A Book Cover?

Don’t let this amazing cover image fool you: my novel has not found a publisher nor do I even have an agent. And no, I did not and could not create anything remotely this fantastic on my own.

 

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What happened is that my family thought it would be cool if I had an image, possibly a potential cover design, for my “forever a work in progress” novel. They got together and hired Andrea DiVito and Laura Villari for the job (Andrea drew it, Laura did the amazing colors).

I’ve been a fan of Andrea and Laura’s since my brother Andy hired them to do the art for a Marvel Comics limited series called Annihilation back in 2006. Once Andy contacted them about this project, I emailed Andrea the broad strokes of what I thought would be an appropriate and compelling image for the story. We went back and forth a few times and this is the end result. If my novel is published, I won’t have any control over the cover—authors rarely do. Of course, I’d be happy if they used this, but right now, such notions are more of a fantasy than the novel itself.

While my main character (a teenage girl in modern Edinburgh, Scotland) does not actually use a sword in the story, she does take up arms against a sea of unending sword wielding assailants (sorry, Shakespeare) who step out of the land of myth and legend. She also teams-up with King Arthur. The image of her hand grasping the sword conveys the basic idea.

The sword is cracked and chipped because my working title is Fractured Myths—so a broken sword carries a bit of that idea. We can’t see that the sword is Excalibur, and since Excalibur is indestructible, I doubt anyone would leap to that conclusion, but if Excalibur were fractured, that would also make for a powerful image.

And then there’s the Celtic Tree of Life symbol in the background. This symbol illustrates the connection of our world to the Otherworld that is home to our myths and legends. The symbol appears in my story and is tied to the plot. This particular design is Andrea’s. As with every other aspect of this picture, he exceeded my expectations.

Anyway, I couldn’t be more pleased!

*Art by Andrea Di Vito and Laura Villari, copyright 2013 Craig Schmidt

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25 Students Reading my Draft. Oh, boy.

Teenagers are brutal . . . and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I asked the 25 students reading the latest draft of my novel to “tear it to shreds” and thereby help me see its flaws so that I might improve it. They finished the first ¼ of the book last week.

While some students were “too nice” and merely gave the opening chapters compliments, many accepted my challenge. Of course, not every criticism was “golden,” but they pointed out areas where the manuscript needs work—identifying confusing elements and suggesting edits—and that’s really all I needed.

Yes: teenagers have helped me. It happens.

While I’m debating what changes to make (and I will make some), I was also pleased that my students are enjoying the book to various degrees. The basic reaction was, “It’s actually pretty good!” though several found it way too confusing. I’m sure a few don’t care for it but kept quiet either to spare my feelings or because they think I’d “get revenge” if they told me they hated it (I wouldn’t, by the way). Even so, for a teenage audience of mostly male readers, I am pleased with the overall reaction.

Thanks, guys! Keep tearing away! You’re doing great! Together, we might get published someday!

Thresholds & Guardians

It is probably impossible for any hero’s journey to avoid thresholds and people/monsters/obstacles that serve as guardians of these milestones.

A threshold can be any dividing line between one point and another. Anything: a doorway, a fence, a river, a way off planet—any barrier is a threshold. The hero will go through several throughout his journey and each one is important because each means he has “made it” to the next phase of his journey.

Often the hero will have to bypass or defeat a person or thing that makes getting through the threshold rather difficult. These beings or obstacles are called “Threshold Guardians”—their purpose: to stop the hero in his tracks.

The most important threshold in any story is most likely the first one: the one that divides the hero’s ordinary world from the sacred world (see my post on “The Call”), but there will be many, and probably an obvious one before the climactic end scene.

While I will have several examples of thresholds and their guardians in my normal film list below, it would be silly not to mention the most plainly magnificent threshold guardian of all time: The Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Black Knight guards a bridge over a creek no wider than a few feet, but simply stands there and repeats, “None shall pass,” so that King Arthur has to defeat him in combat (except, does he really? Why not just walk a few feet away and hop over the gully?). The Black Knight’s sole purpose is to be a threshold guardian. It is ridiculous and awesome. Please watch the scene even if you don’t have time for the entire film. I’m sure you can find it on Youtube.

EXAMPLES:
Major League: During spring training, the coaches are threshold guardians who will decide whether or not the individual players make it into the major leagues. After that, the coaches become true mentors while each team they face can be seen as a threshold guardian trying to prevent the Indians from winning and making it to the playoffs.
Stand By Me: When the boys first step onto the tracks, they pause at the bridge—an obvious threshold separating their hometown from the unknown. Minutes later, they encounter the threshold guardian: Chopper—the dog in the junkyard. Of course, when they try crossing the big river, the approaching train becomes a threshold guardian that very nearly kills them.
• Harry Potter: Wow. Where to begin? Harry’s stepparents are threshold guardians, trying to prevent Harry from entering the sacred world of wizardry. Then there’s getting into Diagon Alley, the train station and platform 9 ¾, and a billion special thresholds within Hogwarts. Many of these have obstacles making it difficult for normal people to get through. Toward the end, Fluffy (a giant three headed puppy) guards an entrance just as Cerberus guards the land of the dead in Greek mythology. Really, there are probably a hundred thresholds in each book in the series.
The Godfather: While there are many thresholds and guardians in this story, including Michaels’ own family members who do not want him to get involved in the family business because they want something better for him, some of the most obvious thresholds are the doorways in the restaurant scene with Michael kills Sollozzo (an act that irrevocably makes him part of the sacred world and leads to his crossing the ocean and hiding for several years). My favorite threshold, however, is in the final scene—the final shot, when Michael tells his wife, Kay, never to ask about his business and then, as she stands in the hallway, looking into Michael’s office, the door (threshold) slowly closes and she is left on the outside.
• Batman: In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne has to get out of prison (an obvious threshold) only to climb a mountain (another) and then survive his training before returning to Gotham City (yet another). His journey began when he left Gotham (threshold) and went to China. You’ll be able to find many more throughout The Dark Knight Trilogy—though the 3rd film certainly has more than its share once Bruce is left in a seemingly inescapable pit (which he does escape) and returns from around the world to Gotham (never mind that he is actually penniless at that time and the entire city is sealed off—he’s Batman, so he can make it).
Lord of the Rings: The thresholds and their guardians are obvious and ubiquitous in this story, so I’ll just mention one of the more subtle examples: when Frodo and Sam are leaving the Shire. The two Hobbits have been walking for a long while, when Sam suddenly stops where a line of wheat turns a different color. He tells Frodo that if he takes another step that “[He’ll] be farther from home than [he’s] ever been.” He pauses because, though it is just a line of wheat, it a huge step for him. Sam is crossing into the world of the unknown. I also really like that there is a scarecrow there—a silent guardian who gives Sam additional reason to pause and that serves as a warning of what is to come.
Star Wars: As with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, I could make a long list of thresholds and guardians, but if we look at Episode IV (the original, original film), Luke’s Uncle Owen is a threshold guardian who doesn’t want Luke getting involved with the adventure plot. After Owen has been barbequed, Luke is free to do as he pleases, but still has to find a way off his home planet of Tatooine. Some Imperial Stormtroopers (who are repeatedly used as threshold guardians) question Luke and co., but Jedi Master Ben Kenobi is able to use a Jedi Mind Trick on the weak minded soldiers and get past them. Even when the heroes board the ship that will take them to the stars, they are attacked by Stormtroopers who wish to stop them.
Skyfall (James Bond): Bond always faces a number of henchmen, each of whom can be seen as a threshold guardian who seeks to stop Bond from continuing on his quest/mission. In Skyfall, we also see Bond having to pass a number of tests to get back on the active duty list. In this case, his superiors are the threshold guardians who will decide whether or not he can continue.

WRITERS WEEK

So it’s WRITERS WEEK here at Libertyville High School: a full week when we invite professional writers of various sorts to dazzle, inspire, and challenge our students. With any luck, these presenters’ love for the written word will become contagious—infecting our teenagers with a desire to truly craft their own prose or poetry, taking more care than ever before and holding themselves to a higher standard.

And I must admit, it is my favorite week of the year.

It’s only Wednesday and already students are talking about how fantastic authors like Jay Asher (13 Reasons Why, The Future of Us), Jay Bonansinga (The Killer’s Game, The Walking Dead: The Rise of the Governor), Megan Stielstra (Everyone Remain Calm), and poets Robbie Q. Telfer, J. W. Basilo, and Derrick Brown have changed the way they think about writing, reading, and living.

If there are any other teachers reading this, I highly recommend you call these folks up and book them at your school (but it will cost some $$$-we do a lot of fundraising). They are all fantastic presenters and your students will love every minute. Truthfully, the kids will have so much fun they won’t even realize they’re learning and gaining important advice.

I spend a good deal of time helping organize this event. I don’t get paid extra for it—it’s simply something I love and that I firmly believe is important. Really, it’s kind of like putting on our own little writing conference. As a teacher, I’m thrilled at the students’ reactions. As a writer, I enjoy talking to professional writers and I’m inspired by what they do, their work, and the stories they have to tell.

Tomorrow we have musician Chris Bryan (“The Sum of My Habits”) and Kathy Hart from the Chicago area talk show Eric and Kathy in the Morning. With fun entertainers talking about their craft, their careers, and their love of writing and the arts, I am certain the week will continue to blow us all away.

But there is one other reason WRITERS WEEK is so special: our very own student writers and presenters. We ask students to submit their own original short fiction and poetry, take to the stage, and share it with the 200 – 500 other students sitting in the auditorium. Trust me: you’d be amazed at what these young men and women can achieve, what they can say, and what they can make us feel. The entire week is for the students, but in the end, the students themselves steal the show.