Hello again, all, and let me start off thanking anyone here for your patience with me. I still have a love and passion for this topic and this blog, but life happens. I am currently focusing almost all my free time on my fiction work. A prime example I wanted to highlight today as I have finally completed and released it as an eBook: Admit One: A Novelette with Illustrations.
If you like this blog, you may like the book. It is not clearings and musings about real life, it is, in fact, a fictional story, but the themes are very much in line with the Higher Dark. However, this post is gonna be more about writing and stories. Many of my examples have Dark styles and themes, so there’s that.
Avoiding spoilers, I’d like to touch on the background behind the story. Having said that, if you haven’t read the story, reading all this stuff is highly likely to change your experience with it, so I’d rather you read it first, if you don’t mind chipping in a dollar, please and thank you bunches!
Part One: Religiosity
This is one of my shorts that came from a “what if” idea that popped in my head (too many) years ago. The premise depends on a religious “framework,” if you will, and it involves a church and entities from Heaven and Hell. However, if you have any doubts about the “lessons” I want to teach about spirituality, just read back in this blog and it should be pretty clear where I stand, ie. outside any sort lines as much as I possibly can.
However, I did grow up in small town America, in the South no less, and I feel a great many people in the world (or at least in the US, pardon my sheltered bubble perspective) can relate to the context of walking into a church in a small town or understanding what people mean when they say “angels” or “the devil.” To be sure, the story intentionally plays (or preys) on the expectations and projections on these and similar entities. I’m also able to introduce a couple of entities from outside the Judaeo-Christian mythos, some described in context of the story, some just pictured in the illustrations, to mix things up a bit, maybe make the reader question what the definitions or borderlines of “Heaven” and “Hell” are in this setting.
One of these entities is my favorite character, and he is not the main point-of-view character. In some ways this story introduces Lucifer as he exists in my story universe. The trick to writing him here was to forget everything I know about him as a writer in that universe and portray him clearly from a limited perspective, his mannerisms, his methods and his motivations.
Being couched in the familiar names and settings of a popular worldwide religion means, hopefully, I don’t have to spend much time explaining these people and things to the reader. I can poke at my reader’s assumptions about them, and I run the risk of confusing them or turning them off, depending on whether they’re willing to have their assumptions poked, but a lot of the groundwork is already done for me. That said, I’d be very interested to see what you get out of the story if you are a reader who was raised in a completely different religion, such as Hinduism or Buddhism, or who was wholly raised Pagan and has a different perspective on these entities.
Part Two: Folktales and Scary Stories
I’ve studied my fair share of story structure rules (“more like guidelines than actual rules”), and while I’ve marked my eBook up as being in the Fantasy genre, the structure doesn’t follow the tropes thereof.
In fact, I’ll admit that I all but stole the structure wholecloth from a story in one of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. I can’t recall the exact story, but the gist is a guy is supposed to meet his family at church, and he gets up and thinks he’s late, so he rushes there and takes a seat trying not to cause a disturbance in the service. Except he isn’t late, he’s early, and as he sits, he looks around and realizes some of the people there he hasn’t seen for a long time. In fact, didn’t that old lady die last year? He realizes this is a service for the dead, not the living, and then the dead realize he’s there, and he barely makes it out alive.
Folktales and campfire stories can be fairly contrived and depend a lot on the storyteller holding the audience in thrall enough that they don’t start asking questions while at the same time not guessing the twist until it is revealed. Why didn’t the guy see the time on his dashboard clock? Why did the dead lady start talking to him and then go all zombie and chase him out later? They also depend on archetypal character tropes, especially in fairy tales: the Jack character; the Lost Princess or Good Little Girl (or in the case of Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks, the girl who disobeys); the Witch, Wolf or Devil; the Prince, the Wise Old One; the Animal or Enchanted Object Helpers. We don’t need a back story about Jack and his mother, except they’re poor, to understand why Jack & the Beanstalk plays out like it does. In reality, how did this kid go from trading their only cow for magic beans to outsmarting a giant? Welp, that’s Jack for ya. We’re never told why the witch is “evil” or whether the prince is going to be a good husband or even a good king, it’s just assumed because that is the kind of story you’re listening to.
Modern urban legends have modern everyman characters (if they have a point-of-view character at all, ie. “Have you heard about the Slenderman? I read about him on the internet. According to Reddit, he steals away children…” etc. etc.). Sometimes the storyteller will couch it in, “This really happened. My cousin’s friend saw it…” The point-of-view characters have as little backstory as possible so that the listener can relate to them, like a cartoon character with oversimplified facial features so they look like everyone watching. In the Hook Man urban legend, the teenage couple in the car are ambiguous: we don’t know whether they’re jocks or bookworms, what their college or career aspirations are, whether their parents are overbearing or they have brothers and sisters. All we need is they want to go park their car in the woods to be alone together; it doesn’t matter why.
Compare this to the Fantasy genre where Character-Driven is king (and queen, knight, page, and ace for a Tarot straight flush). Fantasy is built on Journey stories, coming-of-age and origin story prequels. So to build a new folktale-style story, there’s an interesting balance of giving Fantasy readers enough information about the point-of-view character to satisfy them of his motivations while keeping him ambiguous enough so that he is the vehicle for the audience to experience the Happening, for them to feel soaking wet in a thunderstorm and run for shelter in a church, not asking why is this church open at midnight.
And then there are the different parts of a story: even in long stories, things happen in threes. The three-act structure is the most common, and trilogy stories have this in spades with three books each with three acts each with three stages and so on. But how does this work in folktales?
When I was in first grade, my class had a woman, can’t recall if she was a janitor or one of the coaches at the high school, come in one day. She told us two folktales. One of them, I swear to goddess, I wish I could find it today because there is a particular repeated phrase that it revolves around. I’ve looked and could not find it. The other is an extremely familiar story structure that I’ve seen done several ways, different characters, different object, different resolution.
Story one: The Golden Bird
Badly told version: Guy is walking in the woods and sees a beautiful bird in a tree, it’s feathers bright and golden as the sun even in the shade. But then it opens its beak and lets out the most obnoxious noise he has ever heard (this is the repeated part I wish I could find; think the “Ekky-ekky-ekky-ekky-z’Bang, zoom-Boing, z’nourrrwringnmmm” from Monty Python, but extra obnoxious and loud). He tries to get away from the bird, but it follows him home and sits outside his house keeping him awake all night and annoying him all day. He tries to get rid of the bird, to no avail. So he decides to kill the bird. But after he shoots it, it keeps singing it’s awful song. He goes on to damage it further, then cut it in a million little pieces, only to still hear it’s cacophony day and night (See also The Cat Came Back.) Finally, he buries it six feet under, and he can no longer hear it. But later he gets curious. He digs it back up, and when he opens the box, a million little birds fly out, all singing the ridiculous song. And he says “Finally, I understand. You are the Golden Bird of Freedom, for Freedom can never be killed nor silenced.”
Fucking love that shit. And I have never heard that story again — since first grade! But I remember. See why the folktale is a powerful vehicle for story and theme?
Story Two: Tailey-Bone
Badly told version: mean husband makes poor wife cook supper every night and always complains and is never satisfied. Then, somehow, one of them encounters a creature in the night, a wolf maybe, though they can’t really see it in the dark. They cut off it’s tail before it runs away. I think it was the wife who did this, making her technically the one who did the monster harm in the first place, though she was under duress. The wife then cooks the tail for the husband, and it’s the best thing he’s ever eaten. They go to bed that night, but the wife keeps waking up, hearing a voice. Again, there is a line repeated every time: “Tailey-bone, tailey-bone. Who’s got my tailey-bone?” She hears it at first coming from the woods. Then it’s in the yard. Then it’s outside the window. Then it’s inside the house. Then it’s outside the bedroom door. Then it’s at the foot of the bed. Finally, the wife screams out, “He’s got it!” And the shadow creature eats her husband. She lives happily ever after, presumably. But every so often on the darkest nights, she hears out in the woods, “Tailey-bone, tailey-bone. I got my tailey-bone!”
The first two parts of these are pretty straightforward: set up and discovery, struggle ensues and action is taken. But then there’s the third part: In one story, the man is overwhelmed by his own curiosity and digs up the buried bird. And thus he understands what story he is in and the lesson he has learned. In the other, though the one monster has got his due, the other monster is still out there, alive, well, and satisfied.
And so, in my story, there’s a setup to get the main character into the event, and there is the event itself, but the key point is the third part: the character’s reaction, what he does with the experience he’s had and the gift he’s given. And the end is left open for the reader to imagine where he goes from here and what the impact upon the world may be.
Part Three: Writing Music
So in this story, music is absolutely key. The character transcends above the mundane as he realizes that music is a universal force that surrounds us and binds the universe together.
Thing is, this isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera stage musical, where the villain/anti-hero is touted as a musical genius, and Webber provides us some bits and pieces of his compositions. It’s less than 10,000 words and some paintings, even less than The Twilight Zone’s dimension of sight and sound. The reader will never hear what the main character hears.
This also reminds me of another folktale, though this one is told in a musical context: The Devil Went Down To Georgia. There is a very careful setup for the description of the music being played in the story, what with both the devil and Johnny being virtuosos of the fiddle by definition (again, we don’t know who Johnny is, but we do, automatically, know who the devil is, even what soul-stealing is, presuming we come from a certain religious culture).
Then he pulled the bow across the strings
And it made an evil hiss
And a band of demons joined in
And it sounded something like this
The solo that follows is pretty definitive, and though I know pretty much nothing about fiddling in the literal sense, I imagine it’s an opportunity for the performer of this song to show off his chops.
But you notice those words “something like this”? That means that what the audience is hearing right now is merely a facsimile of the actual performance of the devil. Given the context, no matter the skill of our performer, the devil was almost certainly better.
The rest of the song does this again for Johnny’s portion of the contest, only we get some named pieces of music this time: Fire on the Mountain, Run Boys, Run; The Devil’s in the House of the Rising Sun; Chicken in a Bread Pan Pickin’ Out Dough; Granny, Does Your Dog Bite? No Child, No. At least, knowing nothing about fiddling, from the context, I’m assuming these are standard fiddling tunes that are extremely difficult, because this part of the song doesn’t make much sense otherwise (I could go research, but I don’t think I need to to make my point. Feel free to lash out in the comments as you feel inclined). But we don’t get to hear those tunes (at least not in the recording I know), just our current performer doing another excellent solo.
Again, with even less sound involved, in my story, the musical parts are carried somewhat by descriptions of the performers themselves, and mostly by metaphors of how the sounds make the main character feel. Now, I’ve imagined many times, should this ever somehow get made into a movie, an indie film or whatever, who would I want to compose the music for it?
**Okay, kinda spoilers now!**
For the Hell portion, I’d love to have Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, something similar to his more instrumental stuff on The Fragile; but there’s also Radiohead, and I’m quite partial to Disparition’s work on Welcome to Night Vale. For the Heaven side, I’ve never quite made up my mind. I feel like maybe something more classical, but I don’t follow a lot of modern classical composers. A while back I remember thinking of Seal, the styling of his second self-titled album, but in his later albums he’s had a more Motown / gospel leaning — though that’s certainly not a bad thing, given the context.
Thing is, no human composer could create in a person the pure, raw inspiration that is transferred to the main character (probably — hey a girl can dream!). We creatives all dream of creating something that can do that, we all feel that energy flow through us from the Universe, but reality has a nasty tendency to keep us confined, make it difficult for us to pass it on to everyone else. I honestly feel like my illustrations do a better job of imparting the feeling of the music in the story than the prose does, and it took me an extremely long time to feel like at least some of the art hit its mark. I’m just a fantasy writer; I don’t claim to be a poet. That said, I’m not saying it’s a bad description, as I think some of the imagery came out very well. Re-reading the story once in a while reminds me of that Universal raw inspiration energy, that magic that I always aim to feed to my readers.
**Okay, end spoilers!**
I don’t really have a conclusion to my ramblings today except to say, if you did choose to purchase my book, I thank you profusely and hope that you stick around. I am working on a couple of novels now that will take up most of my time. They will also have Dark and magical themes, but will be much, much more like traditional Fantasy fiction. They will also, while possibly being long winded, be much more focused, edited and streamlined than my blogging style!