Part of the Big Plan

Hey all, yeah, I know, I haven’t updated in about a month, maybe a little over. Sorry about that. The last month has been a total and complete…well, morass would be the more PC term, but I think clusterfuck is more appropriate. Started off with a major work disappointment (though that one looks more like a blessing in disguise as days go on), then a busy schedule for a major release at work, then the dual whammy of a bad cold and a leg injury. As you can imagine, productivity took a dip. Last week was the worst, though; imagine a cold where you only develop the token symptoms of a runny nose and rusty voice but your brain is complete and total fuzz and you just want to sleep 23 hours a day. Then imagine trying to write through that mess. Yeah, didn’t happen so much. Not even work, where writing is a simple recitation of facts and analysis, was possible, let alone hard work where I dig into my emotions and experiences.

All in all, a rather unwelcome series of events, but it may have a silver lining, as I returned to the novel yesterday with a full force that I haven’t experienced in quite some time. Let’s catch up on the status, shall we? I think last time we talked I was nearing the finish line on Chapter 16 and had maybe started Chapter 17. Since then, I’ve finished the first draft of Chapter 17, split its two scenes into two separate chapters (as they were quite different in theme), and both embarked upon and finished the second draft of Chapter 17.

Yesterday was all about re-reading the chapter and identifying opportunities to expand upon the emotional textures and themes. I’m hoping to start that third draft today, but we’ll see. It’s going to be a busy day. I do expect this third draft to be the final version before critique review. Thank goodness this chapter didn’t turn into a morass like Chapter 16. That thing was a nightmare, but also much heavier on the emotional undertones. This is a Lindsay and Dean scene, and like all Lindsay and Dean scenes, something of a joy to write. They have a pretty complicated relationship, but damn if I don’t enjoy every moment that they’re together. Perhaps they’re destined for destruction in the long term, but their personalities work so well in the moment.

I’m hoping that Chapter 18 proves just as easy to write, as it’s a retooling of a scene in the first version of the novel wherein Dean goes to Lindsay’s place for the first time.  In the original version, this scene took place relatively early in the novel and followed their third date, which produced a certain level of sexual tension. In the new version they have never been on a date and it’s following the traumatic events of Chapters 15 and 16. In some ways, it’s actually far more intimate, as both characters have undergone recent traumas and developed a level of trust that didn’t exist at that point in the initial version, but at the same time they’re both very leery of sex. The anxieties and questions hanging between them are very different, but should be fun to work through.

Of course, all this focus on Chapters 17 and 18 meant a delay in the blog entries, and again I do apologize for that, but…I think it showed me what’s important. I’m not going to be writing the big entries like I was before, but I certainly can manage a few hundred words on current progress and where things are headed, if nothing else. Hope everyone has been okay?

Omens and Portents

Welcome back again. I regret to inform you guys that I am still not back up to normal speed. My schedule is so crazy at the moment that I can only fit in the bare minimum for blog posts, nothing like what I’ve been providing to you guys before. I’m hoping that next week gets back to the regularly-scheduled posts, but I can’t make that promise just yet. Work and other commitments are consuming my time like you wouldn’t believe, spilling well beyond work hours into the evening hours.

Isn’t it a strange time to be alive? Things have been kind of hush-hush, but I’ve been following some of the “exercises” in the Arctic and potential confrontations between NATO and Russia. Talk about disconcerting. Add to that the huge sun flare  that caused trouble all over the world and today’s eclipse and it becomes very tempting to regard this as the passage to something very dark. It’s likely all a coincidence, but I can’t deny being on edge more than once over the past week, especially over that whole military situation. That’s one that bears watching, I believe.

Anyway, let’s review what’s going on with my progress at the moment. Great news is that I finished Chapter 16! And I think it’s really, really good. Obviously I’m biased and it’s hard to judge your own work, but I look at it by the metric that it accomplishes exactly what I wanted it to accomplish and does so in a fairly weighty manner. It’s a chapter that needed to have a certain gravitas, and while it took a lot of maneuvering to get it there, I think I have it. Now my critique group will tell me if it works as a whole, but that’s for down the road.

In the meantime, I’m in the throes of Chapter 17, and the first draft is going along pretty quickly. I don’t know that I’ll complete it this week (again, owing to my schedule), but I would not be surprised to finish it early next week, maybe by Tuesday. I’ll do what I can to get at it this weekend. The great thing about Chapter 17 is that it’s relatively light after the heaviness of the previous 3 chapters. It’s a chance for the reader – and the author – to catch their breath. In this scene, Lindsay arrives at the hospital after having learned of something bad happening to one of the main characters, meeting up with Dean outside the entrance to the ER. They have a brief chat and, upon learning that they won’t get to see their friend that night, head back to Lindsay’s place to console one another and really get down to the business of knowing each other. The part at Lindsay’s place is going to be an adaptation of a previously-written scene from the original version of the novel, one that had served as the tail-end of their first date.

It’s dicey, given their mutual sex addictions, to put them both in one place at a highly-charged emotional period for both of them, but I think them choosing not to get intimate is a way bigger triumph for the characters, a sign that this relationship is a little different, means a little more. And it greases the wheels for the climax.

I also planned out the next three to four chapters last night, which gets me up to Chapter 21. I’m aiming for the book to be between 25 and 27, so the end is well in sight, it’s just a matter of the events that get us there and what the climax might look like. I have a pretty good idea of it, but I’m still allowing it to be somewhat fluid as events change so much between conception and actual execution. I’ve found this to be the best method for telling a story, as I’ve mentioned before – keep that balance between spontaneity and structure.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep cranking away and keep you guys updated. I really want to get this one done by August and a series of events have convinced me that it’s time to redouble my efforts to get there, even if it means pushing other priorities down the list (though not the day job, that one’s non-negotiable). Funny, though, I use that flashback app that rounds up your posts from the previous five years for that date and one of the recent posts talked about how I was going to have to write new chapters for this novel and how it would be a long process – oh how naive it feels.

So yeah. I still owe you guys a longer, more emotionally-charged post, but I’m not there yet, time-wise or emotion-wise. I also owe you the continuation of the questions, but again, just don’t have the time. I’ll be back with that next week, hopefully. In the meantime, hope all is well with you in these strange, strange times.

Something for Now

Hey, heads up right away that this will be an abbreviated entry. Apologies, between this and the late entry last week it must seem that I’m slacking on my duties, but honestly I’m just slammed and at a weird point in my life. I haven’t had a good, restful week in over two months. At least I can share it with you? Maybe that’s the one saving grace of this whole mess.

As I mentioned last week, we lost a beloved pet, which sent me into a bit of a tailspin. Thursday morning started out looking somewhat okay – looked like a snow day, which would mean not too many people bothering me on messenger and a chance to get caught up with work and writing. Went out to do the morning ritual of feeding the cats and guinea pigs and found poor Wendell dead in his cage.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected; he had always been a frail guinea pig, victim of some mystery illness that the vets couldn’t quite sniff out. I suspect some form of cancer, as he had a cyst early in his life and was never quite the same after, but his tests came up clean for some reason.

So we knew our time with him would always be short, and honestly, we were damn lucky to get the four years that we got, but you’re never quite ready for it. It hit us hard, and it seems to have hit the other pigs as well, maybe moreso Quimby than Bertram. The latter seemed a little shell shocked for a day or two, but has returned to his normal self, while Quimby preferred to hide away and shunned any contact for a bit. We hung in there with him, though, and he’s come back out of his shell a bit. We really had no idea that they were so close, as they lived in separate cages and males don’t usually bond that much. All we can really do is be there for him until he gets through it.

Anyway, we’ll miss Wendell, and definitely remember him. He was one of those unforgettable pets.

Wendell4

All right, so like I said, shortened entry this week. Just too much going on between our loss, last week’s storm, a whirlwind weekend, and a job interview. Just wanted to check in with you guys and let you know that I’m still here, still cranking away. Time is by far the most significant issue that I’m encountering at the moment. The desire is still there, along with the will and/or motivation, whatever you want to call it. I just cannot find the time to work on the novel without something else intervening. I mean, hell, I’m managing to write between 10,000 and 20,000 words a week, but it’s always on something other than the book. Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe it.

Next week is going to have to be the center of an attempt to refocus on the novel if I want to finish it this year. At one point I thought I might have this done by July or August, but it’s beginning to look doubtful. Hopefully I can manage a few weeks of just working on it, and nothing but. Maybe a vacation in May? I don’t know. Next time we’ll catch up on last week’s question and get a new one going. Until then…

In the Frozen Heart

Hey everybody, welcome to the latest blog update. Sorry I’m late, but this week has been even worse than expected, as I lost a beloved pet yesterday. I’ll talk more about that next week, when I hope (HOPE) to get back on schedule.

Quick update on the tooth: looks like we may not salvage it. The dentist who performed the previous root canal completely missed a root, so that thing has been sitting in my jaw like a time bomb since the latter half of 2006. The Big League Chew Incident, as it is now known, may have been incidental, a minor thing to push the tooth into the red. We’re waiting on the results of a CT scan to determine final prognosis, but the endodontist did not sound optimistic. On the positive side, I did learn that there can be some professional beef between endodontists and dentists. Better believe that’s going into the novel.

Have I mentioned that my wife, Mary, is a writer? If not, I should have. She’s been in hibernation for a little while, but decided to “come out of retirement” for a worthy cause. You see, the fan community to which she belongs decided to honor a fallen member by putting together a fanfic compilation and donating the proceeds to cancer research. What better reason to start writing again? She spent a few months hammering out a novella and handed it over  to me last week for editing.

The job ended up being over 100 pages of editing in 4 days, some real record-breaking stuff (Friday night I basically collapsed into bed before I could cross the finish line), but the compilation editors seemed to really like the story and I learned quite a lot. Definitely a worthwhile venture. It’ll be some time before it’s available outside of the collection, but once it is, I’ll link it so you guys can check it out.

This leaves me with little to report on my own novel. The good news is that I’m up and rolling again this week, though I’m having trouble “getting in my reps” with all the other stuff on my plate. Still, hope to have something more to report next week.

Meet Goose

Of course, even with these prolonged absences I can still focus on the novel through this blog, and it’s time to do so once again. So far we’ve discussed the protagonist Dean, his sometime-friend, sometime-lover Lindsay, and Dean’s sponsor, LeRoy. What’s missing? Well, the second-most-important character of the novel: Goose.

So-named for his slick talk (“like goose shit through a tin horn”), he began life in the first draft as a stuffy sponsor named Stephen. Stephen was a point-of-view character who dragged Dean back from the precipice a few times but always came across as uptight and sensible, a real shame as I always intended him to have something more going on under the hood.

Thankfully, shifting the book away from Dean’s first meeting and toward his actual recruiting provided a means to transform Stephen from the stuffy sponsor with years of experience into the broken man who initially walked through the door. In this version he joins the group at the same time as Dean, in a sort of partnership, which establishes a whole different dynamic between the two.

A con-man by nature, Goose’s story begins with his arrest for prostitution on the exact same night that Dean got busted for solicitation. That’s right, Goose is/was a male prostitute.The symmetry makes sense in the context of their respective sexual issues. After Goose’s last arrest, his lawyer, Jim, told him about a special deal that he and a client had struck with a judge: the client got leniency on a solicitation charge by offering to attend sex addiction counseling. Always one to seize on an angle, Goose decided he would play the card during his next arrest.

As he’s waiting for his bond hearing, a local dentist walks in. Well, he doesn’t exactly announce the fact, but Goose recognizes him from his TV ads and figures this gives him a leg up, especially as he’s had a sore tooth for a few weeks. He teases the relatively naive Dean with an offer to help him avoid a permanent spot on his record: his knowledge for free dental work. Desperate and afraid, Dean accepts, and thus enters into a very odd but compelling relationship.

Their partnership is marked by the polar opposite nature of their personalities; where Dean is an uptight elitist, Goose is a little too easy-going and accepting. They’re good for one another, but also generate a lot of friction.

This brings me to the topic of Goose and religion. As you may have read between the lines, Goose is gay and grew up in a very religious, very redneck household. He tells the story of his sexual awakening in the novel and it’s pivotal to the story, so I’m not going to spoil it here, but suffice it to say that he felt “dirty” at a very young age, which made it hard for him to identify with the church. As he grew up the situation only intensified, to the point that his brain formed snap associations between the church and beatings. This ultimately resulted in him feeling a fight-or-flight reaction when any topic of religion came up.

Most of the time he handles it by being bombed out of his mind on drugs, but every now and then the panic surfaces, as it does during their first meeting when everyone stands up and holds hands to pray.

Remember what I said last week about recovery and spirituality being so intertwined? Well, imagine the difficulties that will present for Goose long-term and you get an idea of his central struggle in this novel.

Will he develop his own sense of spirituality outside of the church’s dictates? That’s a question that spans the novels, and while I have a good feeling about it, I can’t say for certain. We’ll all find out together.

Next time we’ll hopefully talk about the people who draw Dean and Stephen into this mess: their attorney, Jim, and his friend Peggy.

Question of the Week

Last week I asked about your personal hero, and really only heard from Aniko, who said that she didn’t have one (I think that’s a valid response). So…not too much to discuss on that front. Moving on to this week’s question:

What do you do to push past the fear of failure?

I get asked this one every now and then by aspiring writer friends: how do I sit down and just keep writing day after day, week after week? I always answer that it’s as complex and as simple as just sitting down and doing it every day, but I think it’s also about confronting and defeating your fear of failure.

Do I mean you’ll never fail again? Oh hell no. I fail on a daily basis, but that’s the thing: I allow myself to do so. Call it “sucking with a purpose” (and your dirty mind can take that where it wants, I know mine did already). I mean, I used to be frozen with fear when I faced the empty page. What if I wrote crap? What if I didn’t have my talent anymore? It could all prove what a faker I was, and that I had no business doing this stuff.

Feels silly now. The response is, so what? It’s not like an axe is going to drop from somewhere and behead me if I misuse “they’re” or my prose is hackneyed. I know this now, and so failure remains just another factor to writing, not the unstoppable wall.

But therein lies the catch, of course: I “know” this. I had to learn it – and I’m not sure how you teach it to someone. My knowledge came from continually pushing my boundaries, but someone else may learn it from constant iteration on an idea that seems terrible at first.

So…yeah. That’s my answer: I face the fear head-on, because I learn new things by doing, not by talking through them.

How about you? What do you do? Any mantras you repeat to yourself? Positive self-talk?

Photo of the Week

Another week, another winter storm, another weekend without photography. I’m aching for it now, but warmer weather is on its way, so I have a prayer of getting out there this weekend.

Seeing as we still have snow on the ground and may still have some right up until the warming trend, I thought I’d share this shot of a snowy field in a spot not too far from Purcellville, Virginia. Can’t recall the name of this “town” (really more of a street), but I found the spot gorgeous. Had to jump out of the car on the side of the road to get this. You’d be surprised how often that works.

Purcellville06

That Sugary Devil

Welcome back! Today marks a month of unmissed entries (technically five). May not seem impressive, but believe me, I’m smiling, given the sheer hell that has been January and February.

Before I get into things, allow me to put on my promotional hat and give you the chance to win something with…well, only a few strings attached. I’ll save the spiel: I’m giving $25 in Amazon funbucks to one winner. To get an entry, we need you to:

  1. Like this Facebook Page
  2. Share the pinned post at the top of the page
  3. Leave a comment and tag a friend

Hopefully that’s not too onerous. The giveaway ends on Friday, with the winner announced Monday morning. Hey, think of all the stuff you could buy with that.

Alright, on to the meat of the post. Last week’s entry was written with certain…assumptions. For example, it seemed reasonable to assume that the week would not go to utter shite and I would power through Chapter 16. Hah, I thought, I’d be well into Chapter 17 by then, right?

Yeah, well, life happened. Specifically, bubble gum happened.

Let’s take the way-back machine to segue-ville and talk about Big League Chew. For you folks not familiar with it, it’s pink, it’s shredded, it comes in a silver pouch that looks something like this:

BigLeagueChewOriginal_L4

You might recognize a certain similarity to chewing tobacco. That’s intentional, of course, as baseball players (always known for the wad of tobacco in their cheek) had designed the gum to operate in a similar fashion, ostensibly steering children away from the brown stuff. Reasonable trade-off? I’ll leave that up to you. As a kid, though? Pure gold! You couldn’t be a baseball player without a wad of something jammed in your cheek and I had already tasted the forbidden Skoal fruit and found it…wanting. Okay, it tasted like a toilet bowl.

Fast forward, oh, twenty years and I’ve generally forgotten about the stuff. One day my wife, Mary, as she will often do, pointed it out and guessed that I had chewed it as a kid. Spot on, I thought, and wondered if it might still be fun to chew? So I bought a bag and it surprised me – it stayed softer than other gums and had good flavor. It also helped that oral fixation and kept me away from more damaging sweets. Acceptable trade-off.

Until last Tuesday, that is. There I was, chowing down on a wad of the pink stuff when one of the amorphous sides slipped into the left side of my mouth, squeezing into a microscopic space between the bottom of my crown and my gum.

Could you make a knife out of spun sugar? Would it penetrate skin? I’m not sure, but the only description that I can summon of that moment is a sugary knife driven right into my gum. Cried out, spat the stuff out, and went back to work, fervently hoping that this was just one of those things that happen, like getting something stuck between your gum and tooth. A day of discomfort, but not much more. I mean, I’ve had the crown since 2006, but it had never presented a moment of trouble.

This felt like it might be the case on Wednesday morning. Sure, it ached a little, but nothing too alarming. I chewed on that side and felt a bit of pain, figured I needed to give it a little time, let it work out. By Wednesday afternoon, I could no longer deny that something had gone wrong. You know how you have differing levels of pain, and there’s a certain pain that falls in between the “annoying, but ignorable” and “oh my God my nerve endings are on fire” levels? Yeah, this was it. I didn’t want to curl up in agony, but productivity became impossible as I started to scout sites in search of some sign from above that things would be all right, especially if I just did one weird trick to ease the pain, preferably one that dentists hate.

Thursday morning put a sledgehammer through the idea of this being a passing thing. I was taking 800 godforsaken milligrams of ibuprofen and still I could only lie in bed, perfectly still, lest blood flow to that area and cause a raging flare-up. But hey, better than wanting to kill myself, right?

I called in sick and went to the dentist, who confirmed my worst fears: root infection (and please note, this tooth already had a root canal, so thanks for botching that, long-ago-dentist-whose-name-I-can’t-recall). Antibiotics, painkillers, and orders to schedule a root canal. Sigh.

Meanwhile you can imagine my productivity. Not a single word on Thursday; I managed a few on Friday, as the antibiotics had begun to do their job, but anxiety from a growing abscess and a codeine haze kept me from doing much more than the basics. Only on Saturday did I truly begin to recover and get back into the groove of things, though again – codeine. Yesterday was my first pain-free day, but I meet with the endodontist tomorrow to begin that whole gauntlet of torments.

Anyway, my point is that Chapter 16 has barely moved, and may not until sometime later next week. I’m also going to be saving the discussion of Goose and his religious issues until the next entry due to all of this insanity. Such is the way of writing.

Question of the Week

Last week I asked about your favorite childhood superheroes, and the answers rolled right in! Well, okay, two. Two answers rolled in. But I appreciate them! Mary had a tie between Superman and Underdog, because Superman could solve any problem and Underdog was earnest, clumsy, and endearing. Underdog! Now there’s an answer, and I think he ties in with some of what I discussed last week, about the essential humanity of a superhero making them interesting. Sure, he’s a dog, but no one is perfect.

Aniko also replied, choosing Sherlock Holmes because of his energy and intellect and the protagonist of Island of the Blue Dolphins, who I believe is Juana Maria, for her self-reliance and perseverance. Both excellent choices, and Holmes is a tricky one, considering he formed the template of a lot of the early detective comics that would give rise to Batman. I think that does make him a proto-superhero, akin to the Shadow or Zorro.

This week’s question:

Who is your personal hero, and why?

Oh boy, this opened a can of worms. The very idea of ‘heroes’ has bugged me for years, as I thought it dehumanized both the idolized and worshipped (idolator? Is that appropriate here?).

Such things always rub me the wrong way – why come at something with the assumption that you’re somehow “lesser than”? Maybe you’re not where that person is in the curve of their development, but surely that does not somehow make you a lesser person.

Maturity ruins everything, of course, and I realize that my point of view, while somewhat valid, was also limited. I stick by my criticism of the view above, that a hero is somehow perfect and you could never hope to attain their “level” in life, as if that means anything, but I recognize that the concept of a personal hero can also include viewing the hero as imperfect. In fact, a mature definition of the word should probably include that as a must. You must recognize that person as someone who occupies a body much like yours, who has their own weaknesses and flaws. What makes them inspirational is their ability to push past those flaws and fears and become something more.

Just writing that out, I realized my personal hero: Stephen Hawking, as the guy overcame adversity to the point that it’s become a side-note to his amazing accomplishments. He refused to be defined by the barriers in front of him and, in so doing, forced the world to do the same. That alone is amazing, but add in his incredible intellect and contributions to the world and I can’t help but stand in awe.

So how about you? Who do you most admire, and why?

Photo of the week

As you can imagine, I wasn’t exactly in the mood to go on a road trip this weekend, but hey, the thirst for photography is real, and I have a back yard. A kind of spooky, atmospheric backyard, in fact. Check out how the lights shine through the storm. Not the best shot I ever took, not by a long shot, but it’s fun.

Okay that does it for this week. Next week’s entry is kind of up in the air at the moment, given that next Wednesday is going to be really busy and I don’t know how this tooth thing is going to play out. I’ll be here, just can’t say exactly when. Hopefully I see you soon.

2015-02-21 22.17.16

The Shifting Sands

Hey everybody, welcome back! Apologize upfront if this entry seems disjointed, as I got a late start this week due to some edits on Chapter 16, which is taking a lot longer than expected due to shifting narrative priorities.

You see, in the original vision, the chapter started with Dean and some paramedics arguing about what he could do to support his friend following said character’s stroke. Unable to ride along in the ambulance, Dean followed the paramedics to Rockingham Memorial Hospital and found himself stuck in the waiting room. Anxiety and stress mounted, which led to him first downing Ativan, then masturbating in the bathroom in an attempt to ease his nerves. Pretty much what you’d expect for an addict in the throes of mortal terror. A problem arose when a male nurse entered the bathroom just as Dean “finished”, leaving him to clean up in silence. Thinking that he had done a good job, he slipped out and tried to be smooth with the nurse, who acted amused by Dean’s presence. It was only as he exited that Dean noticed a spot of semen on one of his shoes.

This sent Dean into a downward spiral, one only arrested by a call from Lindsay.

The second draft cut the paramedics and began with a nurse who would not allow Dean to follow his friend. Defeated, he slumped into his seat in the waiting room, where we then met a new character, an abused meth-head who spotted him taking his anxiety meds and wanted in on the action, going so far as to offer sex in exchange for the pills. They ended up doing the deed in the bathroom stall, with the condom breaking and once again leaving evidence on his shoe for the male nurse to spot. Repeat revelation, this time with a question mark hanging over the encounter. It worked, but still had some gaps.

Enter third draft. Meth-head gets more personality and we find out that she might know Dean’s identity. Some adjustments to Dean’s behavior here as well, as his character development had created a man who might not act on such a temptation. The reader needed to understand why he might relapse in this situation, so I talked some about how the temptation made him snap and how that makes him look like the asshole that we saw in Chapter One. That guy would most definitely take up the girl on her offer.

This had the pleasant side-effect of making his revelation much more believable: once he’s snapped out of it, he recognizes what has happened and how close he is to spiraling out of control. This, at last, convinces him that he needs to change. It made much more sense than being ashamed of some random dude recognizing his transgressions, though the male nurse does still drive some of that recognition.

These changes seem relatively simple on the surface, but they represent a radical shift that necessitated a lot of thinking and rewriting, hence the long incubation period. Now I just need to add a few flourishes here and build on the chapter’s themes to put it to bed. Then we can move on to Chapter 17, which has a very interesting lead and is already in pretty good shape. I’ll talk more about that one in the coming weeks.

Old Time Religion

Speaking of revelations, it’s funny how these things sometimes happen. For example, a simple quirk of editing led to an interesting discussion in our critique group, one that prompted me to examine how Dean interacts with religion. In Chapter 5 (or maybe 6), my fellow readers noticed a throwaway line stating that Dean had been born into a Mormon family, which contradicted a later statement about his mother being a raging atheist. This happened because I had originally intended to implicate the Mormon upbringing in some of Dean’s damage, but in the end that opened a bigger can of worms than I could possibly address, so I instead went with a mother who viewed religion as a crutch for the weak and a spiritual father who didn’t dare discuss it openly in the home. This push and pull left young Dean with an intense longing for an authentic religious experience and left room for more nuance than the Mormon angle.

Trying to fill the hole in his heart, Dean chased different denominations throughout his youth, going so far as to attend churches with various schoolmates, many of whom were only too happy to woo a potential convert. This chase ended with him becoming close to this kid, Paul, and Paul’s dysfunctional family, who played a big role in an event that pushed Dean away from spirituality and toward a hedonistic, secular worldview.

The question of spirituality becomes unavoidable when Dean joins Sex Addicts Anonymous, as Twelve Step groups are almost inescapably associated with churches and spirituality. The biggest and most intimidating of these connections is the requirement to develop a relationship with a “power greater than yourself,” which unconsciously brings up painful reminders of that period in his life. As with the dynamic between his parents, Dean will eventually have to reconcile the push and pull between his own hedonistic worldview and the call of the Steps in fixing his life.

He’s not the only one wrestling with these issues, though; next week we’ll talk about Dean’s friend Goose, his early experiences with the church, and his angle on recovery

Question of the week

Now it’s time to get a little more interactive. This might seem silly and awkward at first as I try to find the right format, but hey – have to fall down a few times before you can walk, right? The idea is to start posing questions, answer them myself, and then hope to hear from you. Maybe we’ll find a natural format in the course of our conversations. For now, here’s this week’s question:

When you were little, who was your favorite superhero, and why?

You know, this seemed like an easy one, but it surprised me. Batman seemed like the obvious answer, as he was close to my heart, but Spider-Man edged him out by a hair.

Both were down-to-earth heroes, at least on some level, and I liked that. Sure, Spider-Man had superpowers while Batman relied on his physical prowess and mind, but Peter Parker always seemed a little more relatable. Sounds strange, but that mattered to me as a kid, though I don’t think I could have articulated it. I just knew that he had to deal with school, with girl problems, and with family – all things that I either dealt with myself or saw around me. Sure, Bruce Wayne had lost his parents, but that kind of tragedy was too heavy, too hard to get my young mind around. Batman also had the advantage of money while Peter fought for what he got outside of his superhero persona; I could relate to the latter far better as a poor kid.Oh, and let’s not forget that Peter was a photographer, a far cooler profession to me than billionaire playboy. Funny how that works, huh?

So how about you? I’m really curious to hear your answer, so please leave one in the comments.

Photo of the week

This week I’d like to honor of the snowstorm that’s just hit us and rewind to a photo taken just after Thanksgiving of 2014. Snapped this one when we climbed a mountain in the George Washington National Forest and hit a bend in the road beyond which our little sedan could not continue. We pulled over and I hopped out, camera in hand, to find this place just waiting for us. Could not have scripted it better.

And that does it for now. Next week I’ll tell you a little more about Chapter 17, Goose and religion, and pose another question. See you then.

NationalForest01

This Vanishing World

Welcome back for the next thrilling installment! Thanks for joining me again.

tumblr_nch4z4zxnV1sjav2eo2_250

Promo talk time. Maybe you recall me mentioning a Valentine’s Day Special last week? Well, starting on February 13th we (myself and the awesome ladies of Dark World Books) are running a special on Corridors of the Dead, Pathways of the Dead, and Room 3, with each priced at 99 cents until February 20th. My capable assistant Franny is handling the promotional details, but I should have more news in the next day or two.

Connection

Alright, I’ve told you why I walked away from things and what it means to be back. Let’s wrap this up with marketing talk. The most important promise I can make is that I won’t just shout at you. No more schemes, no more mindless broadcasting on Twitter, Tsu, or Facebook; the new focus is in-depth, targeted information about key themes, events, and locations in my life and stories, a means of connecting more deeply with you, the reader. This blog is “home base” for these efforts, though you can expect to see more on Facebook, Twitter, Tsu, and many other places in the coming months.

Right now I’m still in broadcast mode, but that changes next week, when I plan to post a question of the week and spur discussion by sharing my answer first. I don’t expect many answers for the first few months, but I hope that at some point you’ll participate, as together we – and hopefully that includes you – will figure out where this is all headed.

Might as Well Face It

It might seem odd to discuss love addiction when we’re so close to Valentine’s Day, but I think it’s appropriate. I know the very concept of love addiction sounds preposterous – straight out of that cheesy Robert Palmer song – but it exists, and I have seen its effects firsthand. It can be just as if not more insidious than its cousin, sex addiction, as it’s far more culturally accepted.

Think about it, songs, books, and movies are written about how we lose ourselves in the process of falling in love. I mean, hell, Valentine’s Day itself is built upon the notion of love transforming our mental state and making us do things that we wouldn’t normally do.

Now I could write a book on the difference between love the noun and love the verb, but all I’ll say here is that sometimes “falling in love” conceals flaws in our own thinking. Now imagine getting hooked on the sensation of falling in love rather than the object of your affection. What to do? A normal relationship only stays in that phase for so long, leaving you with the reality that neither of you are very perfect. Some people deal with this by trying to change and control their partner into being their fantasy lover; others pursue a never-ending string of new people. Both become an endless pursuit of some divine state that by its nature cannot be sustained.

This is love addiction.

And so we get to Lindsay, the recovering sex/love addict (they can coexist within one person) with whom Dean falls in love. Lindsay joined the recovery group after a series of disastrous liaisons with coworkers, culminating in one of them paying her for sex. Her behavior is viewed through the lens of sex addiction, but she did not see these as one-off encounters, rather a series of betrayals by people that she loved. These were acts of courtship, not titillation.

This backwards logic leads her to select Dean. It’s still unclear whether it’s a bad choice; they do genuinely have a lot in common and care for one another, but it will be a hard road for her.

The Mother and Child Reunion

Speaking of dysfunctional behavior, let’s turn our gaze to Dean and try to understand what created the egotistical, sex-driven beast that we encounter at the beginning of the novel. This early personality is the construct of a Dean who doesn’t truly understand himself. Much of it is due to a dark, suppressed secret that I will save for your first read through the novel, but his parents share in creating this false self.

Dean grew up in the shadow of an overbearing, alcoholic mother whose sole joy in life was dominating her weak-willed husband and vulnerable son. This turned his mother into a feared and loved icon, with his father inspiring a great deal of his anger and hate, all of which warped Dean’s view of women and relationships.He has only ever known relationships to be a surrendering of the man’s will to the woman’s whims. Commitment is surrender.

This attitude transforms him into a misogynist who only pursues unavailable or unsuitable women, projecting the blame for his shortcomings onto the female population. He’d marry, if only women weren’t so shallow. If they didn’t “friendzone” him. As far as he’s concerned, women only want money and/or status, and so he uses those to get the one thing that he wants – sex. Maybe one day that perfect woman will arrive, but until then he has no use for romance, as it’s only an excuse to put a leash on a man.

The good news is that this guy doesn’t stick around for long, as his attitude leads him to the brink of jail time and losing one of the few things he values: his license to practice dentistry. Life is forcing him to understand his flaws and break the cycle, a process which will span Books One and Two and drag him and Lindsay through hell and back.

Photo(s) of the week

Now for this week’s photo(s), which tie perfectly into the themes of what I’m coming to think of as the Shenandoah Valley series. This series is both borne of and a commentary upon my complicated relationship with rural America. I grew up in a small rural town, one that I both loved and wished to escape. Sound familiar? It was not an easy life, but even in the struggles I found untold rewards and riches. Even at a young age I recognized that the country offers so many untold stories, ones that lurk on dusty back roads and mountain ridges, tucked away from the prying eyes of the outside world.

I realized a few years ago that this secret world is vanishing as the ultra-rich take the spots once occupied by hard-working, blue collar folks like my family. Obviously I don’t have the power to stop this change, but I can document what remains while it’s still possible. So my wife and I ride the backroads, searching of signs of that vanishing world and its decay, hoping to capture what’s left before it gets bulldozed for another McMansion.

In that spirit, I’ve chosen two pictures this week, both of which represent this vanishing world. The first appears to be a decaying restaurant or service station that lies at the intersection of two relatively well-groomed roads, surrounded by a growing cluster of McMansions. I give it a year, maybe two at the most before it’s gone.

The second is an old farmhouse that’s hidden down an old dirt road in a place not likely to be gentrified for quite some time. This building is truly something special, a structure that should be preserved for history, not left to rot. It appears to have started as an old stone house, likely sometime in the 1800s; over the years its residents added a wooden attic, later tacking and on the white facade. This place had a powerful, ancient feel to it – very creepy and foreboding, the kind of place populated by uneasy ghosts rather than harried exurbanites. I wish I could put you there with me, but for now, I hope the pictures suffice.

And that will be it for this week. Next time, expect a proper status update on the novel, a talk about Dean and religion, and the first question for an interactive discussion.

Mountainside12

 

FarmHouse11

Face-up to the Afterglow

Back again. What is it they say in Twin Peaks? Ah yes…

39bj6

Did I mention I’m a big fan of the show and can’t wait for the return? I’ll have to get around to that post about the show’s symbolism someday.

Anyway, last week I examined why I left the dark fantasy/horror genre; today I’d like to discuss my issues with self-publishing and the indie community circa 2012, which boils down to bad behavior, specifically the sockpuppets, reviews for cash, and endless Goodreads. Obviously not every or even most indie writers participated, but enough that I became uncomfortable associating my name with the movement.

At first I hoped to set a good example, but the events that I described last week made me quite aware of my own irrelevance and I became frustrated, sad, and exhausted. It didn’t help that I felt very insecure and had no idea what I wanted, either. Of course, knowing the genesis of my own issues doesn’t change my struggles with them. I had to work through them.

Truth is, I didn’t understand what I wanted from my career. I was chasing the dream of mass readership without understanding what it would take to achieve such a goal. Pollyanna as it may seem, I thought that I could write what I wanted and the market would come to me, not understanding how rare such an event can be. I would need time to come to terms with this; in the meantime, I decided to walk away, divine just what I needed, and reinvent my career.

Best decision I ever made. No regrets whatsoever. I realized that money is not a motivating factor for my fiction. It’s a “hobby with benefits” for life. Of course, I still want some external rewards, specifically some recognition. Nothing wrong with wanting that, but it won’t fall in my lap, either. I recognize the uphill battle that I face, and I’m ready for it. In fact, I’m working on some plans to get there, which I’ll talk about next time.

Drafting

Last week I described my new writing process, in which I focus on each chapter, honing it to a fine point using a multi-pass system, each ending with a 10-minute free write highlighting the needs for the next pass.

Execution of the second pass relies on the free write but does not necessarily use it as gospel. Chapter 16’s notes mandated a deeper dig into Dean’s feelings on using drugs in the hospital waiting room in order to highlight why he went ahead and did it anyway. That was a must, while a note about the new meth head character’s (she was still the young mother in the notes) abusive boyfriend got cut when it didn’t make sense in the context of their discussion.

With the second pass done, it’s time for another free write, this time focusing on theme and nuance. The notes for the third pass of Chapter 16 re-introduced the boyfriend as part of a short exchange in which the meth head, now known as BC, tries to gain Dean’s confidence. Here you see a key difference: in the second pass the boyfriend stood as a throwaway line to explain BC’s past. In the third pass he shows how she uses anyone in her life as a tool. Key difference in usage that highlights the importance of theme in the third pass.

Each chapter gets a minimum of three passes, with a few getting up to five, depending on what the chapter requires. Critique group fits in here somewhere as well, as their changes are included in the final pass of this draft.

Still not clear on the final editing process, but the goal is to make it much quicker, reading through it as a novel in its own right, taking notes for changes. This should prevent a chapter-by-chapter redo, allowing for smaller touch-ups and corrections, but each step has surprised me thus far. Expect to see more on that in the future.

The Drug

Ativan-Oral-pictureAnd now we talk about Ativan, AKA Lorazepam, and its role in the novel. Introduced in 1977, the drug is a hypnotic intended to treat anxiety (Dean’s initial intended use), insomnia, and acute seizures. It has a high physical addiction potential and, sadly, impairs memory loss, which leads to the practice of using high doses as a date rape drug. It’s also sometimes used a pre-anesthetic, to help calm the patient and inhibit memory formation as anaesthesia is performed. It’s relatively fast-acting, hitting the system much faster than most drugs in its class, which is also important to the story.

Speaking of drug class, Ativan is a benzodiazepine, or benzo. Benzos work on the brain by enhancing the effect of the neurotransmitter GABA, a chemical which enhances sedation. These drugs are known for being highly addictive, having a quick onset of tolerance, and generating a horrific withdrawal, which can include amplified anxiety, muscle spasms, psychosis, and hallucinations, to name just a few. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this withdrawal, have a video of a guy who took benzos for far too long. Keep in mind that he only took these as prescribed.

Dean used Ativan in college to help him get through tests and quit cold turkey when he realized that he had become addicted. He stayed clean for close to 20 years, but he couldn’t resist when his friend and dealer, Goose, offered them as payment. Here’s a teaser of that scene:

Goose, it seemed, had a sense of mercy, for he shook his head. “Naw. I think I’m ready to go home. Can you drive me? I normally wouldn’t ask, but…”

“Of course you would,” Dean said, and they both laughed.

Goose shrugged. “Guess you got me there. I’d appreciate it, though.” He dug in his seemingly never-ending pocket, producing a small, tight ball of tinfoil. “This should cover my gas.”

Dean took the foil ball without quite comprehending. “This…uh…”

Goose patted his hand before withdrawing. “I meant what I said about you needing to calm down. It’s a handful of atties. That’s some good money right there.”

He stared at the ball, licking his lips, a roaring in his pained head. He shouldn’t take it; once you built a physical addiction to benzos that shit stuck with you. He had not forgotten the pain of withdrawal. “I don’t know if I should…”

“You should, and you will. Doctor’s orders. Now can we please get out of here?”

Don’t open the door to pain, his father had said, and he knew it to be the truth, but a tickling in the back of his brain kept taking him back to the good times. It hadn’t all been pain; in the early days the drugs had eradicated all anxiety, allowing him to focus, work hard, and, most importantly, avoid any emotions whatsoever. Wouldn’t they help just a little in dealing with the frustration of quitting his habits? No anxiety about being alone forever, no fear of what he might dig up in his past, just sweet bliss. At last he nodded and slipped the ball into his pocket. “Yeah. Let’s head home. I could use some sleep.”

“Good man,” Goose said, and patted him on the shoulder. “Onward, Jeeves.”

The message here is nothing so facile as “don’t do drugs”. Ativan has helped me to fly in situations where I would have been terrified and I think they can be a great tool in limited use. Dean’s problem is more that he’s on a slippery slope with an already-shaky sobriety. The drug opens him up to behaviors that put him in jeopardy, ultimately leading to a mistake that will haunt him for years.

Next week we’ll talk about Dean’s relationship with his parents and his propensity for prostitutes. How’s that for alliteration?

This week’s photo was taken at the remains of a motel just north of Front Royal, Virginia. I don’t know a whole lot about the General Lee Motor Court, but it appears to have been a decent place back in the mid-20th century, as seen here:

general-lee-motor-court

Not much remains today. It’s difficult to access by road, but I did get a shot of the rusted hulk of a sign, which perfectly captures that “lonesome yet comforting” aesthetic that I described last week:

General_Lee03

That’s all for now. See you next week, with our Valentine’s Day special!

A Warm Welcome Back

Welcome back to Shaggin the Muse! Before I get started, let me say thanks to my ever-helpful, ever-wise assistant Franny for the gentle push back to promotional work. I also can’t forget her partner-in-crime, the talented Silvia,who put together the overhaul of this site. They both run Dark World Books, and I can’t recommend them enough for what they’ve done in putting the wheels back on this jalopy and pushing it back out into oncoming traffic.

Walking Away

I admit it: it’s been awhile since my last post. The truth is that I walked away for some time and didn’t know if I’d continue to support this side of my career. Why? Well, a combination of factors, really, some embarrassing, some well-founded. It started with a Halloween short story contest, strangely enough. A small community of self-publishers held the contest and I figured why not, try to pump up readership a little and have some fun. Deadline was four weeks, no exceptions, and I worked pretty hard, banging out an outline and  three drafts.

Now granted, it’s difficult to judge your own work, but I feel I do okay in spotting flaws and being objective about them. I didn’t write the perfect story, but I thought I had a solid contender, something that would entertain and garner some votes.

That impression stood up when I read the other stories. The winner seemed obvious to me, with a few others ranking higher than my own story, but I still felt good about my chances.

Imagine my surprise when winners were announced and the story that I felt to be the clear winner didn’t even place. Oh, and my story didn’t get a single vote, falling below stories notable for their stilted dialogue, copious misspellings, and nonsensical conclusions.

Rather than focus on the mechanics of the vote (my story had been the last in a long line and didn’t get read by many) and the tastes of that particular audience, I went into a tailspin. This – along with an ill-timed “cyber-bullying” incident – meant that I didn’t understand good horror/dark fantasy. I didn’t see the point in continuing down that road. Don’t think pity party, though, rather a conviction that the heart of my writing lay elsewhere. In retrospect I had been leaning that way for quite some time, this just served as a convenient catalyst.

It seems ridiculous now, but I don’t regret it. It’s driven me to write Came to Believe, a novel that has transformed my view of authorship as a way of reaching for inner truth.

Drugs and the Process

2014 might best be described as a hot steaming mess, but, as you can surmise, I’ve been hard at work on the novel and am up to Chapter 16 on something that may resemble a third draft. It’s difficult to define such things, as I’ve restarted the novel with a different perspective and overhauled my process in order to turn out more polished passes.

Quick synopsis: Came to Believe tells the story of a sex-addicted small-town dentist whose life changes when he’s caught with a prostitute in a public park. While waiting for his hearing, he meets a male prostitute and drug dealer who clues him in to what sex addiction is about and how to use rehab to avoid jail time. Dean wants in on it, so he joins the redneck in going to Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings. These meetings begin the slow process of change in Dean, introducing him to both his sponsor and Lindsay, a fellow addict who will be very important to him. Bear with me, I’m still workshopping the synopsis, but the tag line is “Sex, Drugs, and Dentistry.”

Anyway, a little about the new process. It starts with the first “draft”, or pass, of a given chapter, one in which I reserve the right to suck out loud. I focus on writing to the outline, using chunks of dialogue and narrative to form a “bridge” across the story’s river, which aids in avoiding those blank page heebie jeebies. I also maintain a rolling outline with these first passes, one that doesn’t venture much more than five chapters ahead of the current chapter. This makes it easier to anticipate any curves and stay on target with the narrative.

Once the first pass is knocked out, I take to paper again. This phase is a ten-minute free write summarizing what happened in the first draft, noting any deficiencies in the narrative and structure, and focusing on what needs to be fleshed out. For example, the first pass of Chapter 16 featured a young mother who did little more than make Dean self-conscious. Recognizing a need for a more compelling conflict, I transformed her into a meth addict who will have a profound impact on his life and Book 2.

These notes form the basis for the second pass, which I will discuss next week.

Some folks have asked me what I know about sex addiction, that is, what qualifies me to talk about this guy and his experiences? No, I’m not a sex addict, but I have lived with one and interacted with quite a few others. One in particular had a huge impact on my life, both good and bad, though I won’t name them or share details out of respect for their privacy. As a partner of a sex addict, I did my time in “the rooms,” as they call the locations of these recovery groups. It was there that I met a lot of wonderful people who changed my views and informed much of this novel. Difficult times, but ones that I would not change for anything, as those years have shaped me.

I’ll try to talk about some of these experiences as time goes on.

First, let’s talk about Dean’s slip back into drug addiction. His drug of choice is the anti-anxiety medication Ativan, to which he formed a physical dependence in college. He found it quite useful to control his fears during tests and make him a more polished public speaker, but he dumped it when he found it starting to rule his life. The aforementioned drug dealer pulls him back into the drug’s orbit when he observes Dean’s uptight nature and gives him a free sample.

I came into the book knowing that Dean favored a drug. In the initial pass it was laughing gas, which makes sense for a dentist but became impractical outside of his office. So, I thought, why not Ativan? I had taken it for my fear of flying and nearly experienced an “overdose” during a particularly terrifying flight. I had also spoken to former addicts who had gone through the crippling withdrawal, so it seemed to be in my wheelhouse and especially apt for an addict who sought to blot out his emotions. It leads him down quite the dark path in the back half of the novel.

This sets the stage for the next blog post, in which I’ll talk about the history of the drug, its side effects, and the hellish withdrawal.

That about does it for this week. Keep an eye out for the next post, when I’ll talk more about the process of writing Chapter 16 and its implications for the sequel, my writing process, and the aforementioned Ativan information.

Oh, and one last thing. I’m not sure if I mentioned it in the past, but I’m something of an amateur photographer, specifically scenery. My goal is to communicate a sense of…well, here’s how I’ve explained it: you know that feeling you get on a cold, foggy night when you’re wrapped up in a blanket and hear the sound of a lonesome train whistle in the distance? That’s the feeling I’m trying to capture. Hopefully this one, taken at an anonymous railroad crossing in the mountains west of the DC Metro area, does it for you. See you next time!

Tracks07

Holiday Road

Ah yes the build-up to Labor Day weekend, a time that I find sacred for one reason or another. It’s something of a tradition for me to either head back to my hometown or bring a hometown friend up here for the week. Given that my schedule is compressed (along with our funds – thanks move) this year, it’s going to be limited to a two-day run, unfortunately, but the good news is that it leaves a little more time to write.

This year feels a little strange. In the past, late August represented the upward slope of my productive writing months – I was typically turning in 15,000 to 20,000 word weeks by this point. These days? Not so much. I’m lucky to hit 10,000, but that’s okay. Every day sees a slight improvement and the productivity is ramping up.

Still, though. I’m desperate to write more words, but I’m not about to do a marathon weekend like last Labor Day. I think I may be done with that given that it saved me no time at all – just look at me almost starting over a year later on the material. Not worth it, in my opinion, but it was an entertaining exercise.

Which brings me ’round to the writing end of things. Yesterday was August’s critique group meet and it went pretty well. I was a little zoned after a long week and was not up for critique, but that doesn’t really matter. One of the best things that I’ve found about such groups (and particularly ours) is that even if you’re not submitting on a given week you still manage to learn something new from another writer’s fresh perspective. I won’t use specific examples from our group, but say a brainstorming discussion on how to better convey a character’s motivations in a scene can lead to some insight on an issue that’s plaguing one of your characters. The process of helping someone else out can help you out as well, which is always the best part of mentoring/teaching/partnering. It’s good stuff.

Book is coming along well. I’m in Chapter Five, which so happens to be a key chapter and has a lot of moving parts surrounding Dean’s first visit to an Anonymous group. As usual, the first draft began as an impressionistic sketch, with flat discussion, movements, and general ideas. Now I’m going back to better flesh out those parts with the characters’ personalities. This process can be very surprising, as something simple as a discussion about chewing gum can start little ripples in the pond of a friendship that become big waves down the road. I think it’ll be a good chapter, it’s just a matter of working the process.

Long story short, I think I’ve stopped treading water and am slowly making my way to land. We’ll see what the next week brings. Hope all is well in your world.