, the caravan arrived safely, and no one was harmed.

Already you get a sense that Gwen doesn’t listen to anyone. She’s got her own principles, and by the gods she’s sticking with them. In her mind, she was victorious against an evil everyone else was too stupid to notice. There’s no correcting her here or anywhere.

Wynne, on the other hand, has no aggressive confidence. She has been kept apart from others her age by the prejudice of her parents, and feels herself wilting beneath their expectations. The river Gasirad is all that keeps her alive until she meets a certain young fellow…

Jean Lee“How would you describe yourself?”

I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live in Hafren. My mother is also of a business frame of mind, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.

We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Yet neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways pleasing to the heart.

“So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.

Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in Hafren were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children flee their chores for adventures, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Gasirad. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the Hafren road stones without escort or knowledge of the land. To walk with but a river as my companion northward, through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town. To set foot in a new place without any word of introduction, without any desire to share my family name, and walk up to the first child I see, and to say, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance. How Mother would have scolded! I was a walking scandal with mud, petals, and sweat littered about my dress, boots, and hair.

The child was a boy with the body of a reed, brown and thin, and the eyes of a hungry owl.  “Loads.”

“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, and found my tongue on the verge of knotting itself. “Wh-what about adventures by the river Gasirad? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting of an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.

The boy’s smile reminded me of the Gasirad in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”

“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”

Changing voices isn’t just about getting into the new protagonist’s head. There’s a technical aspect, too. Just look at the Gwen and Wynne answers again. Wynne doesn’t do super-short sentences like Gwen does. Wynne doesn’t direct condescending smack-talk to the reader like Gwen does. Wynne’s prose needs to be as flowers picked for a crown: “She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart.” Unlike Gwen, who often scoops handfuls of word-mud to sling at the reader: “Not. Bloody. Likely.”

Whether you reuse the same exploration techniques or not, you’ve got to give your new hero time to open up, especially if she’s never known that kind of attention before. Intimacy comes with time, patience, and a sincere desire for feeling. You can’t rush it–you may as well demand a seed to blossom in your hand. That’s what I’m noticing about Wynne: her love for what matters gives her voice a sweet warmth–rather like apple cinnamon tea on a cool spring morning. It’s that warmth that draws us to her, to learn what kindles it.

But we’re not the only ones drawn in. And therein lies a danger I must further understand. Austen may not be able to help me with the fantasy elements, but I know what can…

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

 

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coralineCoraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to.* The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.

*Whether or not you enjoyed the Nostalgia Critic’s review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, this argument supporting dark movies geared for kids is spot-on. He takes care to support his argument with strong evidence from films such as Coraline and An American Tail. (Please pardon the Russian subtitles.)

 

 

 

To Create in Bedlam

It is 5:30am. I may have thirty minutes, I may have an hour. Whatever I’ve got, it’s quiet.

To immerse oneself into a story world takes concentration and peace of mind. I get this from music, which is why I write of it so often. Unfortunately, I am not allowed the aforementioned tools much throughout the day. Why? Hellspawn!

Well, children, to be more accurate.

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Many writing books and author biographies I’ve come across don’t mention these glorious people doing much until their kids were in school. As I have three children ages 5, 2, and 2, I can see why they waited that long. Four years may not sound like much, but that’s an eternity to a kid.

Some of us grown-ups can’t afford to wait that long, either.

It’s not that we have agents and publishers banging down our doors. It’s the monsters that are crawling up our insides, up from the gut, along the spine, and scraping, scratching the fibers of love in our minds until only self-hate and despair are left.

Postpartum does not simply stop when babies become toddlers.

I have written about this before (See “The Machete and the Cradle”). If I go for a few days without writing (like last week), I can feel It pull me downward. I hear only my children’s screams, not laughter. I see only failure, not work in progress. I feel only worthless, not worth my family’s love.

That’s when Bo forces me to sit down. “Go write. NOW.

Some of us need to create. Be it writing, art, music, model trains, whatever—we need a say somewhere, cuz it ain’t in our houses. Children dictate what stores we can visit without incident, what food we buy, when we can be out of the house (God help the parent who interrupts the nap schedule), etc.

To create is to finally be in control.

~*~

It is 8:22am.

Blondie enjoyed her first year of pre-school so much I thought it a shame she’d spend all summer at home. Shuffle that kid off to summer school, and I’m down to two little ones in the morning. How to distract toddler boys? Two words: Thomas. Television.

Never, EVER be ashamed of using your TV to give yourself a kiddo break.

Granted, I can’t expect them to leave me alone. If Biff calls out a name to me I must repeat it immediately or he will start screaming. Once Bash knows the laptop is on the table he will decide all the trains must bash into it, onto it, and so on. Now is not the time for creation.

Now is the time to review and plan.

When your children are conscious and mischievous, you can’t afford to tune them out with headphones. I prefer this time to plot out where to take things next. I may also work on maps, character garb—anything that does not involve a complete shift out of Mommy-mindset and into my characters.

Aaaand Bash has arrived with his trains.

Just because one has small children doesn’t mean one has to put the creative life completely on hold. Some can be content with just a few sentences’ work here and there, since that does add up. But when you’re impatient and determined, you’ve got to MAKE the time.

But how to do this when funds are limited?

My sister-in-law once asked me if I was going to use daycare to have time for myself. Um, Wisconsin is one of the most expensive states with childcare. How could I possibly justify paying someone to watch children outside the home when I’m still in it? Even capable baby-sitters are by no means cheap.

So how?

Bo knows I still fight postpartum, and is not afraid to take the kids after a long day of work so I can have an hour of uninterrupted writing. Every month he takes the kids so I can go off by myself and have an entire day to write, recharge. He will find books I need for research to save me time.

He never reads my stuff, though.

Lesson learned: relish the support your partner can give you, but don’t ask too much of him/her. Bo is not a fiction reader, let alone fantasy. I tried to get his input on a synopsis once; after three paragraphs he looked up and shrugged. “I am sooo not the audience for whatever it is you’re saying.”

Find the friends who are capable of decent feedback, and ask them to enforce deadlines.

If one’s emailed me her thoughts, I won’t open the email until this time in the day. Revision requires careful planning to ensure consistency, and planning is what this hour is all about. By allowing myself to think through the coming events in my story in the morning, I am ready to write in the afternoon.

~*~

It is 1:00pm. Naptime for the twins. The most bittersweet part of the day.

Blondie: And here’s the Hall of Justice, and Superman with Green Arrow. Who’s this?

Me: Not now, kiddo, I’m working.

Blondie: Can you play James? He’s my favorite engine because he’s red. Can you play James in the Hall of Justice?

Me: Not now, kiddo, I really need to work.

Blondie: That’s the button with Aquaman’s pool, and there’s—

Me: KID-DO. I reeeeeeeally need to work. I’ll try to play later, okay?

Blondie: When you’re done working you’ll play?

Me: Yes. Just, please, let me put on my music and work.

Sometimes I remember to play, sometimes not. Sometimes I can silence the guilt. Usually not.

~*~

It is 8:30pm. I have about an hour before complete mental shutdown.

Unless a major deadline or inspiration looms overhead, I do nothing with my own story. After hours of reading truck books, walking through letter words, scraping pasta off the table, roaring like dragons, and so on, the last thing I want to do is deep-think.

Time to explore.

Bo sits contentedly next to me unwinding his own way with a Dirty Harry flick or some such thing. I wander through blogs and Twitter to see what epiphanies other writers have uncovered, or reviews on books I may want to read. I was never much for platform-building before. I still don’t think of it that way.

Writers need readers. I want to be read, so I shall read in return.

I may review the events of the day, especially if there’s a bruise on my face from Biff’s latest tantrum. I nearly cry when I talk about refusing Blondie. Bo never chastises. “We’ll make it up to her,” he says. “You can’t not write, so don’t beat yourself up over it.”

Which is, after all this, my point.

You can’t not write, so don’t force yourself to stop. Bury your passion alive, and it will decay before its time. Monsters are born this way, and they feed upon bitterness and resentment. Let yourself create, and your worlds both real and imagined will thrive.

In Praise of Found Things

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Emily Ebeling, the professional photographer and friend who compiled the lovely winter shots I posted in “Where and Why I Write,” also took a few shots of this:

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Just a necklace, right?

The actual finding took place a while ago. At the time my graduate school experience mirrored the Minnesota spring: cold and messy. One afternoon I spotted this bright red in the muck. Even with the dirt and oil, I could see it was something beautiful. It just needed a home.

My daughter loved it too, which is nice, until one realizes that a baby prefers to show her affection by slobbering all over it. Often the necklace ended up by my computer because it was in the only room we kept closed off. During my first NaNoWriMo, I pulled elements from the book room into my story because, well, they were there, and I was writing against two clocks, one of which was capable of screaming when ignored for too long. Wonderland conundrums, Neverland mermaids, Sherlock Holmes, and…my necklace. My female protagonist needed a memento of her family, and it seemed as good a token as any.

With each draft, I nurtured those cuttings from the classics to become unique elements in my story-world. The necklace, too, became more than just a token. It symbolized my protagonist’s sacrifice. It lured enemies out of the dark. It foreshadowed a secret lineage.

It became one of the most important pieces of my story.

Not bad for a random find in a parking lot.