Review: THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs

“P.S. Unexplained noises are best left unexplained.” – Prospero’s note to his cleaning lady, Mrs. Dufrey

John Bellairs, The Face in the Frost, Olmstead Press, 1969.

What I Read

 The Face in the Frost is humorous, low fantasy novel with Poe-esque foreboding. The protagonist Prospero (not that wizard) is threatened and stalked by an unknown enemy. His old friend Roger Bacon (implicitly not that fellow) brings him crucial information. Together they begin a road trip/fact-finding mission.

Bellairs is a master of setting. He combines humor and horror in his description of towns and landscapes. Throughout the novel, the author surprised me with flourishes of figurative language, such as the following:

“…(B)ehind him floated large silent owls. They drifted and hung like paper lanterns…” (70)

I can’t pinpoint when my initial impression (“Too many details!”) changed to full immersion in the wizard’s journey. Suffice to say, the setting reflects the transition from his everyday life to increasing peril. A good example is the lead-in to his encounter with a ghost. There was typical foreshadowing: the locals spoke of a spooky forest and a rusty barrier showed an attempt to keep its denizens at bay. Yet the sense of danger was elevated by Bellairs’ earlier depictions of normal sights and sounds of August (albeit unusually cool). Prospero’s harrowing foray into the cursed forest was nothing like his previous travel through woodlands.

Besides his awesome powers of description, Bellairs uses dialogue and snippets of backstory to great effect. Despite this being a stand-alone novel, Prospero and Roger’s friendship seemed to have a long history. When Roger disappeared less than a third into the book – just as Prospero discovered the identity of his tormentor – his reaction of fear and hope felt real. (And I did miss Roger!)

What didn’t I like?

Authorial asides* using second-person which bumped me out of the character’s point of view. For example, “It was as if you were half asleep” (75) could have substituted the character’s name.

The last third of the novel has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink vibe. A key supporting player, Millhorn, is introduced suddenly – after Prospero is dropped into our contemporary world.

The climax felt abrupt. Rereading it, I liked that the protagonist used both recently-acquired and previously-mentioned items to conquer the villain. That was clever. However, I wanted to know more about a certain Lovecraftian object.

What I Learned

While enjoying the interplay between Prospero and Roger, I had a brick-in-the-head moment: “Maybe I can grow my protagonists’ friendship BEFORE they’re forced to rely on each other!”

I tossed three chapters out of my work-in-progress and wrote 3214 words of new dialogue and description. (I’m not sure how many words I deleted, what author Mary Catelli calls “antiwords.”) I restored a confrontation between Argenta and bullies, which I initially worried would be too intense for readers 8-12.


*FOOTNOTE: I have discovered several authors have quirks related to their “authorial voice,” for lack of a better term. Some address the reader directly, in the style of old novels. It’s meant in fun, but it can be annoying. Other authors insert asides, discretely or intrusively.  

April Update: Writing

The Factory is swallowing my free will time, so I wrote this Sunday night. I hope everyone is having a good week in my stead!
***

I decided to finish my series in its entirety before looking for a publisher. It wasn’t a snap decision. In fact, I resisted the idea.

While working on Book One’s second draft, I found myself writing vignettes for later use: scenes and dialogue growing naturally from the denouement. I suspected this scribbling was creative procrastination – or worse – a form of Doing It All Wrong. As everyone knows, a Real WriterTM finishes a book, sells it, and then figures out whether it’s worthwhile to write a sequel or a series.

Two things made me reconsider whether it might be a better option than write-stop-repeat.

The first happened when I studied popular children’s books. I read stand-along books but revisited the first books of two series.

All the books featured young protagonists making consequential decisions. The authors kept the tension high with fast-paced events but reminded the reader of the character’s goals. It didn’t take much, either: an omniscient sentence or a bit of dialogue.

Yet there was a marked difference in emotional continuity (for lack of a better term).

Some authors maintain it well. For example, I enjoyed re-reading a novel because I knew how budding friendships would grow and bloom in subsequent books. Despite adding and substracting characters later in the series, the author kept the protagonist’s original friends. Without those relationships, the series would have been a fantastic string of episodic adventures in the protagonist’s life. But not such a pleasure to re-read.

The other series-starter was fantastic, but it underscored why the series disappointed me. In the second book, the interesting protagonist suddenly (and maddeningly) became shallow. The author kept the character’s exterior, but pushed a reset button on character growth. The heart-rending climax of the first book, foreshadowed from the beginning and presented with dramatic irony, raised an expectation of emotional repercussions in the next story. No such luck. The author introduced a new leading character with trauma of his own. The girl-hero became little more than a follower until a tidying-up-one’s-past scene in the final book.1

I decided that a re-readable series, regardless of plot intricacies and grand themes, is one in which plots and character dynamics make sense across various books.

How could I do the same?

I began writing timelines for three adults whose backstories and relationships with the child-protagonists are of particular importance. There was an immediate Book One reward: A supporting character has a better motive – foreshadowed in the first chapter – to help a stranger he meets in Chapter 8. But one conflict in particular won’t be resolved until perhaps the last book.

I realized, too, that one of my favorite characters doesn’t seem to exert any influence on the protagonists in a later section of the timeline. I wonder why. I don’t want to kill him off; he’s fun to write and makes a great foil for other characters.

Writer David Farland gave me the second reason to write a series instead of stand-alone: to make it a selling point for publication. He explains better than I can at The Story Doctor.


  1. I refer to the original series. The author has written sequels and prequels. I’ve heard that retcon (literally: retroactive continuity) shored up some plot holes. However, the author still uses emotional crises as character motivation in a way that is out-of-balance with on-the-page relationships from the prior stories. No, thanks!

Writing Crapola

I read a lot of writerly advice. (I’m currently savoring You’ve Got a Book in You, which I am about halfway through.)

One I struggle with is READ WIDELY, EVEN OUTSIDE YOUR GENRE.

May I be frank? Oftentimes, something pushes me out of the story and makes me think, “Why am I reading this when I could spend the time writing?” Or, more specifically, “Why am I reading THIS CRAPOLA instead of writing something less awful?”

I think it’s because I’ve gotten in the habit of reading for the sake of writing.

Ray Bradbury once described how, as a kid, he asked the family doctor about weird lumps in his wrist; his doctors congratulated him on discovering his own bones. I can often see the “bones” of the story poking through its skin, and it puts me off. Even worse, so many writers slavishly follow the Joseph Campbell structure, I feel a sense of deja vu even with books I know I haven’t read before.

The Importance of Word Choice

When yesterday became too dark for gardening and too Friday for housework, I decide to watch a movie from my half-forgotten watchlist. I chose Inception, a ten-year-old blockbuster I hadn’t seen. As usual when watching music-heavy videos, I put on closed captioning. It certainly helped in certain scenes. However…

*spoiler ahead*

As the story reaches the climax, the protagonist holds his dying wife in his arms and gently kisses her face. Or as the caption puts it: Smooches.

Smooches? Smooches!

After I stopped laughing long enough to stop the film and go back, I watched it in a completely different state of mind . Disbelief, suspended until then, came roaring back with its drinking buddy Hilarity.

“Kisses tenderly” or “gently kisses her face” or plain old “kisses” would have been better captions. Why use a word completely out of keeping with the mood?

DIY Writer’s Retreat: Not as Planned

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The first zucchini sprouts

Before I planted vegetables (and a melon!) in my garden, I planned. Some plants, like radishes, required containers to prevent ground-pests worming their way in. Others, like squash (and melon!) needed room to sprawl.

Unfortunately, I had forgotten a seed-packet of zucchini which I bought last year.  After I planted it, I had a leftover of a different breed.*  There were no more open,  sunlit spaces with clearance all around… Continue reading

Resources for the DIY Writer’s Retreat

Whenever I find good advice while reading about writing, I take notes and make a citation. Soon enough, certain names repeat; e.g. Donald Maass and James Scott Bell. Here are two whose work resonates with me:

  • Elizabeth Sims. I don’t read her genre (mystery), but her sound advice and encouraging tone strike a chord with me.  Many of her articles are available free online.   This week, I’d recommend her “8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One.”
  • David Farland aka David Wolverton.  Long ago, in a galaxy far away, I read a Star Wars novel and somehow got onto his newsletter mailing list. (These things happen.) Some of his more popular newsletter topics can be found on his blog .  I thought his post “Opening Strategies” would be good and “To Plot, or Not to Plot.”

DIY Writer’s Retreat: Plotting

dont wish for it work for it calligraphy

Photo by Bich Tran on Pexels.com

I decided to share upbeat advice by Elizabeth Sims, an author of mysteries and frequent writer for Writer’s Digest: “Get Messy With Your First Draft.”

Unfortunately, there’s no free link to the article I found most helpful this week. “Plotting Your Way” (Writer’s Digest, September 2019) includes a quiz to determine a plotting method to fit your personality, and then explains it. The article is great whether you’ve got a plan in mind or you don’t know what you’re doing.

My quiz result recommended The Relaxed Framework Plotting Method. It’s a flexible structure that allows me to adjust plot points.  I found it so helpful, I wanted to explain how I used it.

It required a “master trove,” a stack of index cards, and my working draft. Continue reading

DIY Writer’s Retreat: Where to Begin?

At the beginning, of course!

Well, maybe.

Now that we’ve chosen what to write, we must choose where we’re jumping in.

I won’t bother to reiterate ways to begin the opening scene. Ruthanne Reid at The Write Practice already did the heavy lifting in Three Ways to Start a Novel(Read it now or later – but definitely read it!)

On the other hand, we can start by writing the final scene. Continue reading

DIY Writer’s Retreat: Choose your battle!

Before diving in, writers should ask themselves: What should I write? What do I want to write?

The answers might not be the same.

The “should” response may include matters of skill and marketability; e.g. you feel competent to write a particular story and/or there’s a market for it.

should work on polishing the rough draft of a SF novel for young adults that I finished and put it aside to “simmer” before the rewrite.  YA novels sell well now, and the premise of mine generated interest from an independent editor.

The “want” response is an emotional one. Characters appeal to you. Writing the action scenes is fun. The conflicts get your heart pumping.

What I want to work on is a fantasy novel for young readers who are advanced enough to handle higher vocabulary but not ready for the content of YA novels.  I started working on a series of stories about these characters when I was child.*  The setting feels like a second home and, with little preparation, I can pick up where I left off in the story.    

 Weigh the options and make a choice.

For me, the fantasy novel is the right choice. The SF novel requires research, including a trip to a currently-closed library.


* I remember tossing it into a burning barrel when I left home for the last time. However, my parents later delivered a box of source material they found in a closet: written scraps, typed character studies, and notebooks!

DIY Writer’s Retreat: Spring Version

Several years ago, I conducted a do-it-yourself writing retreat. I hadn’t written creatively in many years, and it jump-started a new routine.

In the years that followed, I conducted a few more. I found them personally satisfying, although long-time readers of the blog may not remember them because I left short, cryptic posts.

The time has come again!

However, I will post every Friday (my timezone) with a tool, an idea, or something for anyone who might wish to join me.  The reason is twofold: most of us have no place to go for a while (May 15 is my gubernatorial date) and there’s a LOT of traffic on my old posts about writing theory and advice.

Stay tuned!

Goals

  • Daily fill-the-gaps writing on the Craptastic Draft (aka first draft)
  •  A weekly chapter edit
  •  By Monday, 1 de junio, the complete Second Draft