Another Sale! Salamanders! Door-Amputations!

I’ve been sitting on the details of this news since December 2nd – but I can finally announce that I’ve sold a second story!

The story, coming out next month in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, is titled “Super Action Excite Team Go!”  It’s a heartwarming story about limb regeneration and a boy who might just be having the worst summer ever.  This story is very close to my heart, and my history.

My career has had a long and winding path (with another turn coming up this week – news post to come!)  But in many ways, I was set on my path at 18 months old, when my right pinky finger was partially amputated in a slamming door.

Thanks to some quick thinking and fast driving on the part of my parents, ER doctors were able to reattach the finger.  But the incident never truly left my mind.  Especially growing up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, when ABC’s Six Millions Dollar Man was all the rage.  For years, my mother referred to my bionic finger.

In college, I majored in BioEngineering, thinking that the highest calling in the world would be to design and develop prosthetic limbs that could respond to the brain’s signals, and feed back sensory input as well – true bionic limbs. My days (and many stress-filled nights) were crammed with courses on Materials Strength, Human Physiology, Applied Physics,Biomechanics, and 4 semesters of P-Chem (the horror!).  But that all changed when I took my first college Biology course not given by the School of Engineering, and I saw this image in my textbook:

LimbRegenTimeLapse

It’s a time lapse series of a newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) regenerating limbs.

From that day on, I realized I didn’t want to bother with man-made artificial limbs that could only imitate the body’s natural processes, and that badly.  No, my truest aim was to find out how newts and salamanders went about regenerating their limbs – and why we mammals didn’t – and then bridge the gap.  If I could figure out how to get humans to regenerate lost limbs, then all would be right with the world.

Readers of Here I Go… will no doubt realize that things didn’t quite go according to that plan.  But the passion has never left me, nor the interest in regeneration as a topic. So in hindsight, it was really no surprise to me that one of the first stories I wrote when I turned my primary attention to writing was one where a little boy lost a limb, and went about getting it regenerated.  In many ways, it’s a story I’ve been writing my whole life.  I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide if there’s more of me in Jesse, the boy growing back his arm, or in Dr. Look, the slightly crazy scientist talking about ‘arm seeds’ and ‘super secret special sauce.’  I’m not certain even I know for sure…

I hope you’ll purchase a subscription to InterGalactic Medicine Show, I hope you’ll read my story, and I hope you’ll think of me and enjoy.*

Here I Go,

Matt

*This post would end much more poignantly is I could embed a jpeg of the Polaroid my mother took of the 2 year old me, hand bandaged up to the elbow, standing in the foyer of our New Jersey home.  It would be the perfect capper.  But, alas, I have no scan of the photo and not the faintest idea where the original lies.  So you’ll just have to content yourself with my assurances that I was–truly–very cute.

Posted in Blog Musings | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Rewriting

Writing is hard. It’s not tarring-a-roof-in-a-Georgia-summer hard, not digging-ditches-and-shifting-concrete hard, but doing it right isn’t exactly easy, either.  But it’s also fun and incredibly rewarding.  There is no better feeling than Having Written.  That’s right, I said no better feeling.  I stand by that.

But Rewriting? Editing?

That’s where an author shows their skill, that’s where the work is. That’s the hard part, where the money is earned. It’s the part that makes me start crying like a little kid lost in a mall. Makes me want to run back to a lab bench saying, “I’ll never leave you again, I didn’t mean it baby.  I’m so sorry, give me another chance.”  Rainin pipettes and Eppendorf tubes are calling, and I know they’d take me back.

But that’s not where I belong.

I’m sitting on half a dozen short stories that I  know have a good core.  They have promise, and with some rewriting, spit and polish, and hard effort, they could be publishable.  One or two might even be great.

But they need that effort, and there’s so much else that easy and near to hand and mindless that I could turn to instead, telling myself that my brain just needs to process it for a while, it needs back-burner time to parallel process as a background application.  And I’ve been turning to that for far too much of the last three months.

I’ve been quiet on here and not writing much since getting back from Odyssey.  There’s a lot of life stuff getting in the way.  No after school care for the kids, a lot of shuttling to music lessons and such. Some health issues.  So I haven’t been putting in the hours.

I have been getting some writing and submitting done, though.  In the last week, I’ve gotten a very sweet personalized rejection from one big name magazine editor, and a rewrite request from a second.

It’s time to shift that balance.  To spend more of my time leaning hard against the grindstone, and less of it warming the bench.

This week is Thanksgiving, and there’s much to do.  But I am making it a point to finish the requested rewrite this week before all the relatives and wife’s co-workers come over.  Mixed in with all the house cleaning and food shopping and cooking, I am going to finish this story and send it back.

And next week?  I am finishing editing another one.  In among the leftovers and feeling bloated and cleaning up from the frollicking, I am going to finish editing another story.  I’ve had the text document open on my desktop -untouched- nonstop for over six weeks.  And next week I am going to finish it.

Hold me to that.  I beg you.  Call me out here, on Facebook, Twitter.  Ask me if I’ve finished and submitted.  If I dither, press me on why.  I’ve got work to do.

Here I Go,

Matt

Posted in Blog Musings, Writing Musings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My Very First Review!

Greetings!

It’s been quiet here at Here I Go since I had the honor to attend Odyssey – just one post since to announce the publication of my first story.

Today we have another first!  My first review!

Black Gate has posted a review of Lazarus Risen on their website, and they had some very positive things to say about my story:

It’s very rare that I find an anthology where I thought every single story was a winner, but this is one of them. Here are some of my favourites: […] Matthew Shean’s “Sylvia and Larry,” where a woman needs a new body before her husband’s Alzeimers makes it impossible for him to recognize her new self, is vaguely reminiscent of Spider Robinson’s “Antimony” but hits harder, I think.

I can’t say that I’ve read “Antimony” yet, but I’ll take that praise happily!

If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of “Lazarus Risen”, you can grab the Kindle version on Amazon, or the paperback through the Bundoran Press website.

This was welcome news today of all days, as I had just gotten a rejection last night on a story I thought had a real chance at a high profile magazine after a month of consideration.  But that’s the gig, and I am, as I have said before, a guy who takes rejection well.

I’ve got to get busy making sure this is just the first review among many, and not the only one I get.  So, I’m off back to finishing up my works-in-progress and sending that story off to find a home.

Here I Go,

Matt

Posted in Blog Musings, Writing Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Now Available: Lazarus Risen (and me!)

Hello everyone in Shean-land!

I greet you today with momentous news!  If you recall, back in March, I sold my first story.  I’m still giddy about it, some six months later.  And I’m even more excited to tell you that, today, you can read it!

My story, “Sylvia and Larry,” is now available in the Lazarus Risen anthology, just out from Bundoran Press.  Here’s the publisher synopsis:

Dreams of immortality and eternal youth are almost as old as human culture itself. But what would the world look like if everyone could live and be young forever? What would it look like if only some of us had that privilege? Lazarus Risen presents sixteen stories from around the world that explore the economic, political, social and psychological consequences of life extension, human cloning, the hard upload and other forms of the biological singularity.

Stories by Brent Nichols, Sean McMullen, Teri Babcock, Nancy SM Waldman, Brad C. Anderson, Fiona Moore, Felice Picano, Matthew Shean, Matt Moore, Suzanne Church, Peter Wendt, Holly Schofield, Deborah Walker, Kevin Edwin Stadt, Leigh Kimmel, and Andrew Barton

That’s 16 fantastic tales of immortality, brain-to-computer-uploading, life-extension, and brain transplants.  Including one by yours truly.  And there’s some great authors in that list.  Award winners, best sellers, workshop grads, old salts and fresh meat alike.

You can get your hands on a copy* at the publisher’s website, here:

http://www.bundoranpress.com/product/1/Lazarus-Risen

Or, if dead-tree hard copies aren’t your thing, and you like your reading on tablets, then the Amazon Kindle version can be purchased* here:

https://www.amazon.com/Lazarus-Risen-Hayden-Trenholm-ebook/dp/B01M1G4KMG#nav-subnav

And while you’re at it, please feel free to show some support for Bundoran Press in general, and browse their growing list of Science Fiction and Fantasy titles.

And let’s all celebrate and do a happy dance today, shall we?

Here I Go,

Matt

*Please note that all prices are in Canadian dollars

Posted in Blog Musings | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Public Reading

I’m now a third of the way through Odyssey, and I’ve learned more about the bones of writing in the last two weeks than in the forty years prior.  It’s amazing.  But I’m not here now to talk about that.

Instead, I would like to invite you all to my very first public reading.

This coming Saturday, June 25th 2016, from 3:00-4:30pm at the Barnes and Noble in Nashua, NH, this year’s Odyssey students (that’s me and my 14 newest bestest friends) will be giving readings of some original flash fiction (<1,000 word) pieces.

If you are in the area, please come by, stay and listen, buy some books, and feel free to come say ‘hi’ after it’s over.

I’d like to say I’m not nervous.  You can’t be a scientist for 20 years without getting a lot of experience with public speaking.  And once you’ve given a thesis defense, there isn’t much about getting up and talking that’s intimidating.

But.

But this isn’t presenting my science, where the things I am saying are observed fact, and logical extrapolations from those observations.  Where what I am saying is objective.  This is my fiction.  It’s my imagination, my heart and soul, the most subjective and personal thing I can share.

It’s the difference between speaking in public, and speaking in public naked. (Metaphorical nakedness, people.  There will be no nudity in this Barnes & Noble)

It’s just an added bonus that it’s flash fiction, a format I don’t have much practice with.

All of that said, I am actually really flipping excited about this.  I kinda can’t wait.  And I hope I’ll see some of you there.

Here I Go,

Matt

Posted in Blog Musings, Writing Musings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Be A Better Writer (Workshops, Pt. 2)

I’m sitting in a dorm room in New Hampshire as I write this. I’ve been out of college for nearly twenty years, but here I am, back in a dorm. Why?

I wrote last week about some of the many writing workshops out there to help genre writers get better at their craft through close interactions with top professionals of the field. (I left out many, not least among them Orson Scott Card’s “Uncle Orson’s Writing Class & Literary Boot Camp”).

I went on at some length at the end of that post about Odyssey Writing Workshop, the 6-week course run by author/editor Jeanne Cavelos.

This year, I applied to Odyssey (Had to submit a short story as an audition piece, and had to write a brief essay on what I write about, where I think I need improvement, etc), and I am thrilled to say that I was accepted.

Let me just write that out one more time, and revel in it. I want to savor the feeling of my fingers striking these particular keys in this particular order.

I was accepted into the Odyssey Writing Workshop

I drove up from Shean HQ in the suburban wilds of Long Island to NH today, and the course starts tomorrow. So for the next 6 weeks, I’ll be nose deep in genre analysis, feverish speed-demon writing, and mining the brains of other authors for what makes them tick advice.  And I will emerge out the other side either a desiccated husk or an all powerful master of the craft.  Or something like that.

Now, by no means am I saying that you need to go to one of these workshops to become a better writer. In fact, Neil Gaiman himself got into a bit of a flap several months back for a poorly worded tweet that seemed to suggest just that. (If you have no idea who Neil Gaiman is, then why are you reading my puny scribblings? Go read his masterful works. Seriously, like now.)

No, the unrelenting majority of amazing authors have never had the benefit of a course like this. But there is no denying that attending (and taking advantage of the opportunity by working really, seriously, fucking hard) gives you a huge leg up in leveling up your skills.

I plan on working really seriously fucking hard over the next 6 weeks, and milking this course and all its instructors for every scrap of insight and advice I can squeeze out of it and them.

This is going to be one helluva roller coaster. Late nights, cram sessions, mind draining study habits, non-stop reading, and above all, writing at a breakneck pace I don’t know if I can manage. Seriously, I need to write 5 new 5,000 word short stories from scratch over the next 5 weeks. It usually takes me at minimum twice, if not 4 times, that long to get a rough draft of a story I’m moderately willing to have my name on.

Hopefully, one of the things we’ll learn early on is how to get the ideas down on the page rapidly, because otherwise, I’m sunk.

Wish me luck.

Here I Go.

Matt

Posted in Blog Musings, Writing Musings | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Be A Better Writer (pt. 1 – Workshops)

While I’ve been trying to write full time for only about a year and a half now, it is something I’ve been dreaming about and working toward for most of my adult life. I’ve read how-to books and memoirs, followed blogs and podcasts, and researched workshops and programs. All in the hopes of improving my writing skills and instincts.

Parsing through all of this, in the end, there are 3 surefire steps to becoming a better writer:

  1. Read constantly
  2. Write constantly
  3. Repeat unto death

But, like any music teacher can tell you, while practice is essential for improvement, practice without guidance can ingrain bad habits and hinder true progress. Step 1 is meant in large part to be that guidance. When you see how it is done well, and can really appreciate it and dissect it, you can see how to do it yourself. That’s the staff that shows where the Ark of the Covenant is buried. It’s the knight’s broken shield telling how to get to the Holy Grail. And when you see it done poorly, those are the giant rolling boulders and spinning head-level scythes you need to avoid at all costs.

Step 2 above is the practice part. It’s hours and weeks and years of getting beaten by crummy French archaeologists and Nazi goons before you make it to your destination, stronger and better trained for all your troubles.

But there are other forms of guidance too: the books and workshops and so on mentioned above.

So let’s talk about workshops.

I was describing these to a friend* recently, and when they heard my pitch, they said, “Oh, it’s like sleep-away camp for writers!” You show up, check in to wherever it’s held, and then spend your days writing, reading and critiquing the writing of the other students, attending lectures on the basics of writing genre fiction, and having one-on-one meetings and critiques with the instructors. You live and work and chat and talk shop side by side with your fellow students, and at some of the workshops, successful professional authors and editors as well. You come out the other end with a much deeper understanding of the craft, the field, the genre, and the life of genre writing. The same can more or less be said for all of these workshops, only the specifics differ.

*For the life of me, I can’t remember who this was. It could have been my wife, Di, or it could have been a friend, or even my dad. I’m drawing a complete blank.

When it comes to writing workshops, specifically those geared towards writers of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, there’s the big three, and then a few others as well. I want to talk about the big three, Clarion, Clarion West, and Odyssey. (also, there’s an Australian spin-off of Clarion, Clarion South, but I only just found out about that last night) But first, I’ll mention 2 of the smaller ones, Viable Paradise and the Center for the Study of Science Fiction.

(tl;dr version: 5ish major workshops, some differences, all expensive, Odyssey sounds the most helpful in my opinion)

Viable Paradise is a week long course held on Martha’s vineyard for 24 students ever October. The instructors at VP are some very big names, like John Scalzi, Scott Lynch, Elizabeth Bear, James Patrick Kelly, Cory Doctorow (All Amazing Authors) and Patrick and Teresa Neilsen Hayden, two enormous names in editing from Tor Books. There’s one or two of these instructors staying the whole week as writers-in-residence, the rest cycle through for a day or two.

The Center for the Study of Science Fiction is two weeks instead of one, it’s held at the University of Kansas. It’s run by author Christopher McKitterick, with Grand Master  James Gunn hanging around much of the first week and author Andy Duncan the second. I’m not sure on class sizes, but I think it’s around a dozen or so.

The big three are 6-week long summer workshops. While in the shorter workshops you can get a crash course in the basics, and maybe have one or at most two pieces of your writing critiqued (there isn’t time for more), at the longer ones, you can really dig deep into the guts of what makes good writing (and good writers) tick. And you have more of your work critiqued (the better to point out what you need to focus your practice on), more opportunities to critique the work of others (refining your internal editor so you need less outside help later), and meet and learn from more professionals. Those are the benefits. There are drawbacks, though. 6 weeks is a long time, and it’s hard to do if you work a day job, or have kids, or pets, or other commitments. And the costs for these run into the thousands of dollars. That’s just tuition. Then there’s room and board, travel to get there, etc. These can prove to be insurmountable hurdles to many struggling young authors.

Clarion is the granddaddy workshop. It started in 1968, and is now running out of it’s 3rd location, at UCSD. The first 4 weeks, there’s a different writer instructor each week, and the last two weeks are co-taught by a 2 instructor pair.

Clarion West, in Seattle, is limited to 18 students, and, similar to Clarion, is taught by a different instructor every week.

And then there’s Odyssey. Typically 15-16 students, held in Manchester NH. What separates Odyssey from the two Clarions is that instead of being run on a weekly basis by different authors, it is run continuously by a single person, Jeanne Cavelos, who is primarily an editor but also an author. During the 6 weeks with Jeanne, she is able to watch your progress over the course of 8 or so different stories, see where you’ve improved and where you still struggle. You can’t get that when each week a new pair of eyes reads only one of your stories. Of course, like the other workshops, successful authors rotate through for a few days at a time, lecturing and critiquing your work. And there’s also a writer-in-residence for a week as well, in addition to Jeanne. This summer, for instance, the writer in residence is Mary Robinette Kowal of Glamourist Histories and Writing Excuses fame. Some of the authors rotating through are multiple Hugo and Nebula Award Nominee N.K. Jemisin and Scott Andrews (editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies), among others. The list of previous writers in residence is like a who’s who of grand masters and best sellers. George R R Martin, Gene Wolfe, Charles de Lint, Terry Brooks, Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova, Carrie Vaughn, and on and on. I’ve been looking at Odyssey for over a decade now saying, “One day… I’m going to go there… One day…”

Anyway, that’s our quick tour through the world of improving your writing through the clever application of directed study. Join us next time when we.. well, I’m not sure what we’re talking about next. Just join us next time, won’t you?

Here I Go,
Matt

Posted in Blog Musings, Writing Musings | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Who is Matthew Shean?

Since starting on this path to being an author, I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching and self examination. In grad school, I spent a long time wondering whether I was cut out to be a scientist, how much I wanted it, and if it was normal how much more pleasure I got out of writing in my downtime compared to actually doing labwork. It got to the point that as I finished my PhD., I spent a few months wondering whether to cap off my scientific career there and move into a writing-based profession (like Science Writer, which is a thing, an insanely cool thing), or to continue in the standard academic model and move into a post-doc.

I chose the post-doc, and I don’t regret that decision at all, in part because it crystallized for me that a life of tailoring my scientific questions in pursuit of vanishing federal grant money was not a life I wanted to lead. And the more I saw of the life of a scientist paying for the opportunity to do their science by being a college professor, the less I wanted that life–or that quantity of stress–for myself.

So, I knew that being an author was for me. But this isn’t about my decision to leave science, I’ve done that post here.

This is about who I am as an author. Partly that means what do I write about, and partly that asks, who even am I?

Who Am I?

Much in the way that Inigo Montoya is not left handed, I am not Matthew Shean.

This is a post I meant to write a year ago, started, and abandoned. So let’s get back to it.

Matthew Shean is a pseudonym. Considering that at this point there aren’t a whole lot of people that are reading Here I Go, and almost every one of them is a personal friend or family member, it is not news to anyone reading this. For those that don’t know me, an introduction followed by, for those who do, an explanation.

Hi, I’m Matt.

I originally hail from New Jersey, but I’ve lived throughout the northeastern U.S. from Philly to Boston, with decent chunks of time spent in Alabama, Hawaii, and West Virginia. I currently live in (on?) Long Island. I’m married–you can call my amazing wife Di. She’s a scientist/college professor, successfully living the life I fled. We’ve got 2 kids I’ve mentioned a few times (kidlet 1 and kidlet 2) that are both in grade school. I’ve got a Bachelor’s degree in Bioengineering from one Ivy League, and a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology from another. I’ll be forty in under a week.

So Why the Pseudonym?

First and foremost, my birthname is very common. There are already at least three published novelists writing with my name, and one of them quite successfully. As someone struggling to make a name for himself, that’s not the kind of added competition I need.

As an author, I want someone to be able to find my website with a simple Google search. I want to be easy to find. If I am but one of hundreds with my name, including prominent photographers and Olympic swimmers, among others, then how will my web-presence stand out? It is hard for crowds of adoring fans to beat a path to your door if it is buried in the midst of a repository of identical doors, a la Monsters Inc.’s climax scene.

I get that Shean isn’t exactly a rare name on its own, and certainly not unheard of. But Shean is a family name, and I adore my family. And there aren’t many prominent Matthew Sheans out there. Except, hopefully soon, me.

But who is Matthew Shean?

I can’t answer that for you, I’m still figuring it out for myself. But I can say this – I come from a long line of born storytellers, and I have a ton of them lined up and waiting for their turn at the campfire. I love the intersection of science, technology, and humanity. I love taking ideas of the fantastic–new inventions, new medicines, rare diseases, bizarre people–and combining them in different jigsaw arrangements. That is where stories come from, and that is where science fiction is born. That’s where I live, it’s my playground, and I want to share it with you.

So won’t you come and play?

Here I Go,

Matt

Posted in Blog Musings, Writing Musings | Tagged | Leave a comment

I Sold A Story!

I am hyperventilating over here.

I just sold my first story.

I don’t really have the words.  I’m so excited.

I’ve had confidence in my ability to write for a long time.  I’ve gotten enough compliments, and read enough bad stuff and good stuff, to know roughly where I fall on the spectrum.  I could stand to be a lot better, sure, but I knew there was at least some talent there.

But I’d never sold a story.  I didn’t know if I ever would, ever could, because I never had before.  There was no precedent.

It was enough to make me suspect the would never happen for me, that it was all just a mid-life fantasy.  That I was some dilettante playing at writing as an excuse for not being otherwise gainfully employed.  That it was a lie I told myself to make me believe I was more than just a (kick-ass and awesome) stay-at-home dad.

But no.  I sold a story.  Despite my doubts, I knew deep down that I am a writer.  But this?  This is external validation, and it comes with the exchange of currency.

The one I sold, I’ve been sending out for just two weeks shy of a year.  It had been going out and coming back long enough I was beginning to think it was a yo-yo, not a story.  But then, I’ve never gotten yo-yos to come back.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say once the adrenaline wears off and the oxygen returns to my brain, but for now….

I SOLD A STORY!!!!!!!

Look at me,it’s almost like I’m a real writer now…

Here I Go,

Matt

Posted in Blog Musings | 5 Comments

The Children’s Author with 1,000 Faces

One of the things I enjoy is trying to look at a collection of things and observing the patterns there, seeing the pattern in the noise.  It comes, I think, from decades of training as a scientist.  The thing is, patterns are great, because they can be reproduced.  And, if you can find a pattern in popular stories, as a writer, you can take advantage of that pattern to help your own writing.

Most famously, Joseph Campbell looked at the mythologies and stories from across human history and from them, developed the thesis that led to the Hero with 1,000 Faces. I have, entirely by accident, undertaken a similar, if far less thorough, analysis.

Every night, assuming they get to bed at a decent hour, I read a chapter or two of various different books to the kidlets as bedtime stories. It’s all the standard fare of good books – Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and a rather large helping of Roald Dahl. And it’s this surfeit of Dahl books that led to my epiphany.

Over the last few months, I have read the kidlets the following Roald Dahl masterpieces:

Matilda

The BFG

The Twits

The Witches

George’s Marvelous Medicine

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Danny Champion of the World

And after reading so many of them back to back, I began to notice a pattern.* The more I thought about it, the more this pattern began to look like a formula. And, now that I have this formula, all kinds of doors are opening up to me in my mind.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at this formula together, along with example from 4 of his books, Danny Champion of the World (D), The BFG (B), Matilda (M), and The Witches (W ).  It shouldn’t take too much effort to see the evidence in his other books as well.

Step 1: Set up a simple villain

  • Meany Mr. Hazel snarls at Danny in the gas station (D)
  • Mean giants eat kids (B)
  • Mean schoolmaster Trunchbull bullies her pupils (M)
  • Witches kill kids (W )

Step 2: Give kid main character a grown up to love and look up to

  • Danny’s Dad is awesome and kind (D)
  • The BFG is sweet, and gives kids happy dreams (B)
  • Miss Honey is kind and ‘gets’ Matilda’s genius (M)
  • Boy’s Grandmama is a badass former witchhunter who takes him in (W )

Step 3: Reinforce the meanness of the villain

  • Mr. Hazell kicks sleeping dogs, unsportingly traps poachers (D)
  • Mean giants tease and beat up the BFG (B)
  • Trunchbull torments Miss Honey, likely killed her dad and stole her inheritance (M)
  • Head witch kills other witches, will turn kids into mice to make people kill them (W )

Step 4: Set up some minor “unrelated” plot info as if it were worldbuilding

  • Dad: I love poaching. Poaching is fun! (D)
  • BFG: I collect dreams, can mix dreams together to create dreams to order (B)
  • Matilda: I’m telekinetic (M)
  • This is how you spot witches, this is how you make the Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse Maker (W )

Step 5: Give the villain a want

  • Mr. Hazell wants to host a great pheasant shooting party for big-wigs (D)
  • The giants want to go eat the children in England (B)
  • Trunchbull wants to live in Miss Honey’s place unperturbed, forever (M)
  • The witches want to turn all English kids into mice (W )

Step 6: Main character uses the “unrelated” worldbuilding to deny the villain their want

  • Hey, let’s poach ALL of Hazell’s pheasants before the shooting party! (D)
  • Hey, let’s mix a nightmare for the Queen of England so she’ll stop the giants! (B)
  • Hey, let’s use Matilda’s telekinesis to haunt Trunchbull and make her flee her past crimes! (M)
  • Hey, let’s use the witches’ own recipe against them to turn the witches into mice!(W )

Using these 6 simple steps, in only around 25,000-40,000 words a book, Roald Dahl was able to craft some of the most beloved children’s books of the last century. It’s simple, it’s brilliant, and it looks deceptively easy.

Now, for some initial analysis of this formula, please bear with me while I talk about some storytelling tropes and terms.

What strikes me most about this formula is the role of the protagonist, the main character. In all of the years of learning about writing and storytelling as a craft, I have always learned that the protagonist is the character who wants something, and the antagonist is the one that stands in their way. It’s Storytelling 101, 1st lecture, first half hour of the class. It’s right there on the syllabus. Basic level stuff is what I’m telling you. In simplistic terms, the protagonist is the good guy, and the antagonist is the bad guy.

But not for Roald Dahl. For him, the good guy main character is the antagonist, and the bad guy is the protagonist.

Say that again?

In that formula above, the bad guy is the one that wants something, and the only job of the good guy is to deny it to them. Now, I know there’s all kinds of thought and theories saying that every character is the hero of their own story, and every protag/antag combo is simultaneously an antag/protag combo (which is demonstrably false, btw), but this is far more one-sided of a relationship.

Dahl’s “good guys” are only good in that they are 1) children, and 2) shown to be caring and loving, usually expressly because of step 2 in the formula above, having them love a kind and benevolent adult figure. By showing the child as loving someone good, and by dint of their own innocence, we automatically code them in our brains as the good guy. But what good thing are they actually doing? Usually, nothing. And, in some cases, they are actively conducting mischief and petty theft.

So what about the antagonists? The bad guys? Well, they are bad in that they cause pain or misfortune to others, either through their actions or their goals. So, demonstrably bad. But, they are the only characters with internal wants in the books. They are the proactive characters. They are the ones trying to accomplish a goal. The good guys are left entirely as reactive; their only goals are external, coming about in response to the bad guys. Their entire agency in the books is merely to thwart the goals of the bad guys. To be an impediment. To antagonize them.

Roald Dahl’s good guys are the antagonists of his novels, and the bad guys are the protagonists. And in every one of the cases mentioned above, the antagonists win. The goal is thwarted.

Every one those books is a tragedy, where the protagonist fails in their goals.

When I realized that a few weeks ago after five books, my mind was blown, and I had to read two more just to make sure the pattern I was seeing was really there.So, what does this mean for me? M I going to start writing children’s books derivative of Roald Dahl? Of course not! But, it does give me insights into, for instance, how much plot to incorporate into a 25,000 – 40,000 word work (commonly considered novella length), how to play with protag/antag dynamics, how to make antagonists feel like sympathetic good guys, Fast and simple ways to generate either good will or ill feelings toward characters, etc. Now, I just need to go put these lessons into use.

Here I Go,

Matt

 

*As a caveat, I will say that this formula doesn’t hold up for all of Dahl’s books. Having previously read James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I would have to say that based on my recollection of those books, they don’t fit into this formula without a lot of shoving, shoehorning, and shenanigans. But I take those to be the exceptions that prove the rule.

 

 

Posted in Blog Musings, Writing Musings | Tagged | Leave a comment