Archive | February, 2023

A Ballad of Wood and Strings: Concepts, Follow Through, Revision

19 Feb

    I don’t normally like writing about my ideas because they’ll change but, this is as good a time as any to talk about my concepts, and what all changes. There’s plenty of happy accidents, things I didn’t consider, and really the first draft is me taking concepts and scenes and telling myself the story. Revision and editing is where I go, “And I meant to do that”.

               I wrote The Mermaid and the Unicorns for my niece when she was just starting to read chapter books, knowing it would be years before she was ready for that and maybe I would have a good novel when she was old enough. In that book, Esperanza gets her hopes dashed at the musical academy who, despite being a very talented singer, has no bravado and doesn’t know any sort of dancing outside of jigs, which is not ballet or anything fancy. She wants some alone time to mope, and gets preyed upon by a puppeteer who offers to teach her a few things. Esperanza gets turned into a puppet, and is about to be shipped off when Sean and Daphne stumble across her – not knowing it’s her, they think having a little puppet doppelganger is hilarious – and save her. That’s oversimplification, but Esperanza gets saved so good enough.

               It was a scene I really liked but I was worried was too advanced and scary for the target demographic, 10-12 year olds girls. My niece read the story around eight or nine and loved it. I want to say “The Puppet Master” from Avatar: the Last Airbender was among her favourite episodes, and the idea of humans turned into puppets appeals on multiple levels. It lends itself to horror (what did you do to my body?) adventure, themes of theatre and, though they’re often called Chess Masters, lots of villains are the classic scheming, pulling strings sort.

               So it was no surprise when we were talking about books she likes that she wanted a story that focused on the puppeteers. I myself had an idea about a brother and sister who were turned into puppets and broke free, needing to restore their bodies – the original idea was one of the puppeteers with the woman who turned Espy who escaped, but I digress. Now, my niece is a teenager reading more mature books and also wanted to tie in to the middle-grade book. I’ll be the first one to say, “You don’t have to read one to enjoy the other” but I wanted the tie-in to be there, as much as possible having a book meant for 10-12 year olds can tie in to a book meant for a more traditional, 13+ YA audience.

               My niece also had a list of other story suggestions, including: Duology (most plays have two acts, I can work with that) a betrayal by a character who likes being a puppet or at least what was going on, and have characters from the previous book make cameos – she was thinking of Daphne, Esperanza and Sean. My other niece, when I was pitching out ideas at the coffee shop, didn’t like any of the names I had for the main heroine (I named the brother Seth, it’s a joke that won’t translate easily) I think my front runner was Fern, and when I explained that I wanted a natural sounding plant or woodsy name, my younger niece suggested Lily, which somehow suits the character more than I anticipated. Maybe she grew into the name or I made another subconscious association; I’m not sure. As a general rule, I don’t like to have major heroines have the same letter of my first name or share major physical characteristics – we’re all guilty of it at one time, shaddap – so honestly I think the name went from placeholder to definite. Tiffany, on the other hand, was 100% “Tiffany is a medieval name but you wouldn’t think it”.

               The weird part was how all three siblings have really biblical names. Lilies are associated with Easter, and Tiffany is short for Theophania, another word for Epiphany. Seth is the third child of Adam and Eve, and even the father Elias has a really strong biblical name (usually it’s thought to be a variation of Elijah) – leaving the mother, Sylvia (Sylvester and Sylvia both mean forest) as the only one really more tied to the natural and woods. All these ideas about life and atonement, in a world that wouldn’t necessarily have Christianity, actually helped resolve an issue I had later when it came to another major character’s death. (I’ll talk about this issue in another post. Hallo, Narnia).

               How I started was I wanted to make it possible to track down the person who turned someone into a puppet, and I thought about what I’d already established. So if possible, I wanted to make at least either the brother or sister have a realistic skill when it came to tracking, roughing it and generally speaking, not be babes in the woods unable to function. I figured because they were young, both would be more realistic. Siona, Terrence’s husband, was implied to help hunt unicorns before she married Terrence, (implying she was the virgin, her skill set was never specified) and she was the one who had access to horns to help Daphne. I figured Seth and Lily’s parents were once big game/magical game hunters, retiring to have a boring life where the siblings are all craving something more exciting. They diversify in what their actual desires and problems are, but it’s a launching point. I never explain the change of heart, but Siona was in awe of Unicorns the previous book and, I figured they didn’t realize what they were doing until after the first successful hunt and stopping anyone else from taking a horn was a good back story. Disgraced, the hunters retire to some town where no one knows who he is and raises his children in peace, and rumors circulate that he was a coward (Implying Sylvia had nothing to do with it, lest the truth surface) as opposed to refusing to do what they knew was wrong. Teams were usually used in the fabled old Unicorn Hunts, so I decided to expand on that; I made the father Elias the tactician and most like a ranger, and made the mother Sylvia the lore expert and scholar.

               Elias has PTSD and Sylvia struggles keeping him well as well as raising teenagers, but she’s the one writing down what to do and how to handle various magical creatures, which proves invaluable when the theatre masks come out and start to transform people into monsters. She doesn’t have any notes on humans turned to wood and string, but given their skillset, it was more than enough to make the trio of siblings capable in a strange world.

               From there I diversified skillsets.

               Tiffany gets the short end of the stick, being the sibling in need of rescue but, it’s pretty obvious that she’s also making the best of a terrible situation and isn’t sitting in the corner weeping. She’ll be more balanced in subsequent drafts. I also plan to use her viewpoint more in the second book.

               I gave Lily a mandolin early on because my one niece plays the flute, the guitar, the harp, and probably is dabbling in something else. This turned out to be super important and why she’s targeted, even though Seth and Tiffany play it as well (family instrument) I figured an instrument that could be played as well as sung at the same time would be best, as well as one that could transported easily. The woman in The Mermaid and the Unicorn played the piano, and used it to weave her spell. On the run, she needed something… or someone… to do it for her. Lily also studied some swordsmanship and fighting with one of the town recluses, so even though all three siblings could play the mandolin, Lily was the best option to use because she could put up the biggest fight. Lily’s the dutiful oldest sibling.

               With Seth I cranked out hunter skills. Technically the sibling are shepherds, but Seth is most likely to leave Lily in the field and Tiff to do the more house and nearby chores and wander in the forest. Lily and Tiff are more dutiful, and Seth was most likely to be a creative problem solver and his archetype is leans towards trickster as opposed to standard hero. My original thought was to make him and Tiffany twins so they were both the same age but, I liked the idea that the midwife said, “Tiff was supposed to be born first, but he distracted her and pushed her out of the way at the last minute. She’s never quite forgiven him.” He refused to learn from the swordmaster, caring about his reputation, but he still paid attention to what Lily learned. He’s more diversified; he’s a little quick on his trained shots but can throw axes and use a sling, as well as climb and repel and forage better than anyone.

               In TMatU, Daphne encounters a wyvern in the mountains during her quest that is driven off, its fate is unknown. I figured if people from a town or village would be distracted by a monster stealing their sheep and potentially threatening their farms, they might overlook a stranger who came into town. Their father leads a team but the siblings ultimately kept out of the hunt for the wyvern (Seth goes but is brought back, he’s reckless but really it’s by his being there makes his father focus on protecting Seth not the hunt) and both Lily and Seth are resentful about what it’s all about: Protecting people who can’t help themselves. Sylvia knew if it was about the prize she would take the oldest two and have Tiffany sent to Taralee, but stays behind to keep the villagers safe because she knows how to lessen the chance the wyvern will return – unlike humans, wyverns can fly and move quite far in a short amount of time. Both Seth and Lily are among the best people who could protect the villagers if the wyvern comes back, but neither are happy about the situation. Strange woman stumbles into town, and the real plot starts; the woman gets to know the villagers and asks Lily to learn a piece of music that gets stuck in her head, and felt completely taken over when a mask was put on her face. She knows it’s not logical, not right, and goes back, into a trap. The story launches with Seth and Lily following after the woman, who has transformed their friends and little sister into puppets, Seth a free puppet and Lily still with a song she can’t get out of her head, following her before the trail goes cold.

               Oh, and they have a kitsune with them too.

               I then had to think about why someone would want human (and other) puppets – especially when I implied in the previous story a girl like Esperanza was valuable. Young, pretty, with a good singing voice – and at the same time, this is a YA novel for my niece, so rather than just wizards who wanted slaves or whatever I had to come up with a story. And that isn’t to say that it wouldn’t have been enough to just sell them to unsuspecting theatre folk.

               The original idea was that there might be someone who was dying and better off as a puppet and wanted others like them to populate the world so they wouldn’t be the only one. I sort of used this but expanded on it – one of the major characters would have been dead in a few more days without intervention, so someone who cared about him helped bring the curse about the castle. He can’t prove anything but is immensely aware that in a way, he was lucky about the curse, and new puppets come and go – ripped from their lives he has an immense sort of survivor’s guilt on his shoulders. I also wanted there to be a bigger, more sinister motive, so I ran with “You are not the reason for the curse. Your loved ones were manipulated too – before they ever had strings to pull.” My original idea was once the curse was lifted, this character would die and he’d rather have that than live his life as half-life enchanted object, realizing it wasn’t his fault that people had theirs uprooted on his behalf yaddah yaddah and make peace with it.

               Then it occurred to me: Target audience.

               I never played Final Fantasy X, but it is infamous where the main character, upon finishing the quest, disappears from existence; he essentially dies. Several years later, a sequel came out where it was clearly aimed at female gamers, and if you did a perfect play through, I think twice, you could bring him back. I think this is a good example where the creator wanted him to stay dead for creative purposes; bringing characters back from the dead is often done cheaply, and I want there to be consequences. The stakes are real.

               I mentioned the idea of killing off the character in question and my target audience (niece) wasn’t happy. But thematically, I’d already thought it through so I didn’t care, because I thought it would hammer down on tragedy and comeuppance. Thinking about it, and the reader, I’m not opposed to killing him off, but not  way I originally planned. Given the other characters, I found a plausible way to keep him alive and even fix his problem. Plus, there’s a whole other book that needs to be written. So as of right now, end of the first book, he doesn’t make it out unscathed, but I have a whole other book to write. I have ideas, and as of right now, I need to revise a few more scenes so I can leave it alone. I thought I’d be taking a break from it and working on something else, but who knows? I for one like it when series are written like they’re meant to be two parts, so maybe I’ll hammer out quite a bit of the next story before I get to the hard edits and more revision.

               It feels like I am giving away a lot, but really it’s a WIP and there’s so much I haven’t gotten into. Subsequent drafts will have significant name changes, characters, ideas and themes explored. Ron says there’s too many named characters, but really it’s just supporting cast. One thing I know for sure is that the beginning concepts sometimes have hidden meanings I don’t understand myself, and I surprise myself. My favourite so far, is that many of the puppets who are knights have motifs on their armor: we have a justice-seeking crescent knight, one has a boar, another has a hawk, etc. I threw Wolf on one of the main ones who’s uber important to the plot because it’s almost a cliché, but then it occurred to me: These main characters are sheepherders, and his designated role is Wolf.

               Also, did I mention there’s a kitsune?

               Foxes vs Wolves

               Let’s play.