The Story of Youtube

In 2012, after OWEN was written and sold, a video was posted to Youtube. It was a cover of a popular song, and what made the video interesting was that it featured five people playing the song on guitar. On one guitar.

I hadn’t even heard the original when I first saw the video (not uncommon for me), but I was hooked. This, I knew, was how Siobhan made her mark on the world. More accurately, this was how EMILY made Siobhan’s mark on the world.

I remember when American Idol first came out, and a bunch of my friends who are, uh, shall we say “choosy” in their music habits were all “UGH, this is terrible”. I was fascinated, though, because I felt like I finally got to see how music packaging works*.

(Side note: my dad’s favourite bands include ABBA and The Mama’s and The Papa’s, so from the time I was small, I was no stranger to music that was arranged rather deliberately.)

And this is Emily’s world. She is very good at the internet, and she’s the one who talks Siobhan into actually putting the music up for wider consumption. It never would have occurred to Hannah and Lottie (or Owen, for that matter), which is one of the reasons I like Emily so much, even though her scenes are a pain to write.

This was a bit of a shift for me, though, because the musician I had originally modelled Siobhan on was slightly different. Her name is Heather Dale, and she is a true bard. Heather started off writing for Renaissance Faires, and eventually recorded CDs and sold them, and travels a lot to perform. I really cannot understate how beautiful her music is. Every time I play it for someone new, they ask me who she is and comment on her words and voice and diction. She might be the best I have ever heard.

Heather has also made really great use of Youtube, as Siobhan eventually does, but the fact that they both got their start “off camera” gives them a slightly different style. It was a lot of fun to play around with. Heather’s music is intrinsically part of my concept of Siobhan herself and of Siobhan’s musical leanings (in particular THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO in The Story of Owen, and JOAN in Prairie Fire).

I think the BEST thing about music on Youtube, though, is that if you are talented, people will find you. It’s the “if you build it, they will come” mentality, only with music instead of baseball. Siobhan is very talented, and her music catches on because it is familiar…with a twist. My current Youtube infatuation is a duo that I think really captures every part of that.

(Also, check out their cover of TAKE ME TO CHURCH because: my heart.)

The Brooklyn Duo is a thing I never would have heard of, were it not for Youtube. And yet, because they recorded a video and put it on the site, and then someone brought it to Taylor Swift’s attention and she tweeted about it, and because I follow Taylor Swift on Twitter, I have heard of them, and I absolutely adore them.

This is how Siobhan’s music works. She doesn’t have to go town to town, singing for her supper (though she would if she did). Her music reaches farther than she imagined, farther than Lottie ever hoped, because it travels at the speed of WiFi, all around the world.

PRAIRIE FIRE is a bigger stage, and Siobhan’s not entirely ready for it yet, but she will be. She will be.

 

Prairie Fire comes out on March 1st, and is available for pre-order.

 

*So it’s not entirely a Youtube thing. Or even a CURRENT thing. Ed Sullivan was really good at finding niche acts to round out his show (my favourite is Gayla Peevey’s I WANT A HIPPOPOTAMUS FOR CHRISTMAS), but my father had to go to someone else’s house to watch that show. Youtube is much more accessible, and much more difficult to control.

 

And then, a sequel

There are usually some pretty good reasons to write a sequel. Here are some terrible reasons I had:

  • I had promised Tessa Gratton that I would burn down Kansas.
  • I had a vague desire to sic a dragon on the town of Hinton, because one time I was working a contract there in December, and I fell in a creek and had to cut myself out of my snow pants.
  • A song I really liked was exactly the wrong shape for OWEN, but I thought might be okay for PRAIRIE FIRE.
  • I had already come up with the title.

But here is the real reason I ended up writing it:

  • I always knew this part of the story.

In May of 2011, before I sat down to write THE STORY OF OWEN properly, I stood on a bluff overlooking the Athabasca River just outside of Whitecourt, Alberta, and I knew that someday, Owen and Siobhan would go there. It was sunny and windy – too windy, we would learn – and not too cold. Everything about the day was perfect, until we got back to our hotel. “Oh, thank goodness!” the hotel owner said. “You’re the last field crew to come in. I’m so glad you’re safe.” Alberta, it turned out, was on fire. The flames were jumping fire-breaks and highways.  For the next week, the woods were full of noise; there were helicopters and smoke in the air. And that was how PRAIRIE FIRE started.

I came home from Alberta and wrote THE STORY OF OWEN. Then I sold it*, and got an agent. “Is it a trilogy?” my agent asked. “No,” I said. “Can you pretend it is?” he asked. So I did. I pretended there was a second and third book, even though I had no idea what happened in Book 2 and didn’t really want to write Book 3. And everything was going swimmingly until we started editing, and Andrew kept asking questions like “How does the Oil Watch work?” and “No, really, what is up with Sadie?”, and I did my best not to think about it.

But I was. I was thinking about it a lot. I was thinking about it so much that I had come up with a dragon for them to fight and a couple of new characters, and a whole “new” city**. And then I got on a plane to fly to Texas, and listened to THE FIREBIRD SUITE on my iPod, and cried a bit, and wrote, quite fatefully After the Thorskards came to Trondheim, we always had a permanent dragon slayer.

I emailed Josh (“Remember that time you asked me if there was another book and I told you there wasn’t another book? I’m writing another book.”), and Josh talked to Andrew, and I wrote Chapter 1, and then we had a deal for it, and then I buckled down to write the rest.

I was terrified that I would experience Second Book Trauma, but I really didn’t. Instead I had regular old physical trauma, and was unable to sit in a chair (at Starbucks, or anywhere), and so had to mostly write in bed, which is not a lot of fun. Unlike my previous books, which I wrote mostly in one place, I never wrote PRAIRIE FIRE in the same place twice. It was very weird. Also, I had to send the last ten chapters to Emma while she was on her honeymoon, which will be funnier after YOU have read the last ten chapters, but then you’ll understand why John, her husband, gets a spot in the acknowledgements.

The thing I like about PRAIRIE FIRE is that it’s the third book in a trilogy. Sort of. Sarah Rees Brennan has famously said that the basic breakdown of a trilogy is: Meet Up, Make Out, Take Over The World, and I am following that model, but skipping Book 2 (it’s not even because of the kissing! It’s because the whole plot is about small town/rural Canadian politics and NO ONE ALIVE cares about that enough to read it in a book, even if the book has dragons). My apologies to Sadie Fletcher.

I really liked the bigger world, higher stakes, and [redacted for spoilers] that came with writing PRAIRIE FIRE. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

PRAIRIE FIRE comes out on March 1, and is available for pre-order now.

 

 

*Slightly more complicated than that.
**Blog posts to come, obviously.

(Word) Crime and Pun-ishment

One of the things I loved the most about BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was the way that the characters used words. I mean, every TV show and book uses words, but the BUFFY crew managed to do something really cool. Without inventing words or borrowing from other languages (both of which Whedon would do later), the show managed to be linguistically interesting. I could imagine real people talking the way the characters did, because it was such a natural extension of English.

Well, mostly natural.

Anyway, that’s what I wanted to do with my books. I was adding dragons to the world, and I wanted to think about any of the ways that dragons might have changed the way we talk, without changing the way we talk entirely. The key is that you have to know the rules to break them, and I do know the rules. That’s part of what makes it so much fun.

I batted around a bunch of ideas, but ended up deciding on one small change. Since dying, or at least the threat of dying, was so central to the idea of dragon slaying, the words I ended up fiddling with were two verbs: “to kill” and “to slay”.

we are going to die

I set them up as two entirely different words. If a dragons died, it was never, ever, ever “killed”. That word was reserved for humans entirely. I wanted a hard opposite for dragons, which was a problem, because “to slay” has a different form. You have slayed the dragon, but the dragon has been slain.

I didn’t want that. I wanted the word to always be the same. I decided to go with “slayed”, even though it was not entirely grammatically sound, because it was a good mirror for “killed”. Unfortunately “kiln” is not a word that I can use in this context, so it had to be “killed” and “slayed” right from the get go.

Now, I ran approximately a hundred million Ctrl F searches on “killed” and “slain” just to be sure I hadn’t made an oversight while I writing. The only thing I checked more obsessively was the number of syllables in the haiku at the end of the St. George chapter. My point here is that “slayed” is not a mistake. Ever. In the text, in the world of Owen and Siobhan, it is the only word that means you have ended the life of a dragon.

that's how we roll in the shire

I fought with at least one test reader over this from the very beginning, but I was determined to leave it as it was written. During revisions, I explained the world building to my editor, and got to keep it. A couple of reviewers have mentioned using “slayed” as a criticism, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this post. I’m very glad I got to keep my somewhat awkward word choice, though, and that it stayed as subtle as it is, because most of the world building I got to do was very subtle (well, as subtle as a dragon can be), and much of it was word based.

The other place I got to world build was, of course, with the dragons themselves. Here, it was mostly with the dragon’s names, thought obviously their historical impact also came into play.

In OWEN, the dragons are mostly referred to by their Latin (or scientific) names. The corn dragon is my exception, because it’s also my joke: there is no word in Latin for corn, because corn is a North American crop. Accordingly, the dragon is actually called the wheat dragon, which is why it is stupid, and sometimes cannot tell corn from beans.

PRAIRIE FIRE has my favourite dragon name word joke, by far, and also my favourite dragon. But you will have to wait for that.

smaug

The Bayfield Writers’ Festival

I spent most of Saturday in my old stomping grounds, Huron County, where THE STORY OF OWEN is set. I had been invited to speak at the Bayfield Writers’ Festival, put on by the Bayfield Bookshop, and saying “yes” to the invitation was very easy!

Bayfield (named for Admiral Bayfield who, amongst other things, mapped a lot of Canadian coast of Lake Huron), is a gorgeous town, and the weather was bright and sunny. The other writers were all from Toronto, and the comments that kept getting repeated were all to the tune of “This place is so NICE!”

IMG_20140621_113938020

For real. I didn’t put the actual town of Bayfield in my book because I didn’t want to light it on fire. That is how much I love it.

Anyway, the festival was lovely! The town hall was full, and the other writers all gave excellent readings. I was a bit worried, as the only YA writer in the crowd (the audience was mostly retirees), but they all laughed at the right places during my reading, and the Q&A was great.

My favourite part was during the public Q&A part. When the moderator asked if there were any audience questions, there was the traditional 20 seconds of dead silence, and then a woman in the audience said:

“My question is for Kate. What is the Oxford Comma?”

(I mention the Oxford Comma in the jacket of my book, as part of my about the author. Because I am that kind of nerd.)

So I got to nerd out about grammar, and make everyone laugh a couple of times, and we all learned a valuable life lesson about the difference between peanut butter and jam and tuna sandwiches, and peanut butter and jam, and tuna sandwiches.

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After that it was off to the Lion’s Club Chicken BBQ dinner in Seaforth. It’s an elimination draw, along with your food. Once upon a time, the prize was a tractor. The only people I know who ever won it weren’t farmers, so they sold the tractor and basically built another house on top of their existing house. Now it’s money, but it’s a pretty big deal.

Anyway, while we were eating (the largest piece of chicken I have ever seen), and they were drawing (number after number after number), I got to catch up with all kind of people I haven’t seen in a long time, and then a funny thing happened.

One of the women I used to work with at the Nursing Home came over and asked to buy a book (I had brought a couple with me for just this purpose), and while we were talking, she mentioned that she had tried to buy the copy I donated to a charity auction a few weeks ago, except someone kept outbidding her.

I never donated a copy to a charity auction! But someone did! And there was a bidding war, because my co-worker wanted a copy (it was signed), and the owner of the family hardware store in town wanted it too (because his store is in the book, as Archie’s bookstore in Saltrock).

I signed the book, and we both went back to attempting to eat our chicken (thank goodness people kept interrupting and giving me a chance to digest, or I might still be there), and then there was lemon cake, and then we began the two hour process of trying to actually get out of the building.

Fun times, basically.

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Now that I’ve done a couple of school visits in Huron County, I’ve had more than one student be INCREDIBLY surprised that I could write a fun book about the place. I certainly would not have believed it myself, and didn’t, back when I was their age. And yet: a woman with a walker shook my hand and told me she was “mad for dragons”, and at dinner, there was hilarity and excellent food. They might not all be great stories to tell or hear, but they all have the seeds of them, I think, and that is how I do it. I find what’s there. And then I make a dragon attack it.

(Except in Bayfield. Bayfield is too pretty to die.)

Desolation of My Feelings

I learned a very important lesson when Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers came out in theatre.

I was ludicrously excited. I was going with a cousin on opening night (this was, I believe, my FIRST opening night experience). The theatre was packed. The audience was amazing. The movie had everything I wanted: wonderful lines and pacing, great music, beautiful costumes, that scene where Legolas surfs down the stairs on a shield, firing arrows, before kicked the shield INTO AN URUK’S NECK. It also, I believe, has the greatest opening sequence in the history of film*. I was buzzing when I got home, even though I had to go straight to sleep because I had an exam the next day. And just as I was drifting off, it hit me:

Almost everything in “The Two Towers” is wrong.

There is no love triangle. The Ents want to fight Saruman. Théoden’s idea to go to Helm’s Deep is seen by Gandalf as a good decision. And don’t even get me STARTED on Faramir.

We took to calling it “the opposite movie”. When I took my Tolkien and Fantasy class the last year of university, you could easily spot the people who were skipping the readings, because when it came to TTT, they were ALWAYS wrong.

But you know what?

I don’t care**. I don’t care because it held to the spirit of the original text. The Two Towers has some INCREDIBLY DRY chapters, and Helm’s Deep is held to, basically, a PARAGRAPH. I wasn’t really a writer back then, just a reader and a fan, but I understood (most of) why the changes were made. You tell stories differently in print than you do on screen, and for all its “opposite”ness, The Two Towers is a fantastic film.

I’m keeping that in mind as I get all geared up for THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG tonight. We’ve been jokingly referring to it as “The Desolation of My Feelings” all year***, and because it’s the second movie, the “opposite” movie, I know that it’s the one that might try the patience of the purist inside of me.

I’m better about that than I used to be, though. I’m more understand of how the story needs to changed. Yes, I’d rather the barrels were closed, but I am sure there’ll be a decent reason why they’re open. Frankly, I’m looking forward to finding out what that is.

I’ve been avoiding all the reviews and comments and spoilers. I don’t want to know ANYTHING. I know that over the next few weeks, I am going to read things that make my blood boil, but I’m not worried about that now. It’s true, I won’t be going to the premiere as Party Thranduil (I tried, though), but I am planning to have a fun time tonight.

It won’t be the same. It’ll probably be the exact opposite. There will be things that the critics hate. There will be things that YOU hate. But I am going for the music and the effects, for Tauriel and Bard’s daughters, for the first elderly sorcerer buddy cop movie ever made.

And, good lord, I am frelling excited about it.

 

 

 

 

*It was almost beaten out by the opening of Star Trek: The Reboot, but that scene of Gandalf and the Balrog falling through the cavern really seals it.
**EXCEPT FOR FARAMIR.
***The first move was going to be “An Unexpected Party”, after the chapter title, but it quickly became “And Unexpected Journey Into Dwarf Feelings”, because REALLY. The third one is, of course, “There And Back Again, Electric Boogaloo”.

Some Exciting News

*blows dust off of blog*

Sorry, wordpress. Tumblr’s just so pretty.

ANYWAY, there is some GREAT NEWS for Kate fans! I got to do my cover reveal on an in-universe tumblr the week before last, and I’m still not really tired of looking at it, so HERE IT IS AGAIN:

OWEN - Front Cover

But that’s not all!

CarolrhodaLab has put up their spring book list, so you can see my book, and all the books that will be released around the same time.

If you click here and scroll down a bit, there’s a link on the right hand side where you can download THE STORY OF LOTTIE, the first chapter of my book.

You can also pre-order it at the Lerner website, or at Barnes and Noble. If you want to tweet me about it, @ek_johnston, you will pretty much make my day.

Hopefully, I will have a Chapters link for you soon.

That’s all for now! But I am starting to get super excited, so I’m sure I’ll have something to blog about soon.

Book Review: FANGIRL, by Rainbow Rowell

I was totally going to do this as a Waiting on Wednesday, because the book’s not out yet, but if I wait until next week I might forget (again), so HERE WE ARE.

You may have heard of a book that’s currently burning through the bookstore shelves called ELANOR & PARK? The CEO of my company was on Canada AM talking about it just this morning. I haven’t read it yet (OMG, SO MANY BOOKS), because I am trying to write PRAIRIE FIRE, but last week I saw the ARC of FANGIRL, Rowell’s forthcoming title, on the shelf and just could. not. resist.

FANGIRL_CoverDec2012-725x1075

You can’t see it on this version, but the one I had was subtitled The “Story” Of My Life, which is about 18 kinds of perfect for reasons that are [redacted for spoilers]

I found out about this book because I follow gingerhaze, who did the wonderful cover art, both on twitter and tumblr. I think it’s actually kind of fitting, because where better to find a book called FANGIRL than on a blog I started watching because of Broship of the Rings?

(This review, by the way, is probably going to be something of a Word Journey, because I’m not sure I can talk about it without talking about my own experiences in fandom. Which might be the point?)

Anyhoodle, FANGIRL is the story of Cath, aka magicath, who found the Simon Snow novels as a kid with her twin sister, and has never looked back.

The two of them did it all: fanfic, conventions, costumes for the movie premieres. Except now it’s time for college, and while Wren (Wrenagade) has mostly grown away from fandom, Cath is still holding on.

With the eighth (and final) Simon Snow book due out around finals, Cath has to balance her life in fandom with a surly roommate and her charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

I think I am going to have to review this on two levels, one as a writer-of-fanfic, and again as a reader-who-is-a-writer-of-fanfic. So…technically and emotionally, if you will.

I fell in love with FANGIRL pretty much as soon as I opened it and read the fake wikipedia entry for the Simon Snow books. And then it GOT EVEN BETTER, because the book was broken into chapters by excerpts from the novels themselves, as well as scholarly articles and Cath’s own fanfiction. Basically, it was nerd heaven, for me. And as if that wasn’t good enough, Cath’s fanfic shows IMPROVEMENT. Her early stuff is, well, like MY early stuff, and then she gets really good! And when she co-writes with Wren, her style is different. What I am saying, basically, is that Rowell’s attention to detail is beyond perfect.

There were also a lot of hilarious touches that I could relate to. Like struggling with kissing scenes when you write “in public”, and desperately trying to finish a story before the canon comes out and steps on all your dreams and plans, and the pitfalls and high points that come with being a BNF*.

Which leads me to my emotions. Because, lordy, did I have emotions.

So, so often in the “real world”, I am made to feel like less of a person for being a fan. Like it’s a waste of my time and talent. Like I should do “real” writing. Like I should grow up. Cath faces a lot of that, but rather than let it overwhelm her, she lets it help shape the kind of grown-up she wants to be. Her writing prof, who is basically doing that thing where she’s writing fanfiction without realizing that she is writing fanfiction, is both Cath’s biggest block and her biggest encouragement. It’s a position I could identify with all too well.

Cath also has a really, really fantastic supporting cast. I think Reagan (the surly roommate), might be my second favourite character in the whole book. Except for the surly part, she is exactly the kind of roommate I needed (and eventually got) in university. Wren is just a beautiful disaster. And Levi…

Levi should have his own paragraph, really. Except that everything I want to tell you about him is a spoiler. So just take these lines and hold them until the book comes out.

FANGIRL is exactly the kind of book I never, ever dreamed would get written. It takes a topic that’s almost trendy, but not very well understood, and it doesn’t even attempt to explain it. It’s strongest moments are some of the most difficult to describe. It made me laugh a lot, and then at the end I cried because Simon Snow was over, and I remember what that felt like. And then, just to really drive the point home, the book ended with one of the best examples of how to say “I love you” that I have ever come across in my entire life.

This isn’t the kind of book you have your mother read so that she can understand why you need to stay up until 3AM writing stories about characters who have three seconds of screentime together** having a complicated off-screen relationship. This is the kind of book you give to the other fans in your life. It’s something else to hold tight and love, and never apologize for, because it’s freaking beautiful. The writing, the story, the “story”, all of it.

Cath had the “story” of her life, and most of us have ours. FANGIRL is the story of how to make it all work together, and even more besides.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell will be released on September 10, 2013.

 

 

 

*Which, I hasten to say, I never was. I mean, I had followers and stuff, but nothing to Cath’s scale. Of course, I also don’t write about boys kissing (well, in popular fandoms, at least), so it’s to be expected.
**Or no screentime. Let’s be honest.

The Difference A Year Makes

One year ago today, I sent the most nerve-wracking email of my entire life. It looked like this:

Dear Andrew:

Please find attached my YA novel, The Story of Owen. It’s 65,865 words long, and if pressed, I’d say the subgenre is contemporary fantasy. Based on what I know about Carolrhoda Lab and the books you’ve published, I think The Story of Owen would be a good fit because it’s contemporary with a twist.

I’m sending this to you on a non-exclusive basis, and I will let you know if I get another offer or accept agent representation.

I look forward to hearing from you sometime before the end of 2012,
Kate Johnston

It doesn’t look that scary. And it looks even LESS scary when you know that the only parts of it I wrote were:

THE STORY OF OWEN,
65,865,
Comtemporary Fantasy,
THE STORY OF OWEN, and
contemporary with a twist

Seriously. It was FILL IN THE BLANK. That’s the whole query. That’s also why I have never really posted much of a “how I got my book deal” story. Because my story is profoundly useless to other people.

Except. Except it might not be entirely so.

Yes, by the time I queried OWEN I had spent a year on Twitter networking and getting to know how other writers worked. Yes, I read a CRAP TON of books. Yes, I had painstakingly written a different query for two other novels at this point. Yes, I had even tackled the dreaded synopsis. But while all of those things turned out to be tangentially important, there are two things that I often overlook that are MORE important.

The first is that I wrote the book. I realize that seems like an odd thing to forget, but you can have all the connections and have done all the homework, and if you don’t have the book, you can’t sell it. All the other things help (a lot, I can’t understate that: they help A LOT), but at the end of the day, you have to have written the book.

The second thing is that I took a chance. I had my list of preferred agents, but at the very last minute, I decided to query Andrew Karre as well. Andrew was hosting an open call at the time, and it was the second one he’d done since I’d finished writing OWEN*. I had wanted to query the first time, but one of the “no”s was “6. I don’t do high fantasy. Here there be no dragons.“, and that took me out. The second time, though, it just said “any YA subgenre except high fantasy“. And I rolled the dice**.

The rest, as they say, is history. Within a week I had added 18,000 words to the manuscript at Andrew’s suggestion. Within two weeks, I had an agent. And within a month I had a book deal.

So maybe I got lucky. And maybe I knew the right people. But I wrote the book. And I took a chance. And I sent an email that made me nervous.

And I’ve never looked back.

 

 

 

*Though the first since I had really thoroughly EDITED it.
**I am a PEDANTIC rule follower, which is why the first time I went with “no dragons” knowing the book wasn’t high fantasy, and why the second time, I was all “OH GOD I AM BREAKING THE RULES” even though the book STILL wasn’t high fantasy. At this point, I’d been job hunting for MONTHS and I was very good at being “creative” when it came to requirements. Sometimes I still worry that I am not weird enough for Carolrhoda, even though clearly I am. 🙂

In Which I Talk About Princesses

There are going to be quite a few new babies in my life in the next couple of months, and since at least one of them is probably going to be a girl, I’ve been spending more time than usual lately obsessing about princesses.

I’m more than a little disturbed by the current trend of trying to raise girls without princesses. Several of my siblings’ friends are taking this tack. For about ten seconds, I was kind of okay with it, and then I realized that it also excludes Princess Leia Organa, possibly the greatest princess, and example of what makes a good princess, ever written. Furthermore, it suggests that princesses have no inherent value, save as commodities in love and marriage, and that’s just the result of too-casual interpretation of their stories.

Okay, okay: it’s also the result of Disney marketing, which is kind of awful a lot of the time. But in the past few years, even Disney has become much more self-aware (not always in terms of merchandise. That remains depressing. And also not a little bit racist. But in terms of the story), and shutting down their contributions to the genre isn’t fair either.

Take Mulan, for example, who isn’t really a princess, but qualifies for marketing reasons. She is seriously awesome, and puts herself in significant risk for her family (not some dude. Well, a dude. But the dude is her father). She works her butt off, uses her brain, refuses to stop even when her death (by her comrades, not the bad guys) seems imminent, and then she saves the world with cross-dressing (like, they actually say the word). TWICE. That’s exactly the kind of princess who SHOULD be a role model.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Charlotte, one of two princesses in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Charlotte is rich, entitled, more than a little thoughtless, and occasionally a bit dim, but she is BEST FRIEND ever to come out of the Disney canon. She does so much for Tiana, without ever thinking that Tiana owes her anything. This includes respecting Tiana’s love of work (though she does not understand it), giving Tiana what she’ll accept (which is not always a lot), and, most awesomely, KISSING THE DAMN FROG on the off chance that she can save her friend, and make her happy*.

The most interesting Disney Princess, to me, is Mia Thermopolis of THE PRINCESS DIARIES, because Mia is a modern princess, in every way the others can’t be. And, more importantly, what finally, finally, gets her to decide to BE a princess is not pink dresses or frilly tea parties or the ridiculous castle she is going to live in: it is her sense of responsibility. That sense of responsibility, and the idea that she can Do Good, prompts her to give up everything she knows, leave her friends and her mother, and travel to a country she’s never seen. Eventually, that same sense of responsibility leads her to consider an arranged marriage, not because she wants to, but because it is the best thing she can do for her people**. It’s kind of amazing.

To deny the Princess story is to deny the amazing political power that these girls and women hold. There is a book called A GOLD STAR FOR ZOG that my sister was very excited about (it was just published in North America, though it has been in Australia and New Zealand for a while). In the book, a dragon named Zog is in training to be the best dragon he can be, and is aided at various times in his studies by a local princess, to the point where she allows him to kidnap her. She becomes a healer, and patches up the other dragons when they get injured during their training. When a knight shows up to rescue her, she convinces him to follow his own heart, at which point he decides to also be a healer, and becomes her apprentice, and the pair of them fly off with Zog as their transport. At first glance, I should have loved this book.

But.

But what happens to her kingdom? If she was the heir, they’re screwed. Her parents would have invested time in her education and training to rule the kingdom. If she was supposed to marry for dynastic purposes, there could be civil war, and possibly even war with another country. Being a doctor is all well and noble, but I can’t help thinking that her kingdom would have been about a million times better off had she done her duty, become Queen, and founded a medical school.

At one point, the princess even says that she doesn’t want to be a princess, because princesses are useless. And that? That means she never knew how to be a princess in the first place. And by telling children that story, we are ruining the potential for them to realize how, sometimes, what you are is more important than what you want, but that it can be a good and rewarding thing anyway.

“With great power comes great responsibility” is not just something to be said to Spiderman. It applies to princesses too, and to the girls who want to be like them. It’s what made BRAVE so fantastic. As we speak, it is being fantastically chronicled in the Teen section of your local bookstore.

There needs to be an understanding passed to girls (and boys), that whether they are like Charlotte, Mulan or Mia, there is nothing wrong with princesses. Fairy-tales have always existed to provide morals, and if we’ve let those morals become outdated, we’ve failed our children and we have no one to blame but ourselves. The only problems with girls liking princesses are the problems we give them. If they understand – really understand – what comes with the tiara, we’ll all be better people for it.

Recommendations***

THE PRINCESS ACADEMY and PALACE OF STONE, by Shannon Hale. (6+)
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, by Diana Wynne Jones (10+)
GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS and CROWN OF EMBERS, by Rae Carson (14+)
THE PRINCESS DIARIES, by Meg Cabot (book and movie, 12+)
STAR WARS (it is NEVER too early for Princess Leia. Also, include the prequels, especially THE PHANTOM MENACE because the Handmaidens are amazing)

 

 

 

*To be clear, Tiana is also an amazing princess based on her work ethic and self-awareness alone, but she falls into the Mulan category, and I was trying to spread around the credit for AWESOME as much as possible.
**It’s a  bit funny, though. Because, really, the only thing better than Captain Kirk by way of Thor and Emma Swan is Captain Kirk by way of Gimli. I will never understand how anyone could go for Chris Pine when Callum Blue was an option, but clearly I am much too shallow for this.
***It goes without saying that I can talk about this forever, right? I mean, I’ll keep it short, but if you are related to me (by which I mean “have attended a family wedding”) and want me to read things to your kids, I’m probably down with it.

Looking Out The Window

Since I am about to plunge into my own revisions and face down decisions about what to do with things like cellphones and laptop computers, I thought it might be a good time to talk about credibility in fiction when it comes to methods of communication. Or, you know, it’s entirely possible that I’ve been thinking a lot about Middle Earth and this just seems like as good a post as any to hang this on. You pick. 🙂

Anyhoodle, one of the things I always had an easy time wrapping my head around as a kid was how BIG Middle Earth was. I know a lot of people complain about the plodding pace of the Hobbit and The Fellowship, in particular, but it’s a LONG way anywhere in Middle Earth. The movies more or less completely fail to capture this, despite the lingering shots of New Zealand. They try. I mean, Gimli has a line about how it’s been three days without sight of their quarry, but I have my doubts that the days and days in Mirkwood (without food, no less!) will make it into the movie.

And mostly that’s fine. There are nuances that simply do not translate well to modern movies, even though it does have the unfortunate side effect of making Thranduil look like a jerk because he could have solved 90% of Middle Earth’s problems, had he LOOKED OUT THE WINDOW on occasion.

(You can’t just blame the elves for this, by the way. Pretty much all of the various races of Middle Earth are equally bad at it. No, seriously. When Balin and Ori and Oin went to Moria, they sent regular updates for a while. And then they just stopped. And for TWENTY-FIVE YEARS, the Erebor dwarves were all “You know, maybe we should…” but didn’t. I mean, it’s not like Balin had set off for a hugely dangerous, much contested territory, where one time Dain MADE EYE CONTACT WITH THE DEVIL*.)

But that’s the thing about epic fantasy: there is no easy way to communicate. Hobbiton to the Lonely Mountain is like walking to Florida (as the crow flies, and over flat ground, neither of which are possible at the time of the Hobbit). Even when communication is aided by magical means**, there is usually some kind of price for it.

There’s a price for communication in contemporary settings too***. Technology moves very quickly now, so that even a book I wrote a year ago has somethings in it that are already dated.

The classic example, of course, is the movie YOU’VE GOT MAIL, which came out in 1998. Think of all the ways we couldn’t talk to each other fifteen years ago. I had an email address, because we all got one when we were in Australia, but I almost never used it once I got home because I had no one to email. I’m pretty sure we were still using Windows 95, and I don’t think we had the internet at home yet. And that was normal. We phoned Australia on special occasions, but it was expensive.

In the time since then, I’ve lived in 4 different countries, and the only time I had limited communication was in Jordan, when I had to walk down two flights of stairs to access the wireless. Even the workmen on site, who live in tin sheds next to the wadi, had cellphones.

So. The problem in writing stories becomes keeping technology reasonably current, without making it immediately dated. There are still a lot of ways to cheat. Your protagonist can have “old fashioned” parents, who limit them to clunky cellphone with no data plan. Your protagonist can be forced to pay for his or her own technology, thereby limiting access to whatever is available on the current minimum wage or babysitting rate. Your protagonist can have a teacher who insists on handwritten essays because he is concerned about the lack of penmanship in his current generation of students.

That’s enough for a start. But you still have to make decisions like “is there going to be a Facebook-equivalent?” and “How smart are their smart phones?” and “Why didn’t I write a book where they all live in the woods and use candles for reading lights?”

The most important thing is to be consistent. If Thranduil never looks out the window and notices that Sauron has moved in across the street, he has to keep not looking out the window. If your character has an iPhone in chapter one, she needs a good excuse to write an essay on paper in chapter seven. Ask kids, ask their teachers, and ask their parents. Someone will tell you what makes the most sense.

Failing that, keep good notes and do your best not to freak out when your editor notices a small plot discrepancy and then asks you what your take on the technological development of the world you half-invented is. Which is certainly not what I spent last week stewing over****. Keep a grip on the world you’ve built, and nine times out of ten, it’ll have an answer for you when you need it.

*Except, you know, THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED.
**Or magical moths. Or Brain Skyping with Galadriel.
***And Sci-fi too, I hasten to add, though usually in sci-fi you can just break whatever it is your characters use .
****Kind of is.