All posts by Maria Stanislav

About Maria Stanislav

Author. Immigrant. Fat chick. Co-conspirator of one Firebird Rain.

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.

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”.

Residue of the Writing Process (ft. a threatening Pusheen)

A lot of my current process-sharing is inspired by Austin Kleon. This post is no exception – it is directly inspired by his blog titled The Residue of Creativity.

Even though I finish my work digitally, the first drafts are almost invariably written down longhand. As a result, stuff piles up, which can be fascinating to look at later. Here’s some of the residue of my writing work, starting with a blatantly staged shot from a few years ago that I called “A Novel: Exploded View.” (Staged or not, all the stuff in here is from the real process).

A Novel: Exploded View

I also had a delightfully teenage period when I’d use the inside covers of my moleskines as a scrapbook to paste images relevant to the story (including my protag’s face claim).

On occasion, my friend and my partner added their own illustrations to drafts made available to them. Both tended to focus on the protag’s ongoing fear of the dark, but seemed to take different sides:

Finally, taking dialogue notes on Pusheen stationery results in the darling cat saying some shockingly threatening stuff. (Transcribed in the captions, as I don’t expect you to read my handwriting.)

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P.S. Just watching a slideshow of these notes makes me want to start a project where I put the most threatening quotes from my book in the mouths of adorable creatures pictured on stationery…