#writing #music: Queen

My headphones are often absconded.

“I’m in the control tower. Roger roger!”

“Mommy, we have to join the pit crew so Lightning can race across the finish line. Oh no, Doc Hudson crashed!”

Because of this, I have to watch what music I play while writing during the day. Sure, the kids know ACDC and The Who, but we’ve taken care to play only a few songs of each without certain, shall we say, bluntly crude language. I’ve already made the mistake of allowing the boys to listen to Weird Al Yankovic’s polka medley of Rolling Stones songs. Heaven help me if Biff belts out “Brown Sugar” around adults who know what he’s singing.

So of course, staring at Bo’s music collection, I grab the first kid-friendly band I see: Queen!

Yeah, yeah, I know. “Bicycle” is, um, mostly clean, and if I’m fast with the volume knob we can listen to “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But there’s always “We Are the Champions,” “We Will Rock You,” “You’re My Best Friend,” and their kickin’ theme to Flash Gordon!

One song, however, speared my memory good and deep. I love digging through music old and new for writing inspiration, but a few weeks ago Writer Me experienced a different sort of epiphany.

Just as the trauma of childhood influences how we write, so do the stories that engaged us as kids. I reveled in the adventures of discovery on Star Trek. I swung my play sword alongside She-Ra. I outwitted all the baddies from the Batman comics. Aaaand I begrudgingly liked the romance of Beauty and the Beast.

(Hey, every action junkie’s going to have that one romance that gets’em every time.)

Now I finally have the age and wit (half a wit, anyway) to see the connection between a cult movie’s theme song and my current project for Aionios Books, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. 

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“Princes of the Universe” was one of three songs written by Queen for the 1986 film Highlander, a story of immortals living among humanity and dueling each other with swords because “there can be only one.” The original film wasn’t intended for any sort of sequel or series, so (spoiler alert) we find out that The Prize all immortals must fight over is the gift of mortality.

When I started writing Fallen Princeborn the fall after Blondie’s birth, I had that title before I had a setting. I didn’t really ponder why I was using the term “princeborn.” It simply fit. My immortals are created with skills and abilities that by all accounts make them “superior” to humanity. As the song says, no man can be their equal. What else are they than “born to be kings”?

In Fallen Princeborn, the antagonists are keen to do just that, while the protagonists, each broken and discarded, must learn to rise up or die trying.

Highlander went on to spawn some sequels and a television show, all of which my dad loved. So, week to week, Kid Me would hear this song while immortal men, women, and yes, even the occasional kid whipped out massive claymores, slick katanas, wicked rapiers to duel in dark alleys and ancient forests. There is almost always a Quickening: the loser beheaded, lightning floods the scene as the victor absorbs the power of the defeated immortal.

When I listen to “Princes of the Universe” now, I realize it wasn’t just the lightning and rock that stuck with me. Freddie Mercury’s lyrics buried themselves just as deep.

Here we are, born to be kings
We’re the princes of the universe
Here we belong, fighting to survive
In a world with the darkest powers

Here we belong, fighting for survival
We’ve come to be the rulers of you all

I am immortal, I have inside me blood of kings, yeah, yeah
I have no rival, no man can be my equal
Take me to the future of you all

Born to be kings, princes of the universe
Fighting and free
Got your world in my hand
I’m here for your love and I’ll make my stand
We were born to be princes of the universe

9835e4dede16d58a385e85e9f2238856This beaten down defiance drums as hard as Roger Taylor. Even just reading these words, you can feel glares burning through you like Christopher Lambert’s eyes. Whoever’s spitting these words may be bloody and bruised at your feet, but their faces tell you they’re nowhere near defeated. No power upon this earth can break them.

Such are the  heroes I am proud to give readers.

Give your protagonists a battle-song to defy the odds, and their heroics will live on in the reader’s imagination long after the final page is read.

 

 

 

 

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#lessons Learned from @HollyBlack: Start the #storytelling with #writing the departure from the #characters’ normal.

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Snagging readers is always one of the greatest challenges writers face. First fifty pages nuthin’. We gotta grab readers in the first five pages. Heck, if we can’t grab an agent or publisher with the first five sentences, we are out of luck.

Holly Black establishes just enough intrigue within her first lines of The Cruel Prince to hook readers and keep’em on the line until the last page. Let’s dissect a few of these opening sentences, as well as the entire first chapter.

(Yes, I said entire first chapter. Don’t groan yet.)

Prologue:

On a drowsy Sunday afternoon, a man in a long dark coat hesitated in front of a house on a tree-lined street. He hadn’t parked a car, nor had he come by taxi. No neighbor had seen him strolling along the sidewalk. He simply appeared, as if stepping between one shadow and the next.

Inside the house, Jude sat on the living room rug and ate fish sticks, soggy from the microwave and dragged through a sludge of ketchup. Her twin sister, Taryn, napped on the couch, curled around a blanket, thumb in her fruit-punch-stained mouth. And on the other end of the sofa, their older sister, Vivienne, stared at the television screen, her eerie, split-pupiled gaze fixed on the cartoon mouse as it ran from the cartoon cat. She laughed when it seemed as if the mouse was about to get eaten.

The first four sentences take care to show something abnormal is in the works. While the first sentence of “a man in a long dark coat” sounds ominous, it’s a common sort of ominous–oh no, a dude in a coat. Aaaaah.

The next sentence plays upon our reality’s norms and begins to trim them off: no car, no taxi. There go the typical, nondescript forms of transportation. Black’s not going to insult our intelligence and list other vehicles not used, like RVs, semis, and so on. If my son Biff’s taught me anything, it’s that kids will notice any vehicle bigger than a car, and they will make a big deal about it. “Mommy, a truck! Mommy, a bus! Mommy, an RV!”

The third line continues to nullify yet another assumption: he didn’t walk there. If Black can say no neighbor saw him “strolling along the sidewalk,” then that means neighbors are currently outside to witness such things.

But no one did. Which means that when “he simply appeared,” he literally did just that.

Now that is abnormal.

In the next paragraph we meet our protagonist Jude and her two sisters. Black has situated this family in a very typical setup: snacking and watching television.

It is this sort of normal the man of the long dark coat penetrates.

I don’t have to share the rest of the prologue with you to know there was something abnormal in Jude’s normal–her elder sister Vivienne has “eerie” split pupils. As the narrator explains, Jude and her sister accept this without question; after all, they’re identical twins, which is weird enough. For them, this is normal, and therefore requires no further explanation.

But they do get an explanation with the man’s arrival.

He is not human.

He is also their mother’s first husband, and Vivienne is his daughter. Jude’s father tries to fight him, and dies. Jude’s mother tries to run, and dies.

He takes all three girls back to his home in Elfhame.

51j9XTR5oZL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Now here Black makes an interesting writing choice: while the prologue is given in 3rd person past, Chapter 1 shifts us into first person present.

CHAPTER 1

In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television.

That’s the whole chapter.

(Told you not to groan.)

What good is a one-line chapter?

For starters, Black’s story isn’t about little kid Jude and her sisters. In Chapter 2 we learn ten years have passed since General Madoc killed their parents and brought them to his home. The Cruel Prince will share the tale of these girls finding their place in–or out–of Faerie. 

Ten years is a HUGE amount of time to cover in any book, let alone a sentence. So let’s see what Black did to help us make that leap.

First, she establishes the time with “are.” The events of the prologue are done. The narrator’s in a new time.

What place? “Faerie.” For all the variety of worlds made about fairies/faeries, we do tend to make similar assumptions about what these magic folk don’t have: cars, for instance, or computers. Black builds on this concept–ruling out what isn’t in the world before building on what is–by listing the three simple things that symbolized the normal of Jude’s life: fish sticks, ketchup, television.

“Television” clearly encompasses technology of all sorts, but for a kid, no tv is, like, huge. It’s a primary resource for entertainment, education, distraction. It’s challenging enough to limit a kid’s screen time. Can you think of completely removing the tvs, computers, tablets, phones, and all the rest out of your life, let alone a child’s? Let that sink in. Now you appreciate that dose of culture shock for Jude and her sisters.

“Ketchup”–so often associated as the go-to dipper for kids. They’ll draw pictures in it, squirt each other with it. Adults can show their age if they like by using more “sophisticated” fare like oils, glazes, marinades, or sauces constructed with food processors and farmer’s markets and sweat, but if a kid’s got the choice between some organic garlic beet radish kale compote and “ketchup,” what do you think he/she will take?

Same with “fish sticks.” Microwaved, no less. One of the staples in a family’s fridge, fish sticks are a primary example of the pseudo-nutrition parents like to use to keep kids’ stomachs placated. Heck, I used’em for Blondie last night. (Biff and Bash don’t like them. Hmm, maybe they’re from Elfhame. It would certainly explain their ever-warring natures…) The easy, go-to processed food kept frozen by technology and heated at the click of its buttons is only memory to Jude.

By grouping this little trio of food, pleasure, and entertainment in the normal of Jude’s young life, and emphasizing with three No’s that these do not exist in her new normal, Black successfully jars readers out of Jude’s childhood and shifts them into the plotline for The Cruel Prince, told by Jude with intimate immediacy.

If your story needs a setup, consider how much you can pack into a single line. Think about what will separate this setup from the rest of the story, and what voice is best suited to prepare readers as well as engage them for the story proper. Do not think you must provide a detailed summary of the time passed over between setup and story; rather, consider what can symbolize that which is now lost, or gained, or transformed. Let that symbolism speak the necessary volumes for you while you lure readers into the shadowy realm that is Chapter 1.