lessons in telling a serial story…

…or any story, really.

(This post contains spoilers for the comic book series Empress.)

I don’t know why I started reading this series, and I sort of lost interest partway through, but I kept buying it because it was a seven-issue mini-series. I would have felt pretty silly stopping at issue five or six in a seven-issue series.

But I just read the last issue, and it really impressed me in a couple of ways — and now I want to go back and read the series from the beginning.

In very broad strokes, this is the story of a huge galactic empire, ruled by a king. One day, the king is in a restaurant (or some such place) and takes a fancy to his waitress, deciding to make her his queen. She explains that she’s not really a waitress — her real job is quite a bit more disreputable — but the king stops her, saying that what she was before doesn’t matter. Her life is starting now.

Years later, she has had three children, ranging from a teenage girl to a baby, and she’s decided that life with the king is no longer tolerable (I forget the details, but he’s evil and despotic and cruel and evil and so on). So, she runs away, with her three children, and an officer of the king’s guard who’s devoted to her. And a very short guy with a mustache — I’m not sure who he is.

Anyway, the series — including the issues I never read — involves the captain guy flying them around in various space ships, shooting various of the king’s forces with ray guns, and other thrilling space opera events as he protects the queen and her children. And there are some quieter moments, like interactions with the queen’s sister, who is not really friendly to them (she disapproved of the queen’s former, disreputable, occupation).

In the final issue, the king finally catches up to them. Along with about a hundred of his elite, heavily-armed soldiers.

The captain guy stands up to defend the queen, as usual, but the king beats him badly — not surprising, given that the king is much larger and also armored. But before the king can kill the captain guy, the queen tells him to stop — it’s her that he wants to kill, so he should fight her.

He starts to laugh at this possibility, but then she challenges him, asking if he wants to be known as the king who was afraid to fight his own queen. He tells his soldiers not to interfere, and asks what weapons she prefers. She says no weapons — she wants to fight him with her bare fists. He says that this will be fast, and then she knocks him down.

The next two pages are her beating the crap out of him. At the end of the second page, as he’s lying on his back, stunned, he asks her how she’s doing this.

Then there’s a page of flashbacks of the various times in the series when the subject of her disreputable former occupation was mentioned, but never actually described, and, at the top of the following page, she explains that she was a cage fighter, the best cage fighter. 400 victories, no losses. “I can’t fly a space ship, and I can’t hit a target. But when it comes to fighting? I never lose.”

And this works because the king, and most readers, I’m sure, assumed that, because she’s a woman, her disreputable former occupation must have been something related to sex — a prostitute or a stripper or whatever. But this was never stated — it was just an assumption we were allowed to make. That’s playing fair, like introducing a character and allowing the readers to assume that the character is white and straight — until you tell them otherwise.

The king points out that if she kills him his soldiers will kill her and her children — but she says this will be worth it, and she kills him.

So, there’s the queen, her children, the badly-injured captain guy, and the short guy with the mustache, surrounded by a hundred royal soldiers who are realizing that the “Do not interfere” thing probably doesn’t apply any more. And she says that one thing she has learned as a queen is how to accept whatever happens. They are about to die, no matter what, so they shouldn’t fight or beg — they should accept it.

And her older daughter stands up.

Nobody is going to die, she says, and that’s an order.

She faces the soldiers, telling them that the king is dead, so she is their queen, and they should drop their weapons.

And this works also, because it’s right there in how the story is built, though even the queen didn’t figure it out.

And then, in the ultimate serial story twist, on the very last page, the queen, who recently started sleeping with the captain guy, learns that her devoted protector and lover is not at all who she thought he was. But that’s all she (and the reader) learns, because they’re setting up the seconds series of Empress. Which I will pay more attention to. After I go back and read the first series all the way through.

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the bus station mystery — part three

This story started here.

“Excuse me,” Kelly said, her voice raised to fill the waiting room. “My name is Kelly Fraser, and I’m in charge of this facility at the moment. I just heard from the home office in New York, and I’m afraid that we’re all going to be here for a while. Because of the storm, it’s not safe for the bus to continue on its route at the present time. Also, the bridge that you would have taken to get back on the interstate has been closed because of high winds.”

“So, what does that mean?” the older man asked.

She spread her hands wide. “We have shelter, we have heat, and we have food and water.”

Billy thought that the electricity might not last — it had flickered in storms which were less intense than this one — but he understood that this was probably not the best time to mention that possibility.

“So, they’re not sending help?” asked the woman in the yellow rain slicker.

“Emergency services are dealing with the real emergencies. We will be fine if we shelter in place. If our situation changes, we can call for assistance.”

At that moment there was a big gust of wind and the glass in a couple of the floor-to-ceiling windows rattled. This may have been a factor in how calmly the passengers took the news.

Billy was to say later, when telling the story, that he half expected that everybody there would introduce themselves at that point, but of course they didn’t. A couple of people went over to the newsstand and took newspapers.

After a minute or two, the older man raised his head and looked around. “Somebody should tell the driver,” he said. “That we’re not going on. He should come in here with us, where it’s comfortable…”

Stephanie, the blonde girl, had come out of the office, and Kelly was leaning over to listen to something she was saying, so Billy went to one of the front windows and looked out, shading his eyes with his hand.

“Billy,” Kelly called, “what’s happening out there?”

“The bus is still there. No sign of Cody.”

The woman with the huge purse stood up. “He said he was going to take the bus around back, for gas and maintenance.”

“Well, it’s still right there,” Billy said.

“I’ll check it out,” Stephanie said, and she was out the door.

There was a pause, and then a couple of the others went after her — perhaps having calculated that they would still be under the overhang and protected from at least some of the rain.

Kelly caught Billy’s eye and he held back.

“That girl told me that the phone just went dead,” she murmured. “If we get into real trouble, we’re sunk.”

“What about Mr. Randall’s phone?”

She shrugged. “If one line is out, the others probably are, too.”

“Why did they want to talk to her? Does she work for the company?”

“No idea. They said there was somebody there who wanted to talk to her.”

“Well, we should–“

“Go outside and figure out what happened to Cody. Then we can check the phones, and see what the girl has to say. Come on.”

The bus, the only one parked on that side of the station building, was silent and dark, and there was no sign of Stephanie.

For some reason, Billy went around to the far side of the bus, and there, obviously getting soaked to the skin, was Stephanie. She was clinging to the side of the bus, peering in one of the windows. Her hands were gripping a lip above the windows, and her feet were supported, at least somewhat, by some decorative grooves in the metal as she tried to see inside.

“What…” Billy started to ask, but she hopped down to the ground and moved quickly around to the other side of the bus.

She looked at the closed door for a moment, apparently trying to figure out how to open it.

Billy stepped around her, grabbed the edge of the door with his fingertips, and pulled it out and open. He was about to step onto the bus, but Stephanie held his forearm for a moment so she could get inside first.

“Nobody come in…” she called, but the others followed her anyway.

The bulky body of the driver was crammed awkwardly into the well between the two rows of seats.

to be continued…

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scary writing moments (two)

Scary Writing Moment #1

When you figure out that, before you start working on the next chapter, you should really assemble and organize all the notes you have. They’re on your phone and on your computer and in the cloud and on various pieces of paper — and you need to pull them together before you go on.

It’s going to be a lot of work, and you’ll procrastinate about doing it, but it’s going to be worth it when it’s done.

Scary Writing Moment #2

When you go through all of those notes, collect them and get them all organized, and realize that pretty much all of them apply to the chapters you’ve written already.

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i’m really kind of sick of ‘hallelujah’

When I think about the late Leonard Cohen, there are many songs that come to mind, quite a few of which I listen to on a regular basis, but “Hallelujah,” mentioned in every article I’ve read about his death as if it was his crowning achievement, isn’t one of them. But that’s fine. He wrote a lot of songs, and quite a few were great.

Three which I don’t listen to that often, though they are great, are the three which were used in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

As I wrote in my review:

The soundtrack consists of three songs from Leonard Cohen’s first album (“The Stranger Song,” “Winter Lady,” and “Sisters of Mercy”), and they weave through the action of the film so beautifully that if I hear even a fragment of any of them I immediately begin seeing the movie in my head. I don’t think it’s possible to use music more effectively in a movie.

Sometimes, like when I’m at work, it’s inconvenient to have my favorite movie start to play before my eyes, blocking my view of my monitor. That’s why I don’t listen to those three as often as some of the others.

But it is nice that others have noticed: “Leonard Cohen’s Folk Ballads Defined The Great ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’

Sean O’Neal, senior editor of the AV Club (more generally known for articles with headlines like “Lindsay Lohan to let world decide what the hell to call her new accent” and “Bono to finally be recognized as a Woman of the Year” and “Mel Gibson has never discriminated against anyone, says Mel Gibson”) decided to get serious about heroin addiction (his), urges toward suicide (his), and Leonard Cohen: “Dancing to the end with Leonard Cohen“.

I think this is the first time I’ve ever linked to an article that I couldn’t make myself read all the way through. So, be warned. Your mileage may vary.

But I guess the question is, in reading it, however much of it you can bear to read, is there any other songwriter, other than Cohen, about whom this could have been written?

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I’ve been thinking about divorce. Not for myself, since I’m not married. I’ve been thinking about how it’s something that I don’t think anybody can completely “get” (or convey) unless they’ve actually been through it.

It’s not just a particularly intense romantic breakup, any more than a marriage is a particularly intense romance. It’s a difference in kind, not just in amount.

My favorite divorce songs, as it happens, were all written by people who had actually been divorced.

The first is “Till Death Do We Part” by Madonna — one of the few songs of hers that I’ve ever really liked. (I’m just linking so as not to have too many embedded videos.)

(From a songwriting point of view, I especially like how it goes into third person for the bridges, but obviously can’t stay there for long — we can achieve objectivity at times like that, but only for a while. The third person lines may also be an echo of the tabloid stories about her marriage to Sean Penn. A weakness is that she obviously figured out how effective it is when she speaks the line (with a complete lack of affect), “He’s not in love with her anymore.” And it is effective — very powerful, in fact — but she tries to go back to that well too many times. Less is more.)

Then, pretty much without flaw, there’s Sinéad O’Connor’s “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance.”

“I’ll meet you later in somebody’s office,” indeed.

But then there’s this, which was briefly hijacked as a political song, but which is actually a divorce song, written by Christine McVie about her divorce from John McVie, who has been playing bass a few feet away from her for the last 40+ years, as he is in this clip.

What a great reminder that divorce can inspire not only negative feelings, that we can wish for the best for somebody, even when we’re meeting later in somebody’s office.

So, this leads to another thought about divorce: Why don’t I write about it more, or at all? I’ve been divorced — I should use that…

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