Collateral damage: What if there’s no one to vouch for you?

Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.
Collateral damage: Ruins of the Castle of Are (Ahr) built by Theodorich of Are around 1100 A.D.

Someone approached me on the street the other day, needing to talk. The situation was unbelievably bad: immigration and medical problems, grief and financial hardship, difficulties around work, worries about children.

After a little while, I was asked if I would buy some things for the kids. I felt uneasy because I didn’t know who could vouch for this person. I said I needed advice.

Tears stood in the person’s eyes. “You need advice to buy Pampers for my children?”

“No,” I said, ashamed. “I guess I don’t.”

As far as I know, there’s no diaper black market or any illicit use for diapers. They’re just diapers. And if you need diapers for your kids badly enough that you are willing to approach a perfect stranger to ask for help, you probably really need them.

I asked her for the person’s name and realized, when I was only offered the first name, that this person couldn’t trust me entirely either.

One of my children is seeking letters of recommendation to go to graduate school. This is the official form of vouching for people. Some people call it the “old boys’ network” or talk about how they can never get ahead because they don’t know the people who matter.

But who can vouch for you when everyone has fled?

This must be one of the great costs of war: the loss of trust and societal structure means survivors have the additional burden of convincing strangers that they are telling the truth. Most of us have no personal experience with horrific circumstances like these. We can’t imagine them and don’t really want to.

How do we plant the first seeds of trust?

When I first moved to my little village in Germany, I didn’t know anyone outside my family. Since I love libraries, I asked if I could volunteer in the local library. The library board gave permission and I unexpectedly gained a group of friends.

They take me on field trips, give me advice about everyday life, and vouch for me in unexpected ways. They trust me and I want to extend that trust to others.

So we found a drugstore and bought cheap diapers. It’s not much. I wish it were more. But if we all trusted a little, it might be enough.

This is what I wish: that we all find places to belong and  contribute, places to trust and to be trusted.

_________________

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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.

 

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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.

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Dark and Light: Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa

Light yellow leaves on a dark path on a gray day in the forest.
Light leaves in a dark forest. Kottenforst, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

This morning the day felt heavy for the first time this summer. The clouds are low and gray and the day looks dim.

But I went for a walk in the forest just now. There the light is trapped between the dark sky and the ground. Every dead leaf, blue flower, patch of moss and white stone glows with reflected light. Maybe there are more shadows, but everything stands out. The leaves on the trees are dark green and flat in this light, but the wheat-colored grass and the earth underfoot, that shines.

Hot cocoa is on the stove and I’m waiting for the foamy milk to rise to the top in the milk frother.

Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa
(Adapted from THE FANNIE FARMER COOKBOOK, 12th ed. Revised by Marion Cunningham with Jeri Laber. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.)
4 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2 Tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
2 Cups milk
Vanilla

Foamed milk
2 Cups milk

Makes 3 giant cups of cocoa and milk or 6 small ones.

Mix cocoa, sugar, and salt with 1/2 Cup water in a small saucepan and boil gently for 2 minutes. Then add 2 Cups of milk and bring gently to boil. Add vanilla and pour into cups.

Pour 2 Cups of milk into the milk frother and heat gently. [A metal frother can go right on the stove, a glass one (no metal!) can be microwaved.] When a ring of bubbles form around the rim, the milk is hot enough to froth.

To froth the milk, hold the handheld frother right at the surface. It’s going to splatter, so pick a deep container.

Take the pump type frother off the heat, hold the finger grip on the lid and pump it up and down 10 or 12 times. Let stand until the foam collects itself at the top. Lift off, pour some liquid milk into your cocoa to taste and tilt the white foam onto its dark surface. Dark can be okay too.

Add a friend and a cookie for each and you have Defense Against the Dark Hot Cocoa. Enjoy!

 

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Impossible things to try before breakfast: Bicycle Gymnasts and JINX’S MAGIC

Two gymnasts riding the same bike. One standing on 1 leg with 1 arm in the air.
Things you never knew were possible on a bike. © Jan Decher, 2015.

What makes us decide to try impossible things? A thing can call to us, but we still don’t try it. Some of it must be inborn and some must be the recognition that a thing is possible.

In Crossing Unmarked Snow, William Stafford captures the “inborn” part beautifully.

The things you do not have to say make you rich. Saying things you do not have to say weakens your talk. Hearing things you do not need to hear dulls your hearing. And things you know before you hear them those are you, those are why you are in the world.

This weekend, I went to a summer festival for the local YMCA. Three bicycle gymnasts put on a show. Most of what we saw looked impossible. How do you learn to stand (on feet or hands!) on bike handlebars while the bike circles the floor? A bicycle pivots at the handlebars. We’re talking acrobatics with traveling scissors. Generosity was so evident. The performance was free and stellar: concentration, coordination among the riders, and now I can’t even remember if there was music. I was too busy clapping.

It’s so miraculous when something impossible works. Ice skaters, musicians, dancers, and others practice and practice, but when the performance comes, it’s still miraculous. My husband said afterwards: “They have so much CONTROL over their bodies.”

The encore was a fleet of smaller bikes for kids 6-12 to try out. Little kids lined up right away. Older kids looked on regretfully from the sidelines.

I still couldn’t imagine myself doing a handstand on a moving bike, so I went to help at the used book stand. A customer handed me a stack of books and beamed.

“How much work goes into writing a book?” She smiled, shaking her head. “I can’t even imagine.”

Since I’ve been writing fiction for a long time now, I can imagine that very easily. It looks impossible when you see only the finished product. But with consistent work, a miraculous fragment or two becomes less rare.

So much so, that the audience continually raises the bar. “We’ve seen that already.” Once you’ve proved that something can be done, nothing is the same. If you want to amaze people again, you have to create something else.

This weekend, I read JINX’S MAGIC and marveled over author Sage Blackwood’s performance. I was completely immersed in the story until the very end. Not an easy feat in a sequel.

Jinx’s learning style made me think of the bicycle gymnasts. He learns magic by climbing inside a spell and seeing how it works.

The bicycle gymnasts pitted their muscle control, balance, and ability to work together against gravity, acceleration, and painful falls. They kept coming up with new twists and combinations until you were sure they were going to fall off.

What kept me reading in JINX’S MAGIC was the tension between the characters. Were they on Jinx’s side or not? Would they support him at the critical moment or let him fall? I wondered if Jinx would make the right choices for his own life and for the Urwald. It makes me want to climb into the novel and take it apart so I can see how it works.

Author Joanna Penn commented that one of her goals is to show society that it’s possible to make a living with art.

Both JINX’S MAGIC and the bicycle gymnasts showed me unexpected possibilities. You have to see that something is possible before you start walking down that road to a new adventure. It doesn’t even have to be very possible. Just imaginable.

 

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What do Babies and Manuscripts Have in Common?

Baby gray flamingoes in a flock of pink adults.
Baby flamingoes are gray and wobbly. But then they grow up. Weltvogelpark Walsrode, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

How is a manuscript like a baby? These baby flamingoes in Weltvogelpark Walsrode don’t look anything like their parents.

I’m thinking about the time when my mom came to visit and I had a new baby in the house. I was obsessed at the time with the number of errands I could accomplish before the baby put an end to them.

We lived in snowy Minnesota and doing errands with a new baby was a major expedition. It meant packing the snow-suited child in a thrift store perambulator with a down pillow as a blanket. The snowplows clear the streets, but they throw up snow walls on either side, blocking the sidewalks’ connection to the streets.

The snow is a mix of salt, sand, ice, and snow and, after a few wind-chilled days, settles into a concrete-like mass only accessible to goats. (No complaints, mind you, this sort of physical activity can help a new mother avoid depression and find her waistline.) The other advantage to packing up a child is that you don’t have to heave them in and out of the car and wake them up. I proved very early that three errands were the maximum allowed.

The other option was the car. It’s embarrassingly unenvironmental and wickedly convenient. I once took a visiting Dutch conservation biologist on a tour of all available drive-throughs in our neighborhood. We had a pay-at-the-pump gas station, and a drive-through drugstore, bank, and county library. That’s four.

My mom made a mild comment. “Babies grow up you know. One day, the baby will suddenly be able to do something she couldn’t.”

I didn’t know. Our children are now 21 and 14 and they do all the amazing things other peoples’ children do (and more 🙂 of course). You’d think I knew how this worked by now, but growth still takes me by surprise.

Right now, many #pitchwar contest hopefuls are waiting to see if their manuscripts have unexpectedly grown-up. Like any field of endeavor, writing fiction involves a long list of skills to practice. Maybe today, our strengths are dialogue, pacing, and persistence. Tomorrow, we may find a new vehicle for our story, and achieve a new high in plotting, humor, or voice. “No” doesn’t mean failure. It means “not yet.”

We may yet find a way to delight.

Good luck Pitch Warriors! Many thanks to Brenda Drake and the 108 Amazing Mentors! (They have to be capitalized because they are.)

 

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Rituals for Starting Work: medieval construction, coal mining, printing presses

Detailed 3D model of castle, church, moat and outbuildings. Schloss Horst Museum, Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Model of medieval construction workers building Schloss Horst.

Over the weekend, I visited a castle, the Schloss Horst Museum in Gelsenkirchen, a printing press, the Historische Druckwerkstatt that offered a trip to the age of lead, and a coal mine, Bergbaustollen Nordsternpark.

Schloss Horst turned out to be a museum that drops you into the everyday life of the past. Animal sound effects, dust, sand, realistic puddles, and holes in the fence for the medieval supervisors to judge their workers’ industriousness completed the medieval construction site. There was also slate-chipping to try, medieval clothes to try on, and a room-sized model of the village as it must have been.

We walked by the table where the workers were paid. Each worker had a split stick–one half was his receipt and the other have belonged to the paymaster. Grooves cut across the stick showed how many hours had been worked.

Our tour guide showed us how to use a wooden table as a visual adding machine and money conversion tool. He was so fast laying down coins and moving them to the next marking on the table, I couldn’t take any pictures. He said people of the time would’ve been much faster. Personally, I would find a line of construction workers holding sticks to be highly motivational.

In the print shop, there was a newspaper article about the printers’ “Gautschfest” subtitled “Freisprechung der Lehrlinge” (literally: the ceremony of speaking the apprentices free) showing a stoic apprentice being doused in a barrel of water.

After our tour of the coal mine, our group leader was invited to don “an apron for the backside.” One coal miner then held a huge shovel behind her and the other struck the shovel with a hammer so it resounded like a gong.

Not sure why rituals give us something to push against. Maybe we feel like we belong, or feel a bit more in control when we know the proper response. A little bit of ridiculousness comforts us when we are set loose in the cold, dark world.

The coal miners had a greeting ritual before they went down in the mines: “Glück auf!” In English, the word “Glück” means something between gladness and luck, which is probably what it feels like when you come up from the mines at the end of your shift.

"Glück auf!" engraved in white on a black stone. Miners pre-shift greeting and mine shaft.
Best wishes for this week, whichever mines you work.

So I wish you “Glück auf!” on this Monday morning.

 

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