Review: The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes by Francesca Burke

This is a spoiler-free review for the opening chapters of The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes by Francesca Burke. You can read the beginning of the story for free on Francesca’s Words and continue on her Patreon. Francesca also runs a wonderfully eclectic blog over at Indifferent Ignorance (featuring some adorable baby elephants that surely no-one could stay indifferent about).

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When reading a fairy tale, it tends to be obvious from early on whether it’s a story intended to be read by a child alone, or by an adult reading to a child. The best stories, however, combine the best of both worlds. Those are fairytales that a child can enjoy on their own, but with enough nuance lurking under the surface that the adult can appreciate them too – whether they’re reading to a child, or for themselves. The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes by Francesca Burke is one of those fairytales.

In the first three chapters, we get an increasingly closer look at the island of the Three Kingdoms, and the Kingdom of Mirrors in particular, where the first main plot of the story is centered. We follow the young Princess Amelia as she struggles to help keep her family’s kingdom afloat in the middle of a war waged against it by an unfriendly neighborhood dragon, a threat that may seem nebulous until the mentions of death tolls and refugees (terrifyingly non-sensationalized) drive it home for the reader. With the heir to the throne (Amelia’s older brother) choosing to abdicate in favor of a loving marriage to a commoner, the king’s health fragile in the aftermath of a stroke, and the kingdom’s finances drained by the decades-long dragon threat, we find the Kingdom of Mirrors in dire straits. But Amelia has a plan – and with the support of the three-quarters of the Kingdom’s High Council, she rallies her kingdom to an unconventional defense against the dragon… that may just work.

Although these days I lean more towards sci-fi than fantasy, and fairytales aren’t my usual fare, either, I had no trouble whatsoever getting into the story from the very first lines. Francesca’s evocative descriptions bring the fantasy island to life: from sweeping vistas of Lumiere, the capitol of the Mirror Kingdom, to an intimate family dinner. Even though it’s a fairytale, the characters are the farthest thing from cardboard cutouts. You won’t find here the tropes of “handsome prince”, “plucky princess” or “Queen Mother” – but living, breathing people with quirks, desires, ambitions and weaknesses. We get given glimpses of history of the royal family and beyond (I genuinely hope that the outcome of a certain incident with a dog and a growth potion will show up at a later point in the story).

Francesca’s writing style is lively and witty, reminiscent of Chris Riddel and, even more so, Lemony Snicket (to the degree that at one point, I was expecting her to make an aside to define a more complicated word like “notoriety”, as Snicket is apt to do). Here’s a sentence I’m particularly fond of: The mosaiced fish were consistently bigger than the little people on the boat, which always made Amelia wonder whether the artist had no sense of scale or if they wanted to emphasize how brave the fishermen were, sailing out to face enormous krakens and territorial mermaids and climate change.

This description comes fairly early in the story and is mostly an aside, talking about a mosaic that Amelia passes as she walks. For me, the list of struggles featuring territorial mermaids and climate change in the same sentence worked as a perfect way to ground the Kingdom of Mirrors in my mind. It’s this kind of seamless blending of fairy tale imagery and 21st century English (complete with 21st century realities) that makes the Kingdom of Mirrors feels the opposite of far, far away – but a place a modern-day reader can easily relate to, full of beauty and very real problems alike.

In summary, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes is a beautifully written story and, right from its opening chapters, promises to be an enjoyable read for people of all ages. I strongly recommend you get thee to Francesca’s blog to read the first three chapters available there, and, should your means allow, continue reading the story on her Patreon. I know I will be.

The Alchemy of a Freelancer’s CV

This past week I’ve done something I haven’t done in years: submit a job application. I’ve always royally sucked at applying for jobs. My first ever job was an internship-turned-full-time, and then people from that job started their own company and headhunted me into my second job. After quitting it in 2009, I’ve been 100% freelance. Jobseeking stage 1: two jobs, zero applications.

There was also a brief period in 2013 when my previous freelance gig became unsustainable and I basically applied for every part-time retail job in Liverpool. I haven’t heard back from anyone at the time, and in restrospect, I’m profoundly thankful for that, as that had ultimately led to me building a new successful freelance practice. Still, jobseeking stage 2: ~20 applications, zero jobs.

Then, last week, a short existential crisis spiral had led me to jobseeing stage 3: applying for the vacancy of an assistant librarian. Thus came the truly surrealist task of distilling 15 years of freelancing, 7 years as a novelist and comic book writer, and 4 years of largely unrelated finance experience into something that would demonstrate the hiring panel my suitability for the job.

Welp, I thought as I worked my way through the application form. I’ll just list my previous and current jobs in the appropriate section, and then make an impassioned plea in the part reserved for the cover letter, saying that even though none of my previous employment and self-employment is particularly relevant for the job, I’m really passionate about books and knowledge, I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake, so… pretty please?

I’m happy to say it didn’t come to this. Because as I thought, REALLY thought about the work I used to do, and the work I do today, the more I came to realize that none of my previous jobs and projects were a waste of time or a forgotten chapter of my life.  My skills and knowledge today are the sum of everything I’ve done – whether for an employer, a client, a volunteer project, or for creative work.

They want someone who can convey information to people in understandable ways – well, I’ve done that when I held trainings for the sales department on how to write loan applications, when I coahed new employees and my replacements, when I advised clients on their own CVs and cover letters.

They want someone who can offer friendly customer service and get people enthused about books – I womanned many a convention table, chatting up people I’ve never met before, and getting them sufficiently enthused about the books in front of them that many of them voluntarily gave me money in exchange for those books.

They want someone who has time management and organization skills – ladies, you’re looking at someone who has held a freelance gig in conjunction with a part-time job AND a full-time uni.

The list goes on, but I won’t bore you with the rest, because I didn’t write this blog post to brag about my credentials (although if anyone from the recruitment panel is reading this while running a background google check on me – hello, it’s very good to see you, enjoy your time on my blog, please pick up a free short story collection). The main point is, I think that I figured out why I’ve always sucked at applying for jobs.

Until now, I’ve never applied for a job I wanted. A job I needed, sure. A job that seemed like a good idea. A job that promised good money, security, even self-actualization. A job I knew I’d be good at. But never a job that I wanted, one that I picked out of a long, long list, one that I pointed to, and said – yes, that’s the one, that’s what I want to do. Until this one.

If I could boil my experience down to any sort of shareable advice, it would be this: if you’re struggling to put together a convincing CV or cover letter, ask yourself why you’re applying for the job. Is this the dream job? A dream-adjacent job, at least? It’s okay if it’s not, obviously: most of the time in our lives we take what jobs we can find. In that case, conventional CV and cover letter advice will serve you well (as will taking a cover letter writing lesson from Luke Skywalker)

But if it IS a dream or dream-adjacent job, what makes it such? You must be driven to it by something that you like doing, something you know, something you ARE. All those things – your skills, your knowledge, your personality – are a product of the life you’ve led up to the point of your job application. Actual jobs, passion projects, volunteering, stuff you did in uni – in all of these things people tend to practice the skills they already have and/or learn new ones. You’d be surprised at how many of those skills can be transferable.

Of course, none of the above will protect you from being filtered out because of lacking the 3 years of experience mysteriously required for an entry-level position, because of failing to include a specific keyword in your CV, or because of bias and prejudice. Job-hunting sucks, there’s no sugar-coating it, and I’m aware of how fortunate I am to be applying for a dream-adjacent job while knowing that not getting it won’t leave me bankrupt.

But if you do ever find yourself in that position, if there’s a job that you pick out of a long list, point to, and say “yes, I want to do THAT,” then don’t deprive yourself of the opportunity to give it your best shot. Ask yourself what it is about the job that appeals to you – and you may find exactly what makes you good for the job.

P.S. I’ve joked over the years that if I’m ever in a job interview that’s obviously going south and they ask me why I’m applying for the job, my answer is going to be “because under capitalism, I’m forced to sell my labor in order to subsist.” Well, in the eventuality that this application gets me an interview, I know I won’t be tempted to say the above. Rather, my answer would be to quote Neil Gaiman: “I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win.”

And then there’s Lemony Snicket’s quote about libraries, of course, but I already used that on my job application. Yes, I really did that. No, I’m not ashamed.

A photograph of sea at sunset. The text on the image says "A library is like an island in a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrouncing area has been flooded." Lemony Snicket

Your Story’s Way of Telling You: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

Featured image by Drew Coffman

This week, my editing efforts seemed to have run into a brick wall when my approach to a (by design) exposition-heavy chapter started as a light edit and ended up as AAAAAARGH. Part of the reason was that the Piece of Sci-Fi Technology Used for Evil I was introducing in the chapter had been conceived a good five years ago, and when I wrote out exactly what it could do, my concusion was that 90% of the Technology’s capacity was not science fiction, but the story of Cambridge Analytica. My main problem wasn’t the need to ramp up the fi in the sci-fi, though – it was the realization that I’ve never really put the Technology’s ultimate purpose into words.

I mean, I knew that Technology existed to spread propaganda of Isolationist Message for the benefit of Evil Corporate Government. But at no point before had I actually asked myself: okay, but how exactly does the ECG benefit from its citizens believing in Isolationist Message? That marked the transition of the ECG’s image in my mind from a vague capitalist blob into a collective of people with interests, opinions, egos, and history. (More on that in another blog about the perils of writing a story without a supervillain.)

This is hardly the first “brick wall” moment in my writing or editing process. In the past, whenever I’d find myself rewriting the same chunk of story over and over again, the problem usually lay either before or behind the problematic piece. In the former case, I’d likely railroaded my characters into an unnatural place – so no wonder I couldn’t get them to act naturally anymore. In the latter, I had likely tried to build story without laying some backstory groundwork, so now I was trying to bullshit my way through instead of getting to the point.

Going even further back, when I tried to write the synopsis of First Original Novel I Ever Finished, I would fail miserably time and time again. I managed to cobble something together eventually, but looking back now I can see what my real problem was: it wasn’t as much of a story as of a string of events happening one after another. Try to synopsize an average day in your life, and you’ll see what I mean.

My conclusion from the numerous run-ins with these brick walls is: when the story seems to fall apart or get stuck in place, maybe it’s trying to tell you something. Maybe that’s the story’s way of saying “It’s not you, it’s me”. As in, there’s nothing wrong with you, the writer. You’re not blocked, you’re not stupid, you didn’t suddenly lose the ability to write. The problem’s in the story itself. Maybe you need to back up and figure out something about your world or your characters. Maybe you need to rethink some bigger things, like what are the stakes, what’s the conflict, where’s the growth, etc. Maybe you actually need to take your narrative apart and reassemble it in a different way. In the past year, I’ve done all of the above, to a varying extent, and my gut tells me that I’ve got a much better book to show for it (and I’m not even done yet).

Anyone having similar writing experiences? Tell me about your brick walls!

Animated gif of a scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Hagrid opens the brick wall into Diagon Alley while Harry watches, amazed.

Good Books for Creatives: Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Let me preface by saying that I’m very skeptical of self-help books and writing advice. Books that combine both tend to be on my permanent no-fly list. Thus, I went into Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills fully ready to abandon the book as soon as it suggested a specific morning routine, 4-30 am wake time, or any similarly unicorn practices.

That didn’t happen. What did happen was a series of frantic highlighting on my tablet, and said tablet being brandished at every family member available as I proclaimed, “She gets it! No, really, She Gets It. Ohmygahd.”

This is how Jessica’s book is different from many other books for creatives: it doesn’t promise to transform you into a productive individual and a morning person with a bulletproof schedule. The full title of the book is Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life – and it literally does what it says on the cover. The core premise of the book is not to transform your life; it’s to give you the tools with which to manage the life you’ve got. To, indeed, grow gills instead of expending your energy paddling towards a shore that may not even be there.

If I could summarize this book in one sentence, it would be: “You do you; here’s how.” There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. No affirmations (unless that’s what works for you). No morning pages (unless that’s what works for you). Basically, Jessica has you take stock of the goals you want to achieve, then take stock of the life you’ve got, and then work on ways to slot the former into the latter. Oh, and she’s totally on to you, frequently reminding the reader that just reading this stuff without doing won’t bring change. (As I said, she GETS it.)

A drawing of a person swimming, in various shades of blue. Growing Gills. How to find creative focus when you're drowning in your daily life. By Jessica Abel. Link to the author's website.For me personally, Growing Gills became a tool with which I went from being afraid to restart art after recovering from a long burnout, to working on my art on a reasonably regular basis without neglecting my paid work, family, or health. Equally importantly, I believe that I’m a good chunk of the way to figuring out the balance of productivity and sustainability that works for me.

So whatever your goals, if you can use more balance in your life, I strongly recommend you check out Growing Gills. Oh, and if you made a New Year’s resolution to “work on [insert thing here] more in 2019,” make sure to go and say hi to the Should Monster.

My Novel is 0.1% Coffee, 0.1% Firebird Trans Am

This is official: my book is 01.% coffee and 0.1% Firebird Trans Am. Photo by David Bares from Pexels

This is the kind of thing you do at the end of the work week, when the brain is refusing to produce any more remotely creative content. You run a search to see how often certain words occur in your manuscript. (Don’t judge me.)

Here’s what I found:

  • Once we get past the articles, prepositions, pronouns and some common verbs, the most commonly used word in the story is the name of the story’s protagonist’s friend and mentor, Weatherman – which is suitably representative of his importance in the protag’s life, considering that Weatherman himself is off-screen for large chunks of the story at a time. By comparison, the protagonist’s own name, Rain, is used half as often (to be fair, it’s a first-person POV story)
  • Interestingly enough, the names of most recurring characters used in the story are very close together, frequency-wise, even though I tend to think of all of them not having that much screen time. Notably, Rain’s car, Firebird, gets as many mentions as anyone else, in the region of 140.
  • There’s a chance that Rain smokes more than he’s willing to admit, seeing as word “cigarette” alone is used 66 times, and “smoke” another 45. To be fair, he’s not the only smoker in the story: I’m willing to bet that a good chunk of these can be attributed to his doppelganger.
  • Coffee, though, is definitely the most important substance in the story, with the word used 128 times in a roughly 130,000 word manuscript. This is official: my book is 0.1% coffee.
  • I’m going to finish on an uplifting note. Rain’s history and personality combined give light, fire, and darkness all important roles in his story, both symbolically and literally. Well, I’m happy to say that, no matter how dark the story can get sometimes, it’s literally not all doom and gloom: combined, the words “light” and “fire” are used more than twice as much as “dark” and “darkness”.