#Author #Interviews: #indie #writer @pjlazos discusses #writing & #family, caring for the #environment, & finding the right #writingcommunity

Featured

91fkfs+gocl._us230_I connected with P.J. Lazos online as a fellow indie writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her discussions on environmental issues, writing, human virtue, and family are so compelling that I just had to introduce her to all of you. 

First, let’s talk about you. Your biography reflects many passions: a passion for truth as a journalist, a passion to fight for what can’t as an environmental lawyer, and a passion for words as a writer. Which of these passions shown itself in you first, and how did it influence your other passions?

I think my strong sense of justice started in childhood.  My mother had a baby who died at three months old.  I was three years old at the time and remember thinking how unfair it was for our family, but especially for my mother who was devastated by the loss.  I think I tried so hard to make it right for her, but of course, what could I do.  Maybe the words grew out of that experience — definitely the emotion.  I remember journaling when I was a kid although then it was called “keeping a diary” an no where near as in vogue as it is now so clearly the name change helped.  As for my bit with the environment, well, my mom used to wrap me in a blanket and tuck me under the big oak tree in the backyard and I would lie there and have a conversation with the tree, or at least that’s what it looked like in the video, so I think that started then, too.

41mbbxd7agl.sr160,240_bg243,243,243Your Six Sisters series delves into the nuances of family life and all its beautiful imperfections. Now I’m not going to strictly ask if this is autobiographical, but were any characters inspired by family or friends in your life? What drew you to share their stories?

That’s funny.  My brother-in-law from my first marriage — I still maintain a solid relationship with my ex-husband and former in-laws — asked me the same question about List of 55.  The answer is complicated.  No, in that the over-the-top behaviors of the characters in that story were definitely not us, but yes in that the underlying emotion behind a break-up was definitely there.  You don’t have to have a specific experience to write about it convincingly as long as you can access the emotion behind it.  For example, I remarried and my now husband’s first wife died when their two kids were very young.  Hearing that story from his POV allowed me to access his unbearable loss and I created a character — David Hartos in Oil and Water — loosely based on my husband who was also a commercial diver.  He provided me with insight into how a heart completely busted open by grief struggled to raise two kids as well as how the world of commercial diving worked.  I think that as writers, a piece of you lands in every story you ever write, but some are just more autobiographical than others.  The part of List of 55 where the central character has a miscarriage — that precise situation did not happen to me, but I did have a miscarriage in a bathroom stall at 30th St. Station in Philadelphia and I think it may have been the saddest, most horrific moment of my life.  I tried to write about it before, but it never came out with the gravity I wanted to convey so I put all that angst into Belinda’s character and that’s what I got.  Sometimes it’s easier to process your own pain through a made up character. Isn’t that a staple of psychological counseling for kids, and aren’t we all just kids walking around in adult bodies, still harboring all the crap and still relishing all the joys we experienced in childhood?

817bbw+i0al.sr160,240_bg243,243,243Now, your most recent novel, Oil and Water, is an environmental thriller. Considering your legal expertise, I imagine you didn’t have to do a ton of research for this novel…or is that being presumptuous?

Yeah, I wish it worked that way for me, but it doesn’t.  I started with doing some initial research about converting trash into oil and about the Marsh Arabs and the wetlands in the Fertile Crescent (which you would remember from studying Egypt or Mesopotamia), but a lot of the rest, like you, I googled as I went.  I have enough information in my head to get me started, but my memory isn’t always a straight arrow so I need to fact check.  My favorite kind of fiction is where you learn something so I wanted to be sure I was passing on real time information.

As the premise of Oil and Water brings readers to difficult questions about our dependence on fossil fuels, your website Green Life Blue Water also informs readers of some amazing environmental initiatives that are doing their communities some good. Are there any current programs you’d like to highlight right now?

Rain gardens and aquaponics!  I’m a member of the Junior League of Lancaster, a group that’s been operating in Lancaster since 1923.  This is my 8th year in the League and I love being part of a volunteer women’s organization.  We are doing some really cutting edge stuff like building rain gardens which are basically bowl-like depressions planted with hydrophytic plants that hold stormwater and rain water in high flow times as a way to divert it out of combined sewer system.

This year we’re adding aquaponics to the mix which is basically a fish tank with food growing on top — veggies, herbs, whatever you want (well, maybe not pumpkins).  The fish poop fertilizes the plants so it’s a self-contained system.  We’re doing a pilot project at an elementary school here in Lancaster, installing four tanks in four second grade classrooms and putting together some curriculum to go with it.  We want to make a “pizza garden” with basil, oregano, cherries tomatoes, and a few other things so when the kids harvest the food in the tank we can throw them a pizza party.  So lots happening:  how ecosystems interact, close up look tan water and nutrients, nutrition, and more, I’m sure.  Hands on learning is really the best way to get those kind of lessons across.  I just learned that the Aztecs were the first to do aquaponics.  The called it Chinampas.  So you see, I’m learning something, too.

You are also a member of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, correct?  Can you tell us a little about this program and how writers can join?

watwic-bright-tuqblkI actually don’t do that anymore.  It was quite fun, but a friend of mine asked me what I had to be insecure about since she loved my writing.  That started me thinking about The Law of Attraction and how what you think about all day long is what manifests in your life so I stopped participating in IWSG and started participating in WATWB, We Are the World Blogfest, which had just started.  WATWB happens on the last Friday of every month and it showcases positive news stories as a way to counteract all the negativity in the world, an “accentuate the positive” approach to news and life.  I also found this group to be more “my people”, writers all, but focused on social justice, environmental issues, a better life for all people.  Plus you get a real lift from reading the stories people post.

Lastly, what advice would you like to share with those who are unsure how to explore their family or other passions with writing?

Journaling is always a great way to get started.  I always kept a kind-of notebook, but when my daughter was born, a friend gave me a beautiful black sketch book with lovely, creamy paper.  I had four months off from work, plus another four on a very part-time basis, I wrote a journal in earnest, a love letter to my kid that I intend to give her one of these days when she’s ready to read it.  Her dad and I split before she was born and I wanted to get everything I was feeling down on paper.  We joke now that she came out screaming because I was so angry when I was pregnant.  Unless I’m reading her wrong, today, like me, she laughs readily and sees both the irony and the gifts in most situations.  I don’t write in a journal as much as I used to, but I have a blog and much of what I would write in the journal goes in the blog.  One thing I would suggest and that I myself need to get back to is morning pages, something Julia Cameron suggested in “the Artist’s way.”  A brain dump every morning to get the gook out and start fresh — something that both reaps and sows benefits.  Your mind is clearer, and you’re not as much of a jerk to the the person behind the counter who gets your order wrong or the one who cuts you off in traffic. It helps you to be more chill, in addition to generating ideas, and we all could use more of that.

~*~*~*~

My deepest thanks to P.J. for taking time to time to talk to us! You can find her Amazon page here and her Twitter page here.

Would you like to be interviewed on Jean Lee’s World, or plug your creative work in my newsletter? Contact me and let me know!

Oh, and I just gotta say how cool it is that four of my Tales of the River Vine are STILL in the Top 10 Free YA Fantasy Monster Fiction.

trvstop5jan162019

That’s two months now, and going strong! Thank you thank you THANK YOU! I do hope you’ll leave a review letting me know which characters you dig–and which you want  to see more of! I’m brainstorming up some more Tales while working on the novels, and would love a little reader input. xxxxxx

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

 

#Writers, what #storytelling elements go into #ChristmasStories? My #family gives a few clues. Oh, and my #fantasy #novel is #OnSaleNow.

As December days swirl by like snowflakes in winter’s wind, I like taking breaks from life for Christmas stories with my family. Be it watching A Charlie Brown Christmas or reading Santa Clauses: Short  Poems from the North Pole (a haiku collection I highly recommend), I love cozying up with my loved ones by the Christmas tree to laugh with Yukon Cornelius, whisper with Pocket the Rabbit, or sing “Away in the Manger.”

What is it about the stories we save for Christmas time? Why do we pack them up with the ornaments and stockings as another special sparkly for December? This week I talk with my family about their favorite Christmas stories to discover what makes them so special.

First, Biff.

Takeaway: Christmas stories should be fun, and elves are hilarious.

Next, Bash.

Takeaway: Christmas stories require a bit of action, even violence, in order to achieve the “happily ever after.” Also, alien robots.

Wonder what Blondie will add to the mix…

Takeaway: Learning what Christmas is all about is very important, especially when animals are involved.

Kids tucked up in bed, Bo and I pull out one of the many Christmas catalogs we’ve received lately to talk about a unique occurrence with Christmas: the Hallmark Christmas film. What has Hallmark figured out about Christmas stories that gives them the knack to make so many every year?

Takeaway: Pretty people with Christmasy names and/or places facing a little problem and/or a little death in order to achieve love…which basically means that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever. Even the 30th Anniversary trailer that just came out agrees. (For the record, Bo and I recorded our talk before seeing this trailer. Guess this makes us amazing!)

Will I ever write a Christmas story? I’m not sure. Bo and I began dating and even married around Christmas time, so I cannot deny there’s a certain magic to the season. I also know how sharp grief grows at Christmas, making its hope all the more critical to share before it’s too late.

Hmmm. Maybe Hallmark has a point about love…after Charles Dickens made it over 150 years ago:

I have always thought of Christmastime…[as] a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…

-Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol

So yeah, Christmas stories may seem a bit too schmaltzy at times, but know what? That’s okay. This is the season when we’re all just a bit more open to love’s magic. There’s a power in these December days unknown at any other time of the year. Use that power, friends, be it in your storytelling or your life’s story, to share the magic. Use whatever you need, be it dogs, cookies, or flying reindeer.

Also, alien robots.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Oh! Lest I forget, my novel’s on sale right now. The complete e-book and bonus content are on sale for just $2.99!

We have all of us had our bloody days, Charlotte. For many it is easier to remain in them than to change. To change requires to face a past stained by screams. (6)

Be sure to give some indie books to your fellow readers, and reviews to your fellow writers on Amazon and Goodreads! Nothing’s as awesome as the gift of words.

A most blessed Christmas to you all. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Celebrate #Halloween2018 with #adventure & #romance in a #darkfantasy. Fallen #Princeborn: Stolen will be #FREE for #onedayonly!

Good morning, fellow readers and writers! Thanks so much for clicking on this post.

Stolen-KindleCvr-MARKETINGYes, you read that title correctly. Fallen Princeborn: Stolen will be free for 24 hours. Not only do you get the entire novel, but one of my short stories from Tales of the River Vine as well as a preview of the second novel, Chosen.  I promise you, you won’t wind up like Charlie Brown with a bag full of rocks this Halloween. Grab this treat tomorrow while the grabbing’s good!

 

 

 

 

 

So many wonderful fellow writers and readers have been sharing their thoughts on my stories, or sharing their space with my writing. Please check out these amazing authors today!

cropped-for-webSally Cronin’s shared a lovely “getting to know you” post on her site, Smorgasbord Blog Magazine. 

 

 

 

 

 

jayJames Cudney provided a kind review of my first Tale of the River Vine. I hope you stop by to see it on his site, This is My Truth Now.

 

 

 

 

 

bookshop-ruth-annie-e1534711218698Cath Humphris asked me how Stolen came to be published. I share the story on her site, Driven to Read: Driven to Write.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

My undying gratitude to these wonderful people–and to you, reader! If you have already read one of my stories, please be sure to share your thoughts on Goodreads and Amazon .

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

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writing #music: Mark Mothersbaugh

61lm7CkCpqL._SS500What makes music epic?

Brass. All those horns just blasting bombastic harmonies.

Strings going to blazes and back.

Percussion pounding the heartbeats of heroes.

And don’t forget the choirs: lots of celestial singing for the unnatural nature of these  more-than-mortals.

What makes music cosmic?

This is where the synthetic can weave something new in the orchestral tapestry.

In the soundtrack to Thor: Ragnarok, Mark Mothersbaugh takes the epic aesthetic one  associates with the Norse gods and braids it gleefully with the cosmic synth to give us an entirely unique aural perception of a displaced hero fighting his way out of an alien environment.

Of all the tracks, I feel this to the best example of synth and orchestra duking it out for story’s sake:

We begin with a synth arpeggio that quickly swells into percussion, choir, brass, and strings. The hero is showing his mettle, but he is not in his element. At 1:00 there is just, oh, this brilliant fall felt in the battle drums and synth arpeggio. The synth occasionally overwhelms the orchestra: the villain is winning. Then right around 2:30 it feels like the strings are changing sides as they finger-slide amidst new arpeggios, challenging the brass to rise up, strike back. Choir and battle drums silence both in the final moment.

Who won?

Story-tellers, that’s who.

Music with this narrative power inspires the most uncertain writer to hand off their beers, roll up their sleeves, and tell their characters, “Now this is how you do it.”

I had this very moment with my hero and heroine not too long ago. Running from the villains they knew, I discovered new characters eager to snatch the heroes out of their environment and drag them into a location deep under water. The heroes are cornered in this alien place. Escape is surely impossible. The logical course of action is surrender.

Not gonna happen, Story-teller Me says. Hold my beer, and let me show you how it’s done.

Who the hell can surrender with this music on? Synth joins drums and calls the heroes to fight the undefeatable with the impossible and come out victorious even as the bars of imprisonment clang shut.

But I should be honest: these aren’t the songs that drove me to call Bo in the middle of his workday and tell him I needed him to hit a music store.

“Wait, you want me to buy music?”

(Bo’s CD collection is, admittedly, immense.)

Yes, I said, I need the score to Thor: Ragnarok.

“But you haven’t seen the movie.”

So?

“Then how do you know the music?”

YouTube. But the commercials suck and I need that music.

“What for?”

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

(I may have growled for good measure.)

“Okay, okay!” He comes home with the last copy (and a really nice Ennio Morricone collection for himself, but blah blah, that’s for another post).

One of the beautiful problems of imagination is that it’s not often a one-road traveler. It wants to go everywhere, meet everyone, see everything. Even in the most boring of places, our imagination sees more. My son taught me that. 

My sons have both been a source of heartache lately. The class bully has decided to target Bash with hurtful friendship. Biff’s teacher and principal have had to speak to me many times about his temper. One wanders friendless around the school yard, talking only to the teachers, while the other’s willing to hurt another child because if he doesn’t, the bully won’t be his friend any more.

I think on this often as I drive Blondie to her school one town over. Would  the boys be dealing with these same problems ten years from now? Good God, fifteen-year-olds, so wonderfully smart and creative, but also distant, violent, and too damn eager to please. Would they ever be friends in their own right? What would drive them to work together, as a team?

And a synth arpeggio flowed through my mind as I saw them on the run for their lives. What chases them? What’s waiting for them? Will they change for the better, or worse?

I dug through Tron Legacy, thinking the notes from Daft Punk, but they weren’t. They seemed to be of  their own creation, but I knew better. I had to have heard them from somewhere.

Providence: After a round of King Arthur, YouTube mixes things up with Thor: Ragnarok. 

There it is: the arpeggio.

And there they are: my sons, fighting, together. Brothers bound in blood, and in soul.

God-willing I’ll have time to write this story in the next few years. These brothers have already run so far through its many lands, met some bloodthirsty and bizarre characters. Like their little selves, they’re eager to sit me down and tell me all about it. I’m so sorry, little loves (for you’ll always be my little loves), that you have to show your patience, and wait for another story to be told first. But I have your fall into adventure. You share it with the heroes born alongside your sister. This music is for you all, and will keep your adventures burning bright inside me until your turn comes to race onto the page.

 

 

#Music & #ComicArt Help Fill The #Imagination Room for #Writers

Many students and writing comrades have told me of their need for silence when they write. I’ve never been one for silence; my ears quickly become distracted by any noise, be it a plane overhead, some neighbor’s car door, the heater. This could just be due to the fact I’ve got a squirrel’s attention span.

Or, it could be due to the fact I’m a parent with kids who are always, ALWAYS noisy: cars crash, transformers explode, trains go off cliffs, animals eat each other–they are all of them dramatic, violent little buggers. If they’re quiet, then that just means they’re using stealth to accomplish something even more devious, like treating the oven dials as spaceship controls.

So quiet’s not exactly a writing option round these parts. I need to isolate my imagination’s internal senses with visuals and sounds.

It begins with snapshots, like slides on a projector. Just pictures at first, distant and untouchable, until more slides come, a photogenic click click click of a paperless book. The cassette player ka-chunks and music sneaks into the space, quiet and wary until it meets the beat of the slides and then maybe, if I time it just right, I can jump into the images like double-dutch and land, smack. I’m there. I’m in. And I can feel it all.

With Book 1 of the Fallen Princeborn Omnibus due for release this fall, I’m already hip-deep in Book 2. New world-building needs arose involving some minor characters, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I couldn’t see their world. I’m just sitting in a blank room of silence, the projector shining this white rectangle of nuthin’.

And with the kids on spring break for two long, LONG weeks, the time to focus my search was not coming. I’d dust off one snapshot of just a character’s arm, or some sort of shadow-blob in the background. The next day I just get a bruise-ish color, but no shapes.

It was so infuriating I even vented to Bo about it. I need something that looks alive, I said.

“Living buildings.”

No, not alive, just looking alive.

“Looking…?”

And in the water. A dark place, but they gotta see where they’re going.

(Oh yes, he’s furrowing his brow through this entire exchange.) “Dark, but…there’s light?”

Yes.

“And that’s supposed to be here, like, on Earth?”

Yes.

“O-kay.”

Hopeless, I thought. I’m stuck forever.

An hour later, after the boys have read about outer space and trucks, and Blondie learned what Roald Dahl’s Mathilda will do to anyone who rips up a library book, Bo emails me a search result of images. Take a look here. Notice where they come from? Comic books.

Duh. Why didn’t I think of this? Marvel and DC both have lords of the sea in their lore: Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Aquaman.

But in studying the Aquaman archive, I find my own shoulders hunching into a “meh” position. I don’t want to make yet another version of Atlantis.

Then two things happen at once: a happy accident, you could say.

First, I open a different file from Bo:

new-atlantis

Click.

The blue. The cold darkness balanced with light. The living feel of the dome and rock…at last, a clear slide! In my mind’s projector I can finally sit on the bench, staring, waiting for the cassette player to come on, or another slide to click into place.

Nuthin’.

Oh, Imagination is shaking the box for the other slides. It’s crawling on hands and knees to search under benches and that sad excuse of a cart with rust on the bottom shelf and a cracked wheel.

Still not found. Not for three. Damn. Days.

On a borrowed computer, I find an album I haven’t listened to in ages:

Dune.

Yes, the David Lynch film, scored by Toto.

As a kid, I only paid attention to the film when Captain Picard and all the good guys with the weird blue eyes rode on giant worms and blasted baddies into smithereens. The music was super dramatic with its drums, choir, guitar, orchestra. The first minute here should give you a sense of that (Ignore the second minute with the creepy kid):

Way, way back, in the corner of the storage room, Imagination digs up an old cassette tape. Something eerie. Distinctly awed. Cautious.

It was from Dune.

I start skimming the tracks, and by God, I find it.

Ka-chunk.

Imagination turns up the volume. The slide deepens. I step forward, as cautious as the choir. The rhythm is slow, deceptive. Imagination nudges me into the minor harmonies and invisible currents. Will I tangle them, ruin their power? Will I fall, bloody the ground?

I might.

But it’s a risk worth taking, every time.

 

#Writing #Music: Lalo Schifrin

“Mommy, play Harry’s hot dog song again!”

“Yeah, Mommy. Play it!”

I may roll my eyes, but I concede. Every kid’s going to have their favorite song about hot dogs, right?

Not what you were expecting, I wager. But that sax will set Bash a’boppin’ every time. Even Biff’s  bear-friends Mel and Grand-Père will dance to this tune.

(For the record, Blondie is tolerant, but would prefer her sweet pop songs. Or AC/DC. 7 going on 17, I swear…)

If there must be a song about hot dogs in my house, then I’m glad it’s by one of the smoothest bad-ass composers of the twentieth century,  Lalo Schifrin.

This man is a living institution, a game-changer. He started composing in the 1950s and hasn’t stopped since. Seriously, this man is STILL writing music. He’s created for television shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  and Mission: Impossiblefilms like Cool Hand Luke and Kelley’s HeroesHis score tears down the road with Steve McQueen in Bullitt. When Bruce Lee kicks ass in Enter the Dragon, Schrifin’s kickin’ it right along with him. When Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan go after the mob, Schifrin is…hang on, he did ALL the Rush Hour movies?

thSo I’m not talking about those. I want to look at two quintessential themes from a quintessential action film: Dirty Harry.

Though Schifrin supposedly scored four of the five films (I have a very stubborn conspiracy theory about Dead Pool, but I shan’t bore you with it here), the groundwork themes are to be found here, in the first film. Not only does Schifrin capture both environment and hero in Dirty Harry’s theme, but also madness and villain in Scorpio’s.

Let’s look at Dirty Harry first.

“Mommy, is this Charlie Brown music?” Biff asks every time this is on. I was stumped at first, but then realized Biff’s actually making a pretty decent genre connection: Vince Guaraldi’s compositions for the Peanuts specials are jazz in nature. Schifrin uses what Nick Redman defines as “urban jazz-funk.” Percussion is the star here, with the bass guitar a close second. The snare and bongos weave a layered energy throughout the theme–feet walking, cars honking, countless rhythms confined to this one hard space. The strings change the mood beautifully too, from the uneasiness of the violins to the steady groove of the basses and cellos. My favorite moment, though, is just around the 3:00 minute mark, when all falls away but the bongo and keyboard while Dirty Harry takes in the crime scene. For all the raw energies moving through the city, this halt to stop and think under a soft harmony makes me wonder if there’s more to this gritty cop than meets the eye.

With Scorpio, it’s aaaaall about what’s going on inside him.

Just listen to that first minute: deliciously unnerving. The whining effect that makes your ears twitch, the off-beat percussion–THIS, the percussion, is one of my favorite elements. Scorpio has no definable rhythm. He moves, he waits, he watches victims, he waits. The percussion only grows when he’s chosen a victim.

And the voice–oh, that voice! My daughter hates this song because the singer freaks her out. The singer’s sweet dissonance calls out like a siren for Scorpio to make his next kill; hell, you see that gleeful pleasure on his face when he chooses his next victim for a sniper shot.

But then comes the fuzz petal and bass, and a steady percussion announces a new rhythm: there’s law on the scene. The voices multiply and swell as Scorpio runs. The track climaxes with, of all things, a shaker. Lalo Schifrin makes a shaker sound totally bad-ass. Who else can do that? No one, I say!

Even actor Andrew Robinson, who played Scorpio, understood the power of Schifrin’s music. In one documentary (watched by Bo, who watches any and every documentary about favorite films), Robinson described meeting Schrifin by chance and thanking him for “making that character memorable,” and thereby giving Robinson a career. Robinson’s portrayal is powerful, yes, but the sirens, the drums, the guitar–they bear witness to the Scorpio’s outsides AND insides without any extra visuals. We feel this villain’s psychotic nature thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the city’s neon grit thanks to Schifrin.

We feel the hero’s inner calm amidst blood splatter and shell casings thanks to Schifrin.

Some stories require fun whimsy, or epic sweeping beauty, or the quiet dance of curious love. But for the streets of rundown hot dog stands, pawn shops, and ma-and-pa groceries, for the tattered scroungers and their shopping carts of cans, for the hunter flicking his cigarette into the gutter outside the alley where they, the notorious they are known to hang out….for the streets stained with the fluids of human and machine…

Look no further for inspiration than Lalo Schifrin.

18455818_401.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #fiction: #TheCall by Peadar Ó Guilín

In my previous world-building study, I noted the mix of normal and abnormal details to help create an other-wordly atmosphere in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. Nature is the focus of such details, as someone or something is altering the environment.

Not all stunning stories have to dwell on the environment, however. Sometimes a writer can build the world with pieces of society, of the “normal” one experiences when moving about in daily life. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s  The Call, that normal is, well, pretty f’d up. But a girl like Nessa isn’t going to let the new normal of her world dictate when she dies: not the doctors who want to put her to sleep because she has polio, or the Sídhe who hunt all of Ireland’s adolescents in the Grey Land.

51yePoz3hgL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_To look at how Ó Guilín builds this “normal,” I’m going to focus on the first ten pages of the novel.

Page 1: “She knows nothing about the Three Minutes yet.” This second sentence starkly contrasts the first line about Nessa turning ten and overhearing her parents argue. That’s a pretty bland normal–kids hear their parents argue all the time. But what is this “Three Minutes”? The fact it’s capitalized tells us that whatever this is, it’s important. It’s something worth arguing over. The rest of the page tells us parents are desperate to hide the Three Minutes from all children under ten. Why? We have to keep reading.

Page 2: “Oh for Crom’s sake.” What ten-year-old says this? Biff and Bash are eager to cram “poop,” “patoot,” and “pee pee water” into as many conversations as possible. I’ve heard a few kids Blondie’s age say “damn,” “shit,” and even one “bitch.” But never “Crom.” Does this have to do with where she lives? We don’t know the place yet.

“This is the first hint of the fear that will never leave her again; that will ruin her life as it has ruined the life of everybody in the whole country.”  Okay, something is definitely wrong in this country. There’s a desperation among adults to keep kids as innocent as possible. Referencing pagan deities instead of the common God when cussing. The Three Minutes must be pretty nasty. But what is it? We have to keep reading.

Page 3: “She has never asked herself where all the teenagers were.” Now we’re genuinely unsettled. That’s a huge chunk of population utterly absent, and not just from a town, but from a country. What in Sam Eliot is going on?

“But if she refuses to let the doctors put her to sleep, this is the future: Sometime during her adolescence, the Sídhe will come for her, as they come these days for everyone. They will hunt her down, and if she fails to outrun them, Nessa will die. Before we were unsettled, but now we’re downright scared. Not only is euthanizing disabled children considered both logical and preferential to letting them live, but all children at some point must be prey to some group. If you don’t know what the Sídhe are, you can gauge by Ó Guilín’s choice of the phrase “they come these days for everyone” that this group is damn powerful. The chances of human beings having that kind of grip on an entire country’s psyche is possible, but something about Nessa’s “hysterical, horrified” screaming when told about the Three Minutes says we’re not dealing with our normal human villainy.

Page 4: “Everything is old and everybody is old too.” Nessa is at a bus station, where old folk stand guard, sell tickets, drive the bus, and so on. Ó Guilín points out Nessa and her friend Megan are the only youths there, again to emphasize how little young blood there now is in this environment.

“The tired engine burps fumes of recycled vegetable oil so that everything smells deep fried.” Not only is this a great sensory detail, but it also builds on the previous hint about everything being old. Why would the bus be operating on vegetable oil? If the bus looks ready to fall apart, then surely new buses can be built, right?

Page 5: A big, middle-aged police sergeant waits by the bus, brandishing an iron needle four inches long…he swabs it with alcohol and jabs it into the arm of everybody getting on….”My apologies! Iron’s supposed to hurt them.” As far as we’re told, everyone around Nessa looks pretty normal. Whatever these Sídhe are, they have the capability to look like us. Damn.

When Megan steps up to face the needle, the sergeant makes extra sure she’s no spy. She takes the iron well enough, but the second he withdraws it, she kicks his feet from under him and twists his arm up behind his back so that the adult, twice her size, is on his knees before her. Kid fighters have been in stories for a while, but this is a very blatant disregard for the adult authority in society. I love this touch: so many adults in this environment are elderly and withered. They’ve been utterly inept at stopping the Sídhe from doing whatever they do to kids, so the kids have to take it on themselves to be the violent warriors in order to defend themselves.

35009643Page 6: Shortly after Lifford, they roll over a bridge into what used to be Northern Ireland. Nobody cares about that sort of thing anymore. The only border recognized by the Sidhe is the sea that surrounds the island from which they were driven thousands of years before. No human can leave or enter. No medicines or vaccines or spare parts for the factories that once made them; nor messages of hope or friendship; nothing. WHAM. Ó Guilín brings reality down like an ambush of arrows. This is why everything is so old. This is why there are no young people from elsewhere. And what’s better (for the reader) and worse (for the characters) is the motive Ó Guilín gives in one line: “the island from which they were driven thousands of years before.” Ireland was theirs, until the humans took it.

What enemy could be more terrible than one that’s ancient, magical, and really, really angry?

Page 8: “We’ve had a Call,” she cries. “Driver! You have to reverse! Reverse!” A boy vanishes from the bus, and the Three Minutes begins. If the bus does not reverse to where the boy vanished, what happens? Considering the panic of the driver as his passengers direct trailing traffic to go around them for the reversal,  it must not be good.

The boy’s body reappears and thumps down hard onto the floor. Nessa is relieved to see that it’s not one of the really awful ones. Okay, I have to leave out Ó Guilín’s description, because when he continues describing what “isn’t” awful, it just makes me shiver with what does constitute as “awful.” Let me just promise you that the boy–and Megan’s reaction to him–make you as a reader determined to find out the breadth and depth of the Sidhe’s “sense of fun” (9).

Page 9: A few of the old people are crying and want to get off the bus, but it’s not like the early days anymore. They might disturb the body as they try to step over it, and that’s just not allowed…the Recovery Bureau agents [will examine] him properly in Monoghan. So this way of life isn’t just in Nessa’s town, or even county. This is a country-wide deal, with the government just as invested as everyone else to figure the Sídhe out.

Page 10: The Sídhe stole him away for a little over three minutes, but in their world, the Grey Land, an entire day has passed, panic and pain in every second of it. With this revelation of the time difference we get a taste of the horror it means to be Called for the Three Minutes. Surviving anything horrific in our reality for three minutes is hard enough–hell, the inability to breathe or see while driving kids home from school  was f’ing agony, and that was without being chased by vengeful hunters. So now we know that these kids can’t just run for three minutes–they have to be capable of outrunning, out-hiding, and outwitting these Sídhe for an entire day and night. What can we humans possibly do to prepare young people for this kind of torture?

We have to keep reading to find out.

As tempting, as “easy,” as it is to simply explain how our story’s world operates, we must remember that readers open our books to experience a piece of life in motion. Life doesn’t pause, pop up a screen, and run a slideshow explaining how things work. We have to catch the snippets of lessons as we can, and pray to the gods we didn’t mishear. As you blaze the trail through your story, consider where such snippets may be placed, be it in a hero’s school book, a symbol under a rock, or in the mouth of a bat. Make the lessons and discoveries worth the hunt.

35292343After you answer The Call, where will you stand: for humanity, or for the Sídhe? The Invasion, Ó Guilín‘s latest chapter about the Sídhe of the Grey Land, is now available in the UK from Scholastic. It comes to the US March 27th. 

#Writers, Discover Portals to #Fantasy in the Beauty of #NaturePhotography.

Winter’s a curious time in Wisconsin. As I mentioned in my post “War Against Writer’s Butt,” we can go from fifty degrees and mud to twenty below and ice-roads in a couple of days.

Capturing this transition is all the more difficult. Fortunately, good friend and professional photographer Emily Ebeling gave me permission to share some of her photos from a trip to Cedarburg Bridge.

 

Winter trees have such a sadness about them. Once I referred to them as “gravestones over their summer-selves.” The way their fingers bleed into the ice below turns the river into a portal, an other-world that I so often sense on solitary walks in my homeland.

EEbeling10

The way they huddle together as if caught, and freeze, waiting for you to turn away.

EEbeling7

The way a river calls to you, promising safe passage through nature’s spectral giants and their clawing bones.

EEbeling1

The way a bridge impresses safety, dominance over nature. Sure, walk on water, I won’t let anything happen to you, for I was made by man.

As far as you know.

EEbeling3

The way you stand at water’s edge, and peer down. Rocks both tall and flat, a mix of mashed teeth. Nothing stirs at the water’s surface, nothing peeks from the depths. Do you dare kneel, and cross the boundary?

EEbeling6

Some winters will barricade you in your home, forcing you to find new worlds in “the solar system of the mind,” as Blondie once put it. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, but look at what curiosities await out there, like this covered bridge.

EEbeling5

Where will this bridge take you at the break of dawn? At the dead of night? If you’re the tenth daughter walking on the tenth day of the tenth month in the tenth year?

EEbeling2

Moments like this make me both envious and thankful for a friend like Emily; one who’s able to get out and document such beautiful portals, and does so with both the skill and equipment necessary to do these portals justice.

This is why I’ve always been a sucker for photography that captures both the intimate and epic scopes of landscape. I may never get back to Ireland. I may never return to the Dakotas, let alone travel farther west. Heck, I may never find this covered bridge right here in my state. We each of us live surrounded by beautiful portals to other worlds, many of which we may never get to find. But someone, like Emily, may stumble upon the portal before winter breathes the portal shut. She may steal it away in her camera, and share her findings with you. Then, when you are alone with your jumbled words and these borrowed photos, the magics may spark all on their own. Those sparks may burn open a new portal, and that portal may beckon to you, and you alone.

Don’t return without a tale worth telling.

EEbeling4

 

#lessons Learned in #worldbuilding for #writing #fiction: #Annihilation by @jeffvandermeer

You know how last week I insisted that writers have to make themselves take a break? 24 hours after posting that, I ended up in the hospital. A month of not really sleeping mixed with flu culminated in an inability to breathe or see while driving my kids from school. Nothing like a trip in an ambulance to get one thinking about one’s priorities.

So, after a weekend of Bo telling me to sit still, Bash snuggles, Blondie stories, and Biff reading ad nauseum about trucks, I’m…still kinda sick, but not, you know, idiot-sick.

Seriously, people: take breaks.

This year, I wanted to dedicate a chunk of my “Lessons Learned” posts to an element of writing dear to my heart, one that can make or break a story set in a land not our own: world-building.

91SrDcfzkkLIn a way, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy takes place on our humdrum Earth (or does it? Dunh dunh DUUUUUNH). Something has come to Earth and transformed a stretch of coastal landscape in the United States. It has created a border. It does not let what is inside return…unless it wishes to. And those that return are never the same.

Annihilationthe first book of the series, strictly focuses upon the twelfth expedition into beyond the border into the place now labeled Area X. Here is where the world-building plays to Vandermeer’s favor. He needs to make Earth unearthly. He needs to engage and invest the readers into exploring this place.

He accomplishes this with the first paragraph:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Let’s dissect this a little. Look at that first line: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there.” Already, our narrator has come upon something unexpected. “Plunges into the earth“: I love that word choice of “plunges.” A strong action, driven action, and yet not violent, as opposed to “pierces” or “penetrates.” The terms for the landscape fit our narrator, whom we learn in the next paragraph is a biologist.  The paragraph itself ends on two contradictions: “untroubled landscape” is certainly not what one would think of when it comes to an otherworldly invasion on our planet. “Could yet see the threat” counters the “untroubled” while also agreeing with the first line of a tower not meant to be there.

One paragraph in, and we already have a sense of what is both familiar–“black pine 51ZMTRrWB8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_forest,” “marsh flats,” etc–and what is foreign–“the tower.” VanderMeer utilizes natural details readers can easily visualize while “plunging” a singular uniqueness into the scene, an entity guaranteed to taint all the “normalcy” around it, therefore turning the entire scene into something abnormal.

I’d like to share two other paragraphs, both from the first chapter, that further build on this natural/unnatural mix of detail.

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge directions, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So many sensory details are given here. The middle of the paragraph provides the pretty visuals with the moss and the trees, but the water detail unsettles you, doesn’t it? Because “normal” water isn’t still like that. VanderMeer also pulls a smooth move on readers with the moaning line. He begins the paragraph with it, but then spends time on other details before returning to the moaning, as if to show us the “normal” touches that are once again infected by the singular foreign element. The last line of this paragraph is a killer-subtle bit of foreshadowing, as you’ll see in the next paragraph from later in the chapter.

The biologist and another member have ventured into the tower, where they find words written on the wall. Those words are made of living organisms. Here VanderMeer makes use of his narrator’s skill set to build a world inside a word:

So I stepped closer, peered at Where lies the strangling fruit. I saw that the letters, connected by their cursive script, were made from what would have looked to the layperson like rich green fernlike moss but in fact was probably a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism. The curling filaments were all packed very close together and rising out from the wall. A loamy smell came from the words along with an underlying hint of rotting honey….I leaned in closer, like a fool…someone tricked into thinking words should be read…Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out.

I think you know where this is going: something gets into the biologist, something she does her damndest to hide from the others.

In this paragraph you get a taste for the level of natural detail our narrator takes in, one who has the experience to see and understand what is natural to Earth’s ecology, and what is not. As readers, we are gripped by the mystery of Area X–as Vandermeer planned, I’m sure. Even though I haven’t given you the whole chapter, the fact that “fernlike moss” is growing to create not only words, but cursive words in English, should be enough to send a shudder through you. Something foreign is here, and yet knows enough to communicate with our own language. It has taken what we thought unique to humanity, and transformed it into something new, just as it has with everything previous expeditions have left behind…including the expeditions themselves.

You’ll have to read the book to appreciate that last point.

VanderMeer’s balance between the relatable and the alien sensory details is spot-on throughout the trilogy. In the first chapter of the first book, where this balance is at its most precarious, Vandermeer takes the greatest care in luring readers to follow him, lulling them with the familiar, until the subtle strange beneath the black glass water floods the way back and we have no choice but to enter the tower, and descend further into his world.

Your own world need not be built from scratch. Dig your fingers deep into the earth and build the trench to set your land apart. Claw out the flora and fauna. Now, with all set before you upon this table, what shall fill your world? What will your readers know, and what will they look upon with a stranger’s eyes, wide and watchful?

#writerproblems: Taking a Break

Four weeks.

Four weeks of rewrites and hours locked away in the basement to the screams of “I want my MUMMY!” Four weeks of barely saying more to the kids than, “Good morning,” “Eat,” “Get dressed we’re late,” “Stop sitting on each other,” and “Goodnight, I love you.”

Three weeks of that had the additional fun of writing to eighty new students, grading their work, and answering those who don’t get why they can’t just write about how obesity is bad and wonder why I don’t hand out my phone number so they can call when they need me.

Damn, I cried. Hard. And often.

I wasn’t being a mom. A wife. I was just glued to the stupid screen to grade yet another round of papers, tackling another dozen pages of rewrites and DAMMIT, I lost three days’ worth of work, and–

Bo played with the kids. He kept them upstairs with books, video games, food–anything he could. He sat with me as I cried, and reminded me, time and again:

“Focus on what you’ve achieved, not on the hell right now.”

To which I often spat something back like, “And how’s that going to give me time to respond to two dozen students and edit thirty pages?”

Because that’s the killer, isn’t it? Time. We writers are desperate for it. It’s lousy timing when the fun writing hour we save for ourselves gets nixed for an obligation. But when writing is one such obligation, suddenly we realize just how little daylight we have for family, work, and writing.

~*~

When the term started, my mother offered to watch the kids for a day so Bo and I could get out.

Bo offered to go off on his own. “You should use that time to work.”

My immediate thought: Yes, I should. Several hours of peace. No “Where’s Mom?” No forced interaction with my family…that just want a little time with me. Any time. 

Bo looked so tired. He fell asleep in the chair next to me yesterday, exhausted from his new double-shift life of ten hours at the postal service every day and Prime Caregiver every evening and weekend.

I set my screen aside. “Yeah, I should. But I need some time with you, too.”

~*~

Since neither of us were keen on the current films, we decided to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum–this time, for art we kinda actually knew.

20180113_124515

I partially kid. A traveling exhibit of early Modern works was in town. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, I’m afraid, so I can’t show you how unique the exhibit was. Much of the work consisted of early sketches and practice drawings; for instance, one Toulouse Lautrec sketch of a horse was bordered by various drawings of hooves, just hooves, because he was trying to capture them just so.

Seems a familiar practice between writer and artist, that constant running of the pen to find the perfect strength in chosen lines.

The other big theme in those sketches? Women coming out of the bath. Not bathing, but coming out and drying themselves. Always drying the legs, too. Well, I suppose armpits aren’t exactly a sexy location to sketch.

Anyway.

When I was a kid, the museum building consisted of a 50s rectangle made of gravel that is actually a War Memorial (I still can’t tell how), but since 2001 we’ve had the very fancy-pants edition of the Quadracci Pavilion. The outside is built in the shape of a bird, complete with wings that open and close.

The inside of the Pavilion is pretty swanky, too.

 

 

The art contained within is something of a quirky hodge podge. And I say this as a Philistine who never took a lick of art history in school, so feel free to turn up your noses at my ignorance on the subject. All I know is that if your chosen first impression on visitors is a giant trowel in dirt, “classics” are not going to come to one’s mind.

20180113_143526

Take this creature, for instance.

20180113_132221

Yes, that is a machine projecting a man’s face onto a balloon. He says things like, “Life is but a tunnel of darkness. Are we truly alive, or are we toys?” And yes, it’s all with a drowsy monotone.

20180113_125518

Is this normal, to have captions of guesswork?

20180113_125449

This Garden of Eden painting creeps me out. An attendant noticed me with my camera and mentioned that the dog had originally been covered by a bush, but in restoration they discovered him there in the corner. Just look at that thing. No one else is looking out at the viewer. Why that dog? And those eyes follow you everywhere in the room.

Creepy demon dog.

And some pieces…look, I don’t get super-modern stuff. I just don’t. When an empty acrylic case can be put on display as art, and labeled as such and donated as such, and things like big pieces of blue plastic are leaned against the wall and declared art, I just…

I like words.

20180113_13230920180113_132743

Not that all pieces are like this, to be clear. There’s this beautiful creation by artist Dave Chihuly in the Quad Pavilion:

20180113_143324

Some other pieces that are just plain neat, such as the powder-wig boys up for some badminton. (Yes, the maintenance fellow is a sculpture. He’s been around for decades.)

 

 

In our sojourning through the exhibits we came across a suitcase.

20180113_141823

I got super excited. I was determined to take a picture to show you all the inside: a pond swimming with life. A statue of a father’s feet can be seen, with part of a baby’s body, its toes just above the water.

20180113_141834

But try as I might, I could not get a good position. Bo reluctantly offered to hold information card about the sculpture. Here’s a little more information about the piece.

20180113_141848

Anyway.

I hulked over, on my knees, on my toes, shoving my camera in. Bo gave up on me and looked at another piece in the room.20180113_131621

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

Outside of my head, I slid backwards and whirled around the corner, poking at my phone under the guise of sending a text. A security guard walked briskly by as I approached Bo with my phone and said, “Did you see this? This is very interesting.”

Inside my head: “OH SHIT! They’re gonna fine me and ban me from art! Run for the post-moderns, RUN! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

Bo, of course, found this to be hiLARiuos. “You know, I can’t take you anywhere. You bonk your head into display glass at the public museum. You walked into a glass wall when we came here last year. Now you’ve got The Man after you.” He proceeds to then make “BEEP” sounds any time I try to take a picture.

A little later we came upon a strange room of pottery without captions. There’s a little model room display behind some glass.

20180113_140424

Hmmm.

Next to this little room is a bellrope marked “Pull.”

Hmmm.

“Don’t you touch that,” Bo said.

“But it says, ‘Pull.'”

“BEEP!”

“Shut up.”

“Well I don’t know you, Miss Whoever You Are.”

I pulled it.

(I know, I’m as bad as Alice in Alice in Wonderland.)

 

 

A recording started: a wee ghost stepped into the miniature room and described the pottery collection around us. It was neatly filmed: she pull pottery out of the trunk nearby, sat in the little chair, laid things on the table. Here’s a little more information about the room, as I’m clearly not doing it justice.

“See? I was supposed to pull that cord,” I declared triumphantly to Bo.

And proceeded to walk into the glass door of an uber-bright Spanish exhibit of “playful art.”

Bo laughed. And despite the annoyed security guards, I laughed, too. Because it’s moments like these make breaks from writing so very necessary.

We can’t create life in stories if we don’t live a little. And sometimes that living does seem little–I’m not trying to rescue refugees from Mexico. I’m just going to the art museum with my husband.

But it’s in these everyday moments that we remember what it’s like to be around other people, listen to other people, roll our eyes at other people, skee-daddle from other people. It’s in such moments that we remember what it means to hold another’s hand, share a smile, tell a joke that sets the other groaning. And through these everyday moments we find new imagination to channel into our worlds.

So don’t forget to take a break, writers. That giant green ceramic chicken ain’t gonna rock itself.

20180113_13532820180113_135344