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Author: Tina Jens

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Columbia College Chicago Alumni Fantasy Writers Look at the Changing Role of Heroes in Terry Pratchett’s Troll Bridge Film

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Columbia College Chicago Alumni Fantasy Writers Look at the Changing Role of Heroes in Terry Pratchett’s Troll Bridge Film

Troll Bridge, Snowgum Films (2019)

The air blew off the mountains, filling the air with fine ice crystals.

It was too cold to snow. In weather like this wolves came down into villages, trees in the heart of the forest exploded when they froze. In weather like this right-thinking people were indoors, in front of the fire, telling stories about heroes.

This is the epic, atmospheric opening to Sir Terry Pratchett’s marvelous short story, “Troll Bridge,” set in his Discworld series. 

As I write this, it is not too cold to snow, though it’s much too nasty to be outside. The wind is howling and the snow is blowing, and here in Chicago they’ve predicted we’ll get a foot of snow in 48 hours. Texas looks like the Midwest in winter, and there’s damned few snowplows in the Lonestar state. A whopping 80% of the US currently has snow on the ground. 

In past winters, I have seen coyotes slinking around the park a block from our condo building, and one glorious Yuletime night, I saw a 10 point buck, antlers coated in ice, standing in the middle of Michigan Ave, on the Magnificent Mile. It was an icy, wind-whipped night, the type where the snow turns everything it touches into a glowing icicle. Only the buck and I were foolish enough to be out that night. That was 30 years ago, and I remember it clearly to this day.

As the wind howls past my window tonight, it takes little imagination to think packs of wolves might be coming down from the wilds of Wisconsin to stalk through the streets of Chicago.

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With Dark and Twisted Turns: Bad Times at the El Royale

With Dark and Twisted Turns: Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale

I just watched Bad Times at the El Royale and really liked it. It was clearly influenced by the best of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

The cast is an impressive one, including Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth (giving a remarkable messianic performance worthy of Jim Morrison), and Nick Offerman (in a small role). Cynthia Erivo also does her own singing. Her voice, like her acting, is stunning, and she provides the soundtrack to much of the movie.

Dakota Johnson, Cailee Spaeny, and Mark O’Brien also turn in top-notch performances. All the actors are excellent, and I do mean that. I’ve never seen a movie that was more perfectly cast and perfectly acted.

It toys with who the protagonist or point of view character is, slipping in and out of each character deftly. Each is revealed to be not who we thought they were, and then when we think we know who they really are, that’s proven wrong, too. With dark and twisted turns it explores the question of what is good and what is evil. It posits that there’s more than a little of each in all of us.

The movie handles time slips really well, which allows us to see scenes from different perspectives, turning our understanding of the events upside down.

The pacing is unusual, which is probably why the movie wasn’t a bigger hit. In the beginning, particularly, you have to settle in and not try to rush it. It starts out at a low simmer, lulling you into a false belief that you know what’s coming next. That makes the reveals that are coming far more powerful.

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: The Many Faces of Bob Weinberg

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: The Many Faces of Bob Weinberg

Bob Weinberg and Tina Jens-small

Robert Weinberg and Tina Jens

In many ways, Bob was like the Tony Randall character in the movie 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. In the movie, Tony Randall is the “owner“ of a mysterious circus that visits a western town. He appears in different guises to teach the townspeople what they each need to know to become better people. Based on a novel by fantasy writer Charles G. Finney, the screenplay was written by one of Bob’s favorite authors, Charles Beaumont. To one townsperson, Dr. Lao is the oracle Apollonius; to another, the music-loving, goat-god Pan; to yet another, Merlin the magician and wizard.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Character Profile Sheet — Revised

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Character Profile Sheet — Revised

DandD sheet-small

In my last blog, “Getting to Know Your Omniscient Narrator,” I promised to share my personal character profile sheet. I used to use it on my primary and secondary characters for all my stories. But I haven’t use it in awhile. When I took a look at it, I realized it needed serious revamping. So, here’s the new and improved version.

In the process of revamping it, I realized my writing is stronger when I take the time to really figure out who my characters are: what their quirks are, what makes them an individual. My subconscious can then go to work connecting dots, finding patterns, devising solutions to problems that are uniquely suited to that character, discovering actions and reactions that FEEL right.

I know some authors use a basic RGP character sheet, such as Dungeons & Dragons, but for me, that doesn’t go far enough.

Knowing that my protagonist’s favorite ice cream flavor is peach pecan and they turn very dark and maudlin when they drink tequila may never come up in the story… but it might. Knowing lots of little details about them helps you inhabit your characters and makes them feel more alive.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Getting to Know Your Omniscient Narrator

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Getting to Know Your Omniscient Narrator

sky god

With the exception of “Folksy Narrators” we often think of omniscient narrators as omnipotent sky-gods who are so vast and powerful that they’re unknowable entities. But looking at them that way hides away a helpful tool in crafting and revising our fiction.

(My blog on folksy narrators is here.)

On Friday, I was leading a seminar for Myth-Ink, the Columbia College genre writing student group, on how to do public readings. They were gearing up for when they’ll be the featured readers at my Gumbo Fiction Salon reading series next week. One of the young women was practicing the first two pages of a story about dragons. Her first read-through was fairly lifeless. She didn’t have confidence in her own vocal skills, and it didn’t sound like she had confidence in the story. We had already gone over many of the basic tips, so I took another tack. I asked her some questions.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: The 9 Aspects of Story Promise

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: The 9 Aspects of Story Promise

trainspotting-small

At a novel writing boot camp I attended many years ago, at our first gathering, opening scenes written by each participant were read anonymously. One has stayed in my mind. It was a humorous gross-out scene that was literally bathroom humor. It was crass, and nearly everyone found it hilarious. I was one of the few who didn’t love it. At the time, I couldn’t explain what bothered me about it, beyond the fact that I don’t care for gross-out stuff or bathroom/body-fluids humor. Though I couldn’t find the words at the time, it wasn’t the indelicate content that was ultimately bothering me.

Only years later did I have the vocabulary and technical understanding I needed to put it into words: I doubted that it was an accurate Story Promise. Was the rest of the book going to be that scatological? Could the author maintain that high-energy gross-out humor for an entire novel? (Certainly, there are authors who can, but it’s a rare gift.)

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: The Multiple Personalities of Omniscient 3rd Person: Spotlight on “Folksy Narrator/ Storyteller”

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: The Multiple Personalities of Omniscient 3rd Person: Spotlight on “Folksy Narrator/ Storyteller”

Discworld-small

This is part 10 in the Choosing Your Narrative Point of View Series.

This style is most often seen, within the fantasy genre, in fairytales, fables, and humorous fantasy by authors such as Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and others.

It is not unusual to see this technique used in other genres and subgenres, as well. It is characterized by a distinctive, often folksy, voice that clearly establishes an additional “character” in the narrative, who usually does not take part in the action. It is often, quite literally, a disembodied voice. This is true in Pratchett’s Discworld.

A good example of this is the oft-used introduction to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The version shown here is from the opening paragraphs of The Fifth Elephant.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Researching the Tropes

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Researching the Tropes

Sun Wu-small

My Fantasy Writing Workshop (Columbia College Chicago) starts each semester by writing a shared private encyclopedia of genre tropes. Each week has an assigned category. The categories are: monsters or magical creatures; gods, demi-gods, or powerful spirits; magical artifacts or prophetic techniques/devices; and historical people. The students each write one entry per category, then the following week, all the entries in that category are part of their assigned reading.

For each category, I’ve compiled a list of at least fifty potential subjects with short descriptions taken from across the world cultures and mythologies to get them started. Many of the entries have alternate spellings, and some reference books contradict each other, so students are required to use more than one source in their research.

Here’s a list of a few of the monsters/creatures in the first unit.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: I’d Rather Be a “Librarian” Than a Disney Princess

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: I’d Rather Be a “Librarian” Than a Disney Princess

Librarian 1

On the advice of my students, I’ve finally delved into The Librarian/s franchise. If you haven’t encountered it yet, there’s three made-for-TV movies (The Librarian: Quest for the Spear; TL: Return to King Solomon’s Mines; and TL: Curse of the Judas Chalice), starring Noah Wylie, Bob Newhart, and Jane Curtin. They’re a wacky spoof of adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Congo. Seeing Bob Newhart wield a broadsword and fend off villains is worth the price of a theater admission.

In 2014 the franchise was turned into a TV series, The Librarians, which made the unique move of keeping the three movie leads on in bit or slightly bigger parts, while bringing in three new young assistant librarians and a guardian (bodyguard) who have the bulk of the adventures. They also introduced a new “caretaker,” (mentor and minder) who is the immortal Sir Galahad, played with disarming charm by John Larroquette. Christian Kane is one of the new librarians. He plays basically the same character he played on Leverage, which is delightful.

The series airs on TNT. The movies and previous seasons are available on Amazon Prime video, at the moment. Jonathan Frakes has directed eight episodes. Matt Frewer, Vanessa Williams, Rene Auberjonois, John de Lancie, Felicia Day, and Bruce Campbell (as Santa) are among the guest actors from the genre world.

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Things Your Writing Teacher Never Taught You: A Look at How Peter Straub Crafts His Opening Chapters

Things Your Writing Teacher Never Taught You: A Look at How Peter Straub Crafts His Opening Chapters

Peter Straub smallTaking advantage of the fact that I’m not teaching this summer, I decided instead to take a course in the Fiction Program at Columbia College: Censorship and Writing. The course explores many kinds of censorship, not just the book-banning, burning, remove it from the library kinds. It includes self-censorship, social censorship, and censorship in the news, among others. Last week, one of our assignments was to write an essay about something we had learned about writing from reading another author. I chose to look at how Peter Straub crafts a rich and complex opening chapter, looking especially close at the beginning of his novel The Hellfire Club. With my blog deadline looming, I decided it would be equally appropriate to share it with you.

Lessons from Peter Straub’s Fiction

Peter Straub is an international best-seller of dark fantasy, horror, thriller, and mystery works. But he’s also a damned-fine writer, which is probably why he isn’t as big a household-known name as Stephen King, but also why his writing is more revered and studied.

From Straub I learned that commercial genre fiction can blend literary techniques, lyricism, and narrative grace with fantasy and horror tropes and mystery and thriller structure to produce work that is pleasing, popular, and thoughtful.

He is also a master of what I call the Story Promise, which is literally the promises made to the reader in the first few graphs, the first few pages, about what to expect from the story.

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