It’s always fun when you can have two wizards battle it out. I was never pleased with the scene of Gandalf and Saruman fighting in the Lord of the Rings movies. It just didn’t feel like a wizard battle to me.
The trick is, I’ve never seen that sort of thing depicted well in a movie. I don’t know why, but the special effects never work. It comes off looking dumb. (The same thing happened in Willow.)
I want it to be tense, to have power flowing–but the real effort has to be internal. Having wizards being pushed against walls and things just seems undignified. I would rather it be a battle of wills than a battle of walls.
This is what I was always meant to be.
I wanted to have a moment in this book where Alcatraz decided, truly, that he wanted to accept all of these strange things that were happening to him. I wanted to give him a moment like I had when I discovered fantasy novels and figured out what I wanted to do with my life.
This scene with him staring at the Lenses is his moment. Not everyone has one–a lot of people just stumble into what they do for their lives, or they do lots of things. However, I feel very thankful that I had such a moment to direct me in life.
Alcatraz has now decided. He’s going to put up with all of this craziness. He’s going to accept it. Others aren’t accountable for him–he’s made the decision, and this isn’t against his will. He’s now a participant in the silliness of these novels by choice.
The ending of a book is both the best and worst part to read.
This is very true. I loathe and love endings. I remember still that some of the most sweet experiences in reading happened when I was in high school, and was nearing the end of one of my favorite books. Then, I would be done, and realize it would be another whole year before the next book came out. That infuriated me.
It kind of puts me in a tough place as a writer. I’m now putting people through this same sort of thing. I guess that’s why I figure I’m darned if I do, and darned if I don’t, so I might as well make people as annoyed with this book as possible.
Grandpa Smedry Rescued
We finally get Grandpa Smedry back. One of the tough things about this series is that I don’t want to use him too much. Even though he’s a loon, he is the one who knows what is going on, and he’s rather powerful. He could easily overshadow Alcatraz, and that’s why I split them up.
But now the team is back together, and they have an objective. These last three chapters are going to be fun.
Primitive doesn't always mean useless.
The other big thing in this chapter that I wanted to mention is the editorial about why Sing’s guns are useful. Some early readers had difficulty understanding, if swords were so advanced, why they should care about Sing’s guns. I felt it important, then, to point out that weapons are still weapons.
I’ve intentionally reversed things in this book. Guns have taken the place of swords, and swords the place of guns. This is a time-tested tradition in the fantasy genre–just look at Star Wars. We all like swords. They have a stylish coolness; we think of them as more elegant, more heroic, than a pistol.
However, the thing I want to mention here is that a weapon is still a weapon. A knife or sword can easily kill you in the real world. In the same way, a gun in the Alcatrazworld is very dangerous–even if they’re not used as often.
I didn't take the opportunity to point out anything at the beginning of this chapter.
This editorial–the one I put in the middle of the chapter, rather than at the beginning–was one of those inspired directly by readers. A lot of the fan mail I get mentions that a reader was kept up late by one of my books. I always take this as a compliment, and I’m pretty sure it’s usually intended as one. People want me to know that my book was good enough for them to lose sleep over, and after all, I consider the opportunity cost of sleep to be far greater than the mere cost of money spent on a book.
So, it’s a real honor. How do I respond? By making fun of people who end up reading Alcatraz late at night. 🙂 I sincerely hope that people run across this chapter early in the morning and think, “Ah! I can’t believe it!” Not only will it be really funny, but it might give a more personal connection to the book. I wrote this in my basement years before you ended up reading it, but if I can guess a little bit of what you’re feeling and doing, it brings the book closer to you.
My editor, by the way, didn’t really like the “Whoever put in that last cliffhanger” aside. (She liked a lot of the humor, by the way. I only point out the ones that she suggested cutting.) I kept it, even though it’s a bit of an awkward joke. Mostly, I wanted to give you a hint of how I was feeling as I wrote this. I was, indeed, staying up far later than I should have, working on one more chapter before I went to sleep. I thought that readers might appreciate knowing this.
Grandpa Smedry getting stabbed in the leg, and Quentin having been beaten, get back to some of the things I talked about before when Alcatraz was being tortured. I didn’t want to make this book too graphic, but there are some things I couldn’t avoid. It’s tough to have a lighthearted novel in which dangerous things can also happen. I hope I walked that line all right. (And I know there is a lot out there that is far more dark than this. I’m just wanting the balance to feel right for this book.)
In this case, I felt I needed to push Alcatraz to actually come up with a plan that worked. Against the Alivened, it was basically an accident that he won. His passions took over, and he did what was natural. As he himself says, “I didn’t mean to do that.”
Here, I’m forcing him to plan and think. Unfortunately, his first choice–while being funny–was rather unproductive. I did mention that the dinosaurs would come back, though.
Chapter Sixteen is the chapter for random obscure references and jokes. Perhaps I did this unconsciously, rather than having more full-blown asides (though my editor did cut one about soy sauce and ninjas from the next chapter–I’m serious) because I wanted things to move quickly.
Anyway, here’s a list of the references, if you didn’t get them all. First off, we have the Heisenberg joke–he’s the guy who is famous for his teachings and discoveries about the uncertain location of electrons. The wordplay with him is so twisted that I have trouble working it out, but it still makes me chuckle. This is probably the one that remained in the book that my editor likes the least–she tried to cut it three times.
The “British people are all well-mannered dinosaurs” crack also almost got cut, but I decided to keep it. It breaks the fourth wall a bit–essentially, it’s me admitting that I made dinosaurs act like proper, stereotypical Brits just for the heck of it. It’s a self-aware parody of the stereotype, which means that sentence could undermine the cohesion of the worldbuilding. But, well, the worldbuilding is all there to let us have fun anyway.
Let’s see…others. The dinosaur talking about the “C” section of the library is a reference to Michael Crichton, who wrote Jurassic Park (and Jurassic Park Two, which starred a character who had died in the first book, but who was so popular in the movie that they resurrected him in book two by simply saying, “Oh, you were mistaken. His wounds weren’t as bad as they looked”).
Grandpa Smedry saying “I’ll go for a walk” is a reference to Monty Python, of course, and Quentin’s “Wasing not of wasing is” is a reference to Spook from my own Mistborn series.
Did I get them all?
Cantaloupe, fluttering paper makes a duck.
We’ve hit what people like to call the Brandon Avalanche. That’s the part of my books where things really pick up, and the ending comes in a tumbling, fast-paced explosion.
The avalanche is getting less and less noticeable in my later books. It’s still there, but I’m better at pacing things over an entire book now, and I don’t have as many plot twists stuffed into the short endings as I used to. I think this way is better, but I do still try to have the endings give a bang to the reader. Things do pick up, and things start to resolve–like the cantaloupe thing.
We’ll keep the pace going fairly quickly from now on. Though, of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t stop for stupid tangents–such as, well, the stupid tangent about being stupid. Again, this is me having fun with the form of a book, rather than just the content.
The Broken Alivened
The Alivened creature here–the one Alcatraz breaks–will probably be making a return in one of the later books. Not book two, however. Perhaps book three. I left him alive to sew a seed, which I could then harvest later, if I decided to.
As for romance novels making Alivened creatures angry and stupid…I jest. Please forgive me. I know there are very good romance novels out there that are quite witty. (The Regency subgenre, in particular, is filled with cleverness.) However, I couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the genre. It’s so big and dominating that sometimes we writers just can’t help ourselves.
Heh. I was working on this chapter, and I wondered, “Could I be lucky enough to discover that there’s a city out there named Moron?” And indeed there were a lot of them that I found. Most were in South America, however, and had an accent on the o. Same goes for the one in Mongolia. I figured that using any of those without the accents would be cheating, so I decided to go with the one in Switzerland.
I enjoy this intro. Technically, it’s probably the best written of all of them. Neat, concise, with a good word play twist at the end. Unfortunately, it gives me yet another reason to preach to you all. That’s good, in a way, since this book is kind of about that sort of thing. It’s a piece that Alcatraz is using politically, to give him the reputation he wants. That means lots of soapboxing.
Of course, that could just be my excuse for wanting to rant about lots of random subjects.
Pathological martyrs at a grenade testing ground. Hands down. Or blown off. Whatever. (I know it’s a pretty random one, and probably takes too long to figure out to be worth its laugh. I still like it, though.)
You should know something.
And no, it’s never a good idea to interrupt the flow of a good action sequence with a random interjection. Except here, when it’s funny. Remember Roger Rabbit’s law: You can do it–break any rule–as long as it’s funny.
And here the action picks up again.
I love me a good action scene. There’s something very fun about constructing action on the page. Partially, I think, because it’s tough to do. In a movie, you can make the visuals happen the way you want to. However, in a book, you have a real fine balance to walk. You want people to be able to imagine the action, but at the same time you can’t include too much, because every bit you include slows the action by a proportional amount.
This action scene is my favorite in the book. True, there aren’t a lot to choose from here–it’s not like Mistborn, where there are more fights. However, this one really works for me for a couple of reasons. First off, we’ve just had a lull in the book with lots of interesting–but not very fast-paced–things happening. Second, we get a good character climax in the middle of this scene. Third, there’s a real sense of danger here.
Again, it’s nice that the first few things Alcatraz tries don’t work. It’s a frustrating metaphor for his life that he has so much trouble. It seems that the harder he tries, the worse things turn out for him. That’s just perception, of course–effort is rarely wasted in my opinion, even if all it does is improve you as a person and your ability to work. However, as Alcatraz sees things, he often gets beaten down when he tries. So he’s stopped trying.
Up until here. The fact that he doesn’t just give in is the show of what I told you in the last few chapters–it is supposed to reinforce that he really is changing. That he does care. And that caring is now driving him to channel his Talent.
The Limits Of Alcatraz's Power
How much could Alcatraz break, if he really set his mind to it? I liked asking this question here because it’s going to be a theme of the entire series. I’ll answer it, eventually. For now, let us say that Alcatraz doesn’t understand his own power.
Note here, by the way, that he mentions that he broke his family’s hearts. His power is far more abstract that simply being able to break objects that he touches.
Breaking Out Of The Cell
Alcatraz fails to break out of here the first few times he tries. I’ve always been a believer of making things tough. Too many stories, in my opinion, have the villains acting in a stupid way. If the heroes can only win because the bad guys are idiots, then where’s the fun in that? (Big problem with 80s cartoons, I’m afraid. Even as a kid, I watched them and said, “Come on! Let Destro lead, not Cobra Commander! Let’s have a challenge here!”)
Ahem. Quick geek-out moment there.
Anyway, I figured that the Librarians would be aware of how Alcatraz and company might break out of the prison. True, they had to rile up the guard to get out–and that depended on the guard reacting in a foolish way–but people do make mistakes, particularly when they’re annoyed. I like that the prison–the part of keeping them captive that was prepared ahead of time–worked like it’s supposed to. It was human error in the passion of the moment, mixed with Alcatraz’s ability to be downright infuriating (a talent nearly worthy of magical powers), that was enough to get them out.
Of course, all this necessitates the villains running off and leaving the heroes in prison. However, try to look at it from their viewpoint. How important/dangerous are Alcatraz, Bastille, and Sing? Wouldn’t you rather keep an eye on the real threat–the centuries-old master wizard with a mysterious objective?
And I spent fourteen years in prison, where I obtained the learning of a gentleman and discovered the location of a buried treasure.
Yes, that’s a Count of Monte Cristo joke in the introduction here. No, things didn’t pass that quickly in that book, but the years did fly by. (If anything can be said to fly by in it. I like the book, but man, it’s a beast.)
That “shark biting you in half” crack. It makes me laugh that I managed to throw in such a non sequitur in the middle of describing what torture felt like.
Interrogation And Torture
“Foolish, foolish Alcatraz” is a nod to Jeff Smith’s Bone. Give it a read, if you haven’t.
Also of note is Sing’s comment when Alcatraz is talking to Ms. Fletcher. Sing notes that Alcatraz is a little bit snide. That quip, for some reason, has been a favorite of readers ever since the first draft. I’m not completely sure why. Yes, it’s fun, but it seems to have gotten undue attention as a laugher. Sometimes you just can’t judge what will work for people and what won’t–or what will work really, really well.
And since I’m talking about little things here, let me mention Grandpa Smedry. Of course he shows up late, after Alcatraz gets tortured.
I worried that having the main character get tortured like this might be too graphic for a children’s book–but then I remembered some of the things I’ve read in children’s books lately. It seems to me that you shouldn’t pull punches because of the audience. There are words I change to make the vocabulary work for the age group, and some types of humor don’t work as well, but I don’t like talking down to anyone, even babies who can’t speak yet. Successful novels are ones that treat their readers with respect, regardless of age.
Alcatraz needed to go through this (and I know, it’s not really that graphic). It’s what the story needed. Heroes do get themselves into trouble. If standing up for people were easy, what would be the point of bravery?
I hadn't even noticed - my glasses were gone.
Alcatraz doesn’t notice that he’s missing his Oculator’s Lenses. This is a big deal to me, metaphorically, even though it’s barely mentioned. He hasn’t grown into them yet.
However, more important than that is the discussion he has with Bastille about being an Oculator. These are some of the issues we’ll get into with her character later, but remember–this series is about using what you have and making the best of it. Sure, it would be better for Bastille if she were an Oculator, but that’s not an option for her.
However, what she does have is severe stubbornness. This comes out as she explains how long she tried to become an Oculator. She would have known from the beginning that it was impossible, but she still tried.
Her stubbornness is what she has to make use of. (Oh, and the Popsicle thing is one of my favorite little explanations in the book.)
The Alcatraz Smedry you think you know is a farce.
And now we get the cynical side of Alcatraz’s character growth. It was an interesting experiment, writing this book from the perspective of someone looking back. I knew what I wanted to have happened in Alcatraz’s life (remember, when I changed the book to first person, I’d done a lot more worldbuilding and planning for the series than I had when I originally wrote it). And I knew where he would end up by the time he was older. (I peg the narrator at about eighteen years old.)
So I knew that he’d look at some of these events–such as Alcatraz learning to be a leader–with a sneer. I had to get that across without undermining the power of the actual event, which is why I’ve worked so hard to make the narrator seem a little untrustworthy. You see how he reacts to his young self, but hopefully you don’t see the young Alcatraz in the same way.
She single-handedly ended the drought in Kalbreeze during the fourth-third century.
By the way, the fourth-third century thing is intentional. They keep track of years a little differently in the Free Kingdoms. There are certain epochs of time. So the first-first century would be kind of like our A.D. 0-100, but the first-third century would be like A.D. 200-300. On the other hand, the second-third century is more like A.D. 1200-1300. (Though the dates are a little off–they’re not analogous. The first-third century is more like 2000 B.C. our time. More in later books.)
I made them hate me. On purpose.
This chapter was the one where I really started to delve into character. It just might be my favorite in the book. Now, maybe, you can see why I had to take out the self-awareness at the beginning of the book. This chapter has real power because Alcatraz is being forced to admit uncomfortable things about himself.
From the very get-go, my goal in this book was to write something funny that also had a strong character with a good character arc. That’s why I started the first chapter with Alcatraz burning down the kitchen. He was a solid character in my mind–a combination of a lot of different sides. The kid who wanted to be loved, the sarcastic teenager who pushed people away, the cynical older teen who is writing these books. He’s a guy who’s been through a lot, and I hoped that with this chapter (and the next) I could show some depth in a book that otherwise might be dismissible as a simple farce.
We also start to get into Bastille’s character here, though a lot of what I’m going to do with her is reserved for later. In my mind, this series is about her almost as much as it is about Alcatraz.
The something hard I was lying on turned out to be the ground.
There’s a small Douglas Adams nod in here, by the way. That’s what the “No, it didn’t want to be my friend” crack is about with the ground. My editor tried to cut it, since she didn’t get it, but I insisted that it remain. Maybe nobody will get it, but it makes me laugh–and sometimes, that’s what humor is all about.
Authors like to torture people.
If I had to pick, this would be my second-favorite rant. The mousetrap one is fun, but this one actually says something. It offers commentary. Even if it is ridiculous.
I’ve wondered about this concept. Why, exactly, do authors do what they do? Why do I write books, and why do I get a thrill every time I see a character in as much pain as I put Alcatraz through in this chapter?
I acknowledge that I’m probably not a sadist. It’s more that I love seeing good character development. Books are about emotion, and I get the greatest satisfaction from a story when people become so attached to the character that they feel like they know them. Then, when something bad happens, it’s heartwrenching, and the book gains meaning. Not because of what it says or its grand philosophy, but because it means something to that reader at that moment.
And when there are victories, they really feel like victories. Nothing is better than that.
They named prisons after us.
Here we get the reason why everyone has prison names. I figured this makes sense, in the twisted reasoning of this book. Alcatraz the First is a famous hero in the Free Kingdoms. So, what do the Librarians do? They make sure everyone in the Hushlands associates the name Alcatraz with something base.
It was fun when I actually managed to work out a reason behind the loony choice of my hero’s name.
It was a person I had known for my entire life: Ms. Fletcher
The Ms. Fletcher scene has some interesting things to note. First off, if you figured out before Alcatraz that the person whose footprints he was following had to be Ms. Fletcher, you’re not alone. I realize this isn’t the biggest twist ever. However, there’s more going on here than you might suspect.
Particularly with the fact that she lost her keys. That’s important. You’ll find out in book two why. Also, there’s more about her footprints that will be answered later in this book.
And, speaking of character, another of the fun themes of this book comes out in this chapter. One of my points is to show all of these wondrous, incredible things–then relate them to Alcatraz and his growth as a character. From the very beginning, the narrator has tied the two together. For instance, the reason Alcatraz begins believing that Grandpa Smedry is his grandfather is because he’s seen so much that is insane, the idea of this man being his grandfather doesn’t seem so out of place.
This character, Alcatraz, has some things he needs to learn. We’ll get into them in the next chapter. However, all of the craziness–even the implausibility–happening in this book is a foreshadowing of the ability he has to change the most incredible thing of all–his own mind.
Are you annoyed with me yet?
This beginning is exactly what I like about the form of this book. Here, I can go on and on about how you shouldn’t separate readers from the payoff of cliffhangers–all the while keeping you from getting the payoff of the cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter.
This whole theme started with that first line, and my desire not to get right back to Alcatraz on the altar. As I thought about it, I realized there were a lot of ways I could play with the form of a fantasy novel–or any novel–while at the same time following that form. This became almost as fun for me as character or setting.
There are some jokes in this book that I don’t expect anyone to get. There are others that are just for a select group.
If you didn’t notice, I spelled pterodactyl differently every time I put it in this chapter. There are a good half dozen or more places where it’s misspelled, each time in a new way.
I put this in not because I expected the average reader to notice, but because it gave me glee to think of the proofreaders, editors, and spelling-minded people who read the book trying to correct each instance–then groaning when they discovered that I’d done it on purpose. (Evil laughter.)
Worldbuilding After The Fact
That said, this chapter has some of the strongest historical worldbuilding in the book. This information–about Silimatics, the Incarna, and Biblioden the Scrivener–was all added to the book later as I developed it. The thing about a big free write like I did is that it just . . . well, wasn’t publishable.
Once I had a draft of the book, I knew that it would need stronger worldbuilding if I was going to make a series out of it. I needed a history for the Librarians, and motivations for what they were doing. So I did a lot my brainstorming for this book after I wrote it, which was kind of an odd experience.
I’d like to be able to tell you where this came from, why I put it in the book, but . . . well, I have no idea. Remember, this book was–in essence–a long free write. I didn’t have much of an outline, setting, or anything else in mind. When I got to this point in the book, I thought, “Hey, talking dinosaurs. Let’s put those in.” So I did.
I enjoyed them, however, and had a lot of fun using them. They show up later in the plot–if I add something to a book, even in a free write, I don’t want it to be random. Things exist in stories for a reason, even if that reason is to give a deeper explanation of where the English language came from.
Particularly the carnivorous kind.
These chapters were a lot of fun to write because of the interaction I could get going between Alcatraz, Bastille, and Sing. Also, with the faster pace, I feel like the quick pops of humor work better than they did during the more leisurely, explanation-heavy beginning.
The existence of three new continents is also a bit of a stretch. Though I appeal to Plato here as an explanation, it’s still mostly lighthearted. I can’t hold this book to the same scientific rigors as my other fantasy novels. Not only would it undermine the book, but it would also make this one feel too much like everything else I’ve written. I wanted to see what would happen if I gave myself a little more freedom. This is the result.
Elevators? How Primitive
Of all of the things in this book, I think this chapter has the biggest stretch when it comes to worldbuilding.
I really liked the concept of Free Kingdomers thinking of our modern world as primitive. Them thinking swords are more advanced than guns is a really fun reversal. However, it’s a tough one to justify.
I ended up leaving this concept in because of the way it made the book feel, but I would never have done so in a more solemn fantasy novel. If you’re wondering, the reason for Bastille thinking that stairs are more advanced is the following:
Once, the Free Kingdoms used stairs. They eventually moved on to primitive elevators, but when Smedry Talents and other magical abilities began to get widespread, things with moving parts had a large chance of breaking. Plus, people developed Silimatics–the technology of the Free Kingdoms. Soon they were building stairs again. Partially for health reasons, partially because elevators weren’t very safe, and partially because silimatic stairs–which moved on their own–were so much more convenient (for those who could afford them).
So technology regressed while progressing at the same time. And people like Bastille can look back at elevators and say, “We stopped using those because they weren’t advanced enough.” We get an explanation like this in the book, regarding guns, in a little while.
The Summa Theologica comment. I first remember encountering this book (which is on Catholic doctrine) when I was a freshman. Some of us went out to a local used bookseller, and one of my friends said he was searching for a copy of it. I thought he was so smart. He wanted a book that had a Latin title. Ooooh.
I bought a hardcover copy of The Hobbit. Still have it.
People who weren't impressed by how advanced my culture was
Man, this book is preachy, isn’t it? Ah well. Good thing it’s written from the viewpoint of a guy up on his soapbox dispensing wisdom. Otherwise it might get pretentious.
Isn’t it funny how I can get away with so much in a book like this? If I tried to be this overt with theme and message in one of my epic fantasies, it would completely ruin the book. I always talk about how books shouldn’t have intentional messages–only the messages that the characters want to talk about. However, you can’t help having things come through anyway. And as soon as I started writing in first person with a humorous tone, all kinds of things popped out.
In this chapter, we get Alcatraz having to face the fact that America doesn’t have all the best stuff. This is kind of hard to swallow, sometimes. Everyone wants to believe that their country is the best, and I’m afraid that Americans sometimes tend to go overboard with this.
Unwittingly made a friend's pants fall down
Humor is hard to write. Not only is it subjective, but in a book you don’t have the benefit of a laughing crowd to help you get into the mood.
Because of these things, I know that everyone who reads this book is going to find some of the jokes lame. The best I can do is try to cover the range of different kinds of humor. That’s why there are non sequiturs–where I mention random absurdities–mixed with jokes about a boy’s pants falling down and random discussions of books by Thomas Aquinas breeding with copies of Little Women. Hopefully, the amalgamation has something that entertains you.
By the way, that crack about Alcatraz making his friend’s pants fall down wasn’t in the original draft. Instead, it was a crack about Alcatraz making a girl’s shirt fall off. That’s what I’d do if I were a teenage boy with the power to break things. However, when we decided to go middle grade for this book instead of YA, making a boy’s pants fall down seemed to hit the humor level for the age group better than jokes about shirts falling off. Unfortunately.
Information. That's the real power in this world
Everyone is an academic. (Or, well, nearly everyone.) This is intentional. Grandpa Smedry gives us a speech here about information, and if I had to pick one theme for this book, his comments would be it.
Isaac Asimov once complained that fantasy was all about dumb barbarians killing smart wizards–thereby making the genre anti-intelligence. I’ve always found this a shortsighted way of looking at the genre. To me, it’s all about being clever. I wanted heroes who were academics. People who were what we would call nerds. And I wanted to show them using information–rather than weapons–to save the day.
I do worry, however, that Grandpa Smedry droned on a bit long in this chapter. It’s the last place where I think we have this problem in the book, but this chapter itself is essentially one big conversation while preparing to go into the library. Not a lot happens.
We get those sometimes in my books. Hopefully, they set us up for the drama and climaxes later on. We need to know the characters, and have a groundwork, for the quick pacing that happens from chapter seven onward.
Kindly pretend that you own a mousetrap factory
This mousetrap example is exactly the sort of thing I can do in a children’s book that I haven’t ever been able to make work in an adult book. I’m not sure why it feels so good in this format, while doesn’t quite fly in an adult book. Maybe it’s because when you write humor for the adult sf/f market, it seems like you can only do humor. You can’t have a hybrid story like this. Pratchett comes the closest, and I think his novels are legitimately good stories with good humor in the mix. But everyone else who writes humor seems to get dismissed as “just” humor. Their books don’t get much attention.
Here, however, I could–I thought–make a book work with good worldbuilding (if a little funny at times) and powerful characters who have actual character arcs in a book that is–essentially–a comedy. I think it’s because in the children’s field, books don’t need to be classified by genre. They already have a genre. They’re children’s books.
Either way, the humor in this book just works very well for me. It’s absurdist with a hint of satire, and it left me free to play with the form of the novel as well as the content.
Bastille’s character came quite early, and I was very pleased with how she turned out in the book. I did tweak a few things, making her a knight instead of a bodyguard, to keep her from looking too much like the bodyguard daughter in the Artemis Fowl books.
By the way, Bastille says something along the lines of “We’ve got plenty of sand” in this chapter. If you’ve finished the book, you’ll note that she’s not nearly as ignorant about the types of sand, and the importance of them, as she’s acting here. She pretends she knows less than she does because she doesn’t like to be reminded of her failure. However, she’s not very good at pretending, as she reveals later in this very chapter where she explains auras to Alcatraz.
Where is this book happening? If you’ve wondered this, you’re not alone–and you’re also not going to get an answer.
One of the reasons I write epic fantasy is because I have complete control over my settings. I know where things are and what they look like, and I’m the ultimate expert on the details. But when you write in this world, you can get one little thing wrong, and then end up having all kinds of complaints from readers who get distracted because you describe a real library the wrong way.
Plus, I like it when you can put yourself into the story. You can imagine this happening pretty much anywhere–I’ve even allowed foreign publishers to change Alcatraz’s national identity, if they want. Doesn’t matter to me. This story happens in “our world,” and that’s all the detail I wanted to give.
Why did I use prison names? Well, the truth is . . . because. It felt kind of fun.
It wasn’t one of the things I’d been planning for the book. I knew I was going to name someone Alcatraz, but not that I’d use prison names for other characters. And yet, as I did it, I realized that Bastille was a great name for a girl and that Leavenworth would work really well for Grandpa Smedry’s real name.
After that, the joke took on a life of its own, and everybody got a prison name. A real-world explanation for this is coming later in the book.
The one where I list all the random pieces of clothing, then tell you I made them up.
People generally don't recommend this kind of book
This chapter has my favorite of all twenty chapter-intro essays, by the way. I’m somewhat passionate about this one in particular. I think that we put too much emphasis on certain books while ignoring others. I don’t think we should ignore the books about boys and their dogs, but we should know that they just don’t work for some people. People like me.
Fantasy books made a big difference in my life. I didn’t find traditional “literary” books, even ones for kids, to be challenging. Fantasy engaged my imagination, however, in ways that no realistic book ever could have. Fantasy made me think, made me dream, and now I’ve become an author of it.
Things aren’t as bad for kids now as they were when I was growing up. However, they’re still pretty bad for older people. I have a friend who was in a creative writing class last week where the professor said–in reference to popular fiction–“You have to decide if you want to write for the most people, or for the best people.”
“Best people”? What the crap? This is the sentiment that has always bothered me. If a person likes a certain type of fiction, they’re a better person than someone who likes popular fiction?
People are equal. People’s interests are equal. Not all fiction may appeal to all people, but who is anyone to judge another based on what they read?
That said, maybe someone someday will give me one of those shiny circular awards just to make me eat my words.
We’re hitting our stride now. I think that this is where the book starts to really reflect what I imagined for it. Here, we’ve got some genuine tension, some worldbuilding, and some utter silliness.
One of the early ideas for this book was a magic system where the characters had powers that sounded like drawbacks, but which could be used in ways that were clever and interesting. Grandpa Smedry shows this off for the first time in this chapter by arriving late for the bullets.
As you might have noticed, it’s a kind of metaphor. I find that often, our drawbacks are advantages in disguise. It all depends on how you look at it. I’m often fond of pointing out that arrogance misused will turn you into an annoying person–but if you channel that same energy into believing in yourself, you can accomplish some fairly amazing things.
It takes a lot of thinking to come up with the right Smedry Talents. They have to be things that you can explain in one sentence, and have to be hindrances that a lot of us feel that we have. However, I also have to be able to twist them around so that they can be used in interesting ways.
The whole “Gak” sequence. Makes me laugh every time, even though it’s rather dumb. That’s my humor for you.