The Horror of Children’s Stories

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This is repost from an earlier one. It’s still relevant though.

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

You might think the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.

My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.

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The Next Book

This year, 2015, has been an interesting one for me. I have two novels published, with a third due out in December. I have also had three short stories appear in print, with another two also due in December. So as far as writing goes, things have been going pretty well. More than a lot of writers achieve, less than others, but for me, very credible.

However, lately a couple of darker matters have reared their heads to remind me that life isn’t always the way you’d want it.

First up, yes, I have had two novels published with a third one on the way. However, I have my fair share of rejection slips and some stories and books that have been completed but have yet to find a home. This always leaves a writer frustrated, especially those stories that have gone out several times and been knocked back with polite “no thank yous”. You start to feel just a bit sorry for them, as well as yourself as a writer.

I’m working on it.

On a more personal level, my mother has Alzheimer’s and requires more and more care as time goes on. I am her full-time carer, so quite a bit of my day is taken up looking after her and coping with her inability to remember things. This leaves less time for writing and even when I am writing means a lot of interruptions.  Not that I begrudge her need for ongoing care, but I think you know what I mean.

Besides, I’m not the picture of health myself. I have glaucoma and psoriasis, both of which are inconvenient if not particularly dangerous in us if treated. I’ve had to live with them all my life.

So it isn’t all going my way, particularly recently.

But back to the good things. At the end of October this year I decided to enter NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which is an international writing challenge to write 50,000 words in the month of November. To save you doing the Math, that’s 1666.6666 words a day. Call it 1667. There’s no prize other than the satisfaction of having completed the challenge. I decided to use NaNo to kick start a new science fiction/horror series, The Scream of Years. Now, on Tuesday 24 November, I am on 54,000.

That’s something to be proud of, with 6 days to go and already four thousand words over the target. Of course, it isn’t necessary to stop at 50,000, so I can keep going and really make a start on the first draft of the first book, which has the working title Shine and Shadow. It’s been a full-on experience, given that my writing technique consists of having some sort of vague idea of what I want and making it up as I go.

So, I have a books and stories without homes at the moment, although they will get one, don’t fear about that. And my personal life isn’t one I’d recommend. But here’s the thing: I’m focusing on the next book.

And that’s really the heart of being a writer. The next book. Not this one, or the ones that have found homes or are still at the orphanage, but the next one. That’s the most important book of all.

A writer should never stop being a writer. Whether you spend a lifetime plugging away and get one short story printed in your local paper, or whether you’re the next John Grisham, never stop being a writer. Always make a start on that next book.

That all that counts.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

Avoiding Cliches Like the Plague

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a cliché is (a) a hackneyed phrase or opinion or (b) a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person. I used to have a dictionary of clichés, I think also published by Oxford. The precise purpose of such a reference source eluded me. Perhaps it was so people could check they were not using clichés in their writing or speech.

Because, of course, we must avoid using clichés. In this post I’m not so much concerned with the first definition above. We all recognise these things for what they are pretty quickly:

Not in a million years…

For all intents and purposes…

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks…

As heavy as lead…

Millions of these things are espoused daily and eliminating them isn’t too hard with a careful edit. But today I want to discuss the other definition, which is far more insidious in writing and film. The situational cliché. The story that goes along predictable lines and ends the same way lots of other stories have in the past.

There are lots of these too. I mentioned one years ago when I reviewed a film, Hansel and Gretel. There it was what I called the “too cool to look” hero walk. You know the one. The hero has just beaten the bad guy and lit the fuse for an explosion. As the bomb detonates in the background the hero is seen walking towards the camera, dead-pan expression on his face or maybe lighting a cigarette, not bothering to glance over his shoulder as the explosion blows the final shreds of the villain away. It’s meant to show that the hero is ultra-cool, so cool in fact he can ignore an event that would have everyone else ducking for cover or at least turning around to look at*. So cool he doesn’t need to run.

It’s been done a lot. It’s a cliché. It’s the sort of thing writers need to avoid.

I myself had a recent problem with a cliché ending to a series I’m writing at the moment. My cliché was “the hero sacrifices herself to save the world but isn’t really dead and comes back when everyone least expects it and manages to destroy the bad guy…” I wanted to avoid it and it took a while to do so.

The Star Trek film franchise did this a lot. In The Wrath of Khan Spock is killedHe’s back in the next movie, not really being dead at all of course…well, sort of but not really. Even the Enterprise has been destroyed a number of times but there is always a new one just being completed the crew can transfer to. Handy, that.

There are book series out there that have cliché endings. Lots of them. The Harry Potter series for instance. Harry gets killed and brought back to life because he’s not really dead…well, he is, but not really. In his book Destiny Unfulfilled: A Critique of the Harry Potter Series, Jim Adam states that J. K. Rowling uses the cliché of the Christ-like sacrifice to save mankind (or in her case Wizard-kind). The hero needs to die, to sacrifice his or her own life, in order to save the lives of others.

That’s been done too.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christ-like sacrifice, except that it’s been done. A lot.

And this was the problem I had. It took a while to solve it, required me to consult with my editor, and is going to necessitate a heavy re-write of the last part of my final book in the series, but at least I am happier with the ending.

Cliché is an easy trap to fall into. Movies, especially the plethora of prequels and sequels they engender, are full of them. Books, too. A good writer should be careful to spot them as they arise and deal with them before it’s too late.

Damn! Before it’s too late… A cliché!

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* It always strikes me as a bit weird: surely the only person not looking at the explosion is the one who set it off. Think about it. The villain blows something up and the police don’t know who to arrest. Try arresting the only person in the street NOT looking at the explosion!

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

Male Fantasy Action Heroines, or Gender Writing by the Opposite Gender

It’s a great scene in the movie Alien. Ellen Ripley is the last surviving member of the crew of the mining ship Nostromo, who have been wiped out by a marauding alien monster. In a desperate bid to reach the lifeboat before the self-destruct timer reaches zero, she grabs a flamethrower, rolls up her sleeves and does a great Sylvester Stallone impression as she fights the evil critter and avoids becoming dessert.

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(Screenshot from Alien, 1979, Brandywine Productions and 20th Century Fox).

In fact, she’s acting just like a man would in the same situation. Later, of course, there is the even more famous scene where she strips down to her underwear and still manages to defeat the alien (admittedly by clambering into a space suit first, but we all knew she was still in her undies inside it). What a woman! Not only can she defeat a giant killer xenomorph, but she can do it in her cotton socks!

There are countless examples of this trope in cinema and books. I call them “male fantasy” action heroines because basically they are designed to appeal to the following things male viewers/readers like to see in such a character:

(a) knowledge of how to use weapons, mainly ones that go “bang” and fire endless rounds of ammunition without the inconvenience of needing reloading;

(b) being good-looking, preferably in clothing that is as tight as possible, or else clothing that has been torn and shredded by past encounters with the antagonist (or, like Ripley, in as little clothing as possible);

(c) the propensity to swear, drink and/or spit, combined with an ability to level an opponent with one punch or with a well-placed high kick while suspended in mid-air (I’m looking at you, Trinity). Preferably all of these at the same time.

I’ve never met a woman like that in my life. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to, but I never have. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

The question I ask is, can a male writer write effective, believable female characters, particularly main characters? Can a female writer write effective, believable male protagonists?

It’s hard writing the opposite sex, particularly from that character’s POV. There have been some howling errors in the past, and some authors have eschewed writing opposite gender characters at all in order to avoid the issue. Even the greats have faced this problem. Isaac Asimov, for instance. I doubt many readers would say he wasn’t a certified genius in the science-fiction field. He was even a feminist. But his list of strong, story-important female characters is terrifyingly small.

Now of course, it’s easy to say that male dominated science-fiction and fantasy books at the time Asimov was writing were the norm. Even Tolkien had few female characters. It was also true of other genres where action scenes were expected, like James Bond. Of course women weren’t seen in those times as action heroes or even necessarily important for a story other than as “peril monkeys” that needed rescuing by the athletic male lead.

But times have changed. Unfortunately, it means that a lot of writers now think women have to be just like men in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, I think a lot of women writers think the same thing.

So, what do we do? Well, what I do with my stories is have strong female protagonists who act like women. All my books so far have featured female leads. The guys are there, and taking major roles, but the lead protagonist role is female. And I’m a guy. So writing from a female POV is tough. (Especially in my book Plato’s Cave, in which I write as a female in first person POV. My mother didn’t understand it at all.) But what I’m not trying to do by this practice is have female characters that act and sound like men. Women have better things to do with their time than be just like guys.

And they can be far more effective as characters  by not doing so.

Sure, it’s tough. When I was a teenager and writing lots of books (none of which saw the light of day of course) all of my female characters acted like teenage boys. Fair enough, I was a teenage boy myself at the time and didn’t really have enough writing skill to create more realistic characters. But the trick is to avoid that mistake now.

So female writers should try to write strong male parts. Male writers should try to write strong female parts. Just don’t make them reflections of how you want them to be. Make them how they are. And if that means getting a second opinion and maybe doing some research, then that’s what it takes. But don’t shy away from the idea.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my tips for writing strong female leads (especially if you are a guy):

1) Get a woman to read what you’ve written. Someone you can trust to give constructive feedback. Ask her if the character behaves as she (the reader) expected.

2) Before a female character does something, stop and think. Is this cliché? Would a guy do this? But be careful to avoid going too far the other way. A female character who makes sure her lipstick is right and checks her hair before going into battle is going to get you just as many howls from your readers as making her too “butch”. Maybe even more so.

3) Is there some way the character can solve a problem without resorting to immediate violence? Can she think or talk her way out of the situation? What are her priorities? Immediate personal survival? Protecting others? She might be able to side-step around the issue and approach the problem from a different angle.

4) Show the reader how the character is feeling as much as what she is doing. Women tend (please, don’t get mad – I send tend) to focus more on emotional response and be more aware of their emotions than guys. If you can’t emote with your characters and show the reader how they are feeling at any given point there are two problems: (a) you aren’t used to expressing your own emotions in the real world; or (b) you’re an emotionless robot.

Female action heroines can be girls as well. Give them the chance to do so. I love Sigourney Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley. I really do. But the story could just as well  have been about Edward Ripley without any change to the plot*.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com

* I do admit that in the later movies of the Alien franchise, and Alien3, Ripley does act more nurturing and caring.

The Sequel Got Me!

I’m writing a sequel.

This isn’t necessarily something odd. A lot of writers write sequels. I’ve just finished writing a trilogy* myself, so that’s two sequels one after the other I guess. It’s even expected these days that writers write sequels. Series, we are told. sell. Movies are the same. No one just makes a movie these days, the make entire franchises. They even split books in half to make two movies out of them. All right, that’s fine…a little desperate, but fine. However, this time it’s a bit more noteworthy.

You see, I’m writing a sequel I never intended to write.

A few years ago I finished writing a book called Days of Iron, which was a science-fiction thing I had started writing when I was 17 and scribbled at and tinkered with for years and years until eventually I self-published out of sheer frustration to get the damn thing off my mind.

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By the time I’d finished it (140,000 words in total), I pretty much had the story out of my system. I killed off one character and made sure the others had nothing left to do by the end. I tied up loose ends and added enough information for the readers to piece together any minor plot points not explicitly resolved.

Then it got published. Then I had people reading it (which is something every writer wants to have happen when they publish) and people were suddenly asking me when the sequel was coming out.

‘What sequel?’ I would reply innocently, my heart going pitter-pat just a little faster because (a) I was excited that readers liked the book enough to want more and (b) There was no sequel. Who sent round a memo saying there was a sequel?

What I’d forgotten in writing the thing was that when I was 17 (which was deep, deep in the Twentieth Century) sequels were not the thing. Writers occasionally wrote series, but they weren’t expected to if they didn’t want to. By the time I’d finished writing it (it took me the best part of thirty years) things had changed drastically. Now it was you write a book, you write a sequel. And follow it with a series. Personally, I blame Star Wars. George Lucas made a block-busting ride-of-a-lifetime movie and then casually announced it was the first of nine films. Suddenly Hollywood wanted sequels. And so writers were expected to write series, to the point that publishers and agents now expect writers to write series. And so did the fans.

And don’t get me started on prequels, which as a word didn’t even exist when I was 17. In the old days if any prior information was needed to understand the book the author wrote a Prologue. J. R. R. Tolkien of course went the whole hog with The Lord of the Rings, including both a Prologue and a novel-length set of Appendices. But we can forgive genius its excesses.

So anyway, here I am, writing a sequel, Shepherd Moon, that I am contractually obligated to produce. Actually, it’s rather good fun visiting the old characters. And I have no need to world-build, given that the world already exists. The politics, economics, social structure and cultures of the universe in question are already in place and I just have to write.

But it wasn’t that easy to think of a story I didn’t know existed. It’s there now, and simmering away quite nicely. Now I’m into it, I’m as interested in the story as I hope readers will be. I discovered that the story was there, lurking in the corner, desperate to make itself known. And once I got into the story, I managed to slam down over 90,000 words in a couple of months.

Now I have to turn it into something worth reading, which is where the work comes in. Of course there are inconsistencies, plot holes and that eternal question of which characters do I bring back and which do I let go their merry ways, and are my new characters interesting enough to belong there and yet not too interesting that they over-shadow the efforts of the regulars?

I have until December this year to deliver the manuscript, which might seem like a long time but isn’t really. Not for me. Being a perfectionist with detail isn’t doing myself any favours.

So there we are, a sequel in the works. And the really scary thing was that I discovered lurking in the corner of this new story was another one, that hints of its own existence and put its hand up tremulously to enquire, about half-way through, ‘Excuse me, when is it my turn?’

So Days of Iron looks like becoming a series. But that’s a good thing.

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*The first volume of The Jabberwocky Book is now out from Permuted Press. The Red King. The rest of the series, An Unkindness of Ravens and The Looking-Glass House, will be out this year and next year.

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Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com