Posts Tagged ‘Fairy Tales’

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I imagine people write children’s novels for a lot of different reasons.  The joy their books will bring.  Freedom from the restraints of adult novels.  The chance to write for an unjaded audience.  Money.

Wielding the limitless power of a god, with total control over the laws of the universe and the fates of every single person within it.  Am I right?  Anyone?  I know you’re out there.

The problem with being a serious writer (or a god, I imagine) is when your creations take on independent lives and start to edge down paths of their own choosing, in utter disregard for all of your careful planning and clever machinations. What cheek!  What blasphemy!  But you can rest easy in your lofty perch because you know you can smite them with a gesture, crush them between your mighty fingers and sweep them away like so much detritus.  I’m still talking about writing, here.

It’s painful, sometimes. We all have our favorites, and when they turn against us erasing them can be heartbreaking.  It’s an occupational hazard.  However there occasionally comes a time when you have to stop and take a second look before you unleash your wrath.  Because every once in a while your creations — your characters — will be smarter than you.

I was struggling with a scene in my daughter’s and my second novel, The Last Faerie Godmother.  I kept working at it every day, but no amount of perseverance could move the thing forward.  This happens to everyone now and again, and it often means there is something fundamentally wrong with the scene that your brain can’t see but your heart can feel.  At times like these it’s sometimes helpful to give some slack in your characters’ leashes and see where they run.

This particular scene involved the princess and her best friend spying on the members of her own court, because she suspects there is a conspiracy, or at the very least some secret being kept from her.  And no matter what I did, the thing sat there like a shapeless wet lump of clay.   So I let the characters off of their leashes.

It turns out it’s not polite to spy on your fiends, and the BFF had a serious problem going along with my plan.  And all of a sudden the light breaks through the clouds and angels sing, and the scene feels right again.  Of course, now I have to erase all of my careful planning and clever machinations, and get down in the mud with my creations so I can see where they want to go.

It’s humbling. They don’t talk about this in the god writer’s manual. But sometimes you just have to acknowledge when your characters are smarter than you.

Joustorama

Posted: February 17, 2016 in Writing
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I believe I’ve finally heard enough times that we should cut almost an entire early chapter from our book. I’ve rejected this notion for a year or so, because 1) it is among the best writing in the book  (I think), and 2) because I have rationalized that it is an important (although admittedly lengthy) setup to the tone of the rest of the story.

i think I’m finally ready to admit it doesn’t need to be there, and that it slows down the book too much.

So, before one of my favorite scenes is lost to the ravenous beast known as “#amediting,” here it is – one more “lost scene” for you to enjoy (I hope) that the rest of the world will never see.


 

“Catherine?”

I looked up from my history textbook. “Yes, Mom?”

She lifted the book out of my lap and sat down on the couch next to me. “Enough homework for today.” Mom smiled and stared into my eyes, brushing a lock of hair out of my face. “I’m very proud of you. The way you’ve shown how grown up you can be. And you are a beautiful girl, Catherine; I don’t tell you that enough.” She kissed me on the forehead and it turned into a hug that felt like sleeping in on a Sunday morning.

“Thanks, Mom.” I smiled into her shoulder. The hug made the last twenty-six and a half days without my fantasies feel a little less heartbreaking.

“Your father and I have decided to give you a reward for all of your hard work.”

“We have?” Dad looked up from where he was building a LEGO spaceship with Thomas. “What was it we decided, again?”

“We decided to take Cat to Joustorama for dinner, tonight.”

“You did?” I beamed. “Excellent!”

“And,” Mom continued smoothly, “because it will help with your studies of medieval England.”

“Right.” Dad nodded. “That’s exactly why I suggested it. Because, homework. Did I make reservations, Adelle?”

“Of course, Richard.”

Joustorama has got to be the coolest single place in the whole world to eat dinner. Outside, it’s a castle with a real moat and drawbridge and everything. And inside knights in armor actually joust each other on horses, just like in medieval times. While you watch the show, serving maidens bring your dinner on metal plates. And the best part?

“Do we get to eat with our fingers?” Thomas jumped up and down with a grin as big as his head. He’d been a toddler the last time we went, but he remembered that.

“Yes,” I said. “We all get to eat with our fingers.” Because they don’t give you any silverware. Just lots and lots of napkins.

As soon as we walked through the giant double doors it felt like we were in a different world. All of the people who worked there were dressed like maidens and courtiers, with long sleeves and big belts. Swords and spears and other old weapons hung on the walls between suits of armor.

My older brother, Alex, stood looking at a wall covered with photographs of young women and girls, each posing with one of the knights. “What’s this about, Cat?”
“Oh. Each knight chooses a girl from the audience to be his lady fair, and if he wins the tournament she becomes princess of the realm.” Most of the pictures had either the red knight or the green knight, but I thought the green knight was definitely more handsome.

“You should be up there. You’re into princess stuff, right?”

“I used to be.” I shrugged. But my eyes lingered on the green knight and all of the smiling girls wearing their golden crowns.

When the serving maiden led us to our seats I got the same thrill I got every time I came here. We stepped out of the tunnel into the stadium, and it was huge! There was the great big dirt floor in the middle – big enough for horses to run at full speed toward one another from opposite ends – and hung all around were banners and pennants of different colors. The seating went all the way around the dirt floor, and rose row after row like the bleachers at a football game, but here they were divided into six sections, each one with different colored pennants representing one of the knights. We were in the green section.

The serving maiden saw my excited grin. “The green knight, Sir Reginald, is always a favorite to win, M’lady.” The small, blonde girl handed each of us a green paper crown.

Pixie, I thought automatically, then glanced at Mom, who didn’t seem to notice my backsliding.

The maiden smiled at Alex as she left and his eyes followed her. But as soon as we heard horses’ hooves, he turned back to the arena. The knights were walking their horses around the outside of the dirt floor, smiling and waving at the guests who had already arrived. We were in the front row, so Sir Reginald came right by us.

“Wow!” Thomas shouted, and he climbed onto one of the chairs for a better view. Sir Reginald spotted him in his cape and reined his white horse to a stop right in front of us. My heart sped up. Sir Reginald was even more handsome in person, and both he and his horse wore green and black. He had a dark beard and curly mustache, and a green cape of his own that matched his eyes.

“What is thy name, young master?”

“I’m Thomas.”

“I see thou dost wear a cape of red. Art thou a knight?”

“What?”

Alex leaned closer and said, “He thinks you’re a knight, buddy, because you’re wearing a cape like him.”

“Oh.” Thomas grinned and struck his warrior pose with fists raised. “I am a knight!”
Sir Reginald chuckled, “Aye, ye must be, stout lad. But red is the color of Sir Frederick, my mortal enemy. Are you sure thou art not a spy?”

“No. I’m a good guy.”

Sir Reginald nodded gravely then turned toward me. I felt my face grow hot, but my smile never wavered. It might have looked a little manic, though. “And who is this young vision in pink?”

That did it. I was definitely blushing now. “I-I’m Cat. I mean Catherine.” I curtsied.

“Surely you mean ‘Lady Catherine’. For thou must be of royal blood.”

“I guess,” I said shyly.

“With you cheering me on, I am sure to triumph.” He snapped his reins and shouted,

“Enjoy the revels!” as his horse galloped away.

People were really starting to fill up the seats now, and the stadium became more colorful with all of the paper crowns in each section. I felt especially grown up after my “interlude” with Sir Reginald, so I took my seat as gracefully as possible.

“Thomas, may I help you with your napkin?”

“Yeah. Tuck it in my shirt.”

Dad leaned over. “What do you say to your sister?”

“Please?”

“Of course, Thomas. You’re very welcome.” I tucked the corner of his napkin into the collar of his shirt.

A couple of tables over in the red section, a family of three made their noisy entrance. The girl was having her thirteenth birthday and made absolutely sure the serving maiden and all of the tables around her knew it. Her parents had their arms full with gift bags and brightly-wrapped presents. When the birthday girl saw me staring, she made a smug face, turned up her nose, then flipped her dark hair dismissively.

Ohhhh-kay. She’s a charmer.

The serving maiden brought buttered rolls and pewter mugs of tomato soup. I remembered from before that the mugs were called tankards, and they had lids so the soup stayed hot and you didn’t need a spoon. Thomas and I got cold milk, which tasted funny in a pewter goblet, but Thomas thought it was the neatest thing he’d ever seen. “Mommy. Look, my glass is made out of metal!”

The soup was very good, and it was fun to drink it out of a mug and not feel guilty about slurping. When I looked over at the birthday girl, I noticed she had dribbled tomato soup onto the front of her white party dress. The old me would have burst out laughing, but I promised myself I would behave like a perfect lady, tonight. No way I was going to let a month of hiding my heart under a rock and biting my tongue go to waste.

“I want pizza,” the birthday girl yelled at the serving maiden. Her bottom lip stuck out and she crossed her arms.

“I’m sorry, M’lady. We’re serving roast chicken, potatoes and corn. If you don’t like chicken, I can bring you steamed vegetables.”

Princess Pouty-puss barked, “I hate vegetables. This place is stupid.” She made a talk-to-the-hand gesture and turned her back on the serving maiden, who apologized and left. The parents rewarded their daughter by handing her presents and telling her they were sorry there was no pizza. No wonder she acted like that. Plus, I would’ve bet money she was a sprite. Sprites were always causing trouble in fairy tales.

No. I shook my head. No more fairy tales.

Four men dressed in yellow and red blew a fanfare on long horns and people started clapping and cheering. A man with white hair and wearing official-looking clothes strode out to the middle of the arena carrying a big scroll, which he unrolled and read in a deep, serious voice.

“On this day, the king did command that there shall be a contest of arms between his sons to determine who among them is the bravest and strongest knight in the realm. Whosoever does triumph this day shall win the hand of his lady fair and together they shall rule the kingdom as prince and princess. Knights of the realm, come forth and present your ladies fair!”

The trumpeters blew their horns again and six knights on horseback, each dressed in a different color, came galloping into the arena to great cheers and whistles from the audience. They carried their lances – the really long wooden spears they used when they jousted – and each lance had a colored ribbon tied to the end. Together the knights rode around the outside of the arena until each one came to their colored section, and halted.

The herald began reading again. “Sir Charles the Brave. Present your lady fair.”
The blue knight lowered his lance until the tip was level with a young woman in the front row, who grinned and took the blue ribbon. Sir Charles bowed his head and turned to the crowd. “I present the Lady Angelita.” People clapped, especially the people in the blue section.

Then came Sir Anthony the Swift who handed his yellow ribbon to a little girl who looked about seven. Her mom had to take it because she was shy, and Sir Anthony announced, “Lady Tabitha.”

And so on with Sir Edmond the Cunning, in black, and Sir Kent the Strong, in brown, and their ladies fair. As the presentations went around the arena closer and closer to our section my heart began beating faster and faster. Who would Sir Reginald choose? There were a lot of pretty girls in the green section.

“Sir Frederick the Fierce. Present your lady fair.” The red knight – our knight’s mortal enemy – edged his horse closer to the railing, but even before he had lowered his lance Princess Pouty-puss shot to her feet and shouted, “It’s me! Ashlyn! I’m the lady fair!” She stuck her hand out for the ribbon.

I gasped, and the arena got very quiet.

Sir Frederick hesitated. I think he had been about to give his ribbon to someone else, but all eyes were on him – not the least of which were Ashlyn’s. I think he realized if he didn’t give her the ribbon she would jump over the railing, climb up his horse and wrestle him for it. He trotted forward and lowered the ribbon to her waiting hand. “I present Lady Ashlyn.”

I was pretty sure Princess Pouty-puss was fiercer than Sir Frederick, and I smiled. Plus, the red ribbon went very well with the soup stains on her white dress.
“Sir Reginald the Valiant, present your lady fair.”

Finally. I turned and looked at the other people in the green section. Surely Sir Reginald could find somebody better than Lady Ashlyn of the Scarlet Stains. If Princess Pouty-puss became the princess of the realm, I would just die. Or at the very least go somewhere private and scream something quite unladylike.

“Hey, Sis.” Alex nudged me.

“Huh?” I turned toward him and saw the tip of Sir Reginald’s lance and the green ribbon lowering right in front of me.

“Hey, Cat. It’s you!” Thomas was standing up in his seat, vibrating with excitement.

Me? No way! I gulped and carefully pulled the green ribbon off the end of the lance. My hand shook as I held it, as if it might fade away or possibly explode if I took my eyes off of it.

Sir Reginald nodded and smiled, flashing his teeth, then turned with a flourish. “I present Lady Catherine, future Princess of the realm.”

My heart pounded and Mom flashed me a smile, surprising me.

“Nay, braggart,” bellowed the blue knight. “Lady Angelita will be the Princess of the realm, when I best you in battle.”

“You may best our brother in battle, Sir Charles,” exclaimed Sir Edmond the black knight, “But I shall win the tournament. And Lady Elizabeth and I shall rule the kingdom.”

All of the knights rode into the center of the arena, yelling and shaking their fists, much to the delight of the audience who cheered their own champions loudly. Through all of the noise and waving of paper crowns I caught a glimpse of Ashlyn glaring at me with hatred in her eyes.

I smiled sweetly. Bring it on, sister.

The trumpeters sounded their horns again and their fanfare silenced the quarreling knights and cheering people. The herald declared, “Let preparations commence.”
The knights broke up and rode out of the arena to get ready, while pages carried in sections of a wooden railing and set them up down the center. I remembered from the last time I’d been here that this railing was called a “tilt barrier.” It was there to separate the horses as they ran toward each other so they didn’t crash and get hurt. More pages assembled a stand that held six colored flags, one for each knight.

During all this our serving maiden brought our dinner. My big metal plate overflowed with a half of a chicken, corn on the cob, and cheesy potatoes still in the skin. Both of my brothers started grabbing food with their fingers and wolfing it down. Dad, too. I wanted to do the same thing because everything smelled heavenly and I was starving. But after seeing Lady Ashlyn and her unladylike tantrum and her soup-stained dress, I couldn’t exactly eat like a troll. When Sir Reginald beat Sir Frederick and won the tournament, I wanted to be an example of a perfect princess. This was probably the only chance I would ever get in my entire life to be a princess, and I was going to do it right.

I looked over at Mom. She managed to use her fingers, take human-sized bites and not have food on her chin – a proper lady. I copied her and ate careful bites, using my napkin frequently.

The herald walked to the middle of the arena again and raised his arms for silence. “Our first contest shall be between Sir Edmond the Cunning and Sir Kent the Strong.” The black and brown sections erupted in cheers as the two knights positioned themselves at either end of the arena, now wearing metal armor and helmets. Even the horses wore armor on their heads. Squires surrounded each knight, tightening straps and handing them their shields and lances.

When both knights reached their starting position and signaled readiness, the herald dropped his hand and the knights spurred their horses into action. The two horses thundered toward one another kicking up dirt, and the knights leaned forward and lowered their lances as they got closer and closer. The cheering became frantic.

I held my breath and forced myself not to close my eyes.

Sir Kent’s lance struck Sir Edmond’s shield and shattered into flying splinters. But Sir Edmond’s Lance struck true, and Sir Kent sailed backward off his horse, landing with a crash in the dirt. In an instant it was over, the two horses stirring up more dust as they slowed at opposite ends of the tilt barrier. The crowd gasped, cheered, and booed in equal measures as Sir Kent’s squires rushed to help the fallen knight to his feet. When he slowly stood and waved to his section, their cheers drowned out the rest of the crowd.

But being unhorsed in a joust meant instant defeat, and Sir Kent had been eliminated from the tournament. A page solemnly took his brown flag down.

All through dinner we watched as knights’ lances splintered and points were awarded depending on where they struck. Sir Charles the Brave was eliminated. Sir Anthony the Swift proved not swift enough, and he too was unhorsed. Through all of it my heart never slowed.

Soon, just Sir Reginald and Sir Frederick remained. Only the red and green flags still flew. And Ashlyn actually bared her teeth at me, as if intimidating me would somehow help her champion win.

Oh, you want to compare attitudes, little sprite? Maybe if an entire shaker of salt “accidentally” spilled in her soda it would erase that smirk. I pushed back my chair to get up, but Mom’s gentle hand touched mine and she gave me a Look.

I swallowed. Right. Wrong attitude. Instead I lifted my goblet of milk to her in a silent toast and smiled like a perfect princess. Lady Ashlyn scowled like a villain.

I couldn’t eat any more – I was too excited. Mortal enemies Reginald and Frederick stood at the ready on either end of the arena, their lances pointing up and their horses pawing the dirt. The herald dropped his hand and I heard Sir Reginald shout, “Hyah!” as he kicked his great white horse into motion. The red knight slapped the hinged visor of his helmet closed and urged his own horse forward.

“Get him, Freddie!” Ashlyn screamed, standing and cupping her hands around her mouth like she was at a football game.

The red and green lances both lowered at almost the same moment and the snorting horses raced toward each other. Both shields lifted and CRACK! Wooden shards exploded as the two knights passed, both still firmly in the saddle.

But Sir Reginald had lost his shield. It lay in the dirt surrounded by red and green hunks of wood.

“Point for Sir Frederick,” barked the herald, and the red section swelled with cheering and waving red crowns. Ashlyn leered and shook her tankard at me.

Idiot, I said to her silently. You don’t toast with a mug of soup. But I remained poised and nodded back at her with no emotion on my face. I was determined to live up to my title, Lady Catherine. I forced my teeth to unclench.

A burst of inspiration struck me as I remembered my favorite stories. As Sir Reginald passed below us on his way back to his starting point I stood up and threw the green ribbon as hard as I could. He had the visor of his helmet raised so he spotted it as it flew toward him. He leaned over and snatched it out of the air in his metal-gloved hand and halted his white horse, looking into the stands. I waved and he pulled off his helm. He had the worst case of helmet-hair ever, but it made him no less handsome. He grinned up at me, nodded, and tied the ribbon loosely around his neck. “I shall win this bout for you, M’lady.” He put his helmet back on and spurred his horse toward his starting place.

Moments later Sir Frederick and Sir Reginald were bearing down on each other again at break-neck speed. I could see the ends of my green ribbon flapping behind Sir Reginald as he rose and fell in his saddle. I crossed my fingers and held my breath as their lance tips pointed straight forward.

Sir Frederick’s lance-tip glanced off Sir Reginald’s shield, but Sir Reginald’s lance struck Sir Frederick squarely in the chest and broke in two. Sir Frederick leaned back in his saddle and nearly fell. But he righted himself and was rewarded with loud shouts of encouragement and applause from the red section.

“Two points for Sir Reginald the Valiant!” declared the herald.

“Yes!”

Surprised, I turned and stared. Alex whooped and punched the air, a big grin on his face. He glanced over at me. “What?”

I raised my eyebrow. Alex liked football and working out at the gym – I didn’t think knights of the round table were his thing.

“I just want you to be the princess of the realm, that’s all.” He sniffed. “No big deal.”
Now it was my turn to grin. “You like this stuff as much as I do!” I punched him in the arm.

He shrugged. “It’s all right. I could probably do it. How hard could it be?”

“Yeah, okay, Sir Alex the Overconfident.” I patted him on the shoulder. “Have you ever even been on a horse?”

Chanting and stomping drowned out any further talking as the combatants took their places for the final charge. The score was 2-1 in Sir Reginald’s favor. Victory was just moments away, and then the prince and princess of the kingdom would be crowned. And it could actually be me. Really, really me.

Mom reached over and grabbed my hand and smiled. I couldn’t hear her over the noise, but I saw her lips say, “Good luck.” I squeezed her hand back. Thomas stood in Dad’s lap so he could see better, and Dad winked at me and gave me a thumbs-up.
I felt light-headed as the herald raised his hand into the air, then dropped it.

It seemed like slow motion as Sir Reginald’s heels kicked his white stallion into action and he leaned forward into the charge. The stallion’s neck stretched forward with every graceful stride as the two knights arrowed toward each other and the final collision. I could feel the hoof beats pounding in my chest. Like lowering drawbridges, the red and green lances swung down until they were level. Neither horse nor knight flinched as the distance between them vanished.

Sir Reginald’s lance struck true and clean on Sir Frederick’s shield.

But Sir Frederick’s lance found Sir Reginald’s breastplate, wrenching the green knight from his saddle with the force of the blow.

The horses passed in a cloud of splinters and thundered onward to the opposite ends of the arena. The cheering died and the audience seemed to hold its breath as the herald made his way to the center of the arena.

“Sir Reginald has been unhorsed.” He pointed toward the red section. “Sir Frederick the Fierce is the victor!”

I couldn’t breathe. I felt the color drain out of my face as I just stood unmoving, staring at the broken pieces of red and green lances scattered around the center of the arena. The squires were helping Sir Reginald to his feet. I didn’t hear the shouts of triumph and defeat erupting all around me, but I did hear one shrill taunt: “Fierce is better than valiant any day, you green loser!” And I saw Ashlyn – Princess Ashlyn – throw a half-eaten chicken leg toward the green knight as he limped toward the exit.

My throat hurt and my eyes blurred as I watched a page take down the green flag.
I felt a tugging on my sleeve and I shook myself. Thomas in his red cape stared up at me. “Hey, Cat. Did the good guy win?”

I swallowed. “No, buddy. The good guy didn’t win.”

We didn’t stay for the crowning ceremony. Dad said it was so we could beat the crowd, but I think he understood what I was feeling.

I don’t remember walking to the car. My mind wouldn’t stop wrestling with itself.
I had tried to be the perfect lady. I’d held my temper, used my manners, kept my feet on the ground and my head out of the clouds. I’d completely changed my entire attitude and given up my favorite things. For four whole weeks! I’d done everything I was supposed to do. And what happened? The other girl got to be princess. That whiney, bratty, sprite bully. I should have thrown a chicken leg at her. Ashlyn was right: fierce was better than valiant.

During the quiet drive home, I made the decision that would change my life forever: I wouldn’t – I couldn’t – be the person my mother wanted me to be.

inaspeedpaint-jun27

I’m going to share with you the results of some of my research into sixteenth century Ireland and the time of the fae.  Because in our second book, the heroes of our first book end up there. One of my beta readers brought this gem to my attention, and I need to share it with the world.

First of all, what is a “stray sod?”  Well, according to wikipedia:

A stray sod is a clump of grass enchanted by faeries. If a person steps on one, they will become disorientated and lost, even in familiar surroundings. Wearing an item of clothing inside-out breaks the enchantment, allowing the person to find their way again. The concept and phrase appear to originate in ancient Celtic mythology, specifically Irish folklore.

To elaborate, a stray sod is a portal the faerie realm.  And in The Last Faerie Godmother, Cat and Rose are going to encounter them. In fact, they will play a major role in our third book (tentatively called The Last Faerie Tale). It will turn out that nymphs have the ability to create them, and Cat will learn how to do it while she’s stuck in the past.  So when she comes home she will be the only one who can open a portal to the faerie realm, which everyone thought was lost forever.  And it will be full of fae.  Who want to escape to our world….

However we haven’t gotten that far yet.

But good news, everybody! Author and artist Chelsea Crutchley has been quietly producing a web comic called Stray Sod for years, and you can enjoy this delightful story-in-progress right here. (This link will take you to the most recent page of issue #3.  However if you click on the “<<First” link right above the artwork, it will take you to the beginning.)  You can read the whole thing right on your computer, or better yet, purchase a printed copy from her store.  You won’t regret it; Stray Sod is beautifully written and drawn.

I was delighted by the similarities between Stray Sod and The Last Princess — a young girl who plays fast and loose with the rules and has hair she hates, who discovers there are fae hiding in our world and she has a special power regarding them.  Here’s a tiny taste of what you will find:

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Chelsea is a fellow member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), and you can follow her on Twitter at @miserbale. I urge you to do so, because she always tweets when a new page of Stray Sod is available, and there could be a new one any day, now. 

This is especially important for me, because each new page inspires new ideas for my daughter’s and my books. And for this we will be forever grateful to Chelsea. In fact, we reached out to Chelsea and she gave us tons of wonderful information about the fae in Ireland.  You can see some of what she shared with us on her site by clicking on “The Fae” link.

Let me know what you think of Stray Sod.  Better yet, let Chelsea know!  And support her by buying a copy, which I’m sure you will treasure as much as I do.

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I hate to throw anything away.  And for awhile my daughter and I had a completely different opening scene to our novel, The Last Princess. We cut this scene, and the opening of the book is much stronger now, but I will always enjoy this little sequence, because it gives a fun, whimsical glimpse into the head of our hero, Cat Brökkenwier, the 12yo who wishes she were a princess.

How’s a girl supposed to get any serious daydreaming done with a little brother on the rampage? It was hard enough trying to do my seventh grade history project without him ricocheting off the walls like a caged dragon.

I know, there’s no such things as dragons. My mom told me. Pfft. How would she know?

I blew a strand of frizzy hair out of my face and picked up the brown pencil from the floor beside me. Hoping for just five minutes of peace and quiet, I leaned over my sketchbook and started coloring in the tallest tower of Windsor Castle. Where my room would be….

“Princess Brökkenwier! You must leave here at once!”

“Nonsense, silly servant. My father is the king. And he said I could have this tower for my very own.” I waved an imperious hand at the little man with puffy pantaloons and ringlets in his hair. “Now go and tell my maid I’m ready for my lunch.”

“No, Princess! The king sent me! We’re under attack!”

“Again?” I put down my silver brush with a sigh. “What is it this time?”

“Dragons, m’lady! Please, it’s not safe in the tower.”

“Whatever.” I stood and adjusted my gold crown. “Take me to my father.”

“At once, m’lady.”

Spiral staircases were so thirteenth century. That’s why I’d had Daddy install an elevator. And a fireman’s pole for quick escapes. The little servant screamed like a girl the whole way down.

As we ran through the courtyard I heard the shouts of the panicking servants and felt the chill of a huge shadow passing overhead. We ducked into the castle proper and secured the large wooden doors. We had almost made it to the great hall when a sound like thunder rocked the passageway and pieces of ceiling rained down. The dragon had landed in the courtyard behind us. I could already smell its awful, smoky breath. The doors slammed open revealing the courtyard on fire, and my brave little servant fainted dead away. But I stood my ground. An enormous yellow eyeball peered at me through the ruined doorway and I desperately wished I had one of the elf archer’s bows. One shot and this would be over.

“Princess!” my dad’s voice bellowed. I spun and there he was. Tall and muscular, bound from head-to-toe in golden armor. He clutched a dwarf-made axe in both fists, ready to rescue me or avenge my death. “Step aside, Princess. This is going to get messy.”

That’s when my little brother landed right in the middle of my drawing, sending pencils and glitter pens flying.

Even though this scene does not exist in the final draft of our book, I like to believe that it still happened.  So there you go; you have a secret bonus scene people who buy the book (when it eventually comes out) will never get to see.

3 Hashtags

Once upon a time, a young princess and her father embarked upon a quest. They wanted to share a tale of adventure and magic and friendship. They spent months of trudging through the jungles full of Wild Ideas and deserts of Empty Thoughts. They set sail on raging seas but were caught in the Doldrums where the Winds of Progress did not blow for weeks. They are on that journey still, looking for a Patron with a bard who will spread their tale all over the world.

But this isn’t about that. The Story of the Three Little Hashtags is a much more humble tale. It is a tale of overcoming modest obstacles and scoring tiny triumphs. Like the Little Engine That Could or Jack Sprat.

Writing the first chapter of a novel is hard. But it is hard over a long period of time; you will work on your first chapter longer than you will work on any other part of your novel. And you will be working on it until the moment it goes to press. However, writing the first chapter of a sequel is much harder (I’ve found). Because who is your audience? Fans of your first book who know all of your characters and how they met and what they did and all of the running jokes? Or people who have never read your first book? With the first book, it’s all about starting in the right place – not too soon and not too late – so you hit the ground running but so you don’t have to fill the reader in on a lot of back story. But with a sequel there HAS to be back story. You CAN’T start in the “right” place, because the “right” place was book one!

I’ve been struggling with the new chapter one for weeks. Months, really. How much back story do I include, how much character introduction do I need to give? Nothing felt right, so the motivation to write was weak. Which meant no progress, which meant no resolution, which meant even less motivation.

Well, last night I finished the draft of chapter one. Actually got to a perfect place to drop a little cliffhanger and close with some tension. And then the magic happened: I typed those three little hashtags that declares to the universe the chapter is complete.

What remains to be seen is whether or not they will live happily ever after.

Last FG Cover

Last week I teased the first not-quite 500 words of my daughter’s and my second book, THE LAST FAERIE GODMOTHER. The idea is to present various drafts of this as time goes on, as sort of an archeological core sample of its evolution.

I invited comments, and received quite a few (thank you!), both positive and negative, and many offered advice. But overwhelmingly, people wanted clarification of what was going on. So I guess 500 words wasn’t quite enough. Therefore I am going to present a little more of the chapter, to the point where I answer many of your questions. I realize I risk boring you with passages that are too long, but I expect you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t interested, so here we go. (As before, the all-important first 250 words are a slightly different color.)


 

 

Chapter One:  Secrets

 

My arrow struck the goblin right between the eyes. He vanished like a popped balloon filled with smoke and glitter.

Three more of the short scaly green beasties darted out from behind the trees, braver as a group. They raised their axes and bared sharp piranha teeth, then at some unspoken signal ran right for me, screaming and taunting: “Die, Princess!”

Stupid goblins. They always clumped together like that, making a nice fat target. I stood my ground and fired two arrows, one right after the other. My nymph magic gave me a tiny bit of influence over the wood, so I barely had to aim. Two more clouds of green smoke drifted away in the cool breeze.

The last goblin halted in his tracks, alone and uncertain, and dropped his weapon as he prepared to flee. But before he could turn to run, I took two quick steps and swung my fist hard at his chin. Why waste an arrow?

That made four down.

The eerie silence of the dark woods didn’t fool me; more attackers waited for me and my elf-made bow. They always did. I listened for wing-beats in case the sprites were flocking, but I heard nothing from the branches above. So I knelt in the mossy leaves and pretended to tie my bootlace.

When I heard the loud crunch of snapping twigs I smiled. A small giant, maybe. Or a troll. This was getting too easy.

Still kneeling, I eased my bow off my shoulder and slowly reached for an arrow. Then I stood and spun toward the sound, nocking my arrow and drawing it with a single swift motion. An ogre stood five feet away, rotting teeth bared and a massive tree branch gripped in both hands above his shaggy head.

I froze, my arrow pointed directly between his bushy eyebrows. It was Mr. Perrault, my Emissary to the Ogres, my court advisor, and my friend. “This isn’t funny!” I shouted to the forest. “The ogre-born are my allies. I earned their respect and they accepted me as their princess.”

“Bah! Who needs a princess when ze pot is on ze boil? We are hungry.” He lumbered closer, licking his lips. “Twelve years old is the perfect age for cooking.”

I let the bowstring go slack and lowered my bow. This is stupid. I wasn’t going to play Faye’s game.

With a grunt, the ogre swung the club down toward my head and I squeezed my eyes shut.

The illusion of the bow in my hand and the dark forest around me dissolved – along with Mr. Perrault. The afternoon sun lit my face and the sounds of distant sawing and hammering rushed in. I opened my eyes to find myself in the middle of our large back yard bordered by trees on three sides, and wearing my new winter coat and jeans. My knee was wet where I’d knelt in the snow, and my sneakers were soaked.

Faye O’Quinn, my chief advisor on the Seelie Court, took a deep breath as she recovered from her taxing faerie magic. She looked up at me from where she sat, in a patio chair in the shade of the main house.

“You would have let him kill you, Princess?” She raised a delicate eyebrow and brushed a strand of long auburn hair from her pale, perfect face. “Not the best way to preserve your reign, I must say.”

“No, Faye,” I huffed. “Mr. Perrault may have ogre blood, but he would never hurt me.” I stared the part-faerie in the eye. “That was a dirty trick, testing my loyalty.”

“It is not your loyalty I question, Princess. Ogres are untrustworthy, no matter what they promise. I want you to be prepared for that.”

“Cheese, Faye, it’s not like I’m ever going to have to fight a real ogre or goblin. They’re all gone, right? I stomped through the snow toward our new home, catching the smirk on my mom’s face where she was kneeling, planting winter flowers in one of the built-in wooden planters. “What are you laughing at?” I asked her.

Mom straightened and tried to hide her smile. “I’m very proud of you, Catherine. I must admit, Faye’s training has really improved your reflexes, and your magic is coming along nicely.”

“But?” I raised an eyebrow.

She tilted her head. “But don’t you think punching that goblin in the face was a tiny bit … unprincess-like?”

“Mother. Punching a goblin in the face was what made me Princess of the Fae-born in the first place, remember?”

The fae-born were all that were left of the fae – faeries, elves, gnomes, and so on – after they had mixed with humans and blended in hundreds of years ago. Now they all looked pretty much like everyone else, unless you had the ability to spot them like I did. Most of the friendly fae-born were ruled by the Seelie Court, which I’d re-formed as my first act as Princess. The fae-born choose me to be their princess last summer because I had royal blood … and because I’d broken the other candidate’s nose.

Mom gave me her best Mother-of-the-Princess look. “Well I don’t think punching people sets a good example, Catherine. The fae-born all look up to you, now.”

I rolled my eyes.


 

 

Some of you may notice I took your advice.  Thank you.

The challenge here, of course, it to give enough back story from the first book to bring new readers up to speed, but not so much that it creates a huge info-dump. There’s a delicate balance between boring your loyal readers and losing new readers. I’ve also got to fill in what has happened since the end of the last book, which technically counts as MORE back story. And, of course, how do I introduce to new readers all of the familiar characters and their relationship to the story and to the hero?

If I haven’t said it before: writing is hard.

Last FG Cover

This is either going to be an interesting long-term experiment, or a boring waste of your time. You’ll have to let me know.

I’ve reached the point where I can no longer usefully procrastinate on my daughter’s and my second book, the sequel to our first, The Last Princess. So I’ve been forced to begin actually writing. This second book is called The Last Faerie Godmother, and it picks up almost immediately after the first one ended. And that is where our problems begin.

TLP is a fairly complex story. It is contemporary fantasy, so there is some world-building in there, as well as an extensive cast and a complicated plot. We don’t really want to spend our first chapter on a protracted “So, what had happened was….” On the other hand, even the most engaged reader will need some amount of reminding who everybody is and how we got to where we are now. Plus, this is a children’s book – upper middle grade, to be precise. So some amount of hand-holding is probably warranted.

All of this is meant to convey the fact that I am having some difficulty finding the balance between moving forward and looking backwards. Plus, I want that killer beginning.

So here’s my proposal. I’ve written what I think is a pretty good beginning for TLFG. I’d like to try it out on you and hear what you think. Knowing, as I do, that you have not read the first book (because it hasn’t been published), you will be filling the role of the fresh reader who somehow managed to pick up this book first, despite the fact that it presumably has “Book Two” written on the cover. I think this opening is working, but I thought that about every one of the dozen different openings I wrote for our fist book, so I realize this may not make the final cut. The long-term experiment part is where I will post every substantially different version of the opening to TLFP here, and you can compare and observe the process in real time.

Quick note: some importance has been placed on “the first 250 words,” as least for purposes of pitching contests and pitch critiques, etc. The theory is that your average, stereotypical slush reader will decide within the first 250 words if they will keep reading or not. But there are about a dozen layers of this onion; the first sentence will decide if your reader will read the first paragraph; the first paragraph will decide if they will read the first 250 words; the first 250 will decide if they will read the first 3 pages, etc., etc. etc. And all of this is utterly subjective and made-up. But still, probably true to some degree.

So I’m going to present the first not-quite-500 words. The text will change color when you reach the end of the first 250 words. The reason I did this was to illustrate something else: the first 250 words of any book will set up a certain expectation of what is to come. But in many cases (in the best books, in my opinion), this first impression can be yanked out from under you before too long. That is the case, here. In fact, one of my alpha readers – who is very familiar with the first book – asked me what the punchline was, because the character in the first 250 words are not much like the character we left at the end of the previous book. This reader is familiar with my style, and she sensed I was preparing to pull the rug out. So I’ve given you more words so you can see what I mean.

Here it is:


 

Chapter One: Secrets

My arrow struck the goblin right between the eyes. He vanished like a popped balloon filled with smoke and glitter.

Three more of the scaly green beasties darted out from behind the trees, braver as a group. They raised their axes and bared sharp piranha teeth, then at some unspoken signal ran right for me, screaming and taunting: “Your days are numbered, Princess!”

Stupid goblins. They always clumped together like that, making a nice fat target. I stood my ground and fired two arrows, one right after the other. My nymph magic gave me a tiny bit of influence over the wood, so I barely had to aim. Two more clouds of green smoke drifted away in the cool breeze.

The last goblin halted in his tracks, alone and uncertain, and dropped his weapon as he prepared to flee. But before he could run, I took two quick steps and swung my fist hard at his chin. Why waste an arrow?

That made four down.

The eerie silence of the dark woods didn’t fool me; more attackers waited for me and my elf-made bow. They always did. I listened for wing-beats in case the sprites were flocking, but I heard nothing from the branches above. So I knelt in the mossy leaves and pretended to tie my bootlace.

When I heard the loud crunch of snapping twigs I smiled. A small giant, maybe. Or a troll. This was getting too easy.

Still kneeling, I eased my bow off my shoulder and slowly reached for an arrow. Then I stood and spun toward the sound, nocking my arrow and drawing it with a single swift motion. An ogre stood five feet away, rotting teeth bared and a massive tree branch gripped in both hands above his shaggy head.

I froze, my arrow pointed directly between his bushy eyebrows. It was Mr. Perrault, my Emissary to the Ogres, my court advisor, and my friend. “This isn’t funny!” I shouted to the forest. “The ogre-born are my allies. I earned their respect and they accepted me as their princess.”

“Bah! Who needs a princess when ze pot is on ze boil? We are hungry.” He lumbered closer, licking his lips.

I let the bowstring go slack and lowered my bow. This is stupid. I wasn’t going to play Faye’s game.

With a grunt, the ogre swung the club down toward my head and I squeezed my eyes shut.

The illusion of the bow in my hand and the dark forest around me dissolved – along with Mr. Perrault. The afternoon sun lit my face and the sounds of distant sawing and hammering rushed in. I opened my eyes to find myself in the middle of our large back yard bordered by trees on three sides, wearing my new winter coat and jeans. My knee was wet where I’d knelt in the snow, and my sneakers were soaked.


 

There are actually a couple of rugs, here, and the entire chapter will end with a punchline of its own. But I haven’t actually written that far, yet. And my daughter refuses to read what I’ve written until I finish the chapter. So you got the first look.

Tell me in the comments what you thought. Did this grab your attention? Would you keep reading? Are you completely lost? Would you keep moving forward, or put this down and go look for the first book instead?  Or maybe something by a completely different author?

Thanks in advance, and keep an eye out for alternate openings, when I inevitably change this one.

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My daughter and I are in the final stages (knock on wood!) of querying our middle grade contemporary fantasy novel, The Last Princess.  In case you’re new to this blog, the story is basically this:

Twelve-year-old Cat’s dreams come true when faerie folk crown her their princess. But she must embrace the heartbreak of her Trollish heritage to rescue her kidnapped BFF, because nobody wants a troll for a princess.

Cat goes on to become Princess of the Fae-born and discovers some amazing truths about herself and her family, and makes a whole royal court full of new friends.

Now, however, we are starting on our second book, the sequel to the first, and we’re faced with a question: How much backstory do we need to provide at the beginning of the second book?

A lot happens in the first book.  It would not be easy (or particularly interesting) to recount all of it for new readers. But if I don’t the sequel cannot be a stand-alone book.  How important is that, for middle grade readers?

There are other layers to consider. At the very minimum, we need to remind the reader of how our universe works — who are the fae-born and where did they come from, and what kind of magic do they have.  Also, it might be good to remind them of the important insights Cat gained as a result of her adventures.

What we want to avoid (if we can) is explaining who everybody is in a large cast of characters. Who they are, how Cat knows them, their shared history, etc. We’ll never get this book off the ground if we have to explain all of this.

Do you think we are on the right track, or do we need to step back and rethink the opening — or ad a descriptive prologue — to bring everybody up-to-speed?  As it is now, we pick up where we left off, with some fun action. But it won’t really make much sense to anyone unfamiliar with the characters.

Please discuss.

This week we’re camping, so I will not have access to this — or any other — blog.  So until I return next week, I beg your indulgence and hope you will enjoy this guest blog.

I’m handing the reins over to two young ladies you may have read about on this blog, twelve-year-old best friends Catherine Brökkenwier and Roselyn Connolly, the main characters in my daughter’s and my middle grade novel, The Last Princess.

Take it away, girls.

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Cat & Rose

Rose: Okay, I’m Rose. Cat’s my best friend and she can see fairy-tale creatures the rest of us can’t. And I’m going to ask her questions.

Cat: Wait. What’s a blog?

Rose: It’s like … writing in your journal, but posting it on the Internet.

Cat: Oh, cheese! My mom uses the Internet! Is she going to read this?

Rose: How should I know? Are you ready?

Cat: Sure, I guess. Hello, Internet!

Rose: Okay. So, what’s it like being the Last Princess of the Fae?

Cat: Whoa! I’m not any kind of princess, yet. There are secret greetings and different kinds of fae I’ve never even heard of, yet. And a quest. I’ve got to learn everything before I even have a chance at becoming the princess of the fae.

Rose: So what kind of fae have you met so far?

Cat: Let’s see. I met a cute djinni boy. I think he’s the only pure-blood fae I’ve met. All the other fae are actually just “fae-born” – they have a little fae blood in them but they’re mostly human. Like Gail Westerly, the Information Lady at the library – she’s a sylph-born. And Hunter Alfson, the archery instructor at Squirrel Scout camp. He’s elf-born. And a couple of others, I guess. Nobody special.

Rose: Hey!

Cat: I’m totally kidding! You, of course! Piskie-born – what else? You have perfect blond hair and look like a fashion model.

Rose: Hmmm. Maybe. I was going to be a fashion model when I grew up, but with a real princess for a best friend, that kind of sounds boring, now.

Cat: Hmph! You wanna trade? I’ll be perfect and beautiful and rich, and you can try to impress the creepy ogre-born man across the street. Good luck! Don’t let the foot-long butcher knife scare you!

Rose: I’ll pass. So, okay. What’s it like having a super-power?

Cat: You mean my “fae-dar?”

Rose: Exactly. What else did you call it?

Cat: Mrs. Dalyrimple calls it the Sight. She’s the one who told me about how all the fae disappeared and blended in to humanity hundreds of years ago. And how nobody else can see them besides me.

Rose: Right.

Cat: Well, when I look at someone I can tell they have fae blood because they sort of sparkle if I look hard enough. But what I really get is a feeling of … something different, and my imagination or the Sight or whatever just draws a picture. And I can usually tell what they are because I’ve been reading fairy-tales all my life.

Rose: I know, but I mean, what’s it like being able to see stuff the rest of us can’t?

Cat: Oh! Well, totally cool, obviously. But scary sometimes. Some fae-born don’t want people to know what they are. I found that out the hard way.

Rose: I can’t believe you laughed at Mr. Alfson’s shoes!

Cat: They were pointy! He’s an elf-born! What was I supposed to do?

Rose: I don’t know – act normal?

Cat: You’ve met me, right?

Rose: Yes. So … what’s the best part about being a princess? Almost a princess?

Cat: Oh, wow. I don’t know. I guess if I make it, it will be that I get to help all of the hidden fae-born find others of their kind. So they know they’re not alone.

Rose: That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. I think I’m going to cry.

Cat: Shut up!

Rose: Ow! Stop hitting me! Okay, so what’s the worst part?

Cat: You know the worst part.

Rose: Yeah. But the people reading this don’t.

Cat: Oh, yeah. The worst part is my family doesn’t know about any of this. And if my mom found out she would kill me.

Rose: Why?

Cat: Because she’s decided I’m too old for fairy-tales and wants me to grow up and be little Miss Perfect.

Rose: Well, you are almost thirteen. What’s wrong with that?

Cat: You’ve met me, right?

Rose: So what are you going to do, Cat?

Cat: This adventure so far has taught me one thing. I can never be the proper, groomed, button-down darling my mother wants me to be. But I can fake it.

.

Thank you Cat and Rose! That was very informative. I’m sure my readers join me in wishing you good luck with your quest, Cat, and your modeling career, Rose. And if anyone knows Mrs. Brökkenwier, please don’t tell her about this, okay?

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The theme of my first book, The Last Princess, boils down to “be yourself.”  12-year-old Cat learns she may be a princess and spends a good part of the book trying to conform to a stereotype — and failing.  Only when she embraces her utterly unprincess-like normal self does she triumph.  And furthermore, she bucks tradition and appoints an ogre-born to her counsel (in this world, many people are descended from ogres or elves or faeries who interbred with humans hundred of years ago).  She trusts this man because he, too, has learned to be himself and not to be like his vile ancestors.

I’m working on the sequel now.  And in this book, The Last Fearie Godmother, Cat is wished back to Ireland around the year 1500.  When ogres where still particularly vile.

So now I’m faced with de-evolving my ogres.  And every other kind of fae I introduced in the first book (as mostly-human hybrids).  It shouldn’t be too difficult — fun, even — because, after all, I adapted my fae-born characters by toning down the original stereotypes in the first place.  I just have to go back to their roots.

Humans are proving to be more difficult.

I mean goblins and ogres in the Middle Ages are basically the goblins and ogres we are familiar with from fairy tales.  Beastial, vicious, and cruel.  Monsters in the true sence of the word.  Ogres with green skin covered in coarse black hair, with claws and sharp teeth, living in caves and cooking children who strayed too far from the path fit right in to 1500 Europe.  And the contrast to the toned-down, mostly human version Cat knows from her own time will be clear and shocking.

But humans were mostly the same as today, at least physically.  However I’m learning that attitudes, beliefs and values were very different 500 years ago.  Obviously life was very different then than the one 21st century Cat is familiar with.  But if I thought writing in the point of view of a 12-year-old girl (while being myself a 50-year-old man) was a challenge, populating a book with people from the late Middle Ages is going to be much more  difficult.  After all, my daughter was a 12-year old girl from the 21st century less than two years ago.  Where are my examples going to come from, now?

I haven’t settled on a theme for the sequel, yet, but it might very well be something like “people change,” and let the stark contrasts speak for themselves. There’s going to be some pretty serious reverse-stereotyping going on when Cat expects ogres to be like her mostly-human friend and they utterly fail to do so.  Nobody will be like she expects, not even the humans.

And the best part will be when she finally returns home after her adventure and is never quite able to look at her ogre-born friend the same way again….