Dancing with the Denouement

T2_sarah_polaroid

The best piece of writing I’ve ever experienced was not a book or a short story. It was a movie—The Terminator. I found myself thinking about this movie and its brilliant screenplay by James Cameron last night as I was considering how to approach an explanation to a writing friend of what I call the punch-line denouement[1].

For those who’ve never seen it, The Terminator tells the story of Sarah Connor, a 1980s college student working as a waitress. Sarah’s life is irreparably changed when two travelers arrive from the future. One—a cyborg—has come to kill her to keep her from conceiving the savior of humankind. The other—Kyle Reese—intends to stop the cyborg and keep Sarah alive.

From a feminist standpoint, this movie is perhaps the first I ever saw with a female hero at the helm of an action film. Yes, Sarah is the hero. It is she who must change in order to make the future possible.  She begins as a fun-loving young woman who by the end has gathered together all the strength she possesses in order to face that future straight on.

Back to my point. Storytelling. The amazing screenplay by James Cameron blows me away every time I watch the movie or even think about it. I recommend it to anyone who wants to taste the joy of how to tell a very complicated story in a couple of hours. Cameron hands us each piece of information required at the very moment we require it.

Two men are after Sarah. Who are they? Are they both bad guys? Or, if one of them is good, which one is it? Boom. It’s Kyle Reese, the young man who looks totally out-gunned by Arnold and who came back in time because he’d fallen in love with Sarah from a Polaroid picture. Why is Arnold after her? What does he intend to do with or to her? Boom. She’s the future mother of the man who sent Kyle back in time to save her. How can you tell these cyborgs from humans? Dogs can sniff them out. And it goes on.

If you haven’t seen The Terminator and you’re a writer of any kind of fiction, I highly recommend it as the next movie you stream. Don’t accept watching it on commercial television; they cut out the stupidest stuff, including any time a blow from Arnold connects, even when he punches through a windshield. Brilliantly concocted and shot on a budget that apparently precluded getting permits from the city of Los Angeles for all those street racing night scenes (they filmed them on the sly then slipped away into the night without getting caught), it is, in many ways, an indie film.

But, the most important aspect of this film is the way Cameron sets up his final scene. The movie reaches its climactic ending right after Sarah and Kyle have consummated their blooming love for one another. The terminator kills Kyle and then Sarah terminates the terminator. Glorious.

Cut to the final scene. Sarah in a Jeep driving through the desert, dictating into a tape recorder saying, “Do I tell you about your father?” Then, she rubs her very pregnant belly and continues on briefly about Kyle.  A dog sits with her in the Jeep.

terminator-1984-sarah-connor

She pulls up to a little gas station out in the middle of nowhere. A boy runs up to the Jeep and exchanges a couple of lines with Sarah. He has a Spanish accent. He takes her picture with his Polaroid and then asks for payment which she gives him. It’s the picture Kyle had fallen in love with. The boy’s grandfather says something in Spanish, and Sarah asks the boy what he said. “A storm is coming.” Sarah looks off in the direction she’s headed and agrees when she sees the cloud. Then she drives off, and the credits begin with the Jeep heading away from the camera. Fade to black.

Now that all took far more time to describe than it takes on the screen. It’s a simple little scene, and every single aspect of it requires no explanation to the viewer because Cameron set it all up earlier in the movie. And that, my friends, is how to deliver the punch line to a story. Set-up is everything. You shouldn’t have to rely on explanations in the denouement. It should stand on its own.

[1] The denouement is the final outcome of the story, generally occurring after the climax of the plot. Often it’s where all the secrets (if there are any) are revealed and loose ends are tied up. http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/what-is-a-denouement

The Build–Writing a Worthy Ending

I am not a Led Zeppelin fan. In the 70s and 80s, whenever a radio station would present the top 300 or 500 of the entire history of rock-and-roll on Memorial Day or Labor Day weekend, I’d cringe as they approached #1. It was always, inexorably, inexplicably, inevitably “Stairway to Heaven.” I hate “Stairway to Heaven.” I do, however, have a Led Zeppelin guilty pleasure. “Kashmir.” I crank it up on my car radio when it comes on. I’ve even downloaded it from iTunes and am listening to it right now as loud as my Walkman will allow me.

What, you may ask, intrigues me about this song? The build. The slow build of drums  and bass into brass and other orchestral wonders. And that relentless beat. My body moves with no conscious participation on my part.  And then the lyrical pauses with the taste of Eastern  delights.

As writers, we can learn from “Kashmir.” At the moment, I am in the middle of what could be a powerful ending to my latest novel, but that power, I realized last night, lies in the build. Don’t go too fast. I’m tempted to just rush in and then leave myself with nowhere to go because I’ve already crescendoed to the peak. I know where we’re going, and I want so badly to get there because it’s going to blow the reader’s mind. But I must slow down, allow fate to tickle at the reader’s heart but leave as little trace as possible until the fullness is revealed. This is a delicate balance which must be respected. Nuance is everything. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

73 words

I’m not the first to write on this topic, and I certainly won’t be the last. But I’m going to be short but sweet.

“Strong female hero”

Seriously?

“Hero,” definition #1a in Merriam-Webster:  A mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability (emphasis mine).

Have you ever once read or heard someone say “strong male hero”?  Or, even, “strong hero”?

Point made. Thank you for your time.

The Tales of Eowyn’s Bard

eowyn

Eowyn of Rohan opened my eyes to a new kind of hero. It was the summer of 1966 when I first read The Lord of the Rings, and I would be graduating from high school the following year. Eowyn epitomized “hero” for me—confident, courageous, willing to run into the fray, filled with empathy for Merry (another favorite character) and, most importantly, female. The fact that she had the hots for the cutest guy on the block was a bit of a hindrance, and her exclusion from the final face-off after being scuttled off the battlefield in dire need of healing almost made me stop reading. But, in the end, Eowyn rocked, and her determination and tenacity gave me hope that a woman might one day be able to stand at the front of the story as the character propelling it forward.

By the 70s, female heroes had begun to emerge. And I sought them out. But they were almost always one of two types—buxom beauties with their “accomplishments” prominently displayed on the book’s cover or tomboy girls whose elders sought (and usually managed) to reduce to a medieval Stepford prototype once she’d completed her quest. Neither of these was the hero I was looking for.

Eventually I gave in and decided to create a female hero worthy of the title. It took over 30 years to fully realize my quest, but I did in Lisen of Solsta, a young woman who steps on the stage without the usual baggage young female characters too often carry into the fight. (It helps that she lives in a world where sexism and division of labor and duties by gender have never existed, but that’s a story I’ve explored several times previously and will not further explore it now.)

One shero (thank you, Maya Angelou) from the 80s comes to mind. Sarah Connor in the original Terminator. She was the hero of the movie. Her hero’s journey begins with her as a frivolous college student/waitress and ends (for that moment, of course) as a warrior on the run from future terminators like the one she (not Kyle) destroyed.

And in the past few years, I’ve had the joy of discovering several female heroes who bash the stereotypes bloody and stand tall amidst the muck. It seems our day has come. Finally.

So, in the hopes of opening discussion of and promoting books and other media featuring female heroes, I have created a page on Facebook. I look forward to learning about more strong women in fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal settings. I also want to encourage discussion of what makes a healthy and realistic female hero as well as discover who’s slamming stereotypes up against the wall. If you’re interested, feel free to check my new page out. That’s The Tales of Eowyn’s Bard.

Give Me an Inch, I’ll Make You a Book

I went onto the web site of a prominent office supply chain the other day and ordered a thousand 4 x 6″ index cards. I love my 4 x 6 cards. They are, perhaps, the most used tool in my writing arsenal, and I utilize one for each scene in my books. I usually start out with 20 or 30 of them, with such details as “Battle Day 1” or “Lisen in bath” or “the reunion” and build the stack from there.

That’s how the story unfolds for me—little vignettes in time with rarely any details at all. Just a moment carved out. And as I near that scene, what has led up to it begins to take on meaning, and I jot down pieces of action and dialogue and plot points that I intend to get into the composition of the scene. In addition, I note the day (numbered sequentially from the beginning of the book) and the date as well as the number of the scene. (I don’t break my books into chapters until I’m on my final draft.) I also finalize whose point of view will best tell this bit of the story. For instance, under “Lisen in bath” I wrote a brief exchange of dialogue between Lisen and her companion in the bath. What they say isn’t relevant to the plot, but it is relevant to Lisen’s state of mind at that moment. On the other hand, “the reunion” is blank save for the POV and the day/date.

I play with these cards as their numbers increase. By the time I was through the first draft of the third book in my Lisen of Solsta trilogy, Blooded, I had 94 scenes and, hence, 94 cards. That’s basically an inch of cards, and I still pull them out every once in a while and fondle them. Yeah, I know, I’m weird, but I’m a writer, okay? In my defense, I often refer to them if I’m trying to find the part where such-and-such happens. How many members were there in the privy council? And where did they all sit around the table?

4 x 6 cards become Blooded
4 x 6 cards become Blooded

I do have a scene outline for each draft—as scenes do sometimes appear in subsequent drafts, disappear completely or move around—but that outline doesn’t hold the precious notes that remind me what my intent was for that scene. And where people were sitting around the table in the privy council, of course.

So, there you have it. How an inch of 4 x 6 cards became a novel. And I’m at it again. I have 22 completed scenes and 22 cards. About 20 cards with scenes awaiting writing lined up, but those will likely double to triple in volume before I’m done. After which I will have enough cards to write ten more books. Goodie!

And Then Again, Maybe Not

In my most recent post, I bemoaned the “romantic” nature of the titles of the books in my feminist fantasy trilogy. I beat myself up sans merci. Funny how that pity pot catches up with a person. I spoke of reality—as though I have a hold on reality. Ha! In addition to that post, I whined quite a bit on Facebook, deleting three-quarters of the posts immediately after posting them, but I did leave a couple hanging out there.

People had suggestions. Some said keep the titles, change the covers and my marketing strategy. (Truth is I don’t have a marketing strategy. I’m a freakin’ introvert, okay?) Some said they had no problem with any of it. I’m also fairly sure that there were some who thought I was full of it and posted nothing rather than hurt my feelings.

One comment in particular, however, nailed it. From an online friend dating back to the mid 1990s. She hit me with some straight talk that slapped me right back into place, and here’s what I took from what she said. I have to let go at some point. Lisen, my main character, and all her friends deserve the opportunity to find friends out in the world, on their own. I can promote the books. I can suggest—politely, mind; I’m not into that in-your-face line of promotional strategy—that you check the books out. Maybe I’ll even take the money and time I’d planned on redoing covers and such and put it into a video for the books. Now how’s that for a strategy?

And in the midst of my “poor-me-ing,” a couple of soft-but-persistent voices arose. Comments in the midst of my maelstrom of self-pity. They’d read my books and loved them. Which brought home to me the “real” reality. I can’t know who is reading or has read my books. Not really (there’s a variation of that word again). Secret readers hide out everywhere it seems. They hide in their corners reading away, not reviewing, just absorbing. And passing the books on to others. A moment of sweet contentment, a moment of grace, when I discover I’m not writing in a vacuum.

A novelist sits at home, alone, at a desk, surrounded by sheets of paper or notebooks or, in my case, 4 x 6” cards that lay out a story she wants to tell as best she can. She lives in that world, whether it’s a modern-day metropolis or a Greco-Roman-like world in another dimension, and manipulates characters and situations to conjure up the best possible tale.

And that, my friends, is my excuse. I simply confused the “real” world with my pretend world and assumed I had that level of control. Nope. And now I’ll get back to my latest project where I still have control. Happy Monday!

Seriously? You’re Going to do What?

Here’s the thing. When I began the process of publishing my first book in the Lisen of Solsta trilogy, I came up with what I thought was a really great title—Fractured. That one word describes precisely the dilemma Lisen, my hero, finds herself in throughout the entirety of that book. At the beginning she believes she’s Lisen Holt, Valley girl, but by the end of the first chapter she’s been abducted to a world completely alien to her. And, it’s where she belongs. She was never quite human, and Simon and Daisy Holt were not her parents. Within a couple of chapters, she’s also learned that she’s destined to rule this strange world. Yup, she’s fractured, all right.

Silly me. I never thought to run a search on Amazon regarding my brilliant title. I mean, who else would come up with just “fractured”? I was brilliant, and it was a brilliant title, soon to be followed by Tainted and Blooded to complete the trilogy.

Then, as happens all too often, reality plunged its dagger in my heart and left me bleeding and gasping for breath. In the process of collecting many “likes” for my Facebook author page, I had returned the favor and found that I was now in the center of a maelstrom of romance novelists—not my favorite genre but, in my experience, the most popular genre for self-published books. And guess what. I started seeing a few “fractured”-like titles.  Fractured Vows, Fractured Love, Fractured Promises, ad nauseum. But I was committed to that title. I’d already published that book, and the rules are strict. Once the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is assigned to a book, no one can change the title, the series name, the name of the author, the measurements of the page OR whether it’s in color or black and white. So…

I forged on. I commissioned the cover for the second book, again with a popular romance novel title, Tainted. I published that book, forever branding it with that name, then commissioned a new cover for Fractured. I moved on to book 3, which also has a fairly popular title, though Blooded as a title tends to fall more into the paranormal genre rather than romance.

You’re killing me!

Now some might ask (and have) that shouldn’t I stick with Fractured since romance is so popular? Not exactly. It all has to do with brand, in this case, the books’ brand. Lisen of Solsta is the story of a young woman who is equal in every way with any man in her world and as a female hero is an aberration only because she’s a hero, not because she’s a girl hero. If you run that search for “fractured” on Amazon, up come books with covers showing a phenomenal number of steroid-muscled men ravaging buxom, luscious-lipped women. That is the antithesis of my Fractured. Even if you narrow the search down to fantasy alone, the sexy-sexies completely overwhelm my feminist tome. Sigh.

What’s a girl to do?

It looks like I’m going to retire the three books as they are titled now and pull them off Amazon’s “shelves.” Then I’ll negotiate with my cover artist regarding what it will take to “fix” the covers. Once I’ve accomplished those tasks, I will republish with new ISBNs and titles for all three books. Of course, this all depends on whether I can come up with new titles that tell the story without sounding like someone else’s title and manage to retain the brand I so cavalierly and naively tossed into the romance fire the first time around.

And here’s the rub.  I will lose all the reviews, minimal as they are, that were posted under the old titles. But, on the other hand, it’s possible, maybe if I get it right this time, that more people looking for a book like my book will find it and not reject it because it sounds too romancey to them. Will I actually take this project on? Stay tuned. I’m sure I’ll have some complaining and explaining to do as I once again watch for falling rocks on the learning curve.

We Need a Hero Who Looks Like Us

It began in 1977. Somebody…God, the Goddess, whoever…said, “Thou shalt,” and I did. Thirty-seven years later, and finally, I can say, “It’s done.”

I wrote a story about a girl with a mythical destiny. Along the way I learned all sorts of stuff—like, there is a male model of myth. Male heroes fight their way out of things, killing a lot of people along the way and making a huge mess which someone has to clean up, and you know who, right? Not that Lisen doesn’t fight; she does. Not that Lisen doesn’t kill; she has. But after every step I went through to get here (write a book, check; write more books, check; rewrite the first book, done; self-publish, start all over again, self-publish again, start all over again, all check; self-publish all three books for real in the end, check) I realized that something had to give.

Back in 2005 when Revenge of the Sith was released, a short documentary appeared on the extras DVD. It was called “The Chosen One.” In it George Lucas explained how Anakin Skywalker was, indeed, the Chosen One of the Jedi prophecy. As he showed us why this worked (something I already understood), he spoke of how Anakin/now Darth Vader lost some of his power with the Force when he was maimed to the point of near-death.

Wait a minute, whoa, that’s not how I see it. Power comes from within, not from the physical body.

Snap.

That’s it. Who came up with these myths—the ones on which we base all our fantasies and life-changing stories? They may come from myths from the times of matriarchy, but they’ve been redressed and retold for the profit of men so many times that they now follow the very-much-physical male model.

Snap.

So I asked myself, “Self, how can I change this? What must I do to take my female protagonist without female baggage from the point of being the ignorant-young-person-with-no-idea-who-he/she-is and turn her into the hero of a myth based on the power-from-within female model?”

Oh, and then there was this other thing. A reviewer of book 2 (Tainted) said, “In leaving her parents and childhood on Earth behind, Lisen has been forced to rise to the occasion and prepare herself to become the adult her empire requires. This transition parallels the mental and physical changes of puberty, and thus might especially appeal to the young adult reader.” – See more at: IndieReader.com.

Well, that was an assignment I hadn’t anticipated. I was the kid who, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, replied, “Peter Pan.” And I was going to have to make growing up look like a good thing? I sat back, considered where Lisen was going to end up at the end of the story. Did it play up the perks of adulthood, you know, the good stuff? What good stuff you ask? Oh, let’s see, responsibility, freedom that isn’t freedom, life choices that wring your heart. Yeah, that sort of thing.

Okay, so Lisen ends up…oh, wait, I can’t give that away. Not now, not ever. You have to read the books. But I looked at the ending, and here’s what I decided. There’s resolution to the turmoil she suffered throughout the books. Life ain’t perfect, but she’s able to look at what she’s been through with calm acceptance. And there are rewards for her hard work and commitment. Which is the way life is when you’re a grownup, if you accept being a grownup.

So, let’s see, given the mission of telling a story, with a female hero in search of a metaphorical grail, with an alteration of the traditional male-dominated paradigm of myth and with an ending that makes becoming an adult attractive, did I succeed? Only time will tell, but if you’re interested, read Fractured and Tainted, the first two books of Lisen of Solsta which are free until 2/26/2015, and then check out Blooded, the final volume.

A Swann for the Dawn and the Sundown

I cried as I first watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End in the theater. Why, you ask? Let me tell you. Forget Jack Sparrow (a stellar performance from Johnny Depp). Forget Will Turner (Orlando Bloom in all his matinee-idol glory). Because the story, contrary to popular belief, is about neither of them. No, the tale recounted in the first three movies of this franchise begins and ends with Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly in dazzling form).

Remember the lilting voice of a child singing the pirate song at the beginning of The Curse of the Black Pearl? That’s Elizabeth Swann singing her heart out as she and her father sail to the Caribbean. Mother gone, father all that’s left, and she dreams of being a pirate.

The plot twists and turns around a myriad of obstacles and self-serving characters, but watch the movies and you’ll see it. We wander off with an often seemingly lost Jack Sparrow. We follow the perils of Will Turner as he attempts to save both Elizabeth and his own father from doom and destruction. But it is Elizabeth who rises above it all, who, as she matures, gains confidence and the ability to save her own self, thank you. And when we get to At World’s End, she has blossomed into the character most instrumental in determining the course of the conclusion of the story.

I mean, think about it. The battle on the Pearl with Will and Elizabeth almost single-handedly taking on the attackers from the Flying Dutchman, while Captain Barbossa marries the two of them? A girl sword fighting? While sparring verbally with the love of her life? And then marrying him while they’re still fighting the villainous hordes? For this fan of strong roles for women in story-telling and female heroes who aren’t afraid to get dirty, it was heaven. But that wasn’t where I cried. That moment came a little earlier in the movie.

The Brethren Court of the pirates had spoken and named Elizabeth the new King of the Pirates. (I value the screenwriters’ choice of keeping it the “King” even though the new King was not male, but I digress.) As King, Elizabeth leads the pirate lords and their ships into the ultimate battle with Davy Jones and the East India Company. As they face their foe and realize they are massively outgunned and out-shipped, spirits drop.

And then…Elizabeth takes a deep breath, jumps up on the railing and rallies the troops in a speech reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Henry V’s “Once more unto the breach, dear friends….” This young woman—whom some might call a “slip of a girl”—stands up there proud and defiant and smacks these big, strong men around verbally and drags them into fighting mode. I cried.

railing

I literally cried in that theater. Whether consciously or not, the story-by and written-by guys had created the first TRUE female hero to rise to the surface in mainstream popular culture. I know there are many strong women holding their own in movies and books these days, but here’s the thing. Elizabeth Swann seized the mantle of leadership like a man while still maintaining her womanhood, and she did it under the near-impossible odds of a major motion picture with Johnny Depp at the helm of the performance vessel and Orlando Bloom as her love interest. At that moment in time, all eyes were on her, including Johnny’s and Orlando’s, and everyone in the audience knew it. She had commandeered a movie of testosterone-driven derring-do and made it her own.

All hail Elizabeth Swann, the King of the Pirates!

Applause, Applause, a Little Applause

Many, many years ago, I began collecting buttons. Not the kind you use for fastening clothing; the kind with statements on them. You know, the original memes? My first one, given to me by a guy in my senior English class in high school after the summer I first fell in love with The Lord of the Rings read “FRODO LIVES,” in dark blue letters on pale pink. Many more TLoR buttons followed—“COME TO MIDDLE EARTH!,” “FRODO FOREVER,” “FRODO FREAKS OUT,”  and my favorite, “FRODO GAVE HIS FINGER FOR YOU.” I keep those in a small cloth drawstring pouch in my Wedgewood tin along with the rest of these treasures.

The summer after high school I visited Wales, Ireland, England and France. I must have come home with a dozen buttons from that trip. My favorite is the one that reads “UNINHIBIT.” Well, it was the 60s, after all. I loaned that one to someone who never returned it (and if you’re reading this, I want it back). There were also the requisite 60s staples—“MAKE LOVE NOT WAR,” “LONG LIVE THE ETERNAL NOW,” and “MELTS IN YOUR MIND, NOT IN YOUR MOUTH.” Others that were not so common were “EATING PEOPLE IS WRONG” and “UP IS A NICE PLACE TO BE.”

I also own several political buttons, from Tom Hayden’s Senate campaign in 1976 to Kerry/Edwards in 2004. I have a great quote on a beautifully crafted piece which reads, “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got!” credited to Janis Joplin. And how about “NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO THERE YOU ARE”? Ain’t that the truth.

“HOMOPHOBIA DESTROYS FAMILIES”

“to Life, AIDS ACTION COMMITTEE”

“PRO CHILD PRO CHOICE”

You can see it’s an eclectic selection (though the politics remain fairly stable). I even have one that simply says, “HERO,” in white on red.

Today I’m a hero to me. Today I can announce that I am now officially “Award-Winning Author D. Hart St. Martin” whose second book in the Lisen of Solsta series, Tainted, won the Indie Reader Discovery Award in young adult fiction. See their review. Long live the eternal now!

front cover shot - low rez (2)

Celebrate this event with me. Both Fractured and Tainted books are free for Kindle from 5/30 through 6/3/14.

*The theater cat from Archy and Mehitabel