Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Tough Guide to Running Out of Steam

While searching for online references to Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland, I found Through the Looking Glass: The Secret Diaries. The contributors describe this collection as "A Collaborative Effort Inspired by the Secret Diaries of Cassandra Claire (but without the slash)." I'm embarrassed to admit I recognize the pitfalls of my own writing within these pages. I had hoped I was beyond all of the nonsense of my earlier years. For example, this excerpt from The Secret Diary of Frustrated Writer #42 rings true:

Day 19:

Finished rewriting chapters 1 through 12. Very clever. Characters now eat "zemai" and "t'mat." No one will realize this is corn (maize, get it?) & tomatoes, or if they do, will think I'm clever and original for not having my characters eat stew. Also remembered to mention feeding horses from time to time.

The "stew" reference in the excerpt is a pretty common response to reading Tough Guide. I definitely recommend reading it with a sense of humor intact. After reading Tough Guide, I got frustrated with every single thing in my manuscript. I decided I wasn't going to be anything more than a hack. That decision lasted about five minutes.

Here is a piece of writing I started awhile ago. It was intended as one of the stories the main character in my novel tells her young cousin in order to keep the young cousin entertained:

Once, in a time that was before your time, the King and the Queen of the Azahari lived in a palace cut into the rock of the mountains. The ceilings were covered with raw crystals like the insides of treasure-stones (or geodes, as the people of this age call them). Although there were no windows, the torchlight lamps brought warmth and comfort to all those who dwelled within. The Azahari lived in comfort and ease, for the metals and jewels they mined and crafted were sought by many merchants of the flatlands. Still, the King and Queen were sad, for they had seven sons and yearned for a daughter.

It happened one day that when the King was bathing in his subterranean hot springs, a strange and powerful magician appeared before him. “I know what it is you want,” the magician said, “and I can grant it for you. Take this stone, and grind it into a powder. Mix it into your Queen’s nightly cup of tea, and she will conceive a daughter before the month is gone.” The sorcerer held his hand open, and a dark red stone lay in his palm.

“I thank you, sir,” the King said, and took it.

“There is one condition,” the magician said. “In five years’ time, I will come for your daughter and she will be my own forever more.”

“This I can never consent to,” the King said.

“Then, in five years’ time, if you have not changed your mind, I will ask for something else in your possession that is of equal value.”

The King thought of all of his jewels and precious metals, and said to himself, “Surely, I can afford to give this magician a whole trunkful of treasures.” He agreed to the magician’s conditions. The King did as the magician said, and truly, before the month was out, the Queen was with child. They were overjoyed, for they were of an age when they did not think they could have any more children. Nine months later, the princess Rania was born.

Rania was beloved by everyone, especially her seven brothers, who swore to protect her, no matter what. The King forgot what he had promised the magician until the five years were up. Then, the King told the Queen what he had promised. The Queen was aghast. “How could you have ever entertained such a notion?” she cried. “I will never give my child up.”

“Fear not,” the King soothed. “The magician did say that we could give him something else of equal value.”

“There is nothing that could equal the value of our daughter,” the Queen retorted. “I see I will have to make plans to protect her. Oh, husband, what have you done?”

That night, when the magician came to the gate of the castle in the mountain, the Queen hid the Princess Rania in a treasure chest in a room deep in the mountain. She drilled holes so that Princess Rania could breathe, and set enough food and drink inside the chest for her dinner. “Do not say a word,” she instructed her daughter, “and we will come for you soon.” She did not tell Rania why she was hiding in the trunk, for she did not want her daughter to be afraid, nor did she tell the King where she had hidden their daughter, for fear that the magician could trick it out of him.

“Good evening,” the magician said. “I have come for what you promised.”

“I know,” said the king. “And I remain as firm as I did years ago—I do not want to give up my daughter.”

“Then you must give up something of equal value” the magician said. “Lead me to your treasury, and I will take the equal of your daughter in your wealth.” The King led the magician to the treasury. “There,” the magician said, “I want the entire contents of that trunk.”

The King went to the trunk and opened it. There, inside, was his daughter, quietly munching on a honey-cake. “No!” he groaned.

But the magician laughed, and said, “Your little girl cannot escape her destiny.” The magician grabbed the girl by the wrist and began to drag her out of the mountain-castle.

“Wait!” the Queen said, who had just come in, and saw with dismay that her plans had been foiled. “I must give her bread and meat for her journey.” She gave Rania a bundle wrapped with cloth, and around her neck, she hung a small, embroidered bag. “Keep this safe and close to you,” she whispered, “and all shall be well. I will find you when I can.”

“It is time,” the magician snarled, and this time, he scooped the girl up under one arm. As he strode out of the mountain-castle, the seven brothers, who had just come back from their hunting, saw their captive sister.

“Release her!” they cried as one, and raised their sabers to slash the magician to ribbons. The magician laughed and raised his other arm. The seven brothers fell back and turned into seven stones, black and glistening as obsidian.

As the magician tore down the mountain, the wind became cold and icy and clouds covered the moon. Or so it seemed to Rania, who was terrified. At long last, they reached the magician’s hut. The magician tied a rope around the girl’s ankle and tethered her to a tree. “Here you will stay,” he said, “until I have need of you. Tomorrow, you will do all of the cooking, washing and care of my animals. I will give you no food tonight, for your mother has seen fit to give you provisions.” He shook out his cloak and stomped into the hut.

Rania wept for many things: the loss of her parents, the enchantment of her brothers. But she was also resolute, and decided that the best thing she could do would be to regain some strength. She opened up the parcel and began to eat the bread and meat within. As she ate, she heard a rustling behind her. She saw a hutch, and a hare within. The hare looked at her with dark liquid eyes that seemed to communicate hunger. “Are you hungry, friend hare?” she asked, and offered him bits of her bread. The hare ate them, but only looked quizzically at the strips of meat she had. Rania opened the door of the hutch and the rabbit hopped out. Around its neck was a collar with yellow and white jewels.

I ran out of steam around this point. Perhaps the baby had woken up, perhaps I felt as if I really needed a nap, and when I woke up, I lost the initial drive to finish the story just so that the main character would have something to tell. Here are my remaining notes:

Rope cannot be cut. The hare tries to nibble through the rope, but is unsuccessful. The girl finds a pair of scissors in her little bag, and these scissors slice through the rope as if it were butter. Then the hare somehow makes it known that he wants his collar cut. She does, and the hare transforms into a young man. Rania says that she wants to go back to her parents, but the man says that the magician will find them again, and do worse than transform her brothers into stones. He carries Rania down the mountainside and brings her to safety in a small village, where he believes the magician will not find her. “The magician will think you are looking for your parents, and he will look there. Once he finds out that you are not there, he will look elsewhere, but it will be too late. Stay in hiding and do not let it be known who you are.”

“Where will you go?” Rania asks.

“I go East to raise an army against the magician,” he says. “Then, when we have defeated him, I will find my lost kin and return to them.”

Rania then goes to live with her aunt and uncle, and they keep her identity secret from everyone. Someday, she vows, she will find her parents again and they will figure out how to turn the seven stones into her brothers again. Or something. That is to be worked out somehow. Would a young girl have figured things out? This should be a lot simpler.

It rarely is! If I ever do rework this story fragment into something more, it will be simpler, but it will have an elegance that the ornate rough draft does not have.


Lone Star Ma said...

I hope you finish that book. I'd like to read it.

Saints and Spinners said...

Thanks! I plan to, though it may take me the rest of my life (long may it be).

I'm glad you visited my blog. It's not a given that people who have similar interests would get along, but it's hard not to cheer when someone lists "Wise Child" as a favorite book.

Anonymous said...

i love it! i want to hear the rest of the story! only, leave out the part about the prince going to raise an army and get revenge--that smacks of FFT. maybe he could have some magical powers? ones that he has honed as a rabbit, but couldn't practice against the magician while he was in his rabbit form? also, if the rabbit finds the meat morsel useless, what rania-helper would enjoy the meat morsel?

Anonymous said...

so far, this seems more short story style (a la grimm brothers) than novel. i like the pacing as is. no need to stretch it out like a tiresome slog-through, phone-book length novel. simple is good.

Saints and Spinners said...

ABCGirl-- You're absolutely right about the story being more of a short-story than a novel. The main character in my novel (or rather, long, long short story) is the one who tells the stories. Originally, I fancied her as a sword-swinging hero, just because I loved reading those kinds of books (a la Hero and the Crown), but then it occured to me that I didn't want a fantasy novel so much as a novel with fantasy elements. The main character would probably be lousy with a sword, but why can't she be a strong female protagonist anyway?:) I'm thinking of Lyra Silvertongue in Pullman's HDM trilogy, in particular. That reminds me-- I liked it in the beginning when Gabrielle of "Xena: Warrior Princess" was the storyteller, not the fighter. It was appropriate that she'd cheer Xena on, but that when it came to getting out of sticky situations in a clever manner, Gabrielle was the one to do it. As cute as Gabrielle was with short hair and a fighting-stick, I felt a bit betrayed when she started to fight alongside Xena. I thought, "Oh, there's no place for me in the epic if I can't use a sword or a fighting-stick."

Lone Star Ma said...

You told me about Wise Child, I'm afraid. I'm grateful, too(:

Saints and Spinners said...

Oh my goodness [checks your website] we were indeed penpals. Hey everybody, my penpal from 18 years ago has tracked me down! How did you do it? Please send me an email to It will then forward to my primary account, and I'll write to you from there.

Lone Star Ma said...

Yes. (Pen pals, indeed!)I still write, too. I am working very slowly on 2 books of a mommy nature. I publish a parenting zine-sort of magazine, blog goes with it. Your blog is magical, though. I love it.

Anonymous said...

ah, i now understand your format ideas and i like them! that would be a lovely way to tie together a series of good short stories.

have you read the patricia wrede dealing with dragons series? i don't know exactly whey, but i could totally see cimorene telling her daughter (or young cousin) stories like that.

Saints and Spinners said...

ABCGirl--Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. Yes, I have read the Dealing With Dragons series, or at least the first three. I don't remember them all too well other than the covers by the late great Trina Schart Hyman.

Ever since Canterbury Tales, I've been fascinated with frame tales. (Okay, I only meant that in the strictest literary chronological sense-- Canterbury Tales was not my first frame tale, but it's probably the earliest one I know. I may fancy doing a post about frame tales, or at least stories within stories. I think of all the Little House books, Little House in the Big Woods is my favorite precisely because of the stories within the story.

Saints and Spinners said...

P.S. Yes, ABCGirl, the "toast" story word made it into my inbox!