Writing villains – a tip or two for young writers.

Who do we love to hate?

I look at a lot of manuscripts by other writers and try to help them make their stories stronger. One problem I often see is that the writer hasn’t managed to get a sense of tension and threat into a story early enough. As soon as possible, the reader needs to see that the bad guys are definitely bad.

It’s not enough just to say that the villains are wicked or mean or whatever. The writer has to come up with a piece of action that shows how wicked the bad guys can be. You don’t always need to see the villains themselves in an early chapter. But you need to see evidence of what they can do.

How have I managed my own villains? In The Travelling Restaurant, Lady Gall feeds something secretly to little Sibilla that makes the toddler throw up.

In The Queen and the Nobody Boy, the bad guy is Emperor Prowdd’on. In the early draft he was too much just a comic pompous figure. To make him more of a threat, I decided to have him do something really horrible then deny it was his fault: “Little Queen was very wrong to encourage me to play with faulty rodent.” It upsets the little Queen and the other main character, Hodie.

It also upsets one of the scruffy little squirrels that lives in the Grand Palace grounds. That turns the novel into a sort of revenge story. That squirrel becomes very determined to keep after the Emperor and it plays an important part in the ending.

Some writers plan the end of a novel before they start writing. I don’t like to do that myself in a lot of detail. I plan some things, but when it comes to the villain I love to see what happens as I write and hope that a good idea for poetic justice will come into my head. ‘Poetic justice’ means that the villain will come to a sticky end exactly right for their particular crimes and personalities.  Lady Gall wants to be forever beautiful … Emperor Prowdd’on is vain and greedy ….  Serve them darn well right! is what I want the reader to think in the scenes of final come-uppance.

I’ve just had great fun discovering how the villain in the third tale of Fontania fares at the end of the novel. But that’s a blog for another day.

Is it steam punk?

I think this blog should become more for children, so here goes.

Earlier this month I had a fabulous tour to several schools from Christchurch to Dunedin. Bright kids, great teachers and librarians, and some really interesting question sessions after I’d read from the Tales of Fontania.

‘Is it steam punk?’ asked one boy at North Dunedin Intermediate. Yes! In the world of the novels, magic and science are trying to find some sort of balance.

In The Travelling Restaurant, stern but fair Polly (who climbs rigging in her high-heeled green boots)  says this: ‘Once upon a time, the world was rich in magic. It was used wisely, not wasted on anything selfish or mean-spirited. It was saved for important things like making sure babies slept safe in their cots, that people had enough to eat, and that the world was peaceful. There were dangers, as there always is with magic. But there was also common sense. Some people began to experiment with science and machines, and that was all right. You see, everyone thought somebody was in charge.’

In The Queen and the Nobody Boy, the wind-train is one such new machine. I based it on a very early 19th Century idea for air travel. And in a newspaper last week, I saw that a new 21st Century airplane uses some of the ideas I’d come up with for my wind-train: using oil for an engine but also being able to glide when necessary. Did I feel proud? Definitely. And the message birds in The Queen and the Nobody Boy are really like primitive cell phones.

One question underlying the stories is, where do things that appear magical become ‘real’ and able be explained by science? But I like to feel that some things can’t be explained, that there is a magic in ordinary human decency and respect for each other, and that some things just don’t rely on logic and being rational.

In the fourth Tale of Fontania, I hope the themes of magic versus science will come to a chaotic, funny and moving finale. But at the moment, I’d better move on with the third Tale. It is coming close to being finished.

Sad stories make me cry

I spent a wonderful morning last week at a local school. But! The first group was 5 and 6 year olds.  When I first learned that I’d need to keep this age group entertained for 40 minutes, my first thought was an inarticulate yikes!

Authors of picture books are much better placed with this kind of audience. The visuals of their work keep the kids entertained. I only had two stories I thought might work – one published ages ago in the School Journal about a bad bear, based on a true tale about my great grandfather. I took along a stuffed bear as a visual aid, and that went down all right.

The second story, also true (Stories Aloud CD, Wellington Public Libraries), was about how Chris and I found a stray cat and in the end decided to keep her.  While I read this to the 5 and 6 years olds, I had another yikes! Their chins were trembling. Their eyes were brimming with tears. I had to race to the happy ending before any spillage.  I just made it.

Exciting times in and around Fontania

The Queen and the Nobody Boy has been shortlisted for the 2013 Esther Glen Medal, LIANZA Awards.  The Travelling Restaurant won the medal last year, and it’s too much to expect another win. But I feel it’s amazing for a second in a series to be given this boost.  I’m thanking my lucky stars and lucky planets.

I’m also excited at the number of school visits lined up. Nothing beats seeing how well (or not) children respond to readings from the books.  I’m doing a total of three visits in Wellington before the NZ Post Awards announcement on 24 June, and six from Christchurch, Ashburton and Oamaru to Dunedin.  That will mean  a lot of talking for someone who often talks mainly in her head each day to her characters.

Third exciting thing? The next Tale of Fontania is at a stage where it will help to read a draft aloud. This will very definitely not be to any audience yet but it’s a good sign.