Archive for March, 2014

There are as many tropes in How to Write a Novel as there are bad novels.

  • You must always start with action
  • You must never start with dialogue
  • Never italicize anything
  • Never use passive verbs
  • Never begin a sentence with “And,” “But,” or “Or”
  • Never do flashbacks or dream sequences
  • Don’t use too many words
  • Don’t use too few words

I had an English professor in a novel workshop in college tell me, “Your hero should never cry.”

I’ll end the suspense right now; I’ve broken every one of these rules.  Gleefully.  And I am in good company.  Read any popular book in any genre, and you are bound to find broken rules littering the pages.

I’m not here to advocate breaking the rules.  But like every other tool, use it if it works and you can justify it.  So please enjoy the first in a series about how I’m breaking the rules of writing.

For my fantasy novel, The Last Princess, I wanted to give some of the characters an extra dimension since they are part fae.  And I wanted to stay authentic to each of the fae races’ literary origins, even though these characters are mostly human and many generations removed from their fae ancestors.  So I went back to the country of origin for each type of character and gave many of them a foreign accent.

One of those rules you’re not supposed to break is: you’re never supposed to phonetically spell out foreign accents.  However, since this is a book for readers between ages 9 and 12, I feared that my readers may not be able to “hear” a proper foreign accent without help.  I wasn’t comfortable just saying, “She spoke with a Cockney accent” and hoping my readers would know what that sounded like.  Plus – and here’s where I justify breaking this rule – I think it’s fun and really adds a distinctive layer to these characters.

The challenge here is to only put in enough to make the point, but not so much that it makes it difficult to read the dialogue.

Here’s an example from The Last Princess. Ogres were first introduced in French literature by Charles Perrault.  So I named my ogre-born character Mr. Perrault, as a subtle tribute.  This is the first fae-born Cat approaches on her quest, and she’s not at all sure what to expect, having read that ogres used to eat children.  I thought giving him a French accent was deliciously ironic and fun:

OgreMr. Perrault lived across the street and about five houses down.  Squirrel Scout cookies were an excuse to ring his doorbell, but what was I going to say next?  “Hi.  So … what’s it like being an ogre?”  Maybe he didn’t even know he had ogre blood.  What then?  I was going to look like a complete nut case.

Or maybe he did know he had ogre blood.  And maybe he liked it.

I swallowed as I stood on his doorstep, breathing through my mouth to avoid the smell.  The doorbell button hung from a frayed wire, so I knocked, then fought down the urge to turn tail and forget the whole thing.  Mrs. Dalyrimple’s words rang in my ears: “Don’t get eaten!”

What am I doing here?

The door jerked open, and the awful smell hit me like a punch in the stomach.  Standing in the shadows of his dark doorway, Mr. Perrault towered over me, glowering.  It took every bit of my strength to keep from screaming.  He wore a blood-stained apron and had bare arms covered in black, curly hair.  In one greasy fist he gripped a huge butcher knife with bits of red meat clinging to it.  His nostrils flared as he sniffed me.  “Cookies?” he grunted.

“Um … what?”  I tore my eyes away from the gory knife.

“Zey are too sweet!  And so small.  One bite and poof!  Zey are gone.  We?”

I blinked, confused.  “We?”

“Oui,” he said slowly.  “It means ‘yes.’  You speak French, no?”

“Uh, no.”  I shook my head.

“Bah!”  He waved the knife at me and I took a hasty step back.  “What do you want, little girl?”

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My research told me dwarves were originally from German folklore.  So I gave my dwarf-born character, Mr. Goldschmidt,  a German accent and not a Scottish one like in the Lord of the Rings movies:

TinkererHe wore a heavy leather apron covered with pockets and marked all over by dark burns and singe marks.  The words “Goldschmidt Foundry” had been carefully burned into the leather on his chest, inside the shape of an anvil.

“You’re a blacksmith?”

He saw where I was looking.  “This vas mine father’s.  He vas a blackshmith.  I do not like the heat so much.”  He tapped his spectacles.  “I am better vis little things, like your music box.”

“So you can fix it?”

“Yah, of course!  Maybe.  I have to look inside.”  He returned to his workbench and sat down, pulling the music box closer.

My heart sped up. “And the magic will work? Nanny Schumacher said it was magical.”

“Vell, there is a problem vis that. The little brownie voman is cracked in the head.”

I stiffened. Nanny Schumacher was a bit odd, maybe, but that was no reason to call her names. “You don’t even know her! If she says it’s magical, then I believe her.”

“Ha! Not your friend. The little brownie voman in the music box, yah?” He pointed at the carved figures with the tip of a screwdriver.

“Oh….”

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There are many more fae-born characters throughout our book that Cat will have to interact with.  Not all of them have foreign accents, but many do – most more subtle than these examples.  But I feel like it brings them to life and helps them stand out from the humans in a way that is above and beyond a colorful description.

What rules have you broken in your own writing?  And did you live to tell about it?

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ImageI thought I would tease you all a little by posting a fragment of our WIP, The Last Princess.  Not because I’m lazy and don’t want to write a blog post today.  I am lazy, but I’m posting this excerpt because I think you might like to know what I’ve been talking about.  Briefly, this is what The Last Princess is about:

Cat Brökkenwier has a secret — the ability to see that the descendants of faeries and elves and ogres still walk among us. With the help of an ancient diary she learns she may be the last princess of all the fae. Now Cat must learn all there is to know about the secret world of the fae-born and earn the crown before another, more sinister candidate beats her to it. Or worse, before her mother finds out.

I believe this is called the “elevator pitch.”  And it strikes me as odd because I hardly ever find myself in an elevator.  And if I do, I am unlikely to recite this to the stranger standing next to me.  But who knows; maybe that’s how book deals go down.  Here’s the prologue:

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I looked with wonder at this little old lady squinting at me with the greenest eyes I’d ever seen.  “Who are you, my fairy godmother, or something?”

“Your’n?  No.”  She sat back.  “And a faerie’s about the worst choice for a godmother you could possibly pick.  Don’t you ever read?”

“Of course I read!  I’ve read the complete Brothers Grimm, all of Hans Christian Anderson—”

“Piffle and poppycock!”

“But—”

“Those’re mostly bedtime stories for children, girl.  But who told those stories to the Grimms, eh?”  She winked and cackled.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re a hard nut to crack, m’girl, and no lie.”  She shook her cane at all of the carved creatures littering the walls and shelves of her booth.  “Sprites and brownies and elves!  Goblins!  Banshees!  Trolls!”  She pointed at each one in turn.  “They’re all real!  Or were.  Most have gone a’hiding.”  She pointed a gnarled finger at me.  “’Cept you know how to find ’em.”

I just stared at her, the hair on my neck standing up.  “How?”

“Because you’re one of ’em.”

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Okay, that’s a real tiny taste.  Too tiny.  Here’s a scene from much later in the book, when Cat is in the middle of her quest to become the Last Princess:

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Rose looked at me, then at Nanny Schumacher.  “Nanny?  Don’t brownies have magic?”

“You’re finking of elves, dear.  They get’s us mixed up in stories.  Baking cookies and sewing shoes and making toys.  That’s brownies, but they calls us elves.  Only brownies don’t ’ave magic dust like in the stories.  No such fing as magic dust.”

Rose sat back next to me.  “Oh.”  She looked more disappointed than I felt.

Nanny Schumacher put down her glass.  “But there is magic.  Wait right ’ere.”

Rose and I looked at each other as the little old woman rummaged noisily through her closet, muttering under her breath.  I nibbled at what was left of my fingernail.  If Rose’s nanny couldn’t get me a mouse skull I could forget about impressing the ogres.

“Oi!  ’Ere it is!”  Nanny Schumacher returned and triumphantly set a dusty wooden box on the table.  She blew the dust off with a mighty huff, then sneezed.

Rose leaned forward.  “What is it?”  She reached for the box.

“You just keep your ’ands to yourself, Roselyn Connelly.”  Nanny Schumacher shooed her back and pulled a dust rag from her sleeve.  She polished the box lovingly until it looked like new.  Well, really, really old, but … clean.  “It’s a music box.  Me mum gave it to me when I was just a girl, and ’er mum before ’er and all, back a dozen generations.”

She unhooked a tiny latch on the front and opened the top.  The inside was lined with red velvet and the lid had mirrors on the inside so you could see the small carved wooden figurines from all sides when they moved – a brownie woman holding a shoe in her lap and a brownie man with a hammer poised over a wooden toy.  Nanny Schumacher slipped a little key into the hole in the front of the box and turned it a few times to wind it up.  Then the music box gave a ping, a grind, and a sad clunk and the little hammer moved a bit.  Then nothing.

Nanny Schumacher sighed.  “Only it’s broken.”

I wanted to touch the pretty carved wood of the box, but I didn’t dare.  “What’s it supposed to do?”

“You ever hear the story of the Pied Piper?  Same fing.”  She sat down and rested her chin in her palms, staring sadly at the music box.  “Me gran said it worked a treat when she was a girl.  You’d wind it up and all the mice and spiders and fings would come for a listen, in a trance like.  And you could just sweep ’em out the door, quick as you please.”

“What did it … sound like?”

She looked up at me.  “Don’t know.  I never ’eard it.  Me mum told me gremlins got to it.”

Rose choked.  “Gremlins are real, too?”

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I hope you find this as enjoyable as my daughter and I do.  We’re about halfway done with the first draft of the novel.  If you would be interested in being a beta reader, let me know in the comments and I’ll put you on the list.

Would you like me to post more excerpts from The Last Princess in the future?  For more, also please check the The Last Princess tab, above.

One of my favorite pastimes is deciding what actors should play my favorite literary characters if ever their books made it to the silver screen.  I had James Garner playing Lazarus Long, back when he was still young enough to pull it off.  And of course I’ve been waiting forever for Tim Burton to cast Johnny Depp as eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts and Helena Boham-Carter as the child-hating Baroness Bomburst in a remake of Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang .*

But this blog isn’t about that.  I have found myself in the rather difficult position of fictionalizing my own family in a fantasy novel.  Not precisely, of course; none of us are magical or descended from faeries (except in that all children are, to some degree), and our names have been changed to protect the … er … my butt.

The problem is that your average 9-year-old would not find ordinary people – not even my daughter –  particularly interesting to read about.  In this book ogres and elves and brownies and pixies all exist (to one degree or another), and our spunky hero, Cat, is right in the thick of it.  So I have to add this fantasy layer to all of the characters, and make it both interesting and consistent with the world we have created (are creating).

Take Cat’s best friend, Rose.  She is based very loosely on an amalgam of my daughter’s actual best friends, but in our book she is descended from piskies (the original way to spell pixies), as are both of her parents:

“The piskie spends most of her time making herself beautiful, adorning herself with flower petals and making perfume.  The only thing piskies like better than being pretty is flying.  Sometimes a piskie will go days without ever touching the ground, collecting beautiful objects for her den.”

Rose’s mom sells Carrie Mae cosmetics and her dad is an airline pilot.  Rose collects porcelain dolls her dad brings home from all over the world.  And all of these things are perfectly mundane until you put them together in the context of this fantasy world.

Cat is a little more difficult, because she doesn’t know what she is, except that she takes after her dad in more ways than she would like to admit.  And her dad is … well … rather troll-like.  Unruly hair, large nose, tall, kind of lumbers everywhere breaking things.  Casting myself as a troll in our fantasy world was the easiest part of this entire process.

And quite possibly my daughter’s favorite part of the whole adventure.

Image

I think in the movie Gerard Depardieu should play me.

Cat’s a candidate for princess because (among other things) she has the ability to look at someone and instantly see if they are fae-born. Plus she has an extensive knowledge of fairy-tale creatures. She sees faeries and goblins when she looks at people the way most people see dinosaurs and bunnies when they look at clouds. So the idea is that kids reading this book could look at the people around them and be able to identify some of them as fae-born, based on their characteristics, vicariously sharing Cat’s talent.

Neat, huh?

The fae-born Cat is going to encounter next in our WIP are descendants of dökkalfar, or dark elves (no, not the baddies from the latest Thor movie). Dökkalfar are classically described as the opposite of light elves, or traditional Tolkien-style elves. Instead of possessing beauty that shines like the sun, dökkalfar shun the light. They are pale and brooding and live in shadows crafting enchanted items out of metal. And they are the henchmen of the teenage rival for the crown who Cat has yet to meet.

So in our book they will be pretty much your traditional goth kids. Long black hair, pale skin, tragic, weighed down with jewelry possibly having a skull motif.  Those kids have always made me feel vaguely uncomfortable, like they’re not quite from this planet and don’t wish to be.

Look, don’t judge me.  If our novel takes off and little girls and boys all over the world point and giggle at goth kids it’s not my fault. I mean, I didn’t tell them to dress that way.

*Roald Dahl’s version, not Ian Fleming’s.

Where do ideas come to you?  For some people, it’s in the shower or the bathtub.  Other people, while they’re washing their car or walking in the rain.

The Idea FairyI think the Idea Fairy must be a water nymph.  The idea for the book my daughter and I are co-writing came in the swimming pool.  I remember it vividly.  Before it was a book it was just a thought exercise, to make my daughter laugh.  It took me awhile to realize the potential for an actual novel and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to traumatize partner with my daughter on a creative project.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To beat the summer heat my wife and I took our two youngest to the pool at our gym, where there is a whole aquatic playground typically teaming with kids.  Our then-3-year-old boy dragged my wife to the fountains and dump buckets, and my daughter and I headed for the deep end.

The irony is not lost on me.

My daughter has always wanted to be a princess, or a fairy.  Usually both.  But I was never particularly good at playing those kinds of pretend games with her.  She had an uncanny ability to change gears ‒ and the laws of physics ‒ in a heartbeat, and I couldn’t keep up.  So she amused herself at my expense, poking fun at my largish nose or my bouncy belly.  Or the way I chew.  The list goes on.

In the pool she was pretending to be a mermaid princess, and I asked her, “What would you do if after all this time you found out you really were a fairy-tale princess, and you had magic and everything?  And it turned out the reason you were was not because your mother was a fairy princess before you, but because your dad was the troll king?”

“So I’m a troll princess?” she sighed.  “Figures.”

And The Last Princess was born.  It actually took me about a year of mulling it over to figure out how to make a whole book out of it.  My first novel, started when I was still in high school in the days of Dungeons and Dragons, was an enormous* failure.  I knew nothing about writing a book, including when to stop.  So this time around I invested in books about “plot.”  I was fairly certain this was a pretty important concept.  Characters, I had.  Even the hint of a story.  But the secret of plot eluded me the way the secret of fire eluded early man.  Now, I feel like this little bit of forethought has made the difference between a readable book and a fat lot of pages.

I guess we’ll see.  I’m praying for rain so maybe the Idea Fairy will return and give me her blessing.

*About 250,000 words.  I think I’m the only person who ever finished reading it.