Looking in from the outside: Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series

Book cover for THICK AS THIEVES shows boat with masts, white mountains and a tower in the foreground, black background with gold title font.
The newest in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series.

Thick as Thieves came out this year (Yay! I read it twice in a row!) and I’ve been enjoying re-reading Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. She’s making me think about the story from an outsider’s perspective.

Megan Whalen Turner’s beloved Eugenides character is showcased in a way that reminds me of Dorothy Dunnett’s well-loved Francis Crawford of Lymond. Both authors have a lovely, twisty plotting style with snappy dialogue to warm any reader’s heart.

Dorothy Dunnett rarely gives the reader an inside glimpse of Lymond’s mind or heart. Rife and contradictory speculation lets the reader discover Lymond’s true character, just the way we get to know people in real life.

In The Queen’s Thief series, Megan Whalen Turner moves the point of view progressively further away from her key character, Eugenides.

The Thief is told in the first person by the Queen’s Thief.

The Queen of Attolia seems to be third person omniscient because we get interior thoughts from both the Thief and from the Queen.

The King of Attolia is told by an Attolian guard who resists being won over by the new King of Attolia.

A Conspiracy of Kings is told from the King of Sounis’s point of view.

Thick as Thieves is a quest story about an Attolian guard told from the point of view of Kamet, the head slave of the Mede Emperor’s nephew, as he figures out what the King of Attolia is really like. The relationship that develops reminds me of the one between Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander.

What are the advantages of an outsider’s perspective for a story?

  1. It makes the reader “an accomplice” and works especially well in a series where we already know and love the main character.

“And this is the genius of Megan Whalen Turner because in book 3, we, the readers, are Eugenides’s accomplices. We sit back and wait for the coin to drop for everybody else as it has dropped for us in books 1 and 2.” —The Book Smugglers

2. The outsider can question what the main character never says (or thinks about). The reader gains a guide and a companion in the story, a Watson to a closed-off and brilliant Sherlock Holmes. Megan Whalen Turner’s Costis does this effectively, as does Kamet.

3. Misdirection, fame, and mystery. An obvious advantage (and disadvantage): we see what the main character looks like from the outside. Megan Whalen Turner uses this to great effect in The King of Attolia when we see what Eugenides looks like to everyone else.

Interestingly, Eugenides’ relationship to the god of thieves is always shown to the reader from the outside. This conveys mystery better than any internal thought process could.

4. Someone to carry the ball. A story that ends in a tragic death can only be told by an outside narrator. Not sure if that’s an advantage. Someone has to be left to do the wrap up. Unless you’d like a Shakespearean monologue after death delivered by your main character. Thankfully, Megan Whalen Turner hasn’t done this yet. (MWT–Please don’t kill off your beloved characters!)

Here’s the link to the whole review by The Book Smugglers which says what I’ve been trying to say about the change in narration and the power of these books, so I’ll stop now. 🙂

What I really want to say is: Read the books!

Here’s another fun mini-interview with Megan Whalen Turner about The Queen’s Thief series. And another one.

Happy reading!

______________

If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

6 ways THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET shows its warm and funny heroine

1 Image of handout available as pdf. Link is below image.

Click here to download Six Ways to Reveal Character handout as a pdf with links to Karl Iglesias’ website and to WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT.

I’ve been studying Karl Iglesias’ insightful and practical WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT while reading Nancy J. Cavanaugh‘s funny, charming, and warm THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET for Middle Grade readers.

When I went back over my notes, I realized that THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET uses all six of Karl Iglesias’ ways to reveal character on the page. The strong characterization kept me reading, even though the story has a potentially challenging structure: Ratchet’s handwritten language arts assignments. The story is so well constructed, I stopped noticing the writing assignments.

Note: the handwriting font worked perfectly on my Kobo e-reader and was very easy to read.

  1. NAME AND DESCRIPTION. The main character goes by the nickname of Ratchet. Cavanaugh ties the unusual name to the universal emotion of a father’s love for his daughter. Ratchet got her nickname because of “the way [her] help makes all [her father’s] jobs easier.” She describes her father “like a young Albert Einstein wearing a greasy T-shirt and ripped jeans.”
  2. CONTRAST. Ratchet’s internal conflicts come out in her writing assignments: “And wish/ I didn’t wish for so much/ Because I know Dad/ Tries real hard.” She and her environmental activist father are a classic “odd couple.” She’s longing for shiny new school supplies and clothes and feels like a “fish out of water” in the rec center’s GET CHARMED class.
  3. OTHER CHARACTERS. The boys yell insults based on the current gossip about her father whenever they walk by Ratchet’s house. Her father’s activism affects Ratchet directly. Other characters are affected by Ratchet’s behavior and her willingness to share her mechanical knowledge.
  4. DIALOGUE. Because the book is in journal-format, the whole story is told in Ratchet’s voice. She quotes her father and his attitudes, background, and worldview shine through: “Those idiots would spend their time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They don’t even have the sense to use the brains the Good Lord gave them.'”
  5. ACTIONS, REACTIONS, DECISIONS. Much to Ratchet’s embarrassment, her father wears T-shirts with slogans like: “Is it me or is this place a festival of idiots?” to the city council meetings. As the story progresses, the slogans change. Both Ratchet and her father keep secrets from each other, but I won’t spoil the story by saying what they are. There’s a great incident where Ratchet helps someone the reader really doesn’t think she will help. Both Ratchet and her father are put under pressure in ways that really make their true character visible.
  6. MANNERISMS, SYMBOLS, PROPS. The story is told in Ratchet’s “Homeschool Language Arts Journal” so the book itself is her prop. Then there are the mechanic’s tools and engines that play such an important role in making the story go. And a very important box.

These 6 Ways to Reveal Character are from one tiny section of Karl Inglesias’ WRITING FOR EMOTIONAL IMPACT. It’s worth reading the whole book, even if you’re a chicken like me and have to skip the SILENCE OF THE LAMBS’ examples. There are also a few FINDING NEMO examples. Maybe someday he’ll write a new edition including Middle Grade books.

You can probably tell how much I enjoyed reading THIS JOURNAL BELONGS TO RATCHET and how inspired I am by Nancy Cavanaugh‘s craftsmanship. Have you read it? What did you think? I’d love to know.

 

If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

Think, Act, Speak: What order makes character reactions feel real?

Infographic for Motivation Reaction Units. The best order for character reactions is feeling/thought, action (involuntary or voluntary), speech. Don't need all the reactions, but they should be in this order.

Do you know the terrible feeling when THAT topic resurfaces? “Oh no. I AM going to have to learn this.” Prehistoric time periods must have come around 3 or 4 times in my studies, but I still haven’t learned them.

Years and years ago, I read about Dwight W. Swain’s Motivation Reaction Units (MRU’s). *Cough.* It’s filed right behind the prehistoric time periods. It popped up again recently and I wondered if it could help me weave a more seamless story and create more life-like character reactions.

In case you’re in the same fix, here’s a quick summary: MRU’s are a way to show cause and effect in the story, moment to moment. It’s all about the order.

The catch to MRUs is that they must be presented in
the correct order. When you tell readers about the effect before they’ve seen the cause, you’re introducing an element of unreality, however miniscule. Even if their confusion lasts only a microsecond, you’re endangering their ability to process your story in a logical and linear fashion. –K. M. Weiland in STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL: ESSENTIAL KEYS FOR WRITING AN OUTSTANDING STORY (Chapter 24 Scene Structure)

People who write well about writing inspire me, but I need the “real-life” application. I want to know how middle grade authors get it on the page.

I decided to test MRU’s with an author I admire. Here’s a passage from Chapter 2 of Sara Prineas’ LOST, the wonderful second book in THE MAGIC THIEF series.

What patterns do you see? Feel free to share what you find in the comments. My color-coded version follows.

I blinked the brights out of my eyes. The floor of my workroom was covered with shattered glass and torn book pages. The table lay with its four legs in the air like a dead bug. Smoke and dust swirled around in the corners. A scrap of charred paper floated to the floor next to me. I squinted at it. A page from Prattshaw’s book, the part about contrafusive effects.

The pyrotechnics had worked. The magic had spoken to me again—without a locus stone. But what had it said?

Step step tap. I heard the sound of Nevery hurrying up the stairs. He threw open the door. “Curse it, boy!” he shouted. “What are you up to?”

I coughed, brushed slivers of glass out of my hair, and got to my feet. “Just some pyrotechnics,” I said. I looked down at my apprentice’s robe. It had a few more scorch marks on it than before.

Nevery scowled. “A pyrotechnic experiment. I thought you had more sense.” He lowered his bushy eyebrows. “And where did you come up with the slowsilver, hmmm?”

I shrugged.

More footsteps, and Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard-housekeeper, loomed up behind Nevery in the doorway. His knitted red waistcoat and shirt were dusted with flour, and he had a smudge of flour on his fist-flattened nose; he’d been kneading dough. “He all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “Nevery, the magic spoke to me.”

Nevery opened his mouth to shout at me some more, and then closed it.

“Spoke to you? A pyrotechnic effect, then. You were right. Interesting. What did it say?”

“It sounded—” I shook my head. Had the magic sounded frightened? But of what? “D’you know this spell?” I recited the spellwords the magic had said to me: “Damrodellodesseldeshellarhionvarliardenliesh.”

Here’s my color-coded version of the same passage:

  • Red = stimulus.
  • Gray-blue = reaction.
  • The MRU theory says the gray-blues should go from light to dark.

I blinked the brights out of my eyes. The floor of my workroom was covered with shattered glass and torn book pages. The table lay with its four legs in the air like a dead bug. Smoke and dust swirled around in the corners. A scrap of charred paper floated to the floor next to me. I squinted at it. A page from Prattshaw’s book, the part about contrafusive effects.

The pyrotechnics had worked. The magic had spoken to me again—without a locus stone. But what had it said?

Sara Prineas still has me on board, but this is the opposite of the MRU theory. I got STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought). What did you get?

Step step tap. I heard the sound of Nevery hurrying up the stairs. He threw open the door. “Curse it, boy!” he shouted. “What are you up to?”

I coughed, brushed slivers of glass out of my hair, and got to my feet. “Just some pyrotechnics,” I said. I looked down at my apprentice’s robe. It had a few more scorch marks on it than before.

The reactions alternate between action and speech and action and thought. This feels totally natural to me.

STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(3. speech)–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought)

Nevery scowled. “A pyrotechnic experiment. I thought you had more sense.” He lowered his bushy eyebrows. “And where did you come up with the slowsilver, hmmm?”

I shrugged.

This simpler example fits the MRU theory even though some types of reactions are missing.

STIMULUS–REACTION(2. action)

More footsteps, and Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard-housekeeper, loomed up behind Nevery in the doorway. His knitted red waistcoat and shirt were dusted with flour, and he had a smudge of flour on his fist-flattened nose; he’d been kneading dough. “He all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “Nevery, the magic spoke to me.”

Nevery opened his mouth to shout at me some more, and then closed it.

These all follow the MRU theory with one type of reaction in each set.

STIMULUS–REACTION(1. thought)

STIMULUS–REACTION(3. speech)

STIMULUS–REACTION(1. thought)

“Spoke to you? A pyrotechnic effect, then. You were right. Interesting. What did it say?”

“It sounded—” I shook my head. Had the magic sounded frightened? But of what? “D’you know this spell?” I recited the spellwords the magic had said to me: “Damrodellodesseldeshellarhionvarliardenliesh.”

This set reverses the MRU theory (3,2,1) and then circles back around to speech. The internal question “But of what?” could also be a STIMULUS followed by a REACTION(3. speech).

STIMULUS–REACTION(3. speech)–REACTION(2. action)–REACTION(1. thought)–REACTION(3. speech)

Sara Prineas’s well-crafted prose makes me see how much variety is possible. After studying this passage, I’m eager to look at my own work for stimulus–reaction patterns. The sheer number of stimulus-reactions gives the story a feeling of connectedness.

What have you noticed about character reactions in your reading or writing?

Do you have favorite authors who follow or don’t follow the MRU patterns? I’d love to read more examples.

A Novel Way for Young Readers to Relate to Faith?

people silhouetted in the archway of a castle
What difference does faith make? Marburg’s Landgrave Castle (Landgrafenschloss). Influential religious leaders Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon and Oeclampadius met here in 1529 to discuss their differences.

Last week, my husband and I visited Marburg, the town where we first met. In 2017, Marburg will join many cities in Germany in a celebration of Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Belief, politics, power all mixed together to shape Europe’s history.

Events are planned all over Germany. The Playmobil company even released a tiny Martin Luther figure. (I’d like to see one for Katharina von Bora, the intrepid nun who later married Martin Luther.) Whatever your views on the Reformation or Martin Luther, it’s interesting that a toy company thought there was a market for Martin Luther Playmobil figures. Toy Noah’s Arks abound in the United States, but I’ve never seen a Mattel Pope action figure or a MatchBox Popemobile.

Living in Germany makes me wonder: if religious faith has such a strong influence in the world, isn’t it a priority to learn more? How will we (and the next generations) be able to talk about such sensitive topics without having the language, frameworks, or empathy to understand one another?

For readers and writers, a novel is an ideal way to develop empathy and practice that mantra of peace-making amidst diversity: “What might [fill in the blank] be true of?”

Natalie Lloyd’s middle grade book,  A SNICKER OF MAGIC, touches naturally and lightly on faith, as does Gary D. Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

What other recent novels would you recommend for readers who want the inside experience of a particular faith?

_________________

Thanks for your interest in my work! If you’d like to stay in touch, sign up for my Reader’s List. Once a month, I share new middle grade fiction, story-related freebies, and/or related blog posts. If it’s not your thing, you can unsubscribe at any time.

What’s in a reversal? Exploring Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING.

Gasses bubbling the water at the lakeshore. Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany.
What bubbles to the surface? Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Just finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING, the 3rd book of her Grisha trilogy. If you haven’t read it, go read. (Note: This is a YA, not a middle grade title.)

SPOILER ALERT.

Last night, I stopped reading at the end of Chapter 8. Earlier in the chapter, things are looking up for Alina. She takes definite steps to be less isolated from her friends. The reader thinks things are looking up. But after this scene of light and laughter, the friends leave, and there’s one little paragraph:

Later, I could never be sure if I’d done it deliberately, or if it was an accident, my bruised heart plucking at that invisible tether. Maybe I was just too tired to resist his pull. I found myself in a blurry room, staring at the Darkling.”

For whatever reason, Alina has decided to reach out to the antagonist, the Darkling, through the tie that binds them to each other.

This moment in the story felt so real because we all know what it’s like to do something stupid when we just should have gone to sleep. After reading this story moment, I couldn’t sleep either because I knew this decision would ruin her. My reader brain was busy trying to rescue her from this choice.

I almost didn’t pick up the book again the next day. But I was on a train to Cologne and it was on my e-reader. So I did. When the scene didn’t turn out the way I expected, I was so relieved.

So, how did Leigh Bardugo do that?

How did she make the reader SURE that something dreadful was going to happen, without a doubt, and then REVERSE, without losing credibility?

This morning, I finished RUIN AND RISING before I finished traveling, so I had time to ponder.

Megan Whalen Turner’s ATTOLIA series and Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND CHRONICLES also have this trick of pivoting the whole story world on a character’s decision or a line of dialogue or an unexpected action.

Middle grade authors, Sage Blackwood and Angie Sage, also pull off this trick.

I really, really want the recipe.

Reversal ingredient list:

  • Reader expectations about the main character’s choices. Which ones look good from a reader perspective?
  • Consequences bubble up naturally early in the story. The reader experiences dread at the moment of choice rather than information overload.
  • Tension: The chapter that follows this passage has a feeling of I-should-not-be-here-but-I’m-too-tired that creates forboding.

Mix in reader expectations to form a smooth batter. Let consequences ferment. Set story aside to rise. Fold in a challenging choice and bake in a hot oven until done.

And then there’s Author Brutality, a.k.a. making things worse.

In his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workshops, superagent Donald Maass asks:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character?”

“It just happened.”

Collective groans and sounds of grief from writers killing off their main characters.

“Now–what happens next?”

Because whatever happens next HAS to be a reversal. The main character has gone as far as possible in the original direction.

Any thoughts about more essential ingredients? Do you like stories with reversals? If you feel like sharing in the comments, I’d love to know your favorite examples.

Exploring the world of Angie Sage’s MAGYK and FLYTE

Alley leading to an archway with light shining behind it.In Sage Blackwood’s JINX books, Jinx wanders around inside the magical spells of others to see how they are constructed. As a reader and writer, I’m doing a similar experiment with Angie Sage’s middle grade novels.

If you haven’t read MAGYK and FLYTE, there may be spoilers. Go ahead and read them first. This’ll be here when you get back.

These are classic battles of good and evil, like the one I enjoyed in Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON when I was a young reader. Some of the story gets too dark for my taste, but my wimpiness is legendary.

What did I especially like about MAGYK and FLYTE?

The relationship between the Heap siblings was real and positive and conflicted. Reading Angie Sage’s novels is like belonging to a family with a lot of older siblings–you can see their choices and the results of those choices, but no one points them out. It’s all right in front of us, but we can choose whether we want to pay attention to it or to apply any of it to our own lives. There’s no lecturing about what the right choice is. It’s much more like real life where there are little clues to notice or not.

A variety of strong and unlikely friendships came up in the story. Friendships exist between boy #412 and boy #409, girl and boy, student and past teacher (now a ghost), an experienced boatbuilder and the Heap boy who loves boats, and an aunt who is a terrible cook and the child who loves her cooking. There’s also a the tentative friendship (or frenemy relationship?) between two fathers over a rare magical board game.

Characters have different ways of knowing and the official “smartest” people don’t always come out on top. The most important magical person in the story world oversteps in front of many people and has to face the consequences.

People who are afraid to speak gradually find their voices. This was subtly done and I hate to mention it in case it spoils someone’s reading experience. It’s quite brilliant.

I do like these books, don’t I.

They made me realize I want secondary characters who are more conflicted or at least with different backgrounds and philosophies from each other than I might have already.

Maybe some of my own characters need more differentiation. A trader, a courtier, a warrior, a shipmaster all have world views. Here are a few questions for writers:

  • Have I brought my characters’ worldviews to bear on the story?
  • How does the next generation subscribe to or deny their parents’ values?
  • Have I shown them making mistakes, apologizing (or not), and influencing each other?
  • What kinds of friendships are in the story? Could more be added?

Sage Blackwood’s Jinx is right. It’s definitely worth while to climb around inside someone else’s magic spells.