Posts Tagged ‘Tween’

bad parenting

This is an odd kind of cry for help.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog, or even occasional readers, should be familiar with my situation and the book I am co-writing with my daughter. If you are new here (welcome!) this should get you started.

We’ve reached a very critical part of the story, the part where everything looks bleakest and our young heroine, 12-year-old Cat, is on the brink of giving up her dream and letting the bad guy win. And it all stems from her discovery that her fae (fairy-tale creature) heritage that has made her special and started this whole adventure turns out to be this: Her dad is a troll.

Not a slob who farts during dinner and butts into private conversations, but a descendent of actual trolls. He has a big nose, a pot belly, he’s kind of clumsy, and he likes to make things out of clay. Interbred with humans and a few generations removed from his club-wielding ancestors, but a troll nevertheless. He happens to be out of town when Cat has this revelation and her world falls apart, so she has a few days to really wallow in the new tragedy her life has become by the time Dad comes home.

And this is where I need your help.

In The Last Princess, Cat and her dad are very close. She has always wanted to be just like him, and in fact likes most of the same things he does. And she’s a little tomboyish because of it. Her dream is to be chosen as the princess of all the hidden fae still living in our world, and the fact that it turns out she is troll-born utterly ruins her chances and her dream. And she hates her father for that.

These characters are loosely based on my own daughter and myself, however she and I don’t have quite the same relationship. My daughter takes after her mother much more than me (thank God), and although we like many of the same things, we disagree on just as many. Strongly. The thing is, as far as I know I have never ruined her dreams and she has never hated me. So neither of us really have the life experience to draw from in order to write this aspect of the story.

How do I phrase this, delicately? I need to hear from any of you who are the victims of bad parenting, or who are themselves parents who have done something – real or imagined – that has caused your child to hate you, if only briefly (hopefully only briefly!). I’m not talking about abuse or neglect, but that moment that happens in a tween’s life when his or her parents’ mere existence breaks their fragile heart. A betrayal of trust, a moment of tragic uncoolness, the “I can’t believe I’m related to you” phase.

I want to get inside Cat’s head, and I want the reader to really experience it when she tells her dad, “I hate you!”  What does that feel like?  Bonus question: What does it feel like to be the dad in this situation, who has no idea what he’s done?

Go ahead, pile it on; I can take it. And I promise to keep it on the down-low.

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I’m devoting this week’s blog to a re-post of Rachel Carrera’s author interview with me, from a few weeks ago. Thanks again, Rachel! Please take a moment to visit her blog at Rachel Carrera, Novelist, and read her beautiful poetry, invaluable insights on writing, and interviews of many other fascinating authors.

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Recently, I posted a Call to Writers, asking my fellow author bloggers to allow me to interview them for guest-spots on my blog.  (If you are interested in participating, please contact me.)  I asked everyone thirty-five questions, some were basic, and others were multi-part inquiries, and I asked them to answer only what they wanted to or what was applicable. My friend and fellow-blogger, John Berkowitz, had some very captivating responses which I’m sure will enchant you, as well.  After you read his interview, please be sure to hop on over to his blog and follow him for a regular dose of his charisma and wit.  And now, I turn the microphone over to John…

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ABOUT YOU::

john berkowitz1. Please tell us your name (or pen name) and a little bit about yourself:

“John Berkowitz is a husband and father of three who thinks he can squeeze in a writing career between family, two jobs, playing Battleship with his 5-year-old son, doing the dishes, and sleep.  Follow along as he and his co-writer/daughter embark on a quest every bit as magical and fraught with peril as the one they write about in their tween novel, The Last Princess.”

2. Please provide the link to your blog (and website, Facebook fan page, Twitter, etc.):

Blog: www.johnrberkowitz.wordpress.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/John_Berkowitz

3. How many books have you written?

I finished my “epic fantasy” novel, Mentor, about 10 years ago.  I started it in high school while eyeballs-deep in Dungeons and Dragons.  I’m old, so this was before computers.  Also, apparently before I had talent.  It ended up being about 250,000 words long and I think I’m the only person who has ever finished reading it.

I spent most of last year debating with myself if I wanted to attempt to rewrite that book and make it marketable, or start a whole new project with my daughter.  I finally decided to start the new novel and we haven’t looked back.  It’s a great adventure, for both of us.

4. Has any of your work been published yet?  If so, please share the link(s) to purchase it:

I had a short story published in a college literary publication.  It was actually put in as a last-minute substitute for a piece that got pulled for some reason.

My only other writing experience of note is a spec script I wrote for Star Trek – Deep Space Nine while it was in its second season.  That submission earned me a pitch meeting with the show’s producers, and a few follow-up meetings.  But sadly, no sale.

5. If you have been published, did you self-publish or use traditional publishing?  Why?  If you have not been published yet, what are your plans for the future?

We have our sights set on traditional publishing.  I certainly don’t have the time or resources to personally promote a book the way I see some authors, traveling around the country, signing books at local Barnes & Noble stores.  We hope to secure an agent who knows much better than we do what sells and who’s buying, and guide us to that sale.

6. How old were you when you started writing?  When did you know you wanted to be an author?

I started writing in high school.  At the time I was mostly interested in film-making, and a good friend and I (a fellow D&D player) wanted to make a short film that featured a wizard’s duel.  I wrote the script.  But even then I felt you could not simply show two strangers walk on from opposite ends of some random field and start heaving fireballs at one another – there needed to be a back story and two compelling characters, and probably some henchmen.  The script ended up being a half an hour long, with only about 3 minutes of actual dueling at the end.  We never made than movie, but that script was the basis for my first novel, Mentor.

7. What would you say motivates you to keep writing?

I’m doing this as much for my daughter as I am for myself.  So I think it really stems from a deep sense of commitment.  I said I was going to write a book with her, and I will finish it to the best of my ability, even if it never eventually sells.  It will always be our book.

But I also am deeply motivated by the overwhelming positive response I have gotten from nearly everyone who has read it, of all ages.  None of them are agents or editors (as far as I know), so I’m not fooling myself into believing I have an instant hit on my hands, but these responses have given me tremendous confidence.

8. Who are some of your favorite authors?  What are you currently reading (or what is the last book you read)?

For me it’s a long list.  Almost anything by Heinlein, Niven, McAffrey, Pratchett, Jim Butcher, or Dan Brown.  My daughter and I both fell instantly in love with Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series, and we’ve both read it all the way through several times.  My daughter is fond of Tui Sutherland’s Wings of Fire series, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, Erin Hunters’ Warriors series, and the Spirit Animals books.  She likes both the Kingdom Keepers and Peter and the Starcatchers series by Ridley Pearson, and of course Rowlings’ Harry Potter series. Probably a half-dozen others I don’t know about.

Right now I’m re-reading Kim Harrison’s Hollows series.  I’m on book 4, A Fistful of Charms.

9. What is your preferred reading method?  (i.e., Kindle, Nook, paperback, hardback, etc.)  Why?

My daughter reads physical books.  Really anything she can get her hands on.  Mostly hardbacks, because she wants them as soon as they come out.  I read almost exclusively on my iPhone using the iBooks app.  I have amassed a pretty extensive ebook library.  I prefer this because I always have whatever I want to read in my pocket, wherever I go.

10. Do you write in first or third person, past or present tense, and why?

I wrote Mentor in third person past tense, with multiple POVs.  Why?  Because everyone was doing it.  The Last Princess is first person.  Because I only wanted one voice for this, and I wanted the reader to experience this story from inside Cat’s head.  Also, most of my favorite books are written in first person.

11. Do you “always read” or do you take breaks between reading books? 

I usually am always in the middle of one or two books.  However, it is my weakness.  I have very limited time to write and I have made a commitment to not let it detract from family time and my other obligations.  So I have to write late a night, or whenever I can squeeze in some time at random moments.  If I am in the middle of a favorite book, I will fill those same moments reading and not writing.  Until a few weeks ago I had sworn off recreational reading until I finished The Last Princess.  However I finally succumbed, and I think I’m handling it pretty well.

12. How many books would you say you read in a year?  How many at any one time?

When I am not writing, I probably go through a dozen or more books a year.  I usually have two going at once.  If I had recreational time and, say, no children, I would get a lot more reading done.

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ABOUT YOUR CURRENT BOOK::

john berkowitz213. What is the title of your current work in progress of the most recent manuscript you’ve completed?

My current WIP, which I am co-writing with my 13-year-old daughter, is called The Last Princess.

14. What is your novel’s genre?  Would you say there is a sub-genre?  What makes yours different than other books in the same genre?

The Last Princess is a middle grade or tween urban fantasy.  Ours is different because none of the others were inspired by my daughter.  Actually, the premise not unlike many other popular urban fantasy novels; Cat discovers there are faeries and goblins and dwarves living among us, and only she can see them.  The difference in this book is that they look just like regular people, for the most part, because those races have interbred with humans for hundreds of years, and all that’s left are these fae-born.  They’re not in disguise or hiding in a secret realm, they’re us, and some of them don’t even know it.  Yet.

15. What inspired the current or most recent story you’ve completed?

It’s all explained in this post.

16. What is your target audience’s age, gender, etc.?

Our hero, Cat Brökkenwier, is 12.  I understand most readers like a hero that’s a little older than themselves, so that puts in in middle grade territory.  However, the language and the emotions are a little more mature than most middle grade books, and it will be longer than most, at about 65,000 words.  There is no romance, so it’s not properly young adult.  So I think that makes it tween.

17. Do you want to tell us a little bit about your story?

The elevator pitch is: Cat Brökkenwier has a secret — the ability to see that 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. It is a quest story, but it is really about a young girl learning who she really is and what she’s really capable of, and discovering they are not what other people think she is or wish her to be.

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ABOUT HOW YOU WRITE::

18. How often do you write?

I do a lot of thinking before I actually write, because I hate rewriting.  So I want to know ahead of time what needs to go on the page.  I still consider my self a seat-of-the-pants writer, I just do it in my head first.  So it comes out to a few sessions per week if I’m motivated, fewer if I’m thinking.

19. Approximately how many words do you write at each sitting?

Usually around 500 words in a sitting.  A lot of times I’ll write on my lunch hour, and that’s about as much as I can get done in under an hour.

20. Do you do your own editing or send it to someone else?

I run everything I do through the queues on CritiqueCircle.com. So far the rewrites have been pretty modest, so I tend to edit the chapters before I move on to the next one.

21. What is your method of writing?  (i.e., Do you write the entire manuscript, then go back and make changes?  Do you plan chapters as you go along or write the story then go back and add chapters?  Do you re-read as you go along or after you are done with the first draft?)

I started The Last Princess almost entirely by the seat of my pants. I had a vague idea of the main characters (my family), and the premise, but beyond introducing Cat and her situation and setting up the conflict, I had almost nothing planned out. After three or four chapters I started to see my way ahead, and I researched and created the story along Cat’s quest and the people she would meet along the way, and a basic outline evolved. I do a lot of thinking between writing sessions, so I reread what I’ve written pretty often. This also helps get back in the groove after a week or more not writing. I find polishing the last page or two I’ve written to be an excellent warm-up for writing the next few pages.

22. Do you have a muse?  If so, please elaborate. If not, what inspires you?

My daughter inspires me every day, there’s so much of her in Cat. But I meet people every day who add a little piece to one character or another. I’m re-reading Kim Harrison right now especially because she is so good at letting you inside the head of a young woman with chutzpah and plenty of problems. I’ve also borrowed some notions from TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time.

23. How long does it take you to write a full manuscript?

It took me most of 20 years off and on to finish Mentor. We’ve been actively writing The Last Princess for less than a year and we’re halfway finished. We’re hoping to have a complete draft ready for beta readers before the end of this year.

24. Do you give yourself a word limit for each day or a time limit to finish your novel?  If so, please elaborate.

I try to keep on pace to write a chapter a month.

25. How do you come up with your character names and geographic location / business names?

I want this book to be timeless and not dated. Plus even those businesses and institutions I use I want to have the flexibility of changing certain details to suit the story. Plus, since this is for kids I think a certain amount of whimsy is called for. So I try to make the names as close as possible. Mary Kay Cosmetics became Carrie Mae. Girl Scouts became Squirrel Scouts. We live near a town called Rocklin, so I changed it slightly and put Cat and her family in the city of Rockford.

26. How long (or how detailed) are the notes you take before you start writing?

That depends on what the notes are about. I had pretty extensive notes about each if the fae races Cat will encounter, and developed quite a cast of characters to represent them. But my chapter outlines are fairly general. I have my key plot points and major action bullet-pointed, but beyond that I’m still “pantsing” my way through the chapters.

27. Do you have any “must haves” to help you write?  (i.e., a full cup of coffee, a view of the ocean, etc.)

Not really. My busy lifestyle means I’ve had to learn to write in much the same way a soldier learns to power-nap. You prepare yourself to do it whenever the opportunity arises. I keep my novel on Dropbox and have an app on my iPhone for working on standard Word documents, and I carry a bluetooth keyboard around with me. Or access the current chapter on my office computer on my lunch hour.

28. Do you only write during a certain time of day or in a certain location?  If so, do you make yourself stop after a certain time?

No and no. I can’t afford to.

29. Does your real life ever neglected because of your writing?  If so, how do you feel about that?

Absolutely not. This is the Prime Directive. If this book sells and I’m asked to write another, then I will feel justified in devoting a certain number of hours per week to writing, but until I’m actually contributing to the family income, I will not take away time I spend with my wife and children or helping around the house. With two jobs, I’m home rarely enough as it is.

30.What is the quirkiest thing you do or have ever done when writing?

I’m sure I couldn’t say.  But many people have certainly found it odd to see me attempting (and succeeding) to write a novel on my smart phone, propped up against my lunch box, with a half-eaten sandwich at my elbow in the company break room.

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ABOUT YOUR WORK::

31. If you have written more than one novel, which is your favorite and why?

Mentor was a huge part of my life, but it is not very good except to me. But The Last Princess is a labor of love and a collaboration with my amazing daughter, so it will always be incredibly special to both of us.

32. If you could be one of your own characters for a day, who would it be and why?

Are you kidding?  I am Richard Brökkenwier, Cat’s rather troll-like dad.

33. If one of your books became a movie, who would you choose for the “perfect cast” of main characters?

Honestly, I haven’t thought that much about it, because the story and the characters aren’t fully cooked, yet. But if I had to cast it today, I think I would probably have to cast Bailee Madison as Cat. And maybe Gerard Depardieu as Dad.

34. What is the oddest thing you have ever researched for one of your books?

I recently needed to learn about the Sami, the indigenous peoples of Scandinavia who hunted reindeer with bows and arrows and wore shoes with pointed, curled up toes, as a basis for the elf-born archery instructor Cat meets at camp.

35. What is the most difficult thing you have ever researched for one your books and why?

I probably spent the most time researching how a girl’s soccer practice might look, as neither my daughter nor I have ever seen a soccer game, let alone played. I needed terminology, drills, the name of the equipment, etc., and then I had to write it so it sounded authentic without injecting in too much useless information just for the sake of showing I knew what I was talking about.

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Thank you, John, for allowing me to interview you.  I hope everyone else has enjoyed learning about you and your work as much as I have.

~Rachel

I recently completed a rather complex chapter in my daughter’s and my tween urban fantasy novel, The Last Princess. Over and over I found myself stopped in my tracks as little nagging details cropped up that needed to be researched. By the time the 5,750 word chapter was finished, I felt like I had done as much research as some whole novels I had read.

Without going into a great deal of redundant background, our novel features the modern descendents of the ancient fae (faeries, elves, orges, etc.) that have fully interbred and integrated with humankind, and only our hero, Cat can see them for what they are. In this chapter Cat and her best friend, Rose, are at a girl’s summer camp with Cat’s mom as a chaperone. We had a lot to cover in this chapter, so I wrote a series of short scenes, covering four days of activities.

In one of those scenes Cat meets an elf-born, who happens to be her archery instructor. Elves are known for their prowess with the bow and arrow – particularly because of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings elves, but also the original folklore told of something called “elf-shot” which people in the Middle Ages blamed for unusual diseases in both man and beast. This I already knew. But for our story I needed our elf-born archery instructor to impart some lessons about taking care of nature, and also he needed to have a skill at carving.

My first inclination was to give him some native American attributes, and so I started researching which peaceful tribes were known for their use of the bow and arrow. Then I started thinking of native American totems and how they were carved. However I soon learned that totems are largely a modern stereotype and were rarely if ever used in realty by native Americans. So I went back to the drawing board.

Elves were originally a Norse myth, so since my archery instructor was going to be Scandinavian I decided to research the early natives or that area. And to my delight I discovered the Sami.

The Sami first hunted, then later domesticated the local reindeer. How could I resist? They hunted with bow and arrow (check!) and were skilled at scrimshaw, which is carving on bone and antlers (check!). But the clincher was the fact that the Sami made their own shoes out of reindeer fur, and they always made them with the toes curled up on the end.

So my elf-born archery instructor was born:

Alfson“Goot morgon! Good morning!” Mr. Alfson came around the corner with several more girls in tow. He had some keys in his hand and he stopped next to a door set into the wall of the snack bar. “We’ll get started in a yiffy.” He sounded just like my Swedish grandmother, but he had short, white-blond hair and big blue eyes and was even taller than my dad. He was movie-star handsome and looked like he’d just skied down a snow-covered mountain, in his white turtleneck sweater and dark green ski pants. I looked down at his shoes.

They were made of brown fur and decorated around the top with red beads. And the toes were pointed and curled up. I barked out a laugh before I could stop myself.

Rose leaned close and whispered, “What’s so funny?”

“His pointy shoes! Because he’s an el―”

“Because I am a what?”

Everyone was staring at me, and Mr. Alfson’s raised his eyebrows.

“Because you’re … so obviously not an elf!” My chuckle sounded forced. “I mean look at you – you’re so tall!” Cheese, I’m an idiot! But an elf with pointy shoes? How could I not laugh?

“Yah.” He frowned at me then went back to unlocking the door. “Where I am from in Lappland they are traditional. Very warm. Made of reindeer fur.”

I had to bite my lip to keep from giggling. Rose punched me in the arm.

This was only the first in a long series of research rabbit holes I went down for this chapter. I also researched:

  • Basic archery and how to teach it
  • Archer equipment
  • Swedish names
  • Popular girl’s names (various nationalities)
  • Scrimshaw
  • How to write a Swedish accent
  • Gaelic sayings and how to pronounce them
  • Japanese instruments
  • Jack rabbit habitats
  • How to tie-dye
  • Camp pranks
  • Maple trees and those nifty “helicopter” maple seeds
  • A pretty flower that blooms in the summer and thrives in the North American mountains, that is ugly before it blooms
  • Dark elves

So my question is this? Does it make a difference to your average 9-year-old girl whether or not I get the smell of a Maple tree just right?

And my answer? I certainly hope so.

Because of this blog and my first few posts, I’m beginning to realize that I can write short bursts of slightly amusing prose.  But a blog post is a completely different beast than a fantasy novel.  The Last Princess already has an established voice and tone and pacing, and trying to shoehorn in a funny scene that our outline calls for is proving to be much more difficult.

In the scene I’m writing our hero, Cat, decides to confess her Big Secret to her mother, who she is sure will not approve.  However every time Cat plucks up the courage to broach the subject someone comes along and spoils the moment.  They all know about Cat’s Big Secret and they assume Mom does, too, and each time someone almost spills the beans Cat finds herself frantically trying to cover before Mom gets suspicious.  Finally Cat loses her nerve altogether … and … scene.

Right out of I Love Lucy.  Perfect for a middle grade novel.  Inherently funny, right?

Yeah, it’s not that easy.

It turns out that most of the jokes and funny moments in The Last Princess have all pretty much happened spontaneously.  I didn’t plan any of them.  But now, faced with the task of writing a whole funny scene on demand, I seem to have developed stage fright, or cold feet, or whatever other euphemism for “paralyzed” you care to use.

I can’t even imagine how someone writes a sitcom every week.

It’s like Justice Stewart said: “I know it when I see it.”  But that doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to produce it.  I know a good lemon meringue pie when I taste one, too, but don’t ask me to bake one.  I tried, once; it turns out that in recipes it matters what order you add the ingredients.

There are lots of things I don’t do well which I have the good sense not to attempt.  Building a campfire.  Picking out clothing.  Any kind of activity involving a ball.  But this scene calls for humor, and I can’t farm it out.  So here I am.

I think I’ve got the basic set-up.  In classic I Love Lucy tradition, it begins with a misunderstanding:

If I was going to confess my problem to Mom, now was as good a time as I was ever going to get.  I took a deep breath as my heart started beating faster.  “Mom?  Do you think you can help me with a problem I’m having?  I don’t know who else to ask.”  There!  If she thinks I’m in trouble, maybe she won’t be so mad when I tell her about my quest.  And the fae-born.  And my superpower.  My stomach clenched as I started having second thoughts.

Mom misread the panic in my eyes.  She lost her smile and peered at me, concerned.  “What is it, Catherine?  What’s happened?”

I gulped.  Now I had to tell her.  Cheese!  What am I supposed to say, now?  “I need your help to scare away a prince so I can be princess of the faeries?”  I swallowed.  “Um … there’s this boy.”

Mom’s eye narrowed and she frowned.

“See, we both want the same thing … but … I don’t know how I’m supposed to—”

“Catherine!”  Mom’s eyes were wide with panic.  “How old is this boy?  Have I met him?  Where do you know him from?”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!”  Great!  Now she thinks I want to date him!  “No.  It isn’t like that at all!”

Then, before she can explain she gets interrupted, and more confusion gets added to the mix.  What do you think?  Does that “feel” funny to you?

When people ask Steve Martin what makes him feel funny, he says he likes to put a tuna fish sandwich in each shoe.  I haven’t tried that yet.  Depending on what you think, maybe I should.

Steve Martin

This week 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, two people who appear 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.

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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?

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?

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.