Lesson Learned from 2017’s #TheMummy: Don’t Put the Dark Universe Before the Story.

22552559_10159496649920346_2837675341111443380_nThis week I recruited a certain special someone to help cover this particular post. Bo’s been a fan of the Universal Monster films since childhood, so when Universal announced a “Dark Universe” series of monster films, we…weren’t that thrilled.

We first discuss what kind of character would have been a far more fitting choice for introducing an audience to this “new” universe.

Next, we go into the film/book industry’s obsession with investing in a story series instead of standalone stories. It gets us going on a comparison between the beginnings of the 2017 film vs. the 1932 version with Boris Karloff.

I then jump to the ending, and Bo patiently works me through my agony of an Egyptian god being defeated solely by Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise. “The Power of Cruise Compels You!”

So, as writers, what can we learn from this film? Bo reflects on this cautionary tale of a cinematic debacle.

Aaaand my recorder gave out. 🙂 Bo and I manage a little sum-up before it dies again.

Do not make the same errors in your story-world as these Dark Universe creators: don’t let the Power of Cruise compel you to think of the universe’s marketability instead of simply telling a good story.

Thank you all for listening this Halloween weekend. Think I should have Bo come back again?

 

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Writer’s Music: Bruno Coulais

51DgTPES9yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finished Katy Towell’s Charlie and the Grandmothers, a spooky story about a boy and his sister sent to visit a grandmother they never knew they had. It’s a tale of children forced to become heroes in the face of losing family to an evil no grown-up ever seems to notice.

Not exactly an original plot line, but for the record, it was the perfect touch of creepy while driving to visit Bo’s grandmother.

 

The story actually put me in the mood for the soundtrack to Coralinea lusciously eerie stop-motion animated film based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book. Scored by French composer Bruno Coulais, the music embodies innocence, adventure, malice, terror–all of which comes together to create what I’d like to call “dangerous whimsy.”

The opening music is brilliant for this. I could certainly say the visuals add to the eerie factor, but let’s just focus on the music for now.

Strings play a major role throughout Coulais’ score. They are often light, be it the pluck of the harp strings are the airy-melodies of the violins. There’s an assured delicacy to their movements, like spiders upon their webs. Brass is rarely applied.  Children sing harmonies in major and minor keys using French gibberish, which has got to be one of the most gibbery gibberishes there can be.

Two particular stars shine more in this music than anything else, I think: the harp, and…and that sound…darnit, I wish I knew what it is! It’s like the sound of one’s wet finger moving round and round a glass’ rim: a note, but not quite.

The harp follow Coraline as she explores her new home, moving as her child feet through all the boring rooms of the house and eventually discovering the little door behind the wallpaper.

Coulais made a brilliant choice in keeping the harp and singer separate from the rest of the orchestra: the audience is seeing just how alone Coraline is as she struggles to find what could make this new home worthwhile. There’s also the loving touch of whimsy here as she explores the house, what with the harp’s off-beat touches and major-key melody.

But then we are taken through the door, and we meet the Other-Mother.

Here Coulais uses chimes, piano, and of course, those children singers. This time, though, their key is minor, turning all the harmonies into something…off-putting. That sound of the fingertip on glass hums ever in the background, making the music itself feel just slightly unreal. A xylophone and finger-cymbals keep the feel of the music light and playful, but all the harmonies are now in a minor key. The playfulness is gone, replaced with a sense of wonder, but wonder that one wants to step away from instead of toward.

Such is the joy of dangerous whimsy. Of course whimsy is a bit of the fantastic, a bit of fun. A bit of youth, and a bit of innocence. Dangerous whimsy is the whimsy that hunts the youth and innocence, luring with the fantastic and the fun to…well. The Pied Piper of Hamlin lured children into a mountain. Grandmothers lured Charlie into imagination mines. The Other Mother lured Coraline into her web of wonders to take her eyes. And because this is all whimsy, adults are either blind to it or duped into compliance with it.

Our stories’ heroes deserve a world of wonders in which to both thrive as well as struggle. Whether your hero’s 38, 18, or 8, the villain–or even the setting–must engage the hero. Distract the hero, entice the hero, scare the pants off the hero. Whatever you do, the hero can’t know for sure what’s going on until she’s in too deep to stop. Give your hero a show of whimsical wonders, and she’ll never know the malice that creeps beneath.

Can’t open the music files? Special thanks to @ZoolonHub for finding a link to the soundtrack that will open outside the US.

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She’s a pantser. He’s a planner. Can This Creative Duo Really Get Along?

Creation. It’s a process both universal and unique. We all create with words, or cameras, or music. That’s universal. But how we go about it is unique to each and every one of us.

I speak often here about the inspiration found in music and photography. I know my storytelling would be lost without it, while some of you dear friends have mentioned the need for silence while writing to be free of distractions. Reasonable, I suppose.

But one thing I’ve never been good with is a plan. Oh, I’ve had them. I’ve made them for National Novel Writing Month projects so I can barrel through the major scenes and reach that precious 50,000 word goal. I’ve used them in the revision process so I can figure out where the plot went wonky.

When I’m writing an untimed rough draft, though, I loathe them.

So of course, I’m now working with one of the planniest planners out there, Michael Dellert.

mike5aMichael created his Matter of Manred universe several years ago, but more recently brought it to the page with his books Hedge King in Winter, Merchant’s Tale, The Romance of Eowainand The Wedding of EithneMichael knows his characters inside and out. He knows the land and all its settlements. He knows the population of each settlement and how much they earn. Hell, he even knows the weather on any given day.

Me? I don’t know the weather until I need the weather to do something. I don’t know my characters until they speak up. I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen over the next hillside until they get there.

And somehow, these two different creative methods are going to make a cohesive story?

I admit, when Michael first approached me about co-writing a short story, I couldn’t help but think of a story told on Milwaukee radio years ago about “tandem writing”…

“It’ll be fun,” Michael promised.

Uh huh…

“Eowain and the Boar” will tell of King Eowain’s mysterious hunt into enemy territory accompanied by his men and my Shield Maiden Gwenwledyr. He sent me a character list, a plot outline. Information about hunting and horses. I stared at it all, rubbing my temples. When I wrote Middler’s Pride, I just went where Gwen took me. I didn’t think she’d actually make friends. I hoped she’d have a change of heart, and she did…sort of.

While I enjoy writing with Gwen’s mischievous and superior attitude towards everyone, I still get antsy working with characters whom I didn’t, well, raise. It’s rather like having a bunch of kids over for a birthday party: you want them all to get along and play the games nicely together, but you really don’t know those kids. You don’t know if they’re just going to shove each other down instead of race, or wreck one another’s airplanes before the flying contest starts, etc.

So I just did what I always do: I let Gwen blab.

54ac121481fa5e11e12f29c32bcfa83bYou again. I begin to think you loiter about awaiting entertainment that pleases you. Well, let the records show I am no bard, fool, or minstrel. Indeed, Master Peculiar Wayfarer from—ye gods, wherever people find your attire acceptable—I am a legend in these parts. I’ve slain magick-wielders, dueled soldiers, battled cursed warriors, wreaked vengeance—

Alone? Er, no, not entirely. I had a few of my fellow Shield Maidens along with me. They helped a bit.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re like her ladyship—you want answers about that hunt, don’t you? Can’t say I blame you. It was a curious affair, to say the least, what with the king and his—

Hmm.

You’re not from their side, are you? I have seen a few of them with that sort of, I’ll say, look of the hair. No?

Amazing how quickly Gwen’s voice takes over. If I let her speak, a story started to spill out. Maybe this could work after all!

But I don’t know the King. Or the other characters. Or where we’re even going.

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Well, neither does Gwen. So for now I think I’ll let Gwen show me which characters she gives a toss about, and which she doesn’t even bother learning names. Somewhere in her incessant epic-weaving will be the pieces Michael needs to stitch up with his own narrator, the young acolyte Adarc. Somehow, two people who have never met in person will take two narrators who’ve never met in their universe tell a story. The story must be clear. It must ring true. It must be an experience felt in the senses and beneath.

Just like any other story.

But as the joy of storytelling is known to all, the joys felt by story-teller and story-listener are unique. And here we fade to a cold winter’s night, where a queen sits, heavy with child and fearful for her husband and king, waiting to learn the truth from two young adventurers…

 “You just make yourself comfortable, your ladyship, while Master-Know-It-All Adarc finds a midwife or three to catch your child…because—well, let’s face it, your ladyship: this isn’t the happiest of stories.”

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Want to hear Michael’s side of things? Click here.

And be sure to check out Go Indie Now on October 4th for a little chat Michael and I have about collaboration.

 

 

The Eight-Hour Author

Today, I sit alone in my house.

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Sunlight plays on the silver streamers left over from Biff and Bash’s fifth birthday. The breeze chills warm ground–Wisconsin, in transition.  Life is still lush and damp with dew that never quite dissipates, yet some of the older trees have already given up their leaves to gold and red.

Today, the school year has truly begun. Today, and now every weekday, all three kids will be in school.

Some of the time, anyway. Biff and Bash have begun attending preschool (aka 4K) in the afternoon at my town’s public school.

Today, and many days beforehand, I’ve been asked with a smile and a laugh, “Well, what are you going to do with yourself without kids in the house?”

For the record, I have not responded with my fist, damn tempting though it may be. No, I just glare, and say: “Work without vehicles flying in my face.”

Awkward pause. “Oh.”

Today, and God-willing for many days to come, I don’t want this time to be sucked up solely by teaching. It’s a fine excuse for people who don’t know I write, but for you, friends and strangers, you know how precious quiet time is. Day care is expensive. Babysitters take their cut. Family members willing to “help” would rather just sit and chat and watch you do all the parenting instead of the job you were supposed to get done. And once every child’s in school all day, you know your partner’s going to give you that look: the “now you can earn more income” look.

I know it. I already got it. And only by breaking down the time frame with the kids’ school schedules did Bo see that me taking on a 2nd part-time job just didn’t make any logistical sense.

So I’ve got one school year to prove that writing can and should be my second job. That I can I teach for a [mostly] steady income, meager as it is, while I strive to create, research, analyze, and reach out with my words to others…and ye gods, maybe get a little monetary compensation.

z8079-writerdayjob11-200x300So many writing manuals intend to guide you in making the most out of spare time: you can be a “night-time novelist”; you can “write your book in a weekend”; you can make more of mornings “without sacrificing the important things”; you only need help to “boost your productivity,” and so on. Let’s be realistic: with little kids, you don’t have a night-time, or a morning-time. Bash will get up as early as 5:30am and will sneak out of his bedroom long after bedtime to use the potty…and to talk. And sing. And wake his brother Biff, who gets equally ornery. Oh yeah, I have a daughter, too, she needs some attention. Plus I’m supposed to actually hang out with Bo at some point because of this whole “married” thing, so there’s my night gone anyway. Weekends are family time and when I teach my classes, so those are gone.

But today, and for every school day after, I have approximately 3 hours.

So, fifteen hours a week isn’t bad, right?

No, not even that.

Because we must, again, be realistic: I have to schedule appointments in those hours. I’ll have projects to grade in those hours. I’ll have to get off my sorry ass and do some walking or other exercise because writing ain’t exactly a move’n’groove activity.

So with the errands, the job, the drives to retrieve children from different cities, and the attempt to be healthy, I’ve got: eight hours a week for writing. At most.

I haven’t had that much time a week to write since before motherhood.

And unlike that time before motherhood, I will not waste the time I’m given.

 

Perhaps you’ve been struggling with this time management thing, too. Well, feel free to let me know how you maintain productivity, because I’m all for ideas and options. In the meantime, I’ve plotted thus far:

1. No social media during writing time. No scrolling, no “just checking quick,” no responding to those little infernal dings my phone makes. Unless it’s the police, Bo, or maybe my mom (maybe), the phone and social media sites stay off.

Woops! My half hour is up. Time to work on a story.

~*~*~

I’m back! Let’s see, where did I leave off…Ah yes, my attack plan.

2. Have project objectives for each day. Nothing depresses like a pile of unfinished work. I’m notoriously good at not finishing things: half-done crocheted blankets, half-organized book shelves, half-completed baby books, and so on. I’ve got some WIPs that have been sitting on my computer for years. Enough already. We’re getting those suckers DONE.

But again, reality here: nothing’s getting done at once. It’s going to take several hours to make decent headway on any old project. This doesn’t even include my current MG fantasy-in-progress Beauty’s Price, or the co-writing project “Eowain and the Boar.” Plus, I like writing here. And here takes time.

So let’s break the time up into wee snippets. I read in Writer’s Digest a while ago that 38 minutes is the ideal time to allot for anything; why that particular number I have no idea, but I’m really not far from that. By giving a project half an hour of the day, I can at least get somewhere on it before I move on to another task. So, I could write a little BP, work on the blog, send Michael some thoughts on E&B, and then edit a WIP for sending out. Nothing may get done in one day (like this post), but nothing’s getting ignored, either.

3. Experiment. Like the squeeze-your-arm-flab autumn sweaters I struggle with in a dressing room, I want to try on other styles of writing. They may also be equally pretty and irritate the bejeezes out of me, but how will I know unless I try? It’s been years since I attempted poetry. I’ve simply ignored flashfic. And outside of fantasy, I haven’t done much toe-tipping into other genres. Now I probably wouldn’t dedicate weeks to a poem, but half an hour? Sure, why not?

4. Be okay not writing sometimes. Aside from exercising, I do like getting out to take pictures when I can. I’m no professional, or even an amateur, but this place, this land where I live means so much to my writing state of mind: its hidden roads among the hills. The forests under siege by farms, and the farms under siege by suburbia. The marshes, the cities, the rock towers, the lakes. Together these elements make a world, rich and complete and all its own on the page. I want to share images of these places as best I can.

~*~*~

Day 3 on this entry. Yay, snippet-writing!

5. Start putting myself out there. In the past three years, I’ve queried all of three agents with an incomplete WIP. Yeah, not my smartest move. Repeatedly.

With these new hours, though, I’d like to both experiment and learn. One can’t be a published writer unless one actually, you know, publishes stuff. Traditional and online journals almost never take 10K-long stories, but essays and stories 1K and under would at least get a once-over before a refusal. During the school year I hope to get at least one short story published of my own creation. More would be awesome, but as I’ve learned the hard way, too many expectations promise derailment. I’m not making that mistake again.

I already have a story in the works to be published online with co-conspirator and fantasy author Michael Dellert. He’s invited my cantankerous Shield Maiden Gwenwledyr to hunt alongside his King Eowain in the holiday short story “Eowain and the Boar.” Can a pantser and a planner co-write successfully? “Eowain and the Boar” will be the experiment to find out.

Just as every moment with my children is precious, so is every moment I have to write. No more wasting. No more moaning. This is the time to create people and places. This is the time to explore and to chronicle. This is the time a Mommy can let her imagination run free. And unless the cops call that Biff and Bash are playing with chainsaws on the school roof, that’s just what what this Mommy’s going to do.

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie, My Children, & Batman: A Single Quirk Can Go a Looong Way.

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When we create characters, we want them to be a person we can reach out, touch, talk with. And they must be more than mere dolls with that scratchy speaker embedded somewhere inside its stuffing that rasps out a limited number of lines. We want to create people who have thoughts and beliefs all their own. We want characters to be.

But how to grow such characters? Sometimes, one quirk is all it takes.

20170829_120446Take my kids, for instance. Bash often lays on his back with his legs crossed in the air. It’s a startling image: my father used to do the same thing all the time. Bash often crosses his legs while sitting, just as my father, grandfather, and uncles all did. It’s a strange habit that, once noticed, reveals a familial connection.

Blondie, my amazing girl: gifted with my memory for words and her father’s humor. A girl of giving heart…and also some of the worst traits of her parents. Like Bo, she does not like to work very hard on something for very long. A task will get a flurry of attention, and then is left to rot into the oblivion. Like me, she is quick in temper and prefers screaming at her brothers rather than talking through the problem. I still struggle with staying calm and not blowing up at them for throwing toys or fighting.

And then, of course, there are the quirks that are unique to each child. Biff, who is no longer constipated, thank the Lord, insists on being Master of Toilet Flushing. The second anyone uses the facilities there comes a frantic, “Can I flush it can I flush it FLUSH IT?!?!?!” He doesn’t throw anything else into the bowl–hell, he doesn’t even stick around to watch the swirling. He just needs to be the one who pulls the handle. My aunt, my husband, and I have all made the grievous mistake of flushing on our own. The tantrum that results is both epic and pathetic, nor will it not stop until someone else uses the toilet so he can FLUSH IT!

Like the food coloring mixed in the water for carnations, singular quirks can influence other traits. Yup, Biff has moments of extreme OCD. He may leave a pile of crashed cars in his wake, but don’t you dare leave any book face down. Blondie will freeze when school work gets hard and gets extremely frustrated when the solutions don’t come via guesswork. Bash loves using found things to tell a story, just as the grandfather he barely knew would do for his sermons. (Though I don’t recall my dad insisting on eating with several forks so every kind of food had its own utensil. That’s just weird, Bash.)

Fictional characters can grow a good deal from a single trait, too. Say what you will about toy-driven movies like The Lego Batman Movie: it took a single character element–in this case, Batman’s ego–to extremes both hilarious and fitting for the story. I wish I could share the entire opening sequence, but this song should give you a fairly rough idea on how Batman views himself:

No one can tell Batman what to do or how to handle the bad guys. He’s the best at everything, and “no one [else] has ever had a good idea. Ever.” It takes getting captured by the Joker and being sent to the Phantom Zone for Batman to see just what kind of jerk he’s been. It’s a change of heart that might seem obvious to adults, but that means kids see the transformation clearly as well.

51688eac587843905538e43286823004--famous-books-crime-booksI recently saw this single-trait strategy work well for Agatha Christie, too.  In Thirteen at Dinner (also known as Lord Edgware Dies, a far more fitting title) we meet Jane Wilkinson, a selfish film actress who wants her husband dead. But since she doesn’t “seem to run to gunmen over here [in England],” she asks Poirot to persuade the Lord Edgware to divorce her so she can marry a duke.

“I think you overrate my persuasive powers, Madame.”

“Oh! but you can surely think of something, M. Poirot.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes opened wide again. “You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?”

Her voice was soft, low and deliciously seductive.

“I should like everybody to be happy,” said Poirot cautiously.

“Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.”

“I should say you always do that, Madame.”

He smiled.

“You think I’m selfish?”

“Oh! I did not say so, Madame.”

“I dare say I am. But, you see, I do so hate being unhappy.” (7)

Well of course, someone murders Lord Edgware, and of course, everyone suspects Jane since she’s been talking of nothing else but wanting her husband dead. Of course, clues arise to clear her. Of course, Poirot and Hastings visit the widow:

She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am–all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce…Just my path cleared and all plain sailing…I’ve thought and I’ve thought lately–if Edgware were to die. And there–he’s dead! It’s–it’s almost like an answer to a prayer.”

Poirot cleared his throat.

“I cannot say I look at it quite like that, Madame. Somebody killed your husband.”

She nodded.

“Why, of course.”

“Has it not occurred to you who that someone was?”

She stared at him. “Does it matter? I mean–what’s that to do with it? The Duke and I can be married in about four or five months…”

With difficulty Poirot controlled himself.

“Yes, Madame. I know that. But apart from that has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”

“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. (49-50)

Selfish to the extreme, I’d say. But this selfishness is both a clue and a red herring because it’s Agatha Christie, and we should all know better by now.

Jane’s obsession with her own life and goals gives readers the impression of someone so self-involved that she doesn’t get how the world works. “Things just go right for me,” she says, and believes it. Other scenes in the story show her lack of knowledge about the law, culture, politics, etc. She comes off as, well, a bit of a bimbo.

Yet by story’s end we learn she’s not dumb at all. Oh, she’s selfish, make no mistake, but she’s not dumb. She found an actress who does impressions and had that actress impersonate her at a dinner party to provide an alibi. In the end, Jane did indeed kill her husband, since the duke did not believe in divorce. Jane wanted that duke; therefore, the present husband had to go. This then means that answering Poirot’s question seems rather silly. Of course she knows who killed her husband: she did.

The book ends with a letter from Jane in prison addressed to Poirot, explaining how she had managed to murder three times and elude detection for so long. Even here, the selfishness shines as brightly as ever:

 “I thought of that all by myself. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Everyone always says I haven’t got brains–but I think it needed real brains to think of that…I wonder if you are ever sorry for what you did. After all, I only wanted to be happy in my own way. And if it hadn’t been for me you would never have had anything to do with the case. I never thought you’d be so horribly clever. You didn’t look clever. It’s funny, but I haven’t lost my looks a bit…” (125-6)

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of making “complicated” characters, with all sorts of goodness and wickedness and everything in between. And sometimes, complicated works very well, just as several different flowers together make a garden. But a single seed grows, too, in ways both beautiful and unexpected. You’ve but to plant it, care for it, and see.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: How Much Stock Should One Put Into a Title?

Memorial Day weekend in a North Woods cabin: restful, right? Lots of time to write surrounded by nature and all its spring glory, riiiight?

Well when one spends a long, rainy weekend with four sedentary in-laws and three hyper-active children in a space roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment, “restful” does not come to mind.

Thankfully, parenthood has given me the ability to read despite screams and comfy animal battles about my legs and thrown cars and training potties full of urine positioned in dangerous places upon the floor, so I decided to allow myself some time with a couple mysteries Bo gave me at Christmas:

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At the outset, the titles didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Christie’s titles always connected to the story, so I was sure that when I opened up The Big FourI would indeed be reading about a group called The Big Four. Sure enough: the antagonist of the story was a crime syndicate run by a group of bosses known as The Big Four. Poirot saves the planet, everything is awesome, I got to read an entire book in one day, which I hadn’t done in ages. Could I get through another book before the weekend was out?

I began Murder on the Links with high eagerness. I wasn’t planning on doing a close study of these books for this blog–I wanted to read for fun. (Crazy concept, I know.)

But the more I read, a question began to niggle my inner writer. Something felt off about this story. Oh, the plot read plausibly with a strong balance of clues and red herrings. The dialogue was so-so, but not nearly so heavy-handed as Poirot’s Christmas. What the hoobajoob was wrong here?

I closed the mystery, completed, and saw it: the title.

One look at the title, and one expects golf to play a major role in the story. After all, the Nile was quite the set piece in Death on the Nile.  Murder in Mesopotamia was as exotic as it sounds. The train doesn’t just fade into the background in Murder on the Orient Express. Murder is definitely committed under the sun; ergo, the title Evil Under the Sun.

Bo noticed my scrunched face as I glared at the golf course on the cover. “What’s wrong?” I explained my niggle. “Well, did the murder happen on the golf course?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

The-Murder-on-the-LinksAnd that was the thing, I guess, that really got to me: technically, the title fit. The murder itself occurred on land being turned into a golf course. Christie didn’t fib. Murder did indeed happen on the links.

But with the other stories I mentioned, the place was more than just a location. Whatever was mentioned in the title carried influence into the story, be it through the culture, method of crime, strategies of investigation, etc. I thought back to other stories I’ve covered in my “Lessons Learned” posts and their titles–were any lame titles in those?

Howl’s Moving Castle: Heroine Sophie is cursed and seeks help from the Wizard Howl. His castle moves because of a curse between Howl and a fire demon that Sophie promises to break. So, pretty important.

Charmed Life: Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolyn are taken on by the great sorcerer Chrestomanci to learn more about magic. There’s more magic in Cat than he realizes, which is finally revealed with his sister’s villainy. By book’s end Cat is destined to be the next Chrestomanci. That’s about as charmed a life as you can get.

Five Little Pigs: Poirot sets out to solve a murder committed 16 years ago. He considers the five living suspects like the five little pigs; the rhyme comes up every time he meets another suspect.

The Name of the Rose: I admit, I had to read a bit more into this one. I knew there was some sort of connection with language, since the mystery fixates upon the danger of language and ideas.  How fitting, then, that Eco found a poem reflecting that a thing destroyed is preserved in its name. I found Eco’s own explanation for the title:

 

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Eco states in the Postscript to the Name of the Rose that Bernard’s poem is also the source of the novel’s title and last line —

Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”
(Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)

— meaning that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.

“Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book’s title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to arrive at his own conclusions.”

With Murder on the Links, however, golf had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The setting bore no real influence upon the clues, the body, or even how characters moved about the scene of the crime. The course is where the murder just so happened to, well, happen. It could have been on the grounds of the mansion or in the ditch of the freeway–it would have made no difference.

Perhaps that, more than the title, was what bothered me. Or it was because the title gave importance to something that carried none–a red herring from the off.

I remember feeling annoyed like this once before with Louise Erdrich, an amazing American author whose award-winning novel Love Medicine was my one reading joy from those years in graduate school. It was a family drama spanning years–not normally my thing at all, but her portrayals of the Native American life and landscape gripped me from the start. I read more of her work after school, but stopped with Beet Queen. Why?

33315Because this Beet Queen chick didn’t show up until the last few pages, dammit!

Now granted, I can see now that wasn’t entirely true. The character who grows up to become the Beet Queen–the beauty queen of the town–is born halfway through the book, and the first half of the book is about the family into which she’s born–that’s typical Erdrich. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the title fixated upon that final moment, that social title bought by the girl’s family so that she could feel special at last. Now I can see that the title embodied the desperation of the family to do what it could for the love of this girl, to make her socially acceptable, to make her happy…and how this girl, a rather selfish brat, held it all in contempt. Family drama, spanning generations. The title fit.

Murder on the Links, a fine mystery, has a title that pays heed to the least important aspect of the crime. I suppose being bludgeoned by a five iron or discovering a collection of heads in a caddy’s locker would have all been a bit much, but it’s nice to see titles that connect on more than just a technical level.

What of your title? Does it embody the struggle, the hero, the villain? Does it give a wink and a nudge towards a special clue to reveal the truth? Or does it just hang there, stating its purpose and nothing more? After all, some stories have made such titles work brilliantly for them: The Lego Movie, The Peanuts Movie, The Care Bears Movie, The Lego Batman MovieBut notice how all these titles are a)geared for children using b)easily identifiable toys/characters OF their childhood for c)a visual presentation. Kids know they get to watch Legos, Snoopy, and so on. That’s all they want.

But in stories to be read, we want titles that grip and hold. Don’t warp that grip into a bait-and-switch. What influences the characters? What place affects the plot? What taunts your hero from afar, that if he could just push himself a little bit more, he can touch it, taste it, know it? Your answers hold the key to a title of relevance, spirit, and strength.

Writer’s Music: Ramin Djawadi II

While I often use music to enter my hero’s head or work out a new voice, music also has its uses for entering the dark side, too.

In writing my Shield Maiden stories, Gwen had a mix of antagonists: parents, fellow recruits, captain, and herself, too, but this was all due to her own ego and narrow-mindedness. Only the giant snake created by the Cat Man was a bona fide bad guy with a goal: poison everyone.

With the snake dead, though, I realized Beauty’s Price couldn’t follow the same formula. Wynne really is up against her family, who sees a marriage to the obscenely wealthy Prydwen as a win for everyone. No one seems to mind that Prydwen has more wealth than any law-abiding trader should have, hasn’t aged in over ten years, and insists on marrying all five sisters or else. Wynne’s family sees money and status, and therefore success.

Wynne, who already loves someone, sees no joy at all.

But I didn’t want this conflict to be like another Beauty and the Beast, where Gastan just looks great and wants Wynne and Co. simply because they’re pretty, too. There has to be a reason.

I needed to see what Prydwen sees when he looks at Wynne. That begins with getting him out into the open , to see him interact with Wynne.

His movements would be slow, smooth, calculating. One who moves about in plain sight with ease, whose true gifts are only discovered when it’s too late.

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The music needed to stay fantastic and period, so I dug through the scores of Legend, Chronicles of Narnia, Cadfael–no luck. Nothing, not even the White Witch’s music, had that right touch of creeping, subtle menace. All I could hope was in a big enough mix of albums I’d stumble upon the right theme.

And wouldn’t you know it: on the last day of the boys’ school, I found it.

The rhythm slithers on the ground. The melody distracts, draws attention away from the percussion so we think nothing when it fades only to return, stronger, faster, surrounding us, defeating us.

One heartbeat later, and the horse jingled into view at full gallop. The rider pulled hard upon the belled reins, stopping it at the garden’s edge. Beast and master shone with golden hounds embroidered upon crimson cloak and covers. Rings of red and orange gems glittered round every gloved finger. Such wealth displayed with such ease and without a single guard felt wrong, very wrong.

I could feel his gaze upon us, unrelenting as the sun in the heat of summer. If not for the horse’s content chewing, I would have screamed but to break the silence. “Pray forgive me, but I feel as if I should know you both.” He clicked his tongue, and the horse closed the distance between us. I could see every thread of his hounds, down to the points of their teeth. He had approached me, so there was no choice: I had to look up at his clean, polished face. “Perhaps my business has brought me to this town in the past. My memories are not always my own.” His smile revealed teeth white enough to be pearls.

No lord looked so perfect, not in body or status.  …. “You, more than the boy, are far more familiar. I am now certain I have met you before.”

No, you are wrong! I wanted cry out, to leap into the Gasirad and beg sanctuary, but my mind, curse it, thought otherwise. “Perhaps you think of my sisters? They meet many who do business with my father, Master Adwr of Hafren.” Surely he was thinking of them. Let him deal with their Sly Accidents before his horse, forcing him to carry them in all weak and wounded and be compelled to attend them. Let them coo and paw upon his chiseled jaw and ringed fingers. He can have their choice of them, for all I cared.

“Sisters?” He swallowed the word down. My own stomach burned. “How many?” The question came hard and fast. No smile, however warm and easy, covered the odd strike that came with such a question.

Yeah, why did Prydwen care about there being five sisters?

Jean LeeWhen I  initially brainstormed Beauty’s Price, I liked the idea of five sisters because it mirrored the Bennets of Pride and Prejudice. But when I met Prydwen, I could see he had a thing for five: five identical jewels on each hand. He later comes with five guards. He jumps at the knowledge of five sisters. There’s something about the number of a thing that suddenly makes that thing matter. Considering his wealth, that need is related to power: the number 5 is powerful to him somehow. The more collections of 5 he gathers, the stronger he gets…

…and I could see a moment where a collection is broken, and the rage that rises. He cannot afford to lose a set, any set. I could see a moment in the story, far and away, where Wynne steals a horse to escape. I can see him standing upon the hillside, watching as she gallops off in the rain, pounding rain, yet he can spot his crest upon the horse. His horse. The wretched girls who have clearly influenced her against him, terrible friends, and only three of them, not a good number, they made her take his horse and they’ll never give it back. He can see them stop on the other side of the valley. They can see him as he moves to another steed of the collection…and stabs it through the throat. One after another, until the remaining horses are dead.

Never. Ruin. A set.

Prydwen’s nature and motivations fascinate me. I’m determined to pull them out of hiding, but his inner self is like Gollum, a silent master of caves, impossible to find on purpose. Djawadi’s score tripped me into the right tunnel. Now we sit, he and I, with our riddles in the dark, watching the other, waiting for the words that betray a weakness. I will not let my villain beat me at this game.

Neither should yours.

 

 

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

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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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Simple Terms Can Have Magical Meanings

18488119._UY200_One of the plights of fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, magical realism, and whatever other subgenre marketing has made up, is LANGUAGE. I am not speaking of strong writing, or believable dialogue. I’m talking terms.

When one’s creating worlds, or altering the one we’ve got, there may be a temptation to mess about with how things are named. If you have the creative wherewithal to study language, dialects, poetics and the whole shebang, then go with Godspeed. I, however, am an impatient sod, and want the story up and on the screen as quickly as possible. Who has time to (shudder) study terminology?

Diana Wynne Jones’ work reveals a very clever solution to this problem: take terms with which readers are familiar, and twist their meaning. Not a lot—just enough to give readers a real-ish sense of an unreal concept. Here are some examples from various works. Perhaps after reading these you’ll discover there is a simpler, more effective approach to terms in your world that will allow you to tell a story rather than explain it.

FARM: the portion of society a magical being controls, such as crime, transportation, or music. (Archer’s Goon)

AYEWARDS/NAYWARDS: in a multi-verse, these refer to the which worlds are strong in magic, and which are not. For instance, to move “naywards” is to move into worlds where magic has but a weak presence. (Deep Secret/The Merlin Conspiracy)

DEEP SECRET: a piece of an extremely powerful spell (Deep Secret)

RAISE THE LAND: to call up a dragon made of magically potent land. (The Merlin Conspiracy)

FIELD OF CARE: the area which one of magical ability must tend and protect. (Enchanted Glass)

REIGNORS: tyrannical rulers of the galaxy (Hexwood)

SEVEN-LEAGUE BOOTS: magical shoes that will help one cover miles in just a step. (Howl’s Moving Castle)

51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_MAGID: one who administrates the flow of magic to influence global events for the good throughout the multiverse (Deep Secret/The Merlin Conspiracy)

As you can see from this wee list, Jones’ terms are nothing exotic, but common and rooted in everyday knowledge. Yet their magical application makes them unique. Even Magid, which may sound otherworldly at the outset, has the same root as “magistrate.” That term will register in readers’ heads, and they won’t be confused when they learn what a Magid does.

If you are world building or altering, think carefully on your terms. Rather than splicing together all sorts of rad-sounding syllables to form words NO one will understand, consider using the common tongue. You may find some magic there whose simplicity will remain with readers long after the book is closed.

Click here for more on Diana Wynne Jones.